Grapevine Archive for Languedoc
All the current excitement about the excellence of the 2015 vintage reminds me of my first year working at The Society back in 2006.
The talk then was of the brilliance of the 2005 vintage, which was similarly hugely successful across much of Europe. My first few tasks were to write about this ‘Vintage of a Generation’ and my capacity for superlatives was being tested to the limit.
This was my first exposure to the concept of buying wines en primeur, ie purchasing wines that not only were nowhere near being ready to drink but not even bottled or shipped.
Persuaded no doubt by the overwhelming pulling power of my purple prose, I decided to put my money where my mouth was and take the plunge.
And all I can think now is why on earth didn’t I buy more?!
Just before Christmas I withdrew one of the mixed cases I had bought from the 2005 Rhône & Languedoc-Roussillon en primeur campaign and had been keeping in The Society’s Members’ Reserves storage facility since.
The case in question was the 2005 Languedoc First Growth Case and includes a roll-call of the great and the good of the South of France. And it provided all the wow factor I needed over the Christmas period.
• The one I was keenest to try was the Coteaux du Languedoc, Prieuré Saint Jean de Bébian and it didn’t disappoint. Deliciously à point, this thrilling blend of syrah, grenache and mourvèdre confidently treads that fine line between power and elegance.
• I may have broached the cabernet sauvignon-dominant Mas de Daumas Gassac, Vin de Pays de l’Hérault a tad early; it was still mature and delicious but I think that I’ll leave the second bottle until next Christmas.
• Conversely, the Domaine de Perdiguier, Cuvée d’en Auger, Vin de Pays des Côteaux d’Ensérune may have been better last Christmas (the initial recommended drink date was indeed for 2015) but it was still a great taste experience.
• Domaine Alquier’s Faugères Les Bastides couldn’t have been better: all velvety richness and concentration.
• Domaine Madeloc Collioure Magenca was very mature and a tad raisiny, but I mean that as a compliment. The primary fruit flavours had all but disappeared to leave a rich, mineral, spicy, earthy complexity.
• The Roc d’Anglade, Vin de Pays du Gard was extraordinarily fine and elegant, and could easily have been mistaken for a very posh northern Rhône costing many times its price.
And let’s talk about the price, as that for me was the real bonus part of the whole experience and one I hadn’t really anticipated. I paid for the wines in 2007 and the duty and VAT in 2008. So long ago that, such is my head-in-the-sand attitude to personal finances, I felt that these fine wines were now, to all intents and purposes, free.
Sure I did have to pay for their storage in the interim but even so a little research online suggests that were I able to find these wines now (no small task in itself) it would have cost me a darn sight more than I had shelled out. Furthermore, if you factor in the pleasure of the anticipation of enjoying your purchases then I’ve had more than a decade of mouthwatering expectation!
That isn’t the point, of course, and it shouldn’t matter, but it does add to the rather smug satisfaction one experiences when you pull the cork.
I did my best to hide my self-satisfaction when sharing these special bottles, but even if I failed to suppress it then I’m not sure that anyone would have noticed. They were too busy enjoying the wines! I’m delighted to see that we’re expanding the range of wines we offer en primeur. In 2016 we offered wines from Ridge in California and the Cape’s Meerlust as well as the usual suspects from the classic French regions, and we have plans to continue to look further afield in 2017.
I for one will be buying as much as I can afford, including a good chunk of our 2015 Rhône and Languedoc-Roussillon allocation and I advise you to do the same. A decade or so down the line I’m certain that you’ll be very glad you did!
Head of Content & Communications
Our en primeur offer of the 2015 Rhône and Languedoc-Roussillon vintage is available until 8pm, Tuesday 28th February.
Reminiscences along the road in south-west France with buyer Marcel Orford-Williams.
I have never been to South America but in my imagination I see areas of wide, open spaces and in some places, the backdrop of the Andes. The south-west of France is also about wide, open spaces and in places the majestic Pyrenees provide a similar snow-capped backdrop.
The analogy can go further as there are strong cultural ties between many of the growers in Argentina and Uruguay with those from this side of the Atlantic. Malbec, so important in Argentina came from Bordeaux and Cahors, while tannat, the principal black grape in Uruguay, was brought there by Basque migrants from south-west France.
Earlier in the year I spent a week exploring this vast and disparate region of France searching out wines to offer to members and visiting some of our long-standing suppliers. This is a region that for a long time lived in the shadow of Bordeaux and then was almost wiped by phylloxera. The region is steeped in history with Romans, Gauls, Visigoths all leaving their mark. Not to mention the Angevins from the day in 1152 when Henry II of Anjou married Eleanor of Aquitaine.
The Romans probably brought wine culture to the region but it is the growth of monasticism that created the patchwork of vineyard areas that we have today. The link with Santiago de Compostela is very strong as the south-west of France is crossed by numerous pilgrim routes to that holy place in north-western Spain. As I was driving out of the border town of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port I saw numerous walkers marching along the roadside, with poles and rucksacks and some with tell-tale scallop shells around their necks.
If you want to read more about the pilgrim’s route to Santiago de Compostela, Anthony Gunn MW has written an article for our website.
