Liz and Mike Berry, the owners of La Vigneronne wine shop in London, are ideally placed to seek out the new and exciting wines from France’s oldest wine region, as they live there, in a village close to the dramatic outcrop of the Alpilles of Les Baux. I recently attended a tasting of some fifty wines, from both long-established, traditional estates, and others from newly created properties – some who’s first vintage was as recent as 1999.
The white wines from the south of France have improved dramatically, with the wines of today bearing little relationship to the tired, flavourless offerings of ten years ago. Château Grand Cassagne Blanc from the Costières de Nimes is an appealing blend of Grenache blanc and Roussanne, with a third of the wine fermented in barrel. The oak is well integrated and wine has an attractive herbal note, with fresh acidity, at £5.95 a bottle.
Château Simone, the old estate responsible for most of the tiny appellation of Palette, outside Aix-en-Provence, continues to make wonderfully subtle, complex white wine, with layers of flavour. The 1999, at £17.95, is a blend of traditional Midi grape varieties, Clairette, Grenache blanc and Ugni blanc, aged in old oak, and although drinking well now, will develop with bottle age.
Domaine Terre Mégère, in the Coteaux du Languedoc, near Montpellier, is a relatively recent creation. The white wine, la Galopine, has the ripe peachy flavours of Viognier, balanced with some Grenache blanc. (£9.50).
Two Vins de Pays d’Oc also stood out, each illustrating the diversity of white grape varieties now grown in the Midi. 1999 Domaine de Baubiac, (£7.95), from Viognier and Roussanne, has attractive herbal notes, with a hint of oak, and Mas d’Esplanet, Eolienne, (£10) a blend of Grenache blanc, Sauvignon and Viognier, of which a substantial part is oak aged, was finely crafted, with barely detectable oak, and ripe peachy fruit.
The red wines were equally exciting, again illustrating the recent improvements in both vineyard and cellar. For current drinking 2000 Vin de Pays d’Oc Les Lens from the new estate, Mas d’Esplanet, (£7.95) offers some ripe spicy fruit, with a firm backbone of tannin, in a Grenache Noir, Syrah and Cinsaut blend.
The 1999 Minervois, Cuvée Marie Thérèse Miquel was redolent of ripe spicy Syrah fruit, emphasising the southern warmth of its origins at £8.95.
Most however will benefit from bottle ageing, such as 1999 Mas Haut Buis Costa Caoude, £14.95, another new estate in the Coteaux du Languedoc, on the Larzac plateau north west of Montpellier. This is sturdy and structured, with some new oak. In contrast Cuvée les Carlines, from the same property (£7.95) is more accessible with warm fruit.
1999 Solen from Domaine les Aurelles, an estate created by two Bordelais, tastes of Bordeaux elegance, with stylish, supple fruit, at £11.95. 1999 Mas l’Ecriture les Pensées, a blend of Grenache, Cinsaut and Syrah, with 18 months oak ageing, has good fruit, with supple tannins and a long finish at £17.95.
The new estates often represent a career change. Thierry Hasard, an accountant turned winemaker, has again excelled, with his 1999 Coteaux du Languedoc, les Champs Murmurés, a Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Mourvèdre and Grenache blend, giving his wine subtle smoky fruit, with ripe tannins, at £18.50.
And finally Roc d’Anglade, another new property, this time from a computer expert turned winemaker, is a blend of Syrah and Grenache, with layers of flavour and balancing tannins, simply illustrates the enormous potential of the Languedoc. At £25 a bottle, it is undeniably expensive, but from more prestigious areas, the same quality and complexity would be twice the price.