Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Carcassonne and Carbardès

Carcassonne is undoubtedly (and rightly so) famous first for its splendid fairytale walled city, but it also rich in diverse wine-growing areas and a consistent source for some of my highest quality Chai wines. The only AOC here is Carbardès; a largely unknown wine growing area and only upgraded to AOC status in 1999.

The department is the Aude and like many Midi regions it is still undiscovered and full of many various unheard of Vin De Pays (VDP) areas, Cité de Carcassonne, Côtes de Prouilhe, Côtes du Lastours and Haute-Vallée de l’Aude are just some of the ones located around Carcassonne itself, with many more further afield within the department.

When heading south east from Toulouse, Carcassonne is the first major town that greets you and since using the A62 Bordeaux to Midi route I have always felt like Carcassonne is the real ‘gateway’ to the Languedoc-Roussillon. France changes so radically after this point it feels like you should have your passport checked!

Carcassonne town has a long and fascinating history and the Cabardès is no different with the local residents producing wine since the Roman times. The area was named after the Lords of Cabaret who defended the Châteaux de Lastours against Simon de Montfort way back in 1209 which makes you wonder how it took until 1999 to be recognised as an AOC.

The actual vineyards of Cabardès AOC cover just 500 hectares and sit at the northwestern edge of Languedoc-Roussillon, bordered to the north by the magnificent Montagne Noire; it’s a tiny area in comparison and always overlooked compared to its giant neighbour the Minervois.

However this small ‘border’ appellation has meant that Carbardès and the surrounding areas have a unique mix of climates and soils. These conditions allow the two very climatically different grape categories of Bordeaux and southern French grape varietals to grow hand in hand and produce high quality wine, possibly the only place in France to do so. Carbardès is also individual in that it is the only AOC in France that actually permits a balanced proportion of the Bordeaux and Languedoc-Roussillon grape varieties in the final blend; a winemakers dream come true?

The weather is as important as the soils and influenced by the two powerful winds, the warm ‘Marin’ Mediterranean wind and the dry cool Cers Atlantic wind. It is these two winds, the topography and careful vineyard site selection that create the micro climates essential to achieve optimum ripeness of both Bordeaux and southern French varietals in the same small territory. The soils are chalky clay, limestone and in some places very stony such as Pierre Degroot’s Chardonnay vineyard aptly named ‘Le Cailloux’ which I spotted last year and that this year with my help has found its way to Le Chai for fermentation and careful ageing. Look out for this single-vineyard Chardonnay early next year.

I have known this area for only a short six or seven years, being constantly impressed by the diversity and quality. The sheer uniqueness of being permitted to blend 50/50 Bordeaux and Midi gapes is surely something worth looking deeply into. I am excited about this region and Cat our Midi buyer was also very impressed, so with a bit more exploration we will have some more of these wines making an appearance in our wine catalogue very soon. In the meantime, try some of the white Chai wines like La Voute 2009 or 2010 (Vin de France Chardonnay Trophy winner) - ask a Wine Advisor for details, CY 2010 (Chardonnay) and the VC 2010 (Viognier).

I strongly suggest that you go and visit this area and if you do I recommend to stay at the Mercure just metres from the medieval City’s walls, much more comfortable and cheaper than those inside the walls, nice swimming pool, good bar, I stay here all the time. For eating and drinking within the city walls the best place to start is Le Comptoir de Vins et Terroirs for a glass of wine from a vast choice of local wines and tapas then Comte Roger for great quality/price food with good local wine list. In the new town try l'Ecurie. It’s worth mentioning Chateau Pennautier, a magnificent Chateau built by the Treasurer of the Languedoc Bernard Pennautier during the reign of Louis XIII. It is still family owned, they make some fab wines and well worth a visit.

No photos in this blog, not because I didn’t take any but because I urge you to see for yourself!

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Into the Midi

The grand Midi trip started with Cat (our Midi buyer) in our very own Chai with a tasting of Bergerac wines. Later that evening we headed for Toulouse, ready to explore the wine region of Côtes du Frontonnais, now called AOC Fronton.

The region has a long, fascinating history and wine growing has been very important here. The Romans planted the first vines and it was once owned by the Order of St. John, dating back to 1050. The dominant grape is Négrette which originates from Cyprus where it’s known as Mavro a Chypre. It was brought to France by Les Chevaliers de St. Jean de Jerusalem. The grape was also known as Pinot Saint Georges in the US but this name is now forbidden on wine labels.

