Features commissioned by Decanter magazine and news items published on their website Decanter.com: all rights reserved © 2004-2010 Richard Mark James/Decanter magazine/IPC Media. I've posted the shorter stories where these links take you below:
Le Tour de Listrac
"A gentle bike ride is an ideal introduction to this niche Bordeaux commune. Sounds great - but what's with all the homework, asks Richard James..." A version of this wine travel feature was originally published in Decanter magazine in May 2010.
Everybody’s talking “oenotourisme” in France nowadays, although the definition of “wine tourism” is about as varied, and variable, as the number of wineries with a bright idea. There’s a shop? Lukewarm. You’ve turned the old barn into a holiday gite? Getting warmer. You organise a picnic in the vineyard? Warmer still. What about a challenging yet fun day-out where you learn something too? On your bike. Actually, that’s included in the price...
Listrac might not be the first stop on most Bordeaux enthusiasts' wine travel wish-list, although there certainly are a few admired chateaux in this relatively small area (630 ha of vines) lying approximately between Margaux and Saint-Julien further west of the river. The appellation has existed for over 50 years but had a subtle facelift more recently, i.e. they appended "Médoc" for ease of location. It borders green forestland on one side and, naturally, vineyards on the other. There's more Merlot planted here than elsewhere on the Left Bank because of its largely clay-limestone soils, a more successful match according to Listrac’s growers.
“Le Quatuor de Listrac” is the rather Roman-sounding name coined by four adjoining family-owned chateaux in this part of the Médoc, who’ve clubbed together to run a one-day (or weekend) wine tour program with a difference. It’s a challenging yet fun day-out where you’re in danger of actually learning something! It’s also a good excuse to relish in a bit of the imperial grandeur of these splendid properties and get to know the wines of Listrac-Médoc better: Château Fourcas-Dupré, Château Fonréaud, Château Lestage and Château Fourcas-Hosten.
Targeted at groups – the “Quatuor” package has logically appealed to companies as a team-building exercise but would equally suit wine-loving friends on holiday - there are four different stages comprising educational workshops, quizzes and tastings giving you a light-hearted glimpse of what it’s like to be vineyard manager and winemaker for a day. It isn’t pitched at knowledgeable wine buff level although not so suitable for complete beginners either.
To whet your appetite, a quick summary of what’s involved before cutting to the action: identifying the area’s four main grape varieties from their leaves, bunches and berries; tasting and blending unbottled single varietal wines to get a feel for how they choose the final blends; trying barrel samples from different coopers to understand their subtle influences; and a blind tasting of two vintages from all four properties. To exercise your legs as well as your grey matter, they provide a bike to criss-cross vineyards and roads covering a mostly flat three or four kilometres, weather permitting! And of course, the tour also includes a posh buffet lunch at Château Lestage, which oozes grand Napoleon III style.
So, off we go. Fortunately, you get a little guided stroll first alongside some neat rows of vines at Fourcas-Dupré, with a few fairly heavy hints at what to spot from enthusiastic owner Patrice Pagès; before racking your brains while sniffing and stroking the freshly cut specimens laid out in the old barrel cellar (now a mini-museum). I, like most of my colleagues, didn’t have too much trouble picking out the Merlot (plump) and Cabernet Sauvignon (marbles); but distinguishing Cabernet Franc from Petit Verdot posed more of a problem with their quite similar leaves and grapes. And that was at harvest time too: it could be tricky in early summer confronted with tiny immature berries…
Next stop Fourcas-Hosten, an ambling kilometre or so south, for the “art of blending” session presided over by Renaud Momméja (from the family behind Hermès who with brother Laurent bought the chateau in 2006) and Cyril Forget, sales director. The team was presented with three 2008 tank samples of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot, which were tasted and the main characteristics jotted down: quite fleshy plummy fruit and fresh aroma from the Merlot, spicy floral red pepper notes and firm acidity from the Cabernet Franc, and tight tannins yet attractive cassis/cherry from the Cabernet Sauvignon.
A Merlot-dominated (60%) first effort had quite good fruit and texture, although ended up a tad simple perhaps. 60% Cabernet Sauvignon proved a touch austere and less seductive at the time, whereas one third of each was peppery and aromatic although lacking charm on the finish. I loved the spiciness of that Cab Franc, although gently does it, so thought 10% with 45/45 of the other two would do the trick; not so far off Fourcas-Hosten’s usual blend with a more conservative 5% Cab Franc and around 50 Merlot.
After a relaxed lunchbreak hosted by Jean Chanfreau at Lestage, the most chateau-chateau of the four (not that the others aren’t handsome) in terms of the picture you’d conjure up in your head coming so true, more “work” to be done in his tastefully lit cellar. Stage 3: barrel ageing. There’s nothing like tasting warm water run off from a brand new barrique to remind you how much flavour it can impart: not very nice but fascinating nevertheless! Moving on to wine, a sample from a one-year old (second-fill) barrel was quite vanilla-tinged although rather dry grained; a new Berthomieu gave much more rubber, coconut and chocolate notes while fruitier and spicier too with grippy yet rounded tannins; and a new Radoux gave a very different nose, fruity yet darker and more toasted/sweeter then finer grained tannins. Conclusion: the mix of age and provenance of barrels is a delicate balancing act!
