David 21 February 2014
At the ebullient Rootstock wine festival a few weeks ago, a celebration of sustainable artisans, th ere were over 60 producers and hundreds of wines from Australia, NZ, France, Italy, Austria and even Georgia (think Black Sea not the US state). It was a great chance to catch up with winemakers, taste wines and attend a few master classes on ‘natural’ wines. I was there to meet one person in particular though, talented winemaker Paul Gordon of Domaine la Sarabande. This guy lives the dream, having upped sticks and moved to France to make wine.
I’d heard of Paul in the Sydney wine trade in the 1990s, but by the mid-90s he was off to Wagga to become a winemaker at Charles Sturt Uni. From there Paul worked in several high profile Australian wineries as well as becoming a flying winemaker, completing vintages in Oregon, Spain and France. In 2003 he did his first vintage in New Zealand and it was here that he met his Irish wife Isla, who subsequently studied viticulture under the legendary Jeremy Hyland at Astrolabe Wines.
This perfect team of winemaker and viticulturist returned to Europe, eager to make old world wines with a modern Aussie influence and were initially drawn to Priorat in Spain. This famous region produces some of Spain’s best and most expensive red wines, and it was here they hoped to further their passion for grenache, carignan and schist.
Winemakers can get pretty excited about soil and rocks… especially schist - an ancient metamorphic rock, often flaky and broken, that’s formed under great heat or pressure. Its value in vineyards comes from its ability to retain heat and moisture, which the vines are able to utilise in times of need.
But land in Priorat is very expensive, so they continued their search in Languedoc. With over 500,000 acres under vine, this is the largest wine region in the world. It’s situated in the southwest of France, running along the Mediterranean coast, from Montpellier right around almost as far as the Spanish border. It’s a place of rugged beauty and when you think of escaping to the south of France, this is the sort of countryside you’d imagine. The region has traditionally had a reputation for producing commercial wines but in the last decade or so there’s been a shift as a new generation of ambitious winemakers, like Paul and Isla, see it as the perfect place to realise their dreams. Here you’ll find lots of sunshine, relaxed regulation and affordable land. Most importantly, within this vast region you’re able to find unique and age-old vineyard sites with unique terroir, some of which are starting to produce great wines. Despite all this positive change, the historical perception of Languedoc ensures prices remain modest, so it’s still a great place to find value wines, if you know where to look.
Paul and Isla found their schist vineyards in the appellation of Faugères and established Domaine la Sarabande in 2009. Taking its name from the beautiful town of the same name, the appellation is around 5000 acres, is situated in the eastern part of the Languedoc region - about 80km inland (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.
80% of grapes in the appellation are red, with carignan traditionally dominating but it’s giving way to grenache, syrah and mouvèdre. These Rhône varieties and the warm, generous Mediterranean wines they produce are familiar to us in Australia.
The pair set about rejuvenating the vineyards with organic methods and without chemical herbicides and fungicides. Traditional techniques are also favoured in the winery, with handpicked grapes, natural ferments (ie wild yeast), no additions and bottling is unfiltered and unfined. While these are age-old methods, what I like most about this process is that it is overseen by a highly skilled and scientifically trained winemaker. The result being natural wines that are technically sound and free of faults - the best of both worlds.
These wines are made in small quantities and I wish there was more of them for me to sell.
1. Domaine la Sarabande ‘Misterioso’ Grenache Syrah 2011
This wine is a blend of 80% Grenache and 20% Syrah, with the fruit coming from a vineyard just outside the ridiculously quaint town of Autignac. The soils here are more clay and sand dominant, producing good yields and vibrant fruit. The wine was fermented in open topped 1 tonne (ie very small) fermenters and sees no oak.
Straight up there’s an attractive young, fresh juiciness and gentle tannin structure that comes with natural wine. We see plenty of grenache shiraz blends here in Australia and the purpley plum colour and the dark, plump fruit characters on the palate are very familiar. For many natural wines this is the end of the story, but Paul’s skills lend more to his wines. You’ll find it mid-weight with a savoury, herby, earthy element that becomes more evident as the wine opens up and this is the extra dimension that grabbed me.
Paul told me he wants to offer an upfront, approachable and fruit forward wine with this blend. The aim is to combine the fresh, juicy, low tannin fruit of the grenache with some young, yet solid syrah to add some tannin and complexity. Don’t you love the way experts makes it sound so simple and obvious? He’s a modest man... it’s harder than it looks, especially at this price.
“Raw meat, pepper, jubey blackcurrant and red fruit. Very youthful. grainy tannins, a lowish acid, slippery feel, built on tannin. Dried herb and earth on finish. Character plus.” 92 Points. Gary Walsh, The Wine Front.
A wine to enjoy any night of the week.
I can offer it for $29 a bottle (limited stock). SOLD OUT - Click here for new vintage
2. Domaine la Sarabande AOP Faugères 2011
This wine is a 60/25/15 blend of grenache, carignan and syrah and comes from two vineyards where the soils are entirely schist. The vines struggle here and so produce less, but more intense fruit. The carignan and syrah are matured in 500L French oak (mixture of old and new) and the grenache sees no oak to retain freshness.
More... there’s a bit more of everything in this wine than the Misterioso - more flavour, more weight 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