amarchinthevines

Learning about wine, vines and vignerons whilst living in the Languedoc


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Get Back

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En français

Whilst having a rather disappointing lunch in Marseillan the other day I ordered a 50cl of Faugères rosé from Sylva Plana and it was quite nice, pale pink, fresh with a little red fruit on the finish. I went to check the back label to see if my guess of Cinsault was correct and… nothing. There was no back label, nothing to inform me about the wine at all. I found this frustrating, Sylva Plana are normally very modern in their approach, have a good restaurant to promote their wines, they’re organic etc. However, they are far from alone. Lots of producers don’t add back labels.

I think this is a wasted opportunity. Most wine drinkers these days have some interest in the wine they are drinking and by supplying information the domaine (I speak generally now) is surely creating a connection to their customer which might be followed up with further sales.

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Jonathan and Rachel Hesford at Domaine Treloar provide information in French and English about the grapes in the wine, information about vines and vinification as well as advice on food pairing and when the wine will be at its best. This latter is followed up on their website where more detailed information is available on each wine. I think this is very good practice, the consumer can find out much more about the wine they drink if they choose.

The label from California producer Ridge on the left gives a lot of detail about vinification and what is actually in the wine. Rather surprised at the amount of added water I must say. Perhaps even more informative is this smart back label from Burgundy (right).

Even little things can help to explain the wine and advise the potential buyer about the wine in the bottle. Alsace wines are often criticised and misunderstood because they can range from dry to sweet from producer to producer even when the label says pretty much the same thing. I like the way this producer shows a scale to describe the level of dry – sweet.

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Some producers like to show a humorous side to their work and don’t take themselves too seriously. At least you get to know the grape variety at the bottom.

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And finally, I do like this back label from a producer keen to emphasise their organic, even natural, credentials. Note also the QR code so that the buyer can link to the website to get more information. Extra points from me there.

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So, come on producers. Don’t leave us in the dark about your wines. We want to know about them, to find out the story which makes a wine special and more personal. At least give us the grape varieties.

Happily, for once I was right. The rosé was Cinsault dominated but please don’t leave us in the dark. And if you want something to really inspire you have a look at this, which is something I have already stared at for ages and makes me want to try the wine.

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Off notes

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Before and during the salon of Millésime Bio I attended six offline events. They are proliferating, probably too many of them in all honesty. Yet during those six events I tasted some of the best wines of the whole week, just as I did at the offs last year. So, I am torn – are the offs good for Millésime Bio?

Well, they do distract and take away attention from the growth of organics and the benefits of organic viticulture as well as the very good wines in the salon itself, some of which I described in the last article. Would I have tasted more good wines in the salon if I hadn’t attended the offs?

On the other hand, I’d be less tempted to go along to the whole event and spend four days in Montpellier if it were not for the offs and the chance to taste wines not to be found in the main salon. Last year wines from the likes of Huët and Zind-Humbrecht were major attractions for me. This year there were a lot of natural producers especially whose wines I wanted to try. The offs create a buzz around the main event, drawing people to it. It can stand the opposition, producers such as Kreydenweiss (père et fils!) and Pittnauer were at least the equal of anything tasted at the offs.

As there were so many events and so many good wines I have decided to split the report on them in two parts. In the next article I shall deal with those centred more around the natural movement. So here I shall be describing Outsiders, Carignan vs Grenache and Biotop.

Outsiders

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Jon Bowen (right) talking to photographer Ken Payton

Louise Hurren does a great job in promoting the Outsiders group of vignerons, producers in the Languedoc-Roussillon who originated outside the region. Held at La Panacée on the eve of the salon this was very well organised in a bright, modern space with excellent food served as a bonus. I am a fan of many of the producers in the group, some of whom I think of as friends. I have described the wines of Turner Pageot and Cébène many times in these pages. Both are sources of outstanding wines. Manu Pageot was in discomfort having cracked some ribs but it was good to catch up with him. Brigitte Chevalier’s wines were well on form across the whole range, Bancels 13 was especially good here.

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It was especially pleasing to see present Simon and Sara from Mas Sibert as guest producers. I first wrote about Mas Sibert last February and hope that I have helped to spread their name a little in the following year. They now have a UK importer and higher profile and I couldn’t be more pleased. The wines have a freshness and depth of fruit which is rare. New planting of white grapes (as ever unusual cépages) will widen the range and I can’t wait. I would drink these wines happily every day. Incidentally, their rosé, Saramon (mainly Sangiovese!), is amongst the very best in the Languedoc.