Keep pedalling southwest and across the busy road (via apparently the Médoc’s steepest crest at 43m altitude!), where you’ll find understated Château Fonréaud, Caroline Chanfreau-Philippon armed with her corkscrew and a blind tasting waiting for you. With a database of just four vintages (2005, 2004, 2003 and 2000), one from each property, tried leisurely over lunch; this required our full attention. The first flight all showed warm vintage traits (ripeness and liquorice hints) and touches of savoury development consistent with five to ten years of age, although arguably better structured and balanced than 2003 or 2000… And the second quatuor, so to speak, generally had more apparent oak, good fruit and firm taut mouthfeel; not as mature as say 2004 while fuller than say 2007… But it’s probably best to end on a tight-lipped note regarding which two vintages were presented blind, as you'll want to enjoy that magic moment of revelation yourselves.
The price of the “Quatuor de Listrac” discovery-day is 80 euros per person (minimum half-a-dozen, runs spring to autumn depending on availability) and is put together by Promenades en France. For reservations: Pauillac Office du Tourisme, tel. +33 (0)5 56 59 03 08, email@example.com, www.pauillac-medoc.com. Or the chateaux themselves: Château Fourcas-Dupré +33 (0)5 56 58 01 07 – firstname.lastname@example.org, Château Fourcas-Hosten +33 (0)5 56 58 01 15 – email@example.com, Château Lestage +33 (0)5 56 58 02 43 – firstname.lastname@example.org, Château Fonréaud +33 (0)5 56 58 02 43 – email@example.com. Notes on their wines are here.
Update: sadly this winey day-out is not being run by these chateaux any more!
Wine travel: western Languedoc
"Suite Dreams. Forget cellar tours or winery restaurants. For a complete wine lover's experience, why not spend a night or two at a chateau or gite among the vines? Richard James heads to the Languedoc." This article originally appeared in the July 2009 issue of Decanter magazine.
“Some offer you just a drink. Others offer you a château,” a recent Bordeaux ad campaign boasted. They may well have an abundance of grand aristocratic châteaux; but how many of them can you actually visit, or better still stay the night at, as a humble wine traveller seeking the full monty vines & winemaker experience? The western Languedoc offers many handsome wine estates saturated in history and dramatic landscapes, which increasingly can be enjoyed first-hand as the huge potential for ‘wine tourism’ is slowly unleashed. And where better to start than the sprawling region of outstanding rugged beauty to the north, south and west of the Corbières hills.
Lurking a dozen kilometres southeast of Narbonne, ‘La Clape’ suddenly rises up then drops almost into the Mediterranean. Juvenile sense of humour aside - explaining why English-speakers chuckle when pronouncing its name - apparently, back in the dark ages, La Clape used to be an island hill and Narbonne a port. This surprising, as it’s otherwise pretty flat around Narbonne, picturesque geological quirk now hosts a Languedoc Appellation Contrôlée (AOC) subzone as well as the seat of the burgeoning Gérard Bertrand kingdom. Snapped up in 2002, the vast Château l’Hospitalet estate came with 100 hectares (ha) of vines, and a lot more scrub- and woodland; plus a cellar, restaurant and hotel among its charming stone buildings. After a major refit in 2007, the complex has 38 stylishly refurbished rooms and ‘Le H’ restaurant-lounge serves unfussy classic French cuisine. In addition to a summer jazz festival, there are regular music Friday-nights while daytime activities could include vineyard cycling, a hike down to the beach or wild boar hunting (keeping them in check reduces the amount of grapes they wolf down). Rooms for two are priced from €90 to €300 (‘Classique’ to ‘Suite Prestige’) depending on size and season; and the restaurant does a lunchtime menu for €27 (including wine), or in the evening three courses would cost about €30-€35. On the wine front, Hospitalet produces a good range of AOC and varietal wines: particularly impressive are 2005 L’Hospitalet ‘Grand Vin’ (Syrah Mourvèdre Grenache) and the limited edition 2004 L’Hospitalitas. From two of Bertrand’s other properties, La Forge - a single-site Corbières-Boutenac red - and Cigalus white – a rich Chardonnay/Viognier/Sauvignon blend – are also highly recommended. More info: www.gerard-bertrand.com, phone +33 (0)4 68 45 28 50.
Half-an-hour southwest of Narbonne, there’s a clutch of worthwhile estates dotted around pretty AOC Boutenac territory with on-site accommodation. Heading south from Lézignan, the other side of the A61 motorway, Château Maylandie is easily located on the outskirts of Ferrals-les-Corbières. The Maymil family has installed two holiday gîtes and a swimming pool across the yard from their graceful château, which look out onto vines from the kitchen/lounge and barbecue-equipped terrace. Prices start at €700 per week, and they also run an organised walk around a few different Boutenac vineyards. You can try the wines in their shop at the entrance: my favourites are the tasty concentrated 2005 Villa Ferrae (Grenache Syrah Carignan) and maturing tobacco-tinged 2005 Carnache (Carignan Grenache), subtitled ‘petites vendanges entre amis’ as, so the story goes, those bunches were indeed picked by a few friends. More: www.maylandie.fr, 04 68 43 66 50.
