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October 31, 2007

Languedoc Diary: The Magician of Minervois

CARCASSONNE, France -- My guide and I were near the end of a long day when we rolled through the gates of the ancient Roman fortress here in the "old city," which simply means the part of Carcassonne that is inside the walls.

We stopped for a beer (being somewhat wined out) at a local pub, where the proprietor waxed poetic when we mentioned the name Jean-Louis Poudou.

"He is the finest winemaker of the region," said the pub owner. "The best of the best. You will see."

I was on my way to Carcassonne's famous wine bar, Comptoir des Vins & Terroirs, to meet Jean-Louis for a tasting of wines from his Minervois estate, Domaine La Tour Boisee (a word of caution, many of the labels will say Chateau Tour Boisee).

The domaine has approximately 200 acres under vine, most of it to the indigenous grapes of the region -- Grenache, Carignan, Mourvedre and Syrah, as well as an eclectic array of white grapes such as Vermentino and Grenache blanc.

The first wine I tried was unusual, to say the least. It was a blend of 23 different grape varieties (sort of a mega-Chateauneuf-du-Pape) but with no Syrah. And the grapes were all grown in the same vineyard. This light, easy drinking red is called Plantation 1905.

I liked it, it was a good start -- but no fireworks.

Next up was Tour Boisee's Cuvee Murielle et Frederique, which retails in the U.S. for about $14. We had moved up a notch in intensity. Named after Jean-Louis' two daughters, Cuvee Murielle et Frederique 2005 offered an intense nose of brambly red and black fruits, sleek tannins and a supple mouthfeel. Yummy stuff.

I was impressed until Jean-Louis poured a glass of his 2004 Cuvee Marie-Claude, a blend of equal parts Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre, with only the Syrah seeing time in new oak barrels. This one's a bit more expensive at about $28, but you get what you pay for.

Cuvee Marie-Claude delivers deeper, richer, more layered fruit, with darker aromas, hints of dried herbs such as anise and thyme, and generous flesh in the mouth, with an incredibly long finish. Despite its ripeness, Cuvee Marie-Claude is a fresh, well-balanced red that has years of spectacular evolution ahead of it.

Anyone considering wines to cellar that won't break the bank should give this one a long, hard look.

Last but not least was the 2001 Chateau Tour Boisee Cuvee Marie-Claude "Jardin secret." The Jadin secret is the "secret garden." It's a blend of Grenache, Syrah, Carignan and Mourvedre from very old vines, and is only made in the best years.

Jean-Louis ages "Jardin secret" one year in wood and another three years in bottle, releasing it only after 4-years-plus in age. It sells for 30 euro (about $45) at the wine shop in Carcassonne.

This is an impressive wine, and worthy enough to keep company with the finest French reds from other regions. Big, rich and powerful, it has a spectacular mouthfeel, with fine tannins, layers of dark fruit and spice, fresh acidity and a strong touch of minerality. Its length on the palate suggests this is a wine for drinking now, but it is so well balanced and beautifully structured that I wouldn't hesitate to cellar it for another decade or more.

You might think from my reaction to this wine that I am speaking of a great Syrah from the northern Rhone. Yes and no. It has many of the same qualities, but with the warmth on the palate of the sunny Mediterranean. It's pure magic. From the magician of Minervois.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 11:51 AM

October 24, 2007

Languedoc Diary: Mas Jullien, the Icon

JONQUIERES, France -- It is perhaps a small coincidence that several of the wine producers in and around this small village in the Coteaux du Languedoc disdain the terms "chateau" or "domaine" in favor of the more humble "mas," which translates to home or house.

This could be a coincidence, but I think not. My hunch is that everyone wants to be like Olivier Jullien, proprietor of Mas Jullien. For it was Olivier, some 25 years ago, who first rejected the old order in the Languedoc. It was Olivier who stressed the importance of terroir, returning to the vineyards of the hillsides, and taking the focus away from volume to place it squarely upon the idea of quality.

These concepts are fundamental in the great wine-growing regions of the world, but they were revolutionary in the Languedoc at the time. Olivier Jullien changed all of that.

