Single-variety wines: A tale of two grapes

by Tom Fiorina on November 5, 2014

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Tasting wine at Toulouse’s annual Salon Vins et Terroirs demonstrated to me, once again, the intellectual, oenological and qualitative interest of single-variety wines.

The Toulouse Salon Vins et Terroirs is held on the first weekend in November. This is the Midi-Pyrénées region’s largest gathering of winemakers. A total of 235 were there this year–up from 230 in 2013. The majority of them are French; just two winemakers from Italy and two from central Europe (Hungary and Slovenia) attended the event.

The “terroir” in the name refers to the presence of 55 producers of regional food delicacies, including charcuterie and cheese from Corsica, the Pyrenees and the Basque region, honey, pastries, chocolates, jams, and, this being southwestern France, enough duck-derived products, including unctuous foie gras, to give Daffy Duck the willies.

With many of the same winemakers returning year-after-year, this has become as much a social occasion as a wine-buying opportunity. The winemakers know many of their customers by name (inviting them with tickets sent by mail in October). Prices are just slightly higher than those charged at the vineyard, so many visitors come equipped with some sort of cart or two-wheeled hand truck to haul their purchases to their cars.

Here are my impressions of the 2014 Salon Vins et Terroirs event, the seventh that I’ve attended.

Corsican vigneron Alain Courrrèges stands behind his solid-as-a-rock, 100% Sciaccarellu, Domaine de Vaccelli Unu Granit.

Corsican vigneron Alain Courrrèges stands behind his solid-as-a-rock, 100% Sciaccarellu Domaine de Vaccelli Unu Granit.

The Corsican connection
The Domaine de Vaccelli is in the AOC Ajaccio region of southern Corsica. This is one of the first vineyards on the island that I visited in researching my Corsican wine tourism guides. Alain Courrèges took over the vineyard in 1974 from his father Roger, who started to make wine here in the 1960s after arriving from North Africa. The Courrèges, along with Pierre Richarme at Domaine Péro Longo in Corsica’s Sartène wine appellation, are two of the few wine-making “pieds noir” immigrants (as repatriated French colonists were called) who successfully integrated on the island.

Courrèges passed the baton to his son Gérard in 2000. Since his retirement, Alain Courrèges has had more time for the painting, sculpting and other artistic activities that interest him. A visit to the wine cellar that he literally carved from the granite rock in the region demonstrates his capabilities, as do the many rock sculptures that fill it.

Their wines at the Toulouse salon show steady progress. In my opinion, the younger Courrèges’s wines, up until a few years ago, were too technical. Over-zealous filtration and fining were producing squeaky-clean, homogenized wines that were lacking in that vital terroir ingredient, personality and place.

I tasted four Domaine de Vaccelli wines at the salon, a rosé and three red wines. The rosé and two of the three red wines were made from the native Corsican Sciaccarellu grape.

The salmon-pale Rosé with attractive orange highlights is made by the saignée method, where some of the juice is “bled” off after the grapes have macerated for several hours in the tank. Rosés made this way have structure and volume that are often missing from rosés made from the pressurage direct method, where the grapes are lightly pressed and the juice is fermented without any grape maceration. I neglected to note the alcohol level of the 2013 Domaine de Vaccelli Unu Rosé that I tasted (and I couldn’t find this information on the Internet), but judging from its excellent structure and body it must have over a 13% alcohol level (saignée rosés typically have higher levels of alcohol since the first juice removed from the tanks has an increased level of sugar). But its floral, fresh-fruit nose and taste, and the richness of its texture, balanced by its acidity, make this an excellent food wine.

Likewise, the 2012 30% Carignan-70% Grenache IGP (Indication Géographique Protégée) Ile de Beauté Juste Ciel rouge, and the 2011 AOP Unu and the 2011 AOP Granit, two 100% Sciaccarellu reds, are well-balanced, full-bodied wines with this grape variety’s characteristic lightish-red color and aromas of spices, tobacco and red fruits.

Of the four wines that I tasted, the 2011 AOP Unu was my favorite because of its balance, tension and energy, and agreeable taste. This is a good vin de terroir at the salon price of €14.50. The Juste Ciel at €7.50 represented even better value, but it was indistinguishable from almost any Languedoc-Roussillon traditional red wine made from a Carignan and Grenache blend. I thought the 2011 Granit was too ripe, too powerful and, at €30, too expensive. Likewise, the 2013 Unu Rosé, at €15, is on the expensive side. And that, perhaps, is a weak point for Corsican wines: there is so little supply, and such great demand (mostly from the two million tourists who visit the island annually), that the prices are rising above what the quality of the wines merit. If Corsican winemakers are not careful, they’ll price themselves out of the international marketplace.

Vins fatales
In contrast to the rock-solid, masculine wines offered at the Domaine de Vaccelli, my next stop was to sample the beauty, charm and allure on offer from the Champalou vineyard in the Loire Valley’s Vouvray appellation.

It’s said that a wine reflects the winemaker, and this is obviously even truer of grape varieties. When trendy international styles and oenologic intervention are removed from the equation, the Corsican Sciaccarellu grape can deliver wines of place and presence that are elegant and memorable. Likewise, Vouvray’s Chenin Blanc grape is capable of producing beautiful white wines that are complex, round and tender.

The Champalou sisters (left to right) Céline and Virginie are as attractive as the Vouvray wines produced on their parents eponymous estate.

The Champalou sisters (left to right) Virginie and Céline are as attractive as the Vouvray wines produced on their parents’s estate.

All of the Champalou wines that I tasted are highly aromatic, with outstanding balance and elegance. And the fact that the attractive Champalou daughters (this is an eponymous estate created by their parents Didier and Catherine Champalou) were on-hand to handle the salon tastings was a plus.

Chenin Blanc must be among the most versatile grapes around. The Champalou’s show how it can be used to produce dry, off-dry, semi-sweet, dessert sweet and sparkling wines of extreme elegance.

Their Champalou Vouvray Brut, a sparkling wine made in the “Méthode Traditionelle,” has the toastiness and scintillatingly dry finish of excellent Champagne, with a delicateness and smoothness to make you think that this might be a worthwhile replacement for its more famous cousin.

Champalou also makes a delicious dry Vouvray, with a rounded, tender, cream-like texture and touches of apples and ripe quinces wrapped in a not-too-sweet honey. Good acidity in the finish keeps it from being cloying and gives it balance and freshness.

They make, using selected botrytized grapes, a decadently-sweet wine known as La Moelleuse. Its delicate citrus flavors are balanced by beautifully clean and precise acidity.

They also make a limited-quantity (300 cases per year) dry Vouvray called Le Portail. Its grapes are from a parcel located between the estate’s gate (“portail” in French) and their winery. The hand-picked grapes are pressed and then vinified in 450-liter oak barrels. After fermentation, the wine remains on its lees for 11 months in the barrel before bottling.

Wonderfully aromatic, with exotic tropical fruit scents, Le Portail has a weighty palate that is supported, like their other wines, with a good acidity. There is an almost sherry-like oxidized nuttiness to it (probably from its long aging on lees) and a pronounced minerality. Lingering smoky notes appear during the remarkably long finish.

All of the Champalou wines are harmonious, restrained, and a true reflection of the terroir. What’s more, they get better with age. Likewise, the Domaine de Vaccelli demonstrates how the uniquely Corsican Sciaccarellu grape can make outstanding wines with the delicacy and raspberry-cherry aromas often found in Pinot Noir.

You’d need more than three days to uncover all of the treasures at the Salon Vins et Terroirs in Toulouse. Which is why I keep going back, year after year.

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