France: More French Regions

Alsace

Barmes Buecher (Wettolsheim) BIODYNAMIC

Laurent Barth (Bennwihr) ORGANIC

Beaujolais

Laurent Gauthier – Domaine des Caves (Chenas)

When we first stumbled upon wild-eyed Laurent Gauthier, he seemed a man of few words. It could just have been that he didn’t understand our mangled French. Laurent makes an excellent Moulin-a-Vent called Cuvee Etalon, a dense and fleshy interpretation of the Gamay grape. Moulin-a-Vent is one of the ten “ Cru” villages of Beaujolais, all of which enjoy superior soil rich in granite compared to the rest of the region. Moulin-a-Vent always tends to be the fuller bodied of all the Crus, and is one of the wines of  the Beaujolais that ages 30 years with ease.
Despite having bought annually since our first visit in around 2004, there was a 10 year hiatus before we visited again (since when we have been dropping in more frequently). Laurent was certainly a man of few words when we first visited. He might have been grappling with our accents and restricted vocabulary. He seems to have become a bit chattier. Either that or our French has improved a little. “See you in another ten years then?” he said as we went. “Haha – maybe sooner!”

Cedric Vincent (Pouilly le Monial)

We have been working with Cedric Vincent for a decade – pretty much from when he took over his grandfather’s vines. There have been some recent developments. He was working as an Oenologue in the Beaune area when we first met and has now knocked that on the head. The commute was too much and he now has more vines – almost 6 hectares now. He has built a new cellar and house overlooking the village of Pouilly le Monial in the region now known as Les Pierres Dorees (the golden stones), the southern part of the Beaujolais, closer to Lyon than to Macon. Until recently he just made one wine, a delicious, very stylish Beaujolais Villages. He has planted some Chardonnay on his chalkier soil and has been making some Beaujolais Blanc. When we visited him in October, in between mouthfuls of his mother’s Boeuf Bourguignon (a dish that stopped us in our tracks – in a good way), he was dead excited to reveal that he has also bought a hectare of old vines in Moulin-a-Vent, one of most highly-regarded Beaujolais Crus. “It was always a dream of mine to own some vines there.”

Anne-Sophie Dubois (Fleurie)

Anne-Sophie Dubois comes from the Champagne region. Her parents have 3 hectares in Sezanne, halfway between Epernay and Troyes. They had two kids, wanted to expand and bought a 8 hectare plot in Fleurie. After internships at Roblet-Monnot in Volnay and various Champagne producers around Sezanne, Anne-Sophie took over the small Fleurie domaine in 2007. She makes three wines. A Bourgogne Rouge from Gamay, and two Fleurie bottlings – L’Alchemiste and Clepsydre. Her winemaking style is very gentle, to emphasise the purity, fragrance and elegance of the fruit. Long maceration, wild yeasts, no new oak, no filtration or fining, no pumping – just gravity. It was difficult in the early days with hail decimating her crops, but whatever finds its way into bottle is very refined.

East

Domaine du Perron (Villebois/Bugey) NATURAL

If you drive 45 minutes due east of Lyon, just as you see some serious hills and mountains, you might stumble upon a village called Villebois. Francois Grinand, previously a piano teacher, started making wine in 1993. With a miniscule 2.5 hectares of vines, he has worked in the “Natural” style from the beginning.
Francois has had ups and downs along the way. He got into difficulty in 2005 and went into liquidation in 2007. Two wine-loving Belgians, fans of his wines, visited one evening and said, “would it help if we bought your entire stock?” La Vigne du Perron was able to rise from the ashes. We stumbled across some of this stock in Copenhagen and were keen to track François down.
His wines are totally Natural. “No pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers or other chemical means are used in the vineyards. Very low yields. The culture principles are derived from organic agriculture and biodynamism (without certification). The vinification takes place on indigenous yeasts, without chaptalisation, enzymes, fining, filtration, and without any other means of chemistry or “technology” winemaking.”

Les Ermitures is 100% Gamay from vines on chalky soil at the base of the rock face that towers above the village.
Les Ermitures (also Friche in French) means abandoned ground, usually wild and covered with grass. He chose the name as a gentle dig to his neighbours: his parcels are always covered with grass – unusual in a region where the use of herbicides was so systematic.

Les Etapes is 100% Pinot Noir.

In white we were taken with his Serene Blanche which is a synonym of Roussette, also known as Altesse. Low yield, late harvest but with plenty of acidity.

