Tasting with Laurent Calmel of Calmel & Joseph

A few weeks ago I met up with Laurent Calmel at his fairly recently acquired estate, Domaine de la Madone, in the picturesque little village of Montirat.  We saw rather more of the village than was intended, as fearing large potholes from roadworks, we obeyed the deviation signs at the top of Laurent’s lane, which in fact proved to be quite superfluous to requirements, and arrived at the back entrance, having followed a circuitous dirt track past olive groves and vines.

Essentially Laurent is the winemaker for a négociant business.  M. Joseph is his business partner, and until September 2015 they did not have any vineyards at all.  Laurent describes his business as a négoce sans chais, without a cellar, but with producteurs partenaires, making wine in their cellars from selected plots.  For example, his Faugères is the blend of grapes from three different wine growers.  He chooses the plots, and makes the wine in each different cellar and then blends the wines and ages them, and bottles them in a centre de conditionnement in Béziers.   He is a great believer in the virtues of an élevage in bottle, feeling strongly that it enhances quality, and adds extra value, observing that culturally and traditionally the Languedoc has not been good at ageing wine in bottle.   It is time for that to change.  

Laurent has developed a very well-conceived range of wines, of which I tasted a small selection.  The Villa Blanche range covers a selection of single grape varieties, including two cépages anciens, Terret Blanc and Piquepoul Noir.  There is a pair of AOP Languedoc, red and white and a selection of three called Amstamgram, which I learnt, is the French for eeny meeny, miny moe!  Next comes Les Terroirs, from different appellations, all based on varying blends of Syrah, Grenache and Carignan, with the objective of illustrating the enormous variety of the Languedoc.    A pair of bubbles from Limoux, Blanquette and Crémant, and then there are the Crus, which Laurent described as his conception of some of the best areas of Languedoc-Roussillon such as St Chinian, Montpeyroux, Terrasses du Larzac and Caramany.  They are all aged in barrel.  Cuvées Rares covers exceptional plots, producing just 3000-4000 bottles, what Laurent called the nuggets, or pépites of the vintage.  These wines are made with minimum intervention, from destemmed grapes, with natural yeast, and an élevage in oak, all to emphasise the terroir. And finally, there is La Madone, from his new vineyard, a selection of the very best grapes, vinified as simply as possible, and sold at an appropriate price.     

Villa Blanche 2018 Terret Blanc - 8.00€
This is a new look at a grape variety that has been much despised in the past.  It used to be produced with prolific yields to provide a base wine for Noilly Prat. For that, all that was needed was something  easy to cultivate and neutral in favour.  Reduce the yields to a more sensible 60 - 70 hl/ha and the flavours change, becoming refreshing and herbal with good acidity.   The grapes are grown Marseillan, the home of Noilly Prat, and the Bassin de Thau.  And the wine makes a refreshing apéro and would go deliciously with a plate of seafood.  

2018 Amstragram Clairette du Languedoc - 11.00€
Clairette is another neglected grape variety, which deserves a comeback. It can be quite difficult to work in the vineyards, and you have to take care with the harvest date, as it can lack acidity. This example was soft and grassy, with some salty notes, with some structure and texture on the palate.   An argument for a revival in the fortunes of Clairette.

2018 Amstagram Cérès AOP Languedoc Rosé - 11.00€
A blend of Mourvèdre from the Terrasses du Larzac, Cinsault from the Minervois and 
Grenache, mainly Noir but with a little Gris, from Roussillon.  Pressurage direct; saigné simply gives too much colour. This is a pretty pink, rounded and ripe, and nicely vinous with good fruit and balance.  

2016 St Chinian Blanc, from the range of Crus - 17.00€
A blend of Grenache Blanc, Vermentino, Viognier and Roussanne, fermented in vat and élevé in wood for six months.  Quite a golden colour.  Quite rounded and ripe with good acidity.  Good mouthfeel. Very harmonious and rounded.  Laurent is particularly enthusiastic about white St. Chinian, feeling that it has enormous undeveloped potential.  

2018 Villa Blanche, Piquepoul Noir - 8.00€
This is another grape variety that deserves a comeback.  Medium colour.  Sour cherries, griottes, on the nose.  Very fresh, red fruit, with good acidity and a hint of tannin.   A refreshing finish, making a perfect summer red.  

Amstagram L’Epicurius - 11.00€
A blend of 60% Petit Verdot from the Minervois and 40% Malbec, from Limoux. 30% of the blend is aged in barrel. The colour is very deep, as you expect with Petit Verdot and the wine is rounded and ripe, with rich cassis fruit and tannin.   And the label is very striking, designed by a Parisian artist, Vincent Tavernier

From the Terroirs range, I tasted

2016 Côtes du Roussillon Villages - 12.50€
A blend of 60% Syrah and 20% each of Grenache and Carignan.  The grapes come from two producers in the villages of Tautavel and Caramany.   Good colour, with ripe spice on the nose.   Rounded, soyeux fruit and well integrated tannins.   An elegant 13.5º which is modest for Roussillon. 

