David 23 July 2015
I first came across Domaine la Sarabande a few years ago and am glad to report that since then, a lot has happened with husband and wife team Paul and Isla Gordon. Most notable is their discovery by Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, “Domaine la Sarabande is a terrific, organically farmed estate...” #218 April 2015. Jeb Dunnuck's review, especially the 90 point, sub-$30 wine below,is a huge achievement for a couple of blow-ins on a small and recently established estate in France. Through hard work, determination and a real love for what they do, the Gordons are living the wine dream.
Here’s a recap of the Sarabande story. Paul worked in the Sydney wine trade in the 1990s, before heading off to Wagga to study winemaking at Charles Sturt University. From there he worked in several high profile Australian wineries as well as becoming a flying winemaker in Oregon, Spain and France. In 2003, doing his first vintage in New Zealand, Paul met his now wife Isla. She’d studied agriculture at university in her homeland of Ireland and was in New Zealand studying viticulture under the tutelage of the legendary Jeremy Hyland at Astrolabe Wines.
This perfect team of winemaker and viticulturist returned to Europe, eager to make old world wines with modern knowhow. They initially set off for Priorat in Spain, a famous region that produces some of the country’s best and most expensive red wines. This region’s reputation is based on Grenache, Carignan and schist. Winemakers get pretty excited about soil and rock, especially schist, an ancient metamorphic rock, often flaky and broken. Its value in vineyards comes mainly from its ability to retain heat and moisture, which the vines use as needed.
But land in Priorat is expensive, so the Gordons continued their search over the border in Languedoc. Situated in the southwest of France, it’s the largest wine region in the world with over 500,000 acres under vine and archetypal rugged-south-of-France countryside. The region has traditionally held a reputation for commercial wines but in the last decade or so there’s been a shift as ambitious young winemakers, like Paul and Isla, develop its latent richness. Here you’ll find the perfect combination of sunshine, relaxed regulation and affordable land. But most importantly, within this vast region there exist age-old vineyards with unique terroir, some of which are starting to produce great wines. Despite recent advances in quality, Languedoc’s historical reputation has ensured prices remain modest, so it’s still a great place to find value wines, if you know where to look.
Paul and Isla finally found their schist in the appellation of Faugères, which takes its name from the beautiful town of the same name, and here, in 2009, they established Domaine la Sarabande. The appellation covers approximately 5,000 acres in the east of the Languedoc, about 80km west of Montpellier and sits between 250m-500m elevation. The Oxford Companion to Wine refers to Faugères as “one of Languedoc’s most consistent appellations,” with wine having been made here for centuries.
Cycling tragics might be interested to know that the 7th stage of the Tour de France (Montpellier to Albi) passed through Faugères in 2013.
80% of the appellation’s grapes are red, with Carignan traditionally dominating but recently being outnumbered by Grenache, Syrah and Mouvèdre. These varieties and the warm, generous wines they produce in Faugères, are familiar to Australian drinkers. But there’s something a little different about them here - a certain spicy savouriness that makes them very appealing. Jancis Robinson MW describes the wines of Faugères as “big, southern (French) reds that taste like a cross between the spice of the southern Rhône and wild, rustic Corbières to the south west.”
The Gordon family settled in the small and charming medieval town of Laurens, a ten minute drive south of Faugères township. Initially renting vineyards, they progressively purchased several others and set about rejuvenating them using organic methods. Unlike most French vignerons, Paul is great with email, and tells me he’s been struggling through almost 3 weeks of 35+ degree days! Amazingly the vines are still green, highlighting the benefits of deep roots (a result of not irrigating) in schist soils.
Traditional techniques are used in the winery. Grapes are handpicked, ferments use wild yeast without additions and bottling is unfiltered and unfined. What I like most though is that while age-old methods are used, they’re overseen by a highly skilled and scientifically trained winemaker. The result is natural wines that are technically sound and free of faults - the best of both worlds.
