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The Two Giants of Provence

The Two Giants of Provence 

It was most likely on being told the story of Jack and the Beanstalk as a three or four year old that I was first introduced to the concept of something or someone being a ‘Giant’. Forty years later, the impression that those children’s stories made on my developing brain have ensured that this word remains associated with the pejorative. Giants are not nice; they are ugly, warty, carbuncular and curmudgeonly as well as being physically massive and intimidating.

Last week presented me with two opportunities to face up to any deep-seated giant related negativity. The first when I met with Emmanuel Reynaud, the notoriously reticent owner of Château Rayas in Châteauneuf du Pape. The second when I cycled up the Mistral whipped Ventoux, a mountain that French philosopher Roland Barthes once rather floridly described as “A god of evil, to which sacrifices must be made.”

I would not wish to offend Mr Reynaud by describing him as a pussycat but it was a pleasure to spend a couple of hours in his company. There was no cantankerousness on display here, rather a generosity that led to an extensive tour of the Estate followed by a tasting from tank and barrel that on one occasion caused an unconscious genuflection in the direction of Emmanuel so scented, so altogether perfect was the young Grenache in my slightly grubby tasting glass.

The chance to cycle up Ventoux the day after the Tour de France had been thwarted from reaching the summit due to 100km/h winds filled me with excitement rather than trepidation. Although the climb extends for some 22km from the beautiful town of Bedoin it is the unrelentingly steep ‘middle’ section of 9.5km from St Esteve to Chalet Reynard that causes many cyclists to be dry-mouthed even before they have clipped themselves into the pedals. For me, with the morning sun leaking through the trees, the air still cool and with the painted names of cycling’s elite disappearing under my wheels, my own feeling was of an intense and concentrated satisfaction. Nearing the top an enthusiastic woman with a klaxon yelled at me to keep going and asked whether it had been difficult? “Pas facile mais pas mal” was my response, her frown indicated a slight disappointment that I had not been brought to my knees.

Jack had to slay his giant but Provence conclusively proved that confrontation is not the only policy, show some respect and Giants can be humble, approachable and life-affirming.

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Easy Drinking

Easy Drinking

Sitting, looking up and across the tree-edged Dentelles of the Vaucluse, with the mistral bullying its way across the vineyards, I feel an almost guilty level of contentment. I came here to taste Grenache, not any old Grenache but great Grenache and that is what I have done. Whether at Vieux Donjon and Chateau Rayas in Chateauneuf du Pape or at Saint Cosme in Gigondas, I wanted to taste Grenache that was three dimensional, Grenache that had guts and grace in equal measure, Grenache that could sing rather than merely mumble, I wanted to be impressed.

Yet as a molly-coddled middle-ager, whilst I appreciated the Clos de Beze like reek of Rayas and the sandy drag of tannin across my palate of Saint-Cosme’s ‘Hominis Fides’, I also wanted some pleasure that I could afford to consume more regularly than a couple of times a year. When one has the good fortune to bump into one of the aforementioned wines, any emotion experienced other than wonder can leaver the drinker feeling hard done to. These are wines that are supposed to be eye-widening in quality. Ideally an even greater sense of satisfaction can be achieved by bottles with less lofty provenance or from those ‘estates’ still suffering from nappy rash, such is their youth.

The last couple of days has seen an array of Grenache based ‘easy drinkers’ pass my lips and the best have been Mas de Libian’s ‘Vin de Petanque’, a sappy and thirst slaking paean to freshness that for the English amongst you (does anyone still admit to being English in this post Brexit world?) was akin to drinking alcoholic Vimto; high praise indeed. This estate, based in the Ardeche produces this Vin de France at a price that sees it retailing in France at less than 8 , a definitive bargain that is best enjoyed chilled.

The second wine to impress with just a little more structure, finesse and finish than the first, was Mick O’Connell’s debut wine ‘Garnacha not Guerra’ from the island of Sardegna. At 12.9% and with a cranberry and raspberry like pithiness this was much more than a creditable first attempt, this was more a statement of intent and with O’Connell looking to almost double production this year to six hundred bottles, I for one will be seeking an allocation to ensure that my contentment quotient remains not only replete but guilt-free as well.

