Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Rocking Jura Wines from Domaine de la Pinte

Bruno is the man. 
Bruno Ciofi seems perpetually stoked about life. He’s always smiling and sharing stories, and whenever I asked him a question, he listened carefully, took it to heart and provided thoughtful answers from a unique perspective. Talk to him for just a few minutes, and you realize you’re stoked about life as well.

I’ve been a fan of Bruno’s Jura wines for years, having tasted many of them at Weygandt Wines in DC, which imports them. But I’d never had the pleasure of meeting the man behind Domaine de la Pinte until I ran into him at Millésime Bio Fair in Montpellier in January.

His wines are packed with character. Quirky, yet elegant, they scream Jura with their fresh acid and mineral tones, yet the wines avoid some of the more extreme elements associated with the region, like oxidization and intensely funky flavors. I chatted with Bruno for a good 40 minutes or so, tasting some wines I hadn’t tried before. 

I had an absolute blast and was reminded again why I love Jura wines, and why Domaine de la Pinte is such a special producer.

My notes…

2011 Domaine de la Pinte Chardonnay Arbois Pupillin “Fonteneille” - France, Jura, Arbois Pupillin
A blissful and unique Chardonnay. A special selection from limestone and blue marl soils, it smells like dried apricot, clover honey, lemon verbena and crushed rocks. Rich texture but terrific acid and a pure stream of minerals throughout. Yellow apple and green pear fruit are matched with minerals, sage, lemon pepper and mountain stream notes. Such minerality and elegance. Love this stuff. (91 points)

2011 Domaine de la Pinte Arbois “del Ami Karl”France, Jura, Arbois
Aromas of smoke, sour cherries, pickles, clay and a note that reminds me of red beet. All about the freshness on the palate, with crisp acid and lots of minerals. Tangy sour cherry fruit mixes with clay, tobacco and dried rose flavors. Not quite as good as I remember the 2010, but another delicious Poulsard from Bruno. (89 points)

Bruno's loyal assistant... asleep on the job at Millesime BioFair.
2011 Domaine de la Pinte Arbois “a la capitaine”France, Jura, Arbois
Light rose color. Smells like cranberries, rose hips and dried herbs. Such freshness on the palate, with tart berries and red apple peel, matched by notes of roses, dusty road and crushed limestone. So elegant and crisp with a tobacco-laced finish. A blend of Pinot, Poulsard and Trousseau. (90 points)

2011 Domaine de la Pinte Melon à Queue Rouge Arbois PupillinFrance, Jura, Arbois Pupillin
Highly aromatic, with honey, peach and a floral-grass note that reminds me of daffodils and hay. Creamy texture, live-wire acid and such purity on the palate. Nectarine and honeydew melon mix with dried honey and peanut shell. I like to generous feel but it's still precise and elegant. (90 points)

2007 Domaine de la Pinte Savagnin ArboisFrance, Jura, Arbois
Aromas of yellow apple, dried honey, wax and an aroma that reminds of wood after it's been rubbed with that lemon-scented dusting oil, as crazy as that may sound. Tangy as hell on the palate, but full and creamy. Green pear and apricot mix with nutty, dried honey notes. The wine spends 18 months on the lees and five years in barrel, although the oxidation is controlled and not overwhelming. (91 points)

N.V. Domaine de la Pinte Arbois “Cuvée d'Automne”France, Jura, Arbois
Exotic on the nose, rich and waxy with lemon peel, smoke and floral incense. Nutty, complex on the palate with nectarine, dried pineapple and yellow apple. I get some nutty, dried wax notes as well. The oxidation is minor, and as Bruno describes it, this wine is a fresher alternative to Vin Jaune. Really unique and tasty, this would be a great pairing with all sorts of cheese. A blend of 80% Savagnin from 2006 (some of which is oxidized) and 20% Chardonnay from 2008. (90 points)

2005 Domaine de la Pinte Arbois Vin JauneFrance, Jura, Arbois
Smells like nuts, hay, dried wax, lemon peel and white pepper. A complex mix of aromas. Full and waxy on the palate, complex, but full of fresh acid. Flavors of almond, lemon oil, sea brine and green olive combine in a unique package. Finish with notes of preserved lemon, nuts and graham cracker crust. Despite the oxidation, it's still fresh and subtle, and not overwhelming given this style. Delicious stuff, I'd love to cellar some for a decade to see what happens. (91 points)

N.V. Domaine de la Pinte Arbois Vin de Paille “Paradoxe”France, Jura, Arbois
Aromas of glazed pear, peach, honey, preserved lemon and an oily-waxy note. Flavors of apricot, sweet pineapple, honey and mixed nuts on a full-bodied frame with lovely acid. I love the combination of freshness and fullness, and the sweetness is much more reserved and balanced than a lot of dessert wines. Caramel-laden finish. Bruno calls this wine Paradoxe because he says it tastes less sweet than it actually is. Delicious stuff. (91 points)

Monday, March 24, 2014

Tasting Organic Wines from the Languedoc-Roussillon

This report was first published in the daily wine blog Terroirist.

