Friday, 27 August 2010

It was a beautiful early drive along the Estang de Leucate from Barcares up to Fitou to join the auto route and eventually to Narbonne

Here I met with the ever energetic Andree Ferrandiz eagerly awaiting yet another harvest! I tasted both the 2009 XV du President and the new Cabernet de Canet and gave the thumbs up for the bottling to begin.

Once the bottling was rolling smoothly Andree and I headed to Beziers to see Baron Arnold de Bertier and the Vermentino vineyard. The grapes tasted good with delicate lemony flavours showing through but the acid was still high so I’ll wait and check again next week.

From Beziers I made my way back to Carcassonne and then directly south to Limoux home to the La Voute vineyards to meet Regis the vineyard manager. Regis was born and bred here and lives and breathes Limoux so is a very handy man to have around when looking at the vineyards.

With 2800 hectares of AOC vineyards, spread all over the four terroirs amongst the maze of dirt tracks, it is near impossible to find the vineyards even though I have been visiting them for four years! But Regis, his battered Renault Clio and his built in GPS knows it like the back of his hand and always surprises me with different vineyards that he thinks are exceptional this year.

First set of vineyards were in the oceanique terroir to the west where we visited the individually named vineyards of Vie, Astruc, Planet, Pauligne, Sarda. Here we checked the grapes by walking up and down the rows tasting berries trying to predict the harvest date.

We then bolted off in the Clio up and over into the Haut-Vallee area – the highest of the Limoux terroirs at 400m – to Conilhac to see the vineyards Canet, Azam and Lauzade. The high altitude here meant that the maturity of the grapes were way behind that of the vineyards below.

However I got my first surprise from Regis by meeting Monsieur Bonnes in his spectacular Chardonnay vineyard, under the tiny fortified village of Roquetaillade, which I learnt from Regis’ history lesson was one of the last Protestant strongholds in the department back in the 15th century.

Monsieur Bonnes, who spends his life in the vineyard tending and caring to his old vine Chardonnay, certainly knew what he was doing as the grapes were already showing fantastic maturity. After a lengthy conversation (with Regis on hand to translate the local patois words) we seemed to have struck a deal for the grapes!

After a very long but exciting day I managed to get back to Carcassonne and was rewarded with a glass of a fantastic 2006 AOC St. Chinian from Domaine La Croix Sainte Eulalie.

Tomorrow I will make my way back to Bordeaux but not without stopping to see some vineyards along the way!


Thursday, 26 August 2010

After a long drive and lots of summer holiday traffic jams, I arrived in Maury late afternoon

As I entered the top end of the l'Agly valley, the hail damage in Saint Paul de Fenouillet was startlingly obvious. The vines were shredded and the shock had evidently stunted the vine growth.

On the straggly bunches that remained, the force of the hail left its mark with a split on the each berry. Hopefully this will heal and as long as there is no rain (highly unlikely in this climate), the berry will not swell and split open.

The damage has been officially estimated as 80% loss which is very bad news indeed. I drove up the back way to Lesquerde – another Cotes Du Roussillon Villages – where the losses have been declared up to 100% in certain vineyards! The news in Maury was significantly better and on the drive down to the village the vineyards looked in good shape.

I stopped at the Cave Co-op where yields are down due to the low rainfall but means the XV du President will be even more concentrated this year. I then met JC and had a long and hot tour of the Vent de Folie vineyards, all of which look great and only one northern hectare out of the 10ha will not be featuring in the 2010 blend due to hail.

The Tramontane north wind was blowing hard and apparently has been for 3 weeks so no spraying has been done. However the early hours of tomorrow is forecasted to give the grape growers a 4 hour ‘no wind’ window chance to get their vineyards protected.

JC kindly invited me to stay at his little beach apartment on the French Catalonian coast where we cooked up some monkfish cheeks and gambas on the planxa, absolutely delicious accompanied with beef tomatoes from pappy’s garden in Maury and a cold organic red Cotes du Ventoux!

The tour continues tomorrow………


Friday, 13 August 2010

I Heard The News Today!

Early this morning the calls from the producers in the Midi came pouring in with the news that the grapes are now ripening fast and that harvest is closing in and I must go to the vineyards and begin the crucial selection early next week.