 

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Shiraz the Omnipotent? How about Garnacha the Great?

This week, whilst trawling the tweets of those I follow, I noted that Steve Pannell had considered naming his latest 2014 McLaren Vale Grenache, ‘Garnacha’, the moniker of this grape in its Spanish homeland. Somewhat cryptically Jancis Robinson had replied to this revelation by saying ‘Interesting..’ and whilst I cannot claim to know why Ms Robinson views it as such, I am nonetheless in full agreement; interesting indeed.

Having recently returned from a two-week stay in the Barossa, speaking with the great and good of the region’s wine trade, appreciation of Grenache’s red-fruited charms, along with recognition of its suitability for Barossa’s climate, was palpable. The issue for many of Australia’s vine growers is that received opinion suggests the wine drinking public and too many of its winemakers see Grenache, at best, as ‘poor man’s Pinot.’ This damns Grenache with faint praise and does nothing to challenge the status of Shiraz as omnipotent in the hearts of the average Aussie, a status that for the good of the industry requires a legitimate challenger.

So this brings us back to Jancis’ and her ‘interesting’ comment. My feeling is that calling Grenache, ‘Garnacha’ might be just what the Australians need to help them negotiate an interesting path away from an increasingly unhealthy reliance on Shiraz (particularly in Barossa) with the assistance of this ‘new’ variety. The move towards more perfumed, elegant wines throughout the Garnacha producing world is testament to this variety’s ability to be a stud rather than a workhorse, something I alluded to in an earlier article http://sniff.com.tw/?p=438.

Increasingly, over the last two to three years, I have been tasting Garnachas that thrill. Whether they are from Terroir al Limit in Priorat, David and Nadia Sadie in Swartland, or Schwarz Wine Co. in the Barossa, there is no doubt that Garnacha can be arresting; that Garnacha is no poor man’s Pinot; and that Garnacha can be great.

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The Midi: France's Soulful South

The South of France is really where it all started for me. Back in 2001/2 believing that the Languedoc/Roussillon offered some of the best value wines available, I decided to swap Halifax for Pezenas and a career in social work for the tanks and hoses of the winery. Luckily my wife agreed and I spent 2003 under the winemaking wing of the very generous Michel Le Goaec of Domaine Montrose. When I wasn’t assisting in the making of wine I was off with my little family tasting as much as possible and speaking to many of this region’s greatest producers both young, old and emerging. These tastings formed the foundations of the wine company that I would form on my return to the UK.

Although more than a decade has passed since I left France, my admiration and warmth that I feel for the people of the Midi and their produce remains undimmed. Yesterday I had the opportunity to reacquaint myself with some of the wines from this region at the Sud de France tasting event in Taipei. The outstanding obstacle faced by those in any ‘non-classic’ wine region trying to promote their wares is how to shake off long held and pejorative perceptions about the quality of the wines made. It is impossible in the space of a few years to expect the complete reversal of this view but it is clear that the Languedoc is no longer seen simply as a purveyor of plonk. Where once there was but two or three well known producers of high quality, age-worthy wines (e.g. Daumas Gassac, St Jean de Bebian, Grange des Peres), there are now many, and this has led to a slow but gradual elevation of the Languedoc’s status. This elevation is a result of a domestic and global market that is less accepting of ‘bad’ wine than ever before. But most importantly, within the Languedoc, there is also a greater appreciation for what is possible, particularly from some of the old vine-stock that litters much of the region’s sparse but ruggedly beautiful hinterland.

The best of yesterday’s tasting demonstrated that whilst the Languedoc remains a safe bet for fruit driven, juicy wines that provide instant if simple satisfaction, spending a little more results in delicious and particular wines that deserve recognition as ‘classics’ in their own right.

None of the wines below are currently available in Taiwan.