The region’s dense and deeply coloured red wines became famous throughout Europe. King Louis XIII and his PM Cardinal Richelieu held huge, complex wine tastings here during the siege of Montauban. However the first classification took place in 1975, with the merger of the two VDQS regions Villaudric and Fronton.

The soils here are ferriferous quartz gravel and the vineyards (a total of 2,100ha) sit in the Tarn valley directly west of Gaillac between the rivers of Tarn and Garonne. As well as reds, the region also makes both rosé and white wines and blends can be made from Négrette, Malbec, Mérille, Fer, Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as from a maximum of 15% of Gamay, Cinsault and Mauzac.

The red wines are locally described as the Beaujolais of Toulouse which I thought was a lovely name. However the wines can be commonly tannic and hard and I am more interested in their rosés. We make our excellent Haut Rivage Négrette Rosé here, and the Négrette grape is a star rosé maker. Modern vinification equipment and techniques such as bag presses, stainless steel and cooling now allow the Négrette grape to make the most beautifully coloured, pale salmon-pink wine with subtle black berry and raspberry fruit on the palate. Rosé is a great drink and should be consumed all year round; not just in the Summer. Try one with Christmas dinner!

Next we continue on to Carcassonne.


Monday, 5 December 2011

Lunch in Pomerol

Kiwi James left us last week to head for his next harvest back home in Marlborough, New Zealand. He has been working with us as a flying winemaker for our three-month harvest, so for a special treat we went to lunch in the Pomerol equivalent of our favourite Castillon ‘Voyageur’ restaurant called the ‘Les Platanes’. We were joined by our friend Guillaume Thienpont whose family châteaux include Vieux Château Certan (VCC) and Le Pin.

This is where the French two-hour lunch break comes in very handy as we had time to visit and taste at firstly VCC, then the brand new cellar of Le Pin before lunch!

VCC has a stunning terroir and its 7ha (very big for Pomerol) sits amongst neighbours such as Petrus, Château l’Evangile, Château Conseillante and of course Le Pin on the plateau of Pomerol. The plateau is not like that of St.Emilion as it’s only 35cm higher than the so called ‘lower vineyards’ but those 35cm make all the difference! We visited the cellars and tasted the 2006 and the 2010 from barrel, lovely wines indeed.

On the way to the restaurant we skirted through the VCC vineyards and stopped to have a look at the stunning new cellar of Château Le Pin. Although small, the cellar has been beautifully designed and includes winery, underground barrel cellar, tasting room and roof terrace with views over Pomerol. The original pine tree (with a second now added) from where the ‘Le Pin’ name originates is still there.

With plenty to think about we went to the brilliant Les Platanes and mixed in with the local growers, gendarmes and vineyard workers for a slap up meal. Thanks James for all the hard work this harvest. I recommend the following of James’ wines to try: The Jumper, Laithwaite Sauvignon 2010 (2011 in Jan), Hunter's Sauvignon Blanc.

This week I am in the Midi with our Buyer Cat Lomax and we will be travelling from Gascony in the south west through the Languedoc Roussillon to Montpellier in the east of France.


Friday, 25 November 2011

Part four – BODEGAS MUGA

We crossed the road from Bodegas Tondonia and were immediately met by winemaker Jorge Muga, who invited us into his family winery.

It was quite a contrast to Tondonia, but what made it extremely interesting was that although they work with the same equipment (100% oak vats and barrels), they use new oak and the winemaking process is very modern, creating a modern style of Rioja.

The Muga estate was created by Isaac Muga Martínez and his wife, Auro Caño in 1932. It was left to their three children who constructed a new winery, a cooperage and a viewing tower (why not?).

We visited the immaculate fermentation and ageing cellars and I was pleased to see that although they were working with traditional equipment, they had – unlike Tondonia – put up some handrails on the vat top walkways!

Like Tondonia, we walked through endless barrel rooms until we reached the cooperage. The cooperage is essential to providing a constant supply of oak barrels to the winery and the meticulous work and knowledge they have from forest to finished barrel is quite impressive.

The tasting of the Muga range was very impressive, as was the food that just kept on coming … but even more impressive was that our request of declining lunch five times was completely ignored: you have to love Spain!

We finally left after a wonderful tasting and lunch and now it was direction France and home to Bordeaux. I certainly recommend a visit to Bodegas Muga if you’re in the area.


