It’s wine O’clock

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that a number of wineries in the Saint-Chinian area were having an open day on December 8, 2018. ¬†In order to bring you a blog post, I had to go on a research trip! ūüôā

My day started at 10:30 in the morning at the Maison des Vins, the showcase for the AOC Saint-Chinian wines. ¬†The Maison des Vins is in part of the former home of Charles Trenet’s parents in Saint-Chinian – if you don’t know the story, you can find my previous posts here and here.

I had come to the Maison des Vins for a tutored tasting of some of the wines which had made the Virtuoses selection of wines from the AOC Saint-Chinian.  There were 11 participants to the session, which was led by Baptiste Poncet from the Maison des Vins and Vivien Roussignol of Domaine des Paissels.  We were led up an amazing and monumental staircase to the tasting room on the first floor.  Here was the room where pretty much every wine in the store below had at one time or other been tasted, to see if it measured up to the strict quality criteria of the AOC Saint-Chinian.  The room was packed with rows of tables.  Several tasting stations were built into each row, with each person having their own small basin and cold water tap!

The Virtuoses competition is specific to the Saint-Chinian wine area.  It was first held in 2014.  The competition is judged by panels of journalists, professionals and personalities in the wine trade, restaurateurs, etc.  Over the years it has been held in different locations (Saint-Chinian, New York, Montreal, London).

The entrance criteria are fairly strict, and winemakers have to enter three different vintages of the same cuvee. ¬†The idea behind that is to show the ageing potential of the wines. ¬†For this year’s selection (2019), 70 winemakers entered their wines, which were tasted by the 25 jury members in New York City. ¬†Before you ask, no, the jury members didn’t have to taste each and every wine! ¬†They were split into groups as were the wines – it would be nigh impossible for all but the most experienced tasters to work their way through over 200 different wines!!

For our little tasting, Baptiste and Vivien had selected the following wines:

Chateau Coujan – Cuvee bois jolie 2017
Domaine de Cambis – Les jardins suspendus 2016
Domaine des Paissels – Les Paissels 2017
Mas Champart – Causse du bousquet 2015
Domaine La Madura – Classic 2015
Domaine Cathala – Cuvee A 2016

Before we got to tasting all those wines, a little surprise had been prepared for us.  If you saw the picture of the tasting stations earlier in this post, you may have noticed three bottles standing next to one of the sinks.  There were four such sets of bottles dotted about the tasting area, each set contained bottles labeled with Syrah, Carignan and Grenache.  Vivien had brought these wines with him.  They had only recently finished their fermentation and had been drawn off the tanks just the day before.  The idea was that we would create our own blended wine with wines made from the three grape varieties that are frequently used for the AOC Saint-Chinian wines!

Four teams were formed, and we were given the requisite tools for blending, namely a measuring jug and an empty bottle for our final blend. ¬†We started by tasting the individual wines. ¬†The¬†Syrah had spent some time in oak barrels and was to add “structure” to the wine, the¬†Grenache was for roundness, and the¬†Carignan was for freshness. ¬†The colour of all three wines was amazing – a deep purple colour verging on black! ¬†This is where my multitasking ended – tasting and photographing do not go together, at least not for me! ūüôā

Once we had finished tasting the three different varietal wines, we set about working out a “recipe” for our blend. ¬†We started with 30%¬†Syrah,¬†60%¬†Grenache and 10%¬†Carignan. ¬†Next we tried 20%¬†Syrah, 50%¬†Grenache and 30%¬†Carignan. ¬†Finally we tried¬†30%¬†Syrah,¬†40%¬†Grenache and 30%¬†Carignan. ¬†We tasted each of these blends in comparison to one another, and yes we did keep track of our glasses!! ¬†A sheet of paper had been placed at each station, with number 1 to 6 printed on it!! ¬†We came to the conclusion that our winning blend was the 20-50-30 one and prepared our full bottle according to that recipe.

Each group submitted their bottle, which was then covered with a sleeve, and then we all did a blind tasting of the four different blended wines.  Baptiste had given us a simplified version of the tasting sheets used for the Virtuoses competition.

