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July 17 2013 4 17 /07 /July /2013 18:07

This article will - I hope - be the first of several I intend to post, regarding my recent travels in Southern France.
In fact I could have just titled this piece "Focus on Mas d'Alezon", because they were the one producer I recently visited in June in the Faugères region of Languedoc. I made this trip a top priority this year, as I wasn't able to include Faugères in last year's travels. As many of you may know, although the AOP of nearby Pic St Loup has garnered much of the publicity for "King of the Languedoc" over the past 15-20 years, Faugères, and its schistous soils have recently begun to steal the spotlight. This of course can be credited in large part to vignerons like Didier Barral, who have set the standard for intense and authentic reds in Faugères (and beyond). Happily though, with a recommendation from friend and fellow oenophile, Isabelle Courbet, I was able to sample the wines of another icon of the region, Catherine Roque of Mas d'Alezon.

For a little background: Catherine actually got her start in 1989 with the planting of cooler-climate (i.e. atypical Languedoc) varietals - viognier & pinot noir - at a higher elevation site near Bédarieux. Thus Domaine Clovallon was established there, and later in 1997 she rehabilitated an old plot of vines in the upper reaches of Faugères, ideally suited to the domaine's principal varieties: syrah, grenache and mourvedre.




Schistous soil in a Faugères vineyard



A refreshing aspect of my recent June visit with Mme. Roque, was her ongoing enthusiasm for the opinion of the 'dégustateurs' of her wine - this, considering she has already, in a short span of time, established an excellent reputation among serious wine consumers. I can personally identify with this curiosity, as I myself, during my years as a winemaker, had a fear of "tunnel vision" from tasting my own product over and over - i.e. having an objective taster, who has no familiarity with the wine, sample one's wines, can add a new perspective, while providing valuable feedback. Although I did taste the interesting and impressive cool-climate wines from Catherine's Domaine Clovallon, that can be a story for a later post.




Mme. Catherine Roque (with her Cabretta blanc)



I started with a solid 2011 white, "Cabretta", produced from clairette, grenache blanc & roussane grapes. I should preface these notes by mentioning that I am gradually being converted to (or seduced by?) the return to more traditional styled Languedoc whites, which tend to contain less SO2 and are often neutral barrel fermented (along with some stainless), and with less cold-fermentation temperatures. The Cabretta showed pretty melon tones in the aroma leading into a round texture and ripe fruit on the palate, with surprising acidity. A light touch of oxydation added some nutty character which balanced nicely with the ripe pear fruit. Next came Catherine's main red Faugères cuvée, "2011 Le Presbytère" (homage to the building where the winery is housed) - crafted from grenache, syrah, carignan (pre-phylloxera!) and mourvedre with no added sulfites. In my past experience with reds from Faugères, I feel safe in saying this wine was very typical and authentic in its dark, spicy, peppery, blackberry-like fruit. The slight reduction in the nose only added to its complexity. Very intense and concentrated without being fat, thanks to the fruit acid and firm structure. Not unlike the wines of Leon Barral.





Thankfully, the movement towards truly authentic, unmanipulated wines has really taken root in Languedoc-Roussillon (as elsewhere in France), and these wines are exemplary. In the end, this can only serve to better exhibit the inherent differences among the various sub-appellations here, making it easier for the consumer to actually draw distinctions in their varied wine styles. The Mas d'Alezon wines are distributed in certain states here in the U.S. but likely not very widely due to their small production. For more info on availability you can check out their U.S. importer's website: www.winetraditions.com.


À Votre Santé,








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May 20 2013 2 20 /05 /May /2013 15:29

Let's return for a brief visit to the "Pays Catalanes" of Roussillon.

With friends and co-imbibers Randy & Lisa Harnisch, my wife, Mary, & I tasted three lovely reds from the Roussillon last month. I should warn you that this region will be reappearing in my blog posts frequently in the future, as it is a dynamic area of France in terms of "quality evolution" as well as inspired new vignerons seeking to produce authentic wines.

This was demonstrably apparent in our tasting, as the three red wines sampled were all stylistically unique, while at the same time of a comparably high quality level. Two of the estates, Domaine Vaquer & Domaine de Nidolères, are actually located in the same village (and the proprietors are good friends, as I've heard) - the village being Tresserre, in the Tech valley of South central Roussillon. The third, Domaine des Schistes, is located in the Côtes du Roussillon Villages section of the appellation further to the north and west.




Soil Map of Roussillon copy




For a little background, although the two subregions share the same warm, dry Mediterranean climate of Roussillon, they do exhibit differing geological traits which give their wines distinctive characteristics. As mentioned in an earlier post, the Roussillon region is roughly divided into three distinct "terroirs" by its three small rivers: L'Agly (North), La Têt, (central) and Le Tech (South) - all of which flow from the mountains, eastward into the Mediterranean. One of the wines tasted, from Domaine des Schistes, of course makes no secrets as to the soil type of its estate vineyards - being located in the "Vallée de L'Agly" where dark schistous marl soils reign supreme. The other two domaines' vineyards are situated in "Les Aspres" (foothills of the Pyrenees) where the most common soil type is a clay/silt mixture.


The Wines:


2011 Domaine Vaquer "Cuvée Bernard Vaquer" $13, This is actually a "vin de pays des Côtes Catalanes", presumably because the vines are at least in part located outside the AOC Roussillon boundaries, as its grape varietal blend does meet the Roussillon requirements (in this case, ca. 1/3 each of syrah, carignan and grenache). Vaquer ferments in traditional enamel-lined cement fermenting tanks, and totally de-stems prior to fermentation - during which they forgo the traditional "pigeage" (punching down of the skin cap by foot or plunger) in favor of a gentler pumping over of the must. In this way, harsher tannin extraction is avoided, creating a suppler wine..... and this was evident in the result; although somewhat leaner than the following two wines, the Cuvée Bernard was quite elegant (a word not often associated with the region's wines) and with well-focused fruit. The wine showed a clean Bing cherry fruit character with hints of rhubarb, and a light smokiness.


2010 Domaine des Schiste "Les Bruyères" $13 (Côtes du Rousillon Villages), A somewhat more typical Roussillon red, with a hint of "barn yard" in the nose - but predominantly dark fruit aromas. On the palate the wine is rich and earthy with typical notes of dried herbs - and even what I'd describe as a hint of mushroom compost - of course, all in the background of dark, "cassis-fruited" primary flavors. A bold sturdy, yet velvety textured wine to match with hearty beef/lamb stews or any grilled meats. The varietal blend here is 30% syrah, 30% lladoner pelut and 40% carignan.


2010 Domaine de Nidolères "La Raphaelle" $21 (Côtes du Roussillon), This was the stand-out wine for me (and the price actually reflected the quality difference!). With an almost opaque color, this robust yet balanced wine exudes a complex mixture of cologne, dust, leather and spicy peppercorn. Definitely more in a traditional rustic style, this blend of predominantly mourvedre, with smaller quantities of carignan and grenache, has great structure and tannin, providing excellent potential for long-term aging. The estate also makes a majority carignan wine (not available locally) which I will definitely seek out on my next trip to the region!







All of these lovely wines are available in select stores in Portland & the Willamette Valley - courtesy of Portland-based Phil Smith at P-S Imports, who specializes in the wines of Spain and Southern France (esp. Roussillon).


Happy Tasting - Russ

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March 14 2013 5 14 /03 /March /2013 17:23

When I saw this piece by Hervé Lalau, wine blogger on the site "Les 5 du Vin", and colleague of my friend Michel Smith, I just had to translate and post it here. Besides, the restaurant he reviews is one with which I'm quite familiar. This has long been one of my pet-peeve wine issues, and I felt that Hervé cited an excellent example of how restaurants can lower their wine prices and remain very profitable. Thank you M. Lalau for graciously granting permission for me to republish this on my blogsite.

