The Domaine de la Souterranne is situated between Béziers and Carcassonne and is owned by fruit farmers Jim and Sarah Pearce. Some of the vineyards are rented by The Oxford Wine Company and a joint project has been set up to produce quality wine with the help of award winning winemakers David Morrison and Raphael Genot.
The first vintage was made in 2005 and bottled and released for drinking last summer. It was made from a small patch of very old Carignan grapes and aged in a combination of new and old oak. No expense was spared in the making of the wine and it retailed at £9.99 per bottle. The limited number of cases (200 x 12) sold steadily, and only a handful now remain. The wine has a lovely soft chocolatey feel about it with good fruit flavours delicately balanced by well-integrated new oak. It was selected by Gary Rhodes, to accompany red mullet, in one of his Sky TV food programmes, and it received an award in the International Wine Challenge, as well as being championed by celebrity wine writer Charles Metcalfe.
The only problem has been that, as this particular grape is not well known, the wine has to be hand sold. The price point has also been a factor. All in all, though, the general feeling was that the project had got off to a successful start. The question was where did we go from here. So last year I made a few trips over to France to plan a gradual way forward and consult with all those involved.
When Jim bought the farm his main aim was to grow peaches for Morrisons, the supermarket chain. The vines were just a small extra source of income and the large yields were unlovingly sold to the local co-operative. He didn't know anything about wine and only when examining the sale agreement was he able to tell me that he had blocks of Chardonnay, Viognier and Merlot, as well as the prized old vine Carignan. Having made the decision to make the Carignan into something rather more special than a co-op blend, we then had to decide how, what and when we developed the rest of the grape varieties.
I was anxious not to run before I could walk and therefore decided to phase in the wines gradually. The plan has been to make a Merlot as well as the Carignan for the 2006 vintage and then a Chardonnay/Viognier blend and a Merlot rosé in 2007. Future plans include planting some Syrah and making a Syrah/Viognier blend in a few years' time. This would complete a range of five wines using grape varieties that work well and are permitted in this area of production. Adding the Syrah would also allow us to use the appellation name Minervois, as opposed to the Vin de Pays de l'Aude classification. But hell, what's in a name? These are just local regulations that hugely complicate the understanding of French wine for the consumer.
So on 1st August this year a truck full of wine appeared at the warehouse in Standlake containing the new Merlot and a follow-on vintage of the Carignan. I'm afraid I could not resist the temptation to grab a bottle or two and get the team together in the tasting room for what proved to be a long and alcoholic session of analysis. First I gave Theo (our slightly quirky chief taster) two Merlots, one of which was made by another company in the same area of France. These were served blind (i.e. covered so he could not see the label). After much muttering, note taking, dribbling, spitting and slurping, he announced his decision. One wine was far superior to the other! I waited with bated breath as he delivered his verdict, and was heartbroken when he announced that my wine was simply not up to scratch. Unbeknown to me, however, "scores on the doors" Jenny had placed Theo's wines in a different order from the others. The mistake was soon realised, and it was unanimously agreed that a really top-quality wine had been made, although it was generally felt that it would benefit from more time in the bottle to settle down. The Carignan was also excellent, and a more complex and typical wine than that of the previous vintage.
Theo's tasting notes were as follows, but bear in mind that the wine will evolve over time:
2006 Domaine de la Souterranne - Old Vine Carignan, Cuvée Christophe - £8.99
Gentle touches of new oak and herbs on the nose followed by a good creamy palate with nuances of leather and spice.
2006 Domaine de la Souterranne - Merlot, Cuvée Guillaume - £6.99
Hints of smoke and herbs on the nose with deep open fruit and a touch of well-judged oak. Quite similar to a Bordeaux, with notes of tobacco, plums and some soft tannins on the finish.