Helen’s blog

Thoughts and tastings from Helen Savage, wine writer.

Archive for the ‘South West France’ Category

Plaimont – on top form

Monday, September 1st, 2014

Many co-operatives have provided the driving force in small appellations, but none has achieved quite as much as the group that work together under the banner of Producteurs Plaimont. Gascon to the tip of their berets, they dominate the production of Saint Mont and make a very great deal of wine from the surrounding area too: Madiran, Pacherenc du Vic Bilh and IGP Côtes de Gascogne.

White IGP Côtes de Gascogne sells well in Britain. Taste the latest (2013) vintage of ‘Colombelle’ and it’s easy to see why. The blend, featuring mainly Colombard, is as pungent as a Marlborough Sauvignon and just as grassy, with very crisp acidity, palate-cleansing lemony freshness and rather less alcohol than its more expensive southern hemisphere competitor. It’s available in the UK from Nicolas.

It is a shame that there’s no UK retail outlet at the moment for the wines of Château Saint Go, one of the four single estate wines made by Plaimont. The light, sandy, gravelly soil on gentle north-facing slopes produces relatively light, perfumed wines, both dry white and red. The 2013 white, a blend in which Gros Manseng has star billing, shows aromatic, herby green fruit, mouth-watering acidity, some leesy complexity and a slightly savoury/mineral finish.

In comparison, ‘Les Vignes Retrouvées’ 2012, blended from a number of sites and with a little more Petit Courbu and Arrufiac in the mix, is richer and rounder, with more obvious lees working (neither wine is oaked), but still with pungent grapefruit and herb aromas and a pleasantly bitter, phenolic final twist. It’s a bargain at The Wine Society – just £7.95.

The Wine Society also stock the excellent 2010 ‘Empreinte de Saint Mont’ White (£11.50). Altogether more complex than Les Vignes Retrouvées, after a couple more years in the bottle it seems to have put on fat, but has retained its very lively, grapefruit acidity. Complex, leesy and rich it shares the mineral and slightly phenolic finish common to all the Saint Mont dry whites.

Le Faîte (‘The Pinnacle’) also includes 10% Petit Manseng (with 70% Gros Manseng and 20% Petit Courbu) which has been vinified and aged in small oak barrels. As its name suggests, it is the best of the region, the blend for which is chosen each year by different distinguished ‘godparents’, in this instance Caro Mauer MW and Babette de Rozières. Anything chosen by Caro should be good, as this certainly is, with a fine creamy, complex aroma of green fruits, grapefruit, wild herbs and a suggestion of more exotic fruits. The very crisp acidity balances the creamy texture perfectly. It is also longer than the other dry whites in the Plaimont range.

The red Le Faîte 2011, chosen by the same godparents, is a blend of 75% Tannat, 15% Pinenc (Fer Servadou) and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon. It is intensely coloured, complex, with a huge concentration of perfumed black fruit, all underpinned by very fresh acidity and silky but powerful, slightly earthy tannins. The fruit in the mouth suggests elderberry, typical of Tannat, with black cherry and overripe brambles.

The most powerful red wine in the Saint Mont firmament is more often than not Monastère de Saint-Mont rather than Le Faîte. Le Monastère is another single vineyard, but in contrast to Saint Go, with a hefty amount of clay in its soil. The 2010 is a huge wine, packed with concentrated, super-ripe flavours of elderberry, prune and cassis. It is even more tannic than Le Faîte, but is also smoothly-textured, rich and long. My note from twelve months ago is almost the same; it seems that Monastère develops slowly and serenely. Le Faîte 2011 is the more elegant, complex wine, Monastère 2010 the more massive and impressive.

Château Saint Go 2010 in comparison with both of these concentrated giants is much lighter and more perfumed – the perfume extends to the aftertaste. The oak is a little more noticeable and the structure a little lighter, but it is still a very good drink.

