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.
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.
In Barnsley town centre on a wintery Saturday evening, the amount of exposed flesh on show will find you burying your face ever deeper into the folds of your scarf, an instinctive reaction to the perceived plight of these brave locals. Similarly, next time you are sitting at a café in the Mediterranean watching the sun begins its slow tumble into the sea, listen for the accent of the those sun-broiled souls last to leave the beach; that’s right, they’re from Barnsley as well. This ability to thrive in such disparate climates makes the people of Northern Britain very similar to that most noble of varieties: Syrah, but do not assume that this is normal behaviour. Most grape varieties are quite pernickety. Grow Pinot Noir in too warm an area and all that perfume that gets Pinot-philes so aroused falls away like petals from a faded violet. Equally if you grow Cabernet Sauvignon in too cold an area its innately herbaceous, minty edge moves from a complexing nuance to a cacophony of greenness.
The traditional homeland of this great grape is the Northern Rhone where it can produce peppery, bright fruited and floral magnificence that has the elegance of Pinot but with a bit more grunt. Its other major stomping ground is in the much warmer Barossa Valley where richly ripe, chocolaty examples are more common. Around the world producers tend to call their wines Syrah or Shiraz depending on their relative similarities to the style found in these two benchmark regions.
On Monday, my choice of topic for the Taiwanese sommelier group of which I’m a member, was the cool-climate version of Syrah. Of the six wines only one was from the Northern Rhone, an excellent Cote Rotie, whilst the others came from the cooler reaches of Australasia, Chile and Canada. From a sommelier’s point of view these elegant Syrahs are more food friendly propositions than their full-bodied brother, Shiraz. Yet whichever version you prefer ignore the other at your palate’s peril, there is simply too much pleasure to be had.
Ogier, Cote Rotie, Rhone, 2009, 13%
Wine-making: Up to 50% new French oak
Note: Restrained intensity with smoke, mineral, meat and dark fruit to the fore. Delicious, mouth-coating and fine, lovely to drink now but should continue to improve over the next 5 years.
Available from: New Century Wine (ncw.tw)
Glaetzer-Dixon, ‘Mon Pere’, 2013, 13.7%
Grape: Syrah (but they call it Shiraz on the label)
Wine-making: 18 months in 50% new French Oak
Note: Perfumed with sweet black cherry and damson (sour plum), alongside some well-judged oak that lends vanilla and spice. Bright, intense and concentrated.
Available from: La Route du Vin
Le Vieux Pin, Okanagan, Canada, 12.9%
Wine-making: 18 months in 36% new French oak
Note: Black cherry, smoke and very pure Syrah with bright acidity that gives this wine real elegance. The most Rhone-like of the New World wines.
Price: Not currently available in Taiwan but in Canada it costs approx. $65CAD
Available from: Wherever you can find it
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.
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.
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.
Available from: Oriental House
Mitolo, G.A.M, Shiraz, Mclaren Vale, 2010, 15%
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.
Available from: Wooloomooloo
If I could only drink the red wine from one region of France then it would have to be the Northern Rhone. This home of Syrah produces wines that, when at their best, provide both grace and grunt; the Muhammad Ali of wine.
Les Vins de Vienne is a partnership between three heavyweights of northern Rhone wine-making: Yves Cuilleron, Pierre Gaillard and Francois Villard. They continue to operate their own estates but these long time friends formed a partnership back in the mid 1990’s whose intention was to revive vineyards that had fallen into disrepair. Their main focus was the vineyard of Seyssuel, a steep imposing series of terraces that sits across the river from Condrieu. Abandoned since Phylloxera had decimated the area in the late 19th century, research suggested that historically the wines from this vineyard had been very good. The replanting of this area has been a success but this is only part of this triumvirate’s tale. They have an extensive range of wines produced from the fruit grown in the 20 hectares they own supplemented by grapes bought from other quality-minded growers. They also run a small negociant business (they buy wine and bottle it under their label) that enables them to include the likes of the southern Rhone stalwarts; Chateauneuf du Pape, Gigondas and Vacqueyras in their portfolio.