Off the D613 road from Thézan-des-Corbières before the village of Montséret, you’ll eventually find Château Ollieux Romanis up a well-signposted although rough track that weaves up the hill through vineyards. Pierre Bories now presides over 130 ha (15 of which are organic: he’s keen to convert and get the whole lot certified) surrounding the elegant yet weathered 19th-Century manor that houses the winery, family home and a couple of simple cosy gîtes. One is rented by the weekend (€230/€275) or week (from €455), the other offered as chambres d’hôte (€65 B&B). Out in the yard, Pierre enthusiastically outlined their future plans: a “contemporary” restaurant next to the caveau where an old house has been knocked down, and opposite renovate the existing buildings into a small hotel… Overall, Ollieux Romanis makes very nice wines: highlights include cuvée Prestige white 2007 and 2005 red; and the seductive, oak-free, old-Carignan based 2007 Atal Sia. More: www.chateaulesollieux.com, 04 68 43 35 20.
An ambling ten-kilometre drive south leads to Château Saint-Esteve, located off the D611 (www.chateau-saint-esteve.com, 04 68 43 32 34), another charismatic property lost among tall pines and scrubland. Eric and Sylvie Latham bought it, with 55 ha of vines, in the mid-80s and are making attractive solid reds from Syrah, Grenache, Carignan and Mourvèdre. Their 2006s are showing particularly well: a ‘straight’ Corbières and a Boutenac cuvée called Ganymède. A spacious five-bedroom gîte adjoining the cellars is available throughout the summer (May to September, approx €500-€700/week) in this rather peaceful spot. Continuing on the D611 then left towards Portel-des-Corbières, a twisty climbing road on the right brings you to Château de Lastours. Although it’s temporarily without accommodation - the Filhet-Allard group has invested a lot in replanting vineyards since buying this enormous estate in 2004, the next step is to convert the former hospice into an up-market hotel and build a new landscaped winery – Lastours is a must-visit for its awesome views punctuated by colossal windmills (you can tour the whole property by 4x4), and a fine restaurant called La Bergerie (www.chateaudelastours.com, 04 68 48 64 74 / 77 direct line to La Bergerie). Five vintages under the watchful eye of director Xavier de Rozières have yielded complex concentrated reds – their accomplished 2006 cuvée Simone Descamps springs to mind – as well as very nice white and rosé.
Taking any one of the roads worthy of a RAC rally just over the Corbières, will extend your trip into the northern Roussillon and a spectacular area known as the Fenouillèdes or Agly Valley. Jacques Sire’s Domaine des Schistes comprises varied vineyard parcels spread out along the Corbières foothills between Estagel, where their main cellar is located, Maury and Tautavel. Hidden between the latter two villages is Mas de las Fredas – it is signposted off the D117 - where Jacques’ son Mickaël lives alongside two traditional gîtes in a large 14th-Century stone farmhouse (from €350/week). Underneath lies an ageing cellar containing some of their Vins Doux Naturels (VDN) such as a delicious complex Rivesaltes Solera or quirky Rancio Sec. Their Côtes du Roussillon Villages reds hit the spot too, from the peppery unoaked 2007 Tradition (Carignan Grenache Syrah) to the chocolatey savoury La Coumeille 2005 (mostly Syrah). More: www.domaine-des-schistes.com, 06 89 29 38 43. While staying at Mas de las Fredas, you should call in next door (literally) at Domaine des Soulanes, owned by amiable couple Cathy and Daniel Lafitte whose reds (e.g. Jean Pull, Sarrat del Mas) never fail to impress. Estagel, Tautavel, Latour-de-France and Maury are all a leisurely drive or cycle ride from here, where you’ll find numerous other top-notch winegrowers: check out www.vins-fenouilledes.com.
Further south in the Roussillon, there’s an absolute gem of a château to be discovered off the Argèles-sur-mer by-pass: Valmy. You can’t miss it, just look up to the hills on the right for a wedding-cake castle straight out of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Martine and Bernard Carbonnell have lavishly restored this old family property, beginning with vineyards in the 1990s followed by a display-cased winery and tasting bar (try the classic Valmya Rivesaltes Grenat VDN, 100% Grenache). Higher up the slope set in a mini-park, their enchanting château has five plush chambres d’hôte while preserving its quaint edges. Prices are €190 to €370 per night according to space and luxury, open April-December. More: www.chateau-valmy.com, 04 68 81 25 70 / 04 68 95 95 25.
Back over the other side of Corbières beyond Lézignan is where brooding Minervois country starts. Not far from the amazing Mediaeval town of Minerve itself and much talked-about La Livinière appellation, is the quiet village of Agel, seat of Château d’Agel. This splendid place really is a full-on fortress complete with turrets, coats of arms, wide swirling staircases and no doubt secret passages too. Martine Ecal-Besse and husband Jean-Marie don’t make wine anymore, having sold most of the vineyards to focus on accommodating paying guests. But you can taste Agel’s wines here in the former cellar, or over dinner, and the ‘new winery’ is just across the road. Bed (four-poster style) & breakfast (with real freshly squeezed orange, a rarity even in posh hotels) costs from €130-€150 per couple per night, or you can even rent the entire château for €3000-€4500/week! More: www.chateaudagel.fr, 04 68 91 21 38.