It is interesting also to note that this is not just an American topic of contention among wine consumers. Nudging restaurants to implement a more customer-friendly wine pricing strategy can be an uphill battle in most any wine-consuming country, especially since wine has been traditionally viewed by so many restaurateurs as a "money-maker". Perhaps it's an oversimplification of the problem, but I still believe in most cases, that by lowering their wine margins, a restaurant would make up for lost profit per bottle by the resulting increase in their sales volume. Granted, this may be more challenging for a small bistro than a larger restaurant, but it still should be doable for them even if not so substantial a price reduction as that indicated below. I should also note that Les Grands Buffets is not necessarily your average wine-oriented restaurant, as it is quite large, and attracts many out-of-town visitors who are there to taste the local wines. So here's his article:

As the title states above: “Yes, we can do better”, much better than taking 300 to 700% margins on wine for compensation.

-Firstly, one needs to offer dishes at a price that assures profitability for the restaurant (it is after all for eating well that one dines out)

-Secondly, with exhorbitant mark-ups on wine, a good number of customers won’t drink much wine, or at best will only order the cheapest bottle on the list. And if marked too high, they may sometimes prefer to drink water.

Overhead, inventory expense and taxes are easy scapegoats, but a wine inventory that “turns over” better (i.e. more quickly) will of course be more profitable.

buffet-des-desserts-02 reduced 108


And I can prove this point with “Les Grands Buffets” restaurant in Narbonne.

The location of the place is somewhat improbable, next to the municiple swimming pool, in a commercial zone at the entrance to the city - plus the exterior is not much to look at; but in terms of the quality of the products, selection, hospitality, decor and service (notably even with a special area for children)..... the presentation is very meticulous. And the restaurant can handle up to 1200 diners per day, with its outdoor terrace seating included.

However it’s not about all this that I’m here to talk to you, rather about their wine policy: the restaurant, whose cellar specializes in the wines of Languedoc and Roussillon, sells you wine (100 selections) at the winery’s retail price.



La vinothèque des Grands Buffets reduced 526



Better yet, customers who order a carton of 6 bottles of any one wine that they’ve drunk at table, find themselves being offered that bottle gratis! And there is always a sommelier there for advice - who also tends the wine bar in the basement (an old bowling alley where one can find without a doubt among the best ‘pins’ in France).

But how is this possible? What’s their secret? What more are they doing than other restaurateurs?           

Curiously, when Monsieur Privat, the owner, explains his formula to his colleagues, he hardly convinces them. Is it that they have a different concept of book-keeping? His figures are telling nevertheless: On the day when he began to apply the winery retail price to his wines, his wine turnover increased by 50%! And since then, the price per bottle of wines ordered has increased continually.

I was able to confirm with my own eyes that at all the tables surrounding mine, the diners were consuming one or two bottles per table - something becoming rather less frequent in the France of today. The crisis that one so readily invokes to explain price-cutting of wines in the restaurant, would it have spared Les Grands Buffets? No, it’s just that the “Narbonnais” diners know how to count.

The worst though, is that certain vintners refuse to even deliver to Les Grands Buffets, for the reason that their wine would appear too cheap on the wine list, which would (supposedly) alienate other restaurants in the area.

Let them do it their way, I'll just drink other producers' wines, and when I pass through Narbonne again with the family, I know where I’ll be eating..... 


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January 14 2013 2 14 /01 /January /2013 19:49

My first true "carignan epiphany" occurred in July of 2000 while visiting the highly regarded little domain of Jérôme Bressy, Domaine Gourt de Mautens, in the southern Rhone village of Rasteau. While tasting in his cellar, Jérôme drew an intensely dark red from one of the barrels for me to sample. I was taken aback by the incredible richness, structure and depth of fruit, as well as the rustic yet subtle style of the wine. When he told me that I was drinking carignan from the estate's oldest vines, I was shocked, realizing that this wine was easily capable of being bottled without blending - a truly stellar stand-alone. Another 11 years passed before I would come to realize the great potential of pure & majority carignan cuvees - this thanks to my numerous escapades in Languedoc-Roussillon with friend and connoisseur extraordinaire, Michel Smith (aka "Monsieur Carignan") beginning in 2011. So I felt that it was high time I write a little article on this misunderstood, and often maligned grape variety.


Michel Smith, Holding Forth at an All Carignan Tasting, Vinisud 2012 Montpellier


Carignan has been around for centuries, yet only in recent times has it slowly begun to garner serious accolades for its undeniably unique and authentic wines. These wines of course are not noteworthy simply by virtue of being produced from carignan - i.e. carignan is not considered by many wine authorities or ampelographers as a noble grape - but rather due to a meticulous effort by growers to limit its crop, and source the fruit from older vines in the best possible vineyard sites. Carignan's misunderstood status stems largely from the nasty reputation it attained as the staple variety for the mediocre plonk emanating from the Languedoc region in the 19th up to the end of the 20th century. Because the region was more or less designated by the French market as France's cheap wine source, the growers & producers there seemed to oblige by keeping their carignan crop levels astronomically high (up to 10 tons/acre!) - the thinking of that era: with cheap wine, more is better.



The Old Rugby star, Pierre Cros, in his "new" element


A little background: the carignan grape is said to have originated in the village of its Spanish namesake, Cariñena, in the Aragon region of Spain. Interestingly though, it has virtually disappeared from Spanish vineyards today. Having made its way into the neighboring Catalan and Languedoc regions of France by the 12th century, it seemed to find conditions to its liking throughout the Mediterranean area of France. It currently accounts for around 100,000 ha (247,000 acres) of vines (almost exclusively in Languedoc-Roussillon and Southern Rhone Valley) vying with merlot as the most widely planted variety in France. As a late-ripening variety, this vine is ideally suited to the warmest sub-regions of the L-R, and makes its most exemplary wines when planted on dry shallow & rocky soils. It is also tends to grow very upright, making it resilient in the face of the oft intense Tramontane winds out of the Pyrenees, even when planted without trellising.



A Noble Offering from M. Sylvain Fadat


It wasn't until the 1990's that vignerons began to realize the high-quality potential of the variety, primarily as a result of severely diminishing the crop level per vine and focusing on the use of predominantly older vines for their cuvees. Unfortunately for carignan growers & enthusiasts, most all of the appellations in Languedoc-Roussillon wrote their rules for allowed percentages of approved varieties in red blends at a time when carignan was in disfavor. Thus all these appellations have limits (50% or less) on the proportion of carignan that can be used in blends, using the appellation designation. Only Roussillon allows more in their blends, i.e. 60%. Exceeding these proportions requires the wine to be declassified to "Vin de Pays", or "country wine" status. On the other hand, enough of a following has developed recently among consumers for well-made carignan, that this declassification doesn't necessarily mean the producer has to lower the bottle price accordingly, and some producers, esp. in Roussillon, even market their pure carignan bottlings as their top-of-the-line cuvees.





Due to carignan's tendency to produce wines with quite high acidity and tannin levels, vintners have found that vinifying the grape using the carbonic maceration method (natural fermentation of whole clusters without crushing) yields a more harmonious wine with softer tannins. Alternatively, carignan is fermented conventionally with crushing and total de-stemming, to avoid the sometimes excessive herbaceous character of carignan's stems. The resulting style, when working with high-quality (old vine, small crop level) fruit, is one of intense rustic flavors & aromas: dust, leather, and ripe resiny notes of dried wild herbs - together in a frame of intensely dark ripe fruit, simultaneously velvety and firmly structured.


