Three of the seven Crus du Languedoc in the top level of the region’s new quality pyramid offer special joys. For publication in the week of 8 May 2017.
The notion of “garrigue” is a feature of the Languedoc in the deep south of France. The word is defined as the low-growing vegetation in the hills around the Mediterranean. But in the Languedoc it refers almost to a feeling or sentiment: A combination of sunshine and “joie de vivre” mixed with the aromas of the thyme, rosemary, lavender and juniper that grow wild in the area.
It is easy to smell garrigue in the wines of Faugeres, Corbieres-Boutenac and Pic Saint-Loup AOCs, three of the seven Crus du Languedoc that make up the top tier of the new quality pyramid.
Faugeres AOC is famous for its schist soils. These help vines retain moisture during the hot summers. The soils span a spectrum from yellow to orange to ochre, and even a soft blue in the less-elevated areas.
A high proportion of organic estates can be found among the 1,900 hectares of vines. The official figure is 45 per cent, though it’s probably higher. Interestingly, only two declared themselves bio-dynamic, though this could be because of what the locals call the tedious amount of documentation required.
The landscape is visually splendid: Rolling hills and estates separated by drystone walls made with schist, a metamorphic rock that splits into long flat pieces. Walls are “dry” because no mortar holds them together, just gravity and the skill of the wall-maker. The walls serve two main purposes – to protect against erosion on the slopes, and to provide a haven for bio-diversity.
Vine roots probe through the cracks in the schist to find moisture. The region produces about 880,000 750ml bottles a year. The mineral flavours the schist imparts are as noticeable as the garrigue.
Grapes are classic Rhone. The AOC only makes reds and rose. Grenache tends to be harvested first, in the first week of September in the case of the 2016 vintage. Syrah and Carignan are harvested next. The Mourvedre is the last to be picked, about a month after the Grenache. Syrah in particular seems to like the schist soils.
Mas Olivier is a co-op founded in 1959. They make a delightful rose called Parfum de Schistes, or perfume of the schist soils, which is quite delicious. It is 60 per cent Grenache with 20 per cent each of Cinsault and Syrah. Juice is fermented at low temperature until dry and then blended after fermentation. Rose petal and red fruit flavours linger in the mouth, complemented by zesty citrus acidity.
A highlight were the wines of Damien Guerande, winemaker and viticulturalist at Vignobles Jeanjean. His 2014 Le Pere la Minute is one of the best wines I tasted while in the Languedoc, and after I complimented Damien he told me his wine had just received 93 Parker points.
The name suggests an obsessive father, and reflects the level of attention Damien gave his “baby”. His other red is the 2014 Maso-Schistes, suggesting that making wine in Faugeres is not financially rewarding and one needs to be brave to try. It’s a blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre and is delicious in a racy, red-fruit-forward kind of style.
The region also has a distillery that makes fine (grape spirit). Atelier du Bouilleur near Montpellier (https://www.atelier-du-bouilleur.fr) has resurrected a tradition that was a feature of the region more than a century ago. They use traditional “charentais” (copper pot stills) to make five spirits, including La Fine Faugeres, once famous as the third brandy of France after Cognac and Armagnac. This brandy is barrel matured for five years after being made from Faugeres grapes. It sells for about 60 Euro for a half litre bottle and is an ideal companion on a winter night.
Corbieres-Boutenac AOC is noted for its old Carignan vines, many of them more than 100 years old and usually grown without trellising (known as field vines). Carignan can handle harsh conditions when other grapes die or struggle. The motto of the region is “force et douceur” which translates as power and delicacy, and it summarises the wines nicely.
The region has 184 hectares of vines and makes about 825,000 bottles a year. Older vines tend to be used for Corbieres-Boutenac AOC though the definition of “vignes veilles” is a moveable feast. One local winemaker said 50 years was his definition but there appears to be no agreement in the region.
The appellation covers 10 villages around the Pinada, a small mountain at the heart of the Corbieres area. Soft and full-bodied reds are a feature. Many winemakers use carbonic maceration, a technique that originated in the Beaujolais region. Carbon dioxide gas is pumped into a sealed container filled with whole bunches. The gas stimulates fermentation in individual grapes. The method ferments most of the juice while it is still inside each grape, though grapes at the bottom of the vessel are crushed by the weight of those on top and undergo conventional fermentation. The main benefit of this method is soft tannins and wines that are easy to drink when young.
Pic Saint-Loup AOC is the youngest of the Languedoc Crus, having been decreed at the end of January this year. It is north of the city of Montpelier in the foothills of the Cevenne ranges. These mountains dominate the landscape.
The region consists of about 1,000 hectares of vines. It has a special meso-climate because of its elevation (about 500 metres) and proximity to the sea, the latter offering cool sea breezes in the heat of the summer. The wide diurnal range in summer, when temperatures drop from 35C during the day to 15C at night, imparts intense flavours to the grapes.
Locals harvest about two weeks after everyone else in the Languedoc, and the clay-limestone soils have an affinity for Syrah grapes, which generally dominate the red blends and rose. The region makes about 5 million bottles a year, and seven out of eight are red. About two in five of the estates are organic.
Regis Valentin is the winemaker at Chateau de Lancyre. He ferments his reds in concrete tanks, though they do not receive any oak. The wines reflect the garrigue that grows in abundance in the hills. Another attractive wine was the 2015 Bergerie du Capucin with its masses of violets and musk aromas, fresh acidity, soft tannins and delicate elegance. It’s a blend of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre.