January sees the tasting circuit back in full swing after the Winter Solstice, so much so that there were at least four tastings yesterday which I would have liked to have gone to. I chose the tasting of the French Vigneron Indépendant group because it promised a lineup consisting almost entirely of producers I didn’t know. Whilst the tasting’s title may have been slightly misleading (many of the wines on show would be categorised as “classics”, both in terms of origin and winemaking, by the majority of the British wine trade), there was plenty of interest here.
The tasting was organised by Business France, who chose an interesting venue for the event, Soho’s The Vinyl Factory. This is a large underground industrial space with the requisite white walls and bare pipes. Its only drawback in an English winter, it was pretty damn cold. Whilst I imagine it would be pleasantly cool in summer, the wines, especially the reds, were not at an ideal temperature. That said, a reasonably experienced taster should be able to see through that issue. After all, we often taste in cold cellars in the field. But I think the producers would have preferred a temperature more conducive for their reds, and I hope it didn’t put any buyers off the wines.
There were plenty of visitors, although a high percentage were French speaking, and I didn’t see nearly as many of the faces familiar to me from the usual round of tastings. I know this was due to the other tastings which clashed with this, so perhaps I will be one of the few to write about this one? Out of thirty-one producers I found twelve I thought particularly worth mentioning, either for the whole range or for individual wines.
It’s worth iterating the code of the Vignerons Indépendants:
- They farm their own vineyards
- They harvest their own grapes
- They make and age their own wine
- They bottle their wine on the estate
- They sell their own products
But bear in mind that whilst some of these are small producers, some member estates can be quite large, with a production of tens of thousands of bottles.
Dominik Benz, Ariège
Dominik, as his name suggests, isn’t a local. He hails from Zurich, and with his wife Martina, has only been farming ten hectares of vines not far from Foix for a few years, arriving in the region in 2013. He has Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Tannat, all IGP Ariège, and was showing exclusively red wines.
The wines are all named after characteristics of local fauna, and are attractively labelled. Fait du Bruit and Nez Creux are both Cabernet/Merlot blends (the former 80:20 and the latter 50:50) and are aged in large oak. Tête Sage is a pure Merlot, aged partly in barrique, partly in 500l oak. Le Roi is the most regionally indicative wine of the bunch, 100% Tannat aged 12 months in barrique after careful hand harvesting and hand de-stemming. This was my favourite of the four wines tasted (I believe Dominik makes six wines in total, including a rosé but no white). The wines are hardly inexpensive and this is a producer who is focused and pays attention to detail. A nice guy too. Definitely one to watch.
Domaine Leccia, Patrimonio, Corsica
Lisandru Leccia has around thirteen organic hectares in the north of Corsica, making a range of dry wines under the Patrimonio AOP, plus a delicious Muscat du Cap Corse.
The dry white is a Vermentino which is not over acidic, but is nevertheless fresh and nutty (no malo). There’s an equally fresh, pale pink made from Nielluccio (Corsica’s name for Sangiovese), and the same grape is used for the estate’s two reds. The basic domaine red wine is a simple, sappy, cherry number, whereas the Cuvée Pettale is from a single site, a hillside on chalk/schist. This has fine tannins and needs a little time.
The Muscat du Cap Corse is a lovely wine. A typical Mucat nose is grapey, and the palate blends concentrated fruit with good acidity to balance it. The grapes are harvested ripe. The more sugar, the less alcohol is needed for the mutage to stop the fermentation and retain sweetness (at 16% alcohol). A rotary fermenter is used for one day and the skin contact it generates helps release the sugars. As a Vin Doux style, the wine is in harmony with the added spirit. It’s a long way from the cheap Beaumes de Venise I recall buying in the 1980s from French Hypermarkets, a wine which in its day was incredibly popular, not as an aperitif (as the French use it), but believe it or not, as a dessert wine.
I’m familiar with Antoine Arena, and the various excellent Corsicans imported by Yapp’s. This is another domaine to add to the list. Like Dominik Benz, Domaine Leccia is looking for UK representation. I hope they find it.