Here are some of my favorite examples from various appellations in Southern France (all of which are typical in varietal character, but with different nuances which bespeak their particular terroir): 


Domaine Pierre Cros "Vieilles Vignes"(Minervois)

Domaine d'Aupilhac (Mont Baudile)

Domaine Padié "Calice" (Roussillon)

Domaine Ledogar "La Mariole" (Corbières-Boutenac)

Domaine Clavel "Le Berger" (St. Gervais, Rhone)

Plô Roucarels (Cité de Carcassonne)


Unfortunately, there isn't a wide selection of all-carignan wines in the U.S. market presently. However, when searching for good examples here, one should focus on the Rhone or Languedoc-Roussillon section of your favorite wine merchant, and if the varietal blend isn't mentioned on the back label you can usually find this information on the producer's website. Alternatively, you may find some good examples with on-line wine retailers if your state allows wine mail-order. 


Happy Hunting!


Russ Raney

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October 31 2012 4 31 /10 /October /2012 22:38

The second day of my August Roussillon tour was spent in the charming village of Banyuls-sur-Mer, a sort of partner village with nearby (and equally charming) Collioure & Port Vendres, and just minutes from the Spanish border. To describe the vineyards in these communes as dramatic, would be an understatement, with the often incredibly steep slopes covered with terraced vineyards tumbling down to the sea. It's clear that machine harvesting is not an option here! Our time was spent mostly at Domaine La Rectorie, directly in the village - this, for a good reason - not only are they considered to be perhaps Banyuls premier estate, but with all the various cuvees they produce, one can easily spend 3-4 hours tasting and chatting. On the day of our appointment, we were greeted by the amiable and slightly eccentric co-owner (not to mention accomplished photographer) Pierre Parcé. Pierre and family live in a rambling old manor house - with enough space that I could actually envision a 'winery museum' being housed there. Mid-way through the tasting we were joined by Pierre's brother and co-owner, Marc. In fact, the Parcé family is so extensive and deeply rooted in Banyuls that before we even began to taste, Pierre pulled out a family tree chart (in progress), as if to seek our input on how to manage the sharing of the estate among the descendants!


  banyuls-sur-mer 2

Pyrénées-Orientales (with Banyuls encircled)



A little primer before delving into the tastings: Banyuls & neighboring Collioure actually share a wine-growing appellation - any dry table wines (i.e. non-fortified, non-dessert wines) produced within the shared region are automatically designated as AOP Collioure, while those produced as sweet fortified "vins doux naturels" wines are labeled AOP Banyuls. Red grape varieties for the production of Collioure are naturally akin to those of neighboring Roussillon, i.e. grenache, carignan, syrah, mourvedre. The small amount of white Collioure produced relies mainly on grenache blanc, grenache gris & macabeu. For Banyuls, the dominant red varieties are grenache and carignan, while their less well-known whites are produced from mainly grenache blanc & grenache gris. Banyuls' "vin doux naturels" are made using the "mutage' method (not unlike port) in which a 95% alc. grape brandy is added before the fermentation is complete, creating a high residual sugar level. This brandy addition is, however, smaller than one would find in the port process, generally yielding a wine of around 16%+ alcohol versus 20% in port. Wines made from fruit just outside the appellation boundaries, or from non-permitted varietals, are designated "Cote Vermeille".




Michel Smith, entrance to Domaine La Rectorie





Pierre Parcé, Domaine La Rectorie



Pierre started us off with two impressive dry whites, the first, from a newish domaine owned by the nephew of Pierre, Joseph Parcé: La Préceptorie in St. Arnac, Roussillon, was the barrel fermented 2011 "Coume Marie" a lovely blend of grenache gris and macabeu. This wine shared its deep mineral & earthy notes with the white wines of Calce, covered in my last post - as well as an equally clean and crisp character. The second, 2011 Collioure "L'Argile" (indicating the calcerous/clay soil type of the vineyard) is produced from 90% grenache gris & 10% grenache blanc. This was very similar to the above, but rounder in texture, a bit more complex ,and with a distinct caramel note from some new oak in the barrel aging.






From here we launched into several bottlings of La Rectorie's Collioure, mostly from the much heralded 2011 vintage, but some older vintages as well. To keep things succinct I'll just say that my favorite among these was the 2011 Collioure "Coté Mer", produced from old vine grenache (50%) with syrah and a small portion of carignan. Although only in the bottle for a bit over one month, this rich-textured cuvee was already showing beautiful spice, leather and dusty garrigue notes on the palate with a long spicy finish. Also very impressive, was the "red edition" of the 2010 Cotes du Roussillon Villages "Coume Marie" from La Preceptorie: dark and intense fruit with an alluring spicy cured meat character.







As well, a plethora of lovely Banyuls bottles was sampled, compounding the task of choosing a favorite. I was most impressed with the grenache-based 2010 Cuvée Leon Parcé (one year barrel age), which was very complex exhibiting notes of roasted nuts, caramel and spice, and a long sweet & viscous finish. Very intriguing though, was a Banyuls made in the "Rancio" style (literally 'rancid' in Spanish), the "Cuvée de Pedro Soler", which is allowed some oxydation, yielding a dry amontillado sherry styled wine - with eqally intense nutty character but perhaps a bit richer. On a side note: Pedro Soler is a local Flamenco guitarist and friend of the Parcé family (and a damned good one, based on the CD I was given!).




Lunch at Café El Xadic del Mar with Jean & Cathy



Following a light lunch at Banyuls most authentic (and all organic!) café, El Xadic del Mar, we made our way into the surrounding hills for a visit to Clos Castell. In stark contrast to La Rectorie, this is a very small family operation, nestled in the vineyard-covered hills above the village. It's owned by the amiable young Jean-Christophe Jose. Although the family's vineyards have a sufficiently old average vine age, one can quickly sense that they are just beginning to hit their stride in making and marketing their own product. All the wines tasted here (Collioure & Cote Vermeille) were well-made, if a bit on the extracted side, but it was refreshing to experience a vigneron who was so receptive to hearing our assessment of his wines. I couldn't help but feel that Jean-Chrostophe has a bright future ahead. He likely wouldn't have wanted to hear this: but my favorite red of his was a humble but incredibly authentic 2011 old vine carignan, Cote Catalan IGP. This wine touted the essence of rustic carignan, with intense ripe varietal character, leather & dust, with a lovely touch of cologne - a wine which could definitely benefit from some bottle age.




Jean-Christophe Jose below his vineyard at Clos Castell



After such a long day of concentrated, high-alcohol and (often) tannic wines, we were pleasantly surprised by a kind invitation from Michel Smith's friends (and former co-workers at Banyuls' co-op winery, Cellier des Templiers) Jean Mucciolo and his wife, Cathy Rousseil, for a casual supper at their Banyuls condo. It seems Jean had a friend who had brought in a good haul of rougeot barbet and merlan (whiting) after a day of fishing in the Mediterranean - so we were at the right place at the right time. A light hoppy lager followed by some crisp chilled white wine and fried fish sounded very enticing on this toasty August eve - and the wine picked to accompany our fish feast was a perfect match (even if it wasn't from the surrounding region) i.e. a light & lively 2010 chenin/chardonnay blend from Domaine St Nicolas in Brem-sur-Mer (Loire-Atlantique). Although maybe not soon enough, sleep came very easy after our arrival back in Perpignan.




Rouget Barbet and Merlan: No utensils required here!



Note: Readers probably noticed that I've recently been omitting my wine review section of the blog. I don't intend to completely discontinue it, but have decided that it only makes sense to do thorough reviews of wines tasted when the wines are available in the American market (either in stores or on-line).

