Winery portrait: Château La Baronne

Readers of this blog might know by now I am particularly fond of Languedoc-Roussillon. I suspect my natural (Flemish?) preference for “underdogs” has something to do with it. Indeed, most people associate the region with an ocean of vines producing huge quantities of cheap bulk wine. A belief that is to some extent still supported by the facts. Appellation wines account for only a minority of the region’s production, and large cooperatives still have a strong hold on the local wine business.

But to those who follow the wine world from a bit closer, it is well known that since a few decades, things are changing a lot. Nowhere is this better explained, in my view, than in the thoroughly inspiring and poetic book by Olivier Jullien and Laure Gasparotto, La mécanique des vins – le réenchantement du Languedoc. Against all traditions and in spite of his parents’ advice, Jullien withdrew from the cooperative in the 1980’s and started making his own wines. The rest is history: Mas Jullien has now attained legendary status and is one of France’s icon wines.

Many followed Jullien’s example, and the increase in quality is undeniable. Judging by the rising number of estates that are awarded between one and three stars in the green guide of La Revue du Vin de France, Languedoc is now also a region for premium quality wines. Its large diversity of terroirs and mesoclimates, from cooler Atlantic influences (Limoux, Cabardès) to very warm Mediterranean (La Clape), offers a fascinating range of wine styles.

Château la Baronne

The estate I want to highlight in this post is one of the leading exponents of the excellence-driven approach. Château la Baronne, located at the foot of the Montagne d’Alaric, in the north-east of the AOP Corbières, is undoubtedly among the best you can find in the region.

img_4565

The estate is situated between the villages of Moux and Fontcouverte. For the petite histoire, note the Belgian connection of Moux: there is a copy of Manneken Pis at the entrance of the village, donated by the city of Brussels out of gratitude for hosting part of the Belgian royal guard during the war (a stay that led to quite some “intercultural blending”, incidentally).

The Lignères family, medical doctors and vignerons de père en fils, bought the estate in the 1960’s (the current winemaker, Jean, still practices medicine and has his cabinet right across the street from the cellar). The estate has grown to a considerable size, totalling around 90 hectares.

It is hard to describe the confident kindness that radiates from Jean and his wife Anne. I’ll do so by quoting another well-respected grower from nearby Minervois, Jean-Baptiste Senat, who told me: these people do not only make great wines, they are above all classy human beings (“la classe humaine”). If it were not such a huge cliché, one could say that wines resemble their makers…

Vineyards and varieties

Typically for this region, there is a lot of old vine carignan here, alongside other mediterranean varieties like grenache noir, mourvèdre, syrah and cinsault. In white, there is mainly vermentino, roussanne, and grenache gris.

The most remarkable vineyard site is without any doubt the parcel of gnarly old carignan vines planted in 1892 on riparia and rupestris rootstocks (among the first to be replanted in this way after 20 years of devastation by Phylloxera). I visited the vineyard on a glorious autumn morning, just after the harvest, with the slopes of Alaric bathing in sunlight. One of the first things that catch the eye: no replanting here, in case an old vine dies, but replacement with the old technique of marcottage; this means that a healthy branch from a neighbouring vine is buried in the soil, starts developing its own superficial root system, but is dependent on the mother plant with its profound roots, getting the much needed water in this dry climate. Hardly anyone still works like this these days (most replant clones selected in nurseries), but the method has the advantage of preserving the genetic properties of the old vines. The vineyard is gently and carefully tended, to preserve the fragile vines as much as possible.

Farming is biodynamic, with a lot of attention for ecosystem diversity in the vineyard, and extremely limited use of cupper and sulphur – which is made a great deal easier by the fact that it hardly rains here in the growing season. That brings us to another, worrying issue for this area: over the last year, only 150mm (!) of rain has fallen. As most vines are quite old, they can feed on deeper layers of water, but Jean acknowledges that if another year of drought were to follow, the situation could become quite dramatic. 2016 already saw the yields drop significantly…

Vinification and work in the cellar

The well-known maxim that great wines are made in the vineyard certainly applies here. Vinification is minimalist. “On ne fait rien“, as Jean puts it, is perhaps a bit rhetorical and exaggerated: if this were the case, anyone could make great wine. “Le plus difficile, c’est de faire simple“. When setting foot in the cellar, it instantly becomes clear that they have created the right boundary conditions to be able to make wine in this way. The place is impeccably clean and extremely well-organised.

La Baronne is moving away from oak maturation, with more and more amphorae and terra cotta being used. They recently ordered egg-shaped vats from terra cotta, combining the known convection movement caused by the egg shape with the properties of the terra cotta.

All this is very reminiscent of natural wine, yet Jean emphasises he is not a partisan of the marked oxydative style of many natural wine makers, arguing that it makes all wines taste alike and it erases terroir differences.

We got to taste some vat samples during the visit. Usually, when I do this, I find it very difficult to see the contours of the future wine. Not so in this case: the juice was extremely balanced and precise already at an early stage (the wines were barely finishing off fermentation).

The wines

Precision, balance and purity are the words that come to mind when describing the range of wines of La Baronne. I first tasted them in 2009 and was already impressed, but the style in those days was more oaked and more extracted. Over the years, the wines have become ever more pure and quintessential, showing beautifully without any need for make-up in the form of overt oak. As in all great wines, freshness is key: despite the very warm climate, the wines have an amazing acidic backbone.

I will not discuss the whole range here, but limit myself to some of which I have tasted the more recent vintages.

Vermentino NW 2014

A monovarietal vermentino (rolle) vinified partly in stainless steel and partly in terra cotta amphorae, with a further 5 months of ageing on the lees. No sulphites added during vinification. Brilliant acidity, fresh aromatics of stonefruit and lime, interesting phenolic notes in the finish.

Le grenache gris de Jean 2014

La Baronne - Le Grenache Gris de Jean - 2014

Although the winemaker does not refer to it as such, this is an orange wine, made with extended skin maceration. Incredibly complex nose (walnuts, spice, fennel, peach, …) and interesting texture with a savoury bitterness that makes this wine a very versatile food partner. Highly original.

