Rockyards and stonejuice
[img_assist|nid=313|title=|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=62|height=100]It’s been too long since I visited the Languedoc. I love those brooding, uncluttered hills; that pin-bright light; that dry, pine-brushed air. The unpretentiousness of the place, too. Every car is battered; no one wears a suit. People struggle to get by.
One can’t relish hardship, of course, yet you feel the strength of human bonds and human friendships more keenly here than elsewhere in wine-making France. There’s a kind of poetry in the air, too: fallout both from the historical despair which lies so heavily on the countryside and the ecstasy detonated by surroundings of such beauty. (In that, it reminds me of Scotland’s many remote communities.)
[img_assist|nid=313|title=Mas Belles Eaux|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=185|height=300]I was there last week for a three days. What can one do in a few days? So little: the Languedoc is huge. It would take a week to research Corbières alone. Here are a few fragments.
Belles Eaux is AXA’s Languedoc venture. Christian Seely took over at the helm of AXA Millésimes from Jean-Michel Cazes in 2002. He loved the area, researched it, but took a while to find a suitable property – “somewhere to make a great red wine which would reflect the wildness of the place it came from.” It also, though, had to be 40ha+ … and he discovered that all the larger properties were in the least interesting terroirs (a result of the industrial viticulture of the early C20). Eventually he had the chance to sew two adjacent properties together: Sainte Hélène and Belles Eaux. He’s still swapping and acquiring, and it’s now 90ha and rising.
There have been a few lessons along the way. The first was that “the AOC land is much better than the Vin de Pays land.” Some has been traded. “I don’t know what we’re going to do with the rest … plant a giant lawn or something.” Continuing Vins de Pays in the range will come from AOC-classified land.
The second shock (one with more serious long-term implications) is that if you try to make great red wine in the Languedoc using yields which prove perfectly satisfactory for classed-growth Bordeaux (40 hl/ha), you’ll fail. Quality here begins at 35 hl/ha or below. And grandeur at quite a lot below.
[img_assist|nid=314|title=Christian Seely relaxes at Belles Eaux|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=210|height=200]Belles Eaux lies in Pézenas: not the high hills, but much of the domain is on old river-course gravelly limestones over red clay. The best of it is in the Sainte Hélène parcels (hence the name of the top cuvée) … and it was walking those parcels which made Christian realise that he’s found what he wanted. (“Very unscientific.”) Prieuré de St Jean de Bébian lies nearby. Winemaker Cédric Loiseau is doing a good job, and there can’t be many wineries in the region as well equipped as the new one at Belles Eaux. Quality is rising, and samples of the 2007 Les Coteaux and the 2007 Ste Hélène (both to be bottled next April) were outstanding. It’s possible to create something weighty relatively easily in the Languedoc, and mineral flavours, too, are not hard to hunt down (some will perceive these as a bitter finish). The hallmark of great Languedoc wine, though, is a seam of perfume (always heady, sometimes floral, sometime herbal, sometimes pure-fruited) rippling through the wine from start to finish. It’s there in the '07s from Belles Eaux.
For all his relaxed, easy-going, affable manner, there is something steely about Seely: look at the transformation of Noval under his tenure (and taste, if you haven’t yet, the astonishing quality of its recently launched red wines). AXA is here for the long-term (it’s persisted with Disznoko and Suduiraut despite the fact that Tokaji and Sauternes are perennially slow-selling). I’m sure this will be one of the Languedoc’s reference domains within a decade.
I left Pézenas for a close look at Terrasses du Larzac. Where is the greatest terroir in Languedoc? You could make a case for Faugères, for Pic St Loup, for parts of St Chinian, for Minervois La Livinière, maybe for La Clape, but after my trip I have to say that if you were to write me out a cheque for a million euros and tell me to go to find somewhere to make great red wine, I would look most closely of all at Terrasses du Larzac.
(By the way, I am not insulting French Catalonia by including it, as French wine law now uncomfortably does, in “Languedoc”. For me, Roussillon is another region altogether.)
Terrasses du Larzac is a mineral playground with an least five internal terroirs. After my trip, I know a little more than I did, but it’s wonderfully complex and there’s lots more to learn. Mas Jullien, Grange des Pères and Mas de Daumas Gassac have been variously responsible for most of the reputation of the area so far, but there are others on the way up, most notably La Pèira en la Damasèla (which, like Mas Jullien, lies near Jonquières).
This is the domain I referred to in my last blog entry; theirs are the unknown wines I will be writing about in my ‘One Bottle’ column for World of Fine Wine issue 21. I try to avoid the kind of macho superlatives which can devalue the currency of wine criticism, but the efforts which the team at La Pèira have made with the 2005, 2006 and 2007 vintages, sampled in the UK, really did “blow me away.” Indeed they blew me all the way to the vineyards and the new, spotless winery, where I met winemaker Jérémie Depierre, who has worked all over France and obviously learned a huge amount along the way, and Rob Dougan, whose initiative and project it is (with his partner Karine, a Mauritienne who grew up near Montpellier). R&K live in the UK but commute, EasyJet-style, to help make it happen with the talented J.
[img_assist|nid=315|title=The enigmatic Rob Dougan at La Peira|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=210|height=200]Those of you better versed than me in the intricacies of the contemporary music scene may already know Rob. If not, tuck in:
Actually, I was rather nervous about visiting since I had liked these wines so much that I thought I might have gone (stand by for another military cliché) over the top in that WOFW piece. We tasted the component parts of the `07 blend again. Phew! I hadn’t. Awesome – and that’s the last macho superlative today. I’m not sure I’ve ever tasted better Mourvèdre; certainly not since I was last in Bandol.
