Visit to Porto and Douro Day 3: Morning at Quinta da Noval

Quinta da Noval has always been an icon for me because of the Nacional vineyard, a tiny plot of 1.7 ha just below the winery, where the vines are all planted on their own roots. Apparently it was treated heavily against phylloxera, but as the present vineyard was planted in 1924, it’s not obvious why it wasn’t planted on rootstocks. Unfortunately I’ve never had the 1931, which some people consider the best Port of the twentieth century, but I was able to visit the vineyard and taste the latest vintage. It has a large number of different varieties, all mixed together, which is common in old vineyards in the Douro, and as vines die they are replaced by another of the same variety. It’s a mystery how the vines are able to survive on their own roots when all around it is necessary to graft to avoid being consumed by phylloxera.

NovalNacional2Quinta da Noval

Quinta da Noval is a lovely property high up above Pinhao, with about 145 ha of terraced vineyards. The Port is made in modernized lagares, modernized in the sense that they have heat exchangers to control temperature, but traditional in the sense that the grapes are still trodden by foot for the first three days, as winemaker António Agrellos considers this produces the best results. After that, a robot takes over. Since 2000, Noval has produced red table wine as well as Port. “When we took over, the vines were not in very good condition, and with 60-70 ha we didn’t have enough grapes to make table wine as well as Port, but we have planted and now we have enough,” António says. “We’ve tried foreign varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon doesn’t work but Syrah is good, but mostly the wine comes from indigenous varieties.”NovalNacional4

An old vine in the Nacional vineyard

We tasted the range of red wines and Ports. Here are some highlights.

Labrador 2012 (table wine)

This is a pure Syrah. “This is not an authorized variety, but many people plant it and we’d like it to be authorized for the Douro,” says António. Aromatics and palate somewhat reminiscent of Northern Rhone, smooth somewhat along lines of Cote Rotie, just a faint touch of pepper on the finish. Still rather young, needs time.

Colheita 2000

This shows just a touch more complexity on the nose than the 20-year tawny Port, with the fruits cut by a vaguely herbal impression. Sweetness is subsumed by flavor variety and seems more subtle. Lovely combination of iron structure and elegant fruits, with lots of character.

Vintage 2013

“Our aim is to make a vintage Port every year,” says António. There wasn’t one in 2010, but since then there has been one for three years running. For me, the most recent, the 2013, is the most approachable at present. Restrained nose shows aromatic black fruits just poking out. Already wonderfully smooth with layers of flavor developing. A little spicy, a touch nutty, but not too spirity. Promises to become extremely elegant.

Nacional 2011

Silky smooth over and above the 2011 Noval. Layers and layers of structure underneath an elegant sheen of the fruits, iron fist in the velvet glove; concentration of old vines shows through, but without heaviness.Vinicide to drink now.

Noval2The lagares



A Perspective on Canadian Wine

Most people probably know Canadian wine only through the prism of its famous ice wine, but actually Canada has around 12,000 ha of vineyards (mostly in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley and Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula) roughly equivalent in total to Burgundy’s Côte d’Or. Most production is dry wine, with sparkling wine and ice wine a small proportion. A tasting at Canada House in London offered a rare opportunity to get a bead on whether this is a successful endeavor.

The wines were almost all VQA (Canada’s appellation system), so this is a look at the high end. I do think they’ve made a mistake in defining the VQAs in great detail at this stage, with ten sub-appellations in Niagara, for example, confusing rather than enlightening.

Living on the East coast of the United States, I am inclined to regard Canada as the frozen North, or anyway, distinctly cool climate, so I am frankly confused by the somewhat optimistic descriptions of climate by the Wine Council of Ontario. An amusing chart of annual temperatures in various wine growing regions appears to show that Bordeaux is warmer than the Languedoc and that Niagara is warmer than Bordeaux, which leaves me feeling somewhat sceptical.

Looking at weather station data, I place Niagara between Alsace and the Mosel. It is a little bit warmer in British Columbia, and there is certainly significant variation between the ends of Okanagan Valley as it extends for more than a hundred miles from north to south, but I am surprised to see the southern part described as warmer than Napa on the basis of degree days, as weather station data in the midpoint of the southern part suggest to me that temperatures are quite close to Alsace. Perhaps I am not paying sufficient attention to variations between microclimates.

Tasting the wines, the climate that most often comes to mind for comparison would be the Loire. With Riesling and Chardonnay as the main focus, but also a fair proportion of Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, and Viognier, the impression is distinctly cool climate.

Most Chardonnays at the tasting had too much oak for my taste, even though the stated usage of new oak was usually quite moderate. Even allowing for youthful character, I’m not certain there’s enough fruit to carry the oak. My impression of the Chardonnays from Niagara is that the citrus palate can be a bit too much driven by lemon. It’s fair to say that the style is European rather than New World, but given the cool climate character of the wines, I would suggest that Chablis would be a better model than the Côte d’Or, and the question should be how much (old) oak to use together with stainless steel, rather than what proportion of the oak (with many wines barrel fermented) should be new. With prices often around or above $35, competitiveness seems an issue.

Curiously given the cool climate impression, I was not generally impressed with the Rieslings. My main complaint is the style: Riesling character is often obscured by a significant level of residual sugar. I did not find a single dry Riesling. I’m inclined to wonder whether, if you can’t successfully make a dry wine, you should plant a different variety, but I suppose you might say that the best Canadian Rieslings do show a nice aperitif style.