My week was one of tasting, meeting people and assessing the 2015 vintage and in four days I managed to visit the majority of appellations. 2015, as I expect you will now have realised, was looking good, especially for the later-harvested varieties such as tannat and gros and petit manseng. That means outstanding wines from Jurançon and Madiran, and also the Basque Irouléguy.
The south-west, dominated as it is by Bordeaux and even to some extent the Languedoc, doesn’t sell by itself. It has always needed big personalities to bring these wines to the attention of consumers. As it happens such people have never been lacking here and many have become proud suppliers to The Society – the Grassa family of Château Tariquet, for example, suppliers of our Society’s Côtes de Gascogne, whose pioneering spirit we wrote about in Societynews some years ago.
I have mentioned the strength of the 2015 vintage but in fact, most vintages have their strengths and that the grape varieties planted here are perfectly adapted to the vagaries of climate. That’s the exciting part of my job, travelling to these wine regions and tasting the wines alongside the winemakers, finding out exactly what has worked well and what hasn’t so that I can make my selection for members.
This year I was bowled over by so many of the wines that I tasted and I can’t help feeling that members will want to share in my enthusiasm for these distinctive wines.
We have just released one of the largest offers of wines from south-west France that includes reds and whites from most appellations, and with Christmas in mind a few gratuitous treats for desserts. A selection from the south-west would not be complete without the spirit of the region, Armagnac.
If you enjoy reading about our buyers’ exploits in the field, visit our online e-publication Travels in Wine™
It is with great sadness that we report the passing of Aimé Guibert at the age of 91.
He was the founder of the iconic Mas de Daumas Gassac in the Languedoc and it would not be too fanciful a claim to state that he, more than anyone was responsible for putting the Languedoc on the map of fine wine.
He was born in 1924 in Millau in the département of the Aveyron. His first career had been as a tanner and then as a successful glove maker. His second career came somewhat unexpectedly and as a result of finding somewhere peaceful where he and is growing family could escape from the bustle and noise of Paris.
They bought a large farmhouse or Mas on a virgin, wooded hillside by a cold mountain stream called the Gassac. Then their world changed when a friend, professor Henri Enjalbert, a geologist specialising in wine, visited the Guiberts on their farm in 1971 and declared on examining the site that the soils and climate were perfect for growing vines. He went on further, proclaiming that with cabernet sauvignon, a great wine could be made.
And so it began.
Aimé with his wife Véronique put all their energy into creating a vineyard where none had existed before. Remarkably, and with the help of another academic, professor Emile Peynaud of Bordeaux, the first vintage was made in 1978.
Aimé’s vision was extraordinary and all encompassing. Making a wine was not enough. Daumas Gassac had to be a great wine that could stand shoulder to shoulder with the best. From his previous career he bought sales and marketing expertise that at the time was probably unique in the world of wine, at least outside Champagne and Bordeaux.
No appellation existed for the valley of the Gassac so his wines were labelled as mere vin de pays, becoming the most expensive non-appellation wine. But that didn’t seem to matter and Mas de Daumas Gassac gained a large and devoted following around the world.
From the start, Aimé and Véronique Guibert wanted to work as close to nature as possible. They were pioneers in creating an environment that promoted biodiversity. Though cabernet sauvignon is the principal black grape, others were planted with varieties coming from elsewhere in France, Italy and even Georgia. Plots of vineyard were kept small and surrounded by woods and hedges. Other wines followed including a viognier-inspired white.
That the Guiberts were sitting on a gold mine did not go unnoticed. Others moved in nearby with mixed success. Robert Mondavi became interested. An offer to buy Daumas Gassac was rejected and a plan to create a Mondavi estate vigorously and successfully opposed with the passionate Aimé very ably leading the local population in revolt. In the film Mondovino, Aimé Guibert is seen as the champion against what he saw as the industrialisation of wine.
His greatest achievement was to prove the notion of terroir. In creating Daumas Gassac, Aimé Guibert created the Languedoc’s first grand cru.
Many other vignerons would follow often with the same energy, spirit of enterprise, determination and individuality as the great man himself. The Languedoc owes him an awful lot and will miss him.
He is survived by his wife Véronique and his nine children including Samuel, at the head of the business.
My time as buyer for the Languedoc was greatly enriched by his wisdom and I shall miss him too.
It’s that time again! March’s Staff Choice comes from our chief executive, Robin McMillan.
This was one of the first wines I purchased after joining The Wine Society in 2012 and has been a firm favourite ever since. A classic blend of carignan and grenache, it has a deep, intense colour, a lovely nose of sweet fruit and a rich, intense and spicy palate.
So often, our preference for a wine is rooted in an experience or occasion well beyond the taste or enjoyment of the wine itself. In 2013, the same year this wine won a Gold medal at the International Wine Challenge awards, I along with buyer Marcel Orford-Williams and members of the Executive Team, was fortunate enough to visit the producer, Pierre Bories of Château Ollieux Romanis, who has been making this wine for The Society since the 2007 vintage. And what a revelation it was: the warmth and intensity of the wine clearly emanates from the passion and skill of Pierre – this is such a dependable wine that will never disappoint, whatever the occasion.
