Monday, 28 November 2016

Applause for La Clape

The vast expanse of Languedoc-Roussillon and its swathes of vineyards making a myriad of different wines can be daunting to get to grips with.

At its simplest, IGP Pays d’Oc is the catch all appellation for wines made anywhere across the region, often with varietal labelling. And while I’m pleased Pays d’Oc exists, there are many worthwhile wines to be found by digging deeper into Languedoc and Roussillon.

But there are so many names to remember! Here are just a few wine appellations off the top of my head: Fitou, Minervois, Pic St Loup, Faugères, Saint Chinian, Picpoul de Pinet – there are many, many more. Oh, and you might also come across AOC Languedoc; and IGP Côtes Catalanes functions like IGP Pays d’Oc for Roussillon. In short, the picture is, as always, complicated.

To help decode some of the mystique, here’s a quick guide to one of the appellations responsible for some of the most exciting and characterful wines from the region. It also helps that the name is simple for Anglophones to get their tongues round:  La Clape.

La Clape is a one-time island, which now forms a conspicuous bump of limestone on the coastal plain between the city of Narbonne and the Mediterreanean. The environment is harsh – the salt-laden wind, poor rocky soils and baking sun make it fit really for only for vines and olives.

Wines from here seem to have a unique character, which must be influenced by their singular growing environment. Flavours are ripe, but with a grip and freshness that might surprise you, given their southerly origins.

Château Rouquette Cuvée Arpège 2015 - £10.95 from the Wine Society
All white wines from La Clape must include some Bourboulenc – a variety native to the Rhône Valley. It can be rather characterless, but in La Clape it assumes a richness of flavour, while retaining all-important freshness, alongside “grip” – a certain texture that red wines usually have, but white wines tend not to. Here it is blended with Rhône bedfellow Roussanne, and is unoaked, making for vibrant, fresh fruit flavours that refresh and cleanse the palate.

Château d’Anglès Grand Vin Blanc 2012 - £19.80 from Hedonism Wines
Eric Fabre, ex of Château Lafite Rothschild, knows a thing or two about crafting fine wines. His Classique blanc is in the same mould at Ch Rouquette above, but this Grand Vin, a blend of Bourboulenc, Grenache, Roussanne and Marsanne has been fermented and aged in oak, giving a wine of power and complexity. You can also find Château d’Anglès Grand Vin Rouge 2010 at online merchant Vin Cognito for £14.50.

Château Rouquette 2014 - £10.95 from the Wine Society
The red incarnation of Ch Rouquette combines old vine Carignan with Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre – hardly an unusual recipe in this part of the world; but the singularity of La Clape gives the wine a saline tang and wonderful texture.

Upcoming wine events in Surrey

I'm involved in a few wine events between now and the end of the year. It would be great to see some readers at one or both.

6 December, 8pm – Wine Discovery evening at Cellar Magneval, Woking – a relaxed evening of wine tasting and learning at Woking’s cool and quirky wine bar, focusing on wines for Christmas. See:

15 December, 8pm – The fine wines of Burgundy at Cellar Wines, Ripley – do the ultimate Christmas Day wines come from Burgundy? More details and booking:

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Time for a Carignan rehabilitation

Carignan is probably not a grape variety whose name readily trips off the tongue. It’s not one of the highly regarded, “noble” varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay. Nor is it, like Pinot Grigio, so ubiquitous that people ask for a glass of it by name in their local gastro pub.

So, a potted biography of Carignan is perhaps in order.

Carignan is mostly found in Languedoc-Roussillon, where it generally forms part of a blend and is rarely seen or its own, or, indeed trumpeted on a front label. It originates, however, in Aragon in northeastern Spain. Back in its native land, it is often known as Mazuelo (or Mazuela in Rioja) or, in Catalonia, Samsó, though you may also see Cariñena (which is also, confusingly, the name of a wine region). Outside France and Spain, you are most likely to come across it in Chile where, thankfully, it is called simply Carignan. There is some in North America, where it has acquired an extra “e” as Carignane.

Carignan has been recorded in southern France since Medieval times, but this longevity has not led to respect and it tends to be labelled a workhorse variety at best. At worst it is derided or even despised. Why?

Carignan needs a long, warm growing season to ripen fully, so it has never spread to cooler parts of France. Its influence in southern France has been waning in recent years, but it was valued by growers, especially up until the latter part of the 20th century, as a high yielding grape which added colour, alcohol and acidity to otherwise weedy wines.

The Carignan vine is a vigorous grower which will provide high yields, if allowed to, which give a deep coloured, high acid wine that is long on tannin and short on fruit. Sounds good, huh? But, but – lower yielding old vines that have not been irrigated and whose fruit has been treated carefully can give wines with distinct, rich inky black fruit, accompanied by present but pleasant tannins and that acidity gives a freshness that is welcome in wines from a warm climate.

Many Carignan vines have been pulled up in Languedoc-Roussillon, partly encouraged by government vine pull schemes. Those that remain are, increasingly, those older bushvines on better land away from the flat, fertile plains – and they make correspondingly better, increasingly very good, wines.

So, now is the time to discover and rehabilitate Carignan – say its name with pride.

3C, Cariñena 2015 (Spain)- £5.25 The Wine Society
Ignore the hideous label and tuck into the delightlful unoaked Carignan within. There is plenty of juicy black fruit and a lick of tannin that will hit the spot on many a chilly, dark night. You are unlikely to find another red wine that packs so much flavour in at this price.

Les Crouzes, Carignan Vieilles Vignes 2015 - £6.49 Co-op
Despite its ubiquity, it is still rare to find a 100% Carignan wine in the Languedoc. This is the essence of the Midi, where a certain rusticity meets fresh and fruity to great effect.

Torres Cordillera Carignan 2009 (Chile) - £13.99 Taurus Wines, Bramley
This is a brilliant example of Carignan made from old, unirrigated bush vines in the Maule region of Chile. Producers there have now banded together to form the VIGNO project, designed to highlight the wines made from these increasingly rare old (sometimes up to 100 years old) vines. This is full of black, brambly fruit with bay leaf herbal characters and a lipsmacking freshness.