Saturday, 15 August 2009

Madiran - the best fete des vins ever?

Having spent most of yesterday at a Citroen garage in Aire sur l'Adour waiting to find out how long it would take to replace the gearbox after it seized just outside Termes d'Armagnac, we were probably more receptive to light relief than usual but this was one of the great wine fairs.

The reason was plenty of seriously good wines - all Madiran and Pacharenc - mixed in with some great entertainment including a bunjee-trampoline for the kids (and quite a lot of people who should have known better after tasting all those wines) and some fabulous live music. One band consisted of a singer equipped with a megaphone, a guy with a snare drum, another with a tuba and one with a guitar (there was one more - I can't remember what he did and the photo doesn't help much). Their version of Jumping Jack Flash made the Stones look and sound extremely amateurish which, of course, they were. My musical highlight of the year!

Lots to do around the village too although this all cost money unlike the tasting arena which was all free (including the bunjee) - the only cost in the tasting zone was 3€ for a glass. And any wine purchased, of course.

So many wines to taste and with three small children on a blazing hot day, I only got to taste at half a dozen or so stands including Berthoumieu, Aydie, Capmartin, Producteurs de Plaimont and Crampilh. For me, the Berthoumieu wines were the most interesting but I enjoyed Guy Capmartin's exceptionally good value "Vieilles Vignes" enough to buy a few bottles and visit the estate a few days later to stock up.

Of all the sub-regions of South-West France, this has to be least interesting to visit in terms of geography and architecture but I will be returning to the Madiran fete which is certainly worth a detour if not a trip in itself.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Star gazing in Gaillac

Tonight we are staying in Cordes-sur-Ciel, one of the "100 most beautiful villages in France". It lives up to both this tag and to its name, rising into the sky as of from nowhere. Cordes is about 20 minutes north of Gaillac, itself a very attractive town, and is surrounded by many other stunning sites.

We are at a campsite just outside the village and the sky is perfectly clear. The youngest two boys have just gone to sleep but out oldest son has asked to stay up to look at the stars. He could not have chosen a better night for it. In the thirty minutes between 10 and 10.30 we must have seen as many shooting stars. The sky is lit up like a fireworks display. Absolutely incredible.

I found out later that this was a rare meteor shower which would have been visible from the UK if the skies were clear (apparently they were not) rather than this being a regular occurance but we did see more shooting stars over the next few nights so we were in the right place at the right time. A memorable end to our stay in this beautiful region.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Domaine Rotier, Gaillac

Having missed Alain Rotier of Domaine Rotier at Gaillac on Saturday, I was curious to see how his wines would stack up against those I did taste at the fair. The estate has been "in conversion" since the start of the year so will obtain organic status from the start of 2012. This seems to be a common theme amongst the better estates of the region: we came across this at Haut-Monplaisir last week, for example.

After a tour of the winery (which as Alain said, is fairly standard except for his use of 400 litre barrels - the standard is 225 litres), we got down to the wines starting with the "entry level" white "Initiales". This is 40% each Mauzac and Loin de l'Oeil with the balance Sauvignon and is one of the most acidic whites I have tasted for a while but it is pitched perfectly for salty seafood.

The oak-fermented "Renaissance" white is very different, made from older vines with good Loin de l'Oeil character on the nose (the Sauvignon Blanc seems to give more to the structure than to the flavour), a touch of wood and very good length. Well restrained, refined wine. Quite different from all those Chardonnays, Sauvignons etc; a welcome change.

The only rose is part of the "Initiales" range and is made from 70% Duras, the balance Syrah. It has a sweet palate like those candy cigarettes that must surely be banned these days. Red fruits (Grenadine) flavours. Not very long but easy and enjoyable.

Three reds: the "Initiales" has a young, fruity nose and pleasant, easy-drinking palate. 80% peppery, black fruited Duras and 20% cassis-flavoured Braucol. Fermentation at 25 degrees to extract fruit rather than tannins. Decent grip and medium length.

"Gravels" followed with deeper colour and some vegetation on the nose. Very Cabernet in style - 55% Duras, 30% Braucol and 15% Syrah - with black fruit and good length. No oak.

"Renaissance" Rouge is a vin de garde needing a minimum of five years to loosen up those tannins. Made from older vines (50% Braucol, 30% Syrah, 20% Duras) and aged in oak, there is lots of black fruit/cassis on the nose but the palate is almost impenetrable now.

A new red, as yet unnamed was much easier. Made using 80% Duras and 20% Braucol with the fermentation in barrel, it offers more red fruit on the nose and a much softer palate (even more so later that day when we polished off the rest of the bottle).

The sweet wines came as something of a relief after those tannins. The first is "Gravels" which has a lovely honeyed nose with stoned fruits, good freshness and length, helped along by good acidity. 90 grams/litre residual sugar makes this well pitched as an aperitif, for example. 65% Loin de l'Oeil, 35% Sauvignon.