Les Lanes 2013

La Baronne - Les Lanes Rouge 2013

An unoaked blend of grenache and carignan. A southern wine, but without a trace of alcohol heat or overripe fruit. It has a funky leather note to it. The fruit intensity on the palate is remarkable. One glass calls for the next – always a good quality criterion.

Les chemins de traverse 2015

La Baronne - Les Chemins de Traverse - 2015

Made without any added sulphites at all, not even at bottling. Natural wine of an almost moving purity and simplicity (in the best sense of the word). Red and black fruits and garrigue spice, extremely fine-grained tannins, and again fresh acidity. A delight.

Las Vals 2013

La Baronne - Las Vals Mourvèdre - 2013

Mighty mourvèdre (100%). The tannic structure and wild aromatics of the grape are there, but at no point does the wine become overbearing or lose its elegance. Powerful yet refined, a wine for the game season, or just to meditate by the fireplace.

Pièce de Roche 2012

La Baronne - Piece de Roche - 2012

Those who still think of carignan as an uninteresting, high yielding bulk variety should try this wine. The grapes are sourced from the 1892 parcel of carignan vines referred to above. A wine of a rare complexity and profoundness, showing what old vine carignan is capable of. The hallmark is again balance and precision.

 

Between Limoux and Cabardès

There are offers that are difficult to refuse… spending some days in the middle of vineyards in my beloved Languedoc at harvest time, is certainly one of them… Like last year, I stayed at Jean-Louis Denois’ winery in Roquetaillade, on the heights of Limoux amidst stunning scenery.

p1220976
View of Roquetaillade, on the heights of Limoux

I wrote on Jean-Louis’ wines and his philosophy before, so I will not repeat myself. Suffice it to say that he’s never satisfied and always trying out new things. In his range of sparkling wines, for example. We got to taste a chardonnay of grapes sourced from the same vineyard as his top white Sainte-Marie, but picked slightly earlier. It is not quite there yet after 1,5 years of ageing on the lees, but for sure a very promising effort. Its pinot noir-based counterpart is powerful and structured.  The cuvée Bulles d’Argile is now made without added sulphites. It has delicate oxydative notes and a broad, creamy palate, making it a great table partner. Simply delicious, and much better than many a champagne. The sparkling range of Denois is for sure among the best you can find in France, as confirmed by the recent “coup de coeur” awarded by the Revue du Vin de France.

In the range of red still wines, the Grande Cuvée stands out – a wine with depth and ageing potential. The 2007 is now at its peak: a delicious mix of vibrant fruit, well integrated oak, and leather and tobacco starting to appear. Compare this to your average Bordeaux of the same vintage, and you’ll be delighted. Interestingly, we had the occasion to reflect on the blend for this wine for 2015, on the basis of barrel samples. The constitutive elements: a merlot with quite some oak influence, two cabernet sauvignons with tight, grippy tannins, and a blend of cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc in stainless steel tanks, with great fruit depth. We ended up making two blends, one where the oak-aged merlot was dominant, another where the cabernet franc had a marked varietal influence. Decisions like these need to mature, so there was no final choice – but it was a fascinating exercise in its own right.

p1230152
tasting and blending barrel samples

We did not stay in Limoux the whole weekend though…

Cabardès – Languedoc’s westernmost AOP

On Saturday, we got the company of Jean-Louis’ friend Gérard, a geologist and geographer who has been advising Languedoc winegrowers since a long time about soil structure, choice of grape varieties, cultivation methods, etc. The guy is a phenomenon, with his witty humour, a charming southern accent and very outspoken views.

We head for Cabardès, the part of Languedoc that borders on the Sud-Ouest, and where atlantic influence is most marked. This is reflected in the allowed grape blends: always a mix of mediterranean (syrah, grenache, cinsault) and atlantic (cabernet, merlot) varieties. Gérard explained the three basic terroirs of Cabardès, mainly in terms of soil profile (depth, water retention, granularity) – noting, however, that terroir does not exist without the intervention of the wine grower.

img_9388
a crash course in Languedoc geology

We do not get to hear romantic stories about soils and how you can taste them in the wines. On the contrary, terroir is basically about putting the right grapes on the right soils: Bordeaux varieties will suffer from excessive water stress in shallow and free draining soils, whereas mediterranean grapes will give less interesting results on humid soils. These are things to be taken into account when planting new vineyards or deciding on cultivation methods.

Domaine de Cazaban

The first of two estates we visited was domaine de Cazaban, run by young maverick Clément Mengus. An Alsatian by birth, his frame of reference in reds consisted mainly of Burgundy and the northern Rhône. Having ended up in the Languedoc, he sees it as his mission to make an elegant, fresh style of reds, unlike the heavily extracted and alcoholic wines one easily finds in the Languedoc.

The estate began with just 4 hectares of vines that Clément bought from a retired wine grower. As he initially lacked intimate knowledge of the terroir, he got off to a bit of a difficult start: some plantings of cabernet that did not work out very well, and a choice of rootstock that turned out disastrous on some parcels. Judging by the current look of the estate, however, he seems to have things on order. The  estate is now entirely farmed biodynamically (certified by Demeter since a few years).

In the cellar, the philosophy is clearly one of minimal intervention, abeit without any extremist views on the use of sulphites, for example. Oak use is limited, and mainly involves big barrels or foudres from the winemaker’s native Alsace. No heavy extraction here, with just a few times pumping over of the must during fermentation.

The results are convincing, to say the least. We start off with a white wine, coup de foudre – a blend of grenache gris, marsanne and roussanne. Clearly a southern wine, yet with good freshness and some interesting bitter notes in the finish.

p1220780

Things really get going when we discover the range of reds. The wine going by the poetic name jours de vigne is a mediterranean blend of grenache, syrah and carignan. This is “natural wine” at its best: pure and vibrant fruit, a bit of funky, leathery notes, but clean as a whistle and miles away from the heavy oxydative style one sometimes finds in this genre. It is clear that this winemaker has mastered his art. Demoiselle Claire offers an interesting combination of syrah (60%) and merlot (40%), partially oak-matured, with a core of intense dark fruit and spice, a lovely texture, and superb balance. Les petites rangées has a somewhat higher percentage of merlot, adding to the smoothness and roundness of the wine, in which freshness is again the key. The “cuvée principale” is perhaps more traditional in style, yet appealing and precise. Just a slight disappointment over the most expensive cuvée, Coup des C (coup d’essai, meaning “attempt”), which is more extracted, more oaked, and in my view not needed in this otherwise great set of wines. I imagine its retail price (approximately 35€) makes it less than obvious commercially as well.