Given the cool climate impression made by the whites, the successful production of reds is quite surprising, especially the focus on Bordeaux varieties rather than those more usually associated with cooler climates. Among them, Cabernet Franc appears to be the variety of choice for single varietal wines, and although there are certainly some creditable wines showing good varietal typicity, I find many to be on the edge for ripeness. Certainly the style is much more European than New World­—the Loire would be the obvious comparison. The best Merlots or Bordeaux blends seem more like the Médoc than the Right Bank of Bordeaux in style.

To my surprise, Syrah outshines Cabernet Franc in Okanagan Valley. The Syrahs are evidently cool climate in character, definitely Syrah not Shiraz, in a fresh style with some elegance, which should mature in a savory direction; nothing with the full force impression of the New World. They remind me of the Northern Rhone in a cool year.

There are some successful Pinot Noirs in both British Columbia and Ontario, presenting somewhat along the lines of Sancerre or Germany. The difficulty is to bring out classic typicity in these cool climates, but the best are Pinot-ish in a light style.

Some producers are now making single vineyard wines. Is it worth it? It’s an interesting question whether at this stage of development the best terroirs have been well enough defined to produce reliably better wine every year or whether a better model would be to make cuvées from the best lots. There’s also the question of whether they are competitive at price points pushing beyond those of the estate bottlings.

Favorites at the tasting

Sparkling wine, Gaspereau Valley, Nova Scotia: Benjamin Bridge, 2008

This is called the Methode Classique Brut Reserve to emphasize the connection with Champagne: it comes from 61% Chardonnay and 39% Pinot Noir. It follows the tradition of Champagne with a faintly toasty nose showing some hints of citrus. Nice balance on palate with an appley impression. Flavors are relatively forceful.   11.5% 89

Syrah, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia: Painted Rocks Winery, 2013

Lovely fruits in a restrained style, fresh and elegant with beautiful balance, a touch of pepper at the end. A textbook Syrah in a slightly tight style.   14.9% 89

Syrah, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia: Burrowing Owl Vineyards, 2013

Black fruit impression on nose with hints of blueberries. Light style is quite Rhone-like on palate, nice clean fruits with faint buttery hints at end, more successful than the Bordeaux varieties. 14.5% 89

Pinot Noir, Beamsville Bench, Niagara Peninsula: Hidden Bench, Felseck Vineyard, 2013

Nicely rounded red fruits with faintly minty overtones bringing a slight herbal impression to the nose. Quite a sweet ripe impression on palate with touch of spice at the end. Slight viscosity on palate brings to mind the style of Pinot Noir in Germany.   12.7% 88

Cabernet Franc, Creek Shores, Niagara Peninsula: Tawse Family Winery, Van Bers Vineyard, 2012

Nose shows some faint tobacco and chocolate, with palate following with typically herbal notes of Cabernet Franc. Dry tobacco-ish finish. Does it have enough fruit to stand up when the tannins resolve?   13.0% 88

Chardonnay, Niagara: Norman Hardie Winery, Cuvee L, 2012

More restrained nose than Hardie’s other Chardonnay cuvees but some oak does show through. Nice balance on palate between oak and slightly lemony fruits. Follows Chablis in style.   12.4% 88

Viognier, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia: Blasted Church Vineyards, 2014

Barrel fermented with some new oak. Faintly perfumed nose with the perfume somewhat clearer on palate. Fry impression to finish short of phenolic. Nice long finish on which you can just see the oak.   13.0% 89

I Put A Red Wine in the Fridge by Mistake but Like the Result

For reasons that we had better not go into, I made an unfortunate mistake with a bottle of red Côtes du Rhône and put in the fridge to cool down for dinner (I had thought it was a white). Although my first reaction when I opened the bottle and it turned out to be red was that I had spoiled it for dinner, this turned out to be an interesting experience.

I had a glass to start off at fridge temperature while the rest of the bottle warmed up (in a container of warm water given the emergency conditions). Actually it didn’t show too badly – difficult to get the aromatics, of course, but the palate was quite smooth, evidently powerful, and seemed quite refined for Côtes du Rhône. It gave the impression it might have quite a good proportion of Syrah.

Once it came up to room temperature, it was a different story. Blackberry fruits on the nose showed a touch of asperity, and the palate was overwhelmingly powerful. With 60% Grenache, 20% Syrah, and 20% Mourvèdre, coming from 40-year-old vines, fruits were intense, although not jammy. Too dense to see structure directly, but must be there underneath. High alcohol, at 15%, contributed to a mix of sweetness and bitterness on the finish. All traces of refinement disappeared and the wine showed the brutality of power. This was the 2011 vintage, so some of its strength is due to youth, but with 15% alcohol I find it hard to see how it’s going to calm down.

I actually enjoyed the wine more straight out of the fridge. Alcohol was evidently high but not oppressive, and the palate gave a much calmer, more refined impression: although it was harder to see fruit flavors, they weren’t tainted by sweetness and bitterness on the finish. So if you are going to drink a 15% red Côtes du Rhône, it may not be a bad idea to cool it down a bit first.


Southwest Diary part 3: The Old Guard and the Vanguard – the Madness of Gaillac

In two days in Gaillac I taste varieties not found anywhere else and meet three of the most forceful personalities in wine. This is the connectedness of it all: the common link is the determination to preserve the old varieties.

