Domaine Marie Faugeres vs The Real Thing

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Back in the 1990s, one of Coca-Cola’s advertising slogans was to declare that it was ‘the real thing’. This was, of course, intended as a way for Coke to differentiate itself from the imitators out there, something that it has been doing since the late 19th century.

The words never really had much meaning for me. It could have been because I was only 11 at the time. It could also have been because I paid more attention to Cindy Crawford, who adorned their television commercials and billboards at the time. The phrase ‘the real thing‘ was packed full of as much meaning as Fox News’s claim to being ‘fair and balanced’.

What exactly is ‘the real thing’ anyway? Apart from being a tautology, it is also a pointless declaration. Not long ago I discussed the concept of real and natural wine, so I won’t drone on about that again. But what I will do is discuss those times you get the real thing and those times when you get an imposter.

We have all had those moment of success, when that bottle you bought for its striking label it delivered everything you wanted and more.

Perfection.

And then…well then there are the times you found disappointment at the bottom of a rough-and-ready jug wine: something with the consistency of diluted Ribena with a vague flavouring of alcohol.

For instance, Faugeres. This is a small appellation within the Languedoc,  inland of Beziers on the French Mediterranean coast. The production here is mostly red wine from the carignan, cinsault, grenache, mourvedre and syrah grapes, although white wines make up about a fifth of the annual output.

This is a young appellation, having been created in 1982, but like much of the South of France, quality levels are high and consistent these days. Two of my favourite Languedoc wines, Domaine Leon Barral Faugeres 2010 and Clos Fantine Faugeres Tradition 2011, both come from Faugeres, selling at £19.50 and £14.50 respectively.

Together they meet all of those expectations that form when opening a bottle of wine: fragrant, rich, earthy, complex and hedonistic.

So to be fair to Domaine Marie Faugeres 2012, it was always going to be fighting an uphill battle. A mere supermarket wine selling for £8.49 at Waitrose could not be expected to be the real thing.

It is lighter in body than the others, big on fruit with a scattering of spices and an easy-drinking style. So what’s the problem? The problem is that it doesn’t quite tick all of the boxes. That it is another affordable wine that falls short of expectations. That I am sure siphoning the essence from the tank of a clapped out Citroen would yield a similar result.

This is one of those wines that reminds you why you should have spent more. It is why people buy a Tag Heuer watch rather than a Timex. One is weighty and expresses quality; the other is light, flimsy and made for mass market consumption.

If you goal is to achieve that slight buzz that only three glasses of wine can produce, Domaine Marie does it just as well as the others. But a fine wine experience it is not.

It appears that in Faugeres, if you want the real thing, you need to spend real money.

 

 

 

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When is wine real and when is wine not real?

ID-100146926When it comes to discussion topics, there are three subjects I try to avoid:

1. Religion

2. Politics

3. Natural wine.

Each of these has a tendency to uncover deep-seated opinions and result in a heated debate. My usual instinct is to move the conversation into a different direction or defuse the situation before things go out of control.

But another Real Wine Fair is here and I am feeling a little bit brace. The UK wine world has come a long way in the past few years and now boasts two fairs that focus entirely on real wine: the Real Wine Fair and RAW. This can only be great news.

The problem is, I’m not actually sure what ‘real’ wine is. Nevertheless, I am fairly certain I know what it is not.

Anything poured from a bottle that you would normally find on the bottom shelf of the Asda wine aisle at an overpriced London cocktail bar is probably not real wine.

There are occasions when you should risk it and order the Australian shiraz and there are times when you should play it safe have a martini or a beer instead. At least you know what you are going to get.

With the wine, you know you are always going to lose. Whether it is the pinot grigio, sauvignon blanc, shiraz or merlot, you can be certain that the only thing that they have in common with real wine is the fact they were made with fermenting grapes. Apart from that, they are watery, limpid and devoid of enjoyable flavours.