Chateau de Sabazan - the model vineyard of St Mont

Château de Sabazan is another single estate. It is just across the valley to the north-east of Saint Go and on sunnier, south-facing slopes. The soil, a yellow ochre-coloured gritty sand, gives quite perfumed wines with a little more body than at Saint Go, but without the power of Monastère. The 2011 is marked by leafy red fruit aromas. It is more structured and mineral/savoury than Saint Go, rather less silky than Monastère, but is nevertheless elegant and long.

Plaimont make three sweet cuvées of Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh. The middle one, ‘St Albert’ is named after the saint whose feast falls at the time of harvest of the raisined Petit Manseng and Gros Manseng grapes from which it is blended, 15 November. The 2012 reminds me of that most 1970s of starter dishes: a grilled grapefruit sprinkled with brown sugar (possibly without a cherry on top). It is fresh, long and very well balanced.

Château Laffitte-Teston: Madiran and Pacherenc at their best

Saturday, August 30th, 2014

Over the years several producers in Madiran have stood out for me. My favourite independent producers are Château Barréjat, Domaine Berthoumieu, Domaine Capmartin and Château Lafitte-Teston. (Despite their very considerable reputation, the Brumont properties, Montus and Bouscassé have never appealed to me to quite the same extent.)

Although I’ve tasted their wines many times, I’m rather embarrassed to admit that it was not until last week, on the most perfect of late summer mornings, that I found time to visit Château Laffitte-Teston for the first time. I wasn’t disappointed.

It is an immaculately-kept property of around 40 hectares, with spacious cellars amply filled with a lot of new oak barrels. A friend in the trade suggested to me that with a name like Laffitte (even with the different spelling) it aspires to being somewhat Bordelais. If this means that the wines incline towards elegance rather than power, as indeed they do, this only adds to their attraction as far as I’m concerned.

Chateau Laffitte-Teston

Chateau Laffitte-Teston

The two IGP Côtes de Gascogne with which we began have only a very gentle regional accent. Domaine Teston Rosé 2013, a blend of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Tannat is dry, crisp and juicy, with vivid strawberry and other red fruit aromas. The unoaked red Domaine Teston 2013 is a blend of roughly half Merlot, half Tannat and is full of bright, sappy red and black fruit, with crisper acid than one might expect from Merlot alone, but with rather more tannin. It is clearly designed to be enjoyed young and vibrantly fruity.

The estate’s Madiran is unmistakably Gascon. The aptly-named Reflet du Terroir 2011, with around 80% Tannat and 10% each of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon is from vines up to 55 years old and is aged for about a year in second fill barrels. The rich elderberry aromas of Tannat integrate well with the oak and the palate is elegant, balanced and persistent, but with more powerful acids and tannins than the IGP. Madiran Vieilles Vignes 2010 from vines around 70 years old is aged a little longer in all new oak. Once again the fruit is to the fore – elegant and perfumed. In the mouth it is rich and ripe with depth and power.

Madiran vineyards at Chateau Laffitte-Teston

Madiran vineyards at Chateau Laffitte-Teston

The dry white Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh Cuvée Ericka, named after owner Jean-Marc Laffitte’s daughter, is outstanding. It is unusual in being dominated by Petit Manseng (Gros Manseng is more usual in dry Pacherenc) and in being fermented and aged in new oak barrels, with regular lees stirring throughout its time in oak. The 2012 which we had also enjoyed with food the previous evening at the excellent Relais de Bastidou shows both elegance and complexity with clear, bright fruit. Grapefruit was evident when it was served cool at the restaurant, more exotic stone fruits were suggested as it warmed in the glass and opened up. It has very crisp acidity, a less creamy texture that the extent of lees working might suggest and a long finish, the only time when the new oak aromas come to the fore.

Pacherenc Moelleux, ‘Rêve d’Automne’, 100% Petit Manseng, is also fermented and aged in new oak barrels with a similar level of lees working. The 2012 is very concentrated, but not overly sweet and the fruit is balanced by very clean acidity. Once again the new oak is judiciously handled and does not dominate. Although the grapes are, of course, raisined on the vine, not botrytised, there is a distinct aroma of apricot.