Gaillac is one of the oldest wine-producing regions in France—there are wild grapevines in the nearby forest of Grésigne–and the only place where some of the old indigenous varieties are still grown. White varieties are Mauzac, Len de l’El (Loin de l’Œil), Ondenc; black are Fer Servadou (Braucol), Prunelard, Duras. But these days, most wines come from Syrah, Merlot, or Cabernet.

GresigneTWWild grapevines grow near Gaillac. Courtesy IFV Sud-Ouest.

The authorities in Gaillac seem especially determined to stamp out individuality among their producers, yet have no clear idea of what Gaillac should represent. It’s a very curious view the appellation has of itself, that wines made from varieties as different as Braucol, Duras, or Syrah can be labeled as Gaillac, styles as different as dry white, semi-sweet white, and a vin de voile (an oxidized style grown under a layer of flor) can be labeled as Gaillac, even a sparkling wine made from the Mauzac grape, but varieties that were grown here two centuries ago aren’t allowed, and producers who make low-sulfur wines are thrown out of the appellation because of supposed notes of oxidation. I hear all about these problems from three top producers.

Wednesday morning: lunch with Patrice Lescarret and Virginie Maignien at Domaine Causse Marines. Hidden away behind the village of Vieux, a few miles from Albi, Causse Marines is a tiny property that just looks like a residence from the road. It’s indicated only by a modest sign, as most of the wine is exported, and cellar door trade isn’t especially important. We talk about the aims of the domain, which focus on making natural, biodynamic wines from local varieties. “There’s no intervention here, except a very little sulfur,” is how Patrice describes his winemaking. It’s a point of pride that there are no clones in the vineyard: everything is propagated by selection massale and Patrice chooses and grafts the vines himself.

One advantage of Causse Marine’s site is a three week difference in harvest from the rest of Gaillac, which gives more freshness to the wines. It seems to keep alcohol levels down too, as everything we tasted with lunch was a modest 13% or so. “It’s legal to add tartaric acid to acidify,” Patrice says, “but I prefer to bring up the acidity by including a little Chenin Blanc in the blend.” In fact, cuvées vary between blends of the old varieties, Mauzac, Loin de l’Oeil, Mauzac, Ondenc, and single varietal wines. For the reds there are Braucol, Duras, and Syrah. The general style is fresh and lively, giving a sense of wines in the old style. But only the entry-level wines are labeled under the Gaillac AOP: after continued battles about the use of very low levels of sulfur, Patrice gave up on the appellation and now labels all his other wines as Vins de France.

Wednesday afternoon: Domaine Plageoles is an old family domain with three generations presently involved. We meet with Bernard, who’s the middle generation. All of the domain’s wines are from single varieties, and I ask Bernard if the domain does not believe in assemblage on principle. He looks a bit surprised, and then laughs and says, “Yes, you can make good wines by assemblage, it’s just that we think we express terroir more clearly with single varieties. Like Burgundy.”

Bernard’s father, Robert, has retired, but comes out to talk about his rediscovery of the old varieties. He restored several varieties that were no longer being grown in the region by obtaining plants from a conservatory, and the domain now produces around fourteen cuvées from these formerly lost varieties (well, seven of them are subvarieties of Mauzac). Some are allowed in the appellation, but Prunelard, Mauzac Noir, and Verdanel are Vins de France.

Robert is rather cynical about modern viticulture. “People are ossified, few people want to shake things up, it’s necessary to be provocative,” he says. “Why has no one found a way to eradicate phylloxera,” he asks, answering, “Because they don’t want to.” I asked about his restoration of the old varieties. “My father had started to have some old varieties, then one day I realized, that’s our heritage,” he explains. He concludes with another provocative thought. “There are no bad cepages, only bad vignerons.”

Thursday afternoon: Michel Issaly is an enthusiast for authentic wines. “We want to preserve the historic cepages, we work almost only with the old varieties,” he says, “with just a little Syrah and Merlot.” Viticulture is natural and seems to use Michel’s own version of a cross between organic and biodynamic. “Vinification is absolutely traditional – I don’t even use too much temperature control for the reds, I want to respect the year. What’s stated on the label should correspond to the conditions of the year. The wine should be a photograph of vintage and cepage.”

Michel only labels a couple of his wines as Gaillac; the rest are Vins de France. “I have pulled my wines out of the appellation because they say they were oxidized.” I have to say myself that after tasting through their ranges with both Patrice Lescarret and Michel Issaly, to say they are oxidized seems like nonsense. I could see no problem with the wines I tasted. These old varieties give a relatively tart wine, with moderate alcohol, and sharp fruit flavors tending to the red spectrum: they are completely different from the international model of the extracted wine with dense black fruits.

The most original wine made in Gaillac is the Vin de Voile. Meaning that it grows under a veil, the name implies that it’s similar to the traditional style in the Jura. It comes from Mauzac, which grows a layer of flor yeast when the barrels aren’t full. “It started because they used to draw wine out of the barrel without topping it up,” explains Michel Issaly. “It’s been made here for three hundred years, and it’s the real historic wine of Gaillac.” Today the wine is typically bottled after seven years. It has a unique character: at first you get a fugitive impression of the original fruits, then the dry Sherry-like notes take over, giving a savory impression with a touch of fenugreek.