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Talking to Simon in animated form

I also enjoyed the Pouilly Fumé wines of guest Jonathan Pabiot. They are classic wines from the appellation but with extra steeliness and minerality. I have had the good fortune to visit the domaine in the past and recommend them heartily. Especially good were the Pouilly Fumé 15 and the excellent Aubaine 14 grapes selected from special parcels, matured in gentle oak, more concentration and white fruit flavours.

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Finally, Domaine Modat in the Roussillon produces very good wines. Lucioles 14, the white wine from mainly Grenache Gris was lovely, fresh and fruity with a little texture. Comme Avant and Le Plus Joli 11 were rich, spicy and clean from classic Roussillon grapes varieties. Great website too.

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Hats off to Louise for such a well run event.

Bataille Carignan – Grenache

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I like the idea of this, pitting two great cépages against each other. The venue was good, Salle Pétrarque, a 14thC building with beautiful vaulting. However, truth be told I didn’t really enjoy the event. The room was packed, it was hard to get around the tables, there was (very) loud hip-hop music playing some of the time which made it hard to talk. It was also difficult to taste the red wines, most came across as heavy and tannic. I was not alone in thinking so from the conversations I had.

I went mainly to meet up with my friend Jonathan Hesford of Domaine Treloar in the Roussillon. You will have to trust me that when I say his wines were amongst the best that evening that I am not saying so out of loyalty. Le Maudit is the Treloar Carignan dominated wine and was spicy, fresh and very good. Jonathan also had his One Block Grenache on tasting, a proper interpretation of the event’s title.

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Another which came out well from the evening was Domaine Sainte Croix, coincidentally one of the Outsiders producers. Jon and Elizabeth Bowen produce very good wines in the Corbières, I have enjoyed them many times. Tonight the Carignan was very good, cherry fruits and spice. Star of the night though was La Part Des Anges, a late harvest Carignan with deep fig, coffee and chocolate notes. Lovely, a little sweetness matched by freshness on the finish.

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Incidentally, I met Jon during the main salon as he visited various other stands to taste, his search for wider wine experience clearly promotes his winemaking knowledge. This was also true of Jonathan Hesford who went to the salon simply to taste. It wa she who tipped me off to go and taste Pittnauer wines, one of my stars of the show. I am sure many vignerons do the same but it seemed no coincidence that their wines emerge so well when I see them learning elsewhere, always seeking to improve their understanding.

The other wine I enjoyed at the event was from Mas des Capitelles. A Faugères wine this was 95% Carignan with a touch of Mourvèdre and it was delicious, lots of fruit and spice and very drinkable. I shall look out for Capitelles in the future.

Biotop

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The Phare, home of Biotop

Fifty vignerons gathered in the lighthouse at Palavas. Organised by Isabelle Jomain, Biotop was one of my favourite events in 2015 and no doubt it will be one of my highlights this year. Once again time caught up with me and I was unable to get to the tables of many vignerons I would have liked to visit. My friend, sommelier Sandra Martinez from La Table 2 De Julien near Uzès, accompanied me round some of the tables and it was good to learn from her expertise. Incidentally for a different account of Biotop have a look at the blog of Michel Smith.

Highlights included the champagnes of Fleury and Franck Pascal. Michel was underwhelmed by Fleury but I enjoyed the range, especially the Pinot Noir dominated wines Nature and Bolène 05 both marked by round, fresh fruit and the latter, more expensive of course, having real depth and gravity. The Sonates Nº9 was especially good, delicate fruit, fresh, long. Pinot Noir 100% and no added sulphur. Sorry Michel, I enjoyed these wines.

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Franck Pascal’s champagnes were an eye opener for me last year, I selected the cuvée Quintessence as my favourite sparkling wine tasted last year. Not surprisingly it was once again a favourite here, beautifully aromatic from the Pinot domination (Noir and Meunier) this was fuller than the Fleury wines, still structured and yet fresh and fruity. This was the 2005 rather than 04 but the quality is undiminished. I also loved the Sérénité 2010, sulphur free Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier, dry, clean with lingering delicate fruits. The price tag of 120€ is a bit of an issue however.

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From champagne to dessert wine. Domaine Juchepie‘s Coteaux Du Layon wines are just lovely. The dry wine is good but it with moelleux and liquoureux wines that they shine brightest. The word ‘lovely’ reappears through my tasting notes for every wine. The 2011 and 2014 moelleuxs have a light touch whilst being rich, mouth filling pleasure. Take a wine like Quintessence 05 (yes the same name as the champagne above). Yields of 5-10 hectolitres per hectare are miniscule, the grapes hand picked with great care and vinified with enough acidity (pH 3.84) to cut through the 223 grammes of residual sugar. In other words it is a sticky, sweet, explosion of flavours with a refreshing finish. And those flavours go on and on, stunning.

