Domaine Gayda – New Beginnings and Endless Possibilities

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Visit Gayda’s website

Domaine Gayda manages to encompass all that is ‘right’ about food and wine in France; wines from numerous vineyard parcels throughout the Languedoc Roussillon, a gourmet restaurant with unparalleled panoramic views, plus an outdoor kitchen/dining option for more relaxed dining, as well as stunning on site gites. Really, what more could you ask for ?

Back in 2006, I was attending a wine show in London, and somewhat by accident came across a stall without much wine, but with a stool and a video camera; they were looking for a ‘wine idol’, someone with whom the public could engage over all things oenological.

As more of a dare, than anything else, I had a go and recorded a piece to camera. Little did I know that behind this venture was Tim Ford, MD of Gayda. In the great British tradition –  the Public voted, and much to my surprise, I won, which resulted in an invitation to visit with Tim, his wife, Barbara, and the rest of the team, at Domaine Gayda.

The following year, I came back to Gayda, to work.  All the theory in the world counts for little until you’ve got your hands on the grapes and are working with them. Vincent, Gayda’s charming young winemaker and the rest of the team, made me feel included, one of the gang, and an integral part of that year’s harvest and production.

Tim asked me, after the harvest – Wendy, what do you want to do now ?

My answer was – I want to run wine tours in the Languedoc.

The View From The Restaurant

5 years on, that’s exactly what I do. Gayda still play an enormous role, allowing me access to the winery, full flight tastings, and superb lunches, and as importantly they still treat me like one of the team.

Chenin Blanc…..

Female Wine Makers in Languedoc-Roussillon

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I first met Nicole Bojanowski about 6 years ago when I was searching for special vineyards to tour. I was immediately struck by her quiet and thoughtful approach to what she wanted to achieve. She had not been born into a wine making family but when working as an export manager for a cave cooperative she had caught the ‘wine making bug’ and sent herself off to college to learn how to make wine. After a few years of practising the art of wine making she and her husband John set about searching for the type of terroir that she was convinced would produce the sort of wine she wanted to make. Full bodied reds with freshness and elegance – hard to achieve in a Mediterranean climate. She found her vineyard in the village of St Jean de Minerve settled on the white limestone soils and so was born Clos du Gravillas. She makes a rather large range of wines from just 7.5 hectares but the mainstay of the range are her mineral, rich and complex white made from Grenache blanc, gris and Maccabeo and called L’Inattendu and the 100% Carignan called Lo Vièlh.

Katie Jones is becoming quite a star and it’s only been 3 years since she started making wine at her very small winery in the village of Tuchan called Domaine Jones. She had worked for many years at the cave cooperative in Tuchan in charge of sales & marketing in the UK but she felt the time had come for a change so she bought a tiny vineyard in the next valley and set about making white and red Grenache wines. The wines were very well received and both won medals and this success spurred her on to buy another vineyard this time in the appellation of Fitou. She was thrilled to find that the tiny patch of land contained the 3 grape varieties needed to make a Fitou. The grapes from this vineyard had always been sent to the cooperative where they were mixed with everyone else’s so no one had made wine from just this patch of land until Katie came along. The result is astounding – the wine won the gold medal at the International Wine Challenge this year.

I met Brigitte Chevalier of Domaine de Cébène at the beginning of June when I was asked to arrange a tour for some clients staying near to the Faugeres appellation. Her profile fitted the bill perfectly as I like to introduce people to hand crafted wines grown on interesting terroir, usually fairly small production and with a wine maker who has passion for quality at the heart of things. Brigitte came to the Languedoc in 2006 from Bordeaux where she had been an export manager for a wine merchant. I was bowled over by the way she has captured the purity of fruit in her wines. I particularly like the wine called Ex Arena which means “out of the sand” so named because it is grown on a 40 metre-deep bed of sea sediment. It’s mainly made from old vine Grenache grown outside of the Faugeres appellation and is beautifully perfumed and is full of fruit with flavours of cherries and spice. I also loved her Mourvèdre grown on the famous schist of Faugeres and I am yet to taste her 100% Carignan – I can’t wait…

Véronique Robin-Cuculière of Domaine de Mingraut farms 7 hectares organically in the Corbières appellation. She was not born in the Languedoc and neither is she from a winemaking background. I admire the approach she adopts to making her wine as she is not at all prescriptive.  Each year she works with what the land and the weather has given her and therefore some of her wines are not repeated. One of my favourite wines is named Chardon Bleu and is made from 100% chardonnay which is matured in barrels. The oak is perfectly integrated and does not over-whelm the fruit providing a wine with flavours of ripe melon and peach wrapped in vanilla and a little cream. I had it with very garlicky roast chicken and it was superb. I also like Cuvée DM made from 100% Syrah aged in 3rd use oak barrels. It’s aromatic and full bodied with flavour of black fruits, pepper and the ripe tannins give it excellent aging potential – if you can keep your hands off it…!