Michel concedes that his wines aren’t typical. “There are few vignerons left who work with authentic varieties,” he says, “they are all using Merlot, Syrah, and Gamay.” By reintroducing the old varieties, Robert Plageoles offered Gaillac the chance to perpetuate its history, but Patrice Lescarret and Michel Issaly are rare producers who are taking up the challenge. Patrice’s problems with the AOP are summarized by this exchange. Is this typical, I asked about Les Greilles, as we tasted the only white that Patrice bottles under the appellation label. “If you mean historically, yes. If you mean in terms of current production, no; today most Gaillac is made using industrial yeast and contain Sauvignon Blanc, so the typicity has changed.”I can understand why the Gaillac Syndicat feels compelled to authorize international varieties, since authenticity isn’t everyone’s glass of wine, and you have to live in the commercial world, but it’s a pity they have in effect excluded their most thoughtful and individual producers.


Blending the Altitudes

“We play with the altitude like in France they play with the latitude,” said Hervé Birnie-Scott when I visited Terrazas de los Andes in Mendoza. The winery here was the first to be built in the middle of vineyards, in 1898, by one of the founders of winemaking in Argentina, but it went bankrupt (like almost all) in the bust of the 1960s. It was purchased by Domecq, who intended to use it as a distillery, but when they in turn sold it, Chandon purchased it with the intention of using the house for entertainment. When Chandon decided to move into production of dry wines in Mendoza, this became their headquarters and winery. Terrazas’s first vintage was made at Chandon in 1992, but its own winery was refurbished and was used from 1998. Some of the original Chandon vineyards were transferred to Terrazas, and when the trend to making varietal wines intensified in the late nineties, they purchased more land.

Today Terrazas has vineyards at various altitudes into the Andes, with 500 ha of black grapes, which include 270 ha Malbec, 180 ha Cabernet Sauvignon, 50 ha Petit Verdot, and some Merlot and Syrah; there are also 52 ha of white. There’s a very interesting approach here in matching varieties to terroir, where altitude is the main determinant. Going west from Mendoza towards the Andes, the land rises up from 800 meters to 1200 meters within some 20 km. Syrah is planted in the warmest vineyards, near Mendoza, and then as the land rises, varieties are chosen for successively cooler temperatures, culminating in Chardonnay at 1200 m elevation. With an average temperature drop of 0.6 °C per 100 m, the difference between the lowest and highest vineyards is comparable to going from the south of Italy to the north of France. Syrah is planted on the warmest sites at 800 m, Cabernet Sauvignon between 900 and 980 m, Malbec around 1067 m, Merlot in the highest sites for black grapes at around 1150 m, and Chardonnay at 1200 m.

The focus is on varietal wines. I asked Hervé whether this was a marketing decision or because they express the terroir better. “The dominant influence was the United States and Australia, driving in the direction of varieties. If you go through the phone book, under M you will find Malbec, but where would you find “blend?” We produced what people wanted to buy. Commercially there was a feeling that Malbec was just a table wine, and there was pressure to produce Cabernet Sauvignon. But from outside Cabernet Sauvignon was boring and the Malbec was discovered. The driving force was the journalistic view – the next big thing for you is the Malbec,” he says.

The top Cabernet here is the single vineyard Los Aromos, at 980 m the highest elevation at which they grow Cabernet. Yet the wine is refined and pure, with that directness of 100% Cabernet, but no signs of harsh mountain tannins. The Reserva range is made in a more obviously approachable New World style. Terrazas also has a collaboration with Château Cheval Blanc to produce a Cabernet-Malbec blend, Cheval des Andes. Here the French influence dominates, as the wine was clearly marked to be a blend from the very beginning.  Interestingly it seemed to me to have a firmer character than the single varietal Los Aromos.

Tasting Notes

Mendoza, Terrazas Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva, 2009

There’s an immediate fruity impression of smooth black fruits with the tannins giving a slight edge to a warm finish. This is very much in the New World approach of fruit-driven wine, easily approachable, with just a touch of high toned aromatics. It’s soft and furry and the structure isn’t really evident (although 30% new oak was used). 14.4% 87 Drink to 2018.

Mendoza, Afincado Los Aromos Cabernet Sauvignon, 2007

The vineyard is in Perdriel, but the name has been trademarked and so cannot be used on the label. Some character shows immediately with a savory impression initially extending almost to barnyard and then clearing more towards a spicy and vegetal spectrum. Smooth on the palate and elegant, a refined impression with a fine texture coming from the tannins, and a touch of blackcurrants and cassis emerging on the finish. It’s just a touch linear, with precisely delineated fruits in the style of pure Cabernet Sauvignon, somewhat reminiscent of samples of pure Cabernet from Bordeaux. The wine was matured in 100% new oak.13.6% 91 Drink to 2022.

Mendoza, Cheval des Andes, 2007

There’s a warm nutty quality on opening that makes you think about very ripe Cabernet Franc, a reasonable thought given the antecedents of this wine in a collaboration between Terrazas de los Andes and Cheval Blanc, although in fact it is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec. Smooth on the palate to the point of obscuring the tannins, some wood spices showing, but after the initial burst of generous fruit, a more sober palate shows a somewhat monolithic black fruit character with a dense structure that will take some time to resolve. It’s quite elegant and well balanced, but lacks the sense of uplifting acidity that characterizes the left bank in Bordeaux. It lacks subtlety, said my constant companion, the Anima Figure. 14.5% 88 Drink to 2020.