The wines had to be rated on appearance, i.e. colour and clarity of the wine, intensity and complexity of the “nose”, followed by various criteria of taste: Intensity/concentration/bouquet/complexity, acidity/freshness, tannins/structure, balance/harmony, “length” in the mouth, followed by an overall note. ¬†Each note carried points¬†and, as you can see, I rated the wine named “B” at 13.5 out of 20 points. ¬†I found that exercise to be incredibly difficult. ¬†Tasting all those wines was tough enough, but giving notes was tougher yet. ¬†Added to that was the fact that the wines were very young, and the flavours not yet very developed.

Did “our” blend come out with the highest score?? ¬†Nope, it came in last, but in our defence it was the first wine to be tasted, which, as Baptiste said, does nothing for the ranking. ¬†The winning formula was not too dissimilar to ours though: it consisted of 30%¬†Syrah, 50%¬†Grenache and 20%¬†Carignan.

Vivian told us that he prepares about 3 different blends for a cuvee before he arrives at the final “recipe”. ¬†Sometimes, final adjustments are made to the blend just before a wine is bottled.

Being a vigneron is a highly skilled job AND it requires many different skills: growing the grapes, turning them into drinkable wine, blending the wine, and finally selling the wine!  Before this tasting, I had no idea of just how the blending of a wine works Рnow I know just how much work and skill is involved, and I hope you, also, have learned a lot about all of the work, skills and abilities that are necessary to create a wonderful wine.!

Thank you to Baptiste and Vivien for this great experience!

After all the excitement of the blending, we tasted some of the winning wines, which Baptiste had selected for us from the¬†Virtuoses competition. ¬†I stopped taking notes after the first wine, which was cuvee bois jolie from Chateau Coujan in Murviel-les-Beziers. ¬†This was my favourite wine in that selection, wonderfully round, with a lovely “nose” of honey and pear (not literally, only notes of !! ūüôā ) and a great taste! ¬†Of the reds, my favourite was Domaine Cathala’s cuvee A.

With the exceptions of the three wines used in the blending, you can buy all other wines mentioned in this article at the Maison des Vins or via their on-line shop.

After a late lunch (the session took longer than planned Рno complaints though!) I went on to visit the cooperative winery in Saint-Chinian and then to Domaine La Madura.  More about this in a future post perhaps.

Drink responsibly!

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Full of cheer

I’ve just received a lovely message from Noelle, one of the regular readers of this blog, and resident of Saint-Chinian:

I just wanted to thank you for a suggestion on your blog: “La randonnee de Bacchus” from Berlou.

Lucien and I took the hike on Sunday June 4.
After a week of not knowing if it was going to rain, we woke up to a beautiful day, sunny, just a little breeze.
As per instruction we were at Berlou for 10:30 AM. After registration we were given a glass to hang around our neck, and then we were on our way. Since we were among the last group to depart I never felt crowded on the walk. I was told we were around 350 people but I never saw such a crowd. Actually I thought a lot of the time Lucien and I were the only ones on the trail. At each stop the crowd was only around 50 people. The wines and matching food were excellent. Plenty of time to drink and eat, seating sometimes in the shade of a tree on the ground, on a long table with chairs, or on fallen tree which served as a bench. At each of the 7 stops we tried different wines: a sparkling wine, 2 roses, 1 white, 2 reds and a sweet wine. I thought I would get drunk drinking the mix but with plenty of water it did not happen.
The trail is not an easy one but the views are grandiose on the top of the mountain. With such a day, we were able to see very far, the sleeping Lady, towns, wineries… ¬†We were even able to pick some cherries from a lonesome tree on the side of the trail – just refreshing. We did met a few people, mostly Belgiam English and French, living close by.
We ended the walk through the narrows streets of Berlou, a small and pretty village with many flowers on balconies, and on the bridge. At this time of the year it was a feast for the eyes with all the different colours.
Thank you again for suggesting this “randonnee”!
Have you followed in my footsteps and visited any of the places I have written about? ¬†I’d love to hear about your experiences, feel free to share them!!

A perfect match

Here’s to the start of another year – let’s hope that there will be more peace and less hate in the world!

What better way to start a new year, than with a post about wine-tasting! ¬†Before Christmas, a friend asked if I would like to join her at a tutored wine tasting with food pairing¬†– she had won two places for it in a prize draw! ¬†“Of course, with pleasure”, I said without much hesitation. ¬†The event was organised by the Herault Department in collaboration¬†with the¬†Maison des Vins de Saint-Chinian, the official showroom for Saint-Chinian wines. ¬†The Herault Department organised a series of these events¬†between September and January, in order to make the wines and foods of the region better known.

