Tuesday 30 July 2013

Bargains from the Languedoc

French wines do not necessarily need to be expensive. A visit to the Loire Valley earlier this year yielded a crop of interesting, well-made and very wallet friendly wines. Most of the wines I purchased were just over EUR10 (SGD17). More recently, at the cosy and convivial wine bar Pearl & Ash in New York, I enjoyed a delicious bottle of Beaujolais from natural wine producer Marcel Lapierre for just USD55 (SGD70). Compare that against wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy, the majority of which were priced above USD100 (SGD126).

For sheer range of grape varieties and styles though, it’s hard to beat the Languedoc region. Almost every grape that you can think of (and then some) has been planted here. The Mediterranean red grape varieties of Carignan, Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre are well represented, while for the whites you have Piquepoul, Clairette, Rolle, and Viognier. The vastness of the Languedoc means that whatever type of wine you are looking for – still, sparkling, dry or sweet, you can be assured of finding an appellation that excels in exactly that style. 

Wein & Vin, a specialist in German and French wines, held a tasting recently to highlight some gems that they discovered at the Sud de France wine fair. I was particularly motivated to attend when I heard that one of the wines featured would be a sparkling wine from Limoux made from the obscure Mauzac grape. The locals in Limoux claim that their production of sparkling wine, made using the méthode traditionnelle, predates that of Champagne. Boon Heng of Wein & Vin says of this wine, “It is a game changer for the trade, but there must be an understanding of the difference between this wine and tank method wines.”

Boon also explained the proper technique of serving Languedoc wines. “They must be served at the correct temperature so that the alcohol does not dominate. Around 16°C is ideal.” Coincidentally, just a few days ago I had tasted some Languedoc reds and found the alcohol rather pronounced, but with the aid of ice buckets this time around the freshness was much more apparent.

Producer and tasting notes:

Château Rives-Blanques is owned by Jan and Caryl Panman who bought the property in 2001. The previous owner, Eric Vialade, is now the winemaker, with assistance from wine consultant Georges Pauli, technical director of Bordeaux second-growth Château Gruaud-Larose. 

Château Rives-Blanques Blanquette de Limoux 2010 – 90% Mauzac, with remainder being Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay. Hand-harvested fruit and made using the traditional method. Pale lemon, with apple cider, light grassy aromas and a hint of lemon sherbet. Shows delicate alcohol and a light body. Refreshing and persistent. Very good value. 

Château Rives-Blanques Crémant de Limoux Blanc de Blancs 2009 – A blend of Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc. Citrus and honeydew fruit with hints of Mediterranean herbs. Shows some weight and presence on the palate. 

Château Rives-Blanques Cuvée Occitania Mauzac 2011 – Fermented and aged in oak. Medium gold robe, with a tinge of green. Fruit rather obscured by oak, mainly crème fraîche and vanilla notes. It would be nice to see more of the apple peel character of Mauzac. 

Château Rives-Blanques La Trilogie 2010 – The top wine of Château Rives-Blanques, with limited production. Made from separately vinified Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Mauzac. Fermented and aged in oak. Restrained dried apple, citrus and melon notes. Very elegant and layered, pinpoint balance with a long finish. Very impressive. 

Château Maris is based in Minervois La Liviniere, a sub-commune within the larger Minervois appellation. In 2007, the Languedoc AOC regional appellation was defined, placing La Liviniere at the top of the quality pyramid due to its poorer soils and slightly cooler climate than the rest of Minervois. The 33 hectare property is run by Robert Eden along sustainability lines. Their tagline is “Better for the Earth, Better for the Wine, Better for You.” 

Château Maris Organic Syrah 2011 – 85% Syrah with 15% Grenache. Aromas of spice, black fruits and game overlay a full bodied palate. Clean and pure with expressive Syrah character, balanced and refreshing. 

Château Maris La Touge Syrah 2011 – 85% Syrah with 15% Grenache grown on limestone soils and vinified in concrete and oak vats. Aged for 12 months in 30% new oak. A full bodied wine displaying notes of ripe blackcurrants lifted by spice and black pepper. A seductive wine with big and ripe tannins. 

