For most of us (okay, most of us like me), the notion of a “wine lake” conjures visions of something found in Xanadu.
“Sweetie, the bouillabaisse needs another splash of rosé … and I just drank the last of it!”
“No problem, dear, I’ll just go ‘round back to the Wine Lake and fetch us another fresh pail. I was meaning to take a splash in the Fountain of Youth anyway, and the Lake isn’t that much further.”
“Great. While you’re at it, can you pick me a few $1000 bills off the Money Tree?”
“Sure, it needs pruning anyway. Darn thing’s been dropping bills like crazy. Soon it’ll be attracting tax collectors, accountants, divorce lawyers and other riffraff.”
However, for vintners in certain wine producing regions of Europe (who live on Earth as opposed to in my fantasies), the wine lake is a) real b) serious and c) not at all good. And nobody wanted to see it dry up more than the vignerons in the south of France, specifically in the Languedoc-Rousillon region (two distinct areas that are typically spoken of synonymously).
In warm areas like this one, grape growing isn’t subjected to the same climactic impact facing those more northerly vineyards. Meaning nature serves as less of a vigour-control mechanism. Meaning you can grow a whole lot of grapes and make a whole lot of wine. Way more, in fact, than you can possibly hope to sell.
Now, I can already hear you chiming out a (quite reasonable by my standards) solution: “Drink more!” A good call, to be sure. But bear in mind that when we’re talking “overproduction,” we aren’t talking a few extra cases, or even skids. It’s a shipload (probably a few hundred or so). After all, it’s a wine lake, not a wine puddle.
Fortunately for all concerned, things have turned around. “Production has been reduced to 12 million hectolitres [for the entire region] from 18 million in 2000,” confirms Christine Molines, Marketing Director for the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins du Languedoc. Though exactly when this happened even she doesn’t know for sure.
“It is frankly difficult to give you a precise date for the shift,” she admits, “but for sure [it was] in the 1970s when French consumers changed their habits. [Within] 15 to 20 years the wines [of the region] began to be recognized for their quality and this trend has accelerated every year. The trade has recognized the huge increase in the quality of the region’s wines and now consumers are [finally] aware of the potential of this area.
I am very confident that we are just at the beginning [of the quality revolution].”
What’s been happening in the south of France has, incidentally, been occurring in other European vineyards, too. Be it other French wine regions, Spain, or Italy, zones that used to make a whole lot of not-so-good, inexpensive wines, are now making plenty of very good ones. And still at very reasonable prices. With growing international competition, it came down to either buck up or grub up. Those who couldn’t adapt got out. The rest dug in. Change on an epic scale followed.
“[The region is] barely recognizable in comparison with even 20 years ago,” says Robert Cripps who, along with his wife, Kim, and Robert’s retired parents, distinguished themselves as being the first non-French owners of a domaine in the Languedoc (the 66 hectare Domaine du Poujol).
“When we bought the Domaine in 1994, I was told that there were 400 caves particulaires (private wineries) in the entire Languedoc-Roussillion. In 1998 alone, 400 new ones opened. Many of the cave co-ops have closed and their vineyards ripped up. In 1994, we were one of 14 professional vignerons in our commune; we are now the only ones left. The other 13, who took their fruit to the co-op, retired, or left the business when the co-op closed down about 10 years ago. I think (but don’t quote me here) the total vineyard area in the Languedoc has fallen by 30 percent.”
Cripps, a Brit by birth who honed his wine chops in California, reports that in the vineyards that survived the “great grubbing up,” big changes have also been afoot.
“There has been a transition to much cleaner agricultural practices, often organic. I understand that one third of the AOP Languedoc classified vineyards are either going through the certification process, or have been certified organic. Twenty years ago, weeds were rarely seen in the area’s vineyards, whereas now many spot them, indicating a drastic reduction in the use of herbicides, particularly the more polluting anti-germinatives.” (Note: AOP stands for Appellation d’Origine Protégée; it replaces — or will replace — Appellation d’Origine Contrôlee or AOC).
Of course, the wheels of change sometimes roll a bit too far. A desire to become more “international” can mean the loss of local tradition. Continuing to comment on changes in the vineyards, Cripps emphasizes this problem.
“The varietal makeup has changed, too, although in my opinion this is not always an improvement. Government subventions have been used to encourage the grubbing up of ‘old’ varieties like Carignan and Cinsault in favour of the ubiquitous Syrah, Cabernet and Chardonnay. Ironically this has placed more value on older varieties for small, artisan wineries such as us.”