I have therefore made a plan for my first vineyard tour. I will start in Fronton, move on to Gaillac, down to Carcassonne, south to Limoux, cross in the Pyrénées foothills and to Maury, quick hop over into southern Corbières then onto the Mediterranean sea to follow the coast up to Narbonne, the Minervois, Beziers and home! Well that’s the plan. Bring on the harvest!

It’s been quiet on the winemaking front but still a very busy week here at the Chai. We have had visits from all the directors this week with Simon holding meetings all week at the Chai. Customers have also been flowing into the Chai for tastings and tours, with Libby tirelessly trying to accommodate everyone and making a fantastic amount of sales throughout the week.

Meanwhile upstairs the second sales team of Carla, Chris, Kylie, Ellie and Simon from the UK have been non-stop on the phones, keeping customers up to date with the Chai news and the wines they have tasted during their stay.


Tuesday, 10 August 2010


Not a bad way to start the week. Yesterday as we were invited after work to the magnificent 80ha Château De La Rivière in Fronsac.

Fronsac is a relatively small appellation with only 830ha of vineyards planted in total and Château De La Rivière therefore being the largest property. We crossed the Dordogne via the Pont de Pierre in Libourne, followed the river and were soon in the picturesque vineyards of Fronsac where, to our right, the Château De La Rivière suddenly popped up out of nowhere, majestically standing high in the foothills of the Fronsac plateau.

I actually bought a 1977 (my birth year) magnum of this wine whilst a winemaking student at university many moons ago. Unfortunately the 77’ magnum is long gone but although I made no tasting notes, I do remember that it was thoroughly enjoyed with friends at the time – albeit with a curry!

The empty bottle however remained on my shelf throughout my studying days and I was always in awe of the amazing Chateau that graced the distinctive gold label. I never thought I would one day be here and greeted by the owner!

We entered the Chateau by the long driveway which meandered through the 20ha of forest up to the beautiful arched entrance.

Once through the gateway we were greeted by the owner Monsieur Grégoire and his winemaker Philippe Larché and invited to sit and taste the 2009 Clairet and the delicious 2009 rose on the front terrace overlooking the vineyards.

Monsieur Grégoire explained to us that he visited the Chateau when he was just 18 years old and called it his ‘Coup de Coeur’ or ‘love at first sight’. 40 years later, after building a very successful business in vineyard machinery and equipment which he had just sold, he learned the Chateau was up for auction and instantly made a bid. He finished second in the bidding but it was surely fate as the winner pulled out later on and he became the owner of the Chateau!

Monsieur Grégoire then had a little surprise for us … a ride in his helicopter! Rather nervously Libby and I headed down to the whirring of the blades towards the discreet helipad where James was waiting in the cockpit for us. Libby and I sat in the back and Amye bravely took the front seat.

We put on our head phones and connected our microphones then gently closed the rather noticeably thin doors and within seconds we were floating up over the Chateau and speeding gracefully over the vineyards of Fronsac - what a view! Eat your heart out Airwolf!

I quickly started to recognize the vineyards of Pomerol as we followed the winding Dordogne to Libourne and we could see clearly the Chai-esque old negociant buildings skirting along the river side of the town.

Then after what seemed only like minutes, Castillon was straight ahead and there was our Le Chai in all its glory twinkling in the sunlight and reflecting off the river!

Monsieur Grégoire then swung to the right to find Ste Colombe and we could see Le Bourg and Le Presbytere (Tony’s house), the church, our house (washing spoilt the photo a bit!), Château La Clarière and the vineyards.

From up here you can really see the limestone plateau and just how close and similar the Côtes des Castillon is to the prestigious St Emilion. We then made a bee line for St Emilion, past Château La Brande (our Chai Castillon wine), Mangot, Faugeres, Pressac, Pavie, Troplong Mondot, Trotteveille, Figeac, Cheval Blanc, La Dominique, and Petrus and finally back to Fronsac for the softest and calmest of touch downs!

Wow what an experience and a huge merci to Monsieur Grégoire. It’s a great way to spot vineyards – maybe I could trade in the Chai car for a helicopter for harvest? Maybe not this year but winemakers will always dream!

Meanwhile down on the ground this morning the cool nights and hot days are speeding up the ripening here on the right bank and the trademark mists were rising from the Dordogne early this morning, soon to be burnt away by the rising sun.


Friday, 6 August 2010

The Calm before The Storm ... or So We Thought!

Normally it’s the calm before the storm or ‘harvest time’ right now but real storms have been raging all over France. Ste Colombe got away this time but Maury wasn’t quite so fortunate and was shredded twice this week by golf balls of hail!

