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!

 

Loire’s white delights: Vouvray and Montlouis

The Loire valley is definitely one of France’s great spots, and it is no wonder that a large stretch of the valley as a whole has been granted the status of UNESCO world heritage. The number of sites that Michelin’s green guide lists as “worth the trip” (***) is huge; the beautiful landscape is shaped by the majestically meandering river and its tributaries, overlooked by countless châteaux of great historical value.

Having spent some time in Sancerre and Pouilly a few years ago, I now ventured a bit downstream along France’s longest river, and ended up to the east of Tours. There is ample opportunity for winelovers to quench their thirst here: the broader area falls within the AOP Touraine (with some local subzones), and the two closest village appellations are Montlouis and Vouvray. The former is rather small, with a few hundred hectares of vines squeezed between the Cher to the south and the Loire to the north, the latter comprises over 2000 hectares, all located to the north of the Loire. The soils are typically chalky here (tuffeau limestone), although there is a higher proportion of sandy soils on the Montlouis side.

I visited two producers, one in each AOP. In Montlouis, I discovered the wines of the well-established “Domaine de la Taille aux Loups”, founded by Jacky Blot; in Vouvray, I left the beaten track somewhat by visiting “Le Clos de la Meslerie”, where the wine is made with minimal intervention (one could say it is a “natural wine”, although, as readers may know, there is no rigorous definition of the concept – more on that below).

Domaine de la Taille aux Loups – Montlouis

On a glorious summer morning, I drive from the castle of Chenonceaux to Husseau, a hameau of Montlouis. Having turned right from the D40, I soon find myself in the middle of the vineyards. The landscape is softly undulating here. No steep slopes, more like a plateau. It is one of the reasons why the disastrous 2016 spring weather has wreaked havoc here. Little draining of the abundant rainfall, and no evacuation of cold air during spring frost. These two factors combined have caused heavy losses for this year’s harvest, as a quick inspection of some vines confirms: hardly any bunches to be seen.

Jacky Blot has created the estate from scratch a few decades ago. He is a never-tiring entrepreneur, extremely demanding for himself and those who work with him. This uncompromising search for precision and perfection is reflected in the wines. It is early in the morning, but my tasting buds are up for a feast.

We start off with the Brut triple zéro (meaning no enrichment of the must (chaptalisation), no liqueur de tirage, no liqueur de dosage). Clean and precise fruit, hints of vanilla and toast, excellent balance between richness of flavours and bright acidity. The rosé de Touraine, made of Gamay, is the wine that seduces least among the whole flight: typical nose of bonbons anglais, but not very exciting and rather simple.

Next up is the Clos Michet 2014. Received wisdom places Vouvray in a higher league than Montlouis, because of its south-facing vineyards, whereas Montlouis is looking north. Even in Johnson’s and Robinson’s wine atlas, the only vineyards shown for Montlouis are those to the north of the D140, either on the “plateau” mentioned above, or descending towards the Loire. There are however also Montlouis vineyards on slopes facing the Cher, and thus exposed to the South. Clos Michet comes from one of these. The 12 months of oak are quite noticeable on the nose, alongside ripe fruit, with tropical notes (pineapple), but underpinned by a firm acidity and mineral edge. The wine needs some time for the oak to integrate better. Remus Plus 2014, a blend of three small parcels from the same area, has spent even more time on oak barrels, but has digested this better than the Clos Michet. It has more concentration and weight, without ever becoming heavy-handed.

La Bretonnière 2014, which should have been a Vouvray but was denied AOP status because the cellar, contrary to the vineyards, is not within the AOP boundaries, is a very lively, energetic wine, with a lot of tension. I am tempted to use the word “chalky”, be it with all the caveats of the discussion on minerality in wines (which would lead us too far here). We end the tasting with Cuvée des Loups 2009, a sweet wine from botrytised grapes. 100 grammes of residual sugar, yet so incredibly playful and elegant. A great illustration of the recent plea of Jancis Robinson in favour of sweet wines.

La Taille aux Loups has a great set of wines on offer. In their most recent guide of the best wines of France, the journalists of La Revue du vin de France have given this estate one out of three stars, arguing that there is still room for improvement in terroir expression (whatever this may mean precisely) and purity of fruit. I beg to differ, and would put this estate at least on the level of that other Montlouis giant François Chidaine, of whom I also tasted some wines during my stay (tasting notes to follow).