However, it is their extensive collection of Syrah’s from their base in the Northern Rhone that best possess the ability to strike an emotional chord. It is usual to find vibrancy and verve in all of their bottlings from Crozes Hermitage in the south through to Cote Rotie in the north. The majority are available at very reasonable cost, a boon in this age of inflated price-tags, and for those in search of benchmark examples of the various crus, Les Vins de Vienne is a very good place to start.
Below are four of their wines tasted on the 26th of November 2014 in Taipei.
Crozes Hermitage, Les Palignons, 2011, 13%
Grape: 100% Syrah
Wine-making: Partial de-stemming, 16 months in French oak
Note: Overtly fruity (very Syrah) with cocoa and mocha. Approachable with supple tannins and freshness provided by a supporting seam of acidity.
Available from: Titlist
Saint Joseph, L’Arzelle, 2011, 13%
Grape: 100% Syrah
Wine-making: Partial destemming, 16 months in French oak
Note: Deep purple, smoked meat, plenty of dark fruit (blackberry dominates) and some spicy oak. Great purity and intensity coupled with its inherent litheness and persistence makes this delicious drinking over the medium term.
Available from: Titlist
Heluicum, IGP des Collines Rhodaniennes, 2011, 12.5% (Seyssuel)
Grape: 100% Syrah
Wine-making: Partial destemming, 10 months in French oak
Note: Delicate medium purple of hue, smoky with a touch of cocoa. Lovely lift provided by the acidity, elegant, supple tannins, sweet but bright red fruit style, almost Pinot like. Delicious.
Available from: Titlist
Sotanum, IGP des Collines Rhodaniennes, 2009, 13% (Seyssuel)
Grape: 100% Syrah (old vine)
Wine-making: Partial destemming, 16 months in French oak (50% New)
Note: Again some smoke, mineral, black and red fruit, mouth-coating tannins, dense but needs more time before it reveals its best.
Score: 16.5/20 (now) but capable of 17.5-18(?) if given another 5 years.
Available from: Titlist
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.
Available from: Wisdom Flower Corporation (2-2239-2609)
The truth is that for years I appreciated Grenache more for what it could provide a blend rather than its abilities as a stand-alone variety. An excellent example of this is provided by one of my favourite Languedoc wines, the ‘entry-level’ Fitou Origines from Bertrand-Bergé. This is an equal blend of Carignan and Grenache and together they help make a very comely wine. Carignan, structured, a little rustic, providing good colour and plenty of acidity and tannin. Grenache, supple with red-berried fruitiness all flounce and charm to Carignan’s more grizzled attributes.
Yet recent experiences have demonstrated Grenache’s capabilities in a single varietal wine. This was revealed most shockingly on tasting Terroir al Limit’s Les Manyes 2011 in situ in Priorat in June 2013. On smelling this wine (100% Garnacha/Grenache) I felt my eyes become hot, I wanted to cry and I hadn’t even tasted it, what else is there to say? Since then I have been on a mission to find other examples which exude some of this grape’s potential for the ethereal and have mentioned in recent posts the excellence of wines from Alex Head and Turkey Flat in Barossa. Sarah Ahmed (thewinedetective.co.uk) has helped by suggesting other bottlings of fine Australian Grenache (http://t.co/akYvIKaq3E) and last night at my tasting group we tried five Grenache based wines three of which are listed below.
There is no doubt that Grenache will continue to be relied upon to do its fair share of donkey-work in the winery yet it has the ability in the right hands and on the right land to be a true thoroughbred.