£7.25 – Bottle
£87.00 – Case of 12
View Wine Details
You are cordially invited to join Society buyer Marcel Orford-Williams (and resident tweeters Ewan Murray & I) for a Society tasting in the comfort of your own home!
Thursday 15th October sees the latest instalment of #TWSTaste: from 7.30pm-8.30pm UK time, we will be tasting two gems from Marcel’s current Languedoc-Roussillon offering.
The largest wine region in the world takes some getting to grips with, but with Marcel’s years of experience and keen finger on the pulse, our members are in good hands. Marcel will be tasting and tweeting as we go, sharing his impressions and considerable expertise. It promises to be a highly enjoyable hour!
The wines we’ll be tasting:
Both wines are currently available individually and will also be in the Everyday Languedoc Mixed Dozen Case (£85).
• The white will be Bourboulenc Domaine de Simonet 2014 (£7.50 per bottle). The bourboulenc grape thrives on the arid limestone hill of La Clape, and this example is a pure and delicious expression of its unique flavours.
• In red, we’ll be tasting Syrah-Mourvèdre Côtes de Thongue Domaine Condamine L’Evêque 2014 (£5.95). Knowing what to plant is one thing, but selecting the right vine stock can make even more of a difference. Here the Bascou family chose superb cuttings of the syrah grape from the northern Rhône. Their syrah is dark, fragrant and savoury, and they add a little mourvèdre here for extra depth and spice.
Why a virtual tasting?
More members are engaging with The Society via social media than ever before, and we are privileged enough to provide a service involving what must be one of the most ‘sociable’ of products! Previous editions of #TWSTaste have been a lot of fun – you can read some highlights from the previous session here.
How will this tasting work?
To join in, simply log in to Twitter from 7.30pm on the 15th October and look up twitter.com/thewinesociety, or search via the hashtag #TWSTaste.
In advance of the tasting we suggest following @TheWineSociety so that you will easily see when the tasting gets going.
All that remains is to remind anyone interested to make sure the white is nicely chilled! We look forward to talking to you on the 15th October!
… seems to be the lot of this underrated grape.
But I have had a long-time love affair with wines made from this underrated grape: Rioja, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Minervois, Banyuls, Gigondas, Priorat, all contain grenache (garnacha in Spain) and therein lies the reason, I feel, for the lack of due deference paid to this most versatile grape. An important player in the assemblage of these well-known wines, its name rarely appears on the label, leading to its position of relative obscurity and under-appreciated status.
Other grapes that can command the spotlight, chardonnay, syrah to name two, are practically brands in themselves. But poor old grenache remains under the radar.
But this is a grape that can produce rosés, reds at all levels, and even sweet wines that can take on chocolate; not to mention the white mutations of grenache blanc and gris that produce a range of full-bodied whites which are now becoming more widely appreciated.
Well it’s time to put things right and this Friday 18th September, grenache gets to have its share of the limelight as it is International Grenache Day – a day where the grape can be celebrated by showcasing wines where grenache not only dominates but rules. My kind of wines!
If you’re looking for a place to start your love affair or reacquaint yourself with the glories of grenache then these would be my recommendations:
From Navarra in northern Spain, there’s Señorio de Sarria Rosado, Navarra 2014, a smooth and fruity rosado to try with marinated anchovies. A good insight into the grape in its white form would be the round and refreshing Grenache Blanc from Domaine du Bosc. Domaine Jones in Tuchan, close to the border with Roussillon, produces a full and herby grenache gris perfect for aperitifs or robust fish stews. Her ample red (Domaine Jones, Côtes Catalanes Grenache 2013)
from old grenache vines in the shadow of Cathar stronghold, Château de Quéribus, is overflowing with luscious fruit; a winter warmer to delay the central heating switch on as the nights close in.
For a lighter fragrant style which demonstrates grenache or garnacha’s versatility why not give Salvaje del Moncayo Garnacha 2014 a try? It’s made by self-confessed garnacha nut, Raul Acha whose parents’ ancient garnacha vines in Rioja inspired him to seek out interesting parcels to vinify across Spain. Both reds would suit hearty fare and serving the latter cellar cool introduces an appealing freshness, one of the hallmarks of good grenache or garnacha which also deserves to be better understood.So whatever you choose, let’s afford grenache the acclaim it deserves as the headliner and not just a support act.
The Cellar Showroom
The wines mentioned above will all be open to taste in The Cellar Showroom on International Grenache Day this Friday 18th September. If you are in the area, do call in and try them.
Read more about the grenache grape in our online guide here.
This is the second part of my report on helping out with the 2014 harvest at Domaine Jones. Read part one here.
The 2014 vintage
Back to the 2014 vintage and the grapes that had already been harvested – all the whites (except carignan gris and a little muscat) plus a few select vineyards of syrah. The whites were bubbling away nicely in stainless steel and barriques and we were to take their temperature and measure their densities twice a day to check on how the fermentation was progressing. Katie’s eighteen-year-old nephew, Owen, who had arrived at the same time as us and was at the start of a gap year, transcribed our daily readings onto a graph – if only science had been this much fun when we were at school!