Cave de Roquebrun, La Grange des Combes, Saint-Chinian-Roquebrun, 2013
Grape: Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre
Winemaking: Stainless steel
Note: Soft and fruity but not simple. This has enough grip to engage your tongue and some smokiness to the dark fruit, a result (allegedly) of vines growing on the fractured schistous soils that predominate here. Screams out for a fat sausage or a plate of boudin (black pudding).
Price: Ex cellars  5.07 euro
Score: 15.5/20 

Château Tourril, Cuvée Philippe, Minervois, 2011
Grape: Carignan, Syrah, Grenache
Winemaking: Stainless steel/cement
Note: This is all about the fruit and exhibits great purity and freshness making it a very refreshing and satisfying glass. This Chateau, now in the hands of the capable Stephane Kandler, is one to watch for affordable pleasure.
Price: Ex-cellars  3.42 euro
Score: 15.5/20 

Domaine La Tour Penedesses, La Montagne Noire, Faugères, 2014
Grape: Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre
Winemaking: A small portion of new oak but mainly old.
Note: Rich and powerful almost heady with the smell of the outdoors. Only just bottled this was not edgy in anyway promising delicious drinking over the coming two to three years.
Price: Ex-cellars  4.80 euro
Score: 16/20

D74 Midi Bottles

 

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Something for the Weekend 14. 15% Plus: A Barrier to Balance?

A good wine should keep two people entertained and engaged to the bottom of the bottle. More than an inch or two remaining suggests either an abstemious streak on the part of the drinkers or that something is not quite right with the wine.

The sommelier group of which I’m a part meets once a month to discuss and taste on various matters of a vinous nature. Choosing the topic is my responsibility and this month it concerned wines with an alcohol content in excess of 15%. This choice of subject was a response to our warming climate. Increased sugar levels in grapes (a result of greater heat summation) will ultimately result in a preponderance of wines featured in this high alcohol bracket.

Wines with these elevated levels of alcohol can feel unbalanced. Without sufficient fruit concentration, high alcohol gives a sensation of heat, even sweetness that can render the wines hollow. There are of course, exceptions, the perception of the unbalancing effect of alcohol does not follow a linear path so it quite possible for a wine at 13.5% to feel ‘wrong’ whilst a similar example at 15.5% feels ‘right’.

The seven wines selected were tasted blind (by all but the sommelier who chose the wines) and featured examples from France, Italy, Spain, Australia and the USA. The very pleasant, if unexpected conclusion, was that the reason we were tasting these wines was soon forgotten as the alcohol was as it should be; virtually invisible.

Below are the notes for four of the wines, any of which I would be happy to share and finish.

Domaine Giraud, Chateauneuf du Pape Tradition, 2010, 15%
Grape: 60% Grenache, 35% Syrah, 5% Mourvedre
Wine-making: The Syrah is aged in barriques and the wine is neither filtered or fined.
Note: Super ripe with an almost Port-like chocolate, damson and slightly raisined character. Perfumed, powerful and with good levels of concentration from this excellent vintage. Delicious.
Price: 2,100NT
Score: 17/20
Available from: Oriental House

Seghesio, Home Ranch, Zinfandel, Alexander Valley, 2006, 15.7%
Grape:
Zinfandel with a small portion of Carignane and Petite Sirah
Wine-making: No overt oak evident.
Note: I have not tasted many Zinfandels this old but this was still showing very well. There were some signs of maturity with an oxidative, leathery aroma accompanying the red and black fruit. Even at 15.7% the alcohol was well integrated. Very good.
Price:
1,750NT
Score:
17/20
Available from: A3 Cellar

Domaine Tempier, Cuvee La Tourtine, Bandol, 2001, 15%
Grape:
70-80% Mourvedre, 10% Grenache, 10% Cinsault
Wine-making: 18-20 months maturation in old oak and bottled without fining or filtration.
Note: This was the only wine out of the seven that I thought tasted a little hot. The mushroom and soy-like aromas indicated that this was no longer young but there remained some balancing sweet and spicy red berry fruit. Good complexity but perhaps slightly cumbersome.
Price: 3,900NT
Score: 16/20
Available from: Oriental House

Mitolo, G.A.M, Shiraz, Mclaren Vale, 2010, 15%
Grape:
Shiraz
Wine-making: Matured in 70% new French and American Oak for 18 months.
Note: Opaque, tarry and with mouthcoating tannins and great concentration of black fruit, this was quintessential South Australian Shiraz. The power on display was balanced by some sweet and sour acidity and very good length; intense but not wearing.
Price: 2,100NT
Score: 16.5/20
Available from:  Wooloomooloo

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Spain: Producer of the world's best value wine?

