Sunday, July 31, 2011

Visit to Paul Mas, Part 1

Dwayne Perreault — I sell a lot of Paul Mas wines, as these are very well made Languedocers ranging in price from €5 to €9, which come in a broad range of varieties and styles. It is not uncommon to see a full pallet arrive at the shop door, only to have to order more the next week. But of course, I’m not the only one. In fact, Paul Mas exports to more than 40 countries.

The modern business begins with Jean-Claude Mas, son of Paul, who together with his brother inherited 70 ha of vines at Château de Conas, just outstide of Pézénas.

Jean-Claude expanded the estate by acquiring Domaine de Nicole (40 ha) by Montaignac overlooking the Herault valley, Mas des Tannes (40 ha, half of which are certified organic), and Domaine Astruc (70 ha) at 300 metres in Limoux, with a cooler mid-Atlantic climate which favours white grapes, as well as Pinot Noir.

That’s a total of 220 ha, but that’s not all. Jean-Claude also contracts 80 growers who run a total of 780 ha to produce 500,000 cases per year of Arrogant Frog. You may know these wines, exported around the world and easily recognized by their cartoon frog characters. In the Netherlands, they are sold by Gall & Gall.

Since Pézénas is not far away from Roquebrun, where I like to spend part of the summer, I decided to visit Château de Conas. I was welcomed by Brigitte Barreiro, Marketing Manager and Cédric Deniset, European Sales Manager. Brigitte took me on a tour of the winemaking facilities and storage complex, picking up bottles for our tasting on the way.

Paul Mas wines strive for a consistent style and quality year in and out, and this is made in part possible by the dependable Languedoc climate, where it rarely ever rains at harvest time. But Jean-Claude personally plays a large role himself, by constantly tasting and blending wines from different plots. “The worst thing that could happen on any day,” says Brigitte, “is that Jean-Claude loses his tasting notebook.”

Jean-Claude clearly understands today’s wine market, where consumers are enticed by funny labels (thus Arrogant Frog) and identify a wine by a grape variety. This is, clearly, the influence of the New World. For this reason, the entire range of Paul Mas VDP wines are varietals, with the grape variety in bold letters on the label.

We started our tasting with some white wines I know well, since I sell them. These are just some of the wines I tasted. The prices given are what the wines cost at Wijnhuis Zuid in Amsterdam, including taxes.

The VDP d’Oc, Paul Mas Sauvignon Blanc 2010 (€5.95) has apple and citrus fruits with some viscosity and very fresh acidity, which is clearly the result of the cooler climate in the Aude valley. I tend not to be a fan of warm climate Sauvignons, but everything is in balance here.

VDP d’Oc, Paul Mas Vermentino 2010 (€5.95). Vermentino, mostly called Rolle in the Languedoc, produces a wine with a pale robe with a yellow hue, blossom and some tropical fruit in the nose. Mid-viscous texture, expressive white fruits with medium high acidity and a well rounded aftertaste, which makes this an easy drinking wine, perfect as an aperitief.

VDP d’Oc, Paul Mas Estate Marsanne 2010 (€8.50). The Estate wines are from single vineyards. Marsanne, one of the northern Rhône grapes, does well here. More golden in the glass with yellow blossom in the nose, and a hint of oak. Thicker in the mouth, but still with some fresh acidity where tropical fruit and a tangible 13.5% alcohol linger in a dry aftertaste.

The Pays d’Oc, Vignes de Nicole Chardonnay/Viognier 2010 (€8.50) is in fact 70% Chardonnay, fermented and aged in oak barrels. Very floral bouquet, full bodied and oak influenced, but well tempered. There is a tiny bit of residual sweetness as the end, which is pleasant. Brigitte says they enjoy it with foie gras.

And finally, the organically certified Mas des Tannes Réserve Grenache Blanc 2009 (€9), considered one of Jean Claude’s best white wines and fermented 4-5 months in oak barrels. Grenache can take a lot of oak and here it forms a major component in both the bouquet and taste, along with clean white fruit.

At this point, Jean Claude strolled in, so we chatted for a bit. I will provide an update soon on the red wines I tasted, which were presented by Cédric Deniset. Included were a couple Grand Crus du Languedoc!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Understanding Fine Wines: Frank Smulders

Dwayne Perreault — Frank Smulders MW received his degree in 1992 and is to this day Holland’s only Master of Wine. I was his student while doing my WSET Advanced course, and I’ve also made a posting on this blog about a memorable Austrian wine trip Frank organized.

I was able, with great pleasure, to sit in on a recent lesson Frank gave, as part of his course on Understanding Fine Wines. The theme was Syrah, Grenache and Tempranillo, so there were top bottles from the Rhône, Rioja, Ribera Del Duero, Priorat and Australia to be tasted.

We began with a discussion of Tempranillo and a tasting of some top Spanish specimens. Tempranillo recently overtook Garnacha to become Spain’s most planted grape, and its character is very much determined by the climate. Frank underlined how important this is, by pointing out that Tempranillo produces clearly different wines in each of the three best known regions where it is grown: Rioja, Ribera del Duero and Toro.

In Rioja, Tempranillo has an almost Pinot Noir-like character, lighter in colour and structure, tending toward elegance. The art of blending with Garnacha, Mazuelo and Graciano produces different styles of wine. In Ribera del Duero, it is called Tinto Fino and the added elevation provides extremely hot days and cold nights, which produces grapes with more sugars, tannins and acidity. Varietals are much more common here, as they are in Toro, where Tempranillo is called Tinto de Toro. Of the three, Toro with its richer soil produces the most powerful wine, yet it is Frank’s least favourite.