If the Languedoc-Roussillon is the largest French wine region, it’s also the greenest. The Languedoc-Roussillon is home to some 20,830 hectares of organic vineyards, farmed by 1,245 producers, according to 2012 figures from the French Bio Agency. That’s nearly a third of the 64,800 hectares of vineyards across France that have been certified organic or are undergoing conversion. (1 hectare translates to a bit less than 2.5 acres.)

The courtyard at Domaine Cazes in Rivesaltes. IJB.
I recently spent five days wine tasting my way through this vast region. My trip was centered around the 2014 Millésime BioFair, a trade show in Montpellier focused on promoting organic and biodynamic wines. The fair was organized by SudVinBio, an association of organic Languedoc-Roussillon winemakers, which brought over a group of wine writers and sommeliers from the United States and Canada.

On the first day of our trip, we drove west from Montpellier to the small town of Rivesaltes, home of one of the region’s many Vin Doux Naturel sweet wines. I spent the two-hour drive looking out the window, observing this land of contrasts. A field of knotty old bush vines abutted an IKEA superstore. Campfires smoldered in the middle of trailer park sites. Newly pruned vineyards sat on one side of the road, abandoned vineyards on the other, their vines left to fend for themselves amidst towering weeds and mustard grass. Crumbling construction sites, covered in graffiti, looked over the pristine blue of the Mediterranean. I was beginning to understand where all those Vin de Pays d’Oc wines came from, and perhaps where they got their earthy, rustic character.

Before lunch, our group gathered in a tasting room at the organic powerhouse Domaine Cazes. SudVinBio had amassed more than 70 bottles of organic wine from all over the Languedoc-Roussillon for us to taste through. Most of the wines carried price tags in the 6 to 12 Euro range, although a few scattered bottles cost upwards of 25 Euros. To be honest, the tasting was a mixed bag. Yes, the Languedoc-Roussillon still carries a reputation for insipid wine and crummy winemaking. While lots of producers are doing their damnedest to turn things around, many of these wines tasted dull or bitter or reeked of brett. But among the mediocre, a few wines stood out and demanded attention.

My notes on a few of those wines...

2012 Château de la Liquiere Faugéres “Cistus” - France, Languedoc Roussillon, Faugères
My first Faugeres blanc, and I’m liking it. Peaches, whipped honey and hazelnut on the nose. Creamy palate, fresh acid, slightly nutty and creamy. Nice mineral kick. A blend of Roussanne, Grenache Blanc and Vermentino. Not too big, but grabs your attention. (88 points)

2012 Les Chemins de Bassac Vin de Pays des Côtes de Thongue “Isa” - France, Languedoc Roussillon, Languedoc, Vin de Pays des Côtes de Thongue
Peach, cantaloupe melon and vanilla on the nose. Rich texture, a bit oil, but medium acid helps balance it out. Honeycomb, white peach, yellow apple and a waxy note. Nice finish. Solid stuff. (86 points)

2012 Château Montfin Corbières - France, Languedoc Roussillon, Languedoc, Corbières
So spicy on the nose, with wild strawberries and white and black pepper. Crisp and pepper on the palate, with red flowers, watermelon and a sense of purity and minerality. (87 points)

2013 Château Vieux Moulin Corbières - France, Languedoc Roussillon, Languedoc, Corbières
Aromas of grapefruit, strawberry greens and nettles. Tangy and light on the palate, with white pepper, minerals and green grass on top of lemon and grapefruit. A fresh, salad-friendly wine. Cinsault, Grenache and Syrah. (85 points)

2012 Domaine de Cebene Vin de Pays d’Oc “Ex Arena” - France, Languedoc Roussillon, Vin de Pays d’Oc
Complex aromas: sweet red flowers, bright cherries and spicy pepper. Firm, grippy tannins meet fresh acid on the palate. The black cherry fruit is concentrated, mixing with nuts, dried flowers and herb garden. Complex, deserving of contemplation and a few years in the cellar. (89 points)