Domaine de Cabrol

We move higher up, in the direction of the montagne noire, in the afternoon. We are close to the limit of where vines can grow, at an altitude of about 300 meters and very much wind-exposed. The guide of the Revue du vin de France cites Domaine de Cabrol as one of the references in the AOP, and it is clear that we are more on the side of tradition than avant-garde here. The somewhat chaotic farmyard we arrive at, does not immediately inspire confidence, but it is ultimately the wine that matters, of course.

Winemaker Claude Carayol guides us through a range of 4 wines, 3 of which are red (AOP Cabardès does not exist in white). The names of the two main cuvées refer to the specificity of this part of the Languedoc: it is where the winds from the west meet the winds from the east, and mediterranean grapes partner with Bordeaux varieties. A combination that is not always obvious. Claude’s choice is to make two cuvées, vent de l’est and vent de l’ouest, where one of the two influences dominates.

The vent de l’ouest is marked by cabernet sauvignon (60%). We taste the 2010, which has barely evolved at all. It has a profound ruby colour with a purple rim, and the nose immediately betrays cabernet, with intense cassis fruit, but not a trace of green bell pepper (meaning the grapes are completely ripe). Despite the absence of oak, the palate is ample, structured and pure. A very nice wine.

Vent de l’est is more typically mediterranean and dominated by syrah. Generous, ripe fruit, with smokey and peppery notes betraying the variety. It is more jammy than its counterpart, and a little less elegant, but still very much worthwile. This cuvée has been praised extensively in wine guides and magazines over the years, and one can see why.

The last cuvée in the range, la dérive, is the only one aged in (big) oak barrels (“demi-muids”), and has a sensual, southern profile, with vanilla, sweet spice and chocolate notes alongside ripe black fruit. Powerful, yet not too much.

Go west

The western part of Languedoc, in conclusion, although much less known and present in the Belgian market (especially in the case of Malepère and Cabardès, a bit less for Limoux), has some nice surprises in store. The interesting climatic conditions allow for vibrant, lively wines with a lot of freshness. Definitely worth further discovery!

Stage 2 of our stay took us to a more classic mediterranean part of the Languedoc, Corbières, where we visited the superb Château La Baronne. But that’s the subject of a new post, soon to follow!

 

Loire’s white delights: Vouvray and Montlouis

The Loire valley is definitely one of France’s great spots, and it is no wonder that a large stretch of the valley as a whole has been granted the status of UNESCO world heritage. The number of sites that Michelin’s green guide lists as “worth the trip” (***) is huge; the beautiful landscape is shaped by the majestically meandering river and its tributaries, overlooked by countless châteaux of great historical value.

Having spent some time in Sancerre and Pouilly a few years ago, I now ventured a bit downstream along France’s longest river, and ended up to the east of Tours. There is ample opportunity for winelovers to quench their thirst here: the broader area falls within the AOP Touraine (with some local subzones), and the two closest village appellations are Montlouis and Vouvray. The former is rather small, with a few hundred hectares of vines squeezed between the Cher to the south and the Loire to the north, the latter comprises over 2000 hectares, all located to the north of the Loire. The soils are typically chalky here (tuffeau limestone), although there is a higher proportion of sandy soils on the Montlouis side.

I visited two producers, one in each AOP. In Montlouis, I discovered the wines of the well-established “Domaine de la Taille aux Loups”, founded by Jacky Blot; in Vouvray, I left the beaten track somewhat by visiting “Le Clos de la Meslerie”, where the wine is made with minimal intervention (one could say it is a “natural wine”, although, as readers may know, there is no rigorous definition of the concept – more on that below).

Domaine de la Taille aux Loups – Montlouis

On a glorious summer morning, I drive from the castle of Chenonceaux to Husseau, a hameau of Montlouis. Having turned right from the D40, I soon find myself in the middle of the vineyards. The landscape is softly undulating here. No steep slopes, more like a plateau. It is one of the reasons why the disastrous 2016 spring weather has wreaked havoc here. Little draining of the abundant rainfall, and no evacuation of cold air during spring frost. These two factors combined have caused heavy losses for this year’s harvest, as a quick inspection of some vines confirms: hardly any bunches to be seen.

Jacky Blot has created the estate from scratch a few decades ago. He is a never-tiring entrepreneur, extremely demanding for himself and those who work with him. This uncompromising search for precision and perfection is reflected in the wines. It is early in the morning, but my tasting buds are up for a feast.

We start off with the Brut triple zéro (meaning no enrichment of the must (chaptalisation), no liqueur de tirage, no liqueur de dosage). Clean and precise fruit, hints of vanilla and toast, excellent balance between richness of flavours and bright acidity. The rosé de Touraine, made of Gamay, is the wine that seduces least among the whole flight: typical nose of bonbons anglais, but not very exciting and rather simple.

Next up is the Clos Michet 2014. Received wisdom places Vouvray in a higher league than Montlouis, because of its south-facing vineyards, whereas Montlouis is looking north. Even in Johnson’s and Robinson’s wine atlas, the only vineyards shown for Montlouis are those to the north of the D140, either on the “plateau” mentioned above, or descending towards the Loire. There are however also Montlouis vineyards on slopes facing the Cher, and thus exposed to the South. Clos Michet comes from one of these. The 12 months of oak are quite noticeable on the nose, alongside ripe fruit, with tropical notes (pineapple), but underpinned by a firm acidity and mineral edge. The wine needs some time for the oak to integrate better. Remus Plus 2014, a blend of three small parcels from the same area, has spent even more time on oak barrels, but has digested this better than the Clos Michet. It has more concentration and weight, without ever becoming heavy-handed.

