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Clean organic wine from the beautiful south of France and beyond

18 Feb

via Clean organic wine from the beautiful south of France and beyond

Big black wines to see winter out

3 Mar

Just when we thought an early spring had arrived the weather turned brutal again, and the Wine Wanderers have been getting through the last of winter with some big, black wines we don’t drink at other times of the year.
Not to say we eschew rich reds altogether – we always enjoy a good syrah with a hunk of lamb – but there are wines which pack so much punch we approach them with caution, including our beloved Barolo, reserved for special occasions.

Biggest and blackest of all wines is malbec, too rarely tempered with a soupcon of anything, which we tired of for a while after tasting more than 70 in a week on a visit to Argentina(wine-makers here are doing much more interesting things with other varietals), but have now acknowledged the need to revisit.

Malbec, however much the Argentinians claim it for their own, was the pride of Cahors in south-west France before the wine-makers of Mendoza decided to get seriously stuck into it.   While always big and in the hands of the Argentinians pretty reliable, it can be a one-note wine devoid of any subtlety.   However, the Wanderers got the chance to appreciate its finer nuances courtesy of Chateau de Mercues, a distinguished domaine which makes some very fine bottles indeed in the Cahors region.

The Wanderers thought the Prestige Cuvee 6666 2014 was as good as it was going to get at a recent London tasting until the very special Icone WOW 2009 from sister domaine Chateau de Haute-Serre was poured – simply sumptuous.   Annoyingly, there is not yet any UK distribution for these bottles and vintages, but Dulwich Vintners does sell Mercues’s slightly less elevated Grand Vin at prices from £18 per bottle, depending on the vintage.  One delightful way of getting Mercues’s top wine would be to visit the vineyard, which is attached to a Relais & Chateaux hotel with a Michelin-starred restaurant, and pick up the 6666 for 28 euros a bottle, the Icone an eye-watering five times as much at the cellar door.

Encouraged by how fine a malbec can be in the hands of good winemakers, we decided to sample an award-winning Argentinian example from Aldi, their Exquisite Collection Malbec, which has bagged a Which? Best Buy award as well as winning Silver in competition.   It was fine, but paled into insignificance beside an astonishing big black bottle from France Aldi is currently fielding.   Bonfleur Languedoc Reserve 2011 may not contain any malbec whatsoever, but for a syrah/grenache/mourvedre blend, always a good bet for body and flavour, it is absolutely huge, positively forcing you to sip and savour rather than quaff.

The secret is the age – this wine was found lying around the chateau by the new owners of the domaine, Mas des Belles Eaux.  It had somehow been forgotten for four or five years, and has gained enormously in complexity during that time.   Tasting as good as a bottle three times the price, this £6.99 wonder is one to bag now before the limited stock vanishes forever; note Aldi offer free delivery and allow you to make up your own case in the unlikely event you wouldn’t want to buy at least six of these(we are about to order our next half-dozen, if there are any left).

Another limited edition offering is from Lidl – an inky-looking syrah which somehow has been listed in their “Naturally Light” range.  That’s because their MW taster found “freshness” in Cave du Tain, a rich Rhone with a deep colour and slightly gamey taste.   But unlike some malbecs, it only looks inky and doesn’t actually taste of black ink!

Summer in a bottle – gorgeous golden pinks from Provence and surprises from further afield

5 Jul

In a midsummer made for pink wine drinking, the Wine Wanderers have challenged themselves to reconsider roses made outside the South of France.   It was a wrench; it’s hard to turn away from the beautiful golden-pink wines which characterise Cotes de Provence and have a quality mostly absent from pinks made elsewhere.  It’s what Jean-Michel Deluc, former head sommelier of the Paris Ritz, speaking of the Clos de l’Ours CdP he sells through Le Petit Ballon, so aptly describes as “a stony minerality”.

