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.
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).
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
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
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
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
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
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.