La Bretonnière 2014, which should have been a Vouvray but was denied AOP status because the cellar, contrary to the vineyards, is not within the AOP boundaries, is a very lively, energetic wine, with a lot of tension. I am tempted to use the word “chalky”, be it with all the caveats of the discussion on minerality in wines (which would lead us too far here). We end the tasting with Cuvée des Loups 2009, a sweet wine from botrytised grapes. 100 grammes of residual sugar, yet so incredibly playful and elegant. A great illustration of the recent plea of Jancis Robinson in favour of sweet wines.

La Taille aux Loups has a great set of wines on offer. In their most recent guide of the best wines of France, the journalists of La Revue du vin de France have given this estate one out of three stars, arguing that there is still room for improvement in terroir expression (whatever this may mean precisely) and purity of fruit. I beg to differ, and would put this estate at least on the level of that other Montlouis giant François Chidaine, of whom I also tasted some wines during my stay (tasting notes to follow).

Clos de la Meslerie – Vouvray

Some stories make one dream. The one of Peter Hahn is among those. Formerly active in the financial sector, he decided to switch careers, learnt to make wine at the lycée viticole in Tours, where reputed Vouvray grower Vincent Carême was one of his teachers, and bought a small 4ha estate in Vernou-sur-Brenne, a marvellous zone in the heart of the Vouvray area.

IMG_2609IMG_2602

I arrive at the estate somewhat stressed, running half an hour late due to GPS issues. The warm informal welcome instantly removes the stress. Peter exudes a steady kind of tranquillity, surely an important quality for a vigneron. Soon we are amidst the vines – 4 parcels spread around the house, each with a different exposition. Peter’s wine making philosophy of minimal intervention places him in the natural wine scene (he is mentioned and commended in Isabelle Legeron’s textbook on natural wine), though with a very reasonable and rational approach. He considers himself too “cartesian” to fully apply biodynamic principles, which he thinks of as “faith”. Likewise, no dogmatism on the use of sulphites in the cellar: it is restricted to a minimum, but not banned (none of the oxydized apple cidre you find with some natural wine disciples, to put it bluntly). The vines are biologically farmed, and Peter usually gets by with far less than the authorised amount of cupper. Weed is only removed mechanically. The vines are in great shape indeed.

The cellar is of a stunning simplicity. No high-tech equipment, just the bare essentials: a traditional vertical press, a stainless steel tank to let the must settle, after which it flows by gravity to the barrel cellar below, where the rest of the process takes place: fermentation in the barrels, with lees stirring from time to time. Malolactic fermentation doesn’t take place, presumably because of the very low pH of the wines, which also reduces the need for sulphites.

We taste some 2015 samples of barrels from different parcels and harvesting dates. First surprise: the juice is remarkably limpid. The wine will not need any fining or filtering, and is as good as ready to be racked and bottled. In the glass, it is straight and pure, with noticeable differences, obviously, between the parcels. In general, the warmth and generosity of the 2015 vintage shines through. These barrels will then be blended into the final wine in order to reflect the place and the vintage.

The wines are indeed very different between vintages, as becomes obvious when we taste bottle samples. The edgy, lively and pure style remains constant, but the characteristics of the vintage come to light.

We start off with a sparkling wine, made from grapes which, contrary to standard practice, are not harvested earlier but at full maturity, giving a very vinous, powerful vin de repas.

Only one still wine is made every vintage. The 2009, a warm vintage, has 30 (!) grammes of residual sugar, but its taste is refined and ethereal, the sugar is barely noticeable. A wine of marvellous depth. 2014 is less opulent, but still has a great texture and volume, with the mineralic acidity carrying the wine all the way through a very long finish. 2013 is even dryer, and possibly a touch out of balance at this point. But the acidity will make this wine last for decades, and my guess is it will be fine in a few years.

IMG_2612

One can see that the same drive that made Peter successful in the financial world, will make this wine adventure a success as well. And the final product is so much more appealing… Warmly and wholeheartedly recommended!

 

 

 

A journey through Austria (1) – introduction

Last week, I joined a group of sommeliers, educators and people in the wine trade for a short but intense trip through the vineyards of Austria. The coming days and weeks, I will be posting a few highlights of this magnificent and underrated wine country, starting with a brief general introduction to some key aspects of Austrian viticulture.

Viticulture in Austria, as in most central European regions, dates back to Antiquity and survived in the middle ages thanks to the clerus, notably the Cistercian monks coming from Burgundy. The major cesure in the modern history of Austrian wine making, however, is the ill-famed wine scandal that broke out in 1985. High concentrations of diethylene glycol, a (toxic) compound similar to what is added to fuel to prevent it from freezing, and meant to give wines more smoothness and body, were found in Austrian wines. The sales understandably plummeted. “Never waste a good crisis”, the Austrians must have thought, and they seized the moment to elaborate what is probably one of the strictest wine legislations in the world.

Today, Austrian wines have reached a high level of quality and a worldwide reputation, albeit predominantly among more knowledgeable wine consumers. In 2014, just over 20% of the total production was exported, but while the export has stabilized in terms of volume, it has steadily risen in terms of value, indicating that the more expensive wines find their way to international markets.

Tement
The Zieregg vineyard of winery Tement in south-eastern Steiermark, overlooking the Slovenian border

Austrian vineyards, totalling just short of 50.000 hectares (a surface comparable to Champagne in France), are situated between 47 and 48 degrees latitude, implying a cool to moderate climate, with freshness and elegance as an essential hallmark – even in the full-bodied reds from Burgenland. Macro- and meso-climatic influences for Austrian wine, other than vineyard latitude, are the warm currents from the Pannonian plain, cold air from the north, Mediterranean (Ilyric) influence (mainly in the Steiermark), proximity of the Alps, and the tempering effect of large water masses, like the Neusiedlersee and, of course, the Danube. These factors will be discussed in more detail in the posts on separate wine regions.