Frank is more a new style Rioja lover, embracing more fruit and use of French oak, which is less porous than American oak and leads to a less oxidative style. But there are still some wonderful old style producers out there, and as an example we tasted the 1997 La Rioja Alta S.A. Gran Reserva 904, an American oak-aged wine with a light brownish rim. Fragrant notes of tobacco and licorice, with very luxurious dark cherry fruit and a touch of cacao.

The Marqués de Vargas Reserva 2000, also Rioja Alta, is much darker and younger in style, with coffee and black fruit notes. It contains some Cabernet Sauvignon and Russian oak, which is similar to French oak, was used.

The Ribera del Duero, Pago de los Capillanes 2002 contains 90% Tempranillo and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon. There are wild berries and something animal in the nose. The taste has tart but elegant red fruit with black currants, somewhat sweet and quite tannic.

As for Grenache, I know from having studied under Frank that he does not value this thin-skinned grape much. So it was amusing to hear his experience at the Wine Future Conference in Rioja in 2009. Robert Parker had been invited by Rioja producers to host a private tasting, for more than 600 wine professionals. Parker confounded the Rioja producers by choosing Garnacha as his theme, a grape which is in general decline in Spain and accounts for less than 9% of all plantings in Rioja.

In fact, Grenache is one of Parker’s favourite grapes, and he has particularly had a great influence in changing the style of Châteauneuf du Pape. Under Parker’s influence, the barrique came to be used, and the top cuvée was produced. Frank believes that Châteauneuf du Pape has become better because of Parker, but also more expensive.

We tasted a very old-style Châteauneuf du Pape first, Clos Saint Jean 1986. Somewhat funky, with chocolate and animal Brett tones. This wine began a discussion on what Brettanomyces is and how it played a conscious role in certain old Papes. Admittedly, in smaller proportions Brett can add an intriguing complex note to the wine, but once that threshold has been reached, it goes bad. According to Frank, the Brett generally tastes as unripe tannins.

Château de Beaucastel was known to have Brett up until 2000. We tried the 2004. Containing over 40% Mourvèdre, this is an extremely powerful wine, and still very much in its youth. Very dark rich fruit with strong tannins.

Finally, the Priorat, Fra Fulcó 1996, a blend of old Garnacha and Carineña vines from a house that unfortunately doesn’t exist any more. Very ripe dark fruit with pepper, and very powerful tannins.

As for Syrah, we started off with two Australian wines. The McClaren Vale, Rosemount Estate “Show Reserve” Shiraz 1997 had super ripe sweet and sour dark fruit with nicely balanced acidity. The “Show Reserve” designation means that it comes from a particularly good vat reserved for trade shows, which are very important in Australia. The Barossa, Peter Lehmann “Stonewell Shiraz” 2005 was less interesting, a dark fruit bomb, overly tannic, perhaps too young.

The northern Rhône is where Syrah finds its truest expression, and the Côte Rôtie, Domaine Jean-Michel Stephan 2002 is a much leaner wine, with wilder red fruits and spicey overtones. Elegant, softer in structure than the Aussies. Tasted the following day after a full night’s decanting and still wonderfully fresh.

Finally, the Hermitage, Domaine de Valloit, Les Greffières 1988 had everything I expect from a Hermitage bouquet: sweaty socks and red fruits. Quite elegant in the mouth, where more acidity is to be perceived than in the southern Rhône. A beautiful and almost delicate wine, with still enough bones to hold itself up.

Thanks again to Frank for allowing me to attend, learn about and taste these wonderful wines!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Not a Bordeaux 2010 wrap up (but some last personal, subjective recommendations)

It is a day after the fair to post about the wrap up of the Bordeaux 2010 campaign. It's over, for days already. I am finalizing things, the last sales, and lots of paper work.

A little while ago an anonymous reader replied to one of my posts wherein I suggested some 'good value primeurs'. He wrote something friendly like "you seem to see good value everywhere". He wasn't too happy about the high prices, plus he thought that I, as an importer, wasn't the person to give buying advice: I simply couldn't be objective.

And he is right, this anonymous reader, I am an importer, and I am subjective also. As is every critical taster with a clear preference. The good news: as an importer I decide what I buy.

With primeurs the choice is broad, and there's definitely no need to confine oneself to a limited array of wines (that need to be pushed). No, we visit Bordeaux for a full week, taste a shipload of wines, and then I share my personal thoughts with the readers of this blog. My preference? Pure, terroir-driven, classic and elegant wines. Of course with an exciting exception here and there, for variety is the spice of life.

And I am a salesman. This time I won't point out the great value wines, I will look at some alternatives for the premier crus, for those readers who simply want the best without spending a 1000 euros on a bottle of wine.

We look at the Médoc, the home of most premier grand crus. Two monumental wines, not to miss for the true collectors, are Ducru-Beaucaillou and Léoville-las-Cases. Both released with a price lower than last year, while quality is outstanding. Look at almost-premier-cru Léoville-las-Cases for example: its terroir is adjacent to Latour, on a very comparable gravel croupe. And it is sold at a fraction of the price (yet still around 260 euros).

Then there's brilliant Pontet-Canet of course, so pure and beautiful, but hard to find in the meantime.

So what are the not-to-miss 2010 Médoc classics? For example these two: Grand-Puy-Lacoste (simply excellent) and Léoville-Barton (I don't dare to say Value for Money). And if these are still too expensive, look at the related Clos du Marquis and Langoa Barton. These, and more offers can be found on www.bordeaux-2010.nl.

It's late, I'm going to continue in the new TONG Bordeaux issue. I will write some more about this great magazine in a later posting, but I can already say that this new TONG issue is a must-buy for all Bordeaux lovers. No commercial interest here. Just an opinion, subjective, but straight from the heart.