"Olivier is a much better winemaker than I am," Charles Pacaud of Domaine La Croix Chaptal told me. "My target is to someday make wines as good as those at Mas Jullien."

This is not faint praise, for Domain La Croix Chaptal's wines are among the finest in the Coteaux du Languedoc. But Mas Jullien's are better.

"I strive to match the right vines with the right soils and the right terroir," Jullien explained. His approximately 50 acres of Syrah, Carignan, Grenache and Mourvedre are farmed organically, with some biodynamic practices as well, though there is no effort at certification.

He decided to call his domaine "Mas" Jullien because, as he explained, "As you can see, there is no chateau. Just a house and a cellar."

The modest disposition of the domaine evaporates upon tasting the wines of the estate, which are riveting. They are on a par with anything you might imagine from France's most noble properties.

The mostly Grenache 2005 Les Estats d'Ame is but one example. It is fresh and spicy on the palate, with subtle layers of red berries, supported by fine tannins; an exquistely elegant wine.

"Since I started making wine more than 20 years ago, freshness has been my passion," said Jullien.

But as good as this wine was, it hardly prepared me for the big guns -- three vintages of Mas Jullien's benchmark Coteaux du Languedoc rouge: 1999, 2001 and 2005.

This trio of reds was everything the finest reds of the region can be, exhibiting power and depth without heaviness, remarkable complexity, a stunning purity of fruit, refined tannins, hints of minerality and garrigue, and always, always superb balance.

The '99 and '05 Mas Jullien Coteaux du Languedoc are the two best wines I have tasted over six days in the Languedoc. They are not only a triumph of viticulture and winemaking, but a searing message to every other vigneron in the region.

It screams from the rooftops: "This is what you can do. This is what the Languedoc can be!" Traditional grapes planted on the hillsides, in the schist and the chalk and the clay, vinified with an eye on quality instead of yield, and a commitment to -- no, a passion for -- freshness and balance.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 11:01 AM

October 21, 2007

Languedoc Diary: The Burgundy Model

BOUZIGUES, France -- Gregory Hecht and Francois Bannier operate out of a modest office in this seaside village in the south of France. They are wine negociants after the Burgundy model, though demand for their wines from the Languedoc region is a far cry from what both experienced while working in the Cote d'Or.

You might assume their stock in trade would be the ubiquitous Vin de Pays wines of the region, which have made the Languedoc the largest wine-production zone in France, measured by volume. You would be wrong. I was, and freely admit the Hecht & Bannier wines, under the H&B banner, are a stunning revelation.

"We chose to start our company in this region because we found we could purchase the most amazing grapes from incredible terroirs at remarkably low prices," said Hecht.

Indeed, H&B sources its fruit from the Appellations d'Origine Controlee (AOC's) vineyards of the Languedoc-Roussillon area of southwestern France. This is one of the oldest and most historic winegrowing regions in France and is treasured for its "old-vine" Carignan, Grenache, Mourvedre and Syrah.

Most of the AOC vineyards are owned and farmed by families that have been growing grapes for generations, and either making wine at small domaines or selling the grapes to the numerous cooperatives that became the dominant players in the Languedoc wine business during World War II.

Hecht and Bannier have a small cellar where they vinify and age their wines in much the same way a traditional negociant works in Burgundy. The wines they make carry the name of the appellation and often the dominant grape varieties used in the blend.

"We don't work on long-term contracts because we like to take a look at what's available and purchase the best lots each vintage," said Hecht.

I tasted two vintages (2004 and '05) of H&B's Minervois, a 2005 Saint Chinian, a 2005 Faugeres ("This is a great terroir," said Hecht) that was stunning, a 2005 Cote du Roussillon Villages and a rose.

What impressed me was the exceptional freshness of the wines. All displayed intensity of flavor without being heavy, and there was a thread of minerality that was common throughout.

Yet each wine was expressive of its specific terroir and the uniqueness of each blend -- the Minervois (Syrah, Carignan and Grenache) showing floral notes and minerals on the nose, with a spicy scent and hints of white pepper; the Saint-Chinian (Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre) layers of red berries and spice; and the Faugeres a strong whiff of raspberry and darker fruits, while also more powerfully structured.

