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the wines of southern France

by Tom Cannavan, 01/05

sparkling

Domaine Rosier (France) Blanquette de Limoux Brut
As with many traditional method sparkling wines from Limoux, this has some of the Mauzac grape in the blend, along with Chardonnay. It pours a fine, light golden colour, with a very consistent stream of tiny, pin-prick bubbles. On the nose there is a lovely limpid freshness, with a yielding, creamy aspect to fresh, crisp nutty apple and pear fruit. On the palate this has a fine, gently persistent mousse and an immediately mouthfilling texture of bold, crunchy apple fruit, with a razor-sharp edge of lemony acidity, but no hint of leanness or tartness. The fruit fills out on the mid-palate, with a herbal edge, a hint of toast, and a finish that is long with plenty of style. A winner of the prestigious "Coup de Couer" in the 2004 Guide Hachette, this is excellent. £8.50

white

Celliers de Pezens (France) A Fleur de Sens 2003
This unusual wine is a Vin de Pays des Côtes de Lastours, from close to Carcassonne in the Languedoc. It is made from 100% Chasan, a cross of Chardonnay and Listan, better known as the Sherry grape, Palomino. It has a very pale gold colour and gently nutty, honeyed, creamy aromas with little hints of pear. On the palate there's a vanillin edge to creamy, almondy flavours that are dry and savoury, with hints of pear and ripe melon, and just glimpses of a buttery, ripe Chardonnay character amongst much nuttier and more herbal aspects. The wine has good balance, and really stays the course, with a long, lip-smacking finish. Different, and very good indeed. £7.50

Domaine la Combe Blanche (France) Four à Chaux de la Combe 2000
I would recommend you decant this wine into a jug and leave it for several hours, perhaps pouring it back into the bottle to chill it down before drinking. When first opened I thought it was rather neutral; a decent wine, with some oak on the nose and a fairly subdued palate. However after a night in the fridge this wine really started to sing; a blend of the Rhône's Roussanne and Viognier with a touch of Chardonnay, it is aged in a mix of new and old barriques. The nose on the second day had opened out to reveal a honeyed sense of limpidity, with plenty of creamy peach and yellow plum, still with plenty of vanillin, custardy oak on top. The palate is full-bodied and chewy, with rich, bold fruit flavours suggesting melon and very ripe pears, but with a pineapply, tropical sweet edge. The oak adds a grippy, smoky definition and the lemon acidity lifts and sharpens the finish. A really nice style of wine and quite unusual. Very good indeed. £8.75.

Domaine Mas de Lavail (France) "Le Sud" 2003
This super-VdP from the Côtes Catalanes in the Languedoc is a barrel-fermented and aged blend of Grenaches Blanc and Gris. It has a very pale straw/gold colour with a beautifully alluring nose of liquorice, honey, Jack Daniels and creamy white fruits. On the palate there is a powerful oaky edge to this wine at present, with a firm, very liquoricy and spicy character that dominates the initial taste, before a weight of ripe, quite tangy peach and white fruit flavours begins to muscle its way back in. There is a good edge of mineral acidity, and that quite severe oak and oak-tannin grip reasserts in a very powerful wine. This is one for the cellar in my opinion, where another three to five years will see a more integrated wine. Very good indeed, potentially excellent. £11.50.

red

Les Vignerons de Neffies (France) Neffiez Cuvée Schiste 2001
This Coteaux du Languedoc producer is situated north of the town of Béziers. The Cuvée Schiste is a 60% Syrah, 40% Grenache blend, that has a very rich, dark, crimson colour. Unfortunately this bottle was cork-tainted, which is a pity as there was a sense of fruit depth and real ripeness and concentration. Un-rated. £6.80

