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15 July 2010

'Larging it in the Languedoc' Vignobles Jeanjean and Mas La Chevalière

'Large' in the traditional rather than popular sense (or perhaps not...) but, hey, it amuses me thinking up an in-your-face title. It occurred to me one day that my focus in the Languedoc has perhaps been a bit biased towards small, and sometimes rather "chi-chi" or "trendy" estates, while partly neglecting the big boys (although not entirely e.g. GBertrand, JCMas, Mont Tauch). There's been a noticeable amount of acquisition stuff going on chez Jeanjean over the past few years; the latest major development being the merger with Michel Laroche's already mini-empire (Chablis, Punto Alto in Chile, L'Avenir in South Africa and Mas La Chevalière in the Languedoc) last year and creation of a 'new' wine group, maybe France's largest of its kind, called Advini (I'll say nothing about Romans, although the new slogan "des vignobles et des hommes" sounds a tad macho even if best translated as 'people' rather than 'men': that's the French language for you!). So, their winery line-up now includes Ogier (Chateauneuf-du-Pape), Cazes (Roussillon), Rigal (Cahors), Gassier (Provence) and A. Moueix (St-Emilion) in addition to those mentioned above.
Anyway, we're not going to delve into their corporate strategy blah blah in this piece (you'll be happy to hear); and I've been following La Chevalière for years (I was first invited there back in the late 90s, I think, or maybe 2000) yet realised I knew nothing about Jeanjean's Languedoc properties, except no doubt having quaffed one of their inexpensive own-labels bought at random in a French supermarket. The opportunity cropped up in late April 2010 for a little re-visit to and re-tasting of MLC, combined with an energetic day-out touring no less than five different estates spread across the central/eastern Languedoc in these areas: Faugères, Coteaux du Languedoc, Mireval (sweet and dry Muscat) and the "Sables du Golfe du Lion" on the sandy edges of the Camargue.
Michel Laroche's son Renaud is marketing director of the company's Laroche portfolio, based in Chablis, who was my host at Mas La Chevalière, which lies on the leafy lofty outskirts of west Béziers, or "Béziers Hills" as Renaud affectionately calls it. We were accompanied by production manager Xavier Tamborero on a stroll around their "Roqua Blanca" vineyard, a 30 hectare (75 acre) hillside site nearby, not far from Murviel-les-Béziers. This was completely replanted with red varieties in the late 90s - I realised when we got there that it looked familiar, although back then the whole site had been freshly bulldozed. 2008 was "the first year we got Terra Vitis here (sustainable farming status)," Renaud explained, and that "we started to convert over to organics in 2009... it's an ideal spot..." as the curving vineyards form a kind of natural amphitheatre surrounded by wild scrubland ("garrigue") and trees.
Xavier believes that "the highest lying plots of Syrah are the best..." implanted on strikingly red soils with big chalk stones on top. The other side is dominated by grey stones, and the varietal rows, facing west or east, switch from Syrah to Merlot to Mourvèdre as you move down the slopes, with Grenache and Marselan lower down. They installed a clever drip irrigation system here buried into the earth, which allows them to be very accurate about how much water the plants need, or don't, as it measures humidity levels in the soil and air. "Vignoble Peyroli" is their other, 10ha (25 acre) vineyard reserved for white varieties, lying at higher altitude (450m/1450 feet) up in the hills towards Bédarieux on the edge of the Massif Central range. And there are vines in front of the Mas (an elegant Med-style manor house) itself, planted after Michel Laroche bought it back in the mid 90s; the rest of their fruit is sourced from contract growers. See notes and reviews below.
The next day, I was promptly whizzed off by the "Jeanjean people": Matthieu Carliez, group vineyard manager and winemaker who oversees all their estates, and marketing manager Agnes Boeuf. Our mission ("should you choose to accept it..."): to tour all five properties spread across the Languedoc in one day. And to have a nice barbecue lunch in the middle of picturesque nowhere, of course, to break up the driving (back to that in a minute). Matthieu and Agnes seemed a little dubious we'd manage it; not so much because of the distance we had to cover, but it'd mean having to battle through the Montpellier and Béziers "by-pass" traffic at rush hour later on. So, let's go for it and see how far we get...