Wednesday, 23 November 2011

La Rioja, Spain - Part Three

Rioja is a fabulous region and Tony has been buying from here for almost 40 years. Our very own JMS has his winery Altos here so we’ve plenty of contacts and friends to guide us through the region, the wines and of course; the food.

Spain is often thought of as flat and hot. It isn’t. The Rioja region is actually very picturesque and the rolling vineyards are at a height of up to 800m (2,600ft). The Rioja vineyard growing area is split into three zones: Rioja Alta in the west; the hotter Rioja Baja in the east; and in the north around Laguardia, Rioja Alavesa.

The vineyards hug around the Ebro River and its tributaries such as the Oja which gives its name to the region. The valley is protected from the cold Atlantic winds by the huge wall of the Sierra de Cantabria Rioja. The soils are pockets of clay and limestone with the Tempranillo grape being most at home here, but Garnacha, Mazuelo and Graciano can be found in the region. Whites are made from the Viura otherwise known as Macabeu in France and the Malvasia. The whites are less well known in the UK, but the tart acidity makes the wines extremely long lived, as we found out in the restaurant.

We were about to find out even more!

Our first visit was to Vina Tondonia in the town of Haro. We were greeted by the owner and winemaker Maria Jose Lopez de Heredia and shown into what seemed at first like pitch black tunnel.

Little did we know but we were about to be transported back to 1880s! This has to be one of the most fascinating wineries in the world. Here, time has stood still and the winemaking is, well let’s say, traditional. It is quite a magical place and once your eyes adjust to the dark, the enormous ancient wooded vats are visible. There is absolutely no stainless steel here and the wooden vats are never cleaned so as to allow the living bacteria and natural yeasts to do the work and create the characters sought after in the wines.

Safety is not number one in this winery and after we navigated our way by walking the planks in between the tops of the vats it was time to go down in to the ageing rooms and tunnels. The wines are aged in some cases up to four years in small, 225-litre barrels as in Bordeaux. The difference here is that they never change the barrels and the in-house cooperage works full time to keep the barrels and the vats in working order. The barrel store is a seemingly endless labyrinth of tunnels and rooms housing some 20,000 barrels (Le Chai has 800). Wandering around is quite challenging for your sense of direction.

Finally a tunnel opened out into the wine cellar full of the old stock going back a hundred or so years. However we did not taste in here and we were guided back up to the surface of the earth to the more modern tasting room.

After a fabulous tour we were not let down at the end. Maria Jose is certainly not afraid to open wine and popped some truly amazing wines! We started with the 1991 Tondonia white, followed by the 1970 reds and the Tondonia reserve 1981, 1991 and 2001.

With the eyes re-adjusted to daylight we crossed the road to our next visit at Bodegas Muga. Read more in part four.


Tuesday, 22 November 2011

The Basque Country - Part Two

A Spanish Basque Lunch!

A very long winding drive from Saint-Jean-de-Pied-de-Port eventually led us to the tiny picturesque Basque fishing village of Getaria, just west of Saint-Sebastien.

We were fortunate to be booked into the renowned Kaia restaurant by Barón de Barbón winemaker Javier. Not does it serve amazing fresh seafood, but the wine list is extensive and prices have not changed since the restaurant owner bought them. Old vintages of top Bordeaux, Champagne and Rioja are a steal and give a rare chance to taste some otherwise-unaffordable wines.

We were served a steady flow of fresh fish dishes but the highlight had to be the whole turbot cooked outside on the barbeque. Wines of the day were Viña Tondonia 1991 (white) and Château la Fleur-Petrus 2004.

It is worth going to Spain just for this restaurant!

Well-fed and watered, we then made for Logrono and the Rioja region to visit two famous wineries; Vina Tondonia and Muga. Read about the visit in Part 3.


Thursday, 17 November 2011

The Basque Country - Part One

The last of the 2011 barrels were sulphured last Wednesday and so triggered Jean-Marc into action by keeping his promise of our end of harvest winemaker’s trip. Every year, JMS organises a trip for the team somewhere using his vast ex-schoolmate network. They all seem to be someone or another in the restaurant or alcohol trade! This year we were off into Basque country starting out with a trip to Brana distillery and winery in the French Basque region of Irouléguy.

