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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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Carignan: A little bit Savage

As an ex-importer that specialised in wines from the south of France I was particularly pleased to see the hugely knowledgeable, tasting guru that is the humble Matthew Stubbs MW here in Taiwan. Matthew, an eleven-year resident of the Languedoc is keenly aware of the need to promote the best from this large and somewhat dis-jointed region and is often to be found trotting round the globe proselytising about the wines of the sud-de-France.

Visiting the Hong Kong wine-fair this week it was a pleasure to become re-acquainted with one of the stalwarts of this region Carignan. For a long time this was prized by many producers for its ability to produce grapes (and therefore wine) on an industrial scale. In the era when a Frenchman used to have a glass of wine with his cornflakes this was fine. Wine was more about providing a certain level of alcoholic sustenance, than a delicious experience. As wine consumption has fallen in France so has the market for this basic ‘plonk’ resulting in Carignan being deemed (by many) to be surplus to requirements. This was due to the belief that the production of anything above that of the prosaic was beyond Carignan’s abilities. Now, as with so many things that fall out of favour, Carignan is experiencing something of a renaissance. This is not to suggest that it is fashionable or being replanted in earnest but many have realised that older vines (that naturally help limit production) coupled with cooler sites, often at higher elevations, can result in something rather special.

If Pinot Noir was a face it would be all high cheek-bones, translucent skin and clean-shaven. Carignan on the other hand is a little pock-marked, stubbly and wild-eyed. Give the two wines below a taste and I challenge you not to be impressed by their grizzled character.

Dits Del Terra, Terroir Al Limit, 2010, 13.5%, Biodynamic.
Grape:
Old Carinena (Spanish for Carignan)
Wine-making: 24 months in old oak
Note: Mid purple, relatively restrained nose of bread, faded flowers, spiced plum and Chinese medicine. Stony textured and firm tannins support an elegant yet wild wine (a vinous version of Cathy in Wuthering Heights). Carinena at its windswept best.
Price: Expensive. Don’t worry, it’s worth it.
Score: 17.5/20
Available from: Prowine in Hong Kong

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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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Priorat's Little Brother

Date: Monday 18th of August
Address: Szity Wine Cellar, 312 Jinzhou St, Zhongshan District, Taipei
Tasting Subject: Monsant D.O, Catalunya, North East Spain

This concentrated crop, coupled with the cherry/berry flavours and faded flowers aroma of the dominant varieties, Garnacha (Grenache) and its downy-leaved sibling Garnacha Peluda, can create wines with an intoxicating perfume. A supporting cast of Carinena (Carignan) and Cabernet Sauvignon provide some muscle and grip to Garnacha’s more ethereal qualities.

It is worth mentioning the possible role that Garnacha Peluda plays in some of these wines. Garnacha by nature is rich in sugar, relatively thin skinned and if cropped with more than moderate yields produces two-dimensional wines that are all fruit and alcohol but with no guts or soul to speak of. Chateauneuf du Pape aside, some of my favourite Garnacha/Grenache has often featured high levels of the hairy leaved variant (Peluda). Domaine la Colombette, close to Beziers in Southern France produce a fine varietal version and my favourite Priorat wine, Terroir al Limit’s Manyes, includes a portion of Peluda in the blend. Why might this be a positive addition to the blend? Because it is smaller berried and thicker skinned and therefore provides some grip and acidity that helps balance and freshen the wines.

The wines tasted are listed below with brief notes, scores and the price from the excellent Szity Wine Cellar. Six of the seven wines tasted were from the Co-operative ‘Celler des Capçanes’

Vinyes D’En Gabriel, ‘L’Heravi’ 2013, 14% Monsant D.O
Grape:
60% Garnacha, 20% Carinena, 20% Syrah
Wine – making: 100% Stainless steel
Note: Red berry fruit, bright, simple but pleasurable. Soft tannins will suit beef noodle soup and dishes with some chili heat. Good value.
Price: NTD 650
Score: 14/20.

All the wines that follow are Celler de Capçanes, Monsant D.O:

Mas Picosa de Flor en Flor 2012, Monsant, 14%, organic
Grape:
80% Garnacha, 15% Syrah, 5% Merlot
Wine-making: 100% Stainless steel but 5 months on lees
Note: Again simple but with more weight than L’ Heravi. Both red and black fruit, some grippy tannins, and a touch of spice . Alcoholic but the weight of the wine carries it.
Price: NTD 890
Score: 14.5/20

Mas Doñis Barrica 2012, Monsant 14%
Grape:
85% Garnacha (of which two thirds is ‘regular’ and a third is Garnacha Peluda) 15% Syrah
Wine-making: 9 months in French oak.
Note: Some dried fruit, kirsch and wild berry. Also some herbal character, like the smell of a Chinese medicine shop. Grip from the ripe tannins but not palate fatiguing. Supported well by moderate acid and the alcohol does not impinge on the pleasure.
Price: NTD 1050
Score: 15/20

Mas Collet Barrica 2011, Monsant 14%
Grape:
30% Garnacha, 30% Carinena, 20% Tempranillo, 20%Cabernet Sauvignon.
Wine-making: Nine months in oak.
Note: Slightly smoky, earthy nose almost machine oil like. Ripe and expressive with less obvious grip than it’s sister before it (the Mas Donis). Well balanced, touch of spice from the judicious use of oak. Tasty. More masculine/gutsy than the Mas Donis.
Price: NTD 1050
Score: 15/20

Cabrida 2010, Monsant, 14.5%
Grape:
100% Garnacha (70% ‘regular’ 30% Peluda).
Wine-making: 13 months in new and one year old oak. Old vine.
Note: Elegant nose of cherries and red berries with dried flowers and a spiced butter character derived from some new French oak. Relatively firm tannic structure for Garnacha but this is a function of these old vines, all of which are more than 80 years old. Alcohol is evident but not distracting and their is a freshess with a touch of minerality that adds interest. Very good.
Price: NTD 2800
Score: 16.5/20

Peraj Ha’abib 2012, (Kosher wine) Monsant, 14.5%
Grape:
40% Garnacha, 40% Cabernet, 20% Carinena.
Wine-making: 14 months in new and one year old French oak. Old vine.
Note: Floral character, faded flowers, dried rose. Cherry, berry and mineral. Dry with still some unresolved tannins that point to further development to come. Fine seam of supporting acidity. Well integrated oak that lends weight and spice. Very good, elegant, fresh and pure.
Price: NTD 2200
Score: 16.5/20

Costers del Gravet 2010, Monsant, 14%
Grape:
50% Cabernet, 30% Garnacha, 20% Carinena.
Wine-making: 14 months in new to two year old French oak.
Note: A Touch balsamic, powerful, concentrated and persistent with a savoury and sweet but dark fruit character coupled with a spiced butter finish. Ripe and still chunky tannins (Cabernet) Very good.
Price: NTD 1400
Score: 17/20

D2 Priorat's little brother bottles NL-01