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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!