Rob looks very cool and dashing on all his websites but he was looking rather bedraggled and poète maudit when we met; when I asked where the money had come from to make these wonderful wines and build the winery, he showed me the holes in his shoes. Jérémie confirmed, though, that Rob is a jusq’au-boutiste. The brief was that he didn’t mind what J did just as long as compromise didn’t play any part in it. Tiny yields (7 – 26 hl/ha), sorting, very slow, non-interventionist wine-making: it works. But it wouldn’t work as well as it does if there wasn’t great terroir there in the first place.
Look out for these stunning wines in due course from Berry Bros in the UK and from the retailers supplied by Eric Soloman in the US. Robert Parker has just given the 06 vintage of the third wine (Les Obriers) a lovely write-up and 93 points, and I’m looking forward to finding out what David Schildknecht thinks of them in due course.
There were other amazements in beautiful Terrasses du Larzac. The Pèira vineyards are on flat, pebble-strewn benchland, but when you get into the St Jean de la Blaquière sector, you get into hills of almost terrifying stoniness. The tough schist vineyards of the aptly named Domaine de la Sauvageonne, dynamited into being, make parts of the Douro seem tame, while parts of Joël Foucou’s nearby Plan de L’Om are on an astonishing red rock of volcanic origin locally called ruffes (the rest is on schist).
[img_assist|nid=317|title=Joel Foucou of Plan de l'Om|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=640|height=280]
The wines vinified by Gavin Crisfield at Sauvageonne tasted as mineral as the vineyards look (though none of them, not even the cuvée called Les Ruffes, is mono-terroir); I loved the purity of the 2005 Pica Broca and the 2005 Puech de Glen.
The Cinsault is sometimes called ‘the Pinot of the Languedoc’, and a sip of the 2006 Plan de L’Om Paysage (85% of which is 100-year-old Cinsault) proved the point deliciously. The Oeillade, too, is a kind of liqueur of the garrigue. (This gets to Berry Bros, too, though I can’t find any on the website just now.)
Over at St Jean de Fos, Laurent and Geneviève Vidal at Mas Conscience have both river-rolled pebbles and limstone rock debris in different vineyards: wines like L’As and the pure Carignan Le Cas have greater gentleness and suppleness, though no less regional character, than at Jonquières and St Jean de la Blaquière. (Berry Bros again! Simon Field has been sleuthing.)
I had dinner with the articulate Vincent Goumard, who took over from Olivier Jullien’s father Jean-Pierre at Mas Cal Demoura from the 2004 vintage; as well as medical practitioner and writer Jean-Louis Sagne of Causse d’Aboras. Their wines were perfect dinnertime choices, actually, since both domains' ranges are characterised by finesse, elegance and balance in the Languedoc context. The top Causse d’Arboras cuvée is called ‘Les Trois J’: it got off to a wonderfully warm and unctuous start in 2003 (these are some of the highest sited vineyards in Terrasses du Larzac, so held on well in the Big Heat), and the 2004 is deft and supremely drinkable, too, almost like the Languedoc equivalent of a well-made, mature Bordeaux. My pick of the Mas Cal Demoura wines was the 2006 Feu Sacré, an almost pure old-vine Grenache which contrived to be simultaneously suave, muscular and mineral.
[img_assist|nid=316|title=Michel Louison|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=140|height=200]The next day took me on to Faugères and St Chinian, where Michel Louison at Estanilles is making better wines than ever from yet more rockyards of schist, helped by his daughter Sophie. (You wouldn’t want to resist a wine called Clos du Fou, and nor should you: pure stonejuice.) Frédéric Albaret at St Antonin is making freshly spicy wines with great depth, too. I enjoyed talking to Didier Barral (well, listening to him, anyway) but found his wines overly fundamentalist.
I can’t finish, though, without mentioning the best meal I’ve had for years (enjoyed with Vincent Goumard and Jean-Louis Sagne, and hosted by the enthusiastic Jean-Philippe Granier from the Languedoc regional team). The restaurant is called Le Mimosa, at St Guiraud near to St Saturnin (00 33 4 67 96 67 96), http://lemimosa.blogspot.com/. Reading about other people’s wonderful meals is fundamentally boring (which is why restaurant reviewers tend to be either laboriously original or gratuitously rude) so I won’t give you a mouthful-by-mouthful account. Let me just say that it was a blessedly unmodish meal cooked with skill by somebody who evidently understands how to taste, and how to compose flavours. That somebody, Bridget Pugh, has been doing it for two decades, I was told, so I hope that work has brought her the rewards and acclaim it should have done. She suggested the six courses she was going to cook for us. None of us demurred. (If we had, there were alternatives.) Those courses combined deft classicism, superb raw ingredients (there is a garden …), some North African spicing (Bridget and David winter in Morocco) and a freshness of approach (it included fillet of lamb rolled and steamed, a method of cooking which made me, rather stupidly, mistake it for pork). I have had so many dreadful, expensive meals in Britain recently, badly executed at every level from seasoning upwards and marked by the parsimoniousness which sees customers even charged for a few morsels of soft, pappy bread that I had almost lost faith in the experience. This meal restored it.
Finally: farewell Didier Dagueneau. I heard about his death in a microlight accident while I was in Languedoc (he was a close friend of Olivier Jullien’s). He tried hard in a region where no one need try hard, since Pouilly-Fumé almost sells itself; he excelled with a grape with which it is hard to excel; he was difficult to interview, but uniquely rewarding to photograph, as page 44 of The New France illustrates. He was an adventurer who died on an adventure, but that doesn’t make the loss any easier for his family, and for the wider wine world as a whole.