Les Vignes de l'Arque (France) VdP Duche d'Uzes 2001
Aged in oak barrels for four months, this wine from just near to the Pont du Gard is a blend of Grenache and Syrah and weighs in at 13.5% alcohol. The colour is a dark, dense ruby. The nose has an intense, pungent peppery spice aroma with masses of powerful damson and black cherry fruit, and a warming layer of toasty, mellow baked plum-pie. The palate is very concentrated with powerful, bracing flavours that marry spicy, thick tannins to dramatically dark and rasping fruit with a bittersweet, roughening plumskin quality, yet little glimpses of really sweet raspberry and chocolate fruit. The finish is mouth-coating with a thick-textured, dry layer of fruit, smoky oak and tannin, in a very impressive wine. Excellent. £7.85 (2001 sold out - Leon says 2003 in stock is even better)

Domaine du Vieux Micocoulier (France) Coteaux du Tricastin 2000
This "mini-Châteauneuf-du-Pape" is a blend of Syrah and Grenache from a fine year, weighing in with 14% alcohol. A "Coup de Coeur" from the 2003 Guide Hachette, it has an intense, sweet, currant and dark, spicy plum and Christmas cake aroma with a very generous fruit quality. On the palate it is medium-bodied, but powerful and concentrated with masses of sweet fruit and extract, and a really ripe, pure, intense liquefied raisin core. Smoky, peppery tannins and good acidity give a nice lift and length on the finish. Gorgeous stuff and excellent. £7.95

Les Vignes de l'Arque (France) Cuvee des Boissierres VdP d'Oc 2002
Aged in oak for nine months, this Languedoc red is a Bordeaux blend of 90% Merlot with 10% Cabernet Sauvignon. The colour is a very solid, dark ruby/crimson colour and the nose is fragrant and leafy, with a little cedary note to raspberry and red plum fruit, with a substantial layering of chocolate and tobacco beneath. The palate has lovely sweetness of fruit: there's a savoury blackcurrant and raspberry weight to this wine, with lots of briar, woodsmoke and spice, and a big, long, peppery finish that has plenty of stuffing and good balance from tight, polished tannins and good acid structure. Very impressive and very good indeed/excellent. £8.25

Domaine d'Archembaud (France) Saint-Saturnin 2001
Another from the Coteaux du Languedoc, this is a typical southern blend of 50% Syrah, 40% Grenache, 5% Mourvèdre and 5% Carignan. It has a solid. dark crimson colour and a lovely bright-fruited, pastille-like nose with blackcurrant and raspberry jam to the fore. On the palate there is a burst of dazzling, decisive berry fruit, with a lovely fine edge of steely liquorice and black plum skin, leading to a long, savoury finish with a solid fruit core. Beautifully crafted and very good indeed/excellent. £8.50

Domaine la Combe Blanche (France) Minervois 1998
I have a real soft spot for the wines of the Minervois, as it this one of the first wine areas to really interest me, and the location one of the first wine touring holidays I ever took. This is a really lovely wine too, from an excellent year for the South of France. It has a very deep, rich colour, and equally deep and rich nose of cracked black pepper and autumnal, spicy, mellow black fruits. There are little hints of violet and refined, blueberry aromas. On the palate it is very rich and svelte, with a luxurious texture and a flood of plummy fruit, gripped by a cherry acidity and firm tannins. This has good fruit concentration, with juts a warming suggestion of oak filling out the finish, and has good length. A hedonistic and very generous style of wine, but with some structure too. Excellent. £8.75

Domaine La Combe Blanche (France) Four A Chaux de la Combe VdP des Cotes du Brian 2000
A highly unusual blend of 90% Tempranillo and 10% Pinot Noir, this wine is aged for 18 months in oak and has 13% alcohol by volume. The colour is a dark crimson, and nose intensely sweet and curranty, with a fine tobacco edge, a violet-tinged floral and herbal character and pure fruit core. On the palate it is smoky and flooded with black fruit flavour that swamps the palate with blackcurrant and earthier, autumnal berries and again that tobacco and coffee-infused depth. Tannins are quite drying, and there's a bite of cherry acidity that makes this fresh on the finish, though perhaps snips off a little of its length. A wine that is not quite the complete picture for me, but very good/very good indeed with plenty of interest. £8.75