It also proved to be quite an enjoyable sensation – people have probably paid spas a great deal of money for something similar! This exercise was also to be repeated twice daily… putting the feet into Fitou! As the yeasts did their thing over the time we were there and the density went down, getting into the barrels started to become a bit more precarious for those of us shorter of limb!
Going out the next day with Jean-Marc to test more vineyards for picking (prélèvement), we discovered just how valuable local knowledge is to interpreting scientific readings. The differences between our grape samples were explained away as Jean-Marc knew from experience which parts of the vineyards ripened better.
On the way back to Tuchan we carried out the same exercise on a plot of syrah (still not ready) and on a plot of grenache vines on flatter ground right under the Château d’Aguilar on river stone soils not unlike the famous pudding stones of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. This and the next plot of syrah vines, virtually in the town itself, were deemed to be ‘nearly there’…. perhaps we would get to pick after all!
Ready, set, go…
After tourist trips at the weekend down to impossibly pretty Collioure on the Côte Vermeille, where we were treated to a flash-mob-style sardana (traditional Catalan folk dance) and an energetic postprandial climb up the craggy Quéribus castle – last stronghold of the Cathars, we found out that we would be picking on Monday morning. We were to meet at 7am ready to get going at first light, the aim to get the grapes in before the heat of the day – in the interest of the quality of the wine (and us)! The venue for our first pick was the last vineyard we’d visited on our sampling trip. A plot of 15 rows of syrah vines on the outskirts of Tuchan which we had fondly named ‘Molly’s vineyard’ (having mis-heard Jean-Marc telling us it was named after a demolished church – La Chapelle Démolie).
We got an early night after re-acquainting ourselves with Katie’s instructions for pickers:
Your back will ache. It will ache so much you will want to find your own unique way of cutting grapes – sitting, kneeling, lying down – but years of experience tell us that there is only one way to cut grapes and it kills your back… rest assured the first couple of days are the worst!
I could almost see my osteopath rubbing his hands in anticipation.The morning of our first pick
We were treated to a spectacular sunrise the next day and the sleepy streets of Tuchan were the busiest we’d seen them; the narrow streets alive with little tractors trundling through the town with orange warning lights flashing on their roofs, looking a little like over-sized Tonka Toys than real-life vineyard machinery. Perhaps it was like this every morning and we’d just missed ‘rush hour’ up till now.
After a quick demonstration by Katie of how to pick (see below), we chose our row and got started. Katie had said to avoid the grapes at the end of the stalks and to stick to the centre of the plant. She showed us how the syrah grapes sometimes had a shrivelled appearance but that this was a good sign, showing ripeness not rot.
We had a couple of brief stops for water and biscuits but managed to pick the whole vineyard – a total of 900 kilos in one go, and yes it was back-breaking. The suggestion that we would hurt in muscles that we didn’t know we had was pretty accurate. Probably one of the most back-breaking aspects was carrying the little crates to load them onto the van at the end of the morning. They look quite small but each carries enough grapes to produce about a case of wine, so perhaps it is not surprising they weigh as much as they do.
We drove back to base so that the grapes could be de-stemmed and put in the chiller straight away, stopping briefly to pick up (a for once deserved) pickers’ lunch of homemade meatballs with olives from Jean-Marc’s mother, which was so appreciated after our hard morning’s work.
We all slept well that night.
What next for our grapes?
The sorted grapes would go then go straight into vat to start fermentation. Katie said that they would more than likely go into her Domaine Jones Syrah, but each vineyard would be vinified separately and it might be bottled as a single-vineyard ‘Perles de Jones’ syrah. We would have to wait and see.
The next day we would have to leave our ‘babies’ behind and return to our corporeal off-spring, but before catching the plane we had just enough time to go and watch a vineyard being picked by a team of experienced pickers. The team was made up of Polish, Portuguese and local pickers and it was exciting forming part of the procession of vendangeurs in the early morning light, creeping our way through the dust thrown up by the various vehicles up a mountain road to the vineyard.
The grapes being picked were muscat; the boar had been spotted trying to snaffle them up, so they needed to be harvested quickly, and the speed with which the experienced team did this was phenomenal. The vineyard was in a beautiful spot on a rocky slope surrounded by pine trees and as the sun came up it shone through the amber grapes making it look as though it was little nuggets of gold that were being harvested, not grapes. The multilingual chatter up and down the rows and the common aim of filling up the caskets was exactly how I had pictured the vendange.
But though this had been a holiday and a fantastic one too, we had also learned so much more than you can from a text book. There’s no substitute for getting your hands (and feet!) dirty and we are eternally grateful to Katie and Jean-Marc for letting us be a very small part in their 2014 vintage.
As we left for the airport the Tramontagne had started to blow; a good sign and we left Katie and Jean-Marc fully geared up to getting the rest of the grapes in. We were sorry to miss the full thrust of the harvest but delighted to have played a part in looking after the whites and reds in barrel and vat and to have brought in and sorted OUR syrah grapes. We will now have to wait to see which wines buyer Marcel-Orford Williams chooses when the wines become ready for tasting and hope that maybe some of our efforts will be coming home to Stevenage.
But what else had we learned?