Blending Cabernet: it’s the history, stupid

In Bordeaux they will tell you that Merlot is the perfect partner for Cabernet Sauvignon, because the Cabernet doesn’t always ripen reliably on the left bank, and the fleshier tones of Merlot complement it by filling in the mid palate. In Napa they will tell you that Cabernet Sauvignon ripens so fully and reliably here that there is no need for Merlot; it makes a complete wine in itself. In Chile they used to follow the Bordeaux model by blending the Cabernet Sauvignon with Merlot; but then it turned out that most of the Merlot wasn’t Merlot, it was really Carmenere; they did not throw up their hands with horror, tear out the Carmenere and replace it with real Merlot; now instead they make a point of producing varietal Carmenere or of blending it with Cabernet Sauvignon. In Argentina, if they blend Cabernet Sauvignon, it’s usually with Malbec, which is the predominant black variety. In nineteenth century Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon was usually blended  with Malbec and Carmenere as well as Cabernet Franc: the Malbec was replaced by Merlot, and the Carmenere disappeared after phylloxera struck. The blend everywhere is as much a matter of historical accident as a deliberate search for what varieties best complement one another. So the question is whether Cabernet Sauvignon still needs to be blended, given that the climate is warmer  in Bordeaux than it used to be, and that the other areas where it is planted are mostly warmer than Bordeaux anyway.  And if it does need to be blended, what other varieti(es) really give the best complexity, and are they necessarily the same in every region.

Even though Bordeaux has experienced warmer temperatures in the past decade, tastings of barrel samples have convinced me that the Cabernet Sauvignon makes a more interesting wine when it is blended. As a single varietal wine, it tends to have very pure, precise, but more linear flavors: it broadens out to become more interesting when blended. I believe the same is actually true in Napa, but not for the conventional reason. Young Napa Cabernets can be so bursting with fruit that you really do not see any need for any other variety to round out and complete the flavor profile. But wait a few years. As those primary fruits drop out, the wine begins to become more linear, more austere, the bare bones of Cabernet show more clearly, and you feel that by ten years of age it would very often be improved by some Merlot, which brings more interesting savory development.

A recent visit to Chile left me wondering about the rationale for blending Cabernet Sauvignon with Carmenere. If you think you have difficulties ripening Cabernet Sauvignon, try Carmenere – which usually harvests about one month after the Cabernet Sauvignon. That alone shows you why it became untenable in Bordeaux. Even in Chile, where the Cabernet ripens quite reliably, Carmenere can be questionable; it needs to be grown in the warmer sites. When it ripens fully, it develops a smooth, elegant palate, with tannins that seem more supple than Cabernet Sauvignon, and it brings elegance to a blend. When it does not ripen successfully, it has something of the same herbaceousness as Cabernet Sauvignon itself, so it’s something of a double or quits game.

Malbec is somewhere between Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon: not as fleshy as Merlot, but certainly smoother and more supple than Cabernet Sauvignon. Under peak conditions, Malbec may be a more interesting blending partner for Cabernet Sauvignon than Merlot, because the tannic structure is complementary: the more supple character of Malbec adds smoothness to the tighter structure of Cabernet Sauvignon. It doesn’t fill in on the mid palate in quite the same way, so the wine tends more to elegance than fruit-driven power.

For roughly a hundred years, from its rise following the phylloxera problem in the 1880s until a couple of decades ago, Merlot was the perfect blending partner for Cabernet Sauvignon. This is not true in the warmer climates of Napa and Chile, where the “Merlot collapse problem” describes the situation in which Merlot goes straight from green, herbaceous character to over-ripe jammy character, with too narrow a chance to catch it at the right point. I sometimes wonder whether Napa’s concentration on varietal Cabernet Sauvignon isn’t due as much to their difficulties with Merlot as to the attractions of the Cabernet. I am inclined to wonder whether Syrah would be a good choice, since it has richer tannins than Cabernet and can add a touch of aromatics that increases complexity, but Napa seems fixated on a bimodal view: it’s either Cabernet or it’s a Bordeaux blend. Syrah  might also do well in Argentina and Chile, but the accidents of history mean that Malbec and Carmenere are well entrenched. Come to that, it may be time for Bordeaux to reconsider, because in the 2009 and 2010 vintages, the Merlot became so ripe and alcoholic that in many cases it was impossible to blend it into the Grand Vin and it was relegated to the second wine. (An amusing paradox here, since that can make the second wine higher in alcohol than the Grand Vin, and the concept that higher alcohol goes with wines at higher appellation levels is well entrenched in the French hierarchy.) How about going back to Malbec or Carmenere in the Medoc – or maybe Syrah.


Where Has All the Cabernet Gone?

Bordeaux is the world’s largest producer of Cabernet Sauvignon, with 28,000 hectares planted. Only a small part – perhaps 15% – goes into wines dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon; the rest is blended into wines where the dominant component is Merlot. Generally unknown, but running a fairly close second in plantings, is the south of France, with 22,000 hectares altogether in Languedoc and Provence (mostly in Languedoc). But how many interesting Cabernet-driven do you know from the south? What are they doing with all that Cabernet?

I spent a week in the Languedoc last month looking for Cabernet as part of the research for my book Claret & Cabs. I found half a dozen interesting producers and obtained a renewed respect for the practice of blending, whether with Bordeaux varieties or others. I wanted to know whether Cabernet Sauvignon in the south retained a typicity like Bordeaux or more resembled the warmer climates where it is grown in the New World.