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September 21 2012 6 21 /09 /September /2012 16:52

Under normal circumstances, it would be hard to justify to my wife, a second trip back to France within 2 months. This time though, I had a worthy cause, i.e. completing the move from our town house in Marcorignan, to an apartment in Narbonne's city center. Of course I couldn't imagine a trip that's all work and no play, so I carved out some time to reconnect with friend and vinous confidant, Michel Smith, for a 2-day jaunt in his native Roussillon. Visiting wine estates & vineyards in Languedoc-Roussillon is always both entertaining & educational with Michel, as he is so well-acquainted with the local vignerons throughout both regions. This time around we focused on the villages of Calce & Banyuls (which I'll cover in my next post). Calce is nestled in a fold in the low calcareous hills (hence the name) northwest of Perpignan. The vineyard soils here are on the arid and shallow side, ideally suited to grenache and carignan. The village has already garnered numerous accolades in recent years, due to the presence of the renowned Domaine Gauby - which is most certainly no longer alone. The additional five estates which have located here in recent years (largely as a result of Gauby's success) are producing very impressive and authentic wines as well, mainly organic/natural, the reds frequently having a hefty dose of Rousillon's beloved carignan.

Our timing was slightly awkward due to the start of the harvest - for white grape varieties at least - though the producers we visited were very accommodating, and we were able to taste & chat between their winery duties. It was a typically hot late August day, and the picking, which had begun early in the morning was nearing an end when we arrived late morning - so as to avoid the grapes being excessively warm at crush.

First stop, Domaine Padié, just off the town square. Youthful owner-winemaker, Jean-Phillippe Padié, received us, along with his "crush team". Although it wasn't the first time I had had the opportunity to taste the "new Roussillon" wines (which are so much more focused and subtle than those I'd first tried back in the 70's & 80's), Padié's wines were still a sort of wake up call to me for the great potential in this region. The whites, intensely minerally - viscous yet crisp & lively. The reds, simultaneously rustic while still focused & refined. It shouldn't come as a surprise I suppose that these wines were so expressive, since Padié and his neighbors are all on the same page with their organic regime in the vineyard and minimalist approach in the cellar.




Jean-Phillipe Padié




Padié's lovely Fleur de Cailloux (grenache blanc, grenache gris & maccabeu blend)



Next stop was Domaine Pithon, just a block down the street from Padié. We began our tasting here with a winery assistant until owner, Olivier Pithon, could make his way back from the vineyard. Pithon's wines seemed to "push the envelope" yet farther in his quest to achieve authenticity. So much so that I must admit I struggled to warm up to his white wines in particular. They seemed to be (purposely?) slightly oxydized  - which can add an interesting nutty quality, but can also dry out the fruit, leaving a slightly "grainy" character in the aftertaste. Conversely I found his reds to be stylistically close to Padié's bottlings - meaty texture, with good structure and notes of leather and dust, seemingly capable of long aging.




Olivier Pithon, providing the "low-down" on his juice





A Calce-an sense of humor




All that wine tasting called for a hearty Roussillon lunch at Calce's one and only restaurant - once again, like everything else in the village, it was within a short walking distance. The bistro, Le Presbytère, has an interesting story behind it. A few years back the old stone building that houses it (former presbytery of the town church), was vacant and owned by the city hall. So the visionary town mayor, realizing the village needed a good locale for regional cuisine, developed a plan to attract a bistro to the location - but with the condition that it serve also as a showcase for the town's wine producers. Voila! - a huge success for the town, the bistro and the vignerons.





Léo Barlahan, co-proprietor of Le Presbytère, Calce's excellent (and only) bistro



One-Stop tasting for all of Calce's wines at Le Presbytère


As can be seen from the above chalkboard, "completing" this blog will require another trip. Based on the enlightening experience and truly authentic wines we tasted, no coaxing will be required!



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August 29 2012 4 29 /08 /August /2012 21:13

Salutations from KLM/Delta Airlines! It seems odd - and even sad- that I have to wait till I'm on a plane back to France, until having enough time to think about posting a new (and long overdue) article to my blogsite.

Although it's not realistic, at this point in my life, to spend more than a month at a time each year in my beloved Languedoc, I found myself yearning to return after only a month back in Oregon....all the more remarkable, considering August yields the Willamette Valley's most beautiful weather. Maybe it's the effect that warm saline Mediterranean air has on my sinusitis, but I suspect it has a bit more to do with the infinite variety of new wines awaiting me, that lures me back.

So this is an opportunity to illustrate that lure, along with a few vignettes from my June visit to the region.

1) I love how easy it is to stumble upon an amazingly good restaurant or bistro in Languedoc without prior research. When attempting to revisit a favorite seafood restaurant in the coastal village of Gruissan near Narbonne, we discovered that they were not open for lunch. They recommended another small bistro a couple of blocks away, and we had a simple but beautiful experience. The place: Le Sarment, heaven for locavores, as they were not only less than a kilometer from their seafood sources, but also featured wines from the surrounding regions of La Clape & Corbières. We nursed a lovely bottle of dry minerally white from a cave directly opposite the restaurant. An ideal accompaniment to our moules frites.




At Le Sarment, Gruissan



2) Virtually anywhere you find yourself in the Languedoc & Roussillon, you're likely only minutes away from a high-quality wine producer. E.g. in Narbonne, where we spend a part of each year, you have the Minervois region just 10-15 Km to the northeast, Corbières 10 Km to the southwest, and La Clape 8 Km due south. The city of Montpellier is in close proximity to numerous AOP (Appellation d'Origine Protégée) wine regions - like Pic St. Loup, St. Christol, St. Drézery etc., while Perpignan has Cotes du Roussillon, Fitou and the Pays Catalan right on its doorstep. Although it's always a good idea (and polite) to call ahead to visit the smaller family-owned estates, even these often have small tasting rooms with regular hours. We actually found this to be a relief when we came across a familiar and excellent producer in the Fitou, "Champ des Soeurs", while en route to visit the renowned co-op at Castelmaure in the Hautes-Corbières. Fortunately, gracious owners Marie & Laurent Maynadier were on hand to greet us for a nice, albeit brief visit and tasting. Not to be overlooked of course is the entirely reasonable price range for wine throughout the Languedoc - both retail and (for the most part) restaurant level. There are exceptions, to be sure, for some top-end domains, particularly in the regions like Pic St. Loup, Montpeyroux and Faugères, but even here you can find regional wines of good quality for "every day" consumption.




The Maynadier's at Domaine Champ des Soeurs with Trusty Vine's roving reporter




My wife, Mary, in front of the co-op in Castelmaure, Corbières



3) Climate & terrain: Perfect for their array of grape varieties. California's summer climate is often compared to that of the Mediterranean, and this is partly true, but I submit that the southern Spanish Mediterranean more closely resembles California's premium wine-growing areas than does the Languedoc-Roussillon. E.g. most Napa & Sonoma areas are warmer and drier in the summer than (at least) the areas of the Languedoc closest to the sea. As a matter of fact, although humidity levels in the French Mediterranean are not nearly as high as East Coast U.S., on days when the winds are coming off the Mediterranean, there's definitely more moisture in the air than the average summer day on the West Coast of the U.S.  - not enough for discomfort, but just enough to intensify the aromas of the garrigue and its wild rosemary, lavender and sage. The frequently rugged terrain of the hills surrounding most Languedoc vineyard regions may seem stark and a bit spartan to some viewers, but for me it's simply the ideal dramatic backdrop to vineyards which (befitting their landscape) produce sometimes rustic, but mostly authentic wines with such a sense of place. As James Wilson quips in his book on French wine-growing geology, "Terroir", "The wines of the Languedoc-Roussillon grow on some of the most battered rocks in France and indeed on some of the oldest and some of the youngest geologic formations" - in other words, an incredibly complex landscape.



