The Domaine de la Souterranne, situated between Carcassonne and Bézier, is owned by fruit farmers Jim and Sarah Pearce. When they purchased the farm there were vines already planted here. Part of these vineyards are rented by The Oxford Wine Company and together with the help of international wine making consultant David Morrison we have begun to produce a variety of wines.
In February this year I spent three days tasting, blending and discussing the new vintages as well as planning for the future. The first wine we tasted was the Old Vine Carignan (from vines planted in 1951). This is a rare beast because so much of this particular grape was uprooted due to low yields and because it has often been considered a grape that is more for blending than making a wine in its own right. However, good quality old vine Carignan is now sought out by wine aficionados and I was delighted recently to bump into wine writer and expert Charles Metcalfe who told me how much he enjoyed my wine. It was also featured on TV recently as the perfect accompaniment to mullet and it has been well reviewed by the press. This wine and the vintages which follow will remain the flagship of our project.
The new 2006 vintage is again being put together by Dave Morrison whose Chilean Sauvignon Blanc made for Casas del Bosque was voted Best Wine of Show at the annual Wines of Chile Awards this year. Although Dave is now based permanently in France he is an international flying wine maker who having taken on this tiny project seems to enjoy the challenge of getting back to real passionate hands on wine making.
The Old Vine Carignan produced 15 hectolitres per hectare - a tiny amount by any standards and an even smaller yield than the 2005 vintage. This is much less than we had predicted and is partly due to the dry summer experienced in this part of France, the fact that the vines are yielding less and less and also because of our rigorous selection. The juice has gone into a combination of old and new barrels and my tasting notes were as follows:
"New oak barrels: soft and creamy oak with generous fruit."
"1 year old barrels: delicate texture, creamy vanilla fruit with powerful mid palate."
"2 year old barrels: a touch of sweetness with chocolate and caramel overtones."
The wine will be blended and bottled in June but the early indications are that this will be another good vintage, perhaps with more structure and character but with less sweet flavours that were evident on the finish of the 2005. Economies of scale should mean that the price will hit the shelves at £8.99, a pound cheaper than last year which is very competitive compared with other Old Vine Carignan wines on the market.
This year we have also made our first Merlot which should go on the shelf at an estimated price of £5.99. The yield for this Merlot was 40 hectolitres per hectare which is still low by Merlot standards. The vines are only 10 years old and this harvest was picked by machine as opposed to the Carignan which was hand picked. My tasting notes were as follows:
"Free run juice: a very dark colour with soft full fruit. Aromatic and minty with jammy cassis flavours."
"1 year old barrel: very dense spicy and herby. Dry with summer astringency."
The free run juice was not put in oak although oak chips were used during the fermentation process. However two barrels of the pressed juice were made which may be added back to the final bland if we feel the wine needs 'beefing up'. Again this should be bottled in June and arrive at The Oxford Wine Company around mid July.
So what next?
Already planted on the site are batches of Viognier and Chardonnay, and the plan is to produce a crisp, very dry drinking white from this blend as well as making a rosé from the Merlot. We are also hoping to plant a Syrah which will give us more versatility and will also allow the wines to be labelled as Minervois as opposed to Vin de Pays de l'Aude.
Finally we are investigating the possibility of becoming organic. This is a process which will take three years under supervision but may well give the wine another unique selling point as well as appealing to those who favour real wine!