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Saskia van der Horst is another familiar name on this site with her Domaine Les Arabesques. I tasted her wines first at Labande de Latour in November 2014 and they have been favourites ever since. Yet even within the last year those wines have improved in quality and, as the work in the vines done by Saskia and her partner bears fruit, they will continue to improve. The refreshing white Elianon 14 is good but the reds are the stars. The pure Syrah Lou Pal 14 had lovely raspberry notes; Champs d’Andrillou 13 (Grenache and Carignan) plummy and spicy; Les Arabesques 100% Grenache with rich tannins and chocolate flavours. All very good wines. Saskia is 8 months pregnant, I wish all concerned well and congratulate them on their wines and personal futures.

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Old photo of Saskia’s wines

And so to the Rhone Valley. One of my wines of the year for 2015 was Cornas Brise Cailloux of Domaine Coulet made by Matthieu Barret. It was Sandra Martinez who introduced me to it. So, I was delighted when Matthieu was present at Biotop and was rewarded by the range of his wines. The structured, fresh and elegant Crozes Hermitage 2014 was very good, the 2013 Brise Cailloux spicy, aromatic and fresh (every bit as good as the 2012), the Cornas Billes Noires was darker, spicier with fresh, dusty tannins. Even simple wines like the Mourvèdre 15 were elegant. Matthieu is a very skilled winemaker, these were top wines by any standard. Thanks Sandra.

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I was unfamiliar with the Brézème region south of Valence though I must have driven through it many times. I can only say that the wines of Domaine Lombard will make me stop off in future. Julien and Emmanuelle Montagnon are making superb wines. From the dry, textured Viognier 14 to the top of the Brézème range Eugène de Monicault 13 every cuvée was clear, full of character and a pleasure to taste. Marked by fruit and freshness they reflect their terroir and the Syrah in particular is classic Rhone Valley, as good as it gets. Whether whole bunch fermented such as Grand Chêne 14 or made from old vines like that top cuvée they are wines to please the palate and the brain. I would imagine their Hermitage wines are very special. I really loved these wines, thanks again to Sandra for introducing me to them.

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From the Yapp Brothers website, Lombard’s UK importer

So many great wines, so many domaines which deserve more space and time devoted to them. And there were other lovely wines too. And that is why the offs are a valued part of the whole Millésime Bio experience. They are separate but I feel they add more choice and more experience of good wines.


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Exploring the 7Cs – Day 7

Carignan

Since moving down to Margon it has been evident to me that many of my favourite bottles have been based around Carignan. A variety which received so much scorn for many years is now fighting back. The excellent wine writer Michel Smith has been in the vanguard by writing a series of articles called Carignan Story on the les5duvin blog, championing the variety and the people who produce great bottles of it. Moreover he is producing some himself in the Roussillon. (The blog is a must follow incidentally).

I shall start with Mas Coutelou this time as Flambadou is the star of the 2013 vintage at the domaine and is a wine which ages brilliantly as a memorable 2007 testified during a vendange lunchtime. If you opened the link to Michel’s Carignan Story you will have already seen his support for this wine too.

A magnum (even better!). From Amicalementvin website

Jeff himself rates Cyril Fahl’s Clos du Rouge Gorge as one of the outstanding Carignan wines and based on my tasting in November (see Day 5) I would not argue. Domaine d’Aupilhac in Montperoux is another which has championed Carignan, blended in some cuvées or on its own in Le Cargnan which is a lovely wine showing the leathery, dark fruit flavours of the grape.

I must mention the wine ‘Les vignes qu’on abat’ of Domaine La Marfée produced in Murviel lès Montpellier, a deep, dark joyful wine which needs a little patience in cellaring.

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Other lovely Carignan bottles tasted include Cébene‘s Belle Lurette and Treloar‘s Le Maudit, plus the cuvées Les Premiers Pas and Fontanilles from Les 2 Anes. Domaine Sainte Croix (see Corbieres, Day 3) produces a couple of Carignan – led wines Magneric and Le Carignan, both express the wild garrigue of the Corbieres hillsides, lovely wines. In the Minervois, Chateau Maris also produces lovely Carignans such as Anciens and (again) Le Carignan.

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Finally, I should mention a domaine close to me in Gabian, Cadablès run by Bernard Isarn is starting to produce some really good wines not least the Carignan led Champ de Pierres.

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These are all wines I would heartily recommend, but that’s not the end of the story.

