by Paige Donner Sure, many of them are organic, some are even natural wine. And yes, they consistently offer rich tastes and aromas, balanced with nice acidity where they’re supposed to be. And, OK, the packaging is attractive, easy to … Continue reading
All photos by Paige Donner © Gérard Bertrand is one of those rare Frenchmen in wine – a former rugby star who took over the family business of wine when he retired from his illustrious sports career. Since his father George’s … Continue reading
by Paige Donner
Just north of the ancient town of Béziers, where Molière and his band of Troubadours once spent a winter (ca. 1656), is the lovely AOC Saint Chinian. The area which envelopes 20 some villages and 3,300 hectares from the foot of the mountains Espinouse and Caroux, also includes the sub-appellations of Berlou and Roquebrun. It is one of the earliest appellations in the Languedoc to receive that distinction, designated in 1982, and produces both reds and rosés under AOC St. Chinian, with the area’s vignerons producing whites under the AOC St. Chinian (blanc) since 2005 and also frequently under a Vins de Pays d’Oc label.
The climate, – sunny Sud de France – and the soils, primarily schistes, clay, calcareous and limestone, are typical of this Mediterranean zone and is one of the important elements that has lent itself to building this appellation’s “grand” reputation. The average temperature is a cool 14° C. The varietals used for the red blends in St. Chinian are Grenache, Syrah, Carignan, Mourvèdre, Cinsault and Lladoner Pelut. For the most part a St. Chinian red can be expected to be rich and generous with the rosés a bit more delicate giving off their hints of red berry fruits.
Red wines dominate in this appellation, which is true of the region, with 89% of the production going towards them, while just 1% ends up as white wine and a decent 10% being produced as rosés. To visit all the wineries of St. Chinian, allow for some time. There are 100 private wineries and 8 cooperative cellars (caves coopératives) with a total of approximately 350 producers.
A Bit of History
The name St. Chinian is derived from the name of the monk, Sanch Anhan, who founded the monastery in the year 794 on the left bank of the River Vernazobre one of two rivers that run through the terrain. The Benedictine monk, beatified in 1102, became known as St. Chinian. St. Chinian is a delightful area in which to play tourist while you taste wines and stock up your cellar. You can meander along the ancient Roman road that connected Narbonne to the upper Languedoc and then all the way onto Italy – the road that Molière and the Troubadours would have travelled. Or you can drive through the Orb Valley where orange trees an eucalyptus trees flourish alongside the river gorge, and where the little jewel of a village Roquebrun nestles. Be sure to pause along the wine route to take some of the heritage walks through the vineyards.
Domaine La Grange Léon, AOC Saint-Chinian, Berlou
Joël and Véronique Fernandez named their vineyard after Joel’s great-grandfather, Leon, who himself came from a long line of vineyard managers and winemakers originating from this Languedocien patch of land not all that far from the Spanish border and Pays Basque. It was Léon who was one of the founding member of the “caves coopérative” of Berlou, credited with uplifting the quality and reputation of St. Chinian wines. Since he was 16 years old, Joël dreamed of being the owner-operator of his own vineyards and winery. He immersed himself in the seasonal rhythms of the vines, in the harvests and dedicated himself to learning the mastery of the “alchemy” of winemaking.
In 2008 Joël and Véronique established their own winery. They harvest their grapes only by hand and are rigorously attentive about the quality of the grapes they allow into the cellar. The Domaine’s vineyards are primarily schiste soils and because they’ve invested so much of themselves into their winery, they are fond of declaring that their wines are “a bit of the terroir and a bit of ourselves.”
La Grange de Léon – Vintage Selection
La Rose de Laury, AOC Saint-Chinian Rosé This rosé has delicate fuchsia reflections with notes of strawberries and cherries. 60% Cinsault, 20% Syrah, 20% Mourvèdre.
Viognier, Vins d Pays d’Oc Blanc Sold out. Only the proprietor has a few bottles on reserve. Uncharacteristically made from 100% Viognier. [The French make blends from the appellation’s designated varietals, Americans tend toward single varietal vintages.] Notes of passion fruit, pineapple, apricot. Aromas of verveine.
D’une main à l’autre, AOC Saint-Chinian – Berlou Rouge Only available in 2010 – so get it now. Plums on the nose, black cherries; mandarin, vanilla, pepper on the tongue. Round, full, long in the mouth. For steaks on the grill in summer, Entrecôte in the winter. Also: L’insolent, AOC Saint-Chinian Rouge; L’Audacieux, AOC Saint-Chinian Rouge Visit the Maison des Vins in Saint-Chinian on the Grand Rue to start off your wine tasting of the region. Ask for Henri Miquel, the President or Nelly Belot, Director. And be sure to stop in at the Syndicat du Cru AOC Saint Chinian at 1 Rue de la Promenade, St. Chinian.
