Monday, 5 April 2010

A bit of a tart...

Having made a mess in Aunt J’s kitchen with my Good Friday fish pie experiment, she, with the patience of a saint, then took me to where she stores the wine to see what was on offer. Chardonnay came to mind; lemon zing and light oak complementing the smoked fish and the lemon juice that had been thrown into the pie. However, the answer lay in the word “experiment” and, as with the pie, so with the wine, with a bottle of Domaine Ventenac, Vin De Pays Cotes de Lastours, 2008, Chenin Colombard 12% (Waitrose, £6.99). Oh dear, oh very dear.

Pouring the wine into our glasses, the colour was a light straw colour, very pale. Lifting it up to a white background it was possible to make out the green tinges of the wine, giving hints to what was to come on the palate. My glass was a little too dish-washer worn to notice any legs but the rim was as clear as the wine itself.

Putting my nose into the glass and trying to avoid the pervasive smell of fish that was wafting around the house, there were light floral hints and appley greenness; citrus, some pears, and an apricot honey that gave it a light almost sugary quality. However, it was very green.

What hit the mouth initially was the instant gooseberry and sharp mineral flint sourness; an insanely mouth puckering acidity of Granny smith apples and quince tartness (potentially from the additional Gros Manseng in the blend, though this is only meant to be about 10%). Redeeming this slightly was the vague honeyness from the Chenin, a honey and lemon lozenge; lemon pith; grass and herbaceousness; metallic pencil-lead flintiness. The creamy element had an almost, and I feel strange sharing this with you, raw and beaten egg white flavour before sugar has been added. Think meringues with a hint of lemon (I use lemon, some people use vinegar, a technique I picked up from Arrigo Cipriani’s “Harry’s Bar Cook Book”).

Leaving the glass to rest further in the hope that the woody, bitter herb after taste would lift, and the floral and honeyed qualities of the Chenin would come to the fore, my mind wanders to the wild and rocky garrigue of Lastours, only tamed by the vineyards of Alain Maurel’s winery, as the website would have you imagine. This, of course is slightly fantastic as Domaine Ventenac sits in the foothills of the Black Mountains, the same ones as St. Jean de Minervois and St. Chinian though about 50km further west. But we are 10km north of the very dramatic Carcassonne the medieval town rebuilt by Viollet le Duc and star back drop of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, so the fantastic allusions should remain.

Given the vines grow in a good draining mix of crumbly white calcium soil with an underlying magnesium loam (both of which would explain the flintiness of the wine) and some clay (preventing the grapes drying out completely), there is little danger of producing flabby wines. Strong Mediterranean winds from the south and cooler breezes from the Massif Central in the north give the vines plenty of air, avoiding the mildew that the Colombard is prone to.

Returning to the glass, there is a faint mead-like quality of honey on the nose. After a while some of the edge has gone giving over to the nicer honey subtlety, this is followed by the fruity citrus follow up... high, high high acidity. Puckering sharpness returns but less dramatic than before. It has lost its bitter herb quality. The long, long, very long finish is of riper apples but definitely Granny Smith rears her aged head here in this young wine. Still got that mouth-watering long finish some minutes on.

What amazes me is the disappointing combination of these grapes, bottled up to sound like something a bit ‘classy’ (to use a term). Chenin, a native to the Loire, gets full honeyed dried apricot flavours and aromas in warmer climes such as the obvious South Africa. Here, in the Languedoc, where the climate is much warmer and drier than the Loire, this wine is high in acidy and very little else. The honeyed apricots are trampled on by limes, quince, bitter apples and flint. Mix this with the neutral crisp sharpness of Colombard, a grape used mainly in the production of Cognac a little further west, throw in a touch of Gros Manseng (I admit having to look that one up!), and this is the result: disappointment.

Overall, my thoughts about sipping a gentle creamy and slightly buttered chardonnay still remain (though I am no great wine matcher). The label on this wine bottle says it is perfect with seafood and shellfish; however, it is too flinty and acidic, and would destroy any subtle sweetness that you get with a scallop or a prawn (or whatever). This would be great with a lemon tart, clearly because it is lemon pith and it is very tart. Whilst it did mellow, I wouldn’t want to have this again (not even with a lemon tart). For me there is no rounded edge, no honeyed apricots and no creaminess.

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