Domaine Mas de Lavail (France) Cuvée Tradition 2003
This Côtes du Roussillon Villages is made from a blend of southern grape varieties (40% Syrah, 40% Carignan and 20% Grenache), with all vines 50-years-old or more. From the fantastically hot vintage of 2003, it has vibrant purple colour and concentrated, schisty, charcoal and raspberry nose with hints of pepper and dusty blueberry fruit. That charcoally, Syrah-dominated quality persists on the palate, which has a raft of bittersweet, edgy black fruit flavours in a medium-bodied format. A depth of smoky, dark, bitter chocolate fills out on the mid-palate, with plenty of spice, a slick of vanilla and dry, savoury, leather and plumskin notes. This has that lovely Rhône-like character that combines super-sweet fruit and restraining acidity and tannin in a lovely all-round package. Excellent. £8.85

Domaine de Ponchon (France) Brouilly 2002
A Beaujolais Cru, this 100% Gamay wine has a modest 12.5% alcohol, and bright, appetising pink/crimson colour. The nose has a lovely brightness of summer fruits and currants and a touch of floral, rose-hip quality. On the palate it is racy and juicy, with a substantial grip of spicy fruit and tannin, and a supple core of red fruits. There is good acidity, and long, tongue-tingling finish, in a wine that ends up quite robust and powerful. Very good indeed. £8.85

Château Etienne La Dournie (France) Saint-Chinian 1999
I have a soft spot for the wines of St Chinian, an area where I have holidayed several times. This is a blend of 50% Syrah, 25% Grenache and 25% Carignan that spends 10 months in oak barrels, and it is a special cuvée from Château La Dournie with only 625 cases released. The colour is a very dense ruby/crimson, and the nose offers a wonderfully spicy mélange of clove and nutmeg scented bramble fruit. There's a lovely depth of fruit here, gently supported by coffee and fudge-like oak. The palate is very fine, with well delineated cherry and raspberry fruit in abundance, and a nicely bittersweet tension with firm, ripe tannins, juicy acidity and darker, plummy fruit. It has lovely length and style, and is excellent. £8.95

Domaine Sol-Payré (France) Côtes du Roussillon 2002
This is the "Elevé en Futs de Chene" (oak-aged) version of this wine, a 60% Syrah, 20% Grenache and 20% Carignan blend that spends a year in barrel. The colour is a medium ruby/crimson, and the nose offers an intensely sweet, ripe, currant and dried cherry fruit concentration, with floral and herbal hints and real concentration. The oak is cedary and smoky, and sits nicely beneath the fruit. On the palate there's a lovely richness to this wine, with masses of raspberry and cherry fruit flavour, but a big, spicy, chocolaty depth of flavour with exotic, dried orange peel and crushed spice nuances. Lovely warming stuff, with balanced tannins and freshening acidity into a long finish. What a lovely wine, and excellent. £9.49

Cave Cairanne (France) Les Salyens Côtes du Rhône Villages 1999
This southern Rhône wine from the top village of Cairanne is partly oak-aged for one year, and is made from 50% Grenache, 30% Syrah and 20% Mourvèdre. Now with a developed ruby colour, this wine from a very fine vintage in this region has a savoury, baked plum and earthy nose with leather and tobacco notes and quite an autumnal feel. The palate has a very smooth, silky-textured appeal, with plenty of rounded, supple fruit that is blood-streaked and meaty, with lots of spice and mellow oak supporting into the finish. There's a kick of peppery, grippy tannin and dark liquorice, in a wine that tastes mature and gamy and is drinking well now. very good indeed. £9.49

Domaine La Combe Blanche (France) "La Galine" Minervois La Livininière 1999
Spending a year and a half in oak, this wine is around 40% Syrah, with Grenache, Carignan and Cinsault making up the rest of the blend. It has a solid, warm ruby colour with a hint of pink at the rim. The fragrant, violet and rose-scented nose has plenty of cedar, black fruits and sweet, smoky oak. On the palate there is a rich, ripe, very full and abundant palate of black fruits and juicy red plum, with plenty of grip from incisive, ripe tannins and a savoury, roughening damson tang. It has good texture and a strength of fruit through the mid-palate, and finishes long with good balance in another very stylish wine from this estate. Very good indeed/excellent. £9.49