It is normal, on returning from an enjoyable and fruitful trip abroad, to feel overly enamoured with what was discovered. As a wine merchant I used to guard against such emotional extravagance by subjecting any bottles I thought excellent in the field to a trial by blind tasting at home. My most recent trip to Spain (Ribera del Duero and Rioja) has again left me pining for the best of Iberia. There is no doubt that the food was good and the people I met were, without fail, both gracious and hugely accommodating, but it was the quality of the wine that really grabbed me.

We all know that Spain produces some iconic wine styles from Gran Reserva Rioja to the great fortified wines of Sherry and Montilla but it is easy to forget just how damn inexpensive some of these wines can be. The most persuasive argument supporting the title of this piece came on my visit to Juan Carlos Sancha’s home on the edge of the small town of Banos de Rio Tobia that lies within the Rioja Alta. This professor of enology and all round viticultural colossus, has dedicated much time to preserving the rare grape varieties of the region (he will receive the space he deserves in a fully illustrated post later this winter/spring). Juan Carlos’s wines should be much more expensive as he makes so little (often just a barrel or three), but he prefers to share his passion making them affordable to everyone. On tasting, the Garnacha from the barrel was a lesson in purity and profundity – surely the concientious winemaker’s ultimate goal. These wines, called Pena El Gato, can be had for a little over ten quid in the UK or approximately 15 euros on the continent…this might just be the best value wine in the world.

Below are three Spanish wines that demonstrate remarkable value for money.

Bodegas Juan Carlos Sancha, ‘Pena El Gato’, Garnacha, Rioja, 2013, 14.5%
Grape:
Garnacha
Wine-making: Matured in oak but with no malolactic conversion, which helps protect both the purity of the fruit and retains a little more acidity.
Note: Floral, mineral, earthy and strawberry like. Dense yet lively, refreshing acidity and with great intensity. Truly stunning value (and only about 1200 bottles made each year).
Price: Cheap as chips
Score: 18/20
Available from: Wherever you can find it

La Rioja Alta, Vina Alberdi Reserva, 2008, 14%
Grape:
Tempranillo
Wine-making: Two years in American oak
Note: Vastly different style from the Pena El Gato with a more relaxed persona that has the perfumed, sweet vanilla and strawberry nose that pervades the wines of this great stalwart of Rioja.
Score: 17/20
Price: Globally between 20 and 25 USD
Available from: Everywhere

Alvear, CB Fino, Montilla, NV, 15%
Grape:
Pedro Ximinez (PX)
Wine-making: Produced like fino sherry under a veil of flor (yeast) for five years that both protects the wine and imbues it with that ‘sherry’ like nose.
Note: This bone dry Fino is delicate and salty making it the perfect pre-prandial quaffer. I could drink this everyday.
Score: 17/20
Price: In Spain about  4.5. A little more in Taiwan
Available from: P9.com.tw

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Something for the Weekend 12: The search continues

In a previous post (October 21st, Grenache: Workhorse or Prize stud) I alluded to my search for the greats of Grenache, a variety I once considered humble and not worthy of adoration. The u-turn in my long held view was the result of Terroir al Limits ‘Les Manyes’ a wine whose smell alone brought tears (quite literally) to my eyes. When this happens it is hard to resist the evangelical fervour that begins to rise within.

The sugar rich nature of Grenache and the resultant high alcohol can lead to wines lacking finesse. Elevated potency is viewed by some to be a bonus and I do not want to suggest that 15%+ equals bad wine, it doesn’t, but wine requires plenty of extra stuffing if it is to successfully carry this off. Grenache is most likely to reveal its ethereal charms when the growing season is extended to allow flavour development that can match the considerable sugar accumulation. For the ‘Les Manyes’ elevation is key, for others it can be a result of aspect. In Chateauneuf du Pape stylistic differences between producers are a result of grape, soil but also the direction in which the vineyard faces. Chateau de la Font du Loup’s vineyards stare northwards. Being in the Northern hemisphere this results in less sun exposure slowing sugar accumulation and allowing flavour ripeness to keep pace. The wines produced from this terroir are very pretty and perfumed. They have some of the richness one expects from the region but with a flavour profile that has freshness rather than jamminess at its core.

