With lockdown imposed just two weeks before I was due to fly out to the Languedoc to continue my enthusiastic research into that region’s wines (it’s a never-ending job, but I’m nothing if not diligent), my wine horizons have this year largely ended up being defined by what I have been able to get hold of.
During the darkest early days of the crisis, that meant turning to favourite local winemakers including Winbirri and Chet Valley, both of whom waived delivery charges during lockdown, and to online merchants who somehow managed to keep their operations going efficiently, against the odds.
A special mention here for Exel Wines of Perth in Scotland, whose list I have always admired, and who were able to get wine to my doorstep within 48 hours even when I wasn’t sure where the next toilet roll was coming from.
Strangely, I found myself talking about Exel Wines with a winemaker in the depths of the Corbières countryside last month, during a brief and extremely well-timed trip which I managed to squeeze in between Dominic Raab saying it was OK to visit France, and then changing his mind again.
The Corbières region has been a delightful surprise over the past few years. It’s a rugged, beautiful piece of countryside running from Carcassonne in the west to Narbonne in the east and from there southwards towards Spain. It’s a huge region, with wines as varied as its landscape – but until recently it was known more for its value and quantity than its quality. Fortunately, that is now changing.
I had used a combination of Sat Nav and maps to find Château Saint-Estève, nursing my low-slung car carefully along a bumpy and stony track leading to the winery. You would have to know it was here, which thanks to Exel Wines, I did.
They have championed ‘H de M’, a wonderful expression of the Corbières terroir which scored a staggering score of 95 in a Decanter magazine tasting, and yet which Exel somehow manage to sell for less than £15. I had enjoyed a couple of bottles during the misery of lockdown, and now under sunny skies, I wanted to see where it came from myself.
Located on the only Cru terroir of Corbières, Boutenac, Saint-Estève is a 120 Hectare Domaine run by the Latham family, and many of its wines tip a nod to their pioneering ancestors, including adventurer, photographer and writer Henry de Monfried (for whom ‘H de M’ is named) and early aviator Hubert Latham, who came within a whisper of beating Louis Blériot to be the first man to fly across the English Channel.
The principal grapes on the Domaine are Syrah and Carignan (which is enjoying something of a renaissance right across the Languedoc, with single varietal wines becoming more popular); Grenache, Mourvèdre and Cinsault also feature, as do Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and the local variety Caladoc – these last three destined for non AC wines.
Although we had arrived unannounced in our usual disorganised way, a charming and fluently English-speaking marketing manager insisted we taste our way through the range, seeing as we had made the effort to visit.
So for the next hour we were introduced to a white wine made from Grenache Blanc with notes of peaches, pears, vanilla and white flowers; a Cinsault-dominated rosé with surprising notes of passion fruit and banana alongside the more normal raspberries; the ‘house wine’, Château Saint-Estève, made from Grenache, Syrah, Carignan and Mourvèdre, and a perfect Corbières mixture of berry fruit, spices, dried fruits and pepper.
Then we were on to the premium reds, including the ‘H de M’ which we already knew; Ganymède, a Carignan-heavy blend with Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre made exclusively from Cru Boutenac vineyards from the oldest vines, and aged in oak for 12 months; and finally Altair, made from 80% Syrah and 20% Grenache, a long-lived wine with candied red fruit, mocha and caramel all featuring.
Now, lovely as it is to relive that tasting while I type these words, I share it with you for two reasons: first, to let you know that there is excellent quality Corbières to be found as the region takes a determined step towards improving quality (later that same afternoon we revisited nearby Château Lastours, which has long been a beacon for investment and top-end wines from the region).
The second reason is to encourage you to seek out and visit the vineyards where your favourite bottles are made. Even without an appointment, in the middle of a pandemic, we were welcomed with open arms, and given a wonderful introduction to the Domaine’s range of wines by a knowledgeable and friendly guide.
And, of course, we had the opportunity to buy them at vineyard prices, a significant saving. That said, we didn’t buy any of the ‘H de M’; I believe in repaying loyalty, and as the small, independent merchant Exel served us so well during lockdown, it seems only right to return there for another case or two.
Foreign travel still may be difficult (although Italy still looks a good bet at the time of writing), but including vineyard visits in your vacation plans is something I highly recommend. Learning with a glass in your hand – what’s not to like?