North of here, the bijou village of Saint-Jean de Minervois, home of the eponymous luscious Muscat wine, snuggles up against an untamed elevated vineyard arena. Clos du Gravillas is a small estate run by Nicole and John Bojanowski, who transformed the village café opposite into a two-bedroom gîte with panoramic terrace (€280-€470/week). Best wines include L’Inattendu white Minervois (Grenache Gris & Blanc) and Le Rendez-Vous du Soleil (mostly Carignan). More info: www.closdugravillas.com or 04 67 38 17 52. Travelling west into Cabardès country, north of Carcassonne, the noble 17th-Century Château de Pennautier is Nicolas and Miren de Lorgeril’s magnificent headquarters. Serious restoration work has converted it into corporate hospitality heaven with 20 rooms; but there are three separate apartments as well as a mobile home and gîte complex (the latter from €50/night, €150-€400/weekend) adjoining the wooded grounds, across the road from their friendly wine bar/restaurant. Favourites from the Lorgeril range include a lush barrel-fermented Chardonnay, their top Cabardès Esprit de Pennautier (the 2001 is superb, Syrah & Cabernet) and 2003 Les Hauts de la Borie Blanche (Minervois-La Livinière). More: www.vignobles-lorgeril.com, 04 68 72 65 29.
"Straining at the leash"
"The Roussillon's strict regulations are forcing producers to work outside the AOC. Who's in the right and is this new creativity paying off, asks Richard James..?" This feature was first published in September 2008 in Decanter magazine.
"The Roussillon's strict regulations are forcing producers to work outside the AOC. Who's in the right and is this new creativity paying off, asks Richard James..?" This feature was first published in September 2008 in Decanter magazine.
The ideal of the Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) system as standard-bearer of ‘typicity’ (like terroir, English struggles to comfortably translate typicité) has been attacked before; but two damning reports in Que Choisir? (France's Which?) within the last year are yet more hefty nails in its coffin. The nationwide lobby group called Sève (www.seve-vignerons.fr), which has been pushing the establishment for an overhaul and back-to-basics approach, saw these as evidence of what they've been saying all along. AOC should be an honest reflection of the hard work and raw materials that go into the bottle, if true site-specific wines are to flourish. Yet here’s the dilemma: ‘table wines aren't the future.’ Some of the most exciting producers have been pushed outside the appellation framework, just like Tuscany all those years ago, due to obsolete regulations and entrenched views on what the right grape varieties or wine style should be. Besides, many growers have always believed instinctive creativity should have free rein, if you want to make the best and most unique wines possible from a particular area.
Changes to the existing wine hierarchy were only revealed recently; the appellation authorities concentrated first on structural reforms covering issues such as producer auditing. By establishing very French-sounding bodies called Organismes de Défense et de Gestion (ODG), the plan is to replace the old syndicats (growers’ unions) and tasting assessment. Initially, independent growers with no political voice were alarmed, saying it could end up as another technocratic nightmare without solid foundations. However, in theory, the right to a quality seal will be judged on broader criteria; such as vineyard site and practices, skill and hygiene in the winery and hopefully just good wines, whatever the varieties or personal style. But the much-criticised subjective tasting looks set to remain central to the process. ‘We’re not sure yet if it’s going in the right direction,’ commented Collioure AOC president Marc Parcé of Domaine de la Rectorie. ‘They’ve backtracked a little… we must avoid creating syndicats carbon copies with minimum specifications, pulling the level down.
The untamed French Catalan heartland of the Roussillon is a perfect illustration of this debate, where there are numerous committed individuals shaping what they see as real terroir wines, which aren't necessarily AOC. A major quandary for the region or just a fact of life? This raises other issues, such as what the quintessential Roussillon red wine style should be as distinct from, say, the Languedoc. Wines based on old-vine Grenache and Carignan, or those conforming to rigid rules (on paper at least) that must contain Syrah and taste a certain way, born out of committee politics rather than pure quality motives? A Tramontane-fuelled tour of leading estates dotted across the Roussillon, from the Fenouillèdes and Agly valley to Les Aspres and Collioure, shows there is light at the end of the tunnel.
The Côtes du Roussillon Villages (CdRV) appellation includes 32 villages in the region’s northern flank north of the River Têt, a somewhat arbitrary ‘border’ given the variations in geology and microclimate across this area and implicit ruling that anything south of the river is inferior terrain. Another criticism of Villages AOC is the requirement for Syrah or Mourvèdre (see below). Certain growers, for example in the Maury area where these varieties are relative newcomers and its sun-drenched schist soils favour production of first-class Grenache and Carignan fruit, label their old-vine blends as Vin de Pays (VdP) as they have insufficient or no Syrah. Red Grenache remains the Roussillon’s principal variety and, despite vocal supporters, elimination of Carignan continues: 13,000ha (hectares) have disappeared since the 1980s, although it’s still the second most planted vine.
Luc Charlier at Coume Majou – whose cellar is in Corneilla-la-Rivière but has 10ha scattered around Maury, Estagel and Tautavel - emphasised that ‘we have the best Grenache in the world along with Châteauneuf, Rasteau…’ and Syrah doesn’t produce great wine in all sites. Arnaud Pelegry at Domaine des Vents in Saint-Paul-de-Fenouillet uses VdP ‘at entry-level, to display the varieties,’ yet declassifies his 100-year-old vine cuvées due to ‘inflexible AOC.’ There are several excellent 100% Grenache wines labelled CdRV, officially unauthorised making the rules a farce. Olivier Varichon at Domaine Vinci in Estagel, who stamps their entire range as VdP, is also concerned about Syrah and ‘style homogenisation… Appellation laws are a typically French absurdity and honesty isn't the grape-growing industry's forte.’
