22 Oct 2012

The New Face of The Languedoc and Roussillon

Can character be combined with commerce in the world’s biggest wine producing region? Douglas Blyde met three producers prompted to improve.
SWEPT by persistent winds and beaten by intense sun, the Languedoc and Roussillon, which have fifth century BC origins, comprises 700,000 acres of vines spanning 150 miles, from AOC Banyuls by the Spanish border to the Rhône and Provence. At times, the territory has yielded more wine than the US, and during both World Wars, the Languedoc was responsible for providing wine rations for French soldiers. On gaining independence from France in 1962, Algeria, no longer able to supply strong wine to disguise the light “le gros rouge”, saw the area become the largest filler of the European "wine lake".

Gamble for Grenache
At Maury, by the gate of the Cathar country, where it can be hard to discern where mountains stop and old stone buildings start. Jean Marie Piqué, Mas Amiel’s Vineyard Manager, steers his battered Land Cruiser around “a mosaic of terroirs”. Estate owner, Olivier Decelle, explains that he never wished to change the configuration of the apparently erratically-sown parcels of up to 94 year-old vines when he bought it as a hobby in 1999. His reasoning: the layout protects vines from the tramontane winds whose regular interventions (gusting 60km per hour for up to two thirds of the year) “keeps vines healthy”.
Formerly the CEO of Picard, “France’s favourite frozen foods brand”, Decelle jests that while others change their wives in a mid-life crisis, then aged 45, he bought what totals 155ha of vineyards. Although former colleagues thought him foolish, the global financial crisis ultimately cost them their jobs. Arguably Decelle is a business genius, bringing the learnings of one sector successfully into another completely different sector. His motto now as a wine producer, as then with foods, is to lead the market - not follow it.
Overseen by petite village girl, Dorothy, three huge shire horses (Marquise, Rambo and Angelo) plough the rows in our midst. Despite the Luddite method, tilling was recommended by soil specialists in heatwave 2003 and has led to increased mineralisation, diminished water retention, deeper roots and arguably, better wine.
The PR reads my mind. “They’re not mucking about in the fields, but changing things in the winery,” she says. We escape mid June’s 31 degrees Celsius for the winery, run by former medical student Nicolas Raffy, who learnt his trade not with the resilient Grenache Noir of the estate, but tannic Tannat. An innovator, Raffy designed fermentation tanks for the estate’s famed vin doux naturels, its main output since one Raymond Amiel won deeds to the property from the Bishop of Perpignan in a card game in 1816. 
With their increased surface area, these gleaming, top heavy bowsers contrast the estate’s 120 year-old massive tonneaus, only suitable for long-term ageing after four decades. Some of these will provide peaceful maturation for wines left to gain flavour across all four seasons in demijohns in the shingle park outside. Sealed with raffia, the clear, 70 year-old bottle balloons are still capped with cans sprayed in the domaine’s previous regalia. “We’ll change the colours one day,” observes Decelle.  

Link in the Chain
Based near Carcassonne, Lorgeril, whose motto is “one family, many terroirs” focuses on cool slopes in this hot region for wines of “freshness”. 361 hectares of vines are rooted across six estates and nine appellations.
Emphasised by the fact its unbroken lineage dates to 1620, Lorgeril takes a particularly long-term attitude to winemaking. “Being a link in a long chain gives modesty,” announces Miren de Lorgeril before veal is served in Lorgeril’s château, Pennautier, called the “Versailles of the South” on account of the shared architect. “I think I’m one of the few classicists in the Languedoc.” 
However, Miren’s husband’s father, Nicolas, was not a classicist but pioneer, being among the first to introduce international varieties, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay to the region in the 1960s-70s. Since Nicolas and Miren took over the running of the business in 1987, vineyards have been entirely renewed, with a focus on elevation, a new approach born of the realisation that higher altitude vineyards give ripe, yet fresh and elegant wines - “a company with altitude.” To further refine these aims, from 2007 Lorgeril employed consultant, Patrick Léon, former technical director of Château Mouton Rothschild. “He teaches us to be more gentle and trust the fruit,” she says.
Lorgeril spotted Asia’s potential relatively early, venturing to Hong Kong three years ago to understand “how it worked” before installing a dedicated, Chinese-speaking export manager. “Asia likes heavier bottles,” she says, “and it’s a case of the more gold the better. But I don’t want to be bling!” One issue internationally with packaging has been the weight of glass. “I tried to change to lighter bottles, but our customers were furious – we had to maintain the image of quality.”
Wiry Export Manager, Franke Flugge interjects, to explain how important it is to carefully promote wines from the area. “There are no fewer than 60 wines from the Languedoc listed in Majestic,” he says precisely. “So we offer their staff incentive trips to visit our Château, and regularly hold in-store tastings.” 
Of the three producers on the itinerary, Lorgeril is keenest to cultivate tourism, cellar door sales and therefore loyalty. In addition to their château, a listed historical monument used for press conferences, weddings and business retreats, Lorgeril lets out gites and operates a wine bar and restaurant.