Le Vieux Domaine (France) Chénas 2000
This Beaujolais from the Cru of Chénas comes from an excellent year. It has a quite a dark, but only moderately dense colour, and a nose that is very smoothly fruity and spicy. There's a curranty quality and a touch of briar. On the palate it has juicy, savoury, keen-edged cherry fruit and quite a bit of spicy, earthy depth. There's a dark dried fruit quality and hints of a smoky, tobacco-tinged warmth. A very nice, ripe, solid style of Beaujolais, more in the style of a Burgundy. Very good indeed. (sold out)

Les Vignerons de Neffies (France) Neffiez Cuvée Baltazar 2002
This upper-end cuvée from the Vignerons of Neffies is 95% Syrah, with 5% Grenache, and comes in an expensive, heavyweight bottle. The colour is a very dark, solid crimson/black, and the nose offers a spicy, cooked beetroot aroma with a vegetal, rhubarb quality. These aromatics are distinctive, but as the wine opens up a more orthodox blackcurranty fruit begins to assert, with a background suggestion of smoky, tobacco warmth. On the palate this has firm black fruit that has a lean, savoury edge to it, with a cherry-skin and black fruit, liquoricy edge. A warming toast and masses of spice add to the finish, in a wine that is full of interest, if not entirely convincing to my palate. 2002 was a desperately poor year in the south, and perhaps this wine has been over-worked to compensate. I'd love to taste another vintage to compare. Very good. £10.49

Château La Dournie (France) Saint-Chinian "Elise" 2000
This cuvée from Château La Dournie is mostly Syrah, with 20% Grenache from 50-year-old vines. It is partly aged in small oak barrels. It has a medium-deep, but very vibrant crimson colour, and a soaring, kirsch-like perfume with touches of mulberry and mint, and a real ripeness with black fruits and even a gamy, bloody character. On the palate there is lovely fruit sweetness, with plenty of fresh, ripe, bursting berry fruit, a keen edge of raspberry and a building depth of chocolate and cream through the mid-palate. Medium- to full-bodied, there's a good spine of supple tannin and crisp acidity in a beautifully focused, pure style of wine. Excellent. £10.75

Domaine Sol-Payré (France) "Imo Pectore" 2001
This special Côtes du Roussillon cuvée from Domaine Sol-Payré has very striking, modern, minimalist packaging for a blend composed of 75% old-vine Carignan with 20% Syrah and 5% Grenache. It has a deep, vibrant crimson colour and a deep-set, dark and mysterious nose with all sorts of exotic spice aromas and a very sensuous, dark, supple fruit quality. On the palate it maintains that brooding, dark, very solidly-packed muscular fruit quality, with a dense layering of dark, plum and bramble fruit over a baked plum pie quality of warming, toasty oak. There is lovely depth here, but with a diffused and smoky quality that is delicious to drink as it opens out on the finish. Beautiful stuff, and excellent. £10.95

Domaine Sol-Payré (France) "Ater" 2001
A sister wine to the terrific "Imo Pectore" (above), this blend is dominated by Syrah (75%) with 20% old-vine Carignan and 5% Grenache. It has a very dark, black-centred colour with a fine, but again dark and sensuous nose where sandalwood and exotic spices are layered over sweeter, very ripe blackberry and raspberry fruit. There's a tiny suggestion of charcoal or schist in a very composed profile. On the palate this has much more fruit sweetness than "Imo Pectore", but also quite a liquoricy edge of bittersweet tannin and grippy, plumskin fruit. There is more drama and tension in this cuvée, with juicy acidity and a great depth of plum and chocolate fruit. Another bold and dramatic wine that is also excellent, though for me the "Imo Pectore" is a little more harmonious and intriguing. £11.30

