Winery portrait: Château La Baronne

Readers of this blog might know by now I am particularly fond of Languedoc-Roussillon. I suspect my natural (Flemish?) preference for “underdogs” has something to do with it. Indeed, most people associate the region with an ocean of vines producing huge quantities of cheap bulk wine. A belief that is to some extent still supported by the facts. Appellation wines account for only a minority of the region’s production, and large cooperatives still have a strong hold on the local wine business.

But to those who follow the wine world from a bit closer, it is well known that since a few decades, things are changing a lot. Nowhere is this better explained, in my view, than in the thoroughly inspiring and poetic book by Olivier Jullien and Laure Gasparotto, La mécanique des vins – le réenchantement du Languedoc. Against all traditions and in spite of his parents’ advice, Jullien withdrew from the cooperative in the 1980’s and started making his own wines. The rest is history: Mas Jullien has now attained legendary status and is one of France’s icon wines.

Many followed Jullien’s example, and the increase in quality is undeniable. Judging by the rising number of estates that are awarded between one and three stars in the green guide of La Revue du Vin de France, Languedoc is now also a region for premium quality wines. Its large diversity of terroirs and mesoclimates, from cooler Atlantic influences (Limoux, Cabardès) to very warm Mediterranean (La Clape), offers a fascinating range of wine styles.

Château la Baronne

The estate I want to highlight in this post is one of the leading exponents of the excellence-driven approach. Château la Baronne, located at the foot of the Montagne d’Alaric, in the north-east of the AOP Corbières, is undoubtedly among the best you can find in the region.

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The estate is situated between the villages of Moux and Fontcouverte. For the petite histoire, note the Belgian connection of Moux: there is a copy of Manneken Pis at the entrance of the village, donated by the city of Brussels out of gratitude for hosting part of the Belgian royal guard during the war (a stay that led to quite some “intercultural blending”, incidentally).

The Lignères family, medical doctors and vignerons de père en fils, bought the estate in the 1960’s (the current winemaker, Jean, still practices medicine and has his cabinet right across the street from the cellar). The estate has grown to a considerable size, totalling around 90 hectares.

It is hard to describe the confident kindness that radiates from Jean and his wife Anne. I’ll do so by quoting another well-respected grower from nearby Minervois, Jean-Baptiste Senat, who told me: these people do not only make great wines, they are above all classy human beings (“la classe humaine”). If it were not such a huge cliché, one could say that wines resemble their makers…

Vineyards and varieties

Typically for this region, there is a lot of old vine carignan here, alongside other mediterranean varieties like grenache noir, mourvèdre, syrah and cinsault. In white, there is mainly vermentino, roussanne, and grenache gris.

The most remarkable vineyard site is without any doubt the parcel of gnarly old carignan vines planted in 1892 on riparia and rupestris rootstocks (among the first to be replanted in this way after 20 years of devastation by Phylloxera). I visited the vineyard on a glorious autumn morning, just after the harvest, with the slopes of Alaric bathing in sunlight. One of the first things that catch the eye: no replanting here, in case an old vine dies, but replacement with the old technique of marcottage; this means that a healthy branch from a neighbouring vine is buried in the soil, starts developing its own superficial root system, but is dependent on the mother plant with its profound roots, getting the much needed water in this dry climate. Hardly anyone still works like this these days (most replant clones selected in nurseries), but the method has the advantage of preserving the genetic properties of the old vines. The vineyard is gently and carefully tended, to preserve the fragile vines as much as possible.

Farming is biodynamic, with a lot of attention for ecosystem diversity in the vineyard, and extremely limited use of cupper and sulphur – which is made a great deal easier by the fact that it hardly rains here in the growing season. That brings us to another, worrying issue for this area: over the last year, only 150mm (!) of rain has fallen. As most vines are quite old, they can feed on deeper layers of water, but Jean acknowledges that if another year of drought were to follow, the situation could become quite dramatic. 2016 already saw the yields drop significantly…

Vinification and work in the cellar

The well-known maxim that great wines are made in the vineyard certainly applies here. Vinification is minimalist. “On ne fait rien“, as Jean puts it, is perhaps a bit rhetorical and exaggerated: if this were the case, anyone could make great wine. “Le plus difficile, c’est de faire simple“. When setting foot in the cellar, it instantly becomes clear that they have created the right boundary conditions to be able to make wine in this way. The place is impeccably clean and extremely well-organised.

La Baronne is moving away from oak maturation, with more and more amphorae and terra cotta being used. They recently ordered egg-shaped vats from terra cotta, combining the known convection movement caused by the egg shape with the properties of the terra cotta.

All this is very reminiscent of natural wine, yet Jean emphasises he is not a partisan of the marked oxydative style of many natural wine makers, arguing that it makes all wines taste alike and it erases terroir differences.

We got to taste some vat samples during the visit. Usually, when I do this, I find it very difficult to see the contours of the future wine. Not so in this case: the juice was extremely balanced and precise already at an early stage (the wines were barely finishing off fermentation).