The tasting in Saint-Chinian was presided over by Thierry Boyer, a professional sommelier, who regularly hosts wine tastings in the area.  The food which was to go with the wine was prepared by Frederic Revilla of the restaurant Le Faitout in Berlou.  Here is the menu:

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The evening started in the shop on the ground floor of the Maison des Vins, with a glass of white wine, whilst everyone signed in.  The wine was called Schisteil and came from the Cave Cooperative in Berlou.  It was perfect as an aperitif, a nice fruity wine, without too much acidity.

Once everyone had arrived, we were invited to climb the stairs to the second floor, where we were to spend the next few hours.

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Once everyone had settled down, Thierry Boyer (below, far left) started the evening by introducing his co-hosts: Nellie Belot (far right), the director of the Maison des Vins, and Frederic Revilla (second from left), the chef of the Restaurant Le Faitout.  The lady with the red apron in the picture below was helping Thierry Boyer with pouring the wine.

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Once the introductions were made, Thierry started on the technical part of the evening, explaining the ‘art of tasting’ in some detail. ¬†I’m no expert when it comes to wine tasting, and so this was all very interesting. ¬†Each participant was given a tasting sheet, where notes could/should¬†be made about various aspects of the wine, such as the visual aspect, the smell, taste and overall impression. ¬†On the reverse of this sheet was an explanation of the words to be used in describing the wines. ¬†All in French, of course, AND highly instructive!!

Once Thierry had finished his explanation, Nellie Belot took over to introduce the first wine, Domaine du Landeyran’s Saint-Chinian-Roquebrun 2013. ¬†My notes tell me that the grapes for this wine are grown at Saint-Nazaire de Ladarez, on schist (slate) terroir, which produces relatively small yields of 30 hectolitres per hectare (1 hectolitre equals 100 litres, and a hectare is 10,000 square metres). ¬†The wine is made with 70% Syrah grapes and 30% Grenache grapes, and spends one month in oak barrels.

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Next, Frederic Revilla introduced the food – blinis made with chestnut flour, topped with rillettes de volaille a la sauge, potted chicken¬†with sage. ¬†Somehow the French sounds more elegant, don’t you think? ūüôā

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Finally, the wine was poured, and Thierry continued to teach us how to taste! ¬†Take the glass by the base, so that your hand (which might be smelling of onion or garlic??) is as far away from the rim of the glass as possible! ¬†Tilt the glass to the side and examine the colour and the clarity of the wine, as well as the colour of the “edge” of the wine, where the wine touches the glass as you look down into the glass. ¬†Then we came to the “legs”, which are traces left by the wine on the inside of the glass. ¬†Finally we were instructed to smell. ¬†Once everyone had had a good sniff (the first nose), we had to swivel the wine in the glass and smell again – that’s called the second nose. ¬†Agitating the wine causes some oxidation and brings out the smells more strongly.

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As you can see, everybody was doing this very seriously!! ¬†After much sniffing and scribbling, we were allowed to taste the wine. ¬†No, the idea was not to have a good gulp but to aerate the wine again, drawing air through it and making noises almost as if you were slurping noodles or some such. ¬†The air causes still more oxidation, and brings out yet more flavours! ¬†Once we’d had our first mouthful of wine, the blinis were passed around – one piece each. ¬†I was so caught up in the tasting and note writing, that I missed taking a picture of it! ¬†My note on the food says ‘super’!! ¬†My memory of it is that it was very delicious, gone in a flash, and very good with the wine! ¬†About the wine, my notes say very dark, almost black, a nose which was spicy, with red fruits and a hint of caramel. ¬†The taste was a little tannic, and not too heavy. ¬†Overall very nice, but I wasn’t blown away.

The next wine was Vieilles Vignes 2014 from Chateau Cazal Viel, near Cessenon-sur-Orb, was accompanied by a mushroom pate made with soya oil, on a toast which had been lightly brushed with olive oil.

This wine was made with Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre grapes, and looked very dark, with very long¬†legs. On the nose, I discovered red fruit and farmyard smells (those of you who remember the Food & Drink Show on BBC TV in the 1990’s¬†may¬†recall presenter Jilly Goolden talking of “bags of manure” ūüôā ). ¬†Thee are all kinds of funny ways of describing the smells of wine – and manure/farmyard don’t mean that it tastes of that!! ¬†In the mouth, the tannins were still somewhat strong, but the wine was generously fruity. ¬†This is a wine which would be good to keep for a few more years, but which was very nice to drink now.