From near Carcassonne whose Disney castle-like centre was restored by Viollet-le-Duc, and is generally thought a work of genius, while not strictly authentic, the next stop is Château d’Aussières, whose vineyards largely lie in Corbières. Here, rather than altitude, it is the sea which influences terroir which once belonged to the immaculately maintained and largely complete Fontfroide Abbey beside it.
The acquisition of the site, which has eighth century origins, represents an almost decade-long search for a Languedoc property by Domaines Barons Rothschild (co-owners with Les Domaines Listel). “It had been absolutely abandoned for five years” says big-footed technical director, Eric Kohler, who was obliged to “rip-up” existing vines and replant 167ha between 1999-2004.
Kohler is passionate about restricting yields. “We’re trying to get away from the 1950s mentality of volume.” However, he is most certainly the businessman and acts when resources are realised. “Profit is absolutely necessary. Even though we’re Rothschild, our re-building programme won’t be complete until 2015.” Kohler takes me to a currently uncultivated field and explains how he wants to diversify. Pending local restrictions, he intends to install solar panels to sell energy into the national grid.
The winery is functional not beautiful. Elsewhere, buildings awaiting restoration are crumbling. Kohler harnesses carbonic maceration in part for some expressions, and often shuns wood barrel’s obvious influences. “Too often the wines from the Languedoc are dominated by wood – we need to preserve structure and acidity here rather than destroy them with too much oak,” he says.
Unlike Olivier Decelle and Miren de Lorgeril, Kohler has no vinous reference at d’Aussières. “No bottles were left in our cellars,” he recalls. So what of the new style? “We’ve strived for ‘uniformity while finding the remarkable potential of vintages since 2005.”
The days down here have been interesting, meeting curators of two historic domaines and the re-creator of another. Through innovation and modern methods used where they make a beneficial difference at Mas Amiel, Lorgeril’s embracing cellar door and determinedly cool climate viticulture, and Eric Kohler’s clear commercialism, it seems the area is aware of, and determined to fulfil, its budding potential. From them, the European wine lake need not draw its wan waters...

Brett Woonton (Vinoteca)
“We love these two regions because of the diversity of wines. We find our punters are also interested in trading up as they become more trusting of the quality. It is not just the reds which impress, but the whites, with their striking minerality and refreshing acidity. A great example is 2011 Coteaux du Languedoc Blanc ‘La Brise Marine’, Château de la Negly (£29 restaurant price) from La Clape cru of Languedoc. An unusual blend of 60% Bourboulenc, 30% Grenache Blanc and 10% Marsanne, aged on lees for eight months, it has rich, pure fruit, good minerality and lovely acidity...”

Gerald Basset OBE (Hotel Terravina)
“The wide Languedoc-Roussillon area offers huge diversity in terms of flavour, quality and value. Aside from the delicious Vins Doux Naturels for which it is best known, this part of France has made incredible progress in terms of quality over past decades, in reaction to competition from the New World. There is now an opportunity to buy some superb wines at relatively low cost compared with the prestigious Bordeaux or Burgundy...”

Renaud Rolland (Head Sommelier, The Square)
“Generally speaking, you can find a broad style of wine which is fantastic. From the very crisp and light dry white Picpoul de Pinet to the heavy red from the Larzac plateau. I very much like the eclectic character of this region which you could compare in terms of range to the Loire. Also, in term of value, you can find some real bargains; typically a good bottle of wine doesn’t cost more than €4-5. In term of pairing, I like to match them with hearty food such as daube of ox cheek for the big reds; very mineral whites from the Roussillon work with snails á la Catalane, or anchois de Collioure...”

Ken Payton (Wine Writer and Filmmaker)
“The time is right for a sustained, focused, rigorous look at the many extraordinary changes that have swept through the Languedoc-Roussillon in recent years. The international community needs to be made better aware of these important changes in the region. In my view, a well-designed, independently funded documentary film on the Languedoc, to be followed next year by Roussillon, could not come at a better time to achieve this goal...”

For Harper's Wine Magazine
More images at Visuals