Provence

Domaine de Mauvan (Puyloubier)

We were looking for another Rose in Provence in the wilting 40C heat of summer. Much of our shortlisting work was done in the thankfully cool Cotes-de-Provence-Sainte-Victoire Vinotheque in the town of Trets. Our clear winner was Mauvan. 30 minutes later, with the stunning long ridge-like Mont Sainte-Victoire as backdrop, we were tasting the full range with Martin Massot, Gaelle Maclou’s long-term boyfriend and co-worker. Gaelle’s Grandfather started the Domaine in the 1950s. It was mixed farming. Mainly cereal, fruit and some vines. Gaelle, a qualified Oenologist, took over the Domaine 22 years ago, stripped out the cereal production and has concentrated on wine ever since. The wines are very very good. A refreshing white made from Rolle (Vermentino), two levels of Rose, Classique and the Sainte-Victoire and three reds. Classique is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, Cuvee Vieilles Vignes is 80% Grenache and 20% Carignan. Their Sainte-Victoire Cuvee Prestige is 80% Syrah with 20% Grenache. All the reds age beautifully.

Chateau Vannieres (Bandol)

Bandol, one of France’s great, age-worthy red wines, is the mad king of Provencal wine that can trace its roots back to Roman times. It takes its name from a pretty coastal town on the Cote d’Azur, not quite as chic as St Tropez or Cannes perhaps, but whose harbour is still crammed with expensive white motor boats and yachts. Bandol’s vines are inland, dotted around the villages up in the hills. The wine is made mainly from Mourvedre, a grape that needs lots of heat and sun to fully ripen. Even when it does, it can be extremely tannic when young. Playing an occasional minor part in southern Rhone blends, here Mourvedre expresses all of its potential. It is definitely worth waiting for its dark, meaty beauty to emerge. It can also be very alcoholic, routinely 14.5-15 percent.

We are big fans of Chateau Vannieres age-worthy Bandol. The current incumbent, Eric Boisseaux, has the air of a 1960s playboy about him – suave, jacket, scarf, smart jeans and smart shoes: very Cote d’Azur. His grandfather bought the domaine in Bandol in 1957. The family was originally from Burgundy (they are related to the Gouges of Nuits-St–Georges). His father, Gaston, who made wine in Beaune and Bandol, died prematurely in 1968. His mother, Colette, took over and during the 1970s they baled out of Burgundy and settled full-time at Vannieres.

His Bandol Rouge is 90% Mourvedre with 10% Grenache, the Rose is made with Mourvedre (saigne method), Grenache and Cinsault (from the press). The white Bandol is made with 80% Clairette and 20% Bourboulenc.
In addition to the three Bandols, he also makes some more everyday white, rose and red. Now labelled as Vannieres with the Mont-Caume IGP (Indication Geographique Protegee – the new name for Vins de Pays). The composition of each is similar to the Bandols but for some Syrah in the red.

As if to demonstrate the ageing potential of Bandol, it is wonderful to be able to procure some mature vintages from Eric. The 1998 was a revelation when we visited and we are proud to now have some on our shelves – although possibly not indefinitely.

Domaine de la Tour du Bon (Bandol – Le Brulat du Castellet)

Mourvedre is king in Bandol and Agnes Henry is queen in her village high up in the hills. However, Agnes Henry’s Tour du Bon is packed so full of fruit that we can enjoy it now. Big, deep, dark and leathery, occasionally sweaty. Some writers also find aromas of cinnamon, vanilla, blackcurrant, violets and herbs.

Mas de Cadenet (Trets)

The artist Cezanne was so fascinated by the Mont Sainte-Victoire, east of Aix-en-Provence, that he painted it many times. It forms the stunning backdrop for Guy Negrel’s Mas de Cadenet vineyards. Guy, with help from his son Mathieu and daughter Maude, produce a brilliant range of Provencal wines in every colour. Sainte-Victoire, our runaway Rose success for several years, is a blend of 40% Grenache, 40% Cinsault and 20% Syrah, it. They also make a “junior” Rose, L’Arbaude, a blend of 70% Grenache, 15% Cinsault and 15% Carignan, an equally brilliant white made from Rolle (otherwise known as Vermentino), a delicious, rich, herbal red – 45% Grenache, 45% Syrah and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon and finally, top-of-the-range, the Mas Negrel, supple, deep and concentrated.
All their wines seem evocative of Mediterranean sunshine and the warm scents of the garrigue; the Provencal brushland of wild lavender, rosemary and thyme. Oh, and they also make a small amount of Vin Cuit, a sweet red wine, something of a local speciality, and some delicious, peppery Extra Virgin Olive Oil.