Clos de la Meslerie – Vouvray

Some stories make one dream. The one of Peter Hahn is among those. Formerly active in the financial sector, he decided to switch careers, learnt to make wine at the lycée viticole in Tours, where reputed Vouvray grower Vincent Carême was one of his teachers, and bought a small 4ha estate in Vernou-sur-Brenne, a marvellous zone in the heart of the Vouvray area.

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I arrive at the estate somewhat stressed, running half an hour late due to GPS issues. The warm informal welcome instantly removes the stress. Peter exudes a steady kind of tranquillity, surely an important quality for a vigneron. Soon we are amidst the vines – 4 parcels spread around the house, each with a different exposition. Peter’s wine making philosophy of minimal intervention places him in the natural wine scene (he is mentioned and commended in Isabelle Legeron’s textbook on natural wine), though with a very reasonable and rational approach. He considers himself too “cartesian” to fully apply biodynamic principles, which he thinks of as “faith”. Likewise, no dogmatism on the use of sulphites in the cellar: it is restricted to a minimum, but not banned (none of the oxydized apple cidre you find with some natural wine disciples, to put it bluntly). The vines are biologically farmed, and Peter usually gets by with far less than the authorised amount of cupper. Weed is only removed mechanically. The vines are in great shape indeed.

The cellar is of a stunning simplicity. No high-tech equipment, just the bare essentials: a traditional vertical press, a stainless steel tank to let the must settle, after which it flows by gravity to the barrel cellar below, where the rest of the process takes place: fermentation in the barrels, with lees stirring from time to time. Malolactic fermentation doesn’t take place, presumably because of the very low pH of the wines, which also reduces the need for sulphites.

We taste some 2015 samples of barrels from different parcels and harvesting dates. First surprise: the juice is remarkably limpid. The wine will not need any fining or filtering, and is as good as ready to be racked and bottled. In the glass, it is straight and pure, with noticeable differences, obviously, between the parcels. In general, the warmth and generosity of the 2015 vintage shines through. These barrels will then be blended into the final wine in order to reflect the place and the vintage.

The wines are indeed very different between vintages, as becomes obvious when we taste bottle samples. The edgy, lively and pure style remains constant, but the characteristics of the vintage come to light.

We start off with a sparkling wine, made from grapes which, contrary to standard practice, are not harvested earlier but at full maturity, giving a very vinous, powerful vin de repas.

Only one still wine is made every vintage. The 2009, a warm vintage, has 30 (!) grammes of residual sugar, but its taste is refined and ethereal, the sugar is barely noticeable. A wine of marvellous depth. 2014 is less opulent, but still has a great texture and volume, with the mineralic acidity carrying the wine all the way through a very long finish. 2013 is even dryer, and possibly a touch out of balance at this point. But the acidity will make this wine last for decades, and my guess is it will be fine in a few years.

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One can see that the same drive that made Peter successful in the financial world, will make this wine adventure a success as well. And the final product is so much more appealing… Warmly and wholeheartedly recommended!

 

 

 

A journey through Austria (1) – introduction

Last week, I joined a group of sommeliers, educators and people in the wine trade for a short but intense trip through the vineyards of Austria. The coming days and weeks, I will be posting a few highlights of this magnificent and underrated wine country, starting with a brief general introduction to some key aspects of Austrian viticulture.

Viticulture in Austria, as in most central European regions, dates back to Antiquity and survived in the middle ages thanks to the clerus, notably the Cistercian monks coming from Burgundy. The major cesure in the modern history of Austrian wine making, however, is the ill-famed wine scandal that broke out in 1985. High concentrations of diethylene glycol, a (toxic) compound similar to what is added to fuel to prevent it from freezing, and meant to give wines more smoothness and body, were found in Austrian wines. The sales understandably plummeted. “Never waste a good crisis”, the Austrians must have thought, and they seized the moment to elaborate what is probably one of the strictest wine legislations in the world.

Today, Austrian wines have reached a high level of quality and a worldwide reputation, albeit predominantly among more knowledgeable wine consumers. In 2014, just over 20% of the total production was exported, but while the export has stabilized in terms of volume, it has steadily risen in terms of value, indicating that the more expensive wines find their way to international markets.