1. It takes guts to start up a winery.
2. Fitou – it’s actually an appellation within Corbières.
3. Grapes for Fitou – must have a minimum of 20% carignan and a minimum of 20% grenache but together must account for at least 60% of the blend (syrah or mourvèdre making up the rest.)
4. Being a small winemaker you need to be able to turn your hand to everything – electrician, DIY expert, mathematician, farmer, host/hostess, scientist, salesman, designer, inventor.
5. The vineyards of Maury where Katie bought her first vines (the next valley along – where the local dialect switches from Occitan to Catalan) once produced 800k hectolitres but now only make 100k hl – mainly due to the decrease in demand for sweet wines.
Don’t worry, nobody dies but does contain holiday snaps!
Who in their right mind would choose to take time out from work and pay for the privilege of picking grapes? I’m sure this question was being muttered by the real pickers when we spent a week at Domaine Jones in the Languedoc recently, theoretically to help with the harvest.
Despite having worked in the wine trade for nearly 25 years and having visited wineries around the world, both in a professional capacity and under my own steam, I have never experienced harvest time. A few of us at The Wine Society decided that it was about time we did, while we still could!
Normally pitching up at a winery during the harvest is not a good idea. It’s an incredibly busy time, but because some of our (younger) colleagues have helped Katie Jones with the harvest before, we knew that she was used to dealing with inexperienced, if albeit much fitter, pickers.As well as being a supplier to The Society, Katie also happens to be a university friend of Liz Cerroti, head of Member Services at The Society. Taking advantage of this connection, Liz, myself and digital marketing manager, Nicky Glennon decided to take the plunge and head south for the vendage.
One of the first issues we had to face back in February when the decision had been made to descend upon Katie was when to book our flights. Though it is possible to give rough estimates of likely picking dates (100-120 days after flowering), narrowing this down to the exact day when the grapes will be fully ripe that also coincides with Ryanair’s availability and family and work commitments is another matter. Added to this, 2014 has been something of an unpredictable year with Mother Nature throwing just about everything she has at grape growers across Europe.
Pre-picking & packing concerns
As the holiday approached, other concerns started to enter into play. How on earth would we be able to pack for a week including walking boots and gear for all weathers as well as ‘clothes that you would never want to wear again’ and comply with the stringent hand-luggage restrictions? Then there were anxieties over how some of us with dodgy backs and knees would cope physically with the punishing work that picking is…. not to mention scare stories about wasps, hornets, accidents with razor-sharp shears, heat stroke…. and then in the winery…. the dangers of asphyxiation from the CO2, limbs being severed by machinery… trip hazards… it was all starting to sound a bit serious and not at all in-keeping with the joyful bucolic scene we’d somehow conjured up for ourselves!
After psyching ourselves up for the big pick we were then a little disappointed to see the forecast looking less than rosy and to find out that the whites were already in. It was starting to look distinctly unlikely that we’d be doing any picking at all.
One of the real benefits of spending time at somewhere like Domaine Jones, apart from the fact that Katie and partner Jean-Marc Astruc are terrific hosts and incredibly patient, is that their operation is small enough for you to see a bit of everything that takes place in the winemaking process. Also, because they too are quite new to this game (Jean-Marc comes from a family of grape growers and used to be president at the local co-op where Katie was responsible for marketing and sales for 16 years), they are still experimenting and learning as they go along too.
In the heart of Cathar country
Domaine Jones is located in the village of Tuchan (toosh-ohn), a small village of around 800 souls (and twice as many dogs, themselves outnumbered by the local wild boar). It is located about 40 minutes’ drive inland from Perpignan in Cathar country, its vineyards nestled around the foothills of the mighty Mont Tauch with its crown of bright white windmills. This is Fitou territory and grape-growing is the main activity of the village, as it has been for generations.
The countryside is spectacularly beautiful with the Cathar castles indistinguishable from the craggy ranges they cling to and deep river gorges cutting through the garrigue – the scrubland perfumed with wild fennel, rosemary and fig trees. There’s plenty to attract the visitor without the draw of the excellent wines.
…a bit of background on Domaine Jones
When Katie decided to leave the co-op she initially intended to set up her own marketing and design consultancy but her Francophile parents had always harboured a romantic notion of owning some vines. So when Katie was offered a 2.5-hectare plot of old vines in nearby Maury (over the ‘col’ in neighbouring Roussillon), she decided to raise the funds to buy it – realising, if vicariously, her parents’ dream.
Katie and Jean-Marc took us to view these vines, high up on the hills beneath spectacular Quéribus castle on black schistous soils; even to the untrained eye they looked pretty special. When Katie bought the vineyard (they came onto the market as the ancient vines – some up to 100 years old – were low-yielding and difficult to farm) she had been told that the vines were grenache noir, but the plot turned out to have grenache gris, carignan and muscat too – quite unusual in such a small vineyard (you can read more about this in our interview with Katie a few years ago).
The beauty of starting out in this way was that Katie was forced to pick and ferment everything separately and learned from the outset how different varieties would behave. It also meant that she had a rich palette of raw materials with which to put together blends. The Domaine Jones Rouge and Blanc were born with the 2009 vintage and met with critical acclaim from the start.
