Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Carcassonne and Carbardès

Carcassonne is undoubtedly (and rightly so) famous first for its splendid fairytale walled city, but it also rich in diverse wine-growing areas and a consistent source for some of my highest quality Chai wines. The only AOC here is Carbardès; a largely unknown wine growing area and only upgraded to AOC status in 1999.

The department is the Aude and like many Midi regions it is still undiscovered and full of many various unheard of Vin De Pays (VDP) areas, Cité de Carcassonne, Côtes de Prouilhe, Côtes du Lastours and Haute-Vallée de l’Aude are just some of the ones located around Carcassonne itself, with many more further afield within the department.

When heading south east from Toulouse, Carcassonne is the first major town that greets you and since using the A62 Bordeaux to Midi route I have always felt like Carcassonne is the real ‘gateway’ to the Languedoc-Roussillon. France changes so radically after this point it feels like you should have your passport checked!

Carcassonne town has a long and fascinating history and the Cabardès is no different with the local residents producing wine since the Roman times. The area was named after the Lords of Cabaret who defended the Châteaux de Lastours against Simon de Montfort way back in 1209 which makes you wonder how it took until 1999 to be recognised as an AOC.

The actual vineyards of Cabardès AOC cover just 500 hectares and sit at the northwestern edge of Languedoc-Roussillon, bordered to the north by the magnificent Montagne Noire; it’s a tiny area in comparison and always overlooked compared to its giant neighbour the Minervois.

However this small ‘border’ appellation has meant that Carbardès and the surrounding areas have a unique mix of climates and soils. These conditions allow the two very climatically different grape categories of Bordeaux and southern French grape varietals to grow hand in hand and produce high quality wine, possibly the only place in France to do so. Carbardès is also individual in that it is the only AOC in France that actually permits a balanced proportion of the Bordeaux and Languedoc-Roussillon grape varieties in the final blend; a winemakers dream come true?

The weather is as important as the soils and influenced by the two powerful winds, the warm ‘Marin’ Mediterranean wind and the dry cool Cers Atlantic wind. It is these two winds, the topography and careful vineyard site selection that create the micro climates essential to achieve optimum ripeness of both Bordeaux and southern French varietals in the same small territory. The soils are chalky clay, limestone and in some places very stony such as Pierre Degroot’s Chardonnay vineyard aptly named ‘Le Cailloux’ which I spotted last year and that this year with my help has found its way to Le Chai for fermentation and careful ageing. Look out for this single-vineyard Chardonnay early next year.

I have known this area for only a short six or seven years, being constantly impressed by the diversity and quality. The sheer uniqueness of being permitted to blend 50/50 Bordeaux and Midi gapes is surely something worth looking deeply into. I am excited about this region and Cat our Midi buyer was also very impressed, so with a bit more exploration we will have some more of these wines making an appearance in our wine catalogue very soon. In the meantime, try some of the white Chai wines like La Voute 2009 or 2010 (Vin de France Chardonnay Trophy winner) - ask a Wine Advisor for details, CY 2010 (Chardonnay) and the VC 2010 (Viognier).

I strongly suggest that you go and visit this area and if you do I recommend to stay at the Mercure just metres from the medieval City’s walls, much more comfortable and cheaper than those inside the walls, nice swimming pool, good bar, I stay here all the time. For eating and drinking within the city walls the best place to start is Le Comptoir de Vins et Terroirs for a glass of wine from a vast choice of local wines and tapas then Comte Roger for great quality/price food with good local wine list. In the new town try l'Ecurie. It’s worth mentioning Chateau Pennautier, a magnificent Chateau built by the Treasurer of the Languedoc Bernard Pennautier during the reign of Louis XIII. It is still family owned, they make some fab wines and well worth a visit.

No photos in this blog, not because I didn’t take any but because I urge you to see for yourself!

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Into the Midi

The grand Midi trip started with Cat (our Midi buyer) in our very own Chai with a tasting of Bergerac wines. Later that evening we headed for Toulouse, ready to explore the wine region of Côtes du Frontonnais, now called AOC Fronton.

The region has a long, fascinating history and wine growing has been very important here. The Romans planted the first vines and it was once owned by the Order of St. John, dating back to 1050. The dominant grape is Négrette which originates from Cyprus where it’s known as Mavro a Chypre. It was brought to France by Les Chevaliers de St. Jean de Jerusalem. The grape was also known as Pinot Saint Georges in the US but this name is now forbidden on wine labels.

The region’s dense and deeply coloured red wines became famous throughout Europe. King Louis XIII and his PM Cardinal Richelieu held huge, complex wine tastings here during the siege of Montauban. However the first classification took place in 1975, with the merger of the two VDQS regions Villaudric and Fronton.

The soils here are ferriferous quartz gravel and the vineyards (a total of 2,100ha) sit in the Tarn valley directly west of Gaillac between the rivers of Tarn and Garonne. As well as reds, the region also makes both rosé and white wines and blends can be made from Négrette, Malbec, Mérille, Fer, Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as from a maximum of 15% of Gamay, Cinsault and Mauzac.

The red wines are locally described as the Beaujolais of Toulouse which I thought was a lovely name. However the wines can be commonly tannic and hard and I am more interested in their rosés. We make our excellent Haut Rivage Négrette Rosé here, and the Négrette grape is a star rosé maker. Modern vinification equipment and techniques such as bag presses, stainless steel and cooling now allow the Négrette grape to make the most beautifully coloured, pale salmon-pink wine with subtle black berry and raspberry fruit on the palate. Rosé is a great drink and should be consumed all year round; not just in the Summer. Try one with Christmas dinner!

Next we continue on to Carcassonne.


Monday, 5 December 2011

Lunch in Pomerol

Kiwi James left us last week to head for his next harvest back home in Marlborough, New Zealand. He has been working with us as a flying winemaker for our three-month harvest, so for a special treat we went to lunch in the Pomerol equivalent of our favourite Castillon ‘Voyageur’ restaurant called the ‘Les Platanes’. We were joined by our friend Guillaume Thienpont whose family châteaux include Vieux Château Certan (VCC) and Le Pin.

This is where the French two-hour lunch break comes in very handy as we had time to visit and taste at firstly VCC, then the brand new cellar of Le Pin before lunch!

VCC has a stunning terroir and its 7ha (very big for Pomerol) sits amongst neighbours such as Petrus, Château l’Evangile, Château Conseillante and of course Le Pin on the plateau of Pomerol. The plateau is not like that of St.Emilion as it’s only 35cm higher than the so called ‘lower vineyards’ but those 35cm make all the difference! We visited the cellars and tasted the 2006 and the 2010 from barrel, lovely wines indeed.

On the way to the restaurant we skirted through the VCC vineyards and stopped to have a look at the stunning new cellar of Château Le Pin. Although small, the cellar has been beautifully designed and includes winery, underground barrel cellar, tasting room and roof terrace with views over Pomerol. The original pine tree (with a second now added) from where the ‘Le Pin’ name originates is still there.

With plenty to think about we went to the brilliant Les Platanes and mixed in with the local growers, gendarmes and vineyard workers for a slap up meal. Thanks James for all the hard work this harvest. I recommend the following of James’ wines to try: The Jumper, Laithwaite Sauvignon 2010 (2011 in Jan), Hunter's Sauvignon Blanc.

This week I am in the Midi with our Buyer Cat Lomax and we will be travelling from Gascony in the south west through the Languedoc Roussillon to Montpellier in the east of France.