A weekend in La Clape – Part 1

dsc_0239.jpgI had an inkling something was up as we crept through the Friday afternoon rush on the northern outskirts of Montpellier.  But it wasn’t until we were stuck in the narrow Roman streets of Béziers that my suspicions were confirmed. I had fallen victim to a fat-finger error when programming my SatNav.

So it goes that what should have been a one-hour drive to Narbonne from Montpellier–Méditerranée Airport became a two-and-a-half-hour mission through the Languedoc’s most frustrating and congested roads. There are surprisingly few alternative routes available when you’re stuck in a traffic jam in the French countryside. Credit to my passenger, who, despite having to endure my complaints about a suspiciously faulty SatNav, maintained optimism that we would reach our destination prior to our grandchildren graduating from university.

The destination, Chateau l’Hospitalet in La Clape, is the seat of Gerard Bertrand’s wine business and we were headed there for its annual vine pruning celebration. Most of us approach the task of pruning anything in the garden with a degree of reluctance, keen to avoid it in the hope that someone else will do the job for them. But for the vignerons of France, especially those in the Languedoc, vine pruning is just as important as making the wine itself, so it is important to honour the labour that goes into it. It is also a great excuse for a party.

As the website for Gerard Bertrand says:

Vine pruning is without a doubt the most difficult task of winegrowers. This meticulous work represents the beginning of the vine life cycle and every winter the wine growers are working to give birth to what will be the fruit of a whole year’s work. It is with these excessive temperatures that on our vines, the wine growers accomplish 15 million pruning movements with infinite precision influencing the next harvest as much as the vine for the rest of its life.

It was for this reason that we were headed to Gerard Bertrand’s vineyard for a celebration that included outdoor activities, a wine tasting and a gala dinner. All we had to do was get there. But first we had to endure a drive fraught with calamity. First the wrong route on the SatNav. Then an attempt to deviate from the ill-fated route to find the toll highway only to second-guess my judgement and turn back. And finally when presented with the last opportunity to pull onto the autoroute à péage we found ourselves whizzing by in a blur of confusion and ineptitude.

It’s amazing what crosses the mind when you’re stuck in a line of traffic in the centre of Béziers.  None of it will do anything to get you to your destination any faster. Even when the only option is to keep pressing on, the mind wills you to give up. To pull to the side of the road and throw the SatNav into the River Orb. To get out of the car and lob obscenities at the traffic that is impeding your journey.

It’s not as though I have no sense of direction. Some would say I can read a map and remember a route better than most. And it’s not as though I haven’t driven this route in the past. In fact, I’m well-acquainted with the roads between Montpellier and Narbonne. But I’m also a man of a certain age and, therefore, I’m predisposed to errors not only of the navigational variety but also of the male brain. Get in rental car. Turn key. Pull out of parking lot. Immediately and with blind confidence turn the wrong direction or willingly follow the wrong route on a SatNav.

In the end, we made it. But only with enough time to check in at reception and race up to our room for a wardrobe change before heading straight to the restaurant for drinks and dinner. The real work would take place the following morning in the form of a masterclass tasting of Gerard Bertrand’s latest vintages. That will have to wait for next time.

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Tasted: My highlights from the Gerard Bertrand portfolio

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Gerard Bertrand is a winemaker that is in many ways the exception to the rule. As a fairly large producer, you would probably expect the wines to be good but not exciting. But this is not the case at all. Instead, high quality seems to be present at all levels. Gerard Bertrand’s affordable wines punch above their weight, while the premium wines tend to hit all the right notes, showing none of the negative qualities that wines from other large outfits often produce.

At the heart of the organisation is Gerard Bertrand himself, an almost unfathomably tall man who has a soft handshake and a youthful charm. And even though the wine business he runs is modern, efficient and has grown to contain some nine individual estates, he is no industrial magnate. He speaks of the tradition of winemaking, the importance of terroir and his love of the Mediterranean lifestyle and the gastronomic traditions that go with it.

wpid-dsc_0449.jpgIn my previous post, I recalled my visit to Gerard Bertrand’s Chateau l’Hospitalet in December. The weather at the time was wet, blustery and cold. But none of that mattered because there was plenty of wine for us to taste. And it was the good stuff, too.

After tasting 15 wines in one sitting, I was impressed by the high level of quality. I wouldn’t hesitate to buy any one of them if I found them on a merchant’s shelf, although I would by lying if I said I didn’t prefer some over others.

So, without further ago, here is what I made of the wines. My preferred wines are marked with an asterisk.

