Mooching Around Minervois And Maury

The Languedoc is now firmly established as one of France’s foremost quality wine-producing regions, a major turnaround in its fortunes after spending so many years on the other side of the coin as the biggest contributor to the much-maligned European wine lake. A policy of grubbing up unwanted and over-productive vines or badly suited grape varieties and a focus upon improving the quality of the wines made has really paid dividends.

Down in the Minervois, Floris Lemstra has quietly and conscientiously elevated his family property of Château Canet to the very top of the quality tree, so the opportunity to pay him a visit and to see for ourselves exactly what sets his wines apart from those of neighbouring estates was a very exciting prospect.

Château Canet

Our flight was as uneventful as you could wish for and Floris met us at the airport with his latest toy - a Land Rover Defender - which would prove to be an invaluable asset as we toured his vineyards. Château Canet is only a 20 minute drive from Carcassonne airport (making a short stay in one of the estate’s cottages a very appealing and simple prospect – click here for more details), but it meant no rest for us as we set to and went straight to work. A tour of the estate was first on our agenda, and from our vantage point in the elevated Evangiles vineyard we could see the majority of the Château Canet vineyards laid out before us. It was very easy to distinguish the various blocks of vines and to differentiate between the well-established and the newer plantings, one of which is a few hectares of Sauvignon Blanc. As soon as the vines reach maturity and Floris has made the wine, we’ll ship it across for you to try!

Château Canet's Vineyards

In discussing his new plantings, Floris explained his preference for lower cropping clones that produce much higher quality grapes, albeit in smaller quantities. Lower yields result in more complex, concentrated juice as the vines’ store of energy and nutrients is divided between fewer bunches of grapes. Many Languedoc estates still eschew this philosophy as the cost of the vineyard labour required is the same be the harvest large or small, but the cost per bottle is lower when yields are higher. However, as every quality-minded winemaker will tell you, the only way to make good wine is to start with good grapes.

In the winery, Floris took great pride in showing off the first of two new pieces of equipment: a nitrogen production plant. One of winemaking’s greatest enemies, especially in the earliest stages of the process, is oxidation due to contact with atmospheric oxygen. To combat this, the grape press and the fermentation tanks are filled with nitrogen which, being heavier, displaces the air and insulates the grapes and the juice from contact with ambient oxygen. The added benefit of the use of inert nitrogen gas is that it almost eliminates the need to use sulphur dioxide as an antioxidant to protect the grapes’ aromas and flavours. The nitrogen is also employed as an antioxidant during bottling on the estate’s own bottling line, further reducing the estate's dependence upon sulphur dioxide.

The other new pieces of equipment Floris introduced us to were three egg-shaped fermenting vessels. The egg shape harks back to the clay fermentation vessels used in ancient times. With no corners, the wine is free to circulate naturally during fermentation, constantly stirring itself in the process and forcing more of the cap of grape matter to remain submerged. This allows for plenty of gentle extraction of colour and flavour from the grapes whilst reducing the need to manually punch down the cap. These eggs act like wooden barrels in that they help to create texture in the wine, but without imparting the sometimes intrusive vanilla and spice notes of oak. Inside these three eggs was the 2015 vintage of Minervois La Chapelle, Château Canet’s single vineyard, pure Grenache cuvée. Made from tiny yields of the very ripest grapes, this was hitting the scales at a whopping 17% alcohol by volume - more akin to Amarone than to Minervois! By the time the other parcels of Grenache finish their fermentations and the final blend is assembled, the La Chapelle will weigh in at a far less jaw-dropping 14.5% ABV. That being said, the sample that we tasted was a really full on, well rounded and intensely fruity wine that was rich enough to envelope and integrate even such a high level of alcohol.

Château Canet's Egg-Shaped Fermenting Vessels

After a quick wash and brush up, this fascinating cellar tour was followed by a tasting and dinner, the perfect way to showcase Floris’ wines. Proceedings commenced with the Château Canet Minervois Blanc 2015. This is really quite a rarity as only about 5 or 6% of all Minervois produced is white. It is a blend of Roussanne and Bourboulenc, extremely fresh and with vibrant, pithy acidity. It was a superb apéritif, but when the chef came in with some pâté de foie gras the combination with the Minervois Blanc was quite incredible. The wine cleaned the palate superbly and the pâté really highlighted the wine’s stunning fruit flavours. If foie gras is not your cup of tea, try it with your favourite type of pâté or terrine instead.