Now for the exciting bit…! Through the Imbibers Society we have arranged for all these woman to be in the same room on July 12th to provide us all with a wonderful tasting of their wines. The tasting is taking place in Caunes-Minervois in the Languedoc and all are very welcome to come and meet these amazing women and taste their equally amazing wines. I hope you will be able to make it – for more details take a look at The Imbibers Society web site.

Last bastion of peace in the South of France

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‘Where are all the people? ‘ is the question I am asked almost every time I run a vineyard tour in the Languedoc-Roussillon. It’s so quiet and not at all touristy with no traffic jams and sleepy little villages. It’s like stepping back into the 1950’s with shops closing long hours for lunch and never open on a Sunday. Its takes some getting used to but this pace of life is so good for the soul. It gives you time to take stock, to listen to the birds, enjoy the sunshine, walk amongst the vines and just chill…

I spend 7 months of the year in the village of Caunes-Minervois located at the foot
of the Montagne Noir in the department of the Aude. It’s a lively village in comparison to some in the area and you will find almost everything you need here. A good meal at one of the eating places such Hotel d’Alibert with its renaissance courtyard or perhaps just a beer and a sandwich at the local bar. Many of the ancient buildings are related to the abbey which stands in the centre of the village and here in July classical concerts are performed every Friday.

Close by is the village of La Livinière with its beautiful domed church tower. The village is not only one of the prettiest in the area it also gives its name to the cru wine ‘Minervois La Livinière’ which is a rich, complex and elegant red wine grown on the limestone and clay of the region. I recently joined some friends on a walk in the hills to the west of the village where we discovered some very impressive dry stone walls built to stem erosion caused by strong winds and rain storms. We also saw a great many capitells which are stone huts built by wine growers in previous centuries to store implements and to take shelter during storms.

I can’t talk about the villages of the Languedoc without mentioning the village of Minerve which is in the Hérault département. The village’s antiquity is evident from its name for a temple to the goddess Minerva once occupied the site. In 1210 during the Cathar Crusades, Simon de Montfort held a 10 week siege at Minerve to capture a group of Cathars who had taken refuge there after the massacre of Béziers. The village was protected by a double curtain wall, and overhanging natural ledges; but this did not stop Simon de Montfort’s crusader army. They set up four catapults around the fortification; three to attack the village, and the largest, called Malevoisine (“Bad Neighbour”), to attack the town’s water supply. Lord Guilhem of Minerve and the 200 men of his garrison could not resist for long and Minerve was surrendered to the Crusaders on 22 July 1210. The defensive walls were breached by St Rustique’s well, and Guilhem was obliged to negotiate the town’s surrender. He saved the villagers but he could not save the Cathars and some 150 to 180 Cathars were burned alive when they refused to recant their faith. A sad history but still I love to visit the village and walk across the limestone causse that surrounds it. I also visit the neighbouring village of La Caunette which also dates to before the Cathar crusade and was once a fortified village as can be seen by the entry gate which dates back to the 13th century.
These days its main attraction is an annual fête to celebrate the orange and other fruits. It’s called the Fête de la Bigarade – Bigarade is another name for the Seville Orange.

There are so many beautiful villages here and I revel in the fact that they are so quiet and undisturbed by tourism at the moment. I hope I have tempted you to come and see this last bastion of solitude and peace in the South of France.

Fizz, Food and Fine Wine at Rives Blanque

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I first visited Jan and Caryl Panman owners of Château Rives Blanques in 2009 the week I arrived in Languedoc-Roussillon to begin my vineyard tour enterprise. I have bumped into them a few times since but had not re-visited the château until yesterday when I popped along with Rachel and Anthony Pinwell of luxury B&B Maison Laurent who were keen to try the wines as they are always updating their wine list with local wines. The 3 of us regularly work together running food & wine pairing dinners at their delightful chambres d’hotes in Pieusse near Limoux. The snow covered Pyrenees where glinting majestically as I drove over to the area and then up the long twisting lane to be greeted by Caryl who had been working hard on the assemblage of the wines before bottling next week. Blending the wine is a crucial part of the process and although enjoyable it is quite tiring and a little stressful.  The Penmans produce top class Limoux wines focussing on the sparkling and the still whites of the appellation plus a little Vin du Pays and Caryl treated us to a superb tasting of everything that was available. The sparkling wines were elegant and interesting and I particularly enjoyed the rosé Cremant du Limoux stained a pretty pink using 5% of Pinot Noir and with a nose of strawberry ice-cream. The sparkling and still whites of this region are made from Mauzac, Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc with Mauzac being the local grape which Caryl is a huge fan off. The still wines of the appellation must be handpicked and barrel fermented and many producers major on Chardonnay and Chenin blanc for this role however Caryl has been innovative and also produces a 100% Mauzac wine which she did for the first time some years ago.  At first it seemed to be a dismal failure as hardly any sold in the first year of production but Tom Stevenson picked it up, liked it and wrote about it and then one day the top French wine magazine of Le Revue du Vin de France featured it on the front page and the rest is history. The wine has since won the Great Gold Medal of Languedoc-Roussillon. The wine is fermented in old oak barrels so the oak is not dominant and the wine has flavours of apples, pears and a little honey and spice and has a restrained richness and a fabulous dry finish that I think will make it a good food wine. Anthony is planning to experiment with various dishes to find a perfect match for out next food & wine dinner at Maison Laurent. You can buy the wine from the Château at €11.25 a bottle or €10 for a case of 6 and it is available to buy in many countries around the world including the UK at Tanners amongst others.

