A weekend in La Clape – Part 2: Highlights from the Gerard Bertrand portfolio

dsc_0242.jpgSo despite being led astray by my SatNav and taking a detour through every village in the Languedoc, eventually we made it to Chateau l’Hospitalet. Never mind that we were two hours later than anticipated, arriving long after the sun had gone down.

Last time I visited Chateau l’Hospitalet, the weather was practically inhospitable. A relentless, icy wind blew for the length of the weekend, worsened by bouts of driving rain that made any trip into the outdoors about as attractive as shopping on Oxford Street on a Saturday afternoon.

Thankfully this year the conditions were much more becoming of southern France. On Saturday morning we awoke to relative tranquillity. No gale-force winds or sideways rain. Which is a good thing for an event centred on vine pruning and watching a fluffy brown dog sniff out truffles.

Anyway. The dogs I can discuss in another post. Today we’re here to discuss the primary reason for visiting Gerard Bertrand’s flagship estate: his portfolio of fine wine.

Just prior to lunch on a Saturday morning we sat down for a tasting of 10 wines from the Gerard Bertrand portfolio representing a broad cross-section of properties and styles in the region. The intention was to showcase the release of new vintages, 2014 for the white wines and 2013 for the red wines. Here are my thoughts. The first four wines are white (in green text), the other six are red wines (in red text).

Chateau La Sauvageonne Grand Vin 2014
A blend of grenache blanc, vermentino and viognier. Medium lemon in colour with stone fruits, peaches and marmalade on the nose, as well as vanilla. In the mouth, it has a lush feel with further stone fruits and a creamy quality, with an element of minerality to balance things. Quite forward on the nose but very enjoyable.

Chateau l’Hospitalet Grand Vin 2014
A blend of roussanne, vermentino, viognier and bourboulenc. More restrained on the nose when compared with the Sauvageonne blanc. This is very clearly a roussane/viognier blend given its aroma, with citrus, stone fruits and hints of oak coming through. Medium body, it offers up further stone fruits in the mouth and has a long finish. Very good now but will clearly improve.

Aigle Royal Chardonnay Limoux 2014
A 100% chardonnay originating from Roquetaillade, the fermentation begins in vat and is then transferred to new barrels at the mid-fermentation stage. Light lemon in colour, this wine has restrained aromas of peaches, citrus and oak. With a creamy mouthfeel due to barrel fermentation, this wine is delicate on the one hand but with substantial power in the background. Very good.

Cigalus IGP Aude Hauterive 2014
A blend of chardonnay, viognier and sauvignon blanc from Bizanet. This comes from a biodynamic vineyard where 70% of the wine is fermented in new barrels and 30% in steel vats. Malolactic fermentation is performed on some of the barrels. This wine has beautiful aromas of peaches, cream, vanilla and marmalade, with a distinct banana characteristic as well. In the mouth, further citrus and peaches come through. Very, very good.

Chateau La Sauvageonne Grand Vin 2013
A blend of grenache, syrah, mourvedre and carignan. Deep ruby red with black fruits (blackberries, plums, black cherries, blueberries) on the nose, with hints of strawberries and black currants. On the palate there are more black fruits with a good backbone of tannin and acidity. This is a classic grenache/syrah blend with good fruit and is not too overpowering. Good.

Chateau l’Hospitalet Grand Vin 2013
Always a favourite of mine, the 2013 vintage of Chateau l’Hospitalet’s Grand Vin — or any other Languedoc wine for that matter — is truly worth seeking out. A blend of syrah, grenache and mourvedre, this wine is aged in new barrels for 12 months with periodic stirring of the lees. This wine is deep in colour with dense aromas of black fruits. Still young and restrained, it is possible to pick up the hallmarks of this style: black fruit, garrigue, herbs and a distinct aroma of olives. With good acidity and tannin, this wine will age well. Very, very good.

Chateau de Villemajou Grand Vin 2013
Another favourite, this is a blend consisting of carignan, syrah, grenache and mourvedre where the carignan and syrah are vinified in whole bunches with carbonic maceration for 10 to 18 days, while the grenache and mourvedre are vinified in the traditional manner after de-stemming, with maceration of 15 to 20 days. Deep ruby red in colour, this has beautiful aromas of black fruits, blueberries, black currants, cherries and violets. in the mouth there is yet more black fruit with undertones of red fruits. This is very clearly a Corbieres wine with quite a bit of power without being heavy. Very, very good.

Aigle Royal Pinot Noir 2013
A 100% pinot noir wine from Roquetaillade, the grapes are de-stemmed completely before fermentation, with the wine ages in French oak for 10 to 12 months, where it undergoes malolactic fermentation. Light rub red in colour and offering up vibrant aromas of red berries, spices and vanilla, as well as strawberries and red currants. This has a  delicate feel in the mouth, with good acidity and a tannic backbone to give it ageing potential. Very good.

Cigalus Aude Hautervie Rouge 2013
A blend of an incredible seven different grapes (cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, syrah, grenache, carignan and caladoc), this comes from a biodynamic vineyard where the syrah and carignan are vinified separately in whole bunches, while the rest of the grapes are de-stemmed and vinified in what they describe as the traditional way. A deep, dark ruby red colour, this has an intense, brooding nose of black fruits (prunes, plums, black currants), while in the mouth it offers of strong acidity and tannin with more layers of complex black fruits and a dash of vanilla. Full bodied, this is a powerful wine with plenty of life ahead of it. Very, very good.

Le Viala Minervois La Liviniere 2013
A blend of syrah, grenache and carignan, Le Viala comes from a small parcel of land at Chateau Laville Bertrous. The grapes are thoroughly sorted prior to fermentation, with the carignan and syrah transferred to the vats in whole bunches where they undergo carbonic maceration, while the grenache is de-stemmed and left for a traditional maceration for three weeks. Deep ruby red, this has complex aromas of garrigue, olives, herbs and black fruits. It is very much a Minervois, but of a fine quality, with black fruits and solid acidity in the mouth. It’s quite weighty but well-rounded with plenty of tannins to give it a long life. Very, very good and among the finer wines of the region.




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.