The Wihe Wanderers have been in Israel, which has been knocking our socks off for several years now, with increasing numbers of boutique wineries producing some staggering vintages. The soil, climate and slopes of the Galilee and the Judean Hills, the principal growing areas, turn out to be well suited to syrah, cabernet sauvignon and Bordeaux-style blends, but also to some marvellous whites.
A year ago we sat in the ancient port of Jaffa sipping a sublime glass of something really rare – 100 per cent roussanne from the Tabor winery. It was Israel’s first attempt at making wine exclusively from a grape which the French invariably blend with marsanne, but Tabor’s expert agronomist, Michal Akerman, took a bet that roussanne would perform better in Israel than in the Rhone Valley. “In our climate, it turned out to be a lot more aromatic,” she says. “It’s new now, but you’re going to see more and more roussanne made here.”
Tabor acquired the talents of Akerman – and some of the world’s best wine-making equipment – with a huge cash injection from Israel’s Coca-Cola distributors, who were looking for a boutique winery with huge potential. Founded in 1999 by a grower of fine Galilee grapes who wanted to do his own thing, Tabor was identified in 2007 as the one to go for. That founding partner, Arie Sela, stayed with the company, although his co-investors sold out, and the original veteran winemaker Arie Nesher also remains.
No longer a boutique winery with sales of nearly two million bottles a year, Tabor has gone on to win many prizes, and their Adama merlot – by no means top of the range, price-wise – was awarded an unprecedented 93 points by the Wine Enthusiast, their highest-ever marks for an Israeli wine. You can get it on Amazon for £15 per bottle, and won’t be disappointed. Sadly, the roussanne is not yet shipping to the UK, but Tabor’s signature sauvignon blanc is available and a selection of decent reds, of which the flagship is the Limited Edition cabernet sauvignon. This gold medal winner is strictly special occasion wine at £30-plus, but it is staggeringly fabulous.
Tabor are no longer restricted to the Galilee; like other winemakers they have realised the potential of the Judean Hills, where ambitious winemakers were once warned they would never be able to properly work the small plots. There is finally a great place to stay here and the Cramim resort in the shadow of Jerusalem is almost a wine university, offering thrice-daily tutored tastings of wines from the region, with bottles available at minimal mark-up to bring to dinner. They have great house blends made up for them by Ella Valley vineyards, but the region’s two greatest wineries remain Flam, whose family winemaker trained in Tuscany, and Castel, whose owner is a self-taught chicken farmer. We prefer Flam’s reds, but Le Blanc de Castel, with all the sumptuous notes of a fine French white Burgundy, is one of Israel’s greatest wines, and Castel has been much-lauded by Robert Parker.
Very little Israeli wine makes it to the British high street, given small production and high prices, but one lovely drop which does is Recanati’s blend of carignan and petite sirah for M&S, also grown in the Judean Hills. It’s a lovely, elegant drop at £9.99 and has more personality than the Barkan cabernet sauvignon you’ll find at Waitrose for the same price. But don’t get us wrong – that is rich and full-bodied, typical of the rich reds grown in the Galilee, although it would be good to see supermarket buyers exploring ambitious blends like the Recanati and less obvious grapes. Roll on mass production of Tabor’s roussanne – we look forward to ordering it one day on Amazon!
Having quashed our misconceptions that there’s little quality wine being made in Languedoc, the WineWanderers were invited by the Foncalieu cooperative to get down to southwestern France and see for themselves some great drops which are being produced in the area.
First, we had to get over some more preconceptions – that every label has its own winemaker, and that every grower of top-quality grapes makes their own wine. Foncalieu is a giant cooperative, bringing 1200 growers together over 5000 diverse hectares stretching from Languedoc east to the Rhone Valley and north into Gascony. The business grew out of Languedoc’s very first co-op, established by 128 winegrowers in 1901.
There seems to be a single winemaker – and she had not yet arrived during our stay in Corbieres to replace another female winemaker whose effots have won accolades for the group. It’s a fairly astonishing achievement that all four of the co-op’s Grands Vins celebrating the area’s winegrowing heritage were awarded more than 90 points by the redoubtable – and influential – US wine critic Robert Parker when vintages were submitted for the first time in 2012.
Much of the credit must go to the resident oenologist Gabriel Ruetsch, who brings much expertise from his native stomping-ground, the Mendoza wine country of Argentina. He has been responsible for establishing strict wine management specifications and vinification plans requiring an understanding of the very different terroirs within the region.
We focussed on the Languedoc lines, starting with entry-level Le Versant, most of which goes to restaurants, but luckily for us is also stocked by our local Secret Cellar.
We were less impressed by the pinot noir and viognier which are UK best-sellers than the rose – what a stylish drop for the price, full of South of France joie de vivre – and the merlot, which Ruetsch is particularly proud of, as it’s a grape hard to make a good wine from in this territory. In the similarly-priced Enseduna range, we enjoyed the 100 per cent petit verdot, a grape reduced to blending status in Bordeaux; well-made, it can certainly stand on its own.