However, Syrah is easier to maintain and ‘produces quality at higher yields… especially for rosé,’ commented Simon Dauré from Château de Jau. Brigitte Bile at nearby Domaine Depeyre considers Syrah and Mourvèdre ‘well suited to the Cases-de-Pène area.’ Syrah has also made its mark in chalk/clay soils around Vingrau, where Alain Razungles at Domaine des Chênes has ‘planted quite a bit’ at altitude. Cyril Henriquès’ top wine, Les Hauts de Força-Réal, is mostly Syrah from their hillside vineyards outside Millas. But others, such as Gérard Gauby, believe ‘Carignan, Grenache, Mourvèdre are the great varieties of the future, although I want real wine from real terroir,’ and might remove ‘all early ripening varieties’. In the end, all this shows up official obsession with variety and type over character as academic; and Roussillon growers should get on with what the region excels at: thrilling Mediterranean reds.
Gauby isn’t alone in feeling the opportunity to define the region’s ‘grand crus’ has been missed and focuses on his name, suggesting sought-after estates are shaping its true hierarchy. Calce neighbour Olivier Pithon is convinced that ‘Roussillon has a big future in quality wines’ thanks to ‘its rich variety of different terroirs.’ Tom Lubbe at Matassa looks to the other side of the Pyrénées for inspiration and prefers the popular VdP Côtes Catalanes with ‘more resonance’. Growers in Fenouillèdes are angry this area’s eponymous VdP was shelved and formed an association; a new ‘ODG’ might allow them to shape a kind of sub-appellation. Bernard Magrez, who’s tastefully renovated the former co-op cellar in Montner, dropped CdRV and uses ‘Sud de France’ branding on his Roussillon range; yet the wines aren’t international or Bordeaux-styled. However, Hervé Bizeul at Clos des Fées is ‘still attached to the idea of a grower working their territory’ and appellation per se; but not ‘as currently administered in the interests of co-ops,’ as Roy Richards put it, part-owner of Le Soula.
The four named Côtes du Roussillon Villages sub-zones perhaps illustrate Richards’ point (see below). 2006 vintage data shows the co-ops produced most of the wine declared under these AOCs except Tautavel, the only one that grew compared to 2005. Quality judgements aside (often good), it’s hard to believe their creation wasn’t partly due to pressure from powerful co-ops. Joep Graler at Trois Orris sees no point in replicating names that ‘no-one knows outside the region,’ and Lubbe called it ‘naïve to think that,by renaming an area, the consumer will be hood-winked.’ On the other hand, Michel Piquemal at Mas des Clots, lost in the wilds beyond Salses, rightly thinks intricacy is ‘the very charm of AOC’ for wine enthusiasts who are interested in site-specific wines.
You can certainly find shining distinctive examples from these village zones. Clot de l’Oum’s (Bélesta) Numéro Uno from 85% Syrah plus Carignan is a CdRV Caramany: Eric Monné believes Roussillon should develop more crus, ‘as long as we're much more demanding on quality and less conservative,’ i.e. not ‘favouring one style and production method.’ Domaines L’Ausseil and Rancy’s Latour-de-France wines deliver plenty of character. As for Tautavel, among others, there are Fontanel and Jean Gardiès, whose wooden winery looks stunning in the vine-lands above Espira de l'Agly and who reminded us ‘the wine has to be good whether it's appellation or vin de pays. You shouldn't need it on the bottle to sell it.’ His sublime three-quarters Mourvèdre La Torre indicates that the trend towards this variety is logical.
Côtes du Roussillon Les Aspres AOC (see below) was established in 2004, after a ten-year gestation, for a wide zone in central-southern Roussillon as an attempt to recognise those left out of CdR Villages, although opponents say it was inevitably a compromise. The delimited area covers 37 villages yet production is tiny, which could be interpreted as growers committed to Aspres being fussy, as is the case with Clos Saint-Georges or Domaine Lafage. In all fairness, it’s too early to make definitive judgements but some wines under this label don’t make a statement (apart from too much new oak) or offer quality to match their €10 (£8) price. Tellingly, one particular co-op wine was on promotion at half-price, despite being in the 2008 Hachette Guide.
Certain eminent growers such as Etienne Montès at Château la Casenove consider Les Aspres as ‘wrong from the start, by imposing varieties,’ and labels everything VdP in stoical protest. ‘We should use more Carignan because of hotter vintages, yet we're told to decrease the amount so they can do a Languedoc in the Roussillon.’ Laurent de Besombes from Domaine Singla, whose vineyard near Camélas in Aspres, backs straight CDR or VdP: ‘if the taste matches AOC regulations, then fine; if not, I don't care.’ Newcomer Jonathan Hesford at Domaine Treloar in Trouillas, who has 2ha of Syrah classified as Aspres, said: ‘I want to make the best wine I can and tailor it to suit customers. It might be OK for co-ops but not much good for me.’
With its extreme terrain located between Collioure and Banyuls-sur-mer, Coume del Mas uses Grenache as the central grape for AOC reds and VDNs. Owner Philippe Gard echoed the view that appellation ‘should be based on crus rather than varieties,’ and part of Collioure’s success is because ‘it was more flexible from the start.’ For red wines, none of the mandatory varieties are a primary requirement meaning you see cuvées made predominantly from Grenache, Syrah or Mourvèdre. Parcé reiterated that ‘policy based on variety for a small AOC is absurd… the terroirs naturally lead this way.’ Bertrand Guitaut from Domaine Pechpeyrou agrees they could go further, thanks to the appellation’s size and patchwork of sites: ‘it’s the best way to go with small plots, by naming each cuvée after the parcel like a clos in Burgundy.’