We started off early for the long and very winding road to Brana. The usual Bordeaux morning traffic put us an hour behind immediately and all that worried us was being late for lunch! We made good progress down to Bayonne, turning sharply south east and up into the green foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains. The scenery is quite stunning and the green fields, cows, sheep and white houses with red shutters give a very Alpine feel.

Suddenly we hit the breathtaking Irouléguy vineyards as we entered the town of St-Jean-Pied-de-Port. Irouléguy wine region is not that well-known but it has a wonderful history of being the original birth of the Bordeaux wine region.

The vineyards are located on extremely steep slopes with inclines of up to 60° at between 100-400m above sea-level. This has led to the development of special growing and terracing techniques by Basque wine-growers to enable the cultivation of vines on these slopes.

Soils are mainly red granite rich in iron called bailara gorri (red terrace) with a few pockets of clay-limestone and of the 15 municipalities in the Irouléguy region, only the following nine grow Irouléguy vines on a total of 210ha: Anhaux, Saint-Étienne-de-Baïgorry, Ascarat, Irouléguy, Bidarrai, Ispoure, Jaxu and Saint-Martin-d'Arrossa.

The red grape varieties include Bordelesa Beltza (Tannat), Axeria (Cabernet Franc and Axeria Handia (Cabernet Sauvignon), while white wines are made from Xuri Zerratia (Courbu), Izkiriota Ttipia (Petit Manseng) and Izkiriota (Gros Manseng).

The area is also famous for its fruit liqueurs, brandy, Eaux de vie (especially poire a pear brandy). Those from the Brana distillery are – for us – simply the best in the region and possibly the world! JMS had managed to get a rendezvous at Brana and we were welcomed by Martine Brana herself and given a tour of the distillery.

The Poire here is incredibly pure and as soon as we entered the distilling room the aromas of fresh pear were incredible. The pears grow perfectly in the clean, crisp, wet mountain air and the result is dazzling aromatic crunchy fruit. Once harvested, the pears are taken to the distillery, crushed into a pulp and sent as pear slush to vats in the fermentation room.

Here the wild yeast begins the fermentation and transforms the crushed pears into a 5% vol. pulpy pear cider. The whole vat is then transferred to the copper pot still where it is heated by a gas flame from underneath until the alcohol boils and rises (taking all the fruit flavour along with it) as a vapour.

The alcohol vapour is collected in a pipe in the top of the pot still which leads to a descending copper coil pipe immersed in cold water where the vapour condenses back into a liquid and the clear alcohol liquid flows out at the bottom. The first liquid to flow contains dangerously high alcohols called ‘heads’. This is collected in a separate vat until the good alcohol and flavour compounds – called ‘heart’ – arrive.

Now the taps are switched and the ‘heart’ is diverted to a second vat. As the ‘heart’ weakens, the last to arrive is the ‘tails’ containing unwanted flavours. The tap is switched back and adds the ‘tails’ to the ‘heads’. This process is then repeated with the 100% ‘heart’ to collect an even more pure ‘heart’, this process being called double distillation. The amount of heart collected is tiny compared to the amount of pears harvested but the resulting ‘poire’ is fresh, pure and has an incredible aroma!

Martine’s brother ‘Jean’ then arrived to take us up to the vineyards and the winery high in the green hills surrounding the town. We followed Jean up the winding road until we reached the stunning winery building, beautifully constructed from the local red granite … and what a stunning view!

The winery itself is fully underground and the top visible red granite part is a tasting/dining room and accommodation. The stairs led us down to a naturally climatised cellar full of top-notch stainless steel vats made by the highly rated vat maker in Castillon … exactly the same as Le Chai!

We headed back to the distillery for a tasting of the wines, brandy and liqueurs. The wines were like none other I have tasted (legendary Petrus winemaker Jean-Claude Berrouet – who is originally from this area – consulted !) They’re stunningly aromatic and the reds have great finesse but need age.

We waited patiently for the Poire but not before an Eau-de-vie de prune brandy, the Brana’s cry! Very good it was too, so fruity with lovely oak-barrel ageing. Finally the ice-cold Poire was poured and superb it was. Time for lunch! But only JMS would book a restaurant 300 miles away and in another country! We were off to the famous fish restaurant Kaia in Getaria in Spain. Bon appetite and lunch will be in part two!