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The mushroom pate was wonderful with this wine, and as you can see in the picture, the pate was topped with a little piece of mountain ham, as well as some celery and carrot, both lightly steamed.

The third wine on our list was Le Secret des Capitelles 2014, from the Cave Cooperative in Saint-Chinian, made with 65% Grenache and 35% Syrah.  The colour of this wine was lighter than the two previous ones had been, and the edge of the wine was pinky red, indicating that it is relatively young (older wines can have a brown-ish edge).  The nose was fruity, with some toasted aromas.  The taste was very round, very easy to drink!

img_1793This wine was accompanied by a tartar of hake, a white fish, similar to cod, which had been delicately seasoned with peppermint and licorice, and was topped with a leaf of pennywort (umbilicus rupestris).  The pennywort brought out a sweetness in the wine, whist the pairing with the fish worked perfectly!

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During a brief¬†interlude in the tasting, Thierry explained a little about corks, and why it is important to keep a bottle horizontal: ¬†corks have tiny¬†air pockets in their structure, and if left exposed fungi could grow in these pockets and taint the taste of the wine. ¬†I’m simplifying here, there is far more science to it than just that!

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On to our last wine, Domaine Cathala’s Absolue 2013. ¬†With this wine it was a case of keeping the best ’til last! ¬†The wine is made with a blend of Syrah, Grenache and Carignan grapes, which are grown on limestone terroir¬†near Cessenon-sur-Orb. ¬†The colour of this wine was very deep, almost black and the nose had hints of farmyard and something called ‘sweaty saddle’. ¬†I have the ‘sweaty saddle’ on authority – the¬†friend who had invited me to the tasting is an expert! ¬†The wine tasted spicy and fruity, and it was very delicious!!

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To accompany this wine, we had some baby wild boar, cooked in a stew with Sichuan pepper, mandarin and a little chocolate to thicken the sauce.  It was a pairing made in heaven!!

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What a great way to spend an evening Рgood food and good wine, and I learnt a great deal at the same time!!

Here’s a picture of the happy team at the end of the evening – they all did a wonderful job transmitting their enthusiasm for the food and wines of the region! ¬†From right to left: Gaylord Burguiere, who works at Maison des Vins and has wonderful Instagram feed; Frederic Revilla; Natalie Revilla; Thierry’s helper; Thierry Boyer; Nelly Belot, and two ladies from the Herault Department, who’d organised the evening.

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Thank you to Carole for allowing me to accompany you on this adventure!!

If you are in Saint-Chinian, do go and visit the Maison des Vins. ¬†You’ll be able to taste (and buy!) a good cross-section of wines from the Saint-Chinan area!

Out with the old…

I’m back on one of my evergreen topics:¬† wine.¬† For me that never loses its fascination.¬† At the moment, every wine grower is starting to get ready for the harvest, preparing their tanks, checking their presses, secateurs and all the other paraphernalia required for bringing in the grapes.¬† In fact, at this time of year the harvest has usually already started, but this year everything is running behind because of the cooler spring we had.

My friends at Domaine La Madura always have a bottling session or two before the harvest starts, to free up valuable tank space.¬† Because of the location of their cellar on Avenue Raoul Bayou, they cannot have the mobile bottling plant pull up right outside the door.¬† So the Mise en bouteille takes place on the river bank opposite to where their cellar is located.¬† Getting the wine across the river is a bit of an adventure:¬† Cyril, who owns Domaine La Madura with his wife Nadia, dons his biggest Wellington boots, and marches through the river with two hose pipes.¬† The larger one for the wine ūüôā and a regular one for drinking water.¬† Once they are connected to the bottling plant the fun can start – or almost!

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The palettes of empty bottles were delivered the night before, and the capsules, labels, boxes and corks are all ready to go.

As you can see, the mobile bottling plant is in a huge lorry trailer, with all the machinery fitted in ingeniously.  Before the bottling begins in earnest numerous adjustments have to be made, to ensure that every bottle turns out just perfectly filled, corked, capsuled and labelled.  The engineer in charge has a fair amount on his hands!