First stop, the Faugères hills. Domaine de Fenouillet is found in (the cellar) and around (the vineyards) the tricky-to-pronounce village of Caussiniojouls, between Faugères itself and Cabrerolles. Their man on the ground here is jovial down-to-earth Thierry Roques, who happens to be mayor of Caussiniojouls (that might come in handy) and took us on an entertainingly hairy spin around a few of the superb isolated blocks that make up Dom. Fenouillet, which Jeanjean acquired in 1993. The terrain is very tight, steep and inaccessible here with so much chunky schist in it, that even Thierry's old faithful 4x4 (a proper country one too, not one of these namby-pamby city four wheel drives) was struggling in places. The highest point is called "Combe rouge" (hence the corresponding cuvée tasted below), and there are some more recent plantings of white varieties nearer the "road" below. Also worth noting, by the way, that Thierry organises vineyard tours and events with other local growers, especially in the summer: details from the town hall!
Back on the road heading a good bit east to Mas de Lunès, which really is in the middle of nowhere roughly between Pézenas and Montpellier and the A75 and A9 motorways. Not that you can hear any cars or anything around here... it's a spectacular stone Languedoc farmhouse set among a vast 1000 ha estate (2500 acres) with a mere 80 under vine: no neighbours, no village, one tiny meandering road. The family bought it in 1936, and today it's the seat of Philippe and Frédéric Jeanjean as well as other members of the clan who live there. A quick spin around part of the vineyards revealed "lots of sandstone and big pebbles," as Matthieu explained, "planted mostly with Syrah, old Carignan and Grenache, a bit of Mourvèdre and a parcel of Pinot Noir," with some whites on the other side of the hill.
Unlike Devois des Agneaux (has a certain "perfect with liver and fava beans" ring about it, replacing the "nice little Chianti" with a chunky Languedoc red obviously...), which lies half a km away yet has a "totally different terroir," Matthieu continued, "with hard limestone..." Although both properties are in the "Grès de Montpellier" sub-appellation: arguably the Languedoc's most confusing and, well, bizarre sub-zone, as it stretches out on either side of Montpellier in fact but can hardly be based on the same geology and micro-climate, despite its name... The geographical divide between these two estates is literally that: you can actually see the fault line along a wide gully as you go from one to the other, which marks two different geological periods apparently.

Anyway, enough of the rant on appellation vs terroir vs terrain. Time for a tasting followed by lunch, barbecued side of beef, in the peaceful surroundings of Devois des Agneaux d'Aumélas: its full poetic title meaning "lamb pastures of Aumélas," the hamlet's name. Brigitte and Elizabeth Jeanjean turned this mediaeval barn into a mini-winery in 1999, as well as clearing and planting 15 ha nearby. A couple of throwaway comments: tasting them in a line-up like this (what "normal" person would: see below), their Coteaux du Languedoc reds arguably seemed a bit samey - they're all based on that old reliable (majority) Syrah plus Grenache combo - nevertheless, there are some very attractive wines here and a couple of really good ones showing more complex or "structural" distinction. Once again, my tasting notes below point out how promising white wines are when in the right sites. Matthieu certainly agrees: "I'd like more, it's a great spot for whites... in those white clay soils and less stoney." They already have a fair bit of Grenache blanc, Marsanne, Roussanne, Viognier and Chardonnay.
I was told "all the properties are being converted over to organic farming... no herbicides have ever been used anyway since the Jeanjean family bought them (Lunès and Devois) in 1936." Domaine Le Pive, "a sandy wilderness" as their press pack accurately describes it, is actually in the second year of conversion, which must be harder work as the climate is much more humid here. It's the latest property to join the fold, located on the sandy edges of the watery wildlife area of the Camargue near Aigues-Mortes. There are "about 2000 to 2500 ha of vines between here and Sainte-Marie," much of it destined for that famous pale rosé called "vin gris." Le Pive is right next to a handsome old chapel called Moncalm bordering rice fields, and has mostly red and "grey" Grenache planted alongside Cinsault, although Merlot and Cabernet are now replacing the traditional Carignan. "Especially Merlot," Matthieu enthused, "as it grows well here at high yields with no disease, but we only use the free-run juice (for the rosés) as otherwise it gives too much colour." They also pick early to avoid getting too much colour in the skins, and "leave grass cover under the vines, otherwise the wind blows the fine sand into dunes!"
Mas Neuf, added to the family empire in 1994, is basically an idyllic Muscat farm: 70 ha (175 acres) of just Muscat surrounded by fenced-off Mediterranean pine forest, which lies between the Gardiole massif and those huge lagoons along the sea between Montpellier and Frontignan. However, the soil here is clay and limestone not sand, as demonstrated by the fine-looking, chalky/stoney and low-yielding 80 year-old parcel used to make their very tasty late-picked Muscat called "L'Incompris" = "misunderstood one," something to do with it originally not fitting into one category or another. Mas Neuf also has on-site holiday gites, and the people running it do bed & breakfast too; you'd be hard-pressed to find a quieter spot on this stretch of overpopulated coastline.
Pictures taken from jeanjean.fr and mas-la-chevaliere.com where you'll find more info on all their estates and wines.
All rights reserved © Richard Mark James July 2010.