Our prejudice against deeper-pink wines which often lack any hint of minerality has been fed over the years by some horrid Rose d’Anjou and even nastier “blush” zinfandel first encountered when the Wanderers lived in California.   It was a shock to return to these shores and find that white zinfandel had followed us – but we were close enough to France to pick up endless five-euro bottles of Cotes de Provence in French supermarkets which never disappointed, despite the bargain basement price.

CdP has now made it on to UK supermarket shelves, riding the crest of a wave of Brits’ preference for pale pink roses, but costs twice as much here as it does in France, thanks to the duty.   The Wanderers enjoyed Laithwaite’s gorgeous golden-pink Domaine Les Gres(£10.99 or £9.89 if buying 12) but felt it was a bit pricey.    At least both Sainsburys and Waitrose, whose own label CdP’s are decent value on promotion if also pricey otherwise at £8-9, have ramped up their range of pinks in light of sales of tens of million bottles every year and made some good finds elsewhere.

It’s not only in Provence where a preponderance of grenache makes for a great drop. Having established on a visit to Langedoc-Roussillon how good winemakers there are at blending this grape with syrah(viz. the excellent value L’Or du Sud by Foncalieu, £5.49 at Lidl), we ventured further north, enjoying a £6 Winemaker’s Selection Cotes de Rhone from Sainsburys, which also blends grenache with Syrah.  Ditto an £8  Barrihuela Rioja Rosado – here the grenache is spelled garnacha – perhaps a little finer than the excellent value £4.99 Rioja rosado from Lidl.

Laithwaites’ Pillastro Rosato from Puglia presented the first challenge to our prejudiced palates, not only because it was a slightly suspect strawberry pink, but because the grape was primitivo, the progenitor of zinfandel.   While not as sweet and nasty as the “blush” zinfandel we used to drink in California, the Pillastro was still too jammy for our taste, and a reminder that primitivo/zinfandel does have an inherent sweetness which is subsumed by the alcohol when it appears as a joyous red.    Similarly, we love red pinot noir, but not the New World pink pinot noirs tasted from various sources – a bit sweet and a bit fizzy for our tastebuds.

Specially worth mentioning is a great rose from Greece we approached with anticipation, remembering a wonderful cheap as chips rose enjoyed with barbecued pork in a remote corner of Mykonos.   Twin Sails, a Waitrose exclusive, is made from the xinomavro grape, another variety usually reserved for reds but this one performing perfectly as a fragrant pink with not a hint of unwanted sweetness.   Fabulous value at an everyday price of £5.99, all you should really have to pay for a wine that looks and tastes like summer in a bottle.

Bordeaux – over-valued or over the moon?

15 Mar

This past month the Wine Wanderers have been mainly drinking Bordeaux.   This is an unusual state of affairs, as while we’ve had our socks knocked off in the past by exquisite swigs of Pauillac, Margaux, Pomerol and Saint-Emilion, it’s been 20 years since we felt like investing a small fortune in a famous-name bottle.

The reason is that the elegance of these wines from houses which have been in the wine-making business for hundreds of years has led to many becoming investment vehicles which are now horribly over-valued.   The wine may be good, but not so great that you can’t find much better value from star winemakers in other parts of France, not to mention Spain, Italy, Israel and the New World.


Nevertheless, we jumped at the chance to taste a few glasses of Chateau Angelus, one of the most famous Saint-Emilions, whose wines command three figures per bottle.   One Wanderer had already met Stephanie de Bouard-Rivoal,  the eighth-generation chatelaine now taking the helm at a house established in 1782.   That was in Bordeaux itself; this time it was in London, at a Connaught lunch to launch a handsome tome Angelus has produced about its history.


The cost of lavishly entertaining wine writers and drinks buyers at meals cooked by Michelin-starred chefs is part of keeping these big names alive at a time when wine-lovers are gaining confidence  no longer seek a prestige name as a badge of approval.    Although the reds of Saint-Emilion and Pomerol, which rely heavily on merlot, are less likely to disappoint those shelling out than the left bank wines of the Medoc peninsula which are based much more heavily on cabernet sauvignon – one of the five permitted grapes in a classic Bordeaux blend along with cabernet franc, petit verdot, merlot and  malbec.   The result of cab sauv domination is lots of structure and ageing potential, but also heavy tannins which can take years to soften and become approachable.