Domaine de Cigalus IGP Aude Hauterive 2012 Rose
A blend of merlot, syrah and caladoc. Salmon pink with a copper hue. Hints of strawberries and cream with a meaty aroma over top. In the mouth it had medium acidity and was dry with a bit of roundness. In style it seemed more like a white wine than a typical rose.

*Chateau de Villemajou Grand Vin AOP Corbieres 2013 Blanc
Blend of marsanne, roussanne and vermentino. Barrel fermented. Lemon green in colour. Plenty of lemon and citrus on the nose with peaches, apricots, as well as a creamy oaky/vanilla note. On the palate this is rich and rounded, with citrus and wet stones, along with peaches and apricots. It has medium acidity and a long finish.

Aigle Royal Chardonnay AOP Limoux 2013 Blanc
100% chardonnay, medium lemon/green in colour. This is an oaky wine with a prominent chardonnay nose that exhibits fresh vanilla and stone fruits. It also has a fruitcake quality that comes through. On the palate it is rounded and oaky, with a mineral quality to it. It has medium acidity and a long finish.

Domaine de Cigalus IGP Aude Hauterive 2013 Blanc
Blend of chardonnay, viognier and sauvignon blanc. Medium lemon colour. On the nose, this had a fruity nose that expressed lemon and citrus fruits as well as lychees and grass, and clearly allowed its sauvignon blanc and viognier to come through. On the palate it was fruity but still restrained, showing plenty of citrus with medium acidity and a long finish.

Domaine de l’Aigle IGP Haute Vallee de l’Aude 2012
100% pinot noir. This had a spicy nose that expressed vegetal characteristics and a blast of seabreeze. It seemed fairly closed, but there were hints of vanilla. Still clearly in development, it had medium tanning and red berry fruits, as well as medium acidity. This is a fairly basic pinot noir that needed a bit more time to show its true colours.

Aigle Royal Pinot Noir IGP Haute Vallee de l’Aude 2012
100% pinot noir. This is a step up from the previous pinot, with an expressive nose of vanilla, red fruits and spices. On the palate it had an enjoyable dose of brambly red fruits, medium acidity and tannins, and a medium to long finish. Still in need of development, this wine gave me the impression that it would turn into something great with a little but more time.

Chateau la Sauvageonne Grand Vin AOP Coreaux du Languedoc Terrasses du Larzac 2012
Blend of syrah, grenache and carignan. Deep rub red in colour, with deep aromas of black fruits, boiled sweets, spices and garrigue. On the palate it showed more black fruits, plenty of spice and medium tannin. This was extremely pleasant and deep, and would benefit from more time in bottle.

Chateau de Villemajou Grand Vin AOP Corbieres Boutenac 2012
Blend of carignan, syrah and grenache. Deep ruby red, with an immediately recognisable Corbieres nose: meaty and with barnyard aromas. This was warm and earthy, with garrigue and something floral, perhaps violets. On the palate it showed sweets, dark fruits and medium tannin. This is a very good Corbieres.

*Chateau l’Hospitalet Grand Vin AOP Coteaux du Languedoc La Clape 2012
Blend of syrah, grenache and mourvedre. Deep in colour with plenty of dark fruits and a hint of oak on the palate. This was complex and enjoyable in a hedonistic way. Aromas of olives, herbs, spices and truffles abounded, as well as something that I can only describe as the warmth of the region. On the palate it was rich and warm again, showing more dark fruits and olives with a saline aspect to it, with medium tannins and a long finish. This will likely develop with time in bottle.

*Domaine de Cigalus IGP Aude Hauterive 2012
Blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, syrah, grenache, caladoc and carignan. This might have been the best wine of the tasting, which is why I bought a bottle to take home with me when I visited the vineyard’s shop before I left. This is deep purple in colour with a spicy nose that expresses dark fruits, racy oak and once again that sense of warmth. On the palate it has yet more dark fruits, medium tannins and a very fresh feel while also being rich and warm.

Tautavel Hommage aux Vignerons AOP Cotes de Roussillon Villages 2011
100% grenache. This had a very typically grenache nose that expressed gum candies, ripe olives and truffles. In the mouth this is rich and viscous, with mild to medium tannins and a soft feel. It had plenty of dark cherries and berries, but a bit of a flat finish. It is well made, but perhaps wasn’t hitting the right notes on the day.

*Le Viala AOP Minervois La Liviniere 2012
Blend of grenache, carignan and syrah. Deep purple in colour, with a gamey/barnyard nose. Very much an enjoyable Minervois, offering up aromas of spice, dark fruits and pepper. In the mouth this was all about dark fruits, with medium acidity, medium tannins and a long, lingering finish. This was among my favourites on the day.