P1000754 View of Hautes-Corbières from village of Castelmaure




4) .....and certainly not least, are the people and their unique culture. The French are sometimes criticized by American travelers, as being aloof and impersonal - and this can occasionally be the case for those tourists seeking jovial slap-happy types on their France trip. But just because the French don't go about with an ear-to-ear grin on their face everyday doesn't mean they're all miserable self-centered curmudgeons. Part of the French response to visitors (and to one another for that matter) is simply understanding this fact, and approaching accordingly with patience, respect and sincerity (not that these aren't virtues in any society!). Admittedly though, in this regard, the Languedoc has a leg up on most everywhere else in the country - not the least due to the sunny climate, but also the pervasive wine & food culture and proximity to the sea. People here are just more casual and congenial, perhaps stemming in part from their Occitan and Catalan heritage. From my experience, they are definitely not as preoccupied with (or impressed by) glamour & chic as are e.g. their counterparts in the Côte d'Azur. Finally, as elsewehere in France, they tend not to take friendship lightly. Whereas, it seems the current culture trend in the U.S. promotes the amassing of hundreds (thousands?) of friends on Facebook, the French, even in the south of the country, may develop friendships more slowly, but once made, are kept loyally till the grave.


I guess I shouldn't close without mentioning that I also have a great affection for the wines and region of the Southern Rhone Valley (esp. Gigondas) and Northern Provence. However, at my age I've concluded that it's too late to be "spreading myself too thinly" in my research and travels, thus I've settled on the Languedoc - specifically the area around Narbonne - as my adopted home away from home.


P.S. I'll be back in September with more wine notes & reviews with a focus on Roussillon.



Peering down a narrow "ruelle" in Collioure

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June 5 2012 3 05 /06 /June /2012 18:10

By this time in June, wine consumers are usually facing a barrage of articles and reviews on rosés. This is of course not by accident since late spring is the traditional time for wineries to release their past vintage's rosé wines. What's a bit puzzling/humerous to me though are the numerous articles proclaiming the "coming of age" of rosés, as if they were just created within the last decade. It is true that in recent years the higher quality of rosé (even from regions not previously known for this genre) has helped boost it's popularity - and conversely, that the popularity and increased demand for good rosé has given incentive to wineries to boost their production. But rosé has been produced for eons, albeit in earlier times, not always by design. For example most wine drinkers would be surprised to know that in the 18th century, Burgundian vintners only left their fermenting juice on the grape skins for a few days before pressing, yielding a wine that more resembled a dark rosé than a red wine. This is considered as well to be the method of the Greeks who colonized the area around Marseilles, France in 600 BC, perhaps being the start of a long tradition of excellent rosé winemaking in the surrounding area we now know as Provence. It was however the Southern Rhone region of Tavel which gained renown especially in the 19th & 20th centuries as the only wine region to produce high-quality rosé wines exclusively, using primarily the varieties, grenache & cinsault. Naturally, in these times, the Provencal & Loire valley growers would dispute Tavel's claim to the "rosé throne". The fact though is that in the last 10-15 years, wine regions across the globe (but especially in southern Europe) are making beautiful dry rosés, given the right varietals in the right site with the right techniques.



Bottle Sizes for Serious Rosé Drinkers at ViniSud 2012



It's hard to imagine that it wasn't so long ago that in the U.S. wine market at least, rosés were often looked down upon condescendingly - and for legitimate reasons: i.e. the memory of semi-sweet Mateus & Lancer's rosé in the 60's/70's followed by the often cloyingly sweet white zinfandels and blush wines of the 80's did much to damage the positive perception of rosé among consumers. By comparison, today, rosé drinkers find themselves in a virtual paradise, with excellent choices at every turn. These are by contrast, aromatic and finesseful wines fermented bone-dry mostly in the style of Provence. As a side note it should be mentioned here that there are essentially two (legitimate) ways of producing rosé: one (as described above) in which red grapes, after crushing are allowed to soak with the juice for anywhere from 24 hours to 3-4 days before pressing, thus allowing the juice to absorb varying degrees of pigment from the skins. The other, most common method, is to simply bleed off (saignée) a percentage of juice from a vat of crushed fruit at some point after at least a 24 hour soak. A third method, which is not permitted for 'true" rosé in most European wine regions, is the actual blending of red and white wines to achieve a rosé color.


So what's so unique about rosé? Well, apart from the obvious color difference, there are delicate aromatics in rosé wines which seem not to occur in red or white wines: e.g. the tropical fruit esters like banana and melon, or brighter fruits like raspberry. These are evidently the by-products of a cool fermentation of juice containing small amounts of anthocyanins from red skin pigment. Naturally, the nuances of the aromatics and flavors vary depending on grape variety, but are still good benchmarks for typical rosé.



"Pretty in Pink" Provence Hall at ViniSud 2012



As with any wine there are some misconceptions about "rosé etiquette". For example, one often hears that rosé should be drunk within a year of bottling to appreciate its freshness. Although this may apply to many lighter-styled wines, there are several examples, like the sturdy mourvedre-based wines of Bandol, which may improve nicely over 3-4 years in bottle. Another "unspoken rule" is that rosé is best drunk with "less serious" foods - especially barbecue - and preferrably outside in the summer months. I won't argue that many of these such occasions seem to cry out for a rosé, but I'm equally happy indulging in a good rosé in the middle of the winter with, say, a nice roast pork or chicken dish. Good rosé is to me perhaps the most versatile of all wine types (along with sparkling?) when it comes to food pairing. So here are some recently tasted rosés from the south of France and Spain, that I feel are representative of their genre - for now.......or even next December.



June Wine Reviews: French (and a few Spanish) Rosés



Jumilla Rose '11




2011 Ch. La Rouvière Rosé, Bandol $27

This lovely salmon-pink rosé is made by Domaine Bunan, and is composed of around 50% mourvedre, with the remainder, grenache and cinsault. Intensely floral nose with citrus notes, and ample canteloupe fruit on the palate. A rare wine that is at once both concentrated and elegant. Very nice structure which bodes well for a few more years in the bottle. Would also make a very versatile food wine.


2010 Domaine Bunan Rosé "Bélouvé", Côtes de Provence $17.50

Made predominantly from the same varieties as above, but with the addition of some cabernet sauvignon & syrah. The flavor profile also resembles the Rouvière, yet exhibits a bit more grapefruit in the nose (à la New Zealand sauvignon blanc), and a subtle rose floral note. Very refreshing, with good acidity and a clean finish. A good choice for sushi or any shellfish dish.


2011 La Bastide Blanche Rosé, Bandol $22

Made predominantly with Mourvedre, with smaller proportions of grenache and cinsault. A classic delicate Provence rosé with a mélange of spicy tropical flavors as well as a dose of strawberry. Somewhat lighter on the palate than the two above wines, with a slightly more marked fruit acid.


2011 Ch. Minuty "Rosé et Or", Côtes de Provence, St. Tropez $22

This is the pick for lovers of crisp and zesty French rosé. Excellent fruit acid and balance, with strong notes of peach, raspberry, and (above all) grapefruit. Delicate but not "wimpy', this wine would do fine all by itself on a warm summer evening.


2011 Ch. Routas Rosé, Coteaux Varois, Provence $13

Made with cinsault and syrah, plus smaller portions of grenache and cabernet sauvignon. In my mind this may be the best value in Provence rosé currently on the market - at least in my local market. Loads of citrus zest and strawberry aromatics. On the palate, a nice balance of lush fruit and tangy acidity, with more strawberry, and hints of anise & pepper.