The wines

Precision, balance and purity are the words that come to mind when describing the range of wines of La Baronne. I first tasted them in 2009 and was already impressed, but the style in those days was more oaked and more extracted. Over the years, the wines have become ever more pure and quintessential, showing beautifully without any need for make-up in the form of overt oak. As in all great wines, freshness is key: despite the very warm climate, the wines have an amazing acidic backbone.

I will not discuss the whole range here, but limit myself to some of which I have tasted the more recent vintages.

Vermentino NW 2014

A monovarietal vermentino (rolle) vinified partly in stainless steel and partly in terra cotta amphorae, with a further 5 months of ageing on the lees. No sulphites added during vinification. Brilliant acidity, fresh aromatics of stonefruit and lime, interesting phenolic notes in the finish.

Le grenache gris de Jean 2014

La Baronne - Le Grenache Gris de Jean - 2014

Although the winemaker does not refer to it as such, this is an orange wine, made with extended skin maceration. Incredibly complex nose (walnuts, spice, fennel, peach, …) and interesting texture with a savoury bitterness that makes this wine a very versatile food partner. Highly original.

Les Lanes 2013

La Baronne - Les Lanes Rouge 2013

An unoaked blend of grenache and carignan. A southern wine, but without a trace of alcohol heat or overripe fruit. It has a funky leather note to it. The fruit intensity on the palate is remarkable. One glass calls for the next – always a good quality criterion.

Les chemins de traverse 2015

La Baronne - Les Chemins de Traverse - 2015

Made without any added sulphites at all, not even at bottling. Natural wine of an almost moving purity and simplicity (in the best sense of the word). Red and black fruits and garrigue spice, extremely fine-grained tannins, and again fresh acidity. A delight.

Las Vals 2013

La Baronne - Las Vals Mourvèdre - 2013

Mighty mourvèdre (100%). The tannic structure and wild aromatics of the grape are there, but at no point does the wine become overbearing or lose its elegance. Powerful yet refined, a wine for the game season, or just to meditate by the fireplace.

Pièce de Roche 2012

La Baronne - Piece de Roche - 2012

Those who still think of carignan as an uninteresting, high yielding bulk variety should try this wine. The grapes are sourced from the 1892 parcel of carignan vines referred to above. A wine of a rare complexity and profoundness, showing what old vine carignan is capable of. The hallmark is again balance and precision.

 

Between Limoux and Cabardès

There are offers that are difficult to refuse… spending some days in the middle of vineyards in my beloved Languedoc at harvest time, is certainly one of them… Like last year, I stayed at Jean-Louis Denois’ winery in Roquetaillade, on the heights of Limoux amidst stunning scenery.

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View of Roquetaillade, on the heights of Limoux

I wrote on Jean-Louis’ wines and his philosophy before, so I will not repeat myself. Suffice it to say that he’s never satisfied and always trying out new things. In his range of sparkling wines, for example. We got to taste a chardonnay of grapes sourced from the same vineyard as his top white Sainte-Marie, but picked slightly earlier. It is not quite there yet after 1,5 years of ageing on the lees, but for sure a very promising effort. Its pinot noir-based counterpart is powerful and structured.  The cuvée Bulles d’Argile is now made without added sulphites. It has delicate oxydative notes and a broad, creamy palate, making it a great table partner. Simply delicious, and much better than many a champagne. The sparkling range of Denois is for sure among the best you can find in France, as confirmed by the recent “coup de coeur” awarded by the Revue du Vin de France.

In the range of red still wines, the Grande Cuvée stands out – a wine with depth and ageing potential. The 2007 is now at its peak: a delicious mix of vibrant fruit, well integrated oak, and leather and tobacco starting to appear. Compare this to your average Bordeaux of the same vintage, and you’ll be delighted. Interestingly, we had the occasion to reflect on the blend for this wine for 2015, on the basis of barrel samples. The constitutive elements: a merlot with quite some oak influence, two cabernet sauvignons with tight, grippy tannins, and a blend of cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc in stainless steel tanks, with great fruit depth. We ended up making two blends, one where the oak-aged merlot was dominant, another where the cabernet franc had a marked varietal influence. Decisions like these need to mature, so there was no final choice – but it was a fascinating exercise in its own right.

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tasting and blending barrel samples

We did not stay in Limoux the whole weekend though…

Cabardès – Languedoc’s westernmost AOP

On Saturday, we got the company of Jean-Louis’ friend Gérard, a geologist and geographer who has been advising Languedoc winegrowers since a long time about soil structure, choice of grape varieties, cultivation methods, etc. The guy is a phenomenon, with his witty humour, a charming southern accent and very outspoken views.

We head for Cabardès, the part of Languedoc that borders on the Sud-Ouest, and where atlantic influence is most marked. This is reflected in the allowed grape blends: always a mix of mediterranean (syrah, grenache, cinsault) and atlantic (cabernet, merlot) varieties. Gérard explained the three basic terroirs of Cabardès, mainly in terms of soil profile (depth, water retention, granularity) – noting, however, that terroir does not exist without the intervention of the wine grower.