*Le Viala AOP Minervois La Liviniere 2001
Blend of grenache, carignan and syrah. With 13 years of age at the time of tasting, this was deep ruby in colour with some bricking at the edge. The nose was dominated by mushroom/truffle aromas along with dark olives, bruised dark fruits, violets, chocolate, pipe tobacco and marmalade. In the mouth it showed warm dark fruits, more spice and wonderful complexity, along with medium tannins and a long finish. Very likely my favourite wine of the day.

La Forge AOP Corbieres Boutenac 2012
Blend of carignan and syrah. Deep ruby with a fairly closed nose that hinted at dark fruits and vegetal aromas. The palate was much more expressive, with flavours of soft dark fruits and boiled sweets, with medium acidity and a long finish. This wasn’t showing all of its qualities but will likely develop into something great with time.

La Forge AOP Corbieres Boutenac 2004
Blend of carignan and syrah. Ruby red with a bit of bricking at the edge. On the nose it had aromas of mushrooms, spices and black fruits. There was also the same theme of warmth that many of Bertrand’s wines show, as well as olives, peppers and floral aromas. On the palate it had integrated tannins and an obvious maturity, having had 10 years to develop. There was more black fruits with boiled sweets and fruit gums. A good wine.

A weekend at Chateau l’Hospitalet

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Truth be told, I hadn’t realised that there was such thing as a pruning festival. But when the invitation appeared in my inbox, I wasn’t going to question. It was one that I couldn’t resist.

And so I found myself on a flight to Montpellier, France, in early December, set for a drive towards the La Clape appellation and, specifically, Gerard Bertrand’s Chateau l’Hospitalet near Narbonne. I had been there just a few months before. I knew the way. I knew what to expect. Except, of course, that back in August the weather was warm, even when it was raining. I hadn’t quite anticipated just how warm it wouldn’t be this time around.

When I landed, it was raining. And the opposite of warm. A punishing wind was blowing from the northwest and the rain came down in sheets. I regretted not packing a warm coat. Or even a jumper. All I had was a rain shell, a fleece and a Helly Hansen baselayer. My only hope was that we wouldn’t spend much time outside.

After a pleasant night of beef and wine in the Chateau l’Hospitalet restaurant and a solid sleep in my room, I woke the next morning to do what any sensible man would do prior to what was surely going to be a long day of tasting wine and gorging on food. I went for a run through the vineyards. Wearing shorts and a T-shirt. This would have been fine had it not been a) colder than a Siberian deep-freeze and b) blowing a gale that was as sharp as a Gillette razor.

At 11 a.m. we had our first wine tasting and 15 glasses of wine stood before me.

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The list of wines was an extensive tasting of some of Bertrand’s best vineyards and cuvees:

  • Domaine de Cigalus
  • Chateau de Villemajou
  • Domaine de l’Aigle
  • Chateau La Sauvageonne
  • Chateau l’Hospitalet
  • Tautavel Hommage aux Vignerons
  • Le Viala
  • La Forge

In another post I will list each of the wines tasted along with my notes and verdict on each one. For now I will just say that the quality level, as always, was high and all of the wines were well made and worthy of attention. Particular favourites included Cigalus, l’Hospitalet and Le Viala.

I would like to say that we spent the afternoon indoors savouring these wines in the cosseting warmth of the chateau. However, our hosts felt that it would be much more memorable for us to spend as much of our day outside as possible given that the wind had picked up, the driving rain had set in and the temperature appeared to have plunged to a level I wouldn’t have expected in southern France.

And this is how I found myself walking head first into a bracing wind and sideways rain, following a labradoodle through a grove of white oak trees as it sniffed around for truffles. I kid you not.

Surprisingly, we the dogs did, indeed, sniff out a few truffles (the proprietor could have showed me a lump of mud and I would have nodded my approval), and we, the people merrily following those dogs, did shiver and complain about the wind within our warm coats, rain jackets, gloves and hats. All the while, the dogs’ handlers looked entirely comfortable and unbothered by the weather without the assistance of any gloves or hats or what I would have considered warm clothing for the conditions.

And then we saw a mule. This, as it happens, was the pruning element in Pruning Festival. And we did prune, albeit for only a few moments until our hands were too cold to squeeze the clippers.

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Again, the mule’s handler was ungloved and unhatted, yet unperturbed by the chill. How do they do it?

At this point, our group was beginning to lose its nerve, diminishing by ones and twos as the punters gave up and headed back to the chateau. We were drawn by the warmth and the wine, and the promise of a dinner heavily laden in truffles.

Next time, I’ll tell you about the wine.