This was the case with my Australian shiraz the other week, a £7.50 glassful of grape juice that tasted as though it had been laced with rubbing alcohol and Varsol. Standard fare for a City of London cocktail bar where people go to see and to be seen, not to appreciate the fluid they’re pouring into their gullets.

I could have used some real wine that evening.

Not long ago the thought of ordering ‘real’ or ‘natural’ wine brought with it worries of oxidised, faulty bottles that were interesting for their curiosity value but not actually enjoyable to drink. Occasionally a local merchant would carry a bottle or two as an experiment, but they didn’t really gain much traction.

A particularly awful natural wine that I drank in a (now deceased) shop in East Dulwich has haunted my thoughts for the past two years. Could these natural wines achieve redemption? It seems so.

In recent months I have noticed a growing collection of natural and organic wines at my local shop, Highbury Vintners.

Whether they are organic, biodynamic, low sulphur or full-on ‘natural’ wines, the increased focus on producing good wines with minimal intervention and sustainable farming practices is reassuring.

Thing is, I don’t actually know where we draw the line between normal wine – that is the wines that don’t purport to be organic, biodynamic or natural – and those that are specifically marketed as being organic, biodynamic or entirely natural. I understand a great deal about them all, but I have seen far too many debates – too many arguments – to be under any illusion that I could describe them in intimate detail.

This is where I lose sight of what makes real wine different from every other wine. Is a wine not real if the grower has to spray once during the year out of necessity? Is a wine not real if they don’t use indigenous yeasts? At what point is a wine real and not real?

I appreciate that this is a serious debate for many people; wine made in large volumes for the purpose of being sold in the mass market is almost never a pleasant thing. The line I hear most often is that real wine is made with the least intervention possible.

When The Winemaker cultivated his grapes each year through blood, sweat and tears, then turned them into a wine that earned him a living. That was real wine. His vines weren’t sprayed excessively with chemicals. But he sprayed what was necessary when the conditions required.

When I was speaking to the owner of Highbury Vintners, I was astounded to hear that their selection of natural wines was the small group of good ones out of a larger group that contained many unacceptable wines. When we think of stepping into a wine shop to buy wines, we think we are going through a selection process all our own, but in reality the shop owner (if it is a good shop) has already done this for us.

On that note, here are a few real wines I have been enjoying lately:

Domaine Leon Barral Faugeres 2010

This is a favourite wine of mine, made of a blend of carignan, cinsault and grenache. It is rich, has plenty of fruit and is reminiscent of the region. Not cheap at £19.50, but worth it.

Clos Fantine Faugeres Tradition 2011 

Another wine from Faugeres, this is fairly funky but again brings with it lots of satisfaction. Think South of France influence, garrigue, a rich palate and plenty of fruit.

Chateau la Villatade NoMa Minervois 2011

This is a producer that uses natural yeasts, keeps their sulphur levels as low as they can away with and avoids pesticides. This is rich and full of dark fruits with a tannic edge and an enjoyable earthiness. Despite its warm climate origins, this is surprisingly fresh.

 

 

 

 

Reinvention. How the South of France is a little bit like Madonna

France. It’s one of those countries people either love or hate, or, even more often, love to hate.

I fall in the love category even if I don’t really fancy the politics and can’t quite figure out how anyone can live to old age in the country given how horrific their driving skills are.

But many people I know fall into the love to hate camp, so they invariable hate French wine, too. Such opinions might be politically driven (history is difficult to forget for some people), or simply by past experiences with bad French wine (too tannic, too austere, poorly made, etc).

That’s a shame. Too many people I know have turned away from Old World wine in favour of the New World. Sure, we’ve seen excitement coming out of California, New Zealand and Australia, so too South Africa and Chile.

But saying new regions are more interesting than established regions is like saying classic cares aren’t as fun and exciting as modern sports cars. I’d argue the frightening tendency of an older Porsche 911 to spin out at high speeds offers up plenty of excitement compared to the 2012 model with all of its traction control, but I suppose it all boils down to how you define the term.