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The Zieregg vineyard of winery Tement in south-eastern Steiermark, overlooking the Slovenian border

Austrian vineyards, totalling just short of 50.000 hectares (a surface comparable to Champagne in France), are situated between 47 and 48 degrees latitude, implying a cool to moderate climate, with freshness and elegance as an essential hallmark – even in the full-bodied reds from Burgenland. Macro- and meso-climatic influences for Austrian wine, other than vineyard latitude, are the warm currents from the Pannonian plain, cold air from the north, Mediterranean (Ilyric) influence (mainly in the Steiermark), proximity of the Alps, and the tempering effect of large water masses, like the Neusiedlersee and, of course, the Danube. These factors will be discussed in more detail in the posts on separate wine regions.

 

Austria’s main wine regions ((c) austrianwine.com)

In terms of geology, and without going into too much detail here, we can say that Austria has a wide diversity of soil types: primary rocks that surfaced through collisions of tectonic plates (granite, gneiss, schist, quartz, …), alluvial material and debris carried by rivers (gravel, …), weathered rock (löss, sand,…) and organic (limestone) deposits originating from the big sea that once covered what is today the Pannonian plain. These soil types obviously have an impact on the vine and the wine it produces. That is not to say that we can smell or taste schist, for example (for the record, I smelt and licked a piece of schist – it tastes of nothing, I can assure you), but that the water, heat and nutrient retention capacities of the soil are determining the vine’s metabolism and hence the taste of the wines.

Geology of Austrian winegrowing regions ((c) austrianwine.com)

The country produces a broad range of wine styles, from crisp, aromatic or complex and ageworthy whites, over fruity or more robust and tannic reds, to lusciously sweet wines (Austria’s “liquid gold”) with great acidity and balance. I tasted around 260 wines in the 5 days of the trip, and while there were some mediocre wines, the overall quality was impressive. I hasten to add that many of the wineries we visited are not exactly representative of the bulk of the market, as they mainly produce premium and ultra-premium wines, but they do show the greatness that Austrian wines are capable of.

Like many other winegrowing nations, Austria can boast a few “signature grapes”, native to the country and not that frequently cultivated elsewhere. In white, by far the most important grape is grüner veltliner, yielding wines with high acidity yet complex texture. For reds, there is sankt-laurent and blaufränkisch, and of course the crossing of those two, zweigelt (named after the professor who did the crossing). But more international varieties shine just as brightly. Riesling gives outstanding results, notably in Wachau, Kamptal and Kremstal. Some pinot noirs definitely attain Burgundy quality. And the sauvignon blancs of Steiermark are an international reference point on their own.

Conscious of its assets, Austria has set up a strict system of protected denominations of origin, the so-called “DAC’s” (Districtus Austriae Controllatus). Besides that, there is also the hierarchy in terms of sugar ripeness, much like the German one (Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, etc.), but a detailed discussion of this would lead us to far. Eager readers may want to have a look at the website of Austrian wines for more details.

In terms of winemaking practices, there is a growing consciousness of the need to work in a sustainable way, which has led to the creation of a certification “Nachhaltig Austria“, whereby sustainability is defined not only in ecological, but also in social and economical terms. Moreover, 10% of the vineyard surface is cultivated organically, making Austria the world leader, as explained in a report on the ProWein website. That is no mean achievement in a country with a relatively cool and in many places also humid climate!

Climate change is obviously not unheard of here either, but Austria may perhaps be counted among the wine regions that are likely to benefit from slightly warmer temperatures. Where problems would arise, solutions are already being sought in the form of later ripening clones, or adapted vine training, irrigation, and canopy management practices.

The following posts will each highlight a region or a set of regions within Austria, discussing the main wine styles and sometimes individual wineries. Next up: one of the coolest (literally at least) spots in the country, the Weinviertel. Stay tuned!

A taste of Sicily

“If the boot of Italy were to kick against a football, that football would be Sicliy”. That’s how I described the geographical situation of Sicily to my children before leaving for a week to this exquisitely beautiful, and surprisingly big, island at the southern tip of Italy. Not a wine trip in the first place, but of course I would not let the opportunity pass to get some idea of what the Island has to offer viticulturally speaking.

South, at least in the northern hemisphere, means warm. Indeed, the commonplace about Sicilian wines is that of alcoholic, concentrated, deeply coloured wines that may lack some freshness due to abundant warmth and sunshine. Wines that are also available in huge quantities – Sicily is quantitatively speaking among the top regions in Italy.

The two wineries I visited are both far away from this cliché. The first one is located at the heart of Sicily’s only DOCG so far, Cerasuolo di Vittoria. It is Azienda Agricola Cos (where C, O and S form an acronym designating the family names of the three owners), an estate going back to 1980. I could join a tour with some of their Italian clients, meaning I had to do my very best to grasp everything Giusto Occhipinti (the O in COS) told us, but I managed more or less.