What is positively amazing is the price. H&B wines are imported by K&L Wines (of San Francisco and Los Angeles) and others and range from $16 at the lower end to around $28 for something like the Faugeres.

If these same wines were thought to be from the Cotes du Rhone to the east, you would have to automatically double or triple the prices to arrive at the same level of quality.

Hecht and Bannier aren't complaining, however, for they aren't paying Cotes du Rhone prices for their grapes, and their vineyard sources are arguably as good or better as anything they could have found in the Rhone.

Clever fellows, this Hecht and Bannier. Even with the awful exchange rate between the dollar and the euro, the H&B wines are seriously undervalued and well worth the effort to find.

PHOTOS: Gregory Hecht (left) and Francois Bannier, top; the scene just steps from the H&B office in the south of France, bottom.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 12:27 PM

October 18, 2007

Languedoc Diary: A Winemaker's Artistry

BERLOU, France -- Jean-Marie Rimbert came late to wine. He was born into a farming family in Provence, but the cash crop was fruits other than grapes. Jean-Marie was an artist at heart and needed a forum to express himself.

He chose wine, but land in Provence was prohibitively expensive. He found his niche 11 years ago in this small village (population 185) in the Languedoc.

Domaine Rimbert is a rugged 35 hectares (roughly 100-plus acres) in Saint-Chinian, a choice AOC within the larger region of Languedoc-Roussilon in southwestern France.

And the vineyards of Berlou are classified cru, which is another step up from the AOC. The prior owners sold their grapes to the cooperative of Saint-Chinian, but Rimbert saw a higher calling for these vines planted in schist and chalk and protected from the elements and dramatic weather shifts by mountains to the north and east.

"I wanted to make something with my own name on it," he said (through an interpreter) of his desire to produce wine. "I wanted to be independent. I wanted to create something. I create the wine, the labels, everything. Also, as winemakers, we create the landscape."

Rimbert did indeed create everything at Domaine Rimbert, including the labels, which he drew with his own hand. Rimbert's labels are colorful and whimsical, full of meaning, such as the La Carignatora ("I invented this term," he says) 'Le Chant de Marjolaine" that is named after his daughter.

Le Chant de Marjolaine is 100 percent Carignan, which is the historic grape of Berlou.

"The identity of cru Berlou must be Carignan," he says. "Carignan is the grape of Berlou.

Both the Le Chant de Marjolaine and the eclectic "El Carignator II" are 100 percent Carignan, which is rare in the Languedoc, and as such fall outside the rules of the Saint Chinian AOC. Thus, they are Vin de Table wines and not allowed to display the vintage.

Rimbert finds a way, however, and the 2006 Le Chant de Marjolaine ($14) is a spicy, deeply colored red that is both ripe and fresh, with firm tannins that bode well for a long life. It is made from only the best lots from his 80-year-old Carignan vines.

El Carignator II is the second edition of a 100 percent Carignan that blends together five different vintages. The one I tasted was 2000, '01, '02, '03 and '05.

It is smooth and well balanced, with a touch of spice on the nose and loads of red fruit on the palate. This is a spectacular wine, but so far only sold in Boston among U.S. cities. It retails for about $35.

Rimbert also produces several red blends that are based on the Carignan, but with amazing old-vine Grenache, and Syrah that has been planted in the past 20 years. He also makes a lovely white that is a fresh and well balanced blend of Marsanne, Roussanne, Carignan blanc, Grenache blanc and Vermentino.

The Domaine Rimbert wines won't be easy to find. They are distributed in cities throughout the U.S., but only in small quantities. For the price, however, they represent tremendous value. These red wines are grown in one of the world's greatest terroirs for the Rhone grape varieties.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 4:01 AM

October 17, 2007

Languedoc Diary: Tweaking the Legend of Dom Perignon

SAINT HILAIRE, France -- Everyone knows Dom Perignon "invented" Champagne, but the larger question is whether or not the famous Benedictine monk "invented" or "discovered" the first sparkling wine.