Jumping ahead to 2014 and Katie has continued to buy up small plots of low-yielding vines in and around the village of Tuchan, mainly to produce Fitou, so that there are now a total of around 11 hectares spread out over 25 vinyeards. Like the original Maury vineyard, many of these are small plots of old vines that the locals no longer wish to farm. One such plot is of the extremely rare carignan gris – a mutation of carignan noir. Katie and Jean-Marc only have 500 vines, but apparently theirs are only about two heactares registered in the whole of France. The grape is notoriously difficult to ripen, is low-yielding and is generally lower in potential alcohol but, Katie was very pleased with the first release of this wine which she has labelled under her ‘Perles de Jones’ label and Wine Society buyer Marcel Orford-Williams snapped up the whole production. Fiona Beckett wrote a rave review of the wine which came out while we were at the Domaine; Katie and Jean-Marc were thrilled.Jean-Marc told us how he tried to get hold of more plants from the vine nursery in Montpellier but the pépiniériste only had five roots and was not willing to part with any of them so Katie and Jean-Marc will be taking cuttings from their own vines to increase their plantings of this capricious variety. It was the last grape to be picked in 2014 on 5th October – after we had left and after all the reds were in and it still only came in at 12% potential alcohol.
In the lap of the (weather) gods…
Measuring the potential alcohol of the grapes was to become something we were to be very familiar with over the coming days. Katie told us that Jean-Marc, despite his calm exterior, was becoming quite agitated; pretty much all the neighbours had already picked and the longer you wait, the greater the possibility of the crop being lost to bad weather – as was to be the fate of some unfortunate producers whose crops were washed away in autumnal downpours, particularly in the Gard.
Fortunately the storms passed us by, but the wind coming in from the Mediterranean was bringing damp mild weather; what was wanted was the north wind – the Tramontagne. As Katie says, it’s likes a great big hair dryer, getting rid of any moisture and allowing the grapes to be picked in optimum conditions. As we were to discover, the potential alcohol in the grapes was not the issue – most were already showing good levels, but Katie and Jean-Marc explained that they were waiting for the grapes to show phenolic ripeness. This means that the grape skins, pips and stem are properly ripe and have lost any bitterness and there is a balance between potential alcohol and acidity/PH levels.
Prélevement – the testing of the grapes for ripeness
We were dispatched into the vines, plastic bags in hand, and given a couple of rows of vines each to get a random sample of grapes to ascertain each vineyard’s readiness for picking. We were told to pass through the vines taking a berry from the top of the bunch, the middle and underneath, then to crush the berries in the bag to get some juice. It was also pointed out to us that tasting the berries and crunching the pips was just as important as any analytical tests. Juice from each bag was poured onto a refractometer to measure the potential alcohol. Next we placed the probe of a PH meter into the juice to measure acidity levels – the higher the reading, the lower the acidity and for Jean-Marc and Katie’s liking, the grapes were still not quite ripe enough. We must wait…
Travelling through the vineyards it was remarkable just how different the soils were from one plot to the next, even those in close proximity. Jean-Marc told us later that various studies had confirmed that the geology of the region is particularly interesting in that there is a greater variety of different rocks and soils in a relatively small area than anywhere else in France. The plot of grenache vines we tested first was on lovely red sandy clay soil, yet just a short ride in the truck to look at a plot of carignan, took us to grey-white stony soils.
Most of the vineyards were tiny but there were vines almost as far as the eye could see. We wondered whether it was hard to tell where your grapes ended and another’s started. Katie said that it wasn’t that unusual for vineyard workers to have spent a morning labouring away on a neighbour’s vines by mistake! Telling one variety from another was also a necessary skill and we were given a lesson in identifying grenache and carignan grapes and the curious local clone lladoner pelud, or hairy grenache (because of its spiky leaves) was pointed out to us –a variety much favoured for its small berries and potential for high-quality wine.
The interplay of ‘la chasse’ & ‘la vigne’
Katie also pointed out the unmistakable signs of foraging wild boar – the ground between the vines was completely churned up and there was the odd bunch knocked onto the ground. Katie said that the boar were a real nuisance, destroying a vineyard in no time at all. Perhaps the fact that they hadn’t hoovered up these grapes was another sign that they hadn’t reached optimum ripeness!
A lot of the vineyards we were to visit had electric fences around them to protect them from the boar; they are particularly fond of the sweeter muscat grapes apparently. The countryside is dotted with tall wooden towers from which the hunters take their aim and back in Tuchan the hunting lodge is one of the more imposing buildings at the centre of town. We were there in hunting season when ‘la chasse’ is permitted on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays.