Domaine Mas de Lavail (France) "La Desirade" 2003
A top-end Côtes du Roussillon Villages from the ripe 2003 vintage, this barrel-aged wine is a blend of ancient Syrah (50%) with 50-year-old Grenache and Carignan making up the balance. It has a really inky depth of colour: an opaque crimson/black. On the nose it is very deep and sonorous, with a huge, pure, core of spice and vanilla-licked red fruits. It has plenty of clove and cinnamon, and a fudge-like darkness. On the palate it delivers a smooth, silky-textured weight of ripe black fruits wrapped in a blanket of espresso-flavoured mellow oak. This has a very modern style, with masses of extraction and peppery tannins, that suffused layering of toasty oak and a finish with plenty of concentration and spice. Lovely heart-warming stuff that doesn't speak of terroir as much as some of these wines, but is delicious and ultra-impressive in a modern style. Very good indeed/excellent. £11.30

Domaine Mas de Lavail (France) "Ego" 2002
Classified as a Vin de Pays d'OC, this 100% old-vine Grenache from Roussillon spends a year in barriques and sets its stall out immediately with its luxury heavyweight bottle and attractive, minimalist packaging. The colour is a vibrant, medium-density crimson/purple. It has a very fragrant, really quite delicate nose of flowers and fine raspberry fruit, with a hint of ripe blackcurrant and a gentle schisty note. On the palate it is nicely fruity (barriques have been very sensitively used I'd guess, with older barrels and medium toasting) so that the delicacy of that ripe fruit is not overpowered. There is plenty of peppery stuffing, and a spicy, quite decisive background tannin, but this is quite a pure, focused expression of the old vines Carignan backed up by a subtle coffeeish oak. 2002 was a wash-out for most of southern France, so the concentration and purity of the fruit in this wine is a testament to very good winemaking an old, low-cropping vines. Excellent. £12.95

Domaine la Combe Blanche (France) "La Chandelière" Minervois La Livininière 1999
From the recently created "Cru" of the Minervois, "La Livinière" (see Rosemary George's introduction to this region here), this has a lot more spice and warmth on the nose, with aromas of baked plum pie and deep-set dark cherry nuances, as well as plenty of peppery, spice and sweet chocolaty notes. On the palate it is silky-textured and very smooth and svelte, yet there is a sheen of polished toughness about the tight, grainy tannins and muscular, compact fruit. There is plenty of oomph in this wine, with concentrated, sweet blueberry and cherry fruit and supporting vanillin oak into the finish. It has good length, and is very good indeed in a robust, chewy style. £12.95.

Domaine la Combe Blanche (France) "La Dessous de l'Enfer" Vin de Pays des Côtes de Brian 1999
This deep, ruby-coloured wine really does have a lovely nose, with soaring kirsch-like cassis and berry scents, violet and tobacco, with plenty of spice and toasty components. Unusually, this is 100% Tempranillo, the grape best known in Rioja and Ribera del Duero, across the border in northern Spain. It spends 18 months in barriques, which I'd guess must be French, to give it a profile very similar to modern Riojas like Torre Muga, Contino and San Vicente. On the palate, There is a big, generous flood of red fruit that is sweet and ripe, with bramble and cherry and a solid underpinning of biting, but ripe tannins and that warm, spicy oak. Medium- to -full- bodied, this has really good fruit and fine length. Excellent. £12.95.

fortified

Domaine Mas de Lavail (France) Expression Maury 2002
This Maury from Domaine Mas de Lavail is a "vin doux naturel"; a Port-like fortified wine similar to Banyuls, in this case made from 100% old-vine Grenache, with a moderate 16% alcohol. The colour is a very intense purple/black, and the nose has a lovely perfume of violets and old roses, with a kirsch-like cherry fruit, plenty of spice, and a gentle note of toffee and brown sugar. On the palate it is just delicious: a big, warming, beautifully sweet slick of luscious red fruits floods over the tongue, backed up by a warming core of cinnamon and clove, and a fudge-like, sweet and marmalady background. There's a sprightly edge of tannins and a lovely acidity that dries the sides of the mouth and counteracts the sweetness, to leave an elegant and very, very long, poised finish. Terrific and delicious stuff and a great price for southern France's equivalent of a single-quinta vintage Port. Excellent. £11.95