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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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No Beefsteak but some Burgundy

Having being recently invited to lunch at Le Cocotte, a restaurant of some standing here in Taipei, I was looking forward to the food almost as much as the wine. The occasion, a gathering of the ‘Beefsteak and Burgundy [dining] Club’ meets monthly and is populated by a diverse membership whose specialisms range from robotics to removals.

On arrival I was handed a glass of ‘Champagne’ and having tasted it I looked behind the bar for the bottle. I should have expected as much but the sight of the four wines we were to be served over lunch, sitting swaddled in tin-foil, produced the very slightest of palpitations deep in my innards. I knew that it would not be long before I was asked ‘what I did for a living’ and the realisation that a wine ‘expert’ was in their midst would make the blind tasting an altogether more interesting prospect…for some.

As we took our seats, paid homage to the Queen and our respective leaders of State, all I could think about was the origin of the inch of effervescence that sat whispering from the flute before me. ‘Touch of yeastiness, chalky texture, citrus and apple fruit…ok, its traditional method, old world, more than likely French but definitely not Champagne, acidity is too low…so Cremant but which, de Loire or de Bourgogne…?’, oh the joys of drinking in public. I’ll be honest, I went for the Loire, seduced by the apple and minerally mouth-feel, ignored the bright but not whistle clean acidity and of course if you close your eyes to the obvious you end up looking foolish; it was from Burgundy.

The wines that followed were more straightforward. Firstly an excellent, aromatic and pointed dry Muscat from the Minervois, then a dough and bruised apple scented Savagnin from the Cotes du Jura, before a final sweet wine from Ste-Croix-du-Mont. This appellation being on more elevated terrain, peers down through the botrytis inducing mist onto the vineyards of Sauternes that squat on the opposite shore of the Garonne.

I do not know if I will be invited back, but tasting (even when blind), drinking and eating in good company, especially when accompanied by some less than usual wines is a rare pleasure. Below are reviews of the four tasted:

Maison Vitteau Alberti, ‘Cuvee Agnes’, Cremant de Bourgogne NV
Grape: Chardonnay
Wine-making: Traditional method
Note: As mentioned above, this has a lovely chalky texture and fine fruit. The acidity is crisp and less taut than Champagne but this makes it easier to appreciate. Good value.
Price: 1,480NT
Score: 15.5/20
Available from: Le Cellier des Poetes,

Clos du Gravillas, ‘On the Rocks’ Muscat Sec, 2013
Grape: Muscat blanc a petit grains
Wine-making: Stainless steel
Note: This is excellent Muscat with the sweet aromas of grapes and white flowers whilst being deliciously dry, bright and minerally. Excellent value
Price: 1,080NT
Score: 16.5/20
Available from: Le Cellier des Poetes, 

Domaine Berthet-Bondet, Cotes du Jura, 2009
Grape: Savagnin
Wine-making: Kept in old oak barrels for three years without topping up and with a veil of flor adding aromatic complexity.
Note: Not the most popular wine of the day but these strongly savoury and bone dry wines require a certain amount of practise to appreciate. If you like Fino Sherry or Amontillado you will like this.
Price: 1,680NT
Score: 16/20
Available from: Le Cellier des Poetes, 

Chateau La Rame, ‘Traditionnel’ Ste-Croix-du-Mont, 2012
Grape: 100% Semillion
Wine-making: This is botrytised sweet wine matured in tank for two years.
Note: Sweet but with good freshness this young, honeyed apricot and lemon scented wine has less obvious fat than a Sauternes but most would never notice the difference. The price for a full 750ml bottle is a bargain.
Price: 1,580NT
Score: 15.5/20
Available from: Le Cellier des Poetes,

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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.
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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