Carignan Blanc is fairly unsual in the region but two of my favourite white wines come from this grape and both from Caux where we started. Mas Gabriel‘s Clos Des Papillons is dry, fruity and clean, with a rich texture that fills the mouth, simply delicious. Le Conte De Floris produces Lune Blanche which is just as good and I was happy to find some bottles in the wine bar in Pézenas recently. So Carignan, red and white, is a variety to investigate. Dare I mention that Jeff produces another very good example of Carignan Blanc? Well I did leave him out of my 7Cs so I think it’s only fair.

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So those are my 7Cs, villages, areas and grapes which are all a source of great wine pleasure. I could have added more with St Chinian as just one example. Proof that Languedoc Roussillon is a region of great variety, a region of great excitement as winemakers rediscover and redevelop the character of wine in this fabulous part of France. Any feedback is always welcome.


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Exploring the 7Cs – Day 5

Cotes de Roussillon, Cotes Catalanes

The Roussillon is a region which is producing some elegant, complex and very enjoyable wines. It is a large area stretching from the edges of the Corbieres down to the Spanish border and including areas such as Calce, Latour De France, Maury, Banyuls and the foothills of the Pyrenees. A wide variety of wines match the rich variety of landscapes from coast to mountains. Fortified dessert wines such as Banyuls, crisp whites especially those based around Grenache Gris and rich, elegant reds. Established producers such as Gauby and Pithon have raised the bar and there are many new producers in the region picking up that challenge to make Roussillon one of the great wine regions of the world.

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Vineyards with the Pyrenees as background

In November I attended a very good Portes Ouvertes event at Latour De France, a showcase of natural wines (report here) and was really taken by the wines of Cyril Fahl at Domaine Rouge Gorge. His wines are to be found in many top restaurants and deserve their excellent reputation. Wines which reflect the beauty and also the ruggedness of the area.

I also met Saskia van der Horst of Domaine Les Arabesques and was happy to taste her wines again at Biotop at Millésime Bio. Saskia is a relatively new winemaker running a small domaine but is already producing lovely, well balanced wines. I look forward to following her career. Look out for her at RAW in London in May.

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Saskia van der Horst talking to me

Domaine Treloar is in Trouillas and run by Jonathan and Rachel Hesford. I have mentioned them many times and I love their wines, the white Terre Promise is one of my favourite white wines of any region and the reds are just as good, cuvées such as Tahi and Le Maudit, (not forgetting a beautifully balanced Muscat de Rivesaltes).

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I look forward to returning to Roussillon soon as it is a hugely exciting area of established and upcoming producers who are transforming the region’s wines.

(Update: already met a number of new Roussillon producers today March 29th in Arles who confirm my opinion that this is a region producing exciting wines,more to follow soon)


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Diversity and debate

 

 

 

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(Version française)

 

My last post about the organic control stirred up a few reactions from a number of people. I don’t set out to upset people but I recognise the debate about organic status. This website from Domaine du Garinet in the Lot summarises the debate quite well, have a look at what it says about viticulture.  Organic viticulture allows the use of some chemicals which many feel are damaging to soils and their ecosystem, eg the use of copper is allowed yet remains in the soil for many years and is damaging to potentially beneficial animals such as earthworms. Other winemakers feel that there are now alternative treatments which they can use which do less damage to the biodiversity of their vineyard but are not allowed by official organic certification.

Instead these winemakers use a system called lutte raisonnée or agriculture raisonnée. Jonathan Hesford runs Domaine Treloar in Trouillas, Roussillon with his wife Rachel using this approach. They make excellent wines across a wide range, white, red, rosé and different wines such as a Rivesaltes Muscat and a Rancio. I have visited the domaine several times and bought more in the UK and will continue to do so. Jonathan is one of a number of winemakers who have moved into the Languedoc Roussillon from outside the region and have brought new ideas and a fresh approach. Jonathan and Rachel lived within a few hundred metres of the World Trade Centre in September 2001 and witnessed 9/11. That shocking event influenced them to live differently. Wine study and time working in wineries in New Zealand (Rachel’s native country) gave them the confidence to establish their own domaine in Trouillas.

   

Jonathan and Rachel put as much dedication, thought and passion  into their wines as any winemaker. Jonathan was quick to point out  to me after my last post that many, if not most, artisanal  winemakers nowadays care about their terroir and minimise  chemical use, whether organic or not. Jonathan says, “My decisions are based on on what, scientifically, are best for the vines, the soils, the environment and me, the guy spraying. In many cases the organic product is more dangerous or more environmentally damaging that the synthetic product I have chosen.” He does not seek organic certification as he does not welcome the bureaucracy and feels it is often a marketing tool. I have spoken to other French winemakers recently who have said exactly the same thing. For further information on Jonathan’s approach look at his own website page.