The debate on overhauling the AOC status quo, and the place for real terroir wines within it, seems set to rage on across France. Any changes in the pipeline must be demanding yet flexible on the ground and take a transparent quality stance on appellation-based winegrowing, rather than another committee diktat rubber-stamped by Paris. If a significant number of a region's best producers, who believe high-expression wines should bear a meaningful moniker, continue to opt out or ignore the rules because they disagree, then the sacred appellation model could lose all credibility. At the end of the day, in a diverse region such as Roussillon, there are plenty of growers in both schools, who sell over half their production outside France to wine lovers who are confident they’re buying a tasty slice of the local terrain, whatever the terminology on the label.
Roussillon AOCs: what's allowed
* Côtes du Roussillon Villages – must have 30% Syrah or Mourvèdre and be minimum three varieties including the latter and Carignan, Grenache and Lladoner Pelut.
* CdRV Caramany, Latour-de-France, Lesquerde and Tautavel – similar to above although Tautavel has Grenache as compulsory instead of Syrah or Mourvèdre.
* Côtes du Roussillon Les Aspres – min 20% Syrah, max 25% Carignan.
* Collioure – reds must have at least 60% Grenache, Syrah or Mourvèdre with max 90% of any one of these.
Plantings of main red varieties: Grenache 7,300ha, Carignan 6,000ha, Syrah 4,820ha, Mourvèdre 930ha.
RJ's top VDP - all Vins de Pays des Côtes Catalanes:
* Domaine Vaquer, Cuvée Fernand Vaquer 1991 (Carignan Grenache) - Mature smoky nose with seductive fig and savoury notes, soft ripe fruit and tannins. Still showing elegance and signs of life. Drink now. 4 stars. £13.99; the Winery, London
* Mas de Lavail Cuvée Ego 2003/04 (Grenache) - Delicious pure Grenache nose, rounded and ripe very dry tannins, powerful yet balanced with lingering spicy fruit. Drink now-2013. 4.5 stars. £12.95; Leon Stolarski Fine Wines.
* Domaine Vinci, Inferno, 2004 (Grenache) - Lightly perfumed cherry, spice and liquorice; tight palate showing freshness and bite v power and rounded fruit, great length. Drink now-2013. 4 stars. £17.99; Maison Aubert, Onwines, Robersons, Whole Foods Market (all London).
* Domaine des Balmettes, Les Figuiers 2004 (Syrah) - Meaty nose with sexy, dark fruit, lively mouth-feel and tannins. Tasty and lush, yet firm and powerful. Drink now-2012. 5 stars. €12 no UK stockist.
RJ's top AOC wines:
* Domaine Traginer, Cuvée du Capitas, Collioure, 2003 - Rich black fruits and olive with peppery undertones, leading on to a firm palate showing finesse too. Drink now-2011. 4 stars. £23.50; Stone Vine & Sun.
* Coume del Mas, Schistes, Collioure 2005 (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre) - Aromatic black cherry, liquorice and sweet herbs; juicy v firm, fresh structure; great balance of power, lush fruit and spicy length. Drink now-2015. 4.5 stars. £16.76; Philglass & Swiggot, London.
* Domaine Pouderoux, Terre Brune, Côtes du Roussillon Villages 2003/04 (Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah) - Black cherry and olive with earthy undertones, juicy black fruit palate with light coating of chocolate oak and textured tannins, 'sweet' v savoury profile. Drink now-2011. 4.5 stars. £15 Fortnum & Mason, Philglass & Swiggot, London.
* Domaine des Soulanes, Sarrat del Mas, Côtes du Roussillon Villages 2004 (Grenache, Carignan, Syrah) - Smoky and rich showing black fruit and pepper, weighty yet fine balance with dry v ripe texture. Drink now-2012. 4 stars. £10.65; Terroir Languedoc.
"CRAV - 100 years of protest"
"Richard James tracks the history and current state of a militant batch of French wine activists..." A version of this feature was published in the December 2007 issue of Decanter magazine. A brief report drawing comparisons between 1907-2007 in the Languedoc and Roussillon: demonstration, uprising, co-operatives and winegrowing upheaval in the south of France. Many thanks to Jean Clavel, Rémy Pech and others who provided invaluable information and views for this article.
“We’re at the point of no return. Be the worthy successors of the 1907 revolt, when some died to allow future generations to live off their land.” This grim warning was issued in May 2007 to France’s fresh-faced President by hooded men shot in sinister video-footage (source: France3/AFP). It’s more reminiscent of a bloody broadcast from El Qaeda or ETA than a handful of angry winegrowers in a sleepy Languedoc village. One month before, explosives were set off outside supermarkets from Nîmes to Capestang. And the July 3 bombings - the morning after a demonstration in Béziers and day before the European Commission (EC) published wine sector reforms - mark a disturbing twist, as this time the target was Co-operative Cellars’ Federation headquarters in Montpellier and Narbonne.
This ongoing calculated violence, although baffling even for an outside world weaned on TV terrorism, will be familiar to Decanter.com regulars as will the words Comité Régional d’Action Viticole or CRAV (Regional Viticulture Action Group). ‘Action’ over the last few years in the Languedoc - either signed by the group or attributed to them - includes attacks on France Télécom, tax and other municipal buildings; motorway tollgates, railway lines, banks and insurance companies; and winery facilities belonging to large operations such as the Val d’Orbieu Group, Castel Frères, JeanJean and Grands Chais de France.