2012 Gérard Bertrand Vin de Pays d’Oc “Cigalus” - France, Languedoc Roussillon, Vin de Pays d’Oc
Complex and classic aromas of currant, tobacco leaf and pencil shavings. Juicy black cherries and plums on the palate. Creamy tannins and fresh acid form a velvety mouthfeel. Flavors of soil, pepper, cedar and graphite add complexity. Head and shoulders above most wines in the tasting. A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. Of course, this was also one of the most expensive wines in the bunch at 28 Euros. (90 points)

2011 Château Costes-Cirgues Coteaux du Languedoc - France, Languedoc Roussillon, Languedoc, Coteaux du Languedoc
Deep aromatics: violets, earth, mixed berries and cedar. Full but fresh on the palate with dense berries, olive, smoked meat and cedar. Solid length with floral notes on the finish. Syrah and Grenache. (88 points)

2011 Domaine de Cebene Faugères “Felgaria” - France, Languedoc Roussillon, Languedoc, Faugères
Definitely one of the best wines of the tasting, and I think this was almost unanimous in everyone’s enthusiasm. Roses, olives, charcoal and currants on the nose. Silky and pure with delicious cherries and plums. Good structure, fresh acid, secondary flavors of charcoal, dried flowers and pepper. Long and sexy. (89 points)

For a full-on assault of tasting notes, click here for my CellarTracker report on this tasting of organic Languedoc-Roussillon wines.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Wine Reviews: Languedoc-Roussillon Wines <$20

The Languedoc-Roussillon region is vast, beautiful and covered
in vines. Long a source of bulk wine, many winemakers today are
focusing on terroir and value, giving consumers lots of options.
I spent five days in January touring the Languedoc-Roussillon region, meeting winemakers and tasting through a slew of organic wines from the region. I’ll have more posts about my trip in the coming days and weeks, but in the meantime, here are some reviews of Languedoc-Roussillon wines I tasted before my trip. Like many wines from the region, they all retail for about $20 or less.

These wines were received as trade samples and tasted sighted.

2012 Calmel + J Joseph Chardonnay Villa Blanche - France, Languedoc Roussillon, Vin de Pays d'Oc
SRP: $13
A medium gold color in the glass. Aromas of whipped honey, white flowers, chamomile tea, green and yellow pear. On the palate, this wine shows medium acid on a medium-bodied frame. The green pear and honeydew flavors are light, matched with up by notes of chamomile tea, honey and lemon. A sea shell note lingers onto the finish. I like the flavors, but I don’t get a lot of depth out of this wine. (85 points)

2010 Mas de Guiot Vin de Pays du Gard Cabernet-Syrah - France, Languedoc, Vin de Pays du Gard
SRP: $15
The nose is full of sweet red and black currant fruit, mixed in with some pepper. Juicy currant and plum fruit leads the way on the palate, with fine-grained tannins offering a bit of support along with medium acid. Roasted coffee and toasted oak flavors add to the overall easy-drinking approach. (86 points)

2011 Mas de Guiot Vin de Pays du Gard Grenache-Syrah - France, Languedoc, Vin de Pays du Gard
SRP: $10
Aromas of leather, roasted lamb and pepper over top of juicy plums. The tannins have a bit of grip and the acid shows through. Blueberry mixes with plums, and the rich fruit is backed up by pepper and soy flavors. A generously fruity wine, but it shows a lot of rustic, earthy flavors that make me crave burgers or lamb chops. Despite the “Grenache-Syrah” label this is 60% Syrah and 40% Grenache. (87 points)

2011 Domaine Sainte-Eugénie Corbières - France, Languedoc Roussillon, Languedoc, Corbières
SRP: $15
A bright medium ruby color Aromas of bright red plums and currants, some red apple peel, and lots of earthy-spicy aromas. On the palate, the fine-silky tannins a whole lot of freshness from the acid. Nice cracked pepper, meat and earthy flavors. Tasty stuff, probably more of a near-term drinker. I’d love to open this with some roasted lamb and veg. (87 points)

SRP: $20
On the nose, beef, pepper and charcoal blend in with blackberry and currant fruit. Juicy and fresh in its approach, with fine tannins and medium+ acid. Red cherries and currants, along with black pepper, dried Provencal herbs and charcoal, a bit of beef. Sleek and drinking perfectly well now. (87 points)

