Thursday, 11 September 2014

I overlooked Pastis

Following on from my last post on marc and spirits I overlooked mentioning Pastis. Having nothing to do with grapes and wine is a good reason, but love it or hate it, aniseed based spirit and the Mediterranean are pretty inseparable.

Pastis has French origins in Provence and the big and well know names still come from beyond the Rhone. As with wine there are artisan producers, and as with fine and marc, there aren't many. Differentiation from large scale producers is through the use of fresh aromatic plants many producers grow themselves.

My tipple is Pastis des Homs from the northern edge of the Larzac plateau. Added to the aniseed and liquorice base are 15 aromatic plants (thyme, rosemary, savory and the like) grown on site. The result is a taste at the fennel end of the aniseed spectrum with no bitterness. Light, yet is packed with flavour and almost has crunch. I also like the snow white it turns when water is added; most take on an unappetising yellow tinge. About €22, but as a bottle lasts me a season well worth it.

For a deeper star anise style try Pastis aux Plantes from Bernard Marty. Made in the heart of the Hérault at St Thibery several ingredients are included in the bottling so the maceration can continue until the bottle is finished.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014


I am not a big spirits drinker. I enjoy an island malt in winter on some of the days I haven't imbibed in alcohol. Needless to say when in Scotland......... I've also enjoyed fruit Eau de Vies over the years and currently the lightly oaked La Vieille Prune from Louis Roque is an at-home malt alternative. After a restaurant meal in France though my digestive of choice is a marc.

At the Faugères high summer fete this year Matthieu Frécon was demonstrating his still. The stove on the left heats the fermented brew and the boiled off alcohol and other vapours pass along the turquoise towel wrapped pipe to the vessel on the right. Here it condenses in a water cooled coil and the dribble of clear liquid going into the steel bucket is the result.

As I understand it the process is repeated before water is added to give the desired alcoholic strength.

Being principally a wine rather than fruit growing area the still is put to work on fermented stalk and skin leftovers. This produces an Eau de Vie called Marc (pronounced marr not mark, a mistake I made for many years). If the Marc is then aged in wood the result is coined Fine which is legislatively/geographically to Cognac or Armagnac as Méthode champenoise sparkling wine is to Champagne.

I generally prefer Marc to Fine for it's purity - the essence of grape stalks, pips and skins without any tannin. Served cold in an iced glass is a treat the more switched on restaurants offer.

Matthieu Frécon also provides a service for other producers. If you can find it, my recommendation would be for Virgile Joly's marc.

This 1895 Faugères Fine (bottled in 1985) was opened at the much missed Le Mimosa restaurant at the end of a soirée back in 2011. A privilege and interesting to try.

Friday, 4 July 2014

Restaurants and wine

Wine lovers generally despair about how much restaurants mark up wine but fortunately have better knowledge than most to find value. They often spend more seeking something interesting but avoiding the overpriced and overrated icons many restaurant feel they just have to list (Grange des Pères is one of the most common Languedoc examples). Too many restaurants operate percentage mark-ups making more expensive wines unattractive.

A few years ago, pre banking meltdown, we stopped visiting one of the "best" restaurants in Pézenas - hardly high praise given Pézenas has always been a dining minefield. The house wine, that I discovered retailed at under €5, reached €20 making the mark-up on the trade price scandalous. Even more galling was that this neo-bistro (l'Entre Pots, now with new ownership) didn't have to fund such overheads as swish service, linen table cloths and flash stem-ware.

A fairer and more transparent system is to operate a fixed mark-up, the "droit de bouchon". In France, wine bars invariable double as a caviste, café and informal restaurant and the norm will be to typically add €7 to €12 on to the caviste price. Only expensive/rare bottles will be understandable exceptions to reflect the risks. To be fair, many restaurants that take wine seriously operate something closer to a fixed mark-up and value can be found with more expensive wines.

Drink locally is a tried and tested restaurant tip in wine regions.  For a start they should be a match for the food and will invariably be sourced directly from growers and often at wholesale prices. Spot these and everyone wins.

I came across this faith restoring example at L'Ami Paradis, a new seasonal café resto at Mourèze in the Lac du Salagou area. Putting aside the fresh and tasty lunch (the main course "les burines" is stuffed courgettes) their short wine list represents near caviste prices. I'm not familiar with Domaine Campaucels. Trois Terres is seriously local and all about maximum Languedoc oomph. My (biased) pick would be the Ribiera Causse Toujours.

I put the 31 days in June down to post France World Cup celebrations.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

A wine book the Languedoc could do with

Wine books specific to the Languedoc are a mixed bag, but then that's the case for any wine region. The challenge; the Languedoc-Roussillon is vast and a hotbed of new entrants. This makes the useful half-life of any book covering growers and their wine much reduced.

Three books stand out for me.

Languedoc-Roussillon: The Wines and Winemakers by Paul Strang has given most pleasure. Published in 2002 and out of print, but still worth acquiring second hand.

