Harvest time in the Languedoc-Roussillon

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The Languedoc-Roussillon has many faces. Historically an important source of France’s wine lake, with still a massive 220.000 hectares under vine (it used to be much more), and home to what is by far the most sold IGP (previously “vin de pays”) wine in France, Pays d’Oc, it is also a prime source of sweet fortified wines (vins doux naturels), and since a few decades a pioneering area for ambitious growers who, rather than, as the expression goes, « faire pisser la vigne », want to craft premium wines from the various terroirs that the region can boast.

The landscape here is of a stunning beauty and ruggedness, as a ride through the heart of Corbières reminded us. It offers a huge diversity in climate, soil, exposition, wind and maritime influence, making this one of the most interesting winegrowing areas in France, with a big potential for top quality wines, besides the not always very exciting bulk wines that most of us have tasted. Interestingly, while we tend to think of Languedoc-Roussillon as a Mediterranean area with the corresponding grape varieties, the western outskirts of the region are exposed to Atlantic influences (the westernmost AOC, Cabardès, is close to the water divide between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean bassins) and offer some of the highest altitudes in the region, making it suitable for sparkling wines, Bordeaux varieties and even cool climate grapes like pinot noir.

I recently had the occasion to spend a long weekend in Limoux, one of these “Atlantic” zones, where I stayed in Borde Longue in the company of wine merchant Bruno Desmet-Carlier, amidst the vineyards of Jean-Louis Denois, whose family originates from Champagne. Surely one of the most original (and hard-headed) winegrowers in the region, Denois makes a range of truly excellent sparkling wines (in a blind tasting we did on Saturday, one came out on top of the basic cuvée of Bollinger), as well as a beautiful pinot noir and a chardonnay that have nothing to envy to some of their much more prestigious Burgundian counterparts.

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It was a great time to be in the vineyards and the winery. Only some of the grenache remained to be picked (here as elsewhere, 2015 was quite precocious in comparison to normal years), but the winery was brimming with activity. We got a close view of some of the intricacies of the winemaking process, from semi-carbonic maceration to pumping over and punching down the cap. Tasting wines from different vineyard parcels, different press strengths, or at different phases in the fermentation, and at different times in the barrel ageing process is quite enlightening, and a pure delight for any wine aficionado.

Denois is a restless soul, always looking for innovation and perfection in his range of wines. Some years ago, he planted gewürztraminer (!) in the area, to the outrage of the established bodies of the INAO. In the meanwhile gewürztraminer has effectively been allowed as a grape in IGP Pays d’Oc wines. His most recent enterprises include biological and biodynamic winemaking, as well as the production of wines without adding any sulphites.

In the three days we spent on the domain, we tasted countless wines. It would be somewhat pedantic to list all the tasting notes here, so I limit myself to a few of the most striking moments. First of all, a very enlightening lesson about degrees of dosage in sparkling wines. Minimal differences in dosage gave completely different results in a “blanc de noirs” sparkling syrah (“bulles de syrah” – a curiosity in itself). Without any sugar, the wine was too edgy and sharp. A few grams more transformed it into an ideal partner for, say, oysters. And yet a few more turned it into a delicious and crowd-pleasing festive drink.

A memorable tasting was the line-up of older vintages of pinots noirs from the neighbouring Domaine de l’Aigle, previously owned by Denois and for which he used to make the wines (now taken over by Gérard Bertrand, who joined us for a tasting that weekend). Several vintages of the nineties were still going strong. At one point we compared a Domaine de l’Aigle to the same vintage of a Nuits-Saint-Georges 1er cru. It was a close match, but not if you know the price difference. The furthest back we went was 1985, and the wine, though maybe past its peak, was still more than agreeable. Which Burgundy could claim that? Probably only the ones at premier cru or grand cru level.

In short, it was a useful reminder of what Denois forcefully argues himself: that the French appellation system and the prestigious crus of Bordeaux and Burgundy are more about history, marketing, and protection of commercial interests than about actual wine quality.

But beyond the lessons learnt, the weekend was about passion and emotion. Three days of endless wine talks with like-minded souls, it does not get much better than that. As Jean-Louis said when we parted: “à l’an prochain, Jérusalem”.