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The vineyards of COS are in the zone between the sea and the Monti Iblei, a beautiful mountain range rising up to 1000 metres in the south-east corner of Sicily. There is a lot of ventilation and cooling influence from winds. The soils consist mainly of clay and limestone, a perfect mix for this dry climate.

The most exciting aspect about COS is without doubt the amphorae in which a large part of the wines are fermented and matured. COS abandoned oak barrels in the late nineties, after a trip to Georgia (where the ancient qvevri tradition comes from) had opened their eyes. Occhipinti praised the advantages of amphorae as opposed to oak, for example the micro-oxygenation effect without the oak taste that only masks terroir, according to him. We got to taste some samples straight from the amphora, both in white and red. The least one can say is that these wines are off the beaten track. The whites spend a very long time on the skins, which is unusual, yielding deeply coloured and complexly flavoured wines with less immediate fruit appeal but a great deal of depth and structure. The reds are delicately textured and refined, not big and bold (some of them do not even reach 13% alcohol, despite the warm climate).

During the long visit to the winery, Occhipinti got the chance to explain his winemaking philosophy. While I appreciated his commitment to organic and biodynamic practices, and the ethical dimension to which this approach is intimately linked (preserving biodiversity, slow food, etc.), it got a bit too esoteric for my taste when he mentioned that playing Chopin in the winery made the wines more harmonious, or when he dug up homeopathic theories about the memory of water – theories that have been scientifically discredited since a long time. Nevertheless, this obsessive attention to the slightest detail, both in the vineyards and in the winery, is clearly conducive to making great wine.

Later that week I tasted three COS wines from the bottle. The white “Rami” 2013 was deeply coloured, with almost copper notes, and showed a smooth texture and nice complexity. The frappato 2014 had some sulphurous notes on the nose, which I initially believed to be reduction that would fade away with some oxygen, but they were still there on day 3; the wine was rather thin and never entirely convinced me. We had trouble finishing the bottle. The Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG 2013 was much better. It had higher, but not excessive, alcohol, more tannic structure, and better fruit definition. Back home, I also opened the bottle of Pithos Rosso 2014 for a dinner party at my place. Judging from the guests’ reactions, this is definitely not a crowd pleaser. Leathery and smoky notes on the nose, with sour cherry fruit (on the verge of some vinegar-like touch), but refreshing and well-structured.

Later that week in Sicily, we moved up to the north-east, to go and see the “next big thing” in Italian wine: the wines coming from the volcanic slopes of Mount Etna. As I only had the time for one winery, I decided to go for one of the pioneers: Vinicola Benanti, which today makes what Decanter (in its overview of Italy for 2015) has labelled possibly the best Italian white wine, Pietramarina.

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A plot of old bush vines on the first slopes of Mount Etna, ca. 600m altitude
While DOC Etna is quite old (the 1960s), it is only in the late 20th century that things really got moving here. Dining out in a local restaurant, Benanti’s founder wondered why there were hardly any Etna wines on the wine list, and decided to invest in a project to show that fine wine could be made here.

The Etna is unlike any other region in Sicily. To begin with, the soils consist of black, volcanic sand. Very draining, which is good given the significantly higher rainfall.

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volcanic sand, a well-draining soil
The sandy soils also mean that the terrible phylloxera vastatrix, the little bug that all but wiped out Europe’s vineyards in the 19th century, never really got hold here: there are plots of ungrafted, so-called “pre-phylloxera” vines. Third, the altitude (up to 1000m, among the highest for European vineyards) provides cool nights, wide diurnal temperature ranges, and hence aromatic and fresh wines.

Benanti is not certified organic. They use as little treatments as possible, but are not willing to let whole vintages go down the drain just to comply with certification, as the agronomist explained while we walked through a plot of old vines.

I got to taste 6 wines here, from entry level to the top range. All of them have impeccable fruit definition and balance. The monovarietal nerello capucco and nerello mascalese (both allowed in Etna DOC) offered an interesting comparison, with the mascalese showing more complexity as opposed to the fruity capucco. The top red, Serra della Contessa, is incredibly layered and refined, almost pinot-like, with tremendous length. In the whites, the Pietramarina clearly stands out. It has a Riesling-like nose with hints of petrol, but also ripe exotic fruit. On the palate it shows amazing tension and liveliness, and it will for sure age well.

 

Salute!

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”.