Monday, 7 November 2011

No travelling for us winemakers last week …

… but that doesn’t mean we haven’t been busy! It is another crucial point in the winemaking process when the wines are now dry, ferments have finished and the natural protective CO2 has disappeared leaving the wine very vulnerable to oxidation. So we have been in the cellar all week, moving wines off their sediment, adding protective sulphur, cleaning out barrels and vats and putting everything back!

It is at this stage that the wines start to show their potential and reveal the true quality of our work and the vintage. It is quite a worrying time as all the initial fruit and aromas have been masked by the fermentation. So it’s a relief to taste and smell all those beautiful fruit characters that were present in the grapes way back in early September.

Nothing is blended or finished yet but here are some of my thoughts on the 2011 whites so far:

Grenache Gris (GG): Lovely aromatics, fresher white fig fruit, less tinted colour and lower alcohol this year, still in barrel.

Chardonnay ‘Cailloux Vineyard’: fresh vintage down in Carcassonne and I selected only the Cailloux vineyard this year to make a single-vineyard wine. Lovely acidity with bright tropical fruit.

Vermentino ‘Vent de Folie Blanc’: really good this year. Beziers missed most of the rain and the heat at the end of August and early September allowed for big ripe flavours. Again, good fresh acidity.

Limoux Chardonnay ‘La Voute’: outstanding year for finesse. I went even higher into the Haute Vallee this year resulting in a very classy Chardonnay which has perfect balance and will age beautifully. Currently on lees in barrel: new and one-year-old.

Carignan Blanc ‘New Wine’: this year’s all new Chai wine. Very hard to get hold of, but I managed to prise this rarity from my friend Laurent in Maury. It’s a lovely balanced wine with a unique character of tropical and citrus fruit.

Sauvignon Blanc ‘JMS’ and ‘Le Grand Chai’: good work from Kiwi James on a difficult year but he picked in the right window and plenty of classic grassy aromas and good palate weight.

Sauvignon Gris ‘Le Coin’: superb this year with ripe tropical fruit, very distinctive perfumed flavours

Viognier: absolutely stunning varietal character and I’m really getting to know this vineyard now in Carcassonne, violets, honey and apricot.

Dry Botrytis Sémillon: another new Chai wine. A brilliant Tony Laithwaite idea brought to reality this year in the cellar. And it worked; worked very well indeed. Lovely aromas of marmalade and dried apricot, but with a lifted citrus note. Fantastic palate, rich with another lovely limey acidity keeping it fresh.

Still lots to do in the cellar but the results of our meticulous selection in the vineyard are proving the worth of all the long days (and nights) and many miles in the car!

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Trains, Planes and Automobiles

Last Friday and Saturday we had our annual Laithwaites show in our brilliant flagship store 'the Arch.' Another great success, with 1300 customers visiting to enjoy our wines, experience the taste tunnel and sample the wares of various food stands.

I left London by train very early Monday morning to catch the red eye BA flight to Bordeaux. Arriving on time, I made a quick stop off at Le Chai to check and taste the wines. Then I hopped back in the car and drove down to the Midi to meet Maitena at the Midi winemakers’ house in Peyriac de Mer near Narbonne.

Another early start on Tuesday and a winding drive to Fitou where ferments are now finished and MLF has started. There are some lovely wines made this year with the old vine Carignan standing out.

We continued once again through Fitou, the Corbières and up and over into the Maury valley to taste the XV du President vats. With some rainfall this year 2011 is certainly a real 'Grenache Year', the best since 2007. We were also lucky to taste some old Maury fortified wines: the '74, '75, '76, '77, '78, '79 and '80 all superb!

I lunched in Maury with Vent de Folie grower Jean-Charles and old friend Daniel Laffite at le Pichenouille - the new eating hub of the village. It’s always a good opportunity to taste wines from some of the other winemakers in the village.

We continued the Tour de Midi and arrived late in Peyriac. Early night as I am meeting the JMS back in Bordeaux tomorrow morning!

Monday, 24 October 2011

Into the Gers

Another early start and a very misty morning drive into the Entre-Deux-Mers to be at the bottling of the second half of little Bordeaux Château Geneau. The mist is now here every morning as the cold nights set in and the warm Dordogne releases the mist like a smoke machine! This Geneau is really lovely drinking claret; just what affordable Bordeaux used to be like. It’s a wine we have nurtured from the beginning and I can truly recommend it.

