Domaine Chiroulet, how to make Gascony great (and good)

The church of Heux, in Tanarèze, next to Domaine Chiroulet. Looks like a house with a bell-tower, welcoming you.

With my apologies both to Philippe Fezas and to the current US President for using and abusing a slogan of the latter’s campaign. Fezas is (thankfully) in no way comparable to Donald Trump, so do not get this allusion wrong! What he has achieved, however (and not just said that he would achieve) is to show the small world of wine just how good the wines from the Armagnac region of Gascony, both white and, more unusually, red, can be. He has done this by a combination of vision, competence, thought and hard work, to which one must naturally add the potential of his specific territory. And he has done this without the aid of any spectacular financial means: just his and his family’s hard-earned pennies and loans from the bank.

Philippe Fezas in front of some of his vessels

So where and what is this small pearl called Domaine Chiroulet? About 10 kilometers west of the ancient and sedate town of Condom, south nd a little inland from Bordeaux, and which is capital of the part of the Armagnac region know as Ténarèze, on rolling hills where vineyards are intersperced with pastures and fields of cereal crops, and the hilltops and crannies are covered with woods. The house and winery lie in a tiny hamlet called Heux (you pronounce the final consonant in Gascony), whose magnificent small charch that dates back to the 13th century is another local treasure. And Philippe Fezas’s top dry white wine comes from this hillside and goes by the name of « La Côte d’Heux ».

How it all started at Chiroulet, back in the late 19th century. Now tractors rule

The Chiroulet vineyards cover about 20 hectares, which is a surface that has been multiplied by four since Philippe’s father took over the estate that used to be a mixed farm and whose wines were mostly distilled to produce Armagnac. Armagnac is still produced here, but Philippe saw the possibility of also producing good wines, having started his professional career, having obtaned his enology diploma in Toulouse, at Tariquet, one of the the pioneers and current leaders of the local Côtes de Gascogne designation. The first step was to gradually reshape the vineyard by planting lower-yielding and more suitable varieties and clonal selections. Sauvignon Blanc, Gros Manseng and Petit Manseng have partially taken the place of Ugni Blanc for the whites, whilst Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Tannat have been planted to produce the red wines. Cabernet Sauvignon, also trialed here, has a hard job ripening here and has almost been abandoned after some years. The name Chiroulet comes from the Chiroula, a local cold wind that flows northwards from the Pyrennes to the south and probably just drops the temperature below the range needed for fully ripening Cabernet Sauvignon. Local climate explains a lot of things.

My tasting

The white wine range of Chirolet includes two dry and two sweet wines.

Terres Blanches 2014

Gros Manseng, Sauvignon Blanc, Ugni Blanc (retail cellar-door price : 7,20 euros)

Quite firm and its natural acidity is still well in place. Clean and well made with fruit flavour still fresh, if a little simple, and a pleasant hint of bitterness on the finish (13/20)

Terres Blanches 2016

Slightly fuller in body, softer and rounder with lots of charm and good complexity. I also found the flavours more precise and the length superior to the 2014. A good wine at this price. (14,5/20)

Terres Blanches 2017 (recently bottled)

Still very pale in colour and with some CO2 lurking inside. The texture has not yet smoothed out and it seems dominated by that slightly grassy Sauvignon character. Not quite in place yet for me.

La Côte d’Heux 2016

100% Gros Manseng (retail cellar-door price 9,50 euros)

A different style of dry white wine here with fuller body and a rich feeling of tropical fruit flavours on the palate that totally avoids any heaviness thanks to its crisp freshness. Lovely balance and good finish (15/20)

La Côte d’Heux 2012

Just to show the fine ageing capacity of this wine! Point well made here with glorious richness and intensity of flavours. Deliciouly fresh and long. Excellent (16/20)

Soleil d’Automne 2016 (semi-sweet white)

Gros & Petit Manseng (retail cellar-door price : 8,70 euros)

The flavours are intense and complex in a fine balancing act that shows fruit and roundness to the fore, then lingering freshness to lift the finish. Good and easy to dring (15,5)

Vent d’Hiver 2014 (sweet wine)

100% Petit Manseng (retail cellar-door price : 15,50 euros)

Another delicoups wine, with even more intensity in both the fruit flavours and the freshness. As long as it is lively. (16/20)

A Rosé

Le Temps des Fleurs 2017

Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Tannat (retail cellar-door : 6,25 euros)

Fne texture for this delicously crisp rosé that combines floral and fruity flavours with excellent precision. Good persistance. As with so many contemporary rosés, I would love to see a bit more colour here, and this would also bring more flavour elements. But fashion seems to rule the rosé market, sadly! A very good buy. (14/20)

Red wines (range of 3 wines)

Terroir Gascon 2016

Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Tannat (retail cellar door price : 7,70 euros)

Fermentation, maceration and mturing in a mixture of concerete and wooden vats plus some used wood barrels.

Quite an intense ruby red colour. Flavours of plums and prunes. Slightly rustic texture but very precise and fine fruit quality. Good value (14/20)

Grande Réserve 2015

Merlot, Tannat (retail cellar door price : 13,50 euros)

Intense ruby to purple colour. The nose still shows some influence from the barrel ageing, but the textural effect of this is most beneficial, making the sensation on the palate smooth without destroying the impression of freshness. Careful extraction has not impeded excellent length and the fresh silky finish signs a very fine wine et this price level. (15,5/20)

Grande Réserve 2014

The colour does not seem any older than the 2015. The wood ageing is still very noticeable with its added flavours of spices. Rich and suave on the palate, very juicy and flavoursome (15/20)

Terra Nostra 2009

Tannat, Merlot (retail cellar-door price : 23,50 euros)

I cannot do this even more ambitious wine proper justice as I tasted it during a meal. I found the oak once again a bit too invasive. The acidity is also still lively and this wine seems amazingly young for a nine-year old. Quite chunky still. (no mark, to be fair)

Conclusion
Philippe Fezas has not finished surprising us with the quality of his Gascony wines. A trip around his vineyard showed me how carefully and thoughtfully they are farmed. His modern winery, inaugurated in 2010, and totally self-sufficient in energy, uses the best of technology in a sensible way in order to make the most of his grapes. He has more ideas than I can list here, moving forward, and I am keen to see how things will evolve in the future, with his forestry plans amongst other things. For the moment, here we have a very fine range of wines from Gascony with, in all probability, even greater things to come.

David Cobbold

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