2012 Domaine Sainte-Eugénie Vin de Pays d'Hauterive Le Clos - France, Languedoc, Vin de Pays d'Hauterive
SRP: $11
Snappy cherries and raspberries on the nose, bright red flowers and some pepper. Tart on the palate, with grainy tannins supporting the cherry and red currant fruit. Some loamy, dusty notes on the finish. Not very complex, but fresh and definitely food-friendly. 45% Merlot, 20% Carignan, 20% Grenache and 15% Cabernet. (86 points)

2011 Calmel + J Joseph Faugères - France, Languedoc, Faugères
SRP: $15
A smoky nose, like charcoal, hot asphalt over top of the red and black plum fruit, currant skins, dried flowers, leather. On the palate, the freshness is very nice, firm but manageable tannins, some crispness from the acid. Dark plum, currant and pomegranate fruit is snappy but smoky. I like the charcoal, chestnut and black pepper notes. A blend of 50% Syrah, 30% Grenache and 20% Carignan. (87 points)

2011 Calmel + J Joseph Saint-Chinian - France, Languedoc, Saint-Chinian
SRP: $13
Aromas of juicy blackberries and plums, smoke, sweet lavender, charcoal. Nice grip to the tannins, pervasive freshness, it forms a silky texture. Darker and more structured than the 2011 Faugeres, this wine shows rich blackberry and currant fruit, mixed in with a hefty dose of pepper, dusty soil and smoke. A nice kick of lavender and rosemary on the finish. Full and plush, but there’s a lot going on in here. 60% Syrah, 30% Grenache and 10% Carignan. (89 points)

2011 Calmel + J Joseph Vin de Pays des Côtes de Brian Vieux Carignan - France, Languedoc, Vin de Pays des Côtes de Brian
SRP: $19
Clear bold purple color. Black cherries and blackberries on the nose, with some dust notes, pencil shavings and tree bark, as weird as that may sound. Firm but fine tannins and medium acid, creamy mouthfeel. Lots of dark roasted plums and blackberries, earthy and inky notes, some pepper, capers and anise. Dark and peppery with some well-integrated toast. A lot going on here with this vin de pays Carignan. (89 points)

This report was first published in the daily wine blog Terroirist.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Domaine Olivier Pithon - "Vin Différent" from the Roussillon

Olivier Pithon.
In January, I spent a week touring and tasting my way through the Languedoc-Roussillon region of Southern France. One of the highlights of the trip was the time I spent with Roussillon winemaker Olivier Pithon. Based in the tiny village of Calce, Domaine Olivier Pithon produces terroir-driven wines of elegance and depth. His wines are lively yet age-worthy, with earthy and mineral accents.

In a region that still carries something of a reputation for bulk and sweet wine, Pithon aims to make “vin différent,” as he puts it. And I think he’s succeeding.

Olivier works 8.5 hectares (21 acres) of old vines planted on the rocky slopes surrounding Calce. He practices organic and biodynamic winemaking because, as he describes it: “You cannot speak of respect for the land whilst putting on products with a skull on the cans.” Some of his best wine comes from old vines that were used to make sweet wines for decades. (To read more about this changing dynamic, click here for my recent piece in Terroirist, “In the Roussillon, Shifting Lines Between Sweet and Dry.”)

Old Carignan vines, rocky soil, lots of sun, unforgiving wind...
A Loire Valley native, Olivier’s grandfather was a winemaker in Anjou, where Olivier started an apprenticeship when he was only 14. After studying winemaking in Bordeaux, Olivier chose to settle down in the Roussillon because of the abundance of available old vines (80-year-old vines are everywhere) and the vast diversity of terroirs. His Loire Valley background shows in his admiration for crisp, cellar-worthy whites. His 2007 “La D18” white blend was one of the most exciting wines I came across during my trip.

On a sunny winter morning, I toured some ancient Carignan vineyards with Pithon and his assistant winemaker Emilie Gendron. The knotted old vines clung close to the rocky soil, like all the other plant life in the area. The constant Tramontane winds whipped southward from the mountains with intense force — 35-40 miles per hour was my conservative estimate.

After a windswept morning, we dined at the only restaurant in Calce, a quirky little place called the Multiservices Café. The food (particularly the foie gras and lamb hock) was incredibly tasty, verging on the sublime. Eating local food and drinking local wine in this beautiful enclave... it was an amazing day.

©Domaine Olivier Pithon. Calce, France by night.
Here are my notes...