Dinner began regally with a dish of lobster served in a rich crab and lobster bisque. This was accompanied by a mystery wine, the identity of which we had to guess. All we knew was that it was a grape variety grown on the Canet estate. White, deeply flavoured and a perfect match for the lobster, it was as enjoyable as it was perplexing. When its identity was revealed as being a Merlot, vinified as a white wine rather than as a red, I certainly didn’t feel bad about not recognising it - this was the first time I had ever tasted an example of Merlot made this way. It’s not yet produced in commercial quantities as it’s still more of a party trick of Floris’ - something unusual to serve to guests at the château and a real curve ball to throw to everyone at the table. If we can talk Floris into parting with any, you can be sure you’ll see it on our list!

The main course was pigeon, cooked beautifully pink and paired with Château Canet’s Minervois Rouge 2014. This is the estate’s standard bearer, an encapsulation of all that a red Minervois can offer. Rich and full bodied for sure, with notes of spice and a long, generous finish, it was not at all heavy and it managed to retain a vibrant, juicy, berry freshness that was the ideal accompaniment to the bird. This is a really approachable and versatile wine that pairs brilliantly with just about any meat, game or poultry dish, not to mention an array of heartier vegetarian options, and it greatly over delivers for its price.

Before dessert, we were presented with a selection of cheeses along with the 2007 Château Canet Minervois Les Evangiles, the first vintage of this wine ever produced. This is a wine that has evolved a little in style as Floris’ understanding of the vineyard’s terroir has improved over the proceeding years, but this inaugural bottling had matured beautifully and was just perfect with the cheese. Well rounded and still displaying some primary fruit characteristics, this single vineyard Syrah’s complex forest floor notes and long, savoury finish were truly memorable.

We did manage to squeeze in a small dessert of a delightfully crumbly sablé biscuit garnished with raspberries and cream, but we were forced to enjoy it au naturel as Château Canet doesn’t produce a dessert wine!

After a good night’s sleep in the château’s gites, our next appointment beckoned and we were collected by Jean-François Bachelet to be taken to his estate in Maury, Domaine de la Coume du Roy. To get there, we travelled almost the full length of Corbières and passed through part of Fitou, taking in some magnificent sights en route. Shortly before we arrived at his winery, Jean-François stopped to give us the chance to walk up to the Château de Queribus, a ruined Cathar castle with amazing, panoramic views across the entire Maury appellation. From this altitude the undulations of the region’s vineyards weren’t especially apparent, but it certainly put the valley’s geographical location into perspective, sitting as it does immediately below the Pyrenees and close to the Mediterranean. He explained that the north facing vineyards give the better wines, a highly unusual fact in the northern hemisphere. It transpired that because of the heat of the Languedocian summer, the north facing vineyards are more sheltered from the full ferocity of the sun than are the more commonly favoured east or west-facing vineyards. The resulting slightly cooler conditions serve to extend the growing season and allow greater complexity of flavours to develop within the grapes.

The View From Château De Queribus

The steep walk up to the château had helped us to work up an appetite, and so the groaning buffet table that met us when we arrived at Domaine de La Coume du Roy was a very welcome sight! Almost everything was home-made, from the wild boar pâté (from a boar shot by Jean-François) to roasted peppers, chickpea salad and crudités from the garden, only the charcuterie and cheese had been bought locally. Open bottles were passed around to accompany this feast, starting with the Le Désir Blanc. This was a white Côtes Catalanes blend of equal parts Macabeo and Grenache Gris that was refreshing and minerally, and it paired effortlessly with everything we ate. The rosé version was equal parts Grenache Noir and Syrah and it offered bright aromas of red fruits, a fresh and fruity palate, with good balance and a crisp, berry-fruited finish. Again, a great match for the food and ideal for summertime drinking.