All the wines were wonderful but always with an eye for the unusual I was drawn to the Sauvignon Blanc which has been dubbed Sauvageon which means ‘the wild one’ named by local people in the south west of France when this grape grew wild on the hillsides a few hundred years ago. I was curious as to why they had named it this and not plain Sauvignon Blanc which is so popular at the moment? The answer came…. the wine spends 7 months maturing in oak barrels which gives it an entirely different character to a typical Sav Blanc such as a Sancerre or a Marlborough. It is richer than a Loire wine but not as tropical and vivacious as a New Zealand Sauvignon. Most of the herbaceous character has gone but you still get the gooseberry flavours which are ripe and tangy. We had it tonight with our meal which my chef friend Kate described as a ‘picnic’ as we enjoyed spicey Asian foods combined with home cured salmon followed by local goats cheeses. With the salmon is was delectable, it worked well with the prawn dumplings but lacked a little something with the pickled ginger and the heat of the chilli. But what a fabulous find it is. Kate had plucked a long forgotten Loire Chenin from the wine rack last night and we decided to finish it and compare it with the Sauvignon which might have been a little unfair – but actually they proved to be an equal team. Each one was a star with different elements of the meal. Rejoice the white wine of France..!

Researching the Rousillon

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I love my job – well actually as I live 7 months of the year in the Languedoc-Roussillon running vineyard tours what’s not to love! One of the most enjoyable parts of my job is the research; I love to find new vignerons to work with, new routes, new restaurants and of course new wines to taste. I arrived in Languedoc on April 1st and immediately headed to the Roussillon region to do some research as this year I am offering a new Roussillon Day  tour plus a Rousillon long weekend  concentrating on this up and coming wine region of southern France.

To help me with my research I had commandeered two fabulous and courageous wine makers Corin and Jayne Fairchild of Domaine Vella Fronterra in Maury. They have been welcoming my tours for the last 2 years and had happily agreed to help me get to grips with this region. First stop was the well-known Rivesaltes producers Cazes where we tasted 3 great examples of the VDN sweet wines produced here starting with the Ambres. This is made from Grenache Blanc plus a little Maccabeo – beautiful orange gold colour and fabulous orange peel flavours. Next we tasted the Grenat so named because it’s made with 100% Grenache Noir – smoky raspberries, delicious. Then it was on to the Tuilé which is also 100% Grenache Noir but is aged in big oak barrels called foudre for 15 years giving it more complexity and mature flavours of prune and raisin and an earthy character – the nose had hints of a smokey malt whiskey.  We had a good lunch in the restaurant there called La Table d’Aimé before heading to the village of Vingrau not far away. We were in search of Domaine du Clos des Fées which we found in the heart of the village. Hervé Bizeul is a former sommelier, caviste and wine journalist who makes some excellent Côtes du Roussillon Village wines from his unassuming converted garage. He has the vines planted on various terriors and many of them are over 100 years old.  Dominating the plantings are Grenache, Carignan, Syrah, Grenache Blanc and Grenache Gris however he also has some unexpected varietals including Tempranillo and Cabernet Franc. Claudine his wife greeted us and gave us a superb tasting of all the wines and so impressed was I that I have booked a visit next week on my first Roussillon tour of the season.

Last year I had tasted a very unusual wine made from Carignan Gris at a winery called Riberach and one of my aims this day was to find the producer. Corin and Jayne were not aware of this so I was amazed that the next place they took me was this very winery tucked away in the little village of Bélesta. Not only is it a winery but also a very impressive hotel and restaurant going by the name of Riberach. The owners have made a superb job of converting a huge old cave co-operative building to offer 18 contemporarily designed bedrooms from the old concrete tanks plus a restaurant where Chef Laurent Lemal produces fresh, seasonal produce and presents you with dishes of a contemporary style. In the winery we met the wine maker Patrick Rodrigues and tasted some interesting wines but the one that blew me away was the rosé made by direct pressing Carignan grapes to produce a pale pink wine with intense cherry and mineral flavours. We had it last night with some goose rillettes and it was a perfect match. I will definitely be booking my place at this table in the near future and the winery is also now on my list of wineries to visit next week on the first of my Roussillon tours.