Whites and a Rosé

2007 Domaine Olivier Pithon “LA D18” - Vin de Pays des Côtes Catalanes
Smells of white flowers, ripe peaches, along with notes of crushed rocks, candle wax and a distinct oceanic breeze, almost liked aged Muscadet. Lovely acid and a creamy mouthfeel. Flavors of white peach and dried honey mix well with notes of white pepper, herbal tea, smashed rocks a bit of nutshell. Incredibly complex with a long finish. A blend of old-vine Grenache Gris, Grenache Blanc and Macabeo from a vineyard formely used to make Rivesaltes. Still going strong. Tasted from a magnum, this was one of the best surprises from my Roussillon trip. (91 points)

2011 Domaine Olivier Pithon “LA D18” - Vin de Pays des Côtes Catalanes
Strongly aromatic, with nectarine, flowers and sea breeze. So tangy and mineral-driven on the palate, with flavors of orange and grapefruit. Tastes like a bunch of mixed rocks all crushed together and topped with lemons and mineral water. Crisp, long, a great sense of verve to this. I’d like to cellar this for a few years to see what else comes out. (90 points)

2013 Domaine Olivier Pithon “Mon p’tit Pithon” Blanc - Vin de Pays des Côtes Catalanes
A slight spritz in the glass. Smells of orange blossoms and ocean breeze. Creamy on the palate, with a fresh, easy-drinking style. Nectarine, white flowers, a bit of circus peanuts and honey. A blend of bought grapes (Grenache Blanc and Macabeo), this sells for about 9 Euros. Olivier Pithon says he “looks for simplicity” in this wine, and it’s exactly that. Simple, but fresh and tasty. The name of the wine is a play on words; “my little Pithon” sounds a bit like Monty Python in French. (85 points)

2012 Domaine Olivier Pithon “Cuvée Laïs” - Vin de Pays des Côtes Catalanes
Aromas of orange peel, sea breeze and some salted lime. Crisp acid on the palate, with juicy white peach and lychee. Clean and tangy with a limestone and flowers on the finish. Mouthwatering, showing some nice depth. (87 points)

2013 Domaine Olivier Pithon “Mon p’tit Pithon” Rosé - Vin de Pays des Côtes Catalanes
Very, very pale copper color. Aromas of grapefruit and lemon and salt. Tangy, crisp with flavors of watermelon, minerals and tobacco. Spicy, lean and fresh. (86 points)


2013 Domaine Olivier Pithon “Mon p’tit Pithon” Rouge - Vin de Pays des Côtes Catalanes
Smells bright, also some cherry jam and red licorice. Juicy and fresh on the palate, some medium tannins, a red fruit medley. Pepper, charcoal and red licorice. Crisp, easy, fun wine, a blend of Grenache and Syrah. (85 points)

Here, "local ingredients" includes picking some wild rosemary.
2012 Domaine Olivier Pithon “Cuvée Laïs” - Côtes du Roussillon
Roasted plums, smoke and granite on the nose. Firm tannins, fresh acid, along with juicy black currants and plum fruit. Rustic but fresh, with rocky, earthy and violet notes. A blend of Carignan, Grenache and Mourvedre, from different vineyards. These blends are named for Olivier’s cow, whom Olivier loves and speaks of frequently. (88 points)

2009 Domaine Olivier Pithon “Le Pilou” - France, Languedoc Roussillon, Roussillon, Côtes du Roussillon
100% Carignan from 80+ year-old vines. A deep aromatic display of plums, earth, iron and meaty notes. Firm tannic structure with freshness from the acid. Plum skins, olives, clay soil and granite flavors. The wine is very elegant, which is something I rarely say of Carignan. A long and fresh finish with red floral notes. A beauty that I’d love to taste again in two or three years. (90 points)

2011 Domaine Olivier Pithon “Le Pilou” - France, Languedoc Roussillon, Roussillon, Côtes du Roussillon
Smells of plums, currants, granite, braised meat and violets. Full and pure, well-structured. Rich but elegant, with plums, violets, roses, iron and savory spices. Complex, could develop a whole lot over the next two to three years. 100% Carignan. (89 points)

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

In the Roussillon, Shifting Lines Between Sweet and Dry Wines

Olivier Pithon produces stunning dry whites and reds from old vines once used
for VDNs, and he makes a compelling case for his vision of the region.'s future.
For generations, Roussillon winemakers have relied on Vins Doux Naturels as their bread and butter. These “naturally sweet wines” are made by fortifying wine with near pure alcohol to arrest fermentation, resulting in a sweet wine with higher alcohol. But as consumers increasingly opt for dry wines, choosing to leave the dessert wines on the shelves, Roussillon is losing some of its sweetness.