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a crash course in Languedoc geology

We do not get to hear romantic stories about soils and how you can taste them in the wines. On the contrary, terroir is basically about putting the right grapes on the right soils: Bordeaux varieties will suffer from excessive water stress in shallow and free draining soils, whereas mediterranean grapes will give less interesting results on humid soils. These are things to be taken into account when planting new vineyards or deciding on cultivation methods.

Domaine de Cazaban

The first of two estates we visited was domaine de Cazaban, run by young maverick Clément Mengus. An Alsatian by birth, his frame of reference in reds consisted mainly of Burgundy and the northern Rhône. Having ended up in the Languedoc, he sees it as his mission to make an elegant, fresh style of reds, unlike the heavily extracted and alcoholic wines one easily finds in the Languedoc.

The estate began with just 4 hectares of vines that Clément bought from a retired wine grower. As he initially lacked intimate knowledge of the terroir, he got off to a bit of a difficult start: some plantings of cabernet that did not work out very well, and a choice of rootstock that turned out disastrous on some parcels. Judging by the current look of the estate, however, he seems to have things on order. The  estate is now entirely farmed biodynamically (certified by Demeter since a few years).

In the cellar, the philosophy is clearly one of minimal intervention, abeit without any extremist views on the use of sulphites, for example. Oak use is limited, and mainly involves big barrels or foudres from the winemaker’s native Alsace. No heavy extraction here, with just a few times pumping over of the must during fermentation.

The results are convincing, to say the least. We start off with a white wine, coup de foudre – a blend of grenache gris, marsanne and roussanne. Clearly a southern wine, yet with good freshness and some interesting bitter notes in the finish.

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Things really get going when we discover the range of reds. The wine going by the poetic name jours de vigne is a mediterranean blend of grenache, syrah and carignan. This is “natural wine” at its best: pure and vibrant fruit, a bit of funky, leathery notes, but clean as a whistle and miles away from the heavy oxydative style one sometimes finds in this genre. It is clear that this winemaker has mastered his art. Demoiselle Claire offers an interesting combination of syrah (60%) and merlot (40%), partially oak-matured, with a core of intense dark fruit and spice, a lovely texture, and superb balance. Les petites rangées has a somewhat higher percentage of merlot, adding to the smoothness and roundness of the wine, in which freshness is again the key. The “cuvée principale” is perhaps more traditional in style, yet appealing and precise. Just a slight disappointment over the most expensive cuvée, Coup des C (coup d’essai, meaning “attempt”), which is more extracted, more oaked, and in my view not needed in this otherwise great set of wines. I imagine its retail price (approximately 35€) makes it less than obvious commercially as well.

Domaine de Cabrol

We move higher up, in the direction of the montagne noire, in the afternoon. We are close to the limit of where vines can grow, at an altitude of about 300 meters and very much wind-exposed. The guide of the Revue du vin de France cites Domaine de Cabrol as one of the references in the AOP, and it is clear that we are more on the side of tradition than avant-garde here. The somewhat chaotic farmyard we arrive at, does not immediately inspire confidence, but it is ultimately the wine that matters, of course.

Winemaker Claude Carayol guides us through a range of 4 wines, 3 of which are red (AOP Cabardès does not exist in white). The names of the two main cuvées refer to the specificity of this part of the Languedoc: it is where the winds from the west meet the winds from the east, and mediterranean grapes partner with Bordeaux varieties. A combination that is not always obvious. Claude’s choice is to make two cuvées, vent de l’est and vent de l’ouest, where one of the two influences dominates.

The vent de l’ouest is marked by cabernet sauvignon (60%). We taste the 2010, which has barely evolved at all. It has a profound ruby colour with a purple rim, and the nose immediately betrays cabernet, with intense cassis fruit, but not a trace of green bell pepper (meaning the grapes are completely ripe). Despite the absence of oak, the palate is ample, structured and pure. A very nice wine.

Vent de l’est is more typically mediterranean and dominated by syrah. Generous, ripe fruit, with smokey and peppery notes betraying the variety. It is more jammy than its counterpart, and a little less elegant, but still very much worthwile. This cuvée has been praised extensively in wine guides and magazines over the years, and one can see why.

The last cuvée in the range, la dérive, is the only one aged in (big) oak barrels (“demi-muids”), and has a sensual, southern profile, with vanilla, sweet spice and chocolate notes alongside ripe black fruit. Powerful, yet not too much.

Go west

The western part of Languedoc, in conclusion, although much less known and present in the Belgian market (especially in the case of Malepère and Cabardès, a bit less for Limoux), has some nice surprises in store. The interesting climatic conditions allow for vibrant, lively wines with a lot of freshness. Definitely worth further discovery!

Stage 2 of our stay took us to a more classic mediterranean part of the Languedoc, Corbières, where we visited the superb Château La Baronne. But that’s the subject of a new post, soon to follow!