Domaine Déramé, Muscadet, Loire
Déramé was one of the larger producers present. They make around 30,000 bottles of their Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie from their Domaine Du Moulin, and about a third of that from their Domaine de la Morandière. Both of these wines were 2016 bottle samples and were ever so slightly in shock, but both are clearly well made, refreshing wines. There are two more selective Muscadets from the same AOC, the most interesting of the Melon wines being the Cuvée Famille Déramé 2014, fresh and highish in acidity, but with a faint prickle on the tongue and a herbiness which reminded me of Swiss Fendant.
There’s a Chardonnay which was very interesting, with distinctive freshness. It was a bit lean, but Chardonnay tends to put on a bit of fat after initial bottling, and I’d quite like to revisit this after that has happened (all the 2016s being samples).
Finally, the Gros Plant. Most Folle Blanche wines are fairly neutral with very high acidity. I used to use them for Kir, a cheap substitute for Aligoté. This version may well be the most distinctive I’ve tasted, a wine of actual personality. There’s a mix of ground almonds and violets on the nose, and the palate is clean and fresh (like the freshness of a nice Loire Sauvignon Blanc). Acidic, and dry but not rough, in fact quite refined for this grape variety.
Domaine de la Font des Pères (Philippe Chauvin), Bandol
Font des Pères is based at Le Beausset and produces AOP Bandol wines in a fresher style, this being on account of having some north facing slopes. This means the vines get about an hour less sunshine in the afternoon, and temperatures cool quicker allowing for fresher nights – no great disadvantage in the South of France.
This gives a fresh and herby white, made from 52% Clairette/44% Bourboulenc, with floral notes. The palate is what some of us more annoying wine writers like to call mineral. The pink is pale salmon coloured and has a lovely bouquet, floral and citrus, the palate being slightly weightier than the elegant nose suggests. It’s made from around 50% Mourvèdre and 30% Grenache, plus a little Cinsault, Bourboulenc, Clairette and Syrah. It’s made by direct press after a night’s cold soak, and is mainly tank fermented, with about 15% fermented in wood.
The red Bandol is perhaps the main event. This is 90% Mourvèdre, the remainder Grenache. It’s typically deep purple with floral, herby, scents and a palate which combines chocolate/coffee and menthol with plummy fruit. In essence, it smells like Bandol! I have this down as a wine to age for a decade, also typical of the region’s better wines.
Domaine du Deffends (Anne de Lanversin), Var
This is a 14 hectare family estate in the foothills of the Monts Auréliens, 45 minutes north of Bandol (between Aix-en-Provence and Brignoles). This was one of the producers I was most impressed with. The vines are at altitude (around 400 metres) and largely on southeast facing slopes which see sunset at around 4pm in the ripening season. The earlier sunrise gives heat in the morning, but the afternoons are much fresher and the vines avoid the stress of direct sun.
The estate was founded around thirty years ago by Anne’s father, a Professor of Law at Aix University, but the vines are mostly between 40-50 years old. The estate’s white, Champ de Sesterce, is made from 75% Rolle (Vermentino) and 25% Viognier. I really enjoyed this. It is made in demi-muid, and has a nice stone fruit texture to go with its freshness. The vineyards’ orientation allows the Viognier in particular to be harvested with decent acidity, yet the variety gives the blend a little weight and gras.
The pink Rose d’Une Nuit (self-explanatory, I hope) was also very good. A blend of Cinsault and Grenache, the elegance of the nose is matched on the palate, very floral plus a touch of red fruits. The estate’s red Coteaux Varois en Provence (as the AOC is now formally designated) is made in higher quantities than the couple of thousand bottles of the white and pink (18,000 bottles of red), but don’t think it lacks any quality. It’s the new classic Provençal blend, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah (or one could say the “Trévallon blend”). It has 12 months in third fill demi-muid (previously used on the white wine). There are elements of each variety on the nose, but they meld together well. The 2014 already has hints of a nice complexity to come.
Again, an estate looking for UK representation. http://www.deffends.com
Domaine L’Amauve (Christian Voeux), Séguret, Vaucluse-Rhône
Christian Voeux is a man in late middle age with a twinkle in his eye. He was described in the catalogue as a “non-conformist wine grower”, but when I asked him about that he was self-deprecation incarnate. He is certainly a man who pays complete attention to quality at every stage of the wine growing and wine making process.