I started my tour at Finca Narraza in Roussillon, not far from Perpignan just north of the Pyrenees, where Corinne and Gérard le Jan have a twenty year old vineyard of Cabernet Sauvignon. Interestingly, there’s just as much vintage variation here as in Bordeaux. Cabernet does well when the climate is Atlantic, but can be difficult to handle when it rains and the wind comes from the mountains or when the weather is too hot and it ripens too quickly. The main cuvée is an equal blend of Cabernet and Syrah, and the dominant influence seems to vary with the year. In either case, it’s fair to say that the wine shows more the aromatic influence of the south than of Bordeaux.

An interesting opportunity to see what a Bordeaux blend achieves in the south came from Verena Wyss, near Pezenas.  In the Belcanto cuvée, the structure of the Cabernet comes through quite clearly, but the aromatics are more those of the south, fruity and perfumed, than of the more savory tradition of Bordeaux. “There is no problem ripening here; it  is warmer and drier than Bordeaux. The training system needs to protect the fruit against excess heat, the opposite of tradition in Bordeaux where it needs to ensure good sun exposure. The problem here is not getting good maturity, it is avoiding over-maturity; the only answer is to harvest when the grapes are ready and not wait too long,” says Verena.

Another interesting insight came from the ability of Petit Verdot to ripen reliably in this climate,  which enables Verena to produce the La Tonga blend of 60% Cabernet to 40% Petit Verdot. Her I felt that the spiciness of Petit Verdot dominated the palate, making an attractive young wine, but I wondered whether it would age well. I received a partial answer when I visited Marc Benin at the Domaine de Ravanès, just a little farther west, where there is both a 100% Petit Verdot and a 50:50 blend of Petit Verdot with Merlot. “I don’t want to make a Bordeaux, I want to make a wine of the Languedoc, but with the Bordelais varieties. Here the Petit Verdot achieves the same maturity as the Cabernet Sauvignon and gives an interesting, structured wine,” Marc told me. Tasting these wines from 2002 and 2000 showed that Petit Verdot really matures very slowly indeed; I was left uncertain whether it would ultimately develop the same interest with age as Cabernet Sauvignon. But a vertical tasting of monovarietal Cabernet Sauvignon from 2007 back to 1995 showed some difficulty in getting a complete structural balance. The youngest vintage showed nicely concentrated fruits, but still a good way to go to maturity. “The Cabernet can be too strong. It’s not ready to drink straight away, you need to wait 3-4 years,” Marc said, explaining why he now blends the Cabernet with Merlot. Older vintages showed nice development, much along the lines of traditional Bordeaux, with savory and even herbaceous elements coming out. I was left with the impression that, just as in Bordeaux itself, blending produces a more complete and complex wine. A similar classic impression came from the Cabernet-Merlot blends at Domaine de Perdiguier, close by, where I revisited the question as to the typicity of Cabernet Sauvignon in the south. These wines sufficiently resembled Bordeaux AOC as to provoke me into realizing that by now I had made the transition into looking for something different in the south.

The pioneer for Cabernet Sauvignon in the Languedoc is Mas de Daumas Gassac, where the blend has now settled down at around 80% Cabernet Sauvignon with the remaining 20% consisting of a wide range of varieties, including the traditional Bordeaux varieties. The other varieties vary somewhat: initially they were mostly Malbec, Tannat, and Merlot; by 1990 they were described as Cabernet Franc, Syrah and Merlot; and today the label just says “several other varieties.” Daumas Gassac is not looking for the modern jammy fruity style. “We belong more to the Bordeaux 1961 attitude—wine with 12.5% alcohol and good acidity. Only 15% new oak is used to get finesse. The wine is no more typical of Bordeaux than it is Languedoc,” says Samuel Guibert, the current winemaker.

Almost adjacent, however, is the Domaine de la  Grange des Pères, where the attitude is almost the antithesis of Daumas Gassac but the wines are equally interesting. Daumas Gassac today, albeit way off the beaten track, is a modern facility with a snazzy tasting room, and constant trek of visitors.  Grange des Pères has a utilitarian appearance, it’s not especially easy to make an appointment with Laurent Vaillé who is nothing if not reticent, but the rendezvous, if successful, takes place in the working cave, where samples can be tasted from barriques. The wine is a blend of roughly equal proportions of Syrah and Mourvèdre with a minor component of 20% Cabernet Sauvignon. Minor, but essential. “The Cabernet Sauvignon is like salt in food. I do not want Cabernet Sauvignon to dominate my assemblage. Grange des Pères should have a southern character, but with freshness and that’s what the Cabernet Sauvignon brings,” says Laurent. Tasting barrel samples, you can see what each variety brings to the blend. All are rich and powerful with a good level of tannins, the Syrah full of rich, deep back fruits, the Mourvèdre distinctly spicy, and the Cabernet herbal and fresh. It’s not so much the acidity of the Cabernet as such, but the tightness of its structure that freshens the blend. Without it, the wine would have more of that jammy fruit character of warm climates. So here the Cabernet in effect is playing a moderating role on the sheer fruit character of the other varieties: almost exactly the opposite of the role it plays elsewhere as a “cépage ameliorateur” in strengthening weak varieties.