We stayed at one of Foncalieu’s latest acquisitions, the Chateau Haut-Gleon in the Corbieres countryside. But its gites, swimming pool and stony vineyards were less of a thrill than its elegant wines, which command top-end prices. Overcoming one more misconception – that a rose has to be pale to be elegant – we really enjoyed Chateau Haut-Gleon, a strawberry-coloured pink made of 80% syran and just 20% of that south of France rose staple, grenache. It was dry, full-bodied and joyous, and we also enjoyed the 2008 red, comprising 45% syrah, 30% grenache and 25% carignan from old vines.
Of the four Grands Vins we particularly enjoyed Le Lien, a Minervois whose 2011 vintage is rich and ready to drink, unlike the higher-scoring La Lumiere, a Corbieres which will need another couple of years to come into its prime. Both are 100 per cent syrah, but quite different in style.
Back home, we were keen to see what the high street had to offer in quality Languedoc, being mostly supermarket wine shoppers ourselves. We found elegance from Waitrose in both the Chateau de Caraguilhes Corbieres 2012 and the 2011 Maris Minervois, both around £10 per bottle. But Marks and Spencer have really bagged themselves a star in Domaine de Fontseque, a heady blend of 40% carignan, 30% grenache noir, 20& syrah and 10% mourvedre, worth every penny of £10.99 to complement a weekend dinner.
Once again, as the sun made a reappearance and fish got on to the menu, we were reminded that the south also produces phenomenal whites. We loved both M&S’s Chateau de Flaugergues and Waitroses’ Domaine Begude, a rich but fresh chardonnay from the Limoux near Carcassonne. The Flaugergues is 80% Rolle, otherwise known as vermentino, a grape which does so well in Languedoc, especially when combined as here with grenache blanc. In fact grenache in all its colours – watch out for more grenache gris appearing in blends – is the great glory of the Beautiful South and reason alone to try a drop or three of Languedoc now summer is finally here.
The WineWanderers were invited to Languedoc-Roussillon to see what’s new in the land of syrah, grenache and carignan, not to mention a fascinating selection of white grapes rarely seen outside the region.
It’s a massive area, stretching west along the coast and hilly hinterland from Nimes to the Spanish border, and for years it’s been fighting to live down a bad rep which was the legacy of a load of cheap, badly-made wine grown on the flats. These days, however, it is home to thousands of more mindful growers who realise the future lies in quality rather than quantity, and several inspired wine-makers making some of the most exciting and under-valued French wine on the market.
More accessible than Bordeaux and Burgundy, whose reds require more time – and cost – to achieve decent drinking potential, the wines of the beautiful south are surprising for the fresh, zingy whites they produce as well as the rich reds and gorgeous golden roses for which the South of France is famous.
Cotes de Provence rose remains one of the most joyous and consistently great-value drops on the planet – it’s annoying that Brits have to pay £7.99 for a bottle which costs around €5 on its home turf. But for quite a bit less – £6 a bottle on promotion – we found that same joy in Sainsburys Winemaker’s Selection Languedoc Rose – also a blend of grenache, cinsault and syrah, albeit in different proportions. Their Taste The Difference Languedoc White was every bit as fresh and fragrant, thanks to a high proportion of grenache blanc.
A truly revelationary Languedoc white which came at us even before we left London was Mas Coutelou’s Pm, an astonishingly rich blend of grenache gris, muscat and sauvignon gris grown so close to the sands around Montpellier, you can almost taste and smell the Med before it gets to your lips. It’s one of the increasing number of natural wines grown in the Languedoc with practically no added sulphur. While this can affect consistency from one vintage to another, that’s never a problem with Pm, whose tiny production of just 1500 bottles inevitably sells out, in spite of the hefty £17+ per bottle price tag. Roberson Wines has what’s left of the 2012.
Pm was the white surprise served up by Bastien, the young Languedoc-born sommelier at Hibiscus, a Michelin-starred London restaurant with an excellent list, including many natural wines. The red was Le Pigeonnier from Terrasse d’Elise, a surprisingly smooth 100 per cent carignan. Usually saved for blends, quaffable wines made entirely of carignan are a big ask, but not if they are made with low-yielding grapes from old vines, which mellow and become less tough as they approach their half-century. Winemaker Xavier Braujou comes at his vines in the mountains behind Montpellier from the perspective of his early days as a woodcutter, spending years observing their behaviour in different soils and climates. This is a stonking wine available in the UK from Lea&Sandeman at £16.50 per bottle, case price.
Final surprises before we got as far as Foncalieu Wines, the largest cooperative in Languedoc, came on the doorstep itself, in Carcassonne, where the cooperative has its HQ. Baptiste, the young sommelier at the Barbacane restaurant in the Hotel de la Cite, served up In Fine, a rich, fragrant mixture of grenache blanc and grenache gris, to partner jellied veal’s head with little cubes of goose liver pate, peas and carrots. This wonderful white from Cave de l’Abbe Rous is a Collioure, made on the doorstep of the Spanish border.
From the Haute Vallee de l’Aude, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, Baptiste served up a surprisingly good Domaine de Mouscaillo pinot noir to go with the Bresse chicken with the morels. Who knew they could make wonderful pinot noir in an area perceived to be too warm and too flat(get up into the hills and it’s neither(? As we were to find out at Foncalieu, an even greater challenge for the region is to make a decent Merlot. More to come about our adventures on the ground – but meanwhile, take a closer look at Languedoc when combing the wine shelves for an interesting drop at a fair price.