Christian’s vines inhabit the rocky hills around Séguret, just north of Gigondas, and overlooking the River Ouvèze. The soils are chalky-clay, strewn with chalky white pebbles. There is no trumpeting of organics, but respect for nature is paramount. The red wines in particular are structured to age, but at the same time, elegant. Christian recommends putting them into a carafe when young and drinking them with grilled meats. When more mature, he suggests venison. You get the idea.
La Daurele is a blend of Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Viognier and Ugni Blanc. There are 7,000 bottles, with 3,000 more of each of two reds. Laurences blends Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Cinsault. The 2015 has settled nicely and is characteristic of this superb vintage with great length, fruit and an elegant structure. Cuvée Estelles is made from the same as the above, with the addition of Carignan. A third of the must is vinified in oak for 12 months, of which a third of the wood is new, so a sort of “prestige cuvée”. There’s a little oak on the nose, not too much. It’s rounded with a lovely weight and chewy extract.
The wines at this domaine are all really fresh and alive. Christian aims to use minimal sulphur. Again, looking for an importer, but surely he’ll find one! Very good indeed. http://www.domainedelamauve.fr
Mas Oncle Ernest (Alexandre Roux), Entrechaux, Ventoux
Alexandre is typical of a breed of young winemaker keen to make the very best wines they can, but this Entrechaux domaine is actually four generations old, and its new name is an homage to Alexandre’s uncle Ernest, on whose very hard work the domaine was originally established.
Les Safres de mon Enfance is an AOC Ventoux Blanc, blending Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Viognier and Vermentino (using the Italian name rather than the French “Rolle” because Alexandre thinks it sounds nicer) making around 3,000 bottles each year. It’s clean but bursting with character.
I really liked every wine I tasted yesterday which contained Viognier, it being infused with fresh acidity and not dominating in any way. I tasted the 2015 and the not yet bottled 2016 from Alexandre, both were very good, and both displayed that lovely freshness which Viognier can sometimes inhibit when harvested very ripe from younger vines.
Next, three reds, the first two being Ventoux AOC, the last, a Côtes du Rhône. The “Ventoux” tout-court is 80% Syrah with 20% Grenache, already displaying gamey notes and indeed some nascent complexity. Instant Présent is Grenache, Syrah and Carignan (50:30:20), the latter two varieties undergoing carbonic maceration. Despite 14% alcohol, it doesn’t taste heavy at all, really nice ripe cherry fruit and good lift. Patience et Longeur de Temps is an equal blend of Grenache and Syrah, bottled as Côtes du Rhône. Half the wine is aged in (used) oak for a year. This is more spicy and toasty, but the wood is fairly discreet.
Alexandre pulled out an unlabelled bottle which he said doesn’t yet have a name, a new prestige cuvée made from 90% Grenache and 10% Syrah. This is pretty tannic right now but showed considerable potential, although Alexandre reckoned he’ll only manage to produce about 500 bottles of it for the 2016.
As with the wines of Christian Voeux, above, the cellar door prices here are very reasonable for the quality. This is an estate which wine savvy friends in France have heard of, but again, no UK importer yet. http://www.mas-oncle-ernest.com
Domaine Py (Jean-Pierre Py), Corbières, Languedoc
Domaine Py is a large producer, situated at Douzens, in the beautiful Cathar country between Carcassonne and Narbonne. Some of their wines (they bottle nine different cuvées) are imported into the UK by Yapp’s and Vintage Roots. I tasted six of them (five reds and one white), which are all commendable in their own way and well priced.
The one which really interested me was the Cuvée Tout Naturellement. It was a good example of a larger producer experimenting with a sulphur free bottling and making a pretty decent success of it. The 2016, of which 13,000 bottles were made, so a not inconsiderable number, is 100% Grenache with a reasonably high yield of 50 hl/h. This has the advantage of yielding just 12.5% alcohol. Sans souffre wines often work best with lower alcohol, as it helps not to mask the wine’s innate freshness.
Vinification is otherwise pretty traditional. The wine tastes of black cherry, the palate is smooth but has bite. Very enjoyable. It contrasted with the more traditional Cobières reds made by the domaine, which seemed more tannic as we moved up to the very oaky Cuvée Lucien 2014. Here, 55-year-old Carignan was blended with Syrah and Grenache to give a very much more concentrated wine. I kind of preferred the sappy fruit of the previous wine to the more serious attempt of the Lucien, although I’m sure that the latter cuvée is the wine of which the producer is most proud.