Cantina Gallura, Templum, Cannonau di Sardegna, 2009, 13.5%
Grape: Cannonau a.k.a. Grenache
Wine-making: Old oak
Note: Grenache does have a tendency to oxidise and appear old beyond its years. This wine is a case in point, garnet in colour with the fruit fading rather quickly on the palate leaving nothing much but the bare structural bones of acid and tannin. Not an argument for Grenache being a ‘Prize Stud’
Available from: Ascent Way
Chapel Hill, Bush Vine Grenache, McLaren Vale, 2010, 15%
Wine-making: Mix of oak hogsheads 1-5 yrs old
Note: Raspberry and tar scented, generous of body but with slightly drying tannins on the finish. I like Chapel Hill and Mclaren Vale is the source of some excellent, juicy examples of this Spanish variety.
Available from: Jason’s Foodstores
Domaine La Roquète, Châteauneuf du Pape, 2010, 14.5%
Grape: 70% Grenache, 20% Syrah, 10% Mourvedre
Wine-making: Maturation in old wood
Note: One of the best wines of the evening. Floral, liquorice and smelling of summer pudding. At first the alcohol felt a little unbalanced but as the wine unfurled (after approximately half an hour) it became more harmonious. Persistent and rather fine.
Available from: Chateau Wine & Spirit
Having covered the opening of Vinoza last week, with its aim to provide affordable wines to Taiwan, (http://sniff.com.tw/?p=266) I wanted to continue the theme of ‘making wine easy’ by reviewing Direct Wines, another relative newcomer to these shores. Established in the UK more than 40 years ago, the decision by Direct Wines to open here in January, demonstrated that they believe, like Vinoza, that there is money to be made in the mid-market.
Direct Wines have always traded on the idea of trust first espoused by owner Tony Laithwaite ‘trust us to bring you the best wines we can find…trust us that you will enjoy them.’ This is a powerful message and one reinforced by their guarantee of replacing any wines that the customer doesn’t enjoy. On tasting a selection at their offices in Neihu, it was instantly apparent why they have been so successful in selling wine both in the UK, Australia and now Asia. The secret is in the easiness of the wine’s style. Whatever I tasted, at whatever price-point, I couldn’t help but feel satisfied with what was in my glass. Was I moved, shocked or awed by any of the wines? No, but to expect that would be to misunderstand the point of what Direct Wines is offering. Their aim is to provide good quality examples from the wine regions that they represent, affording the wine-consuming majority the opportunity to drink or taste wine daily. This is a more European approach to wine, where wine, traditionally, is treated more like food. For wine culture to become more embedded here in Taiwan the current view has to change. Wine should not be about aspiration or status it should be about the provision of (almost) daily pleasure.
Below are some affordable wines from this recent tasting. To order them (in Taiwan) call Direct Wines at 02 7701 0188
Chateau Toutigeac, Bordeaux A.O.C., 2009,13%
Grape: Cabernet Franc 60%
Wine-making: Neutral, no obvious oak influence
Note: Chateaux in the Entre-deux-Mers region of Bordeaux are better known for producing white wines rather than reds but this Cabernet Franc dominated red has the benefit of a rich, ripe vintage. Simple but with pleasing black cherry fruit and supple tannins that makes it easy to appreciate even if kept chilled in the fridge.
Torrevento ‘Vigna Pedale’ Nero di Troia Riserva, Castel del Monte D.O.C, 2008, 13%
Grape: Nero di Troia
Wine-making: 12 months in oak
Note: I’ve always had a soft spot for this variety which resides in Puglia, southern Italy. This has a little savouriness accompanying the ripe fruit that adds just enough complexity to make this wine genuinely interesting. My favourite red wine here.
Le Prince de Courthezon, Cotes-du-Rhone 2012, 14.5%
Grape: 80% Grenache, 10% each of Syrah and Mourvedre
Wine-making: Old oak and steel, no new oak influence
Note: Another easy to appreciate wine this time made with Grenache. Tasting of strawberry and pomelo pith (I know a bit strange but it works) this has high alcohol but it never gets in the way. Just don’t serve it too warm.
Sendero des Santos, Albarino, Rias Baixas D.O., 2011, 13%
Wine-making: Stainless Steel to preserve purity of fruit
Note: White wines are still second choice to many in Taiwan but this pineapple and apricot scented Galician is perfect for the steamy weather we are experiencing this September.