L'Abbaye de Hautvilliers near Epernay, in the Champagne region of France, is a living shrine to the Dom Perignon legend, which has it that Perignon noticed bottles bursting in the cellars at Hautvilliers. It is said he deduced the cold weather had stopped the primary fermentation, but the wines had been bottled anyway.

When spring arrived with warmer weather, the unfinished ferments started up again inside the bottle, creating bubbles and gas and eventually little explosions all over the Abbey's cellar.

Dom Pergignon figured out how to replicate this natural phenomenon by adding yeast and sugar to still table wine and creating a second fermentation in the bottle by design, thus producing Champagne.

Not so fast, say the vignerons of Limoux, who have been producing the sparkling Blanuqette de Limoux for hundreds of years. It was at the l'Abbaye de Saint Hilaire, about six miles from Carcassonne in the Languedoc region of southwestern France, that history records the first mention of bubbly wine.

"This is the center of the earth; this is where it all started," says Francoise Antech-Gazeau, whose family has been producing sparkling wine in Limoux for six generations. "The story of the bubbles began here in 1531 -- 150 years before Dom Perignon! This is the story of Limoux. It wasn't methode champenoise, but it was sparkling wine."

Though she concedes Dom Perignon should be credited with figuring out how to make Champagne by adding yeast and sugar to generate a second fermentation in the bottle -- methode champenoise -- she can't resist adding this little twist.

"The history is the history and we have the documentation, the paper, to prove that there was sparkling wine here first. This is the historic part of it. Then comes the legend. It makes the people of Champagne crazy. I love to make the people of Champagne crazy!

"The story -- and we don't really know if it is true, but it is the story -- is that Dom Perignon was making a pilgrimage to the city of Saint James, Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Limoux is along the route, and Dom Perignon, who was a Benedictine monk, rested for some time at the Abbey of Saint Hilaire, which is also Benedictine.

"The story is that he stopped at the Abbey and found this wine with bubbles, and he took the recipe back to Champagne. We were very clever, but Dom Perignon apparently was better at marketing!"

Of course, we'll never know. The secrets of Dom Perignon and the monks of the Abbey of Saint Hillaire are buried forever. But their legends live on.

PHOTOS: Francoise Antech-Gazeau telling the story of sparkling wine in Limoux, top; the courtyard of the Abbey of Saint Hilaire.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 10:50 AM

October 5, 2007

Willowbrook Pinots Wow 'Em

I generally pay scant attention to the results of the Sonoma Harvest Fair wine competition. Entries are limited to wines produced in Sonoma County, so the competition's focus is too regional and therefore a bit narrow to get me very excited about the winners.

But I took notice of an email earlier this week from the PR folks for Willowbrook Cellars. I'd just tasted three delicious Pinot Noirs from Willowbrook and was very impressed. So I wasn't surprised to learn all three had taken gold medals at the Harvest Fair.

It doesn't always work out that exceptional wines receive the recognition they deserve. Such young wines are often erratic, expressing themselves poignantly one moment then going "dumb" the next.

This could have been particularly true of the Willowbrook Pinots, for much of their charm came down to the expressive aromas wafting from the glass. In my own tastings I gave the Willowbrook 2005 Kastania Vineyard (Sonoma Coast) Pinot Noir high marks for its hedonistic nose.

I could imagine the judges awarding it a gold medal on its nose alone. I scored it a whopping 94 points, but largely because the wine also delivered on the palate. It's got it all: beautiful structure, layers of fruit, silky tannins, complexity and loads of spice. A show-stopper if ever there was, but also the most expensive (I didn't know the prices of the wines when I tasted them, honest) of the three at $48.

I enjoyed the 2005 Morelli Lane ($42) from Willowbrook almost as much (93 points) and the difference was simply the nose on the Kastania. That's not to imply the Morelli Lane didn't smell great, too, but if someone put a gun to my head and made me choose I'd choose the Kastania.

The Estate ($34, 90 points) would have been a standout if I had tasted it solo, but it appeared shy next to its showier stablemates. Nevertheless, it's delish and the "value" wine of the three. I should note that both the Morelli Lane and the Estate are Russian River Valley Pinots.