Jean-Marc told us that growing up in Tuchan there were only two pastimes – ‘la chasse’ or rugby. He chose the latter and apparently was rather good in his youth. Luckily for us his father was still actively involved in the former, the spoils of which we were to enjoy on several occasions and in several guises, including the local speciality civet de sanglier, cooked by Jean-Marc’s mother. A sort of boeuf bourguignon of the south which involves marinating the meat overnight in Fitou and cooking it slowly with onions, garlic, carrots and local herbs. Lovely with boiled potatoes or pasta – even in 30°C!Project 2015
Before heading back to the winery Katie took us to see Domaine Jones’ latest acquisition. Having grown out of The Vatican (the 200 year-old stone building Katie bought in the Rue de Vatican), Katie and Jean-Marc have been making wine in the hangar adjoining their house and now just use The Vatican for storage. But Katie has had her eye on the old train shed in the village for some time, so when an opportunity came to buy it they put in a bid. The stone building dates back to 1905 and was part of the Tuchan terminus building and now represents a huge renovation job for Katie and Jean-Marc if they’re to have it up and running for next year’s vintage. It comes complete with its own well (presumably for the steam trains which used to carry the grapes down to Perpignan before decent roads were built) and has a bit of land for potential accommodation. Katie says you really need to live above the shop when you’re making wine and we were soon to appreciate why.
While some of us were basking in unseasonal warm and dry weather, spare a thought for parts of the Languedoc where records were broken over the past few days.
The centre of the storm seemed to be over Montpellier itself and its immediate surrounds. Pictures show people kayaking down the street.
These storms tend to be a feature of France’s Mediterranean coastline during September and then principally about masses of warm humid air coming in from the sea and condensing over the Cevennes hills in the Languedoc. The effect of these storms can be quite dramatic and sometimes catastrophic. In the city itself, 200mm fell in just three hours.
Mercifully there were no fatalities, though an earlier cloudburst more inland in the Gard had claimed the lives of at least five people and had swept away camping sites and cars and had generally caused much damage.
Of the 2014 grape harvest, it would seem that many people had finished picking. Isabelle Champart in Saint Chinian finished last Sunday, the day before the storm, and is delighted with the quality as is Pierre Borie at Ollieux-Romanis in the Corbières. Pierre Clavel in the Pic Saint Loup and only a few miles from Montpellier had also just finished picking in time. His drive was washed away which might make visiting him a little problematic but the vines were not damaged and his well-drained soils coped well with the water. He described to me opening his front door to see a veritable sheet of water coming down.
I shall be there in November and hopefully will need neither wellies nor a kayak!
No, this is not about the 75cl bottle, nor indeed the ghost road through Dumfriesshire. This is about the amazing and often beautiful stretch of motorway that winds its way through the centre of France.
There are a number of ways to drive to the south of France and I think I’ve done them all, including routes nationals, but the A75 is easily the most attractive, enjoyable and at times, spectacular with two of the world’s greatest bridges to admire.
Most French motorways have names. The most famous, the often overcrowded A6, is the ‘Autoroute du Sud’. The usually empty A26, incidentally which runs from Calais to Troyes, is called ‘Autoroute des Anglais’, a sort of extended Promenade des Anglais, complete with English-speaking gendarmes waiting to catch us those of us trying to speed back to the Chanel!.
I digress. The A75 is ‘La Méridienne’ and cuts an elegant swathe through the Massif Central from Clermont Ferrand to Beziers in the Languedoc. And for most of the time, it’s free, and usually free of heavy traffic.
Leaving Clermont southbound, the first point of interest, at least to historians and lovers of Asterix, is the Plateau de Gergovie, a setting for a resounding Roman defeat at the hands of the Gauls. From the road, it is difficult to see that this is also vineyard country. The Veyre-Monton turnoff quickly leads to the admirable Saint Verny Co-operative, the largest producer of wine in the Auvergne which is currently enjoying a period of real rebirth.
The Auvergne is an old wine-producing region but its size coincided with expansion of Clermont-Ferrand, and then, as with so many regions, receded after phylloxera. Traditionally the wines were light reds and at one time made from pinot noir, locally called auvernat noir. Gamay came to replace it and is now the majority variety. Others have been added including chardonnay and even syrah, but gamay still dominates for both red and rosé wine.
Not far from the co-op is the village of Corent which is especially known for its light and refreshing rosé. The 2013, which we stock (£8.50 per bottle) is absolutely delicious. The reds are almost as light and can be enjoyed cool with charcuterie, for example. And, of course, there is also cheese. Another short detour will take you to Saint Nectaire which makes a rich and creamy cheese which goes well with the red.
After a short winding passage alongside the Allier (beware of the much reduced speed limit and camera), the road starts to climb to its cruising altitude of around 800m. The remarkable thing about this motorway is that so much of it is at high altitude, twisting between the hill tops and leaping over valleys on ever more impressive bridges. About 50k of the route is over 1,000m, including two passes at around 1100m. The first of these is just before the exit to the historic medieval town of Saint Flour with its Gothic Cathedral perched high up on a volcanic spur. This is always a good place to stop over, breath the fresh mountain air, eat the local charcuterie washed down with a gamay. Should the air be not bracing enough, the road to Aurillac, capital of the Cantal Departement, crosses the Monts du Cantal, with two peaks, plomb du Cantal and Puy Mary on either side of the road and both eminently scalable. The summer months are the time for cheese making and two of France’s oldest and greatest cheeses come from around here. There is Cantal and in my view the more complex salers. Both are hard cheeses made from cow’s milk. Salers has to be made only from milk from the salers breed of cow. Both cheeses are best with age and both have a certain similarity to Cheddar.
