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Wine Travels (despite what you may have heard)


DOMAINE CHABANON L’ESPRIT DE FONT CAUDE, COTEAUX DU LANGUEDOC MONTPEYROUX, 1998

I picked this bottle up when I was in Nîmes, at the border of Provence and the Languedoc, in 2003. At a small wine store there, I asked the staff, in my best pigeon French, to recommend something special that was relatively local, and they pointed me straight to the L’Esprit de Font Caude. I made a written note that they recommended drinking it at around a decade of age; I also thought that they stated it was a pure Syrah.

As it turns out, the wine is available internationally, and if you think that makes a mockery of my storing it in the underbelly of a tour bus, which then drove past the vineyards of the Languedoc and into two cities in Spain, before carrying it on a flight back to the UK, on a train to London, another train to Yorkshire, a train to Manchester, another flight back to the US, another airport journey, storing it in my Brooklyn basement, then putting it into storage in Manhattan before picking it up a few years later to transport it to the Catskills, and into another cellar for another month or two… then you don’t know me well enough. (Besides, it traveled in good company: not only was I happy to pick up an older vintage, highly recommended, at a good price, from knowledgeable staff at a genuine regional French wine store, but I also came home with three bottles of the Domaine La Mordorée Châteauneuf du Pape Cuvée de la Rene des Bois 2001 at an unbelievable price.)

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A perfect cork, at almost a decade old.

The bottle’s international journey from vineyard to glass was also extremely instructive about just how well wine can travel and absorb the various changes in temperatures along the way. When I popped this wine last weekend, the cork was absolutely perfect: as in, the underside was soaked wet and blood red, and yet the remainder was 100% dry. When you see a cork like this, it explains why so many people have been so loyal to the tree for so long, and why they’re so resistant to the idea of screwcaps as some kind of long-term storage device.

And when you drink a wine this distinct, you also understand why some of us are willing to carry a bottle (or six) so far to our home. Initially, it demonstrated no particular character any which way: a perfectly normal reddish-purple, with neither the long legs of glycerin nor the brick rim to indicate ageing. But allowed to sit for a while in a large Riedel Syrah glass, its aroma gradually opened up to reveal a very delicate balance: olives first, sour cherry second, some raspberry, some mushroom, a touch of earthiness, and then the cherry coming back, wrapped now in a chocolate licquer, with some definite vanilla notes rounding it out. (Unfined and unfiltered, the L’Esprit de Font Caude sees 24 months in French oak.)

But it was in the mouth that the wine really took off. You’re no doubt familiar with the term “herbal” – something of a catch-all, along the lines of “mineral” and “earthy,” for those of us whose wine-notes Thesaurus runs a little thin. You’re probably also heard Robert Parker’s fascination with the term “Provencal herbs,” as a two-word summation of any manner of southern French plants that gradually wend their way into the vines. The L’Esprit de Font Caude was neither of these: dry and dusty, it was more like working one’s way through the herb accoutrements at the pizza parlor, and yet with all ingredients in balance. Don’t ask me to separate the tarragon from the sage from the oregano and thyme, though my gut (and tongue) told me I was thinking of them all: it was just a rare and unique wine that had as much in the way of deliciously arranged herbs as it did fruit or tannin (both of which, I should note, were also still present after a decade). The finish was long and satisfying with a lingering hint of mushrooms.

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A near perfect wine.

The dusty, herbal accent, to me, could only be an expression of terroir. Prior to picking up this bottle, I had been aware of individual Languedoc appellations like Pic St-Loup and Corbières, but had no knowledge of Montpeyroux. I asked around about it upon my return from Europe – it doesn’t show up alphabetically in my Hugh Johnson/Oz Clarke pocket books – but forgot any details until opening up this bottle. I have only just, while writing these notes, picked up my World Atlas of Wine by Johnson and Jancis Robinson (which I don’t believe I owned back in ’03) and read the following:

“The wines produced on the flanks of the rocky finger that is Pic St-Loup north of Montpelier… are so consistently, so herbily dramatic (emphasis added), that this may be the next cru to emerge as a separate appellation from the Coteaux du Languedoc. But Montpeyroux north of Clermont l’Herault is even higher and puts an eloquent case for similar treatment. Producers such as Domaines l’Aiguelière, d’Aupilhac, and Font Caude, like their counterparts in Pic St-Loup, may be located within the boundaries of one of the Languedoc’s relatively controlled appellations, but they certainly don’t limit themselves to producing AC wines.”

There is some discrepancy about the ingredients of this Syrah-dominated wine. According to the Chabanon web site, recent vintages have been an almost equal balance of Syrah and Mourvèdre, but Wine Anorak’s Jamie Goode, attending an industry tasting, reported a 90% Syrah/10% Grenache composition for the 1998. Syrah it may be, but you would not confuse this Syrah with an Aussie Shiraz, a northern Rhône, nor a Californian oak bomb or a Vins de Pays cheapie. It’s a wine entirely unto itself. I feel honored to have shared its company.

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