 

Austria’s main wine regions ((c) austrianwine.com)

In terms of geology, and without going into too much detail here, we can say that Austria has a wide diversity of soil types: primary rocks that surfaced through collisions of tectonic plates (granite, gneiss, schist, quartz, …), alluvial material and debris carried by rivers (gravel, …), weathered rock (löss, sand,…) and organic (limestone) deposits originating from the big sea that once covered what is today the Pannonian plain. These soil types obviously have an impact on the vine and the wine it produces. That is not to say that we can smell or taste schist, for example (for the record, I smelt and licked a piece of schist – it tastes of nothing, I can assure you), but that the water, heat and nutrient retention capacities of the soil are determining the vine’s metabolism and hence the taste of the wines.

Geology of Austrian winegrowing regions ((c) austrianwine.com)

The country produces a broad range of wine styles, from crisp, aromatic or complex and ageworthy whites, over fruity or more robust and tannic reds, to lusciously sweet wines (Austria’s “liquid gold”) with great acidity and balance. I tasted around 260 wines in the 5 days of the trip, and while there were some mediocre wines, the overall quality was impressive. I hasten to add that many of the wineries we visited are not exactly representative of the bulk of the market, as they mainly produce premium and ultra-premium wines, but they do show the greatness that Austrian wines are capable of.

Like many other winegrowing nations, Austria can boast a few “signature grapes”, native to the country and not that frequently cultivated elsewhere. In white, by far the most important grape is grüner veltliner, yielding wines with high acidity yet complex texture. For reds, there is sankt-laurent and blaufränkisch, and of course the crossing of those two, zweigelt (named after the professor who did the crossing). But more international varieties shine just as brightly. Riesling gives outstanding results, notably in Wachau, Kamptal and Kremstal. Some pinot noirs definitely attain Burgundy quality. And the sauvignon blancs of Steiermark are an international reference point on their own.

Conscious of its assets, Austria has set up a strict system of protected denominations of origin, the so-called “DAC’s” (Districtus Austriae Controllatus). Besides that, there is also the hierarchy in terms of sugar ripeness, much like the German one (Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, etc.), but a detailed discussion of this would lead us to far. Eager readers may want to have a look at the website of Austrian wines for more details.

In terms of winemaking practices, there is a growing consciousness of the need to work in a sustainable way, which has led to the creation of a certification “Nachhaltig Austria“, whereby sustainability is defined not only in ecological, but also in social and economical terms. Moreover, 10% of the vineyard surface is cultivated organically, making Austria the world leader, as explained in a report on the ProWein website. That is no mean achievement in a country with a relatively cool and in many places also humid climate!

Climate change is obviously not unheard of here either, but Austria may perhaps be counted among the wine regions that are likely to benefit from slightly warmer temperatures. Where problems would arise, solutions are already being sought in the form of later ripening clones, or adapted vine training, irrigation, and canopy management practices.

The following posts will each highlight a region or a set of regions within Austria, discussing the main wine styles and sometimes individual wineries. Next up: one of the coolest (literally at least) spots in the country, the Weinviertel. Stay tuned!

Domaine Jean Fournier, Marsannay “Les Longeroies” 2013

DSC_0128

Rode Bourgogne is allerminst een evidente wijn voor de doorsnee wijnconsument. Daar zijn verschillende redenen voor. De druif, om te beginnen. Terwijl zijn Bourgondische zus chardonnay eerder een allemansvriend is, heeft pinot noir een eigenzinnig, wat weerbarstig karakter. Hij gedijt op niet veel plaatsen in de wereld, en als men het toch buiten die paar bevoorrechte zones probeert, levert dat vaak weinig soeps op. Hij heeft een dunne schil, wat hem gevoelig maakt voor ziektes allerhande, en waardoor hij er ook wat bleekjes uitziet in het glas – niet-ingewijden verwachten ongetwijfeld maar een flauw brouwsel bij het aanschouwen ervan. Hij heeft, kortom, niet die onmiddellijke “no nonsense”-charme van een Bordeaux. De tweede reden voor de mindere populariteit betreft de streek. Bourgogne is erg ingewikkeld, met een immens versnipperde wijngaardstructuur en bijna dubbel zoveel oorsprongsbenamingen als Bordeaux. Tot slot, en niet onbelangrijk: de prijzen van écht goede Bourgogne swingen de pan uit. Als je in de gereputeerde dorpen en bij goede producenten gaat zoeken, dan is het schier onmogelijk om iets onder de 25 euro te vinden, om nog maar te zwijgen over het andere einde van het spectrum.

Voor liefhebbers van pinot noir die geen vet gespijsde portefeuille hebben maar toch in Bourgogne willen blijven, zit er maar één ding op: op zoek gaan naar de verborgen juweeltjes. De wijn die ik vandaag bespreek is er zo eentje. We bevinden ons in Marsannay-la-Côte, in het noorden van de “Côte d’Or”, de heuvelrug die enkele van de beroemdste wijnen ter wereld voortbrengt. Marsannay behoort tot de Côte de Nuits (genoemd naar het dorp Nuits-St-Georges), waar vooral rode wijn wordt gemaakt – al bestaat de AOP Marsannay zowel in wit, rood als rosé. Les Longeroies is een van de beste “climats” in Marsannay, en geeft (in de handen van een getalenteerd wijnmaker) diepe, volle wijnen met veel structuur en intensiteit.

Dat is hier niet anders. Ik proefde de wijn blind en neigde heel even de piste Bourgogne te verlaten, maar deed dat uiteindelijk niet: ondanks de kracht en concentratie die van deze wijn uitgaat, blijft hij de typische lichtvoetigheid van goede pinot hebben. Puur donker kersenfruit, kruidnagel en een hint van kaneel, samen met wat toast in de neus. In de mond is hij van een merkwaardige intensiteit, maar zonder ook maar een moment te vermoeien, met stevige, rijpe tannines die, in combinatie met de zuren, een grote toekomst laten vermoeden. Een meesterlijke balans tussen kracht en elegantie.

Deze fles evenaart moeiteloos de kwaliteit van een zeer goede Gevrey-Chambertin, misschien zelfs van een premier cru uit dat dorp. Wie niet op de grote namen kickt, moet deze wijn absoluut eens proberen. Het Franse wijntijdschrift La Revue du vin de France deelt die mening, en gaf een “coup de coeur” aan deze Marsannay.