Mas La Chevalière - Laroche 'south of France'

Tasted with winemaker Stéphanie Marquier, all "vin de pays d'Oc":
2009 La Chevalière Sauvignon Blanc - pretty typical soft citrus style with grassier edges; attractive zesty length and dry yet juicy fruity finish. 83-85
2009 La Chevalière Chardonnay (blend of Chardy from the hills north of Nimes and coastal sites) - lovely fruity nose with pear and peach notes; zingy mouth-feel and bite vs light leesy creamy flavours/texture, well-made with balanced mix of fruit, weight and crisp finish. 85+
2009 La Chevalière Viognier - enticing and exotic pineapple / apricot aromas; nice "fat" tropical palate with citrus peel twist, zestier "chalky" finish and lively length. 87
2007 Mas La Chevalière white "Vignoble Peyroli" (Chardonnay, Viognier) - toasty milky notes with developing oily creamy profile and exotic edges; still lively vs oily texture, good balance of fruit vs honeyed and nutty vs lightly steely touch. Again well made and attractive, still looking good and fresh yet rounded and creamy. 88+
2009 La Chevalière rosé (Syrah, Merlot, Grenache) - appealing juicy fruity style with lots of raspberry drops; very drinkable fruity mouthful with light, crisp and refreshing finish. 85
2008 Mas La Chevalière red "Roqua Blanca" (Syrah, Merlot) - a bit closed up and toasty/grainy to start; turning more savoury on the palate with spicy coconut, attractive "sweet" fruit and textured tannins; again closes up on the finish (it had just been bottled when I tried it), could be quite fine though. 87+
2007 La Croix Chevalière red (Syrah, Merlot, Grenache) - sexy maturing savoury and tobacco tones, complex developing nose; spicy and chunky mouth-feel with subtle concentration, nice grip although rounded tannins; surprisingly elegant and not overdone, length and style. 90+
Click here for a note on the 1998 (first vintage) Croix Cheval (goes to a blog post).
2009 Grenache (vat sample) - very white pepper vs liquorice and ripe berries, tobacco and herby edges too; meatier palate and quite powerful finish vs "sweet" fruit, attractive style. 87+
2009 Syrah (vat sample) - invitingly smoky dark cherry nose with minty edges; quite concentrated / extracted vs nice spicy juicy fruit, again grippy vs rounded tannins. 87
Previous MLC vintages and words here.