2011 Domaine Gros Noré Rosé, Bandol $33

I tried to fault this beautiful wine for its 14% alcohol, but in reality it had a great overall balance due to the profound core of luscious fruit. Intense ripe melon and grapefruit ester aromatics, followed by more of the same plus pear & mango on the palate. A dense and robust rosé with a long viscous finish, and enough acidity to spare it from flabbiness.


2011 Chateau de Lascaux Rosé, Coteaux de Languedoc $17.50

This was surely the most unique of the French rosés we tasted, showing an unusual sweet/sour dill character on the nose, but together with more typical notes of raspberry & melon as well. Perhaps it was the influence of the surrounding garrigue herbs we were sensing. Otherwise, the wine displays nice balance with a clean crisp finish.


2011 Ch. de Trinquevedel Rosé, Tavel (Southern Rhone) $20

From France's only exclusively rosé producing region comes this distinctive blend of (mostly) grenache,  clairette & cinsault. Noticeably darker pink than its Provence cousins, this is likely due to longer soaking of the juice on the skins prior to pressing. More "forest" herbal & earthy than tropical in its aromatics, while the fruit character tends more to the darker berry side, with an interesting nuance of red bell pepper. An intense wine with good grip showing potential for near-term aging. 


2011 Domain de la Ferrandière Grenache Gris, Pays d'Oc $15

Of all the rosés covered here, this is the only one that is actually fermented on the skins (at a low temperature), as we're dealing here with a light skin color variety (think pinot noir vs. pinot gris). Plenty of aromatic melon esters on the nose, and a nice balance of texture and softer fruit acid on the palate. A good value and pleasant quaffer.


2010 Ch. L'Ermitage Rosé, Costière de Nîmes $11

Another good value quaffer made from 50% syrah, 30% grenache and 20% mourvedre. Fine tropical melon notes in the nose, and plush on the palate. For my taste it could perhaps use a touch more fruit acid.


2011 Castillo de Jumilla Rosado, Jumilla, Spain $8.50

Don't be scared by the price, this is a surprisingly nice quaffing rosé made from 100% mourvedre. Like the Tavel above this was a darker tone of pink than most we tasted (mourvdre is a darker skinned varietal). Ripe red raspberry fruit on the nose and palate, with hints of pepper. Certainly not as subtle as the above wines, but still nicely balanced and with a silky texture.


2011 Espelt "Corali" Rosado, Emporda, Spain $13

This 100% grenache rosé shows lively grapefruit rind aromatics with hints of melon and mango. Very nicely balanced with a fleshy texture and good acidity to balance it. Displays an interesting tangy and slightly "salty" character (à la Manzanilla sherry?). Very refreshing.






Rating and Description Symbols

“Rating levels & Descriptors”

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May 10 2012 5 10 /05 /May /2012 22:00

Although I haven't had a chance to return to this inspiring wine region since 1998, I've been enjoying the fruits of their labors since my retailer days in St. Louis, and continue to follow the wines closely. There have been of course great additions to the Rioja wine scene, too numerous to mention, since the late 70's. I felt blessed, nevertheless, to be able to

begin with many of the best estates in those days: e.g. La Rioja Alta, Muga, Lopez de Heredia etc. The classic bottlings from these producers opened my eyes to the reality that wines of elegance & finesse can indeed be produced in Europe's southerly climes when the vines are situated in the right terroir (in this case, higher elevation & maritime influence). The traditional styled Riojas remain close to my heart.

A little Rioja primer before continuing: La Rioja is divided into 3 separate subregions, primarily based on the terrain (soil types) and altitude. Rioja Alta is the furthest upstream on the Ebro River and thus a bit stronger maritime influence, bringing slightly higher precipitation, but actually marginally warmer than Alavesa, due to more vineyards on the south side of the Ebro at a lower elevation. Soils here are a mixture of chalky clay with iron. The neighboring Rioja Alavesa lies just to the east & north (Basque country), and its vineyards are yet higher elevation than Rioja Alta, but with less influence from the Atlantic, and more alkaline soils. Finally, Rioja Baja, being the furthest down river (and "lowest" as the name indicates), is the warmest and most "Mediterranean" of the subregions, with vineyards planted exclusively south of the Ebro in heavier alluvial soils. It is also the only region to cultivate predominantly garnacha (grenache) versus tempranillo. It's the ripe, higher alcohol garnacha that gives a Rioja blend its fullness/depth on the palate. As to the typical characteristics of Rioja's wines: It should first be stressed that, although the noble tempranillo is the principal grape in Rioja blends (usually 70% +), providing beautiful cinnamon and strawberry aromatics, Rioja's "supporting role" grape varieties are essential in the final results. Garnacha usually makes up the next highest percentage in the mix, adding roundness/strength and spicy, bright fruit. The indigenous, low-yielding graciano grape adds structure and aging ability, while mazuelo (carignan) contributes color and acidity.


As for wine style designations: the more fruit-forward reds produced using no barrel aging, and released the following year after harvest, are known as "jovenes". The style with which Rioja drinkers are probably most familiar are the "crianza" bottlings. These wines must be aged at least 6 months in oak barrel and one year in bottle prior to release for sale. "Reserva" wines require one year in barrel and one in bottle, while the uncommon "gran reservas" must be aged for at least 2 years in barrel and 3 years in bottle. It's worth noting that in the 1870's, Bordeaux vignerons left an important legacy in winemaking style with their temporary migration to Rioja during Bordeaux' devastating phylloxera infestation.




(Rioja in green just south of Bilbao) *map courtesy of cellartours.com




regions rioja




Unfortunately, with a squirmy 1 year old along for the 1998 trip, more than 2-3 winery visits was not an option for us. So we had to be selective. Even with only a 3-day stay in Haro, Rioja Alta's little capitol, we were able to get a good feel for the wine, food & people culture - with productive visits to Bodegas Muga, in the heart of Haro, and to the newer Remelluri estate, in nearby Labastida. When surrounded by the idyllic setting of vineyards on the slopes above the Ebro River, and the stark Sierra Cantabria range in the background, it's not hard to imagine how La Rioja became the first  "Denominación de Origen" among Spanish wine-growing regions back in 1926. The south and southeastern exposure of the majority of vineyards in the region, together with the cooling effects of the Atlantic provide ideal conditions for a more finesseful style of red using predominantly tempranillo, Spain's most indigenous (and beloved) of grape varieties.


Our first wine stop in Haro was the venerable Bodegas Muga. We were graciously received there by Jorge Muga (and later by cousin, and winemaker, Manuel). Although since our visit, Muga has evidently done a major renovation with a beautiful wine bar/shop and dining room, we were still amply impressed with the charming rustic decor, and were offered an extensive personal tour and tasting by the Muga family. Of course my highlight was a sampling of the latest release of Prado Enea, but it was "educational" to taste one of their early relases of Torre Muga, a luxus cuvée with 75% tempranillo, 15% mazuelo & 10% graciano. Although vinified in a traditional reserva style, the heavier dose of new oak gave the wine a less typical "international" feel - an impressive wine that would likely garner high scores in "the Spectator", but still not quite my concept of classic Rioja. Needless to say we didn't leave disappointed though.