Roussillon

Mas Cremat (Espira d’Agly)

Catherine Jeannin-Mongeard moved down from Burgundy in 1990 to make characterful wines on her farm “Mas Cremat” just outside Perpignan, in the hot windswept south of France, close to the Spanish border. Idyllic as it may sound, there is an invigorating Mistral-like wind called “Cers” that roars through the gnarly vines and drives everyone a bit mad. We have always found Tamarius enjoyable from when we first started working with Catherine back in the late 90’s. Her old vines produce some lovely, deep juice. She used to blend Grenache with Carignan and recently switched to Grenache and Syrah. Les Balmettes is an unusual blend of white Grenache and the rarely seen white Carignan. Her Muscat Sec is intensely spicy, peppery, dry Muscat, a blend of 50/50 Muscat Frontignan and Muscat Alexandrie.

Vaquer (Tressere)

In the draughty, cafe-less, bar-less village of Tressere, barely 10kms from the Spanish border, with a view of the snow-capped Pyrenees in one direction, the Mediterranean sea in another, lives the Vaquer family. Frederique took over from her father-in-law ten years ago. She makes mad, distinctive reds from Carignan, Grenache and Syrah, and, as you’d expect in this corner of France close to Banyuls and Maury, some impressive, classic, sweet fortified Vin Doux Naturel. Frederique says her Vieux Rivesaltes is between 25 and 30 years old and was made from old vine Grenache with the fermentation stopped by the introduction of spirit.
Cuvee Bernard is an oak-less blend of 45% Carignan, 45% Grenache and 10% Syrah. As usual with Frederique, it’s mad, herbal wine, with wild dark fruit, great acidity and a savoury edge. Although delicious now, there’s no hurry to drink up, it will age effortlessly – as her father-in-law’s 1986 amply demonstrates.
L’Expression is 100% Carignan from very old vines, wild fruit with great acidity and a savoury edge. The simply labelled “Vaquer Rouge 1986” is an intriguing example of fully mature Carignan. It has a brickier, more translucent colour, rather than the more youthful purple and has evolved, roasted, gamey notes, tobacco, plum and rhubarb. If you served it blind to an expert, many may mistake it for Chateauneuf-du-Pape, an old Rioja, or even as an elegant, much older Bordeaux – a Pomerol, for instance.

Southwest

Domaine du Haut Pecharmant (Bergerac)

One night, on our recent trip to Bordeaux, after a day in the Medoc, we found ourselves in the quirky Au Petit Bois wine bar, the one with a tree inside the bar. The wine of the evening was not a Bordeaux – shock. It was a wild, sweaty Pecharmant from the Bergerac. The dangerous scent of undergrowth, the animal sweat of this uncompromising, untamed red wine got us excited. So excited that we reorganised our timetable to drive east to meet Didier Roches of the Domaine du Haut Pecharmant, the winery at the top of the slope that is Pecharmant, northeast of the city of Bergerac.

Didier’s Pecharmant is Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc with some Merlot and Malbec. It’s bold, rough and dirty. In a good way. Like arm to arm wrestling with a wild animal and you only just come out on top.

Chateau de la Mallevieille (Montravel)

Montravel Sec is a fascinating dry white wine. It gently hints at lemongrass and nettles, and some of the oily power reminiscent of the finer Graves whites.
Montravel is its own appellation on a hill within Bergerac, to the east of Saint Emilion and Castillon in Bordeaux.
Back when we were in Liberty we bought some Montravel a couple of times from Chateau de la Mallevieille.
On our very recent trip and after 4 days of Bordeaux, Montravel popped into our mind and, seeing how close we were geographically, we thought we would drop in.
Once they had called off the imposing and very vocal Alsatian guard dog, we were very warmly received by Thierry and his father Philippe. The wines are authentic, clear, expressive and thoroughly enjoyable, each punching well above its weight.
The Bergerac Blanc is a zingy, aromatic 90% Sauvignon Blanc with 10% Semillon. The Bergerac Rouge was consistent across the two vintages we tasted – a blend of 60% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Cabernet Franc. Proper red wine, touch of lead pencil in the nose and wonderfully balanced between salty savouriness and ripe saturated fruit.

Saint Guilhem (Fronton)

Much has been written about the French Paradox – the life-enhancing properties of certain red wines protecting the French from high fat diets. We regularly receive streams of data from the very excited former Teacher and Estate Agent Philippe Laduguie of Saint Guilhem, north-west of Toulouse. One of his wines tested with the highest number of Phenolics and Proanthocyanidins, which have been directly linked to a long list of health benefits; reducing histamine production, improving circulation by strengthening capillary walls, helping collagen repair (keeping your skin elastic and wrinkle-free), an internal sunscreen, protecting blood vessels in the brain, increasing mental acuity, decreasing stroke potential, fighting senility. We all want to believe it’s true as we pile into our plate of delicious, high-fat cheese!
“Tradition” is a blend of 70% Négrette, 15% Gamay and 15% Cabernet Franc. “Renaissance”, another of his Magic Potions, is a blend of Négrette, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. Think of them less as wines, more of life-extending health drinks.