Af en toe kom je bij het proeven een wijn tegen die je iets doet. Wijn die je weliswaar objectief als goed gemaakt kunt beschrijven (perfecte balans, rijpe tannines, puur fruit), maar die deze formele eigenschappen overstijgt en een stukje van een andere wereld in zich lijkt te dragen. Voor mij voldeed deze Marsannay aan dat criterium. En 24 euro voor een beetje transcendentie wil ik af en toe wel betalen (YOLO, en het leven is te kort om slechte wijn te drinken, enz. enz.).

Te koop bij Wijnen Sanders voor €24

Château de la Cour au Berruyer 2014 – chenin blanc

The Loire valley is indisputably part of the great French wine heritage, and home to what is probably the most diverse range of wines in France. From crisp, lean whites, over sparkling wines (even red ones!), dry and less dry rosés, fruity or full-bodied and ageworthy reds, to sweet wines with noble rot: Loire has it all.

Among the many white grape varieties used, one stands out in particular: chenin blanc. A somewhat recalcitrant grape, not as obviously and immediately charming as its neighbour sauvignon blanc, but – when handled properly – able to deliver tremendous wines, bot in still, sparkling and sweet versions.

The wine discussed here comes from Azay le Rideau (a name which for many readers will ring a bell – it is also one of the great Loire castles), a geographical indication under the broad AOP “Touraine” (meaning the region around Tours). Indeed, in the last decades, the region has put some effort in identifying and structuring its different types of terroir, hence this more fine-grained distinction within the vast AOP Touraine. Little change as to the grape variety for the whites though: chenin still rules.

This (organic) wine has a medium lemon color, and its fresh, reasonably intense nose is built on citrus fruit and green apple, with a distinct saline note. It is obviously still very youthful. Expectations are confirmed on the palate: tense and vivid, with some herbaceaous and spicy notes coming into play; a very lean style (only 11,5% alcohol!), perhaps lacking some concentration. Medium finish. A good effort from this Loire estate. It paired magnificently with a piece of young goat cheese.

Bought at Titulus Pictus – cave à vins et épicerie fine, Chaussée de Wavre 167A, Ixelles, for €11

 

Grape varieties: ABC or alfa to omega?

A recent Facebook exchange with fellow blogger Peter Kupers sparked some thoughts. The exchange was about fer servadou, a grape variety native to the South-West of France, that also goes by the names of “mansois”, “braucol” and “pinenc”, depending on the region and AOP. Peter called it an “obscure” variety, to which I reacted that “obscure” was hardly the word for a variety that is well enshrined in at least a handful of AOPs (Gaillac, Marcillac, Madiran, to name the most important ones). I had to admit, though, that there are only a few hundred hectares planted with fer servadou, which, in a country with over 750.000 HA of vines is indeed rather insignificant. This website lists it as a “modest” varietal (a term that I much prefer to “obscure”, in any case).

This brought me to the question of (grape) diversity in the wine world, and whether wine drinkers care about it at all. Peter’s point was that your average wine consumer has almost certainly never heard of fer servadou, and would most likely favour a bottle of good old cabernet sauvignon when faced with the choice.

Bars and supermarkets obviously tend to reflect this situation. At a small new year’s gathering with colleagues this week, the wine choice in the pub we went to was unsurprisingly limited to two whites and two reds.  Sauvignon blanc and chardonnay for the whites, merlot and cabernet sauvignon for the reds…

Grape-hc-cConsidering that the authoritative book “Wine Grapes” (Robinson-Harding-Vouillamoz) lists over 1.300 varieties, from international stars to little-known indigenous grapes, the poverty of the offer is in some sense remarkable. It therefore comes as no surprise that there are dissident voices. The most famous one, alluded to in the title of this post, is the US-based “Anything But Chardonnay” movement, reacting against the lake of dull, uninteresting chardonnay wine that was flooding the American market. However, the proposed alternatives are hardly mind-blowing either: “Anything but Chardonnay emphasizes other viable choices to expand the selection of white wines, especially in the summer, including: Sauvignon Blanc,Riesling, Pinot Grigio (Pinot Gris), Chenin Blanc, Viognier, among others“.

An interesting and funny initiative that I recently came across is the Wine Century Club. Membership of this club is only possible if you solemnly pledge to have tasted at least a hundred different grape varieties (in fermented form, that is, and either as a monovarietal or in a blend) – the sole punishment for lying about this being the wrath of Bacchus himself. I checked for myself (what did you expect?) and ended up just short of 200… which means that even for a regular and relatively curious taster like myself, there remains a bewildering range of grapes that I have not tasted and probably never will taste – Italy alone has over 300 native varieties! Moreover, looking at my private cellar, I confess I do not always practice what I preach: the usual suspects tend to dominate…

The question is how much of a problem that is. One could look at it from another perspective, and hypothesize that if certain grapes are overlooked, there may well be a good reason for it. Maybe we’re not missing out on much. Do they really have such a unique taste profile? Besides, terroir and vinification ensure a lot of diversity, even with a limited variation in grapes. To take the example of Chardonnay: not only does it vary enormously according to soil and climate, but the winemaker’s choices can produce anything between a crisp, mineral Chablis-style and a bold, fat and oaked style – which has led some to the conclusion that the ABC era is over.

On the other hand, the search for “forgotten” grapes is interesting in its own right, as part of the movement towards more food diversity and “slow food” (think of the forgotten vegetables that are reappearing these days), and we should not let mass market imperatives drive our taste. This being said, the quest could even prove to be an economically useful one, bearing in mind the by now undeniable reality of climate change: varieties that were grubbed up before because they ripened too late or had low sugar content, are being rediscovered. Petit verdot is a point in case in Bordeaux. Likewise, Torres is reviving indigenous varieties in Spain to anticipate rising temperatures. One wonders what regions like Burgundy, which is largely based on two monovarietals, will do when it gets hotter…

As with all things living, diversity is the best option we have, and we should cultivate it as much as we can. But, as wine lovers, we should also not despair about what we will most likely miss out on, or feel guilty when we enjoy the odd glass of chardonnay or riesling (apologies to fierce fanatics of the latter for putting these two on the same line).  Cheers!