So while many of us might see the New World as a hotbed of excitement in winemaking, can the stuffy Old World producers reinvent themselves to keep up with modern times?

You bet. And that is one thing I love about France right now, particularly in the South.

While there are plenty of producers in France who continue to turn out uninspired attempts, it’s not as though this isn’t happening elsewhere, either. But for the Languedoc-Rousillon region, which had a reputation for producing cheap mass-market wine, a renaissance has been taking place.

In 1985 big changes were set in motion in the region when it was first granted AOC status. This also happened to be the year when Madonna, the most famous of all reinventers, first started appearing in movies, first with Vision Quest (yeah, I can’t remember it either) and most notably Desperately Seeking Susan. Coincidence? I think not.

Since then, winemakers all over the region have invested in better techniques, better viticulture and much more careful winemaking. No longer can we look upon Languedoc with scorn. It is now a place where serious winemaking happens.

Another thing I adore about France is the co-operative system – when it works at its best. If you happen upon a great co-operative, you’re likely to unearth pleasant, well-made wines at more than reasonable prices.

This was the experience I had with my English friend Trev when we were in the Loire region in 2011. Spurred on by a recommendation in one of Hugh Johnson’s books, we went off in search of the co-operative known as Confrérie des Vignerons de Oilsy et Thésée. What we ended up with was bottle after bottle of vibrant, enjoyable wines that seldom cost us more than €5 each.

More recently, I had a similar experience when drinking the wines of Les Vignobles Foncalieu at a dinner the company arranged for clients and some wine writers (disclosure: the company paid for a meal a London restaurant and supplied the wine).

A slightly more commercially minded outfit than the Confrérie des Vignerons de Oilsy et Thésée, Foncalieu has manged to keep its co-operative culture while also break into the premium wine market.

Of all France’s regions, it south must be one of the most exciting, most diverse and most surprising. This is an area that has made vast improvements in quality over the years, all resulting wines that are rich, full of flavour and, more often than not, reasonably priced.

The Foncalieu wines I drank range from their Grands Vins series, all four of which originating in the Languedoc region. I also had the chance to try their white Saint-Chinian, called Petit Paradis, and their wonderful Enseduna Muscat sec 2011.

Of all of their wines, the muscat sec was the one that stood out the most. It’s an honest, crisp white wine that was harvested early, in mid-August of 2011. The winemaker described it as “like eating fresh grapes,” while I thought it had a pungent, almost gooseberry aroma, along with a grassy, almost straw-like appeal. In my notes I wrote that it reminded me of a fresh New Zealand sauvignon blanc in character, even if made from a different grape. For just £8.50, this wine is a steal.

Another one of their whites, the Petit Paradis Saint-Chinian 2010, is a blend of marsanne, grenache and roussane. This is an oaky wine thanks to being matured in barrel and is dry and refreshing. It is mineral and citrusy with a hint of marzipan.

Among the reds in the producer’s Grands Vins series, I was able to try the Apogée Saint Chinian 2008 and 2009; Le Lien Minervois 2008; Les Illustres Coteaux d’Enserune 2008; and La Lumiere Corbieres 2009.

These were all rich, interesting wines, but sadly contained in those politically incorrect heavy bottles. Packaging aside, I found most of these wines to be full of wonderful baked dark fruit flavours so typical of warm wine regions. Le Lien was young, rich and brambly, with an almost fruit cake flavour to it.

Meanwhile, Les Illustres 2008, which sells for about £20, offered up dark fruits, boiled sweets in a leaner style, almost humble and restrained. La Lumiere 2009 had fresh acidity, medium body, those baked dark fruit plus a tannic backbone. The Apogée 2008 was fresh and lean, while the 2009 version had more finesse, lots of dark fruits and a good dose of tannin, suggesting it needs a lot more time to mature.

So there you have it. Had the AOC not been granted in 1985, perhaps these wines would never have existed.