Perhaps this is an inevitable swing of the pendulum after decades even centuries of many Roussillon winemakers producing a glut of sugary-sweet wines for an eager market. Perhaps, as several Roussillon winemakers told me, a younger generation is choosing instead to sip cocktails. In the face of these changing conditions, growers and winemakers are doing what they always do: adjusting. And based on my experience during a recent trip to the region, they’re doing a damn good job.

The Roussillon, which borders Spain and straddles the Mediterranean coast, produces more than 80% of France’s VDNs, according to the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins du Roussillon (CIVR), a trade group. VDNs are made in a variety of styles, according to the rules of the various appellations, and range from the apricot jam-driven Muscat de Rivesaltes, to the richly sweet reds of Maury and Banyuls. Of the Roussillon VDNs, Muscat de Rivesaltes makes up some 65%. From 1996 to 2012, the average annual yield for Muscat de Rivesaltes was 127,389 hectoliters. But in 2012, according to CIVR data, Roussillon winemakers only produced 108,834 hectoliters.

During a January trip to the Roussillon, I tasted a lot of sweet wines and spoke with several winemakers about the future of the region’s VDNs. Their responses were strikingly similar: the future looks bleak.

Banyuls: sweet, but not easy to sell.
In Montpellier, I dined with Jean-Francois Deu, winemaker and proprietor of Domaine du Traginer. Deu grows Grenache, Carignan, Syrah and Mourvedre in Collioure, a seaside slice of France that abuts Spanish Catalunya. This is traditional Banyuls territory, a centuries-old dessert wine made from fortified Grenache. They’re rich wines with sweet plum, earth and caramel themes. There’s a lot to like about Traginer’s 2011 Banyuls — it’s velvety and sweet, full of structure, complexity and aging potential. Deu still sells some Banyuls, just not as much as his family used to.

When I asked Deu about the future of Roussillon’s VDNs, he laughed. “Sweet wine?” He ran his hand across his throat. “It’s finished.” Deu said importers are afraid to buy VDNs because they don’t think they can sell them. “When I pour this [Banyuls] for people, they like it a lot,” Deu said. “But they don’t buy it.” Whereas with dry wines, he said, people buy them, drink them and come back to buy more.

This dry red is beautiful & food friendly.
Luckily for Domaine de Traginer and other Banyuls producers, they can use the same grapes to make dry red wine under the Collioure appellation. (Banyuls is basically fortified Collioure, as the two appellations share geographical boundaries.) Jean-Francois said his dry reds are selling just fine, and it helps that the Collioure appellation has a good (and I’d say well-deserved) reputation in France and abroad. “If I can sell Banyuls, I will,” Deu said. “If I can’t, I will sell Collioure.”

So, are lovers of Southern French sweetness in trouble? Well, no, not really. There’s still plenty of the sweet stuff to go around.   

Lots of simple, uninspiring Rivesaltes wines are falling out fashion, and they won’t be missed. But those who take it seriously, like stalwart producer Domaine Cazes, are still going strong, and making a case that this sweet and richly historic wine has a future. Cazes has been making sweet Rivesaltes since the late 1800s. In addition to a slew of dry whites, roses and reds, Cazes bottles several sweet wines with various Rivesaltes appellations. During a visit to the estate, I tasted a bunch of Rivesaltes with winemaker Emmanuel Cazes. His 2010 Muscat de Rivesaltes is a simple lychee-driven wine with honey undertones. The Rivesaltes Ambré is made from Grenache Gris grapes that are oxidized as they age for seven years in open wood casks. The 2000 vintage is a nutty wine with balanced sweetness and lots of toasted almond and dried apricot elements. Rivesaltes Grenat is another appellation-specific wine made from fortified Grenache Noir — and Cazes’ is quite tasty.

Domaine Cazes: Carrying the Roussillon VDN torch for 100+ years.
On a tour of the Domaine Cazes cellars, I wandered into a cold, damp room filled with massive old barrels (foudres). The room smelled of wet rocks, dried fruit and brandy. Emmanuel bottles and releases some of this wine periodically, reds, whites, ambrés, all at various stages of a long evolution. Emmanuel poured me some of the Cazes 1978 Rivesaltes, which was a simply beautiful wine, full of life and complex dried fruit, dried flowers and honeycomb notes. The domaine sells about a dozen other vintages of this wine, dating all the way back to 1931. These aged Rivesaltes appear aimed for a niche market of collectors and sugar-toothed enthusiasts, but Cazes’ commitment to traditional sweet wine is clear. They’ll sell VDNs as long as they can.