Mas des Chimères – “Caminarem” 2012

I confess: I have fallen in love with Languedoc-Roussillon. Because of the region, its climate and its spectacular scenery. Because of the increasingly excellent wines that are being produced there. And maybe its status of underdog and its (former) bad reputation as an uninteresting, bulk-producing region also have to do something with it; when we think French fine wine, we think Bordeaux, Bourgogne, Champagne, Loire, and perhaps Rhône and Alsace, but rarely will Languedoc pop up in that list (at least when drawn up by outsiders).

The region is, alas, not doing itself a favour by creating or maintaining an AOP system that takes quite some time to be understood. The Languedoc system does however bear some resemblance to the Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages, in the sense that there is a generic appellation  (AOP Languedoc, formerly “Coteaux du Languedoc”) valid across the region (not the Roussillon), with some villages or zones allowed to add their name (e.g. AOP Languedoc – Grès de Montpellier), and some that have become a “cru” in their own right. A recent and very good example of this last category is “Terrasses du Larzac”, which brings me to the topic of this post.

Terrasses du Larzac is at the Western edge of Languedoc, away from the hot coastal plains where the focus is on volume, at quite high altitude (up to 800m) and with a mix of red clay (“ruffe”) and limestone soils. Its climate is more continental (being further away from the sea), and the average annual rainfall is slightly higher here. The height brings wide diurnal temperature ranges and cool nights, ideal for a slow and long maturation. Terrasses du Larzac has become one of the most sought-after AOPs in the Languedoc.

IMG_2119[1]

The wine discussed here comes from the Mas des Chimères, situated in Octon, close to the lake of Salagou. The estated is certified organic, and produces a range of wines from IGP level up to AOP Terrasses du Larzac.

This “Caminarem” is composed of fairly equal shares of carignan, cinsault, grenache, syrah and mourvèdre. It is still fairly young (vintage 2012), and upon opening appears quite disjointed. There is some very nice fruit and garrigue spice there to be sure, and the alcohol (13,5%)  is well balanced, but somehow it seems to lack integration. What a marvellous surprise on the second day, when everything has fallen into its place: the wine has unleashed its full garrigue bouquet of lavender, laurel and thyme, alongside juicy dark cherry fruit and some licorice. Its tannins are mature and very fine-grained, with just a little savoury bitterness in the finish. It lingers on for a long time. A delight to drink now, but those who wait for it a few more years will undoubtedly be rewarded. I’m getting a few more bottles, in any case.

Sold at a price of 13€ by Passion for Wine, Place Colignon, 1030 Schaerbeek (new discovery, recommended! sells a range of organic and biodynamic wines from France, Spain and Italy)

 

 

De wijn, en niet het etiket laten spreken

Verslag van een blinde proeverij met de Vereniging van Vlaamse Sommeliers (VVS) – 16 december 2015

We weten het: bij een “normale” proeverij zijn er talloze veronderstellingen, aannames en vooroordelen die ons beïnvloeden. En dat is des te meer het geval naarmate onze kennis groeit. Denken we niet allemaal aan Kimmeridge wanneer we een goeie Chablis proeven, of aan de vulkanische ondergrond bij het nippen aan een Taurasi, in die mate dat we de bodem menen te moeten kunnen proeven? Iemand vertelde me ooit een sommelier in de maling te hebben genomen door hem twee glazen van dezelfde wijn voor te schotelen, met de vraag de verschillen tussen beide te bespreken – meteen is er al de aanname dat die verschillen er moeten zijn, dus gaan we ernaar op zoek, en we vinden ze nog ook. Bekend is het experiment waarbij witte wijn rood wordt gekleurd met een geur- en smaakloze kleurstof: de proefnotities gaan meteen richting rood en zwart fruit.

Daarom is blind proeven altijd een confrontatie met onszelf, maar ook een belangrijke nuancering van het idee dat er zoiets bestaat als totale uniciteit in wijn. Wijnschrijver Stefaan Soenen maakte recent de vergelijking met een menselijke stem waarvan het timbre uit duizenden te herkennen valt, zoals die van Sting. Is dat haalbaar in het geval van wijn? Het antwoord is meer dan waarschijnlijk neen, althans niet op gustatief niveau. We kunnen druif en klimaatzone met wat geluk nog thuiswijzen, al zijn er zelfs wat dat betreft verrassingen: de Franse experts van het Judgment of Paris (1976) waren er bij de opmaak van hun rangschikking vast van overtuigd dat ze Franse wijnen op het hoogste schavotje hadden geplaatst, quod non.

Hoe blind is blind? Sommigen wisten niet dat het eerste (zwarte) glas reeds wijn bevatte, en begonnen net iets te enthousiast te walsen – meteen was er wat licht in de duisternis. De overige 14 wijnen kregen we in een transparant glas, uit een karaf geserveerd. Maar we hadden twee coaches, die soms niet eens de tijd kregen om hun paplepel vast te nemen, en soms overvloedige hoeveelheden van die pap moesten toedienen om het weifelende gezelschap tot een oplossing te brengen. “Is er een verschil in de gebruikte eiksoort voor deze twee wijnen?” luidde een vraag. “Wellicht wel, anders zou je het niet vragen”, was een antwoord.

Het boeit mij om bij zulke gelegenheden de groepsdynamiek te observeren. Sommigen, waaronder ondergetekende, komen bij gelegenheid onvervaard de loopgraven uit, om vervolgens eervol te sneuvelen. Maar soms treffen ze ook doel. Anderen aarzelen, ruiken, proeven, twijfelen nog steeds, ruiken opnieuw, en beslechten dan het debat met één rake zin. Was spreken nu zilver of goud?

VVS blind 2

Zaak is in elk geval je niet te laten vastpinnen op één idee of waarneming, en de conclusie zo lang mogelijk uit te stellen. Maar je moet ook eens goed op je bek durven gaan, vind ik. Bepaalde druiven waren heel goed getypeerd: weinigen vergisten zich in de nebbiolo. Bij andere werden fruit en terroir wat overstemd door (naar mijn mening) onoordeelkundig gebruik van eik. Hieronder een kort overzicht van de 5 “flights” van drie, zonder voor elke wijn in detail te gaan:

Flight 1: een Bourgondiër en twee Oostenrijkers

De Bourgogne in het zwarte glas was best wel snel geëvolueerd, met duidelijke tertiaire tonen in de neus. Wijnen 2 en 3 waren veel jeugdiger. Ik had gezworen dat de tweede een gamay was: fruitig, floraal en soepel met intens paarse rand. Het bleek een zweigelt, geflankeerd door een meer complexe en krachtige blaufränkisch, beide uit Burgenland.