One answer is to explore the“diffusion” wines of the grand chateaux, like the Carillon d’Angelus 2012, a mere snip at £42 per bottle, the Wanderers would happily have chosen to imbibe over the grand 2008 and 2006 vintages which followed, and which command three-figure sums.  Angelus has a distinctive character, thanks to an unusually large proportion of cabernet franc; it is more elegant but less seductive than most right bank wines, which are almost universally voluptuous.


A good way to explore Bordeaux without breaking the bank is to invest £10 to £20 in a bottle from the high street, where superior buying power can bring the cost down a tad.   Lidl, who made headlines a couple of years ago with an affordable “claret offensive”,  is fielding a decent enough Chateau Jean de Gue Lalande de Pomerol 2012, £14.99, but more sumptuous is Marks & Spencer’s Moueix Saint-Emiliion at £14.   Extraordinary value this month is Watirose Saint-Emilion, normally £13.49 but a positive steal on promotion at £9.99 from March 16 to April 12 – the perfect partner for your Easter lamb.


M&S also fields a lovely Margaux – Chateau Notton 2012 –  but while a great special occasion bottle, it’s not exactly everyday drinking.  That’s the thing about Bordeaux; mostly you have to pay dear for it, and you have to like that slightly austere inkiness which is the opposite of the easy-drinking, fruit-driven wine we have all become used to quaffing for single figures.

Bandol arrives in SW10 – heaven in a glass for lovers of elegant roses and stonking reds

26 Oct

The news of Bandol establishing a new home in the UK was joy to the ears of the Wanderers, who have happy memories of drinking some of the most sublime drops of red and rose in this very particular part of Provence.
This is the home of Domaines Ott, who make rich pale pinks to die for, and Domaine Tempier, from whom we first learnt that the South of France can produced great, stonking reds of enormous elegance.
Both wineries, and some innovative successors, are represented at Bandol, a new casual Fulham restaurant.  It aims to showcase the food as well as the wine of le tout Provence, but while while the tapenade and the fragrant bouillabaisse broth were spot-on during the first month of opening, we felt the chef, who is not from the area, needed to taste and replicate more authentic versions of his anchoiade and rouille.

But first to the wine; while Tempier is available by the glass – a huge treat for Londoners – the only choice of pink Provence was between Chateau Minuty, surprisingly austere for the joyous roses of this region, and the richer, more satisfying Miraval from the vineyard owned by Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.   Why no Bandol roses, though?  Tempier makes one of many delicious bottles which belong on the by-the-glass list, and there are many more affordable bottles around.

You could be tempted to stick with the luscious Miraval all night to complement this garlic and herb-scented food which sings of summer, but that would be to overlook the fact that Bandol produces some amazing whites.  The superb, organic Terrebrune, a mix of clairette and the ugni blanc and bourboulenc barely known outside the area, is also available by the glass while it lasts.

What we did get before the bottle ran out was rich, robust and packed with exotic minerality, a perfect partner for the bouillabaisse, while the Wanderer among us addicted to Tempier absolutely savoured a glass or two with his perfect, Provencale-style lamb chops on a base of black olives and sauce soubise.   At £20.50 for a large glass it cost nearly as much as the lamb, but another Bandol red from Domaine Maubernard is available for just over half that price.

It’s puzzling that only seven wines from Bandol are available by the bottle – a tiny proportion of the list – but there’s a much larger selection from the wider south of France.  All complement this style of lustily-seasoned food, of which the petite friture – a generous heap of perfectly battered and deep-fried whitebait, calamari and prawns with aioli – was the standout starter.   The Wanderers would be tempted to return for that alone with a carafe of the Terrebrune – heaven on a plate, and in a glass, for the £60 for two you can easily pay for a totally unmemorable taste and drop elsewhere in London.Dining Booths at Bandol

Let’s hear it for the wines of the Loire – elegant summer drinking

3 Aug

When the Wine Wanderers were invited to a dinner matching wines of the Loire to Indian dishes at London’s Cinnamon Club, we had a couple of preconceptions to get our heads around.   First, that dry wines make good partners for spicy food – our natural choice would be a gewurtztraminer – and secondly that there was sufficient variety in Loire wines to get excited about.