By Paige Donner
In this Languedoc-Roussillon region of southern France, once owned by Sir Lancelot, there rests a 16th c. Castle, Château Capion, tranquilly nestled along the riverbanks of the Gassac.
On the Château Capion’s 75 hectares are planted approximately 48 hectares of vines, mostly of what has become the regional classics: Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Cinsault for the reds and Viognier, Chardonnay, Roussanne for the whites.
They have also planted the Bordeaux varietals of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cab Franc, all which thrive in the unique l’argile bleue terroir – red, volcanic clay/soil – of this micro-climate situated in the sweetspot between Aniane and Gignac, not far from the Medieval village of St. Guilhem le Desert, just 30 km from the Mediterranean Sea on France’s southern coast. This l’argile bleue is similar to what can be found in Bordeaux and has proved to be quite a singular discovery for this vineyard as well as the neighboring vineyard.
Limestone is what is predominantly found on the vineyards with these sections of interspersed red clay soil found only in concentrated deposits, where they’ve planted the Cab Sauvs and Cab Francs, who thrive on their scattered patches of argile bleue, especially, too, because the only water source used for the vines is the natural source to be found deep, about 100 m. under the ground. This pure, natural water source keeps the vines hydrated. They use no irrigation on the vineyards, relying just on this natural water source and rainfall in the Autumn, which varies significantly between as much as 400mm to 1000mm per year.
For the Syrah, this is paradise. Château Capion’s calcareous sandstone and limestone soils differ in the size of the rocks from large stones you can pick up three at a time with your hand to very large stones that you need two hands to hold. Château Capion’s award-winning winemaker Jérémy Chanson explains that they use a vinification process more reminiscent of Côtes du Rhône du Nord. Their Syrah vines, mostly 30 years old, with some vines pushing 80 years and more, offer the raw stuffs for good tannins. “We feel it in the cellar, the difference between the old and young vines. The tannins and the color…,” says Chanson, a native Languedocien whose grandparents, one branch of which came from le Pays Basque, worked in vineyards in their day. He’ll also tell you that from “Corsica to Perpignan, there are no Syrah vines like ours here at Château Capion. She gives where she lives. That is Syrah.”
Their prize vineyard, the Triangle of Le Juge, are the grapes he presses for their Le Juge vintage, and what has earned the Château, along with their Capion vintage, the award of “Best French Winemaker 2008” in London as well as high marks from Decanter Magazine, Guide Parker(Robert Parker’s wine guide to France) and Andrew Jefford’s, The New France. In the cellar he uses gravity for processing the grapes and hand stirs for the “pigeur;” in the vineyards they practice eco-friendly viticulture. There is garrigue all around – sage, fennel, lavendar, thyme – but it is husbanded to a degree that lends a subtler, elegant taste to their wines when compared to the wines from the regional terroir.
For wine enthusiasts, a visit to the Château is imperative. Frédéric Kast, Winemaker, delights in sharing their wines, declaring that each wine has a distinctive personality, “just like you and I do.” The tasting room is suggestive of a Chapel Sanctuary; the heavy marble dais and the stained glass windows add both light and depth to a cheerful room fully refurbished, as is the original XVI c. castle, with taste and modern comfort. They have also manicured a tour of the vineyard with stopping points for an explanation of the terroir, of the view of the terrain which looks out onto Mt. Baudile, of the vines, of the flora of the garrigue… For those looking to absorb even more from this Southern French terroir, the Château offers suites you can rent on the property for short stays, including the new “Troubadour Room” which is in the castle itself. The immediate property surrounding the main house features an English garden, a French garden and a Japanese garden all nestled up against the Gassac River, with views of Mt. Baudile and the Gassac Valley.
The Swiss Buhrer family who purchased the property and vineyards in the mid-90’s have raised their five children there. The label on their prestige single-vineyard white, Le Colombier, is that of a dovecot, which they chose as it is the symbol used throughout history of love, peace, hope and the presence of the Holy Spirit. When this part-Sound of Music, part-Swiss Family Robinson acquired the property in ’96 they inscribed on the outdoor solar clock what became the guiding principle for their family, their wines, their vineyards: “C’est le temps de l’Amour.”
“The Heart of the Terroir”
Le Colombier: Blanc, A.O.P. Coteaux du Languedoc; This Roussanne (40%) and Viognier (60%) blend is a soft golden color with a brilliant shine telling of its fine acidity and balance. Floral notes of white roses, full and long in the mouth. To pair with white meats, grilled fish. 12 Euros
Le Juge: Rouge, A.O.P. Terrasses du Larzac; Primarily Syrah (70%) from vines that are grown in ideal conditions for syrah, with Grenache and Mourvèdre (15% each) blended in for balance and acidity. This “honor of Capion” has fine, subtle hints of garrigue, elegance and refined tannins and its je ne sais quoi is what sets it apart from the wines of the surrounding area and puts it in league withLa Pèira en Daimasela wines, though altogether different. It is aged in new barrels for 12 months. Aromatic whispers of “framboise,” during vinification. 12 Euros
From 2007 and on this wine will continue to be remarkable. To drink now or to save. Can be enjoyed in the summer with grilled meats as well as in the winter with heartier meals.