A little to the south of Saint Flour is one of the two great engineering masterpieces along this route and is probably best seen from the lay by off the motorway. This is the Viaduct de Gabarit, a single track wrought iron railway bridge built in 1884 by Eiffel. Only one train a day uses it in each direction during the tourist season and going on it remains an unfulfilled ambition!
After leaving the Cantal, the road cuts through the Aubrac, home to another breed of cattle, the Aubrac, but this is now beef cattle and very fashionable too in all the top restaurants of Auvergne and the Languedoc.
And talking of animals, this is where the beast of Gévaudan used to roam. From the 1760s onwards came tales of a horrific Hound of the Baskervilles type of creature that terrorised the population, eating its victims and forcing the government to act. This is what Robert Louis Stevenson had to say in his essential book, Travels on a donkey in the Cevennes:
For this was the land of the ever memorable Beast, the Napoleon Bonaparte of wolves. What a career was his! He lived ten months at free quarters in Gévaudan and Vivarais; he ate women and children and shepherdesses celebrated for their beauty; he pursued armed horsemen; he has been seen at broad noonday chasing a post-chaise and outrider along the king’s high road, and chaise and outrider fleeing before him at the gallop. He was placarded like a political offender, and ten thousand francs were offered for his head. And yet, when he was shot and sent to Versailles, behold! A common wolf and even small for that.
Today seeking out the Beast is of course just a wonderful excuse for further exploration of the stunning countryside.
Time for more vineyards. At Séverac, there is a turn off for the town of Rodez, about an hour away and a visit to the spectacular vineyards of Marcillac. Philippe Teulier is the key man here who almost single-handedly resurrected this near-extinct appellation. Most of the wine is red made from the local fer servadou grape, and we currently stock Marcillac ‘Lo Sang del Pais’, Domaine du Cros 2013, available for £8.50 per bottle. This is a deeply coloured, gutsy red, always fresh and never high in alcohol and it goes perfectly well with the local dish which would be a slice of Aubrac steak with a spoonful of aligot. Aligot is the sort of dish made for hill walkers. Mash potato with plenty of garlic and combined with cheese to create a fondue like texture. Delicious though almost indigestible!
Back to Séverac and the A75. The road now climbs back to over 800m with another pass before giving the option of going down into the town of Millau or continuing on. Millau itself is attractive enough with plenty of options for staying the night and good places to eat too. There is a local wine called Côtes de Millau and I’ve tasted one or two good examples. Personally, I believe Marcillac is the better buy.
Millau used to be famous as a centre for glove making, especially from sheepskin, and nearby is where Roquefort cheese is made. The cheese remains world famous but Millau itself has become world famous for the eponymous viaduct. This was designed by Norman Foster and opened in 2004. It is 2,460m in length and crosses the Tarn River, some 200m below. The highest pier is 343m tall, 19m more than the Eiffel Tower and the whole thing looks like a magical silvery sailing ship, often cutting through mists and clouds.
The A75 goes over it and there are plenty of places where one can stop and admire its beauty, either from a lay-by off the motorway or from below.
With the bridge behind, the landscape changes to one of arid scrubland. This is the plateau of the Larzac, known for its sheep, Roquefort cheese, Templar fortress and the activist José Bové who challenged the government over the extension of a military base and who was more famously still among those who set fire to a McDonalds restaurant in Millau.
Service stations on the Larzac are a good place to stock up on cheese and honey, and maybe a pair of sheepskin gloves, and then comes the great descent. Suddenly, the speed limit is reduced. They’re cameras everywhere; the road starts to twist and turn and plunge quite steeply. This was the hardest section of the A75 to build and it collapsed once during its construction. The pass is called Pas de l’Escalette and it marks the separation between the Massif Central and the plane of the Languedoc. The road goes through a tunnel at that point and very soon reaches down to the plain.
The landscape changes completely and often too does the weather. So often the Larzac is crossed in mist or drizzle which suddenly clears to blazing sunshine down in the plain. Now of course there is vineyard everywhere but for a final stop, the village of Montpeyroux lies just off the motorway.
Montpeyroux is a vigneron village with a growing reputation for its wines and especially for its reds. Sylvain Fadat of Domaine Aupilhac is the leading light in the area but there are others too like Pascale Riviere and Alain Chabanon which we also buy from. All the growers are busy working on turning Montpeyroux into a cru, which would be well deserved.
The A75 carries on past the town of Pezenas, with its link to Molière and Clive of India who gave it his recipe for mince pies, known locally as petit pâtés de Pezenas, and which actually does contain meat as mince pies used to.
The beautiful Prieuré Saint Jean de Bébian with its Australian winemaker, Karen Turner, is nearby as is the Chartreuse de Mougeres where the excellent wines are made by Nicolas de Saint Exupéry. Peter and Deborah Core, two expatriates from the City make excellent wines at their bijoux winery, Mas Gabriel in the village of Caux.
Soon, the journey is over and the A75 merges with the A9 to go either towards the Rhône Valley or Toulouse, or indeed, the Spanish border. Gone is the peace and quiet and welcome instead three lanes of incessant traffic, trucks and caravans!