The estate has been receiving some good press. Rosemary George MW has often singled out Sarabande in her Taste Languedoc blog. She’s been following the wines of Languedoc for 30 years and written several books. And Jeb Dunnock’s recent review of the estate’s wines is fantastic recognition. Many producers can’t get their wines tasted, let alone reviewed positively by The Wine Advocate.
1. Domaine la Sarabande Misterioso 2012
It’s pretty hard not to be impressed with this as an entry-level wine. It’s a delicious blend of 80% Grenache and 20% Syrah from a Sarabande owned vineyard just south of Faugères in the commune of Autignac. The vineyard is on clay and sandy soils, as well as schist of course, which Paul tells me is responsible for the plump juicy character of the wine.
The grapes were harvested by hand, after which they were crushed, de-stemmed and placed in small (1,000L) open-top fermenters. Natural yeasts were used to initiate fermentation, which was then left to to complete over 10 days. The two varieties were fermented separately and blended just prior to bottling. There’s no fining, no filtering and just enough sulphur dioxide to stop oxidation.
The wine is a translucent deep purply plum colour. Interestingly, it sees no oak, which accounts for the fresh lush fruit on the nose and palate. There are notes of raspberries, plums and roses as well as attractive savoury, spice and liquorice characters. Yummy and fresh! The tannins are soft, smooth and fine, yet still provide plenty of grip. It has that typical European mid-weight with firm acidity feel, at the same time managing to be viscous and velvety in texture. The result is a wine that's generous but delicate in its balance.
“It gives up lots of jammy blackberry, licorice, graphite and crushed rock nuances in its medium to full-bodied, rounded, supple and pure profile. It’s already hard to resist and will drink nicely for 4-5 years, possibly longer.” 90 points, Jeb Dunnuck, eRobertParker.com #218 April 2015. I can't stress enough what an outstanding score this is for a wine at this price.
“This seductive red blend of Grenache and Syrah comes from currently Languedoc’s hottest wine region - Faugères. With cherries on the nose, beautiful soft tannins and a palate of dark fruits, this is good value as a special treat.” Matthew Nugent, The Irish Sun, 9th May 2015, Top 10 Languedoc wines.
“Succulent and ripe, filled with dark cherry fruits dusted with spices.”
Top 100 Wines of Ireland, John Wilson, The Irish Times.
Only about 25 doz are available here, but thanks to B&G customers’ support for the last vintage, I’ve been able to nab most of this one.
This is the perfect combination of generous Australian warmth and drinkability, with the spicy savouriness of the south of France. And best of all, at this price you can enjoy it any night of the week.
2. Domaine la Sarabande AOP Fagueres 2011
This wine is a 60/25/15 blend of Grenache, Carignan and Syrah and comes from two Sarabande vineyards in Autignac, with entirely schist soils. The vines struggle here and so produce less, but more intense fruit. The Carignan and Syrah are matured in a mixture of old and new 500L French oak but the Grenache sees no oak to retain its freshness.
There’s a bit more of everything in this wine - more weight, more complexity and more intensity. Its warm, sun-filled generosity on the palate delivers ripe, dark fruit and plum jam characters, but once again quintessentially old-world savoury herb and mineral flavours. But there’s an added funkiness that makes this wine delicious. The tannins are firm but approachable and with the oak, give great structure. You’ll like the way the wine feels in your mouth - smooth and lingering.
Paul comments on the wine: “Firm yet grainy tannins hold this wine together, backing up the fruity Grenache, peppery Syrah and funky meaty Carignan.”
“Pepper, dark fruit, stony, aromatic dried herb, some chocolate. Medium to full-bodied, grainy tannin, earthy savoury flavours. Has that wild South of France feel in spades. Grippy. Excellent.” 93 Points, Gary Walsh, The Wine Front.
I love the combination of terroir and tradition with new world freshness and know-how. It’s a challenge to limit yourself to just one glass… or two.
I can offer it for $39 a bottle (limited stock). SOLD OUT - Check availability