“One of the 10 best wines in the world.” – Michael Broadbent
“A Lafite in Languedoc.” – Gault et Millau
Daumas Gassac vineyards planted amidst the Languedocian garrigue and protected forestlands, Aniane, France.
By Paige Donner
My father once told me the tale about a Stradivarius. There was a Stradivarius that sat in the dusty folds of a shelf in the back of an obscure violin shop. People came and bought violins from the shopkeeper, for themselves, for their children, but the few who stumbled upon the dusty, old instrument quickly overlooked it, assuming that it couldn’t possibly be an instrument of any worth. Until one day, a master violinist stumbled into the store and like a mother to its child, was at once drawn to the exquisite instrument and knew it instantly for what it was. In his hands, beautiful music once again flowed forth from the Stradivarius.
This story came to mind as I drove away from Mas de Daumas Gassac, the 50 hectare Languedocian vineyard estate just outside of Aniane. This region, the Midi, is, of course the Languedoc-Roussillon, the region that produces the most wine not just in France but in the world. The region is, in every sense of the phrase, Sud de France.
What the region was not known for in 1970 was its quality wine. Flanked by Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Loire and Rhone Valleys, the Languedoc has long been known as the area that makes table wines or vins de table, the better ones just squeaking by with a vin de pays classification – or so goes the common perception. But not all wines need a classification in order to be good. Excellent, even. Indeed, in the case of Mas de Daumas Gassac, as much notoriety as this wine has attracted, it still eschews classification, its winemakers saying a polite “no thanks” to an AOC label.
Rooted In The Languedoc
Flash back to 1970 when a husband and wife team, Aime’ and Veronique Guibert, were in one of those life transitional phases and decided to buy a farm. What they found was this old rundown farm just outside of Aniane, situated in the middle of the Forest of Arboussas, that was still owned by two old spinster sisters of the Daumas family. It was also nestled next to the Gassac River and, in fact, was an old mill or “moulin.”
Tout ce qui brille n’est pas d’Or.
“Everything that glitters is not gold.”
…And, conversely, all that is gold does not glitter. In what has played out over the last 40 years since the Guibert family has grown their grapes and harvested their wines at the vineyard they planted around that old dilapidated mill, now the Mas de Daumas Gassac, is nothing short of an uncovering of a long-forgotten treasure. The treasure, arguably an unofficial Tresor de France, is the terroir of the Gassac Valley.
50 Hectares of Vineyards Surrounded by 100 Hectares of Mediterranean Woodland
The 50 hectares that Mas de Daumas Gassac rests on are home to the first wines ever produced in the Gassac Valley. Those wines were made for Charlemagne, the first King of France ca. 780 A.D. In fact, it was St. Benoit d’Aniane, one of Charlemagne’s counsellors and an Abbey, who created the first vineyard in the “magical” valley of Gassac some 1,200 years ago.
The magic is the microclimate. The terroir was rediscovered in 1971 by Henri Enjalbert a Professor of Geology at Bordeaux University. Veronique, also a PhD (in ethnology) and husband Aime’ Guibert were successful in getting Professor Enjalbert out to the Mas to check out not just the unusual red soil, which was found to be glacial soil, the calceous limestone (for the white varietals), but also to explore the cool microclimate that is derived from multiple factors: the Gassac River, several natural springs on the property, and the cool night air that descends from the Larzac mountains throughout the valley cooling the air surrounding the vines in August and September by about 5 to 10 degrees.
It was this same Prof. Enjalbert who declared to the Guiberts that they were sitting on “the ideal and unique terroir to produce a Grand Cru wine.”
Mas de Daumas Gassac Estate Today
Today it is the brothers Samuel, Gael, Amelien, Roman and Basile who take care of the estate. The Mas de Daumas Gassac label, with its sister label of Moulin de Gassac, produces about 150,000 to 200,000 bottles every year.
Walking through the Daumas Gassac vineyards is not just a walk through the vines but also a walk through the Forest of Arboussas, the Languedocien garrigue and, on this sweet summer day in June, a walk through veils of frolicking white and yellow butterflies. The ladybugs are there, too, when you stop and look closely.
Samuel Guibert, the estate’s winemaker who spent ten years in New Zealand before coming home to help run the family business, matter-of-factly explains that no chemicals, no fertilizers, nothing of the sort has ever touched this soil. “It’s virgin land,” he says. The family themselves source their drinking water from the freshwater springs on the property, so they are not about to poison themselves – or their vines. Their approach to land is “to preserve nature’s balance.”