So who are these people and what do they want? A well organised and supported, military unit with a coherent plan; or just a few bankrupt desperados stuck in the past with nowhere to go? Do they really believe the wine industry, French government and bent-on-reform Brussels will give in to their demands? These include no further grubbing up of vineyards, fixed minimum prices and protection against imports. For a fuller understanding, their actions must be put in the context of past and present upheaval in the Languedoc and Roussillon; and, more significantly, the future role of co-operative viticulture and unions.
Flash back one hundred years. 11th March 1907, the Argeliès (Minervois) ‘committee’ totalling 87 winegrowers meets parliamentary delegates in Narbonne, investigating the national wine crisis and fraud in particular. The leaders include Marcelin Albert, grower and café owner; lawyer Edouard Bourges and Marius Cathala, vineyard proprietor and editor of influential newspaper Le Tocsin. Albert declares that “…united, we vow to defend our viticulture by all possible means…” On 24th March, a rally brings together 300 people in Sallèle d’Aude prompting widespread support. The demonstrations begin to escalate: in April 20,000 gather in Lézignan-Corbières.
May: 150,000 assemble in Béziers; 170,000 in Perpignan, where a month later police headquarters go up in flames; Carcassonne greets a quarter of a million protestors. June: a similar number in Nîmes, culminating on the 9th with crowds of 600,000 in Montpellier. The next day, Albert calls for a “tax strike” backed by local politicians resigning such as Ernest Ferroul, the socialist mayor of Narbonne where ten days later six people are gunned down by occupying army regiments. Albert and others are arrested; the 17th Béziers Infantry mutinies in sympathy. (Sources: Jean Clavel, 1907larevoltevigneronne.midiblogs.com; Rémy Pech, co-author of ‘1907 Les mutins de la République,’ Privat 2007.)
There were several underlying causes behind the 1907 crisis. Clavel - whose son Pierre runs an estate winery in Assas in the Languedoc (www.vins-clavel.fr or click here to view profile and wine reviews on French Med Wine) – points to the Industrial Revolution as a starting point. Languedoc vineyards expanded dramatically to meet demand from the thirsty urban working class, aided by development of the railways. The arrival of oidium in 1852 proved a temporary halt on production, with the prompt discovery of sulphur treatments. The onslaught of phylloxera in the south from 1865 caused more fundamental changes, as productive varieties such as Aramon were favoured in an ambitious replanting program, and planted more efficiently to enable the use of horses.
During this period, the government encouraged emigrating grape-growing families to expand vineyards in Algeria. Large Languedoc merchants, who previously specialised in trading local wines, started importing wine and grapes from elsewhere in the Mediterranean to satisfy demand. These so-called ‘artificial’ wines, products of shady blending or added beet sugar, were at the centre of rising fraud, which the authorities were slow to crack down on. According to Pech, companies equipped to ship 32,000 hectolitres (hl) to Paris in one delivery could get from nine to fifteen francs per hl, whereas small growers struggled to earn six.
Clavel believes the root cause was “small family producers unable to adapt to a changing mass market serviced by nationwide merchant operators,” rather than overproduction or fraud per se. These growers lacked the means and equipment to make wine and were the hardest hit. Wine unions and co-operatives had already been established - the Maraussan cellar was the Languedoc’s first in 1901 and represented the new ‘Vignerons Libres’ (Free Growers) movement (source: www.vignerons-cooperateurs.coop). 1907 catalyzed this change and the birth of modern co-ops, gradually uniting production and sales; along with overdue reforms that became the basis of future Appellation laws. It took years for these ideas to have wider resonance, in terms of shifting focus to low-yielding hillside vineyards and more suitable varieties; as well as the recurrent vulnerability of monoculture and growers at the mercy of rudimentary market pricing.
In 1907 the landmark Confédération Générale des Vignerons du Midi union was born; later followed by the Fédération des Caves Coopératives de l’Aude (1929) and national Confédération des Coopératives Vinicoles de France (1932). After the Second World War, organised lobby groups called ‘Saluts viticoles’ emerged in the south. 1953, 67-68, 71, 73, 75 and 81 were marked by headline events, with two tragic deaths during clashes with police in Montredon (Aude) in 1976. During this period CRAV was formed (1961) and from 1972-82 Jean Huillet’s Mouvement d’Intervention Viticole Occitan faction, who headed up the Hérault federation until 2006 (sources: www.vignerons.com; www.vigneronsaudois.com; '1907-2007 Un siècle rouge ardent,' Midi Libre 2007; www.aiguesvives.fr; www.jeantosti.com; www.aude1907.com).
Can we draw parallels with today’s lingering production crisis, radical activists and co-operative organizations? Yes and no, according to Joël Castany, vice-president of Val d’Orbieu and Vignerons Coopérateurs Audois. “The history of the union struggle has its roots in 1907 but became more radical, especially in the 60s onwards when an activist system was established. It’s about the type of wine you make and prices falling. They demanded subsidies and got them. This resurges in times of economic and political crisis, because in the south many never had a decent income. The extremists rear up, unfortunately it’s part of our culture. Some have been left behind and isolated; they think they can still apply pressure.”
Castany believes the last five years have seen “too many cooks,” with factional infighting and activism losing its legitimacy. “This is very different from the historical movement,” describing the strikes against his organization and Hérault colleagues as “apparently about settling scores.” Clavel agrees: “the CRAV is marginalized… it used to be a proper lobby group. Attacking co-ops is incomprehensible, they don’t understand what’s going on. There’s no comparison with now and 100 years ago, when viticulture was the main occupation. The way forward is export.” Pech recognises this “suicidal move against their own people” and need to find new outlets, but stressed “the importance of the collective way of life. It’s not easy just ripping up the whole countryside, you can understand. In 1907 they knew who to address, nowadays with OCM reforms and Brussels...” The reality is that some growers have a second job or claim benefits to make ends meet (source: news.bbc.co.uk).