Château Leroy-Beauval, Entre-Deux-Mers, Bordeaux
Leroy-Beauval is, like Domaine Py, hardly a small producer. I’ve been looking for some artisanal Bordeaux, and I can’t say that this property qualifies as “artisanal”. They are, however, an example of a larger producer in private ownership which is concentrating on quality and originality. Originality comes in two forms. First, they use all three of the traditional white grape varieties, Semillon and Muscadelle in varying proportions with Sauvignon Blanc. In a region where Sauvignon Blanc has almost taken over in the white wines, this is welcome. So it’s originality in tradition.
Secondly, under the Marquise de Leroy-Beauval label, they make a pair of fresh tasting, bottle fermented (Ancestral Method) sparklers, a Semillon/Muscadelle white and a Cabernet/Merlot red. Then there’s a fresh white Bordeaux Blanc, very fruity. The two top red wines are both Bordeaux Supérieur and are well made and reasonably serious. The Château bottling in 2014 is remarkably good value at cellar door prices (8 €). Okay, no egg fermentation or amphora, but this is a source of well made Bordeaux. They are represented by Be My Wine, an importer I’ve not come across.
I also tasted a single wine from Château La Haye, a Cru Bourgeois in Saint-Estèphe. The Cuvée Le Cèdre 2014 is remarkably smooth and I’d like to try a bottle with food. Available via Cambridge Wines.
Château de Peyrel, Bergerac
Bergerac was one of the first French wine regions I visited, back in the 1980s. I was a complete novice then, and things have changed a lot. I’d really like to go back. The countryside was quite bucolic.
Château de Peyrel is near to Prigonrieux, west of Bergerac itself, and in the tiny AOC of Rosette, an attractive large Manoir with separate dovecote. The domaine recommenced making wine only in 2013, but the vines on the property are around sixty years old. Methods are deliberately artisanal.
There are two Bergerac whites and one Bergerac red, all well made. The most interesting wines are the Rosettes, a white wine AOC making an almost abandoned style of demi-sec traditional white. The Château de Peyrelle Rosette is made from all three traditional varieties, Semillon, Muscadelle and Sauvignon Blanc. It is semi-sweet, or off-dry – I didn’t see the technical data for residual sugar and the information wasn’t available. I think this kind of wine is unfairly forgotten, not nearly as popular as it once was. But the low level of sweetness, coupled with the fresh acidity, gives it some versatility. Quiches and tarts, salmon and blue cheeses were suggested as food matches.
There is also a Rosette Cuvée Excellence which is a touch sweeter and sees some oak. The sweetness is really nice, not cloying. The oak in the 2014 was just a little more intrusive than I’d like, but it should, one hopes, integrate with age. The market for Rosette must be tiny, but the wines are worth exploring.
I didn’t know any of the Grower Champagnes on show, but I did try a couple of cuvées from Champagne Fresne Ducret. This as an artisan winemaker at Villedommange, on the Northwestern side of the Montagne de Reims. The fruit is Premier Cru and, based on the cheaper cuvées Les Nouveaux Explorateurs (17k bottles) and Le Chemin du Chemin (7k bottles), it’s a house which might bear further investigation. The wines were well made and approachable.
One premise of the Tasting was that wine and music go together, and I was asked to put together a playlist inspired by the wines. I’m not sure that the client realised that I’d be avoiding the cliché of songs with wine in the title, or actually about wine, but I put together a mixed list of material, with the help of Laure Monrozier at Business France. I’m not sure how many of them the DJ actually played.
The great thing about this tasting was the opportunity to try wines from producers I didn’t know. To this end it was very successful, and as you can see, there was a fair bit worth writing about. There were estates which I would certainly consider importing, if that were my métier. I hope that sufficient numbers of the trade managed to taste them.
Post-tasting, four of us headed up to The Remedy in Fitzrovia for an excellent dinner. If you read my recent New Year piece, you’ll know it was a New Year’s Resolution to go there, and I’m truly happy I did go so early in 2017. I’ll be reviewing The Remedy soon.