The Alma Carignan came next, a really impressive red with a perfumed bouquet of spicy raspberry and red fruit that was similarly fragrant and spicy on the palate. Its freshness allowed it to be served lightly chilled, and the finish was long, true and very savoury. Two more reds followed, both made from similar blends of grapes but vinified in different ways. The Le Désir Rouge was a blend of 80% Grenache Noir with 20% Carignan and the Voluntas Maury Sec was a blend of 90% Grenache Noir and 10% Carignan. The fundamental difference was the method of ageing each had received: the Le Désir Rouge was fermented and matured in stainless steel whereas the Voluntas had been vinified and matured in new oak barrels. They were both extremely enjoyable but the general opinion was that the Le Désir won the day thanks to its toasty berry nose, its lively streak of minerality, and its exceptionally fruity palate with great balance and refined length.

Finally we were served a Muscat de Rivesaltes which was made from equal parts of Muscat of Alexandria and Muscat au Petits Grains. This accompanied a plate of fresh fruits and a melon, mint and Muscat salad. Wow! What a star! Fresh as a daisy with delightful aromas of citrus, lychee and wild herbs. The sweet but fresh palate was an exact match for the nose and the finish was mouthwatering, light and lasting.

After lunch, it was time to do some work. A tour of the cellar was followed by a tasting of a range of vintages of Maury. Unlike at most other estates in the area, where the majority of Maury is bottled young, a few are aged for up to a decade or so and one or two are put into a solera system to be blended across the vintages, the winemaking philosophy at Domaine de la Coume du Roy is somewhat different. For more than a century, Coume du Roy has kept each of its Maury cuvées in barrel, maturing every vintage separately to display the distinctive characteristics of that year’s harvest. The tradition started when the Bachelets set aside barrels from the birth years of family members, but today it is done with every vintage. The wines are bottled only when Jean-François feels that they have developed as far as possible in their barrels.

We began with a side-by-side tasting of his 2015 and 2014 red Maury from tank. These were two quite different wines, the 2015 with plenty of clean, pure berry fruit and the 2014 with richer undertones and a more developed style. From here, things really started to get interesting as Jean-François allowed us to taste an array of older vintages from barrel, each incredibly different from the last. Rather than upset you and describe each of the wines we tasted, allow me to say that the star of the show was the 1932 vintage, still wonderfully fresh and vibrant with oodles of deeply honeyed, dried berry fruit. This was an absolute triumph, and it was difficult to believe that an 84 year old wine had retained such youthful vigour and freshness. The last wine we tasted was an 1880 Maury, still in its original barrel! As opposed to the freshness of the 1932, this was viscous and deeply coloured, very much in the nutty, “rancio” style, and with such a concentration of sugar that it coated the palate with treacle-like flavours. Again, the acidity was remarkable and, despite its richness and concentration, it had retained its freshness and vitality.

Tasting Maury From Barrel At Domaine De La Coume Du Roy

A fascinating afternoon concluded with a tour of the vineyards, where Jean-François explained the different methods he employed to train his vines to protect them from the strong winds that blow through the valley.

That night we stayed in Perpignan and we were treated to a splendid dinner with the Bachelet family at the Restaurant St. Jean, close to the cathedral, when we had another chance to enjoy their wines with food. The Le Désir Blanc and the Alma Carignan really stood out once again, but pride of place must go to the 1925 Maury that we enjoyed as a digestif. Round, soft and supple with rich notes of chocolate and nuts. We knew that Maury was a great match for chocolate (we had had a younger wine with a chocolate dessert and very good it was too), but this venerable vintage served unaccompanied was a real eye opener. An older blend, dating back to the 1880s, was almost Cognac-like in its flavour profile, albeit without the fire of the alcohol, but the vibrancy of the 1925 is an experience I will long treasure.

The entire trip was a great education for us all and we are really excited about adding the Domaine de la Coume du Roy wines to our list. We appreciate that these older bottles aren’t at everyday drinking prices, but the beauty of vins doux naturels is that their levels of sugar and acidity and their gentle fortification allow them to remain open for quite some time without deteriorating so that you can reward yourself with an occasional glass and you don’t need to finish the bottle in a single sitting. Of course, it’s far easier to say that you’ll only have one small glass than it is to actually restrain yourself from pouring another…