Rosemary George's The Wines of the South of France is of the same era, 2001, and is the definitive English guide with a focus on producers. Available for the Amazon Kindle, a physical copy will be tougher to track down. Fortunately Rosemary is a prolific poster on the region's definitive wine blog

While the above two will appeal to aficionados, The Wines of the Languedoc-Roussillon by Wendy Gedney (2014) is an up to date introduction that will excel at inspiring and educating wine lovers to the region's total wine culture. Don't expect many producer recommendations - that need is best served by blogs these days. Read more about Wendy, her wine holidays and her book on

I must also mention Virgile's Vineyard: A Year in the Languedoc Wine Country by Patrick Moon
(2004 and 2013). More an insight into local life with an appeal well beyond wine buffs, although I found Patric's food and produce orientated follow up Arrazat's Aubergines: Inside a Languedoc Kitchen and even better read.

The reality of publishing and publishers today means new specialist subject books are in decline. However, there is an alternative approach for authors. A year of so ago I took a punt and helped "crowd fund" Wink Lorch's book project Jura Wine. She regularly presents at my local Charlemagne Wine Club and the evenings are always left-field, passionate and through provoking.

Sufficient backers paid for a copy in advance to go beyond just securing publication and Wink was able to write 350 pages with some tasteful professional photographs. Wherever you need it delivered to, you can purchase a copy directly from Wink here

Does the Jura and Languedoc have anything in common?  For any overlap in wine styles you need to go the vin naturel route - the Jura is home to the father of modern natural wine in France, Pierre Overnoy. Less tenuous and more relevant, both are under appreciated and little understood regions.

Is such a fine book viable for the Languedoc? The Jura has 200 vignerons and the majority are presented in Wink's book and required several months of research visits. The Languedoc is simply so much bigger. The Herault valley area alone has over 200 producers and even Rosemary George's master-work covers barely 20.

I can't see anything remotely comprehensive in print happening, but more musings on this later.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

La Clape hail damage

A hail storm hit La Clape on the evening of Friday 13th June and has caused significant damage, especially on the western (Narbonne) flank of the massif. Starting with hail stones the size of peas the storm lasted some 45 minutes with peach stone sized lumps doing the damage. Some 250 ha have been affected to varying degrees.

Chateau Ricardelle, with wines listed by no less than Berry Brothers & Rudd in the UK, has been the worst hit and will lose 90% of their crop from 38 ha of vines. Neighbour Domaine Peche Redon is reported to have lost an estimated third. As well as impacting the 2014 harvest, damage to the vine growth that will form buds the following year will severely affect 2015.

Hail damage in the Languedoc is rare and most vineyards are not specifically insured for hail damage. Perhaps the best hope will be for the ministry of agriculture to declare a natural disaster that will mean at least some payments will be made in compensation.

I have a particular fondness for the massif having helped pick grapes in a private vineyard near Peche Redon.

Friday, 11 April 2014

BOGOF is spreading (as far as Florensac)

Buy-one-get-one-free has long been criticised as a UK retail phenomena, or even national disease. There seems to be an established vicious circle with retailers making 2-for-1 offers with consumers seemingly lapping them up. Whether such deals offer value depends on the true price of the "one" of course.

Florensac lies on the flat lands near the southern end of the river Hérault and sports a seemingly successful cave cooperative. Re-branded as Vinipolis a spacious and swish boutique and tasting area has been constructed that also houses an excellent everyday restaurant Le Bistrot d'Alex (€22 three course lunch menu) where their wines are almost given away.

Unmissable en-route to the restaurant was this promotion - essentially the equivalent of 12 bottles of rosé for €25. Having consumed the Rosé d'Eté with lunch my judgement is thumbs up for deal. The wine is a masterpiece of technological wine making and perfect for quaffing without a thought rather than something to analyse/discuss. Just as well as our friend went for both deals so it won't be long before the next glass or two - proving the rosé weather holds.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Can labels go too far?

We purchased a couple of bottles on a trip to Paris recently from an excellent caviste we came across, Crus et Decouvertes at 7 rue Paul Bert in the trendy 11th arrondissement. Not Languedoc bottles though, even I try to get out a bit wine wise.

Having selected a couple of red Loire's we asked about Beaujolais and this was the suggestion. Now I perceive creative labels exist to 1) promote and be eye catching plus 2) subtly inform about a wine made outside the rules 3) let you know a young artisan created the contents.

Most would recognise this label is eye catching and the connotations are probably PC given the winemaker turns out to be female.

On point 2) the label is less than helpful. The wine is actually a bona fide Appellation Beaujolais Villages made from 100% [G for] Gamey. The email address reveals the maker as [Vin de ...] France Gonzalvez [more possibilities for the overworked G]

As for the contents, it drank well - supple, fresh with lovely balance and fruit. Around €14.