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01 December 2007

Languedoc: Mas Belles Eaux

Revamped by the might, money and know-how of the AXA Millésimes group (assurance / insurance / property investment: owner of Château Pichon-Longueville in Pauillac, Disznókő in Tokaj and Quinta do Noval Port among others), who combined two vineyards - Château Ste. Hélène and Château Belles Eaux - to form a 90 hectare (220 acre) estate. Here you'll find Syrah (some grafted onto underperforming Carignan), Grenache, Mourvèdre (4 ha replanted) and parcels of old vine Carignan on the gravel/clay slopes of Caux in the central Languedoc, lost (and I mean lost, without the mysterious imaginary monsters though: they're improving the signposting) between Pézenas and Montpellier. The stately 16th to 19th Century buildings (from the original barrel cellar to handsome chateau added later) are being renovated, part of which houses the remodelled and re-equipped winery.
Stockists in the UK include independent wine merchants such as the splendid PW Amps in Peterborough, Ipswich Fine Wines, JH Logan of Edinburgh, Topsham Wines near Exeter, crammed-with-lovely-bottles Wimbledon Wine Cellars and direct e-tailer fromvineyardsdirect.com. For more info on their UK and US distribution, contact Marie Louise Schÿler:
mlschyler@chateauxassocies.com. They also launched a bag-in-box red a couple of years ago in France, which doesn't, in retrospect, really seem to fit in with their 'premium-positioning' plans (to use the marketing babble), but I haven't heard anything about that since then.
Tasted August 2006:
2003 Fûts de Chêne (Syrah Grenache Carignan 14.5%, 12 months in French 20% new oak) - rich purple turning red/brown at the edges, ripe plum and black cherry notes, smoky and rustic with very light cedar and spice undertones; quite concentrated, nice soft rounded palate v grip and power, drinking fairly well now. Better balance than the Ste-Hel in terms of alcohol, extraction etc. £7.99 88-90
2003 Sainte-Hélène (same varieties plus Mourvèdre, from selected plots) - delicious earthy plum and black cherry/olive, very ripe and aromatic with subtle background oak; lush and forward, rich and soft with textured tannins and light oak; pity about that 14.5% alcohol (at least I'd say), which throws a very nice wine out of kilter. A victim of heatwave 2003? Look forward to the 2004. £15 87 (because of its overly hot finish).
Update: I visited the winery in October 2006 and re/tasted the following:
2004 Chardonnay fûts de chêne (no new oak) - creamier and fatter than the basic Chardy with nice oat character v light peachy fruit; more power and texture, rounded with well judged oak. 85-87
Muscat vendanges d'automne (13.5% 80 grams/litre residual sugar) - made "for fun" from sun-shrivelled berries: gorgeously exotic, slightly
botrytis aromas lead to lovely citrus and peach fruit; quite fresh acidity actually v lush sweetness. 89
2003 Fûts de Chêne - nice ripe spicy black cherry with light liquorice, beginning to develop; fairly soft texture v quite powerful alcohol v dry rounded tannins, attractive fruity length with well integrated wood. 89
2003 Sainte-Hélène - a little woodier but not much (from the 05 vintage they're only using 1 year old barrels, by the way), richer more intense dark fruit aromas and palate; firmer and tighter yet still rounded tannins, pretty concentrated v slightly hot alcohol. 89
2004 Fûts de Chêne (10% more Syrah than the 03, 13.5%) - a touch more vanilla, the fruit's a little subdued on the nose; however the palate launches into attractive black cherry intensity, firm tight and fresher than the 03, shows greater elegance and promise. 89-91
2004 Sainte-Hélène (20% more Syrah, more Mourvèdre, Carignan, less Grenache; 14.5%) - light coconut notes v rich liquorice and cherry fruit, firm grip with good texture and weight; fine length with alcohol much better integrated, needs 6-12 months to open out and the oak to merge into the fruit.

Update 2007/08: for a start, they've relaunched the estate and its top reds as Mas Belles Eaux with the promising 2005 and 06 vintages. Cédric Loiseau, the winery & vineyard manager placed in situ by AXA, has overseen replanting of over 20 ha and upgrading parcels of Syrah with "top-grafting and retraining," as their blurb says (meaning young Syrah was grafted directly onto old Syrah or a different variety more likely, then the trellising was redone accordingly). In addition, the "two-level winery" is nearly finished and fitted out with small temperature-controlled concrete vats (very de rigueur). Big boss Christian Seely commented: "This was a departure from our normal policy of restoring great vineyards to their former glory. This time we are creating one instead. I truly believe that Mas Belles Eaux is capable of producing some of the great red wines of the Languedoc." Mind you, they'll have to be given the high prices they're aiming for - see below.
Tasted December 2007:
2006 MBE Vieux Carignan, Vin de Pays de Caux (100% 60 year-old Carignan, 13.5%) - light coconut oak lifts off to reveal fragrant cassis, damson and liquorice fruit; intense and tangy v ripe and full palate, attractively tight grip with concentration and chocolate cherry length. 89-91
2005 MBE Les Coteaux, AOC Languedoc (70% Syrah 20% Grenache 10% Mourvèdre 14.5%) - similar to the Sainte-Hélène, below, but a touch quirkier (maybe it's the Mourvèdre?) and less overtly oaky-smooth, showing vibrant black cherry and chocolate with earthy undertones; fresh tannins v rounded ripe mouth-feel, in the end the alcohol is pretty well integrated too. 90 £12.99
2005 MBE Sainte-Hélène, AOC Languedoc (80% Syrah 10% Grenache 10% Carignan 14.5%) - impressive and lush with ripe concentrated black cherry v coconut oak texture, underlying spicy smoky liquorice notes too, rounded and structured with tighter bite to finish. It's almost a bit too Bordeaux, oak-textured and seamless; yet those rich vibrant Mediterranean edges, which might develop over time, carry it. 90+? £21.99

Mas Belles Eaux, 34720 Caux. Tel: 04 67 09 30 96 / 95 (the latter Cédric Loiseau's direct line),
contact@mas-belleseaux.com,  www.mas-belleseaux.com

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