Bodegas Muga with (a younger, 1998) Jorge Muga on the left



Scan1                                                                        Muga's large cask storage area


The following day we were afforded a great opportunity to taste, tour and lunch with Telmo Rodriguez & his cellar master at his family's estate, Remelluri. At least in physical appearance (if not in wine style), Remelluri is quite far-removed from Muga, with its location on the slopes below the Sierra Cantabria, and surrounded by the estate's organically farmed vineyards. We tasted through their whole range there, including a very impressive grenache blanc-based white (Telmo is not a fan of the standard Rioja white varietal, Viura). In terms of style, Remelluri's reds tend to be a bit more structured in youth than typical Riojas, with slightly more new oak even in the crianza bottlings, this despite using a higher (90%) proportion of tempranillo. Not surprisingly, their wines have a good reputation for aging well. Telmo later (2000) moved on to found his own very successful wine company, sourcing grapes from a variety of locations in Spain - becoming quite the winemaking celebrity in and outside of Spain. In 2010 though, he returned to the estate to join his sister, Amaia, in managing the vineyards & winery, with a renewed enthusiasm to develop public recognition for Riojas best vineyard sites, and artisanal winemaking.

Scan3                                                   Remelluri (with Telmo's mountain-climbing SUV on left)

Scan2                                                                                   Lunch at Remelluri

One trend in Rioja that had already begun before our '98 trip, was the move towards somewhat shorter aging of their reds in oak prior to bottling, while incorporating more French oak in the process (with the long-established use of American oak) for their reserva bottlings - and for the purists like myself, it was more than a bit disconcerting to see some estates using a percentage of cabernet sauvignon in their top cuvées. On the other hand, I was impressed to discover that larger producers there have their own cooperage facilities on site, allowing them to obtain oak barrel staves much more economically than a finished barrel. With the right varietal blend, and for the majority of vintages, one could argue that the shorter aging regime generally represents an improvement, as only the most profound wines can stand up to a 2-3 year period in barrel without losing some depth of fruit. Thankfully though, I found that lovers of the classic style of Rioja Reservas can still find good examples - especially from the older houses like Muga & Lopez de Heredia. This comes at a price though: whereas I remember paying an humble $10 for the lovely, ethereal 1970 Muga "Prado Enea" back in 1980, the same wine in the most recent vintage fetches around $55. Relatively speaking though, this is probably a very reasonable price when considered with its peers in Burgundy or Bordeaux. Once one has experienced a well-made Rioja gran reserva (or even reserva), the silky texture, and vanilla, spice, jammy-fruit flavors become the unique symbols of typically classic Rioja. 



May Wine Reviews (Rioja with a few 'Interlopers')

2008 Martinez Alesanco Rioja Crianza $13.50

This was the lightest bodied of the wines in our Rioja tasting. On the other hand, it displayed nice regional character and balance. Light oak in the nose, with a hint of reduction & clove spice. The lean structure indicates that the wine would benefit from bottle age.

2004 Bodegas Faustino Rioja Reserva $19.00  


  A classic-style Rioja with a slightly tawny edge in the color. Very nice aged Rioja character of leather, barnyard & tobacco aromas. On the palate, medium bodied with solid fruit acid, yet with a supple texture. Interesting iron notes in the finish.

2007 C.V.N.E Rioja Crianza $13.00                                                                                                                   


This wine brought back memories for me - and happily, the producers' style has not changed dramatically over the years. A very typical young bright-fruited Rioja with pleasant light oak, vanilla & meat on the nose. Not a profound wine, yet with nice texture, balance & a lovely finish.

2005 Viña Olabarri Rioja Reserva $18.00

Lovely nose of spicy oak (American), coconut and cologne. A fairly structured wine with good extract and dark fruit character, and a touch more alcohol. Long finish. Another wine that should age nicely.

2006 Heredad Ugarte Rioja Crianza $16.00   

Interesting "wet hay" & earthy herbs on the nose. On the palate, medium-bodied and soft textured. Plenty of "jammy" fruit in the middle. One almost senses a sweetness (glycerol) in the finish,

2009 Ugarte Rioja "Cosecha 2009" $11.00     

Judging from the label designation, this is likely meant to be in the "joven" style. surprisingly though, it is stylistically close to its sibling above. Perhaps only differing in its slightly brighter cherryish fruit and less complexity - still a nice quaffer and good value.

2003 Lopez de Heredia Rioja Reserva "Viña Bosconia" $37      

   Aromas of spicy nutmeg, anise and light vanilla from barrel aging. Considering the bottle age, quite youthful on the palate. Somewhat lean, but intense bright strawberry/rhubarb-like fruit, with good fruit acid, structure and balance. A classically elegant Rioja.

2008 Fabla Garnacha Calatayud $11.00     


This old vines grenache comes from the Calatayud region of Spain, slightly southwest of Rioja,

and decidedly warmer/more Mediterranean than Rioja. It exhibits pretty & bright raspberry-toned fruit, medium body (no flab here) and balanced acidity, with a lingering finish.

2010 Bodegas Arzuaga Navarro, Ribera del Duero "La Planta" $16.00

This 100% tempranillo cuvée from the warm, high & dry Ribera del Duero, shows a distinctive earthy, smoky oak in the nose (it probably could have done with a bit less oak contact). Nevertheless it has nice overall appeal, with attractive coconut, cedar and raw meat flavors on the palate. Nice acidity (esp. for the region), and medium length in the finish.




Rating Guidelines
“Rating levels & Descriptors”

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April 11 2012 4 11 /04 /April /2012 15:40

Requesting, and receiving, feedback on my blog from friends got me cogitating about the whole wine reviewing process again. In my 37 years of association (in one form or another) with the wine trade, nothing has been more thought provoking and vexing than the issue of how best - most fairly and most efficiently - wine tasters can critique a wine and convey this information to the wine consuming public. I mean, there are of course certain basic attributes - or lack thereof - on which most seasoned wine tasters can find consensus with a given wine, but when one gets into the distinctive terroir-related features of a wine, objectivity goes out the window and personal preference carries the day. e.g. one person's lovely wild herb character is the next person's green, unripe flaw. The increased production of natural and organic wines has made wine assessment all the more challenging (this is a good thing!). I'm certain that I'm not alone in constantly fretting over this or that tool or quality reference in the varied (and often convoluted) systems for judging a wine's worthiness and characteristics etc. I think for this reason, an approach that I once eschewed, i.e. group tastings, now seems to make more sense than ever. This is not to say that there won't always be a need and niche for individual reviewers. A single taster with a sensitive and experienced palate can often detect and relate the finest nuances in a wine's aroma and flavors which may strike a chord with certain readers - and if the reader actually reads the reviewer's text, vs. only their score (a by-product of our society's need for instant gratification), and then actually finds him/herself to be in agreement, then this reviewer may serve as a reliable wine-buying guide for the reader. On the other hand, in tasting with a (preferrably small) panel, it is possible to more equitably convey a wine's quality and value by virtue of consensus. This process allows for an open exchange of ideas about a wine's chracteristics (especially in the case of controversial wines) which in turn yields a more "refined" estimation of the wine's value.There is of course always the danger that such reviews and ratings can be "diluted" due to differences of agreement on certain wines & styles, but in these cases, the disagreements can merely be stated in the review, allowing the reader/consumer to make the final determination. Having stated this, the Parker-esque danger of one person's subjective palate dictating to the wine world what constitutes a good or great wine is much diminished with the advent of on-line wine blogging and reviews. It is no longer so difficult to find a wine reviewer with whom a consumer can find common ground in wine preferences.