As I was riding around the areas near Rivesaltes with some representatives from SudVinBio, an association of organic Languedoc-Roussillon winemakers, I saw many vineyards that appeared abandoned. Grasses, wildflowers and windswept bushes had overtaken the old vines and were stealing all the sun. Rusted car parts and construction waste littered many vineyards. I asked our guide about these dystopian vineyard wastelands, and she said that many of them had once been home to Grenache Gris and Muscat grapes, used to make VDNs. Instead of ripping up the vines, apparently some growers just moved on and let nature clean up.

Dry, white, welcome at the dinner table - is
this the future for Roussillon winemakers?
But as producers of sweet wine bail, a group of enthusiastic young winemakers is stepping in. They’re buying up some of these old vineyards and making compelling dry wines.

One example is Domaine Les Conques vigneron Francois Douville. New to the Roussillon region, Douville bought a few plots of gnarled Granche Gris and Macabeo vines which had been used to make sweet Rivesaltes for decades. The grape varieties were all mixed together when they were planted, and Douville co-ferments them all into a dry white blend he calls Boheme. It’s a clean, zesty white with white peach and seashell flavors. The wine is so fresh, vibrant and food-friendly, it’s no wonder Douville chose this route instead of making a VDN.

Olivier Pithon is another Roussillon winemaker who snagged up some vineyards that had long been used to make sweet wine. His LA D18 was one of the most thrilling and surprising wines of my trip. It’s made from old vine Grenache Blanc, Grenache Gris and Macabeo, which used to be blended into VDN. I tasted the 2007 and the 2011 vintages of the LA D18, and both were impressive — crisp, clean, citrus-driven wines tinged with mineral and oceanic flavors. Pithon, who is originally from the Loire Valley, chose the Roussillon because of the abundance of old vines (80 to 100+ years old) and the diversity of terroirs. He’s trying to prove that dry Roussillon whites, like the Loire whites he knows so well, can improve in the cellar. He’s making some solid arguments. Looking for a comparison to Pithon’s 2007, the best I could come up with was a good Muscadet with several years on it, although the LA D18 is certainly unique. And considering that the sea is only a few kilometers away from Pithon’s cellars, this dry white makes complete sense to me. It
’s made for the table, and it provides a more honest explanation of terroir when compared to the sweet wines I tasted.

Severine Bourrier, winemaker-proprietor of Chateau de l’Ou, is also convinced Roussillon’s future rests on dry wines. We shared dinner in Perpignan, and she told me all about her Syrah and Chardonnay vines south of the city. Here, she said, appellation rules forbid winemakers from making more Muscat than they did the previous year. So, the production of sweet Muscat has only one way to go — down. For Bourrier, this isnt a bad thing. She wants to represent the Roussillon with wines like her 100% Syrah and 100% Chardonnay, which are bottled under the proprietary name Infiniment and carry a Cotes Catalan appellation. They’re modern wines, made with ripe fruit and new oak, but they’re delicious and I think they could hold up well in blind tastings of similar wines from the New World.

Time will tell whether the market for sweet Roussillon wines will continue to dry up. But, in the meantime, consumers looking for dry, food-friendly, terroir-driven wines have more options than ever. And that’s awesome.

This post first appeared on the daily wine blog Terroirist.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Gloria Ferrer - Sonoma County Bargain Bubbles

Over the years, I’ve found that Gloria Ferrer produces consistently solid Sonoma County bubbles in a range of styles. And at about $20 a pop, they tend to be good bargains. 

These four sparklers from Gloria Ferrer were received as trade samples and tasted sighted.

N.V. Gloria Ferrer Brut - California, Sonoma County
SRP: $22
Lemon cake, yellow apple and fresh biscuit aromas. Tangy acid, with lemon crème and green apple and white cherry flavors, backed up by toasted biscuit, honey and a slight sweet herbal note. Fun stuff, a blend of 91% Pinot Noir and 9% Chardonnay. (87 points)

N.V. Gloria Ferrer Blanc de Blancs - California, Sonoma, Carneros
SRP: $22
Aromas of white and yellow flowers, lemon curd, toasted bread and a lot of minerals. Tangy acid kicks off the palate, which shows yellow apple and apricot fruit. I love the shot of minerals, chalk and river stones, and the hazelnut note on the finish. Crisp, some complexity, and very good for the price. (88 points)