The two final wines in the range, both made by mutage with alcohol and aged in oak casks for a year are great fun: Teston ‘Vintage’ Tannat and Petit Manseng. Both are 17% abv. The Tannat shows the sweet concentrated elderberry flavour of the fresh fruit, along with its unmistakable, earthy tannins; the Petit Manseng, with subtle oxidative notes and an intriguingly bitter phenolic kick at the end is like super-charged quince, balanced by mouth-watering acidity. Although there have been other attempts in the region to make a port-like Vin Doux Naturel with Tannat, this is the first I have tasted to feature Petit Manseng and is an unqualified success.

Château Laffitte-Teston wines are available in the UK at The Sampler, in London and through Balcony House Cellars in Sherston, Wiltshire.

Rhubarb … and Cahors?

Friday, May 28th, 2010

I am always fascinated by new partnerships of food and wine. I was intrigued, therefore, to read of the banquet given by the Danish royal family in honour of Russian president Dmitri Medvedev and his wife Tatiana who visited Copenhagen on April 27 and 28. According to a report published in the French weekly, ‘Point de Vue’, they tucked into smoked fish and then a nice bit of brisket, along with onions and new season carrots. Lovely! But then came the pud. It was enough to make me jealous: ‘ a succulent rhubarb pastry’.

28 April happens to be my birthday, and I crave rhubarb as the only essential ingredient of a birthday feast. So I was jealous. But they served it with … Cahors. Possibly more than one Cahors. What on earth did they make of it? It seems as unlikely a combination as oyster with Tizer. Though, on second thoughts, that probably isn’t a stark enough analogy. Never mind, the Cahors growers are chuffed. But I think I’ll keep my rhubarb and my Cahors well apart. I love them too much.

Cahors: Malbec just keeps getting better

Tuesday, April 13th, 2010

Although I’ve  bought and enjoyed Cahors for more years than it’s wise to admit, I realise that I still have a lot to learn about it. I’m well aware that the general standards of wine-making have improved markedly over the last twenty years (I remember some real horrors, some of which even found their way into respectable guides like Hachette). Sometimes, however, the recent fashion for very expensive special cuvées has  failed to impress me. I think that they sometimes try a bit too hard. Cahors is an appellation where price and quality do not always co-incide.  Or to be more positive, it’s an appellation in which it’s possible to find some hot bargains. And some of these prove just as satisfying as the big, beefy, ‘let’s imitate Argentina’ specials.

One source of remarkably good wine is the Domaine de la Banière at Caix near Luzech. I’ve not visited for a few years, but I’ve always enjoyed their wines, which are still cheap enough to buy by the case without the danger of breaking the bank.  A few days ago I found a bottle of 1997, which I opened rather imagining that I would end up using it as the basis of a meaty stew. But it was magnificent: full of still fresh, plummy, spicy fruit, perfectly balanced and a real treat to wash down that most south-western of dishes,  a still pink duck breast. Will some of the over-extracted monsters that cost upwards of €25, even at the vineyard,  age as well as this? I doubt it.

One estate which has make a bit of a splash with its big-style wines is Jean-Luc Baldés’s Clos Triguedina. I admit that I did not take at all to the 2003 version of his amazing ‘The New Black Wine’ when I tatsed it last in London, and  I don’t think it’s a wine destined to age gracefully; but when I visited there last week and tasted the 2001 I was far more impressed than I’d expected to be. Maybe just being there helped to soften me a little, but I warmed to its baked fig, damson-jam character. I also liked the more conventional Price Probus 2001, which seemed much fresher and splendidly silky. But the outstanding redwine , for me, is their less exalted Clos Triguedina. The 2005 is magnificent, with bags of spicy fruit, superb freshness and real elegance. It will surely age wonderfully well for at least twenty more years.

I look forward to going back in the summer and learning a little more …