Château Maris “Continuité de Nature” Carignan 2010 – Carignan is not widely regarded as a grape of great finesse, but here, old vines have imbued the wine with savoury complexity and concentration. Generous black plums, thyme and oregano tantalise the palate leading to a warm finish. 

Mas de Dames lies in the hills of Béziers close to the Mediterranean sea. The name, which translates to “farm of the ladies”, is run by Dutch winemaker Lidewij van Wilgen, who left her cushy job in advertising to pursue her passion in winemaking. She is often assisted by her three daughters. Yields are kept low at 35 hl / ha and the winery is on the path to organic certification. 

Mas de Dames “La Dame” Coteaux du Languedoc 2010  – 50% Grenache, 30% Carignan and 20% Syrah. A deep ruby hue. Intense aromas with notes of meat, leather, tobacco and black fruits, with a creamy edge perhaps due to oak treatment. Soft and rounded on the palate but balanced with vivid freshness. Astoundingly well-made. 

Wines available from Wein & Vin. At the time of writing, only trade prices were available but estimated retail price for these wines should be from SGD35 to SGD65.

Thursday 18 July 2013

Sherry, Unfiltered

Gonzalez Byass En Rama Sherries

Last month at a dinner with some wine enthusiasts, I had the pleasure of tasting a style of sherry that has been earning rave reviews amongst sommeliers and wine critics, while simultaneously slipping under the radar of mainstream consumers. That it should go unnoticed is both unsurprising and somewhat of a pity, as sherry has never found much favour in Singapore. As a wine that can be drunk both before and after a meal, its versatility is also a source of confusion. Is it dry or sweet? What’s the difference between a Palo Cortado and an Amontillado? Can I drink the bottle of sherry that I bought for cooking? (The answer to the last, by the way, is no. Cooking sherry is a cheaper version of sherry that has salt and other additives to preserve its lifespan.) 

Sherry producers are not about to make things simpler. To the diverse list of styles can be added En Rama, a lightly filtered and unclarified Fino-style sherry that was first launched by Gonzalez Byass in 2010. The wine is taken from the middle of its cask during spring when the covering of yeast is at its thickest. Unlike other wines, fino sherry is aged under a protective blanket of yeast known as flor. As it feeds on nutrients in the wine, it also protects the wine from oxidation while imparting a yeasty aroma and flavour similar to bread dough. 

En rama perfectly captures the fashion of the moment towards a less interventionist winemaking style (e.g. think natural wines). While filtration minimises the risk of bacterial spoilage (from residual flor) and results in a more stable product, it also robs the wine of some character. Tasting a wine that has been bottled en rama is as close as you can get to tasting it straight out of the barrel. While en rama refers to the practice of bottling without any filtration, in practice a very light filtration is often employed to remove solid particles that may otherwise cloud the wine. 

Gonzalez Byass is the largest sherry house in Jerez, known for its Tio Pepe fino which can be found all over the world. The en rama version was made to celebrate the 175th anniversary of the house and made from a special selection of casks. Initially released only in the UK, its popularity encouraged the firm to double production in 2011 and export to other countries, although it is still very difficult to find as the wines are mainly distributed in the UK and US. The producer recommends that the sherry be drunk within three months of bottling while the character of the wine is at its freshest. 

Other sherry producers have been quick to take note. Bodegas Hildalgo released an en rama manzanilla sherry in 2011 under the La Gitana label, followed by Bodegas Lustau this year which released not one but three bottlings – two fino-style sherries and a manzanilla. The difference between a fino and manzanilla has to do with location; a manzanilla is made in the seaside town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda where the moderate temperatures encourage flor growth, resulting in delicate sherries with pronounced iodine and salty notes. 

What en rama sherries lose in terms of ageability, it gains tenfold in character. Compared to regular finos, they show more depth of character and complexity, a sherry on steroids. The Bodegas Hidalgo La Gitana En Rama Manzanilla I tasted displayed savoury and saline notes on a broad, nutty palate, with a long and lingering finish. A youthful and exuberant wine that left me completely, if you’ll pardon the pun, flor’d. 

We can only hope that some intrepid distributor will import a few cases of en rama sherries into Singapore, but in the meantime, if you would like to dip your toes into this category of wines, Taberna Wine Academy has a fascinating collection all the way from refreshingly light finos to the delectably sticky Pedro Ximinez.