View Eastward from Mont d'Alaric, Corbières


All of this is a prelude to explaining changes I've decided to make in my wine rating methods for this little blog. Having already admitted to disliking the 100 point scoring system in my blog's description, I opted for a simpler 3-category system which I feel helps to minimize the effects of subjectivity in the scoring. By the addition of multiple symbols relating to specific aspects of a wine (texture, weight etc.) I felt that this would provide a more easily accessible overview for those not wanting to read through each review. What I discovered though is that it is difficult not to be redundant in the actual text of a wine description - hence the need to dispose of some of these symbols, instead, mentioning these features of the wine in its description/review. So, I will retain only the following "descriptive" icons: for the wine's overall quality evaluation,   to indicate a wine's organic status, to indicate an especially good value, and T to indicate a wine which is very typical & authentic expression of its region. This last symbol is one that I must use with caution as it requires some tasting experience in determining what constitutes typical character for a given region, arguably a never-ending learning process. It can be especially confounding in a region like Languedoc-Roussillon, where there are so many soil type, micro-climate and grape blend variations. I dare say that even the vignerons in the various sub-regions of the Languedoc would answer differently when asked to define typicality in their appellation.


IMG 2224

Oyster Beds in Bouzigues


I was also taken to task by a friend for not being "critical" enough in my wine reviews. My response: I'm not out to cover every wine I come across, trashing those that don't measure up. Rather, in order to limit the reviews to a reasonable number per posting, I simply don't intend to include wines that don't meet a minimum standard of quality/drinkability. although I may of course occasionally point out a wine's shortcomings.



IMG 2255

 On the Beach near Sète


The end goal though, and indeed the impetus for my blog, is the quest to find good, natural & authentic wines priced at a level affordable to wine consumers with limited means. For this reason i'm rather ambivalent about "the discovery" of such wines by large international publications, as this often drives their prices up excessively. On the other hand i'm happy for those producers in e.g. lesser known appellations of S. France who can garner deserved accolades, since they often have trouble turning a profit in today's flooded wine market. My hope is that they exercise a measured response in their pricing policy, being careful not to alienate their most loyal client base. Thankfully, for almost every winemaker who becomes the darling of the wine trade  - with the accompanying price hike - there's a newcomer with solid & honest wines at a humbler price point. Which is of course why it's necessary to continuously stay in the hunt!




Trusty Vine's Revised Style/Quality Descriptors


“Rating levels & Descriptors”



This month's wine reviews focus on Minervois reds with a smattering of wines from other corners of Languedoc.





NV Brut J. Laurens "Clos des Demoiselles" Crémant de Limoux $17

I would like to have included this in last month's reviews but had committed to include it as the aperitif in a local tasting of Minervois wines (the next five wines reviewed below). As indicated above, this is a crémant which in Limoux means that the predominant varieties will be chardonnay & chenin blanc, with a 10% maximum of pinot noir. This particular cuvée is predominantly chard and it shows in the nose with lovely floral and pear notes - as well as on the palate with a creamy texture and hints of vanilla. The soft lingering finish has just enough acidity for a very nice balance.



2010 Mas des Mas Minervois $11

This was perhaps the most straight forward of the group. It showed nice balance and pretty berry fruit tones but could use a bit more structure and complexity. Nevertheless it was still pleasant and fairly typical of the region, and would make a quaffable wine for a lighter meal. 30% carignan, 40% syrah, & 30% grenache.


2010 Domaine des Homs "Paul" Minervois $15
Easily the most controversial wine of the tasting, this distinctive blend of syrah & carignan put some people off with its strongly reduced & smoky nose. With some aeration it began to evolve. Thankfully the aromas didn't persist on the palate, which showed very typical Minervois garrigue herbs with dusty overtones. Here is a wine that will definitely benefit with bottle age - very good structure and balance.


2007 Domaine Aimé Minervois $17
The ripe 2007 vintage shows well in this wine with its concentrated fruit and softer tannins. Fortunately the wine is quite ripe without being flabby. A nice touch of Rhone-like dustiness to complement the dark jammy fruit. A blend of 70% carignan and 30% syrah.


2007 Chateau Vaissière Minervois $16
This silky textured 2007 seemed to be at its best the night we tasted it. A hint of reduction in the nose & palate gave the wine a slightly rustic (and authentic) character. The wines subtle dried herbs and raw meat notes added to its appeal. Not so sure that I'd cellar this wine for long, but it's drinking beautifully at this stage. 80% syrah, 20% grenache.

2010 Domaine J-B Sénat "La Nine" Minervois $16
My personal favorite of the evening. Intense youthful dark brambly fruit - loads of black current with an interesting hint of orange rind and dry cured meat. All of this contained in a well-structured frame with great potential for aging. 40% grenache, 30% carignan, 15% mourvedre & 15% cinsault.


2010 Domaine Le Loup Blanc "Le Regal du Loup" Minervois ?
I experienced this estate's wines for the first time during my stint at ViniSud, and came away very impressed with their authentic nature. The above blend of 50% carignan, 40% grenache & 10% syrah, had very good depth and structure. The flavor profile tended toward brambly fruit with light spice and dried herbs. Should age very well.



2009 Domaine Le Loup Blanc "Les 3 P'tits Cochons" Minervois ?
With an estate name like "The White Wolf" I guess it's inevitable that one of your wines has to be called "The 3 Little Pigs". This wine shares many of the above's attributes, though with a slightly softer texture, as well as a bit more ripeness (prunes?) and a good dose of leather.


2010 Domaine de Barroubio "Jean Miquel" Minervois ?
This estate is best known for its Muscat de St Jean de Minervois, so I was surprised to learn that they also produce very nice dry reds. the 2010 above is 90%+ old vine carignan and this definitely shows in its concoction of aromatic wild herbs, with nuances of black current and a distinctive earthiness. The higher altitude of Barroubio's vineyards shows in the vibrant fruit character. The wine was reportedly fermented 50% using carbonic maceration and 50% traditional (total grape destemming and light crushing), and was aged for 15 months in mostly neutral oak barrels before bottling.


2010 Domaine des Aires Hautes Minervois $12
This estate and the below Clos de L’Escandil are both under the ownership of the talented and amiable Gilles Chabbert. This is is his “entry level” Minervois, but it compares favorably to his priciest bottlings - excellent fresh dark fruit character in the bramble/cassis vein. A very focused wine with no oak, nice tannins and a medium length finish. It’s a blend of 25% syrah, 25% grenache, 40% carignan and 10% cinsault.


2009 Domaine des Aires Hautes Minervois-La Livinière $16
Similar characteristics to the above wine with the addition of light vanilla/oak aromatics (14 months aging in barrel with a small % of new oak). Very nice balance of brambly & garrigue fruit with the oak component, and soft tannins. 45% syrah, 30% grenache, 25% carignan.


2007 Clos de L’Escandil Minervois-La Livinière $24


The pinnacle of M. Chabbert’s cuvées, this complex and brooding wine has loads of dark cassis fruit and the richness/structure to back it. Moderately oaked with notes of camphor and mint - and a long viscous finish. 40% syrah, 20% grenache and 40% mourvedre.


2009 Chateau Vaugelas "Le Prieuré" Corbières $12.00
Upon first opening, this moderately priced Corbières showed a somewhat muted nose of pleasant spice  and plums, which intensified with aeration. This also brought out some of the secondary aromas of herbs and dust. On the palate the wine was medium-bodied and nicely balanced, if slightly simple. Typical garrigue herbs are evident as well as an interesting (almost pinot-like) beet character. The sufficient fruit acid should make it a versatile food wine. 35% syrah, 30% grenache, 30% carignan, 5% mourvedre.

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Published by vigne de confiance, aka Russell Raney
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  • : The Trusty Vine
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  • : My blog's goal is to educate & inform the public about the best values among natural and authentic wines, with a focus on organic and bio-dynamic wines from the South of France & Spain. Wine reviews will be as objective as possible, and without the use of the much abused 100 pt. system - rather using specific criteria to determine the wine's typicality and authenticity, in addition to its overall quality. Please go to: http://vignedeconfiance.wordpress.com/ for my most recent posts (begin 8/2014). All posts at this site are consider as my blog archives
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