What’s really unique about this estate, however, in addition to the glacial red soil and everything else…is that the 63 vineyard parcels are all planted interspersed throughout the property, fully integrated with the garrigue and the 3,000 hectares of protected forestland.
When you look up the translation for garrigue, the English is “scrubbrush” or just “garrigue.” What it is in fact is clusters of lavendar, mint, thyme growing wild since the millennia. This is the real Mediterranean. Aromatic, fragrant. So like hidden gardens of fruit nestled within aromatic parcels of herbs, the vineyards are planted throughout this preserved and untouched forestland of fragrant garrigue.
When the grapes are harvested by hand, they are then deposited via gravity into the underground fermentation cellar via a trapdoor which is up top at ground level. The fermentation cellar used to be an underwater tank. “We took what existed and made the best of it,” says Guibert, emphasizing that the whole process from sorting to destemming to macerating is all moved along purely by gravity and all done by hand.
This is a process not often seen any longer anywhere, including France. Some of the vineyards in Bordeaux used to use this gravity-fed process but most have since switched to automated. The difference being, explains Samuel, that the less the grapes are manipulated or handled, the better.
Similarly natural and using the resources at hand, the river next to the cellar helps to maintain the cellar at a cool 13-14 degrees C. in Winter and about 17-18 C. in summer with about 70% humidity. “It’s perfect temperatures for cellaring our wines,” says Samuel Guibert.
They only use about 5% new oak. “We don’t use oak to influence the taste of the wine, rather to enhance the capacity to age,” explains Guibert. You will often hear that a Mas de Daumas Gassac – red or white – has an ease of ability to age. “They are wines that can age, I like to say,” says Guibert, noting that the red that you drink and enjoy today will be a different wine from the one you cellar for 10, 15 and even 25 years. Different and perhaps equally enjoyable.
They blend for complex wine. The Guiberts only planted old strains of vines used before cloning, “to ensure traditional flavors and low yields.”Some of the planted vines are pre phyllaxera era and some are grafted onto American root stock. Oenologues refer to the Daumas Gassac vineyard as a “living museum” of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Manseng – a varietal that really only thrives in the south west region of France, – Viognier and also a “panoply” of 10% varietals that originate from “Biblical” Mediterranean vines – Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Armenia.
As for the vines that St. Benoit of Aniane planted for the Abbey and Charlemagne, “The existing vineyard that my parents found when they arrived at Mas Daumas in 1970 was indeed extremely ancient but no one can prove if it was the exact same vines as when St Benoit d’Aniane arrived,” says Guibert.
Emile Peynaud, the revered modern genius of oenology, told Mssr. Guibert back at the start of this quest for treasure that he had never been attendant at the birth of a Grand Cru. Forty years later, and we get to enjoy the fruits of that treasure quest.
Mas de Daumas Gassac Haute Vallée Du Gassac 34150 Aniane, France www.daumas-gassac.com
by Paige Donner
Picpoul de Pinet, also spelled Piquepoul de Pinet, is both a rare white French grape varietal that thrives in the South of France and it is a designated appellation with its own A.O.C. classification in an area that hugs the Thau Lagoon between Sete and Agde in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of Southern France.
This fresh, crisp wine that splashes hints of lime and green apple in the mouth pairs beautifully with seafoods. It accents especially well the oysters and fresh prawns that grow in abundance off this Languedoc coastal region and the Thau Lagoon where the sun-loving, late-blooming grape thrives and where it enjoys its own Languedocian regional appellation.
A Great Future For A Little Known Grape
Piquepoul, the grape varietal, is used to make the light acidic wine called Picpoul de Pinet, with floral and citrus fruit aromas. It follows then, that the AOC Coteaux du Languedoc, Picpoul de Pinet classification, applies only to white wines.
This rare, ancient French grape thrives in the coastal sands near Sète in the Languedoc, the fishing village that affronts the Mediterranean Sea. The refreshing acidity of this full-bodied wine pairs especially well with seafood because of its more floral, citrus and peach flavors than the minerality of a Sancerre . Picpoul is mostly enjoyed by Languedociens or tourists visiting the area, at present, and is not yet exported as much as say, another rare French varietal, Viognier.
This clear, light-gold wine breathes appetizing aromas of peaches, juicy and fresh, with a back note of lemon-lime. Crisp and tart, white-fruit flavors and lemon-squirt acidity are fresh and cleansing in a very long finish. Not overly complex but bright and appealing, it’s a first-rate seafood wine. It has been called the Muscadet of the south of France. It is the wine that is usually served with oysters that can be found along the coasts of the Languedoc.
Serve very cool between 6 and 8°C to accompany all seafood,