This year the La Livinière region in the deep south of France celebrates its 20th anniversary of being founded. For publication in the week starting 24 June 2019.
The La Livinière region is small, with about 400 hectares devoted to vines in the 2,700 hectares of the official area of the appellation. It sits in the heart of the Minervois in the deep south of France, perhaps 70 km from the coast of the Mediterranean Sea.
La Livinière has 39 winemaking families and two co-operatives. Wine has been made there for millennia, though documents can only confirm about 1,000 years. A Roman document from 1069, believed to be the oldest written mention of winemaking, calls the area “Lavineira” which means a “place planted with vines”.
Isabelle Coustall is president of Minervois AOC La Livinière, to give the region its full name. She said only red wines were produced and explained that over centuries locals had noted that the soils were best suited for red grapes.
Syrah, Grenache and Carignan are the main varieties, with a little Mourvedre to add to the mix. The three main varieties represent about 90 per cent of the grapes grown in the region.
All wines are blends. A minimum of 60 per cent of the three main varieties (in total) must appear in the region’s blends.
The soils of La Livinière are a mixture of shale, sandstone, quartz, marble and limestone, plus large pebbles, sand and clay where major erosion has occurred. The area is a succession of sandstone hills dotted with woods, with stone fences separating plots of land. Grapes are grown up to 400 metres.
Rainfall can be low. The average for the region is between 400 and 500 mm a year. South-facing slopes, which get the most sun, often receive less rain.
Wines have reasonable age-ability. Probably a decade is a realistic time frame for cellaring. With time wines offer aromas of garrigue, black olives, fresh balsamic or menthol notes, spices and sometimes truffles.
Garrigue usually refers to low-growing fragrant shrubs that grow wild on the limestone hills of the Mediterranean coast. They include juniper, thyme, rosemary and lavender.
In terms of wine, “garrigue” relates to the aromas associated with the plants mentioned in the previous paragraph. It is a bit like the aromas of “herbes de Provence” combined with a mix of minty-herbal notes plus more floral fragrances. Previous columns have talked about “garrigue”.
Some locals say that the Carignan grape contributes most to “garrigue” aromas. It can be difficult to grow. Rosemary George MW, president of the Circle of Wine Writers, said it made the kind of wine that improved with vine age. “People say that when you plant Carignan you are planting for your grandchildren.”
Vinification styles in La Livinière involve relatively long maceration, often three to four weeks. Wines must be matured on the estate in vats, barrels or bottles. A noticeable trend seems to be a return to fermenting in concrete tanks. Great traditions never die.
Wines cannot be sold as an AOC Minervois-Livinière until after January 1 of the second year after the harvest – that is, at least 13 months of maturation. All wines in the appellation are tested by an independent body.
Members of the Circle of Wine Writers tasted 16 La Livinière wines in London on 17 June 2019, hosted by Isabelle Coustall. One was from the 2012 vintage though the majority were made between 2014 and 2016.
Coustall combines being the owner and winemaker at Chateau Sainte-Eulalie with her duties as president. Her 2017 Le Grand Vin is made from Carignan vines planted in 1910 and Grenache vines that are 80 years old, plus Syrah planted in the 1980s. The wine is not oaked and is made in concrete tanks. “We want to make great wine without oak,” she said, aiming to highlight the quality of the fruit from old vines.
Another fine wine was the 2016 Chateau Maris Dynamic made by Robert Eden, a distant relative of the British prime minister Sir Anthony Eden. The wine, a blend of Syrah and Grenache, comes from organic grapes fermented in concrete eggs.
Special mention must be made of the wines of Audrey Rouanet, a gifted winemaker aged perhaps 30, who took over from her father. The 2016 Domaine Rouanet Montcelebre Borealis is her first vintage of La Livinière wines and it is delicious. Like many wines from the region it has good acidity, soft tannins, ripe red and black fruits and a balanced sense of mineral freshness.
The great Languedoc-based winemaker Gerard Bertrand also featured in the tasting, with his brooding 2015 Clos d’Ora. It is a blend of the region’s three main grapes plus a touch of Mourvedre, with all grapes from a bio-dynamic estate. The wine is fermented in concrete and spends a year in oak.
It is ripe, polished and very classy, and presented in a heavy bottle. We could debate the negatives and benefits of heavy bottles. The wine retails in the UK for about GBP 150, which is well above the average price of wines from La Livinière, which typically retail for GBP 14-18 in the UK.
Wines from La Livinière are worth seeking. They represent a good combination of value and quality.