Vignobles Jeanjean

2009 Domaine Le Pive Gris vin des sables (Grenache gris, Grenache noir, Merlot, Cabernet Franc 11.5%) - aromatic and elegant with light red fruits and juicy citrus, nice crisp bite and easy juicy finish. 80+
2009 Mas de Lunès white Coteaux du Languedoc (Roussanne, Marsanne 13.5%) - attractive honeysuckle aromas with peachy apricot notes and lightly creamy/oily edges; similar flavour profile on the palate, lively vs richer mouth-feel with nice fresh bite too vs a bit of rounded weight. 87+
2009 Mas de Lunès rosé Coteaux du Languedoc (Grenache, Syrah) - lively and zingy with subtle creamy strawberry / raspberry; attractive and refreshing with crisp finish, nice fruit and again a bit of plumpness too. 85+
2007 Bergerie de Lunès red Coteaux du Languedoc (Syrah, Grenache 12.5%) - lovely "sweet" black cherry and liquorice fruit vs wild floral and peppery tones; ripe and lush vs attractive dry bite and light bitter twist, finishing with a flourish of liquorice. Nice style. 85-87
2007 Mas de Lunès red Coteaux du Languedoc (Syrah, Grenache 12.5%) - similar but more intense, enticing crunchy berry/cherry fruit with sweeter liquorice edges; a bit more structured and firmer textured vs lingering spicy fruit, quite elegant and more mineral actually. 87+
2007 Mas de Lunès Réserve Coteaux du Languedoc (Syrah, Grenache 13%) - still has that attractive aromatic dark cherry and spice on the nose with a deft touch of spicy coconut oak; juicy and concentrated with rounded tannins, hints of dark choco oak on the finish but has tasty "sweet" fruit vs crunchy berries and "garrigue" undertones; firmer finish and bitter twist (these samples were cold though) vs smoother "vinous" feel. 88+
2009 Devois des Agneaux d'Aumélas white Coteaux du Languedoc (Roussanne, Marsanne 12.5%) - similar floral vs exotic profile to the Lunès white above with milky lees edges; fatter spicier palate with nice juicy and zesty length vs a touch oily and apricot/peach flavours. 87
2007 Devois des Agneaux d'Aumélas red Coteaux du Languedoc (Syrah, Grenache 13%) - more of those perfumed wild herb aromas and peppery dark cherry too; satisfying dried fruits with subtle concentration vs grippy mouth-feel and a touch of power, then firmer and tighter finish. 87-89
2007 Grand Devois (more Syrah, Grenache 13.5%) - similarly charming "sweet/savoury" fruit mix, "garrigue" tones and black cherry/liquorice profile; richer and more intense probably, pretty solid and tight though vs ripe floral fruit with chewy edges too, nice body vs depth vs balance. 89-91
2008 Domaine de Fenouillet Faugères (Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault, Carignan, Mourvèdre 13%) - "sweet" perfumed black/red fruits and "garrigue" notes; dark berry and cherry flavours vs crunchier fruit edges, touch of dark chocolate and spicy liquorice adding lush feel vs firm tannins, punch then tight finish; very nice. 87-89
2008 Domaine de Fenouillet "Combe Rouge" Faugères (mostly Syrah, Grenache) - less accessible and charming now (although again it was cold) with somewhat firm tight and solid mouth-feel vs underlining ripe "sweet" scented blackberry fruit; promising though and also has lively crunchy fruit finish, showing more on that finish than at the start. Needs 2-3 years to express itself. 89-91
2006 Domaine de Fenouillet "Grande Réserve" Faugères (mostly Syrah, Grenache 13%) - more savoury and resin/dried fruit tones; grippier with more choco oak on its lush vs dry texture, complex maturing notes too; a touch extracted perhaps vs power and maturing fruit, certainly has plenty of mouth-feel although it's less charming than the 2007s and 08s probably. 88+
2008 Mas Neuf L'Incompris (late picked Muscat petits grains, 13-14% alc. 60g/l residual sugar) - fermentation stops naturally in barrel. Enticing floral grapey nose; rich and sweet palate vs zestier citrus bite vs rounded, quite punchy and spicy vs delicious sweet grapey Muscat vs tangy and zesty. Very enjoyable style. 89

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Header image: Château de Flandry, Limoux, Languedoc. Background: Vineyard near Terrats in Les Aspres, Roussillon.