Anyway, moral of the story is these are three great Pinots and Willowbrook is a wonderful discovery for me personally. And perhaps I should pay more attention to the Harvest Fair in the future!

Posted by Robert Whitley at 12:26 PM

October 4, 2007

Running in Place, Deis Still a Man on the Move

ST. HELENA, Ca. - If a man is known by the company he keeps, then winemaker Ken Deis' reputation and credibility are secure. For in Ken's neighborhood, the competitive and demanding Napa Valley, only a few winemakers have persevered longer at the same winery without having a blood relationship with the owners.

Deis is in the midst of his 28th harvest at Flora Springs Winery, a record for longevity only surpassed by winemaking legends Craig Williams (Joseph Phelps), Ed Sbragia (Beringer), Mike Chelini (Stony Hill) and perhaps a few others.

He has thrived through the years first and foremost because the Komes and Garvey families, which own Flora Springs, have invested heavily in Napa Valley vineyards and consistently deliver high quality grapes. Deis' legacy will be the innovation and attention to detail he brought to the task of turning good grapes into great wines.

The Flora Springs red Meritage, Trilogy, was among the earliest of the Napa Valley's proprietary Bordeaux blends, for which the region is now famous. And Soliloquy, as much a signature wine as the widely heralded Trilogy, is unique for a Napa Sauvignon, largely because it is aged sur-lie (meaning in contact with the dead fermentation yeasts) in large neutral oak barrels, which imparts complexity and texture without robbing the wine of its bright acidity and innate minerality.

Flora Springs also has jumped on the terroir bandwagon, kicking out vineyard-specific Cabernet Sauvignons with regularity in recent vintages. The names of the vineyard-designate Cabs - Out of Sight, Holy Smoke, Wild Boar and Hillside Reserve - have been meted out by Flora Springs President John Komes and are as colorful as the wines are exceptional.

I caught up with Deis -- during harvest, no less -- and had the chance to taste a number of the currently available Flora Springs wines. I was most impressed by the stunning evolution of the 2004 Trilogy. I had tasted this wine shortly after it was bottled last spring, but elected not to review it because it was obviously in shock.

The 2003 Trilogy had been one of my top red Meritage picks from the previous year, so I expected more from the 2004 (an excellent vintage) than the wine was showing immediately after bottling.

"As much as I love our '03 Trilogy, the '04 is a little bit better," Deis told me. "It should be. It was a better vintage all around."

I gave the '04 Trilogy a rating of '94 points in a recent WRO review, and scored all four of the vineyard-designated Cabs 90 points or better in my tasting notes. Those wines are not widely available at retail, but are sold mostly through the winery or at restaurants.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 11:24 AM

October 3, 2007

Eberle Sees Progress in Paso, Finally

PASO ROBLES, Ca. - When Gary Eberle turned out his first wines at the Estrella River Winery in the early 1970s, he had big dreams for the Paso Robles wine region.

Situated halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco in the heart of California's vast Central Coast, El Paso de Robles had everything an aspiring winemaker could want: enough daytime heat to ripen hearty grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, and cool evening temperatures to keep the acids lively and fresh.

Only 20 miles inland from the Pacific, Paso is said to have California's greatest temperature swing from day to night. Eberle planted Syrah, Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay, Muscat and a host of other grapevines as Estrella quickly grew to a half-million cases of production annually.

Those early vintages only cemented Eberle's belief in the potential for fine wine in the region. He helped establish the Paso Robles appellation in 1980 and eventually left Estrella (now the site of Meridian Vineyards) to open his own winery in 1983. But despite his early successes, Eberle still felt like the Lone Ranger. After 10 years there were fewer than 25 wineries in the area.

Today there are well over 200 and counting, a swelling of the winery ranks Eberle believes is long overdue.

'I always thought this area would take off,' he said recently. 'I just never dreamed it would take this long.'

The conversation took place over barbecue at the spectacular new Vina Robles Winery vistor's center, located on Highway 46 east of the Paso Robles town center, and just down the road from Eberle's own place.

