First off, I’m not dead. I’m sure many of you were concerned when I went without posting for almost two weeks. More importantly, I have given up neither drinking nor writing. There have been a few concerns, not related to drinking or writing, which have been more pressing over the last fortnight, but with this post I hope to return to form and look forward to bringing you further wine most weekdays. And to get this week on track, I give you Domaine Lafage Tessellae Carignan Vieilles Vignes 2009.
First off, where was this wine on Carignan Day when I mistakenly ended up with an admittedly very good blend when what I really wanted was a varietal? At long last I can add Carignan as a varietal to my list. As far as Carignan goes, I did write a fair bit about it when I reviewed the De Martino, but just for a quick review, it’s a grape that is not universally loved, and in fact was considered something of a pest within the trade due to its use in cheap wine made from highly cropped vines (up to 200HL/HA in some cases). I wouldn’t go so far as to say that’s no longer the case entirely, but there are certainly some producers making quality wine from the grape, with much more tightly controlled yields. The grape is found throughout the warmer areas surrounding the Mediterranean, including North Africa, and can produce wines high in colour, acidity and tannins, though sometimes with a fair whack of bitterness as well.
So in addition to being a varietal Carignan, this wine is interesting to me because it’s a vin de pays, or country wine, though within France that term is being phased out and replaced with Indication Géographique Protégée, which I’ve seen abbreviated as both IGP and PGI. This category of wine is not new to this blog, though perhaps in this form it is. I touched on the topic a bit with the IGT wines from the Sicily tasting, in particular the Duca Enrico, which are essentially the Italian version via the overarching EU regulations. In quality levels, at the high end you have appellations with their strict regulations and rankings, and at the lower end you have table wine which has very little regulation at all. However, in between there are many wines which are not strictly restricted by appellation rules but which are from a particular region with the right to designate themselves as such. So vin de pays are from an area, rather than table wine which can be a blend of wine from anywhere, but without so many of the appellation rules to do with permitted varieties, yields, winemaking styles, what have you.
So why do I find them interesting? Three main reasons: value, room for innovation, and local scarcity. First, they can represent very good value. There’s a great deal of vin de pays produced, and while much of it is very mediocre, there are some excellent wines to be found. However, since they’re grouped with a large range of competitors, even the very good ones can’t charge a huge premium, and as such you can find very good vin de pays for decent prices. Second, without established appellation rules, winemakers are free to experiment and innovate in terms of what they plant and how they make their wine. Vin de pays can be as unconventional as any New World wine, and while not all of them are, I like that experimentation is permitted. Finally, because these are often value wines that compete on price within Europe, they have a hard time competing against local wines in Australia because of the taxes levied against them before they even get to a shelf. A five pound sterling bottle of vin de pays might do well competing against a similarly priced Australian bottle in London, but on a shelf here it would cost much more than a local wine of similar quality. As a result, not a huge amount of vin de pays is available in Australia – it often just isn’t competitive.
Right, so that’s the grape and vin de pays out of the way, but I haven’t said a word about the pays in vin de pays, and in this case it’s Côtes Catalanes. I’ve only previously written about a single wine from the Languedoc-Roussillon region, the Picpoul de Pinet, and this wine is from another subregion within the greater area, the Catalan coast. Vin de pays can be named at three levels – regional, such as Vin de Pays d’Oc which covers all of Languedoc and Roussillon, departmental (which is roughly equivalent to a county), and local. This is a local designation, having to do with the Catalan ethnic group of what is now Catalonia of northern Spain and southwestern France.
Côtes Catalanes is based in the Pyrenees-Orientales department in the Roussillon region. The climate is warm Mediterranean, and the soils vary from a combination of decomposed shale and clay with poor drainage through to schist marble and limestone hills, and gravel as you near the sea. While there are certainly plantings of Carignan, Grenache and Syrah are the dominant red varieties, with a mix of traditional and international whites.
Domaine Lafage is the estate of a family which has been cultivating vines in the region for six generations, going back as far as the late 1800s. The label itself is a relatively recent invention of Jean-Marc Lafage, who with his wife Elaine, established it in 1996 after years of wine studies and work throughout the New World. Their holdings are 138 HA of vines across 200 HA total, with plantings of Muscat, Chardonnay, and Grenache, in addition to Carignan (among others) that go into AOC Côtes du Roussillon wines, various vins de pays, vins doux naturels, and a line of bag in box wines.
This wine is made from grapes grown in the Agly Valley, with soils of black shale and schist. In terms of yields, this wine is made from grapes that yielded roughly 20HL/HA, whereas at the extreme some vineyards can bring in ten times as much.
In the glass this wine is clear and bright, medium plus ruby colour, with slow thin legs when swirled. On the nose it’s clean and developing, with notes of raspberry, perfume and dark chocolate. The palate is dry with medium acidity, medium minus body, medium plus tannins, medium plus alcohol, and medium flavour intensity. There are notes of plum, raspberry, blueberry, some blood and meat, and a little chocolate. It has a medium length and a chocolate finish.
This is a good quality wine – interesting and worth a try. It’s certainly not the Carignan that is the source of so many complaints. The tannins are supple, the fruit sweet but with rich chocolate. There’s a fair amount of complexity for a very unpretentious wine. It’s not a wine that’s going to change your life, but certainly one worth drinking.