Over in Provence, the pioneer for blending Cabernet Sauvignon with Syrah was Eloi Dürrbach, who planted the vineyards at Domaine de Trévallon, near Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, just south of Avignon, in 1973. In the (relatively) cool microclimate at Trévallon, the two cépages play the traditional complementary roles: Cabernet Sauvignon can be austere, but Syrah softens it (without acquiring the jammy notes of the southern Rhône). Barrel samples of the two varieties before assemblage (which takes place only just before bottling) show more similarities than differences: in the 2010 vintage, both cépages showed dense black fruits with good tannic support, with the Syrah just a touch more aromatic and the Cabernet just a touch sterner. The interesting comparison was with a pre-assemblage blend, made because there wasn’t enough of either separate cépage to fill another foudre.  The increase of complexity was obvious, combining roundness with precision, sternness with aromatics. Usually the Syrah is a little more evident as an influence than the Cabernet, says Antoine Dürrbach, but it varies from year to year. There is no attempt here at instant gratification: usually the wine does not open up for ten years, he told me, but then it will last another decade. Indeed, the 2001 vintage was just beginning to open up in October 2011. I would be inclined to say that it has something of the aromatics of the south combined with the texture of Bordeaux. The whole is certainly greater than you might expect from the sum of the parts tasting the individual varieties.

My last stop to investigate blends of Cabernet with southern varieties was at Domaine Richeaume, farther east in Provence, located just underneath Mont Sainte Victoire. The backdrop to the vineyards could be a painting by Cézanne. There’s a small production of monovarietal Cabernet Sauvignon, the Columelle cuvée of Cabernet and Syrah, with a small component of Merlot, and the Tradition cuvée which is equal Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache. The Cabernet gives the impression that seems to prevail with a monovarietal all the way from Bordeaux to Provence: more precision and elegance than the other varieties or even than the blends, but less completeness, just not quite filling in entirely on the mid palate. Syrah by itself goes the other way: lovely aromatics to the fore. Columelle is a good compromise: Syrah aromatics with that structure of Cabernet underneath. I wasn’t quite sure with the Tradition whether Grenache was filling in the fleshiness the Cabernet lacks by itself, or whether the Cabernet was giving structure to an amorphous Grenache, but it did not seem to me that the marriage was a complementary as Cabernet and Merlot.

They are quite disdainful in Bordeaux about growing Cabernet in the south. “It’s a big mistake,” the Directeur at one second growth blurted out when I asked what he thought about growing Cabernet there. “There isn’t any Cabernet in Languedoc,” one senior figure on the Bordeaux wine scene said, when I mentioned that I was visiting Cabernet producers there. But there are certainly interesting wines, based on Cabernet Sauvignon or containing a significant proportion of it, in Languedoc and Provence. They are no challenge to Bordeaux, not because they are necessarily inferior to it, but because their overall flavor spectrum is different: whether the Cabernet is a monovarietal, blended with Bordeaux varieties, or blended with other varieties, it takes on at least a partial tinge of the aromatics of the south. But none of the top wines fit into the rules for AOC, and they have not been imitated to any significant extent by others. So they create no halo effect to lift up the region. And in terms of the total production of Cabernet Sauvignon in Languedoc and Provence, my attempts to identify wines of character might account perhaps for a couple of hundred of the twenty thousand hectares. What are they doing with the rest?

The vast majority of Cabernet Sauvignon in the Languedoc goes into relatively inexpensive brands, produced on a relatively large scale for France. In fact, the Languedoc is France’s largest source for varietal-labeled Cabernet Sauvignon.  (The authorities would not give me any official figures for production of Cabernet Sauvignon in the Vin de Pays of the Languedoc, but I calculate there must be around 10 million cases of Cabernet Sauvignon or wines based on Cabernet. This compares with a total production for generic AOC Bordeaux of around 25 million cases, most of which has Cabernet Sauvignon only as a minor component.) Should the Bordelais be quite so disdainful of the varietal-labeled brands under the Vin de Pays labels? Given the inroads that have been made into the market at the level of Bordeaux AOC by varietal-labeled New World wines, isn’t the Languedoc more a threat by fifth column since it combines the mystique of being French with the varietal-labeling that appeals at this level of the market, and a more forward, fruit-driven style?

Finca Narraza, Vin de France, 2008

This equal blend of Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon shows an impenetrable black color. A touch of reduction on the nose rapidly blows off. The black fruits of cherries and plums show an impressive density on the palate, supported by fresh acidity and firm tannins that are integrating nicely. The impression in this vintage is dominated more by Syrah than Cabernet, as indicated by the rich, plummy aromatics. It’s a more powerful wine than the 2009, albeit just a touch rustic in its overall impression. It will no doubt show greater smoothness in a year or so and should drink well for up to a decade. 89 Drink 2013-2021.

Finca Narraza, Vin de France, Cuvée Raoul Blondin, 2008

An impenetrable black color with a stern nose, although this is 80% Syrah and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon. Some savage notes to the nose resemble Syrahs of the northern Rhone. The dense black fruits on the palate are ripe and unctuous, deep and long, with a chocolaty texture. The Cabernet Sauvignon gives extra backbone to this basically Syrah-dominated wine. The structure is somewhat buried under the density of fruits but should support aging for a decade. A very fine effort. 90 Drink 2013-2021.