N.V. Gloria Ferrer Blanc de Noirs - California, Sonoma, Carneros
SRP: $22
Copper colored. Aromas of fresh red apples, wild strawberries, sea salt and toasted bread. Fresh acid, some nice creaminess on the palate, I like the mix of apricot and red apple peel flavors. Some mineral spice, musk and brioche as well. Tasty stuff, showing some nice complexity. This Blanc de Noirs is actually a blend of 92% Pinot Noir and 8% Chardonnay. (88 points)

N.V. Gloria Ferrer Va de Vi - California, Sonoma, Carneros
A gold-copper color. Aromas of honeysuckle, orange blossoms, apple juice some biscuity notes. The palate tangy acid and fine bubbles. Flavors of sweet apple juice, ruby red grapefruit, wildflowers, white peach, some biscuity notes just a bit of sea salt. Pinot Noir with 8% Chardonnay and 3% Muscat. I’m not a huge fan of the sweetness in this wine, but it could be a lot of fun for brunch, picnics and parties. (85 points)

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Chardonnay on the Cheap

A lot of the wines I review tend to fall outside of the budget for the average Wednesday night at home. But even if you can’t spend much, you can still drink some decent Chardonnay.

Let me start off with a disclaimer: the category of <$15 Chardonnays is a total minefield. So many of the wines taste like butter-product poured over movie theater popcorn and topped with baked apples. Now, many people like this, and that’s why they buy it in large quantities. This is all well and good. But these wines are not, by and large, “serious” in the sense that the wine producers are trying to make a statement about vineyards, the characteristics of the grape variety or the aesthetic of the vintage. But they can be damn tasty. And I can never forget that I fell in love with wine while buying bottles that cost, for the most part, $15 or less. 

(A quick aside: When it comes to recommending cheap wine, I have to plug The Reverse Wine Snob. No one has tasted and praised more cheap wine than he.)

On to the cheap Chards...
Virginia: home to some solid, cheap Chardonnay.
2010 Prince Michel of Virginia Chardonnay - USA, Virginia, Central Region, Madison County ($15)
A slight spritz in the glass. Lime, nectarine and floral aromas. On the palate, tangy, light, easy-drinking. Flavors of honey and canned pineapple juice, but the acid comes through with a lot of crispness. Made in a mix of stainless steel and old barrels, this is holding up well. Overall, I think this winery falls somewhere in the lower-middle class of Virginia wines, but I think this Chard is one of the best wines they make. (85 points)

2011 Edna Valley Vineyard Chardonnay Paragon - USA, California, Central Coast, Edna Valley ($12)
Gold color. Yellow apple, honeycomb and some sea shells on the nose. Juicy apple and tangerine on the palate, with medium acid. Some whipped honey, nuts and nougat notes. Tasty, and solid for the price, but lacks a bit of personality. (84 points)

2012 Simi Chardonnay - USA, California, Sonoma County ($12)
Aromas of pineapple, apricot some yellow flowers. Creamy and full on the palate, with yellow apple, whipped honey, almond and a slight herbal note. Well-balanced with acidity, the oak shows, but it’s a fun wine. One of the better in this price range. (85 points)

2009 Columbia Crest Chardonnay H3 - USA, Washington, Columbia Valley, Horse Heaven Hills ($12)
The oak bothered me more now that the fruit has faded a bit over the years. Still some golden apple and honey flavors show through, but the oak, caramel and vanilla are a bit too strong for my palate. I can tolerate a good amount of oak, this is too much for me. That said, if you like the caramel and buttered popcorn, this is your stuff. (83 points)

2012 Alamos Chardonnay - Argentina, Mendoza ($8)
Aromas of green pear and white flowers, some popcorn. The palate shows juicy pineapple and pear, along with rich golden apples, coconut shavings and popcorn notes. Still, crisp acid throughout, which keeps it lively, stemming from the high elevation vineyards (3-6,000 feet). Green apple, butterscotch and nougat flavors combine on the finish. Fun stuff, and definitely a solid Chard for $8 bucks. (86 points)

Medium golden yellow color. Rich and toasty (obviously) on the nose, honeybutter and pineapple, golden apple and cinnamon. Rich and honeyed on the palate, with pineapple, butter biscuits, popcorn, actually some acid for some balance. Chunky pineapple and mango on the finish. Rich and simple, crowd-pleasing for those crowds who like this style. I know it’s supermarket stuff, and I’m sure other wine nerds will mock me, but, dammit, I can’t help but find this wine fun. (83 points)