Flight 2: Zuiders, maar hoe zuiders precies?

Over de laatste wijn van de drie was het minst twijfel: weinig intense en al wat vervagende kleur (oranje rand), maar niettemin robuuste tannines en een aromatisch palet dat zeer goed aansloot bij nebbiolo. Dat bleek te kloppen (DOC Roero). Anders was het voor de twee eerste. Zelf zat ik voor de eerste in de nieuwe wereld, die later Portugal bleek te heten. Alentejo, dus toch vrij warm. Een paar proevers haalden er de tempranillo uit. Voor de tweede wijn kregen we de tip mee dat het Portugal of Italië moest zijn. De oplossing, een barbera d’Alba, lag allerminst voor de hand, al spoorde het wel met de hoge zuren.

Flight 3: GSM-tonen

We zaten hier duidelijk op het warme, kruidige spectrum, waarbij de eerste evenwel wat meer zuren had – de sleutel om richting noordelijke Rhône te denken (Crozes-Hermitage). De tweede verried in de animaal getinte afdronk een aanzienlijke dosis mourvèdre (Bandol), terwijl de derde de warmste impressie gaf: een Corbières met redelijk wat carignan in de blend.

Flight 4: de cabernet brothers

De eerste wijn, met uitgesproken vegetale toetsen, was voor mij overduidelijk een cabernet franc, wat anderen betwijfelden omwille van de verbazend lichte kleur. Toch ging het om een St-Nicolas de Bourgeuil. Daarna volgden twee blends met in hoofdzaak cabernet sauvignon. De laatste toonde uitgesproken pyrazines (groene paprika) in de neus, samen met die rokerige toets typisch voor Zuid-Afrikaanse cabernet sauvignon. In de tweede moest het druifkarakter wat gezocht worden achter de (m.i. iets te dominante) eik: Haut-Médoc 2010.

Flight 5: krachtpatsers uit de oude en de nieuwe wereld

Logischerwijs werden de krachtigste wijnen tot het laatst bewaard. Velen zaten vrij snel op het malbec-spoor, wat althans voor wijnen 2 en 3 bleek te kloppen. Eens we dat wisten, was het niet moeilijk te raden welke uit de nieuwe wereld kwam: de derde had meer alcohol, geconfitureerd fruit en wat minder zuren. Zijn evenknie uit Cahors was wilder van aroma’s (beetje brettanomyces) en minder toegankelijk. De eerste wijn van deze flight bleek een Rioja reserva, 100% tempranillo.

De volledige wijnlijst staat hier.

VVS

 

 

 

 

Top Burgundy: the sequel

In an earlier post, I shared some thoughts on a spectacular Burgundy GC tasting in August. I was not anticipating to replicate the experience any time soon, but the occasion came unexpectedly. Burgundy aficionado Willy Daelemans from Epivino in Grimbergen regularly organises extensive tastings of top end Burgundy, one of which I attended last week.

While we were mainly tasting young wines here too, we ended with a series of mature red grand crus, which confirmed what I had written in the other blog post: it is hard to evaluate the true quality of great Burgundy when it’s young. Only after long bottle ageing, especially for the better vintages, does it fully reveal itself.

The evening started off with 6 whites. The first, a generic Bourgogne AOC, had a Chablis-like minerality combined with ripe, almost exotic fruit and quite some heat on the palate. It turned out that part of the grapes for this wine are sourced from Chablis, and part from the Maconnais, the southernmost region in Burgundy. It failed to impress, though, especially at a price of 19€: lack of freshness and not so well integrated alcohol.

It was mostly uphill from there, fortunately. The second wine admittedly had a bit too much oak, but the third (a Meursault villages – 38€) was dense and poised, with a long finish.

IMG_2099We then got to compare the three most reputed “premiers crus” of Meursault: Charmes, Genevrières and Perrières. The quality difference was much less outspoken here than in the first flight. The Charmes won perhaps, but it was a close finish with the Perrières.

Next up: ten reds from Pascal Marchand. This visionary winemaker and “micro-négociant”, originally from Québec, arrived in Burgundy in 1983, and after some wanderings in the southern hemisphere, returned to it in 2006, setting up a négoce and attracting investment by Ontario banker Tawse (see this article for some background info).

Marchand has a distinct and very consistent style, striving for elegance more than power, yet with quite some extraction. The 2011 GC Corton was a pure delight – to drink soon, as it has evolved quite rapidly: small red fruit, hints of leather, mushroom and sous-bois, with extremely refined, velvety tannins and a long silky finish. The 2010 Corton will be more long-lived and had still young and vibrant fruit.

Only one disappointment here: the Pommard épenots 2010 made a rather tired impression, lacked complexity and had excessive levels of volatile acidity (nail polish aromas).

The disappointment faded soon enough with the grand finale that awaited us, starting with a delicious Griotte-Chambertin 2004 (Marchand frères): a feast of leather, tobacco, red fruit, and a distinct animal note, making it perfect for the game season. Though 5 years older, the 1999 Charmes-Chambertin (Nicolas Potel) had a lot of potential still, with an amazing freshness after 15 years of bottle life. An interesting pair was the Échezeaux 1994 and 1995 (Mugneret-Gibourg). Although 1994 is reputedly the lesser vintage of the two, it clearly outperformed the 95 (drying tannins, faded fruit) on this occasion.

The oldest bottle was saved until the end: a superbly matured Charmes-Chambertin 1989 (Geantet-Pansiot), showing the true potential of pinot noir and Burgundy. If I want pinot that is approachable and charming early on, I would most likely look elsewhere, notably Germany or New-Zealand. But there is definitely nothing that equals a mature Burgundy of a good vintage, made by a competent pair of hands.