Once all was good I left to meet JMS at Le Chai and we did a tasting run through the 2011’s in the Chai. Viognier coming real good now and standing out today, think we’ll make a pure one this year. Not much of it so keep an eye on my blog for further info!

Today we were going 3hours south of Bordeaux to the department of the Gers to meet up with our friend Lionel Osmin. We’re tasting the red vats and checking the grapes for the famous moelleux wines of Gascony that are still hanging on the vine!

We made our way down through the vineyards of Côtes du Marmadais, the pine forests of the Val de Garonne-Gascogne, through the rolling hills of Armagnac and finally our destination: Viella in the tiny Appellation of Madiran. We were in real deep country now where cows for beef, geese and ducks for foie gras and black pigs share the land with the vineyards. The Gers is renowned for its amazing cuisine and the produce here is just as spectacular as the landscape.

We met up with our friend Lionel Osmin who’s born and bred in Gascogny. After studying winemaking in Toulouse he decided to return to his home region to concentrate on making, promoting and selling these rare wines. If anyone knows anyone here then its Lionel!

The people here are hardened farmers and our first stop was at Monsieur Bortolussi’s magnificent Château Viella. We started with a grand tour of the vineyards of both the red Madiran appellation and the whites of Pacherenc du Bilh.

The king of the red grapes here is Tannat; a hardy grape with thick skins to protect it from the regular rainfall. Thick skins give an abundance of tannin requiring careful vinification techniques to avoid tannins leaching into the wine. Very different methods are used here in Madiran compared to Bordeaux, but when it’s done well the result is the darkest silkiest wine ever!

The Tannat has already been harvested but the tiny Petit Manseng white grapes still hang on the vine. This rare grape makes the semi sweet wines of appellation Pacherenc du Bilh.

The name of the game here is to keep the botrytis at bay and the thick skinned tiny berries are perfectly adapted to do so as they hang in loose bunches allowing aeration around every berry. Biting into one of the berries is quite an experience as you chew through the skin the front of the tongue is hit first by an incredible sweetness followed by the most searing acidity! These wines can age for a very long time and if you can get a bottle try it, a marvellous wine!

We finally made it to the château high on the hill and entered into the barrel store at the bottom of the huge house. The barrels sit in the great kitchen that once served the entire household. As you stand there you can imagine a once-bustling kitchen of cooks, fires and servants rushing about. However, it’s very calm in here now!

The barrels tasted and satisfied with the grapes, we headed back north to see the Truau family in the heart of Armagnac. This family farm everything there is to farm here and grapes are no exception. They don’t bottle a single drop but with winemaking help they make some very fine dry and sweet wines, very aromatic Colombard being their strength. Or so we thought …

After talking, we learnt that they also distil traditional grapes of Bacho and Ugni Blanc to make their own Armagnac! We couldn’t resist asking to have a taste and a big old door was drawn aside revealing an old underground cellar full of barrels of Armagnac going back 20 years. As we entered the cellar we were nearly knocked off our feet by bats flying around in there!

The son drew some 1993 55% vol pure Bacho from a barrel and its golden colour and almond aroma was absolutely superb. Tasting Armagnac amongst flying bats was certainly a first for me!

A long day was rewarded by Lionel (and his knowledge of the people and the region) with a meal at the reputed Bernard Daubin restaurant in the tiny village of Montreal de Gers. It opened exclusively for us by the highly rated and well known French chef Bernard Daubin himself … and what an experience it was to be!

Bernard is big jolly man and his exquisite food is known throughout France. And here we were: JMS, Lionel, Damien and I sitting at Bernard’s comptoir (bar) with just Bernard and his wife Veronique about to cook for us. Although there’s an extensive cellar, there is actually no wine list or menu; you will eat and drink what you’re given. Therefore it is no place for the unadventurous, vegetarians or the diet obsessed! And so for the next 4 hours we sat in front of a mad genius chef trying to kill us with foie gras! The menu and wine matching went like this:

Oysters from Brittany / Mas Julien 2009
Fois Gras maison /
Tartare de Canard / Rive droite, rive gauche 2007 Cotes du Rhone
Red Mullet, caviar, aioli and jus / Gallinette 2010 Cotes du Rhone (cold)
Tete de veau avec homard / Le Compte a Rebours Cahors 2008
Fois gras frais avec feves / Domaine la Colombelle Lledonar Pelut 2006
Carcasse de Canard / Le Ruminant des Vigne Gros Manseng 2007
Fromage Brebis / les Pissenlit Dominique Andiran
Croustille Aux Pommes / Larressingle 21 ans Armagnac
Deutz et Drappier Champagne

I am extremely fortunate to have been there and a grand merci to Lionel, Bernard and Veronique, quell experience!!