Chateau de la Font du Loup, Chateauneuf du Pape, 2012, 14.5%
Grape:
65% Grenache, 15% Syrah, 15% Mourvedre, 5% Cinsault
Wine-making: Matured in old French oak
Note: Strawberry compote and herb scented fruit dominate whilst chalky tannins lend the wine structure, poise and persistence. Elegant and delicious.
Score: 18/20
Available from: Wisdom Flower Corporation (2-2239-2609)

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The Magic of Mogador

Passion is a much-abused word. It is not something that can be manufactured, it is visceral and can be seen burning behind the eyes of those who possess it. When confronted with such emotion it is very difficult not to be moved, engaged, drawn in. Rene Barbier Jnr of Clos Mogador is a man brimming with intensity and desire to produce the very best from the schistous soils of his family’s famous estate. In the modern era, Priorat has come to represent the celebration of the extensive network of old vine Garnacha and Carinena that litter the terraces here. In the past these were considered workhorse varieties that offered little, even in the volume produced, so poor is the soil. Yet the paucity of organic material in Priorat’s dirt ensures that only the hardiest of vines survive, eeking out an existence that results in grapes of significant concentration. Little water combined with hot day-time temperatures are two conditions mirrored throughout much of the wine-producing world but it is the ‘value added’ factors of these old vines and cool nights (that helps retain acidity, and perfume), experienced by the vineyards in the higher reaches of this region, that makes the best of Priorat intensely intense.

Like many in his profession, Rene will tell you that it is all about the vineyard but this is only half of the story. Rene wants finesse in his wines as well as grunt and it this quest for elegance that governs many of his wine-making decisions. These include sorting in the winery to remove raisined fruit (to keep alcohol at a more food friendly level) and judicious use of oak maturation that helps build texture and complexity as opposed to a simple seasoning of vanilla or spice. If you want to try a benchmark example of modern Priorat then Clos Mogador is a fine example that leaves many of the other wines in Priorat looking like blurred facsimiles of Rene’s best.

Clos Mogador, Priorat, 2006, 14.5%
Grape:
40% Garnacha, 15% Carignan, 28% Cabernet Sauvignon, 17% Syrah.
Wine-making: Low Sulphur Dioxide (SO2) regime in all Mogador wines. 20 months in 300l French Oak Casks.
Note: Intensely mineral smelling of crushed rocks with a slight animal character. Concentrated, warm, spice-laden and with densely ripe strawberry and a little dried fruit character. Excellent length.
Price: 4,200NT
Score: 17.5/20
Available from: icheers.tw

Clos Mogador, Priorat, 2007, 14.5%
Grape:
40% Garnacha, 22% Carignan, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Syrah.
Wine-making: Low Sulphur Dioxide (SO2) regime in all Mogador wines. 20 months in 300l French Oak Casks.
Note: Mineral (graphite, oil, crushed rock) and smelling of the wild with darker fruit than the 2006. Huge concentration, intense, herbal, some chocolate and both full bodied and persistent. Pretty magnificent.
Price: 4,200NT
Score: 18.5/20
Available from: icheers.tw

Clos Mogador, Priorat, 2008, 14.5%
Grape:
46% Garnacha, 21% Carignan, 19% Cabernet Sauvignon, 14% Syrah.
Wine-making: Low Sulphur Dioxide (SO2) regime in all Mogador wines. 20 months in 300l French Oak Casks.
Note: Deep purple, mineral, wild black cherry fruit, floral, herby, perhaps the most complex nose of them all. Concentrated, mouth-coating tannins, a seam of balancing acidity and once again great persistence. Fine and pure with a graceful air.
Price: 4,200NT
Score: 18.5/20
Available from: icheers.tw

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