An anonymous uncorroborated source alleged a mafia-like complicity between co-op activists and merchants to dispose of unsold wine for insurance scams. Hearsay aside, leading union figures have been among those arrested (and often subsequently released by local police) in the past; hardly outsiders. And you have to ask whether payouts for lost stock were more lucrative than distillation subsidies? “Are the merchants really the enemy? If you want to do harm, you’d destroy not empty vats.” This doesn’t explain attacks on supermarkets, an aggressive response to the assertive purchasing and stocking policy of certain chains. But others have also questioned how many new plantings were undertaken in the past, supported by the EC, merely to obtain ‘crisis’ distillation payments.
Guy Predal at Domaine Marcevol near Vinça, Roussillon, echoes a firm yet rational viewpoint. “I want people to make a living from their profession, if they do it well. If they do it badly, there’s no place for them. It’s essential agriculture finds its place again in society, otherwise where do you stop wrecking the countryside?” He made comparisons to coastal Provence, where farmers and pathways are disappearing and fires increasingly common. “Vines should stay on the best hillside terrain, where growers should convert to organic viticulture to get proper incentives. Otherwise the EC carries on subsidizing those making poor wine, or to do something else or retire. But the unions have a lot of growers on the flatlands, big table wine areas; so they keep giving the money to the largest producers and polluters.” He’s right to challenge those who claim terroir is important yet continue to poison it. This argument seems more valid than naive demands by militant unions like MODEF, calling for customs barriers and fixed prices (source: www.midilibre.com) which aren’t compatible with EU free trade policy.
Castany referred to appellations like Corbières and Minervois, rather than table wine, where further vine removal is imminent. “Small yields, high costs and low AOC prices mean they can’t live from this. Some older growers want out and the only way to get the money is pulling up.” He thinks 25% of Languedoc vineyards will disappear forever but emphasised there could be growth too: vines were ripped up in the past in Limoux but it’s now expanding. Pressure on land from property developers is also mounting. Progressive co-ops are developing value-added brands to better reward quality-orientated growers; and perhaps we’ll see fair trade type labels emerging. Jean-Marc Astruc, president of Cave Mont Tauch (see box below), argued: “problems are always linked to overproduction. In Fitou we’ve adapted to quality to increase prices, the market is very different today. We make each grower responsible and it’s reflected in what they’re paid. It’s the only way to keep these villages alive, by collective effort.”
Richard Lavanoux, Laroche production manager near Béziers, summarised: “grower organizations are reassessing their position, and I hope it’ll all work out as many people in this region think the same thing. EU reforms are always a problem, as they tend to put us at a disadvantage compared to our neighbours. But let’s not forget the crux of the problem: quality; good wine always sells. CRAV generally targets companies who pull prices down, we do the opposite. There’s no logic in attacking a producer who’s enhancing the region’s image, but we’re not sheltered from thoughtless action.”
While it’s clear this destructive element must be sidelined, Brussels bureaucrats and the wine industry should be sensitive to the wider issues of transforming the Languedoc-Roussillon vine-lands. 1907 should be commemorated in the light of positive aspects of co-operative winemaking, which has a strong future after a further period of painful change and rationalisation. By 1975, the region’s co-ops peaked at around 550; in 2006 there were 285 and declining. 2007 saw an accord to amalgamate the four regional (Aude, Gard, Hérault & Pyrénées Orientales) co-op unions. Early next year, the ‘Sud de France’ federation aims to fully integrate all Languedoc-Roussillon AOC and vins de pays/table trade bodies. Noticeably, Jean Huillet is on the committee (source: www.vitisphere.com).
Les Vignerons du Mont Tauch: a model co-op?
Established in 1913, Mont Tauch integrates four village cellars - Tuchan, Paziols, Villeneuve and Durban. There are 300 growers with almost 2000 ha of vineyards, and two-thirds of production is exported. Key people include Jean-Marc Astruc (president), Xavier Jayet (MD), Michel Marty (winemaker) and Katie Jones (marketing & export). Astruc describes MT as “an atypical co-op cellar as it’s run like a business.”
In 2006, a ‘viticulture raisonnée’ (sustainable winegrowing) project was instigated with 120 core growers by vineyard manager Jérôme Collas. The Cave also went into partnership with the united co-ops of Fitou and La Palme, located in the coastal part of the Fitou appellation, which was created in 1948. MT now produces half of the area’s wines. From 2005-08, seven million euros has been invested in upgrading the barrel cellar and visitor centre.
Innovative product development includes Les Douze, Les Quatre and L’Exception Fitou reds focused on prime vineyard sites. The 3V (Vins Vents Vignerons) ‘micro-cuvées’, e.g. Château de Montmal Fitou and Domaine de Coucante Corbières, are their first premium wines for the on-trade in France. They also recently launched Le Village du Sud fun range of vin de pays d’Oc varietals (£3.99), Mont Tauch Reserve (£6.99), Corbières rosé and Muscat de Rivesaltes (£4.99) backed by a consumer media campaign centred on the MT wild boar logo. www.mont-tauch.com