Laurent talked about the Terroirs range.  Each wine must represent its appellation.   Sometimes that can be difficult to determine.  

2017 Vieux Carignan, Côtes de Brian - 12.00€
From vines planted in 1909 at Cazelles in the Minervois.   30hl/ha.  Medium colour. Fresh red fruit, with some smoky notes.  Nice depth and good balance.  No wood and elegant rusticity.  I have a soft spot for old Carignan.

And then onto the Crus:

2015 Montpeyroux - 17.00€
A blend of equal parts of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Carignan, farmed organically, with six months in 2-year-old barrels.  Smoky cherry fruit with well-integrated oak.  Quite elegant, with fresh acidity and tannin.

2016 Terrasses du Larzac – 17.00€
50% Mourvèdre with 25% each of Syrah and Grenache.  12 months in wood.  Quite ripe and rounded with hints of tapenade on the nose.  And on the palate, rounded fruit with freshness on the finish.  The Mourvèdre makes for some elegance.

2016 Côtes du Roussillon, Caramany 
Syrah, Grenache and Carignan given 12 months in wood.  From a young organic viticulteur, in the village of Caramany who does not make his own wine.  Good colour. Quite ripe and rounded with some tannin. Ripe cherry liqueur and spice. Denser than the preceding wines.  14.5

2016 La Ruffe, Vin de France 
Ruffe describes the terroirs rouges of the lac de Salagou and vineyards around St Jean de la Blaquière.  In theory, the wine is a Terrasses du Larzac, but then it must be vinified in a cellar within that appellation. This is Laurent’s natural wine, made with natural yeast and maybe a small addition of sulphur at bottling.  It is fermented in stainless steel vats, with destemmed grapes, no remontages, but a light dampening of the cap, and then into wood for a few months.   No carbonic maceration, which can be quite common with natural wines as the carbon dioxide provides protection against oxygen.  The wine is very refreshing, with fresh red fruit.  Medium weight with some spice.  

2016 Minervois la Livinière, la Planette - the name of the plot. at 450 metres on the causse, on the plateau above the village of Fauzan.  A blend of Syrah, Grenache and Carignan given 12 months in oak in a Chassin barrel, from a relatively new cooper in Burgundy.   Laurent likes Burgundy barrels.   14.5°. Quite tannic and quite sturdy, with dry spice and some depth.  Needs time.

2015 le Roc, Corbières
Part from the vineyards here at Montirat and part from the village of St Laurent-de-Caberisses.  Medium colour.  Quite firm and story, with a certain density and good concentration.  Some freshness on the finish.  Youthful.  Twelve months in oak 

2017 Collioure, les Elmes
We talked about heroic viticulture, considering the steep terraces of the vineyards of Collioure.  Medium colour.  The emphasis is on Grenache, with just 10% each of Mourvèdre and Syrah.  Grenache is not usually put in wood; you must take care not to oxidise it, and must retain the fruit.  Which Laurent has done, very successfully.  Medium colour.  Quite elegant spicy fruit, with some tannin on the palate, balancing some elegantly concentrated cherry fruit.   Laurent is also interested by the vin doux of Roussillon, but lamented, as I do, that nobody buys them; yet people love them when they try them.  

And our tasting finished with 2016 La Madone, which is the first vintage of this wine.  A blend of 80% Grenache and 20% Syrah, aged together in wood for twelve months, in barrels that had been used previously for a white wine.  Deep colour.  Quite a discreet nose, and a harmonious palate.   Some tannins balanced by spicy fruit.  Youthful and understated.  Definitely a wine that will develop in bottle, but it was already beginning to drink nicely, as we proved when we finished the bottle with wine-making friends later that evening.  

Then we adjourned to the Moulin de Trèbes, a cheerful restaurant on the canal just outside Trèbes and enjoy a lentil salad with Laurent’s Languedoc Blanc, with fresh herbal notes, from Marsanne, Roussanne, Vermentino and Grenache blanc, and then a refreshing apricot soup laced with ginger, and watched the boats go by.  Laurent enthused about the Languedoc.  observing that the Pays d’Oc has taken the place of AOP Languedoc at the base of the pyramid.  For him the appeal of the Languedoc is that it is young region, ‘we can do what we like - we can take risks - it is the El Dorado du vin, and it has no weight of history’.  Liberty and creativity are the rules of the game.   Laurent is a thoughtful and talented wine maker who is making a mark on the region, and when I asked who he saw as his competitors he modestly replied that he had none; the more good producers there were, the better it was for everyone.

Since my visit, there has been a large fire, covering some  700 hectares, very close to Montirat.  I am told that they lost a small number of trees, but thankfully no damage to the vineyard or other property, but they did have to move all their gite customers to other properties for safety.  And there is a welcoming tasting room and shop so do go and visit, and take my advice and ignore the deviation signs!


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