Please visit this restaurant if you are in the area it is truly an incredible experience!

Then off to London for the Laithwaites show at the Arch in Borough Market; maybe I saw you there!

Monday, 17 October 2011

The Week That Was ... Rather Busy!

There have been busy weeks and there has been last week! Not only were the last of the reds being harvested in Bordeaux, but the first reds in the Midi were being pressed off. That meant a couple of dashes down and back to the Midi to start the week off, setting the pace that would continue for the next seven days.

The desired malo-lactic fermentation (MLF) was kicking off in the Chai, too and all but one wine had finished the alcoholic fermentation; a crucial time for the wines where careful monitoring is required. The last ferment, the dry botrytis project is now fully underway and Tony Laithwaite was in the Chai regularly to taste his idea and check how it was progressing.

The dry botrytis wine, now dubbed the ‘DB’ by the Chai winemakers, is something very experimental. It’s a blend of two very different styles of the Sémillon grape. The first is an early harvested Bordeaux Sémillon to make a crisp dry wine and the second is a Botrytis Sémillon from Loupiac to make a sweet desert style. The objective is to have a dry wine but with the marmalade aromas and taste of the botrytis, simple eh?


The first problem is that the two styles must be blended and fermented together as the sweet juice of the Loupiac alone will never ferment dry and therefore be too sweet to blend later on. The second is that these styles are harvested four weeks apart from each other!

So how do we do it? Luckily at the Chai we have wonderful modern equipment and our cooling system is one of the best. It allowed us to pick the first Sémillon at the very beginning of September and hold it at 4°C to avoid a wild fermentation for three weeks until the harvest in Loupiac was ready to start. The juices were then blended at Le Chai and we raised the temperature kicking off the fermentation! It’s very exciting and so far so very good!

Everyone was in town too, the Laithwaite clan and friends for the harvest along with a stream of various important visitors. First to visit the Chai and taste our wines was winemaking legend Dr Tony Jordon (responsible for wines at Moet-Chandon, Cloudy Bay and many more) followed by wine legend Hugh Johnson … no pressure there then!! The tastings went well and the wines were given the thumbs by Tony and Hugh!

We had a lovely end-of-harvest meal cooked once again by Bernadette at Chateau La Clarière-Laithwaite … special guests included Hugh Johnson and Edouard Mouiex. The chicken stuffed with cepes was excellent along with the 2005 and 2009 Chateau La Clariere.

The outbounders were also busy at Le Chai and it was the group’s turn to do a wine blending with the winemaker in our lab and tasting room. It’s hard work and a great deal of concentration is required but great fun … and they get to see just how difficult it is to blend wine.

On the Saturday I gave a mixed staff group from the UK and USA a full Chai tour and they were lucky to be the first to taste some of the now-dry wines. We had a lovely meal up at Le Comptoir and tasted Henry’s 2008 La Verniotte.

Next up for a visit was our team of global directors including Simon, Andrew, Glenn, Adrian, Rachel, Mike, Justin, Gary, Jay, Alex, Tanya, Lyn and Steve who were here at the Chai for a winemaking weekend organised by JMS, James and I. Everyone got stuck into some hard cellar work and learnt some important wine making techniques. In the evening Libby and Clare organised a wonderful meal in the Grand Chai cellar and JMS cooked some of the biggest steaks ever seen on the BBQ. Thank you and well done everyone.

We have also been very busy bottling some of our little treasures of Bordeaux 2010 Chateaux, including Chateau Grand Billard from Monsegur, Chateau Geneau from Blaye and Chateau Le Coin from Rauzan!

So apart from a hell of a lot of winemaking it feels like there has also been a hell lot of eating!

JMS and I are off to the South West regions tomorrow to visit Cahors, Madiran, Gascogne and Fronton to re-check the wines we make with Lionel Osman. Will it slow down?

A bientot!

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Un Vent de Folie!

It's been the most superb weather here in Bordeaux for the last 10 days … a huge turn around from what was almost a disastrous vintage. 30-degree heat and cool, dry nights have enabled the reds to reach optimum ripeness and concentration. Those growers who played the risk game by waiting can now look forward to making some superb wines!