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But once everything is regulated and calibrated the machines are put to work.¬† First a pump draws the wine from the cellar across the river and into the plant’s tanks, where it is filtered and dosed with a small quantity of sulfites.¬† Without sulfites the wine could “turn” very quickly, either during the bottling process or soon after opening, giving it a sour, vinegary taste.

Meanwhile, a palette of empty bottles has been loaded onto the platform on one side of the lorry.¬† The platform can be raised, as successive layers of bottles are taken off and fed into the machine.¬† Before you start wondering, no they are not grabbed one by one.¬† There’s yet another ingenious tool, which grabs a whole row of bottles. The operator then swings it across and deposits the bottles into the machine, where they start their journey.

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IMG_8270And what a journey it is!  First the bottles get washed and dried.

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Then they get filled with wine, exactly 750ml in each bottle!

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Next comes the cork.

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The foil capsule is dropped onto the neck of the bottle

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And tightened on.

PICT0068So now the bottles are ready for their labels.  Domaine La Madura puts two labels on their bottles, one on front, giving the name of the Domaine and wine (classic or grand vin) and the year.  The label on the back of the bottles gives information about the wine such as grape varieties used in the blend.

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In the next step the bottles are boxed up and this is done entirely by swift hands!¬† The cardboard boxes are delivered flat packed and have to be shaped (but not taped yet).¬† One layer of bottles is put in, a cardboard separator is laid on top and the next layer of bottles is put in, with the bottles facing the opposite direction to those in the bottom layer.¬† The nimble hands can probably fill a box in the time it’s taken you to read this paragraph!

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IMG_8313Once the box is full, it is pushed through a contraption which tapes the box shut.

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And off it goes weeeheeeeee ūüôā

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to be stacked with all the other boxes on a palette, ready for shipping or storage.

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IMG_8284So there you have it – the journey of the wine from cask to bottle.¬† I’m sure you will look differently at the next bottle of wine you open!¬† And in case any of you are wondering about 2011 printed on labels and cases – most wineries don’t bottle their wines as soon as they have finished fermenting, but only once they are ready for bottling.¬† This can mean a year or two after the grapes were harvested.¬† The year on the bottle always indicates the vintage, the year the grapes were harvested and turned into wine.

And just for fun, here are some “arty” shots.

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Let the juice loose…

I spent some more time this week in the vineyards and the wine cellar of Domaine La Madura – and learnt some more about wine!¬† Cyril Bourgne’s winery is not large but very clean and tidy as you can see from the pictures!

The first time I went to watch some of the work which goes into the vinification process.¬† Cyril was preparing to mix some of wine in fermentation, drawing must off at the bottom of the tank and pumping it over the “crust” at the top of the tank.¬† A large basin was set up, a spout attached to the outlet of the tank, a stainless steel filter basket hooked onto that and then the juices started to flow.

A pump had been set up to pump the juice from the basin at ground floor level to the first floor, and a device with a propeller had been attached to the end of the pipe over the top of the tank.  It was great to see the propeller jump into action, spraying beautifully smelling liquid all over the floating grapes.

During the procedure Cyril measured the sugar density and temperature of the must and carefully noted the results.

Once the task was complete and all the equipment carefully rinsed with clean water (same as before starting up!) another job was waiting:  that of pushing the grape skins which had collected into a crust on the top of another tank into the juice and thereby allowing a better extraction of colour and flavours.

Hard work, pushing the stainless steel tool down and pulling it back up again, trying to get into all of the corners of the tank!¬† While Cyril was working away I managed to snap a quick picture of the barrels used to mature the Grand Vin”.

The following morning I passed by as some grapes came back from the vineyard.  That day the vineyard below the Col de Fontjun was being picked, and the grape variety on that particular parcel of land is called Mourvedre.

The de-stemming machine had been set up just inside the doors, and the van pulled in just far enough so that the crates could be lifted up to the hopper. 

Each crate full of grapes weighs around 40kg so it’s heavy work, even for two people.

As the grapes are slowly tipped into the hopper every bit of leaf is removed, and any bunches which aren’t up to scratch are taken out.

Inside the de-stemmer is a drum with holes and the grapes are pushed through those holes by flexible paddles.  The stems stay behind and leave the drum at the opposite end, whilst the grapes drop into a tub below the machine, from where they are pumped into the tank.

And all of this accompanied by the wonderful smells of ripe grapes!