A very worried JC called me from Maury 10 minutes after the destruction to tell me he has lost the entire young Grenache vineyard – however his granddad was a clever man and planted vineyards in different areas of the valley. The saying ‘don’t put all your eggs in one basket’ has certainly been true because the pockets of old vines on the opposite side of the valley have not a scratch on them!

I called other friends and winemakers like Daniel and Kathy, Thierry and Paul of Cave Co-op Maury, Andree and more. It’s a long list and there was mixed emotions but the people from here are remarkable and they are already in the vineyard with admirable high spirits to salvage what is left.

The good news is I managed to reserve extra parcels before most people had even heard of the bad news. I’ll make a trip down as soon as possible but it proves that a bit of inside knowledge and a man on the ground is a very useful thing indeed.

The harvest is sneaking up on us here in Bordeaux and ‘veraison’ or changing of the colour is just beginning. It’s fascinating to see as each bright pea-green berry turns at what seems like a blink of an eye into a violet and then deep purple grape. It’s said by locals that from this point to picking time is roughly 6 weeks.

In The Grand Chai where we make the whites it is buzzing away. Swirling water, whirling pumps, clicks of switches, roars of air from the cooling unit and running of the cooling belts can be heard but no juice yet – it’s just cellar master Petit Denis doing his pre-harvest clean and testing of equipment!

The cooling unit is being tested thoroughly and as I programme the computer for each vat, Denis is flicking the switches on the main control board in the cellar.

Within seconds the cooling belts are freezing cold and after a trial of different temperatures it’s on to the next vat.

The testing of the cooling is quite a nice experience in the summer heat but tomorrow we test the heating!


Monday, 2 August 2010


Finally managed to fly out of Bordeaux last night and after bit of a delay and arrived in a much cooler Lyon just after midnight. After a few complications concerning hire cars, and GPS refusing to acknowledge that the hotel existed, I was on my way north to Tournus in Southern Burgundy.

I had a slight problem with my mobile. I forgot the PIN and couldn’t switch it on and a weird panic set in when I realised I had no communication! Where have all the public phones gone? I couldn’t find a single one even at the auto route stops! What did we do before mobile phones?

I finally made it to the Hotel and had a good nights sleep. Up bright and early this morning and made my way down into the village of Tournus to meet an old friend of Tony Bernard Derain of Caves de Mancey.

Bernard is an incredible man. He is wine merchant, vineyard owner and winemaker with enormous knowledge of Burgundian wines. We jumped in the cars and we then drove up into the hills to the winery and vineyards of Macon. Once at the winery I met Herve the cellar master and student Jonathan who is on hols from university and comes from a wine family just north from here in AOC Mercury.

We then got down to some work tasting firstly the Domaine Dupré Chardonnays in Vats, bottles and casks. Once we had discussed these we moved swiftly on to the new Pinot Noir blend ‘Le Merandier’ and then into the barrels, tasting from almost every one!.

After a long morning blending Bernard treated me to a tasting of his AOC Beaune, Pommard and Nuits Saint Georges that he bought from the infamous Hospices de Beaune auction. Pinot Noir at it best, absolutely wonderful wines!

Of course we finished off the morning and prepared for lunch with a little tasting of Cremant de Bourgogne. Lunch was real chicken! I had actually forgotten what chicken tasted like but free range farm AOC Macon chicken soon reminded me, helped by a 2007 ‘Couvent de Jacobins’ from Louis Jadot .

After lunch I headed further north to the region of Montagny a 100% white wine appellation where Chardonnay rules to meet up with Bernard’s partner in crime Alain Roy! Alain is the true ‘bon vivant’ and has 16ha of Montagny 1er Cru at his property Chateau de la Saule.

After dodging our way past the old cellar hand, who busy preparing and lifting barrels as if they were made of paper for the upcoming harvest, we went to the old tasting room to sample the 2009.

The old tasting room is a step back in time stacked with old bottles, cobwebs and rickety furniture. Alain rummaged around dusted off a magnum and handed it to me and said enjoy that on the weekend!

After a longer than expected stay at Alain’s I headed onto the next appellation of Givry – which produces great value Pinot Noir wines from a unique soil and microclimate - to visit Domain Chofflet-Valdenaire ‘Clos jus’. Then it was a race back south to Lyon to catch the flight back to Bordeaux!