It is one of the newcomers that helped propel the image of Paso Robles as a desirable wine appellation. Some that quickly come to mind are Tablas Creek, Treana and Robert Hall, but there are scores of others.

Much of the recent development was driven by a severe grape shortage in the 1990s coupled with relatively inexpensive vineyard land (compared to Napa and Sonoma), and some of it had to do with the widely held notion that Paso Robles seemed to be one of California's most hospitable environments for the so-called Rhone grape varieties - Syrah, Mourvedre, Grenache, Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne.

Though Eberle was the first vintner to plant Syrah in the region (and frequently dubbed the 'father' of Paso Robles wine) Eberle isn't convinced the future belongs entirely to the Rhone grape varieties.

'Everyone says Rhone, Rhone, Rhone . . . Syrah, Syrah, Syrah,' said Eberle. 'But I still say Cabernet Sauvignon is our best wine. I love to go against Napa Valley Cabernets with my own. A Paso Robles Cabernet is softer and more drinkable when it's young, and anyone who says they won't age simply doesn't know. I still have a few of my Cabernets from the 1970s that are holding up just fine.

'And a Paso Robles Cabernet is a fraction of the price!'

Eberle recently sat on a seminar panel that looked at Paso Robles Rhone blends versus traditional blends from France's Rhone Valley, in this case two wines from Chateauneuf-du-Pape. The French wines prevailed, albeit narrowly.

What pleased Eberle was a subsequent comparison between Paso Robles Cabernets, a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (Beaulieu Vineyards Georges de Latour Private Reserve) and a French Bordeaux (Pichon Baron). The favored wine among the seminar tasters (including my own score sheet) was the Cabernet-based Treana from Paso Robles.

'I just loved that,' said Eberle. 'I was so proud of our Paso Robles Cabernets in that tasting.'

The only thing sweeter would have been to have had that experience twenty-some years ago.

PHOTOS: Gary Eberle, top; the new Vina Robles visitors' center in Paso Robles, center; Treana Red, bottom.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 11:56 AM

October 2, 2007

Elin McCoy Joins the WRO Team

Once again we've added a new face to our lineup here at Wine Review Online. Elin McCoy, who has written for WRO as a guest columnist, now has a regular gig!

Elin will file quarterly reports on organic and biodynamic trends in the wine industry, including reviews of "green" wines she highly recommends. We are very pleased to have Elin aboard.

Elin is author of the acclaimed book, "The Emperor of Wine", about the life of wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr. She also writes a syndicated wine column for Bloomberg News and contributes to a number of national publications, including Food & Wine Magazine, where she was Wine Editor at one time.

The 'green" column will be published as the Featured Article approximately every three months. As "green" vineyard practices continue to sweep the wine industry, you're likely to see even more of Elin. You might even say there's a good chance her column will grow organically.


Posted by Robert Whitley at 2:21 PM

October 1, 2007

Bowmore 18: What a Difference a Year Makes

I've always admired winemakers who are never satisfied with excellence. Craig Williams of Joseph Phelps comes to mind. No matter how good it was, Williams always believed he could make the Phelps Insignia better.

He was right. Over the years the Phelps crew has tweaked its grape sourcing and steadily improved an already wonderful product.

The same determination and vision can be applied to high-end spirits. I've always favored Bowmore among the Islay malts. When I'm in the mood for a smoky single-malt Scotch, the Bowmore 17-year-old calls out to me. It's smoother than the more heavily peated Islay malts and never quite as intensely smoky as the Lagavulin, which is usually my choice if the Bowmore isn't available.

But Bowmore has now replaced the 17-year-old (it's available only at duty free) with an 18-year-old and I'm nothing short of stunned by the difference. The new Bowmore delivers a lovely array of dried fruits on the palate, with a sweet, almost viscous mouthfeel and a long, sweet, smooth finish.

Yes, that extra year makes a huge difference, as does the additional time in sherry casks. To my nose the Bowmore 18 ($85) is a bit less smoky, too. What knocks me out is the finesse and complexity, which I would normally associate with a single-malt of 25 years or older. Bravo!

Wonder what they'll think of next?

Posted by Robert Whitley at 12:13 PM