With another week of sun and heat forecast we will be taking in the Cabernets at the end of the week. That means I can make another dash down to the Midi to do the rounds with Maitena checking all the ferments

I have just spent the day helping Jean-Charles making our ‘Un Vent de Folie’ in his very small garage winery. We are both tall guys and in his tiny garage cellar it was like playing twister but we know each other well-enough over the last ten years to be comfortable working together!

It’s a dream team of top grower and a good winemaker; both with the passion for Grenache and the Maury terroir.

It’s hard, very hard, but with sheer graft and determination it gets better and better and better. We are so proud to have made this wine and I only wish his Great-Grandparents could have tasted it

JC’s wife Celine who was full time in the vineyard unfortunately couldn't be there to enjoy quality time with her family and me as she was back at work. However she had prepared our lunch last night when she got home from working at the supermarket in Perpignan.

Granddad (Papy) and Grandma (Mamy) were there though and arrived to enjoy a well-deserved break after they had been in the vineyard clearing up after harvest. Once again over lunch I learned even more about wine, the family and the region, and of course Grandma insisted on washing up! Papy was telling the stories and asking when Tony would return so he could redo the snail BBQ in his tool shed that he so fondly remembers!

Such a great family and you can’t get any closer to true wine growers. And we (Laithwaites) help, so important.

It all started 10 years ago when I was randomly placed as a ‘flying winemaker’ working at the cooperative in Maury. Amongst the mayhem of harvest, I spotted a trailer full of the best Grenache I had ever tasted and at the wheel was a young grower Jean-Charles ‘JC’ Duran. We hit it off straight away with our passion for the local terroir and the determination to make the best red wine from the local varietals.

After meeting a couple of times in the cooperative tractor car park he decided to take me out to his family’s remote vineyards planted in a 'soil' of scrunched up slate. But the yields were tiny and he was worried that, like many small farmers, he'd have to abandon growing.

We became mates and over beers one night in the La Placette village café we made a plan. He would go independent and convert the garage below his house into a basic two-tank winery. I would make his wine there, give it some barrel ageing elsewhere … and now ‘elsewhere’ is proudly in Le Chai Au Quai.

Now every year I haul his young wine up to Le Chai au Quai where I look after it like it was my own child. Here I give it careful ageing in new French oak barrels and the best bottling conditions which this wine would have never seen!

Ten years on our collaboration and careful work in the vineyard and in his garage winery has resulted in the ultimate grower/winemaker partnership wine ‘Un Vent de Folie’. I think together we now make a wine well worthy of his magnificent ancient vines. Try one; you won’t be disappointed.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Back to The Midi

It was an absolute scorcher down in the Midi and a very different world to the fresh, misty mornings of Bordeaux! Maitena and I set off early into the warm sunshine heading the back way from Narbonne through the Corbières and into Fitou. This old road brings back many fond memories. It was here, in the small village of Albas way back in 1998, I arrived fresh faced for my first French harvest and fell in love with the Midi. I remember sitting on the banks of the river Berre, fishing, waiting for the harvest to begin; a little different to today!

Fitou is where we find our old-vine Carignan. Rare, old vines give deep, rich colour and flavour with the silkiest of tannins not found on the young Carignan from the plains. We carried on up and over the Corbières and down into the stunning l’Agly valley and to my second home of Maury.

The valley was very busy in its usual harvest chaos and I was just in time to see the first XV du President grapes arrive at the winery. The fruit is quite stunning this year with perfect ripeness in the Grenache. The harvest was coming in thick and fast all morning and by midday we had 8 vats ready for Maitena to add yeast to tonight.

The afternoon was spent with Jean-Charles harvesting the Vent de Folie vineyards. The old vine Grenache vineyard is simply ridiculous; steep, hot and half a mile from the road! I hadn’t quite found my Maury feet and nearly came a cropper sliding down the slate soil but holding the precious crate of Grenache grapes safely with dropping any! When you finally get the grapes to the van its is so satisfying, each tiny 10kg box holding about 10 vines’ worth of grapes, carefully stacked ready for the winery!

Jean-Charles and his wife Celine do an amazing job and to see their grapes fermented in their garage they are overwhelmingly proud. Vivre JC: the best Grenache grower I know of! Is there a grower’s competition we can enter him into?