The wines are testament to his skills and beliefs. They shine with the freshness which I love in wine and reflect the healthy fruit which he produces. Particular favourites from my visit in early November were the white La Terre Promise (Grenache Gris dominant) and the red Three Peaks (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre) but I can honestly recommend all the wines.

Mas Gabriel is run by Deborah and Peter Core an English couple. The domaine is based in Caux, not far from us and is run along organic and biodynamic practices. Their reasons for doing so are explained far better by themselves on their website than I could do so please have a look. There are many parallels with Jonathan and Rachel in that the Cores left successful jobs in a big city to follow a dream to be winemakers. Both Peter and Deborah studied winemaking in New Zealand and worked in wineries there and then in Bordeaux before settling in Caux.

It is interesting that despite similarities they took a different view about winemaking to Domaine Treloar by pursuing organic and biodynamic practices. Deborah and Peter spend many hours in their vines debudding them when necessary to allow more aeration and therefore less risk of humidity leading to mildew. They, like Jeff Coutelou, are allowed to use copper and sulphur but in fact use less than one third of the permitted level of copper, treating only when necessary. A recent survey by a botanist found over 40 plant varieties in their vineyards, a sign of health and diversity.

With Peter in the vines

With Peter in the vines

Again the proof of their hard work and passion is in the bottle. Mas Gabriel produce 4 wines, a white (Carignan Blanc dominated), rosé, and two reds. The white, Clos Des Papillons, is one of my favourite white wines from Languedoc Roussillon, dry with fruit and body it is a wine which makes you contemplate and smile as you drink it. The reds from 2012 and 2013 which I tasted during a visit at the end of October were also fresh and fruity yet contain complexity and depth. No doubt in my mind that the range of wines is all getting better and better, a testament to their growing skills and experience both in the cellar and in the vineyard.

So there we are, two excellent domaines. They all work incredibly hard and give everything they  have to produce the best, most healthy fruit from their soils. Yet in different ways. Both produce superb wines which I would strongly recommend without hesitation. Both have different views about the way to look after their terroir and I have compared them here for the sake of my debate about organic winemaking not in terms of quality. That would be unfair and impossible as they are two of my favourite domaines in France as my own wine collection would attest. Incidentally I say that not because of their English & New Zealand origins but because of the quality of their wines. I will be posting soon about some of the diversity of winemakers in the Languedoc Roussillon.

I attended a conference last Thursday where the famous vineyard analysts the Bourgignons (advisers to Romanée Conti amongst others) set out the chemical, geological and agricultural make up of healthy soil. Amongst the interesting points to emerge was that the vine takes over 90% of its needs from the air and about 6% from the soil but that 6% is what can make the difference in quality of a wine. It is certainly produced by passionate, artisanal producers. But is it best achieved through agriculture which is organic, biodynamic, natural or raisonnée? I have a lot still to learn.

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Wines

 

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As you may have noticed from the first post the areas we stayed in around France were wine regions. Not a coincidence.
I became interested in wine when I visited Germany as a young teacher who was asked to accompany a trip to the Rhine valley. A very generous hotel keeper in Bacharach insisted on sharing bottles and the different types of wine produced. This was news to me as I knew nothing about wine and assumed it was either white and light or red and sturdy.
From there to the Australian invasion of Wyndhams and Penfolds and then on to France. I still love the wines of Alsace, Burgundy and Beaujolais as well as the white wines of the Loire. Some terrific holidays and tastings spring readily to mind. Sadly the price of Burgundy and Bordeaux has long since outstripped the bank balance of a teacher.
However, good fortune struck. Alongside a growing liking for heat and the Languedoc was the rise of new, exciting winemakers in the region. Inspired by the writing of Rosemary George, Paul Strang and the admirable Andrew Jefford I began to explore their wines and I am hooked by their quality and sheer drinkability. Winemakers such as Jeff Coutelou, Turner Pageot, Mas Gabriel, Domaines Treloar and Cébene, amongst many others, have set  standards for me which help me to judge the wines of Languedoc-Roussillon.
Happily I now have the opportunity to explore more deeply and to spend more time with some of these winemakers, find out about their work and produce and seek out more top notch wines. This blog will, hopefully, narrate this adventure and share my discoveries. It may not be original but it will be the honest words of a wine amateur seeking to deepen his understanding of that passion.