Verena Wyss, IGP d’Oc, La Tonga, 2007

This wine is a blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Petit Verdot.  Spicy nose has intense aromatics. The classic notes of Petit Verdot are really evident, with a peppery spiciness on the nose showing as all-spice on the palate, which is full of flavor and character. The deep fruits show as blackcurrants and plums, with ripe tannins in the background. The Petit Verdot gives that Rolls Royce sense of power, but does it make the flavor spectrum just a touch monotonic? 90 Drink-2020.

Verena Wyss, IGP d’Oc, Belcanto, 2007

Belcanto is a Bordeaux-like blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, and 10% Petit Verdot. It shows a medium to deep ruby color with a touch of garnet indicating the first development. The restrained nose gives an impression of black fruit with some floral notes. The underlying structure shows the influence of Cabernet Sauvignon quite clearly, with smooth black fruits supported by ripe tannins. At first the tannins hide behind the fruits, but then they come through to show as dryness on the finish. This elegant wine is certainly Old World not New World, but shows a touch more overt aromatics than would be found in Bordeaux. 90 Drink now-2021.

Domaine de Ravanès, Coteaux de Murveil VDP, Petit Verdot, 2008

Petit Verdot matures well in the Languedoc, offering the opportunity to make a varietal wine. Actually, the Petit Verdot at Ravanès is usually kept for blending into the top wines, but in this year it was interesting enough to make a monovarietal, without wood exposure. The year had a dilute character overall, but the wine shows the purity of the Petit Verdot fruits. The spicy nose might easily lead you to believe there had been oak exposure. Dense fruits show purity of line similar to varietal Cabernet. This shows very well as a young wine, but there is a certain direct focus that suggests aging won’t bring out real flavor complexity. You can certainly see what Petit Verdot brings to a blend. 88 Drink now-2016.

Domaine de Ravanès, Coteaux de Murveil VDP, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2007

This was the last year a monovarietal Cabernet was produced. It is still a dark ruby purple, showing very much a Cabernet nose with austere black fruits. Ripe and rich fruits dominate the palate, supported by ripe tannins. Very good extract but still not quite ready. Nice texture: there’s no exposure to wood so the forcefulness of the Cabernet fruits comes right through from this good year. 88 Drink 2013-2018.

Château de Perdiguier, Vin de Pays des Coteaux d’Enserune, Cuvee d’en Auger, 2007

This blend of 85% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Merlot spends a year in new oak. It has more evident concentration and roundness than the regular bottling. This vintage is still a deep ruby color with little sign of development. Black fruits on the nose have an austere edge with a touch of smoke and chocolate. The palate of ripe black fruits shows a touch of classic herbaceousness on the finish, but accompanied by a chocolaty texture. Tannic support shows as dryness on the finish. 88 Drink now-2017.

Château de Perdiguier, Vin de Pays des Coteaux d’Enserune, Cuvee d’en Auger, 2001

Dark color with only a slight touch of garnet developing. Restrained but classic nose with those herbaceous hints of bell peppers. Nicely rounded on the palate with good freshness and attack; the bell peppers come back on the finish. This gives a rather classic impression of a Cabernet Sauvignon dominated wine, although it’s half Cabernet and half Merlot. 87 Drink now-2014.

Mas de Daumas Gassac, Vin de Pays de l’Hérault, 2008

This is an elegant wine with Cabernet Sauvignon represented in a lighter style. Fresh on the nose and palate with a slight spiciness and some aromatic complexity. The Cabernet is identified by notes of cedar, with  lively fruits on the palate which show a faint savory touch of the garrigue. For the south this is a restrained style. Good variety of flavor across the palate supported by an unobtrusive structure with tannins well in the background.  88 Drink-2017

Mas de Daumas Gassac, Vin de Pays de l’Hérault, 2006

Nose shows fresh red fruits and a touch of nuts with intimations of complexity. Elegant fruits on the palate, following the red spectrum of the nose. There’s a touch of savory influence from the garrigue. Opening up in the glass, the wine shows its delicacy, yet with the fine structure and tannic support of Cabernet. It brings back memories of some of the more delicate older vintages of Bordeaux.  90 Drink-2016

Domaine de Trévallon, 2001

This vintage is just beginning to start its evolution. It’s a medium density color with some garnet on the rim. The nose is quite developed, and shows gunflint with a touch of some tertiary barnyard aromas. The palate is less developed than the nose, showing ripe blackcurrants and plums, but the tertiary notes come back on the finish. Tannins show as dryness on the finish. Personally I’d wait another couple of years for the peak, after which the wine should hold for some time.  91 Drink now-2020.

Domaine Richeaume, Vin de France, Columelle, 2009

Black fruits drive the nose. Freshness on the palate cuts the ripeness of the fruits, which show the typical aromatics of Syrah. Although the Syrah dominates the palate, there’s a sense of restraint and finesse, which is perhaps due to the Cabernet. The overall impression is fine grained and elegant. 30% of American oak was used here. 90 Drink 2012-2020.

Domaine Richeaume, Vin de France, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2008

Some evolution on the nose has occurred in the last year. It’s a touch reduced, with some hints of gunflint and a touch of barnyard. The black fruits are quite stern on the palate. This is less open, less overtly fruity than the Cabernet blends. The good fruit concentration comes back on the finish where ripe tannins are evident. The developed notes of barnyard certainly cut the fruits: it’s an interesting question whether they will become complex enough to offset the lightening of concentration as further maturation occurs. This wine was matured exclusively in French oak. 88  Drink 2012-2018.