It was with some trepidation that Sue and I boarded at Stansted and flew to Perpignan to taste our wine for the first time.
Those of you who have been reading this column will know the history behind this. Unable to plant on our own land we have rented from Jim and Sarah Pearce, fruit farmers who have a section of vines amongst their apricots and peach trees. When Jim originally rang to tell me he had 1.5 hectares of old vine Carignan (planted in 1950), as well as plantings of Merlot, Chardonnay and Viognier, I hastily rang Aussie wine consultant David Morisson and got on the next plane. With David's go ahead we pruned heavily in June to reduce the yield and had picked the grapes by early October. After fermentation the wine was put in a combination of new and one year old oak barrels and left to develop. Now the time had come to see whether my investment had been worthwhile or was I a sick fantasist living a dream and waking to a nightmare.
The vineyard is situated directly off the road between Béziers and Carcassonne and only 25 km from Narbonne. The aim has always been to make an approachable fruit orientated food wine. I had no desire to make a blockbuster - too many wines nowadays will allow you to stand a spoon up in them. The selection of barrels was important and I was keen that the wine had oak influence which would enhance the fruit rather than overpower it. I made the decision (Dave was in Chile making wine at the time) to put 1/3 into new oak barrels and 2/3 into one year old oak barrels. In future vintages I see the blend as being 1/3 new oak, 1/3 1 year old oak and the remaining 1/3 in two year old barrels. Oak barrels are expensive but no expenses have been spared to try and make a really good wine. Hand picking is time consuming and costly too, but it means that only the best, ripest and undamaged grapes are selected. The yield was very small this year. To some extent this was deliberate and to some extent not. We only got 25 hl per hectare whereas previously, when the wine was all sent to the local cooperative, over 100 hl was achieved but of course without any quality control.
So in theory this stuff had a good pedigree but what did it taste like? Dave's French assistant Raphaël had produced two bottles filled earlier directly from the barrels - one containing the wine in new oak and one containing wine from the one year old oak. I regretted the fact that I had a terrible cold but we started with the old oak wine.
It had plenty of rich, vibrant fruit with cassis/plum and redcurrant notes and was soft and rounded. The wine had great clarity and a lovely mouth feel - relief all round!!
The second wine from the new barrels was a little dusty, with a strong smell of smoky bacon, a smell strongly associated with new oak. The wine was well structured but very different from the other. The same grapes from the same vineyard but developing very differently due to the oak.
The next stage was to get a measuring jug and pour the wine into a small container in the proportions that we intended, 1/3 new oak and 2/3 old oak, and give it a stir with a spoon (yes it really is that simple!). We waited a few minutes and tasted again.
The final blend had mellow raspberry nuances, jammy fruit and a soft oak balance; it certainly tasted good on its own and, as I was later to discover, with food.
The wine is actually being made in a small property down the road at Château des Herbes Saintes, recently purchased by a Burgundian family and over going through a bit of an overhaul. They make good red but the jury is still out on their white, so the decision has been taken to double the Carignan production next year and also make the same amount of Merlot. Next year I will have four times the amount to sell!
But we have taken Dave and Raphael's advice and are going to leave this year's crop a little longer in barrel. We hope to bottle in June when the wine will have had almost 9 months in barrel. The next job is selecting bottles and designing labels.
By the end of the summer we should have the wine in the shop - let's hope nothing goes wrong in the meantime. The price? I'm not sure yet until all the bills come in and we add the shipping and tax.
However, whatever the case it will be under £10.00. I am not trying to make a profit in the first year but to establish a style which appeals and build on the feedback we get. No doubt there will be plenty of it!!!