One of my old favourites is the "Renaissance" Doux which I first came across when Ciaran from Domaine des Anges gave me a case insisting I would love it - he was right. This is 100% Loin de l'Oeil, much richer and sweeter (150g/l) than the "Gravels" with great length. The 2006 vintage deservedly won a Gold Medal and will easily keep for 15 years although I can't see my case lasting that long.

My only concern about these wines from a business perspective is their commercial value. I don't know how well known Gaillac wines are so the simple question is, would they sell in the UK?

Saturday, 8 August 2009

31st Fête de Vins, Gaillac

Another day, another wine fair!

Better organised than the Cahors wine fair a couple of days ago, each of the estates represented had its own shack. Interesting to see, therefore, which ones were difficult to get to. I had an appointment to see Alain Rotier on Monday morning and thought I should introduce myself. Even on the quieter Saturday there was no chance of this as his stall was constantly packed with visitors – not surprising really given his reputation as the best producer in Gaillac (whilst writing this I am sipping on some of his 2006 “Renaissance” Doux which has 155 grams/litre residual sugar, a simply stunning wine.

Better organised for families too: a magic show in the afternoon and various games and rides for when they – and you – need a few minutes out of the fair.

The wines? A mixed bag: some really good fruity wines offering superb values and some tannic brutes (lots of Syrah for the top reds mixed in with the local Duras and Braucol grapes) some of which had potential, some of which didn’t. One estate had some bizarre wines but for me the stars were the Gaillac Doux wines and, apart from the Rotier offerings which I didn’t taste until the Monday, there were a couple of real stars which would vie with the best from Sauternes etc, albeit from the local Loin de l’Oeil grape which is a little different from Sémillon!

Another good day out!

By the way, Gaillac itself is a really good tourist destination with the Abbaye St Michel a stunning building (housing the tourist office and Maison des Vins) and just a short ride away are villages such as Cordes sur Ciel.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

25th Fête de Vins, Puy l’Eveque (Cahors)

Puy l’Eveque is one of the stunning villages in the Lot Valley, the region which used to be known as Quercy (check out agneau de Quercy, the local lamb, best cooked simply with just a little salt and pepper to appreciate its superb flavour). Each year the village hosts one of the strangest wine fairs I have ever attended (this was my second consecutive visit). Strange because of the way it is arranged: one table for local white, rosé and sweet wines (fair enough) and two for the reds, around 80 wines altogether.

The problem is that no estate may enter more than one wine so everyone is putting forward the wine they think will impress the most. Usually this is the blockbuster cuvée of old-vine Malbec with, perhaps, some Merlot to soften the blow (they tend to be very young wines so very tannic, especially once you hit double figures) or some Tannat (usually around 10%) which adds a fragrant cassis character. Bear in mind this is taking place at the start of August, the hottest time of the year, so it is no surprise that the lighter style, younger-vine, un-oaked wines such as Lamartine’s 2007 bottling (10% Merlot) tend to be the friendliest (this was a fruity, easy-drinking wine for a modest price).

That said, I wasn’t going to be put off the big guns and tried around 20-30 of them (rounding off with the sweeties to get my palate back). My very favourite was Haut-Monplaisir’s 100% Malbec (all their reds are mono-varietals) 2006 “Prestige” (actually, their very top wine is called “Pur Plaisir” but the Prestige is a step up from the standard cuvée). This is cropped at 40hl/ha and gently fermented at 27 ͦ and raised in 1/3 new barrels (and 1/3 second year, 1/3 third year) for around 20 months. Some oak is apparent but the overall impression is of a rich, sweet black-fruited wine which will come into its own in a couple of years. The vineyard is now “in conversion” to organic status (which, of course, means it has been making organic wines for years).

I also enjoyed the already organic 2006 “Malbec XL” from Haut-Monplaisir’s neighbour, Château Lacapelle-Cabanac which was very Malbec in character, very black and nicely oaked. Rouffiac’s “L’Exception” was aged 24 months in oak which was very apparent on the nose, accompanised by sweet, ripe fruit which followed through to the tannic palate (best from 2012, I thought).

The Tannat blends available to taste were lead by Coustarelle’s 2006 “Grande Cuvée Prestige” which had an interesting (ie. different) oak character to most which suggested time in the bottle could not be replaced with breathing the wine but it will undoubtedly be good. Eugenie always seem to make decent wines and their 2007 “Reservée de l’Aïeul”was no exception with the Tannat quite apparent on the well-balanced palate which was not too tannic. Very typical of the forward 2007 vintage.

Some I didn’t like, mainly those with too much Merlot included but it's bad form to single them out so I won't. Some others decent but overpriced which can be a problem in Cahors (last year we visited one prestigious estate whose wines were 19€ for the standard wine, 48€ for the next and 95€ for the top wine - it wasn't a first growth Bordeaux so I couldn't see how they could justify the last one).

Overall, a good couple of hours spent tasting a mixed bag of generally good wines with few exceptional ones. A couple of tips: if you go with kids, take a few sweets along with you (there is an opportunity to buy at 3€ per 100 grams which is rather excessive for Haribo!) and take a bottle of ice cold water for yourself as your palate will need refreshing every few wines!