Laurent Chaniac, the restaurant’s wine buyer,  changed our minds, at least to some extent, serving unexpected partners to the delectable dishes at this clubby Westminster restaurant which strives more towards haute cuisine than its rivals in the capital whose Indian food has earned a Michelin star.   But we didn’t love all the wines we tasted,  certainly not the Savennieres which came with our king prawns with cardamom and green mango-coconut chutney.  Chenin blanc is a difficult grape to get right, and we haven’t been able to embrace it since being put off by some horrible domestic vintages when we lived in California.

What the Loire is rightly most famous for is Sancerre, about as perfect a sauvignon blanc as you’ll find to accompany fish and seafood, so no complaints about the 2008 Sancerre Moularde by CC.   But when we followed the Cinnamon Club dinner with our own tasting of Loires on the high street, we realised there IS a better Loire white out there than Sancerre, our old favourite Pouilly-Fume, which Chaniac chose not to showcase at the dinner.   The “fume” is said to refer either to the flint in the limestone where it grows, or the early morning fog which often blankets the Loire, but either way, it’s just that much more rich and sumptuous than the more austere Sancerre.

We took bottles of both these queens of the Loire to a cottage in Cornwall, where the voluptuous Pouilly-Fume Les Charmelles from Waitrose made a super partner for home-cooked lobster with lemony butter, and we were also impressed by the Signature Poullly-Fume from Morrisons.     But a nice Sancerre from M&S wasn’t bad either – we tasted a couple from their selection, of which Le Mont is currently a great buy on a 25 per cent off promotion, bringing the price below £10, a rare opportunity.   Also on this promotion is Les Ruettes, which won Gold in this year’s International Wine Challenge.

Before leaving whites, it’s worth noting that cheaper than either Sancerre or Pouilly-Fume, Muscadet is another barely talked-about Loire which makes a great partner for seafood. although it inexpllicably fell out of fashion a couple of decades ago and has never really hit the radar since.   It’s invariably better bottled “sur lie”, which means straight from the tankm without filtering.  We  enjoyed a great bottle of Sainsburys Taste the Difference in this category, outstanding value at £7.

We had been excited about the prospect of tasting a pinot noir, one of our favourite grapes, at the Loire dinner, but were warned those made in this region could be deeply disappointing, and tasting a red Sancerre from M&S, we could see why.   Much more successfully cultivated in this region is the cabernet franc grape, the mainstay of both Chinon and Saumur appellations.

The Saumur-Champigny Cuvee Bruyn 2010 by CC was a great partner for Romney Marsh lamb with sesame-tamarind sauce,  but at home it’s a whole raft of Chinons from the high street we’ve really enjoyed with light meats like veal and chicken.   Notably Les Complices de Loire Les Graviers, though it’s only available in 17 branches of Waitrose, and the more widely available Domaine du Colombier from Sainsburys, a particularly nice drop at £7, two-thirds the price of Les Graviers.

Overall, we feel you can’t go wrong with Muscadet when summer shellfish is on the menu, but if you’re going to push the boat out, a Pouilly-Fume for around the same price as a Sancerre delivers extra richness.  And that Chinon can be a perfect summer red, so long as you appreciate that it’s meant to be light, elegant and slightly chalky and totally different from the rich, ripe fruity reds of the south.

The Beautiful South Part Deux – Languedoc rocks!

8 Jun

The Beautiful South Part Deux – Languedoc rocks!.

The Beautiful South Part Deux – Languedoc rocks!

8 Jun

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.