Molines confirms that the traditional varieties are indeed regaining ground, with a renewed (and better) understanding of which variety grows best where, and what yields result in the best quality fruit.
Interestingly enough, one of the things that took Cripps back to the “other side of the pond” in order to realize his vinous dreams (once he realized he actually had some) was his (and his wife’s) passion for “European style” wines. Though he had worked with some top-flight Cali producers, including Napa’s Saintsbury, Cripps found the west coast wine scene not really to his liking. “We were both more interested in European-style wines,” he says when explaining why he and his wife chose to trade new world sun for old.
But if Cripps wanted to leave California behind, one French producer sought to take it with him. As Cripps alluded to earlier, planting non-indigenous vines in the south of France is a bit easier than trying to plant them in any other region in the country. Yet there is a big difference in replanting a variety from, say, Bordeaux, than there is with planting a variety from, well, California, as those at Domaine L’Arjolle in the IGP (Indication Géographique Protégée) Côtes de Thongue appellation were to find out.
“Louis-Marie Teisserenc, one of the founders of Arjolle, is one of the rare Languedoc winemakers who has travelled to California to view winemaking there,” reveals Geoffroy de La Besnardière, Associate and Sales Manager for this dynamic and modern Languedoc producer. “While in the Napa Valley, he discovered the quintessential California grape … Zinfandel. He was impressed with how well this grape retained its acidity in Napa’s warm climate.”
He was also convinced the variety would thrive in the sunbaked vineyards of the Languedoc. Displaying incredible tenacity (and incredible patience), Teisserence lobbied the French authorities for permission to plant it (“… surmounting the typical difficulties of French administration” is how Arjolle’s website puts it). He finally got his wish. It took six years and he was allowed to grow only a single hectare, but Arjolle is now the producer of France’s only Zinfandel, “Z de L’Arjolle.” Another hectare should soon be fully planted.
Discovering Zinfandel in a southern French vineyard may indeed come as surprise. But being buzzed by an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (aka a UAV, aka a drone) during your leisurely vineyard stroll could be downright unnerving. So if your meandering takes you through vineyards farmed by Les Vignerons de Buzet, you might want to brace for just such a buzzing.
To get to these vineyards you’ll first need to drive three hours or so due west, northwest, to a point midway between Toulouse and Bordeaux. Granted its AOC status in 1975, the region officially changed its name from Côtes de Buzet to simply Buzet in 1986. And though the region’s heart is planted with Bordeaux varietals (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, etc.), its soul is definitely southern, at least according to Delphine Leuillet, the organization’s Export Area Manager.
“The climate in Bordeaux is influenced by the ocean,” she explains. “In Buzet we are protected by a very big pine forest, which gives us a more continental climate. In fact, Agen, a city in the region, is the hottest in France in the summer.”
Having spent 15 years working in the southwest of France, Leuillet is cool with the heat. What particularly attracted her to Buzet was the passion and commitment of the cooperative, an organization that represents 95 percent of the appellation’s vignerons and vineyard area. Lest you envision it as a sleepy little collective of pétanque-playing villageois, keep in mind that this group is utilizing some pretty avant-garde technology, including, of course, the drones.
“For the 2013 vintage we worked with Telespazio, a multinational company specializing in satellite technology and drones. For this harvest, we used their drones to determine which parcels of vines were ripe and harvest accordingly. We will also be using the drones to look for any signs of disease and treat these vines individually rather than spraying the whole vineyard.”
This sits well with the company’s approach to vineyard management and vinification, a philosophy that strives to be as “hands off” as possible. And while this course continues to be charted by wineries around the world, Les Vignerons de Buzet has woven it right into the fabric of its corporate strategy. In fact, it was the organization’s commitment to all things sustainable that drew Leuillet in. It has also led to accolades both at home and abroad, including attaining the rare and prestigious AFAQ 26000 “Exemplary” status, and a silver medal from the International Awards of Excellence in Sustainable Winegrowing from the Botanical Research Institute of Texas (BRIT). Most recently, the company picked up the Amorim Sustainability Award: Wine at the “Green Awards” sponsored by industry publication The Drinks Business.
Of course, you can have great winemaking practices and, in turn, great wines, as winemakers in the south of France have proven. However, this doesn’t mean that you still won’t have challenges to overcome. Stéphanie Creyssels, the effervescent Area Export Manager for Vignobles Bonfils, a company that controls 23 estates scattered throughout the Languedoc-Rousillon, with a few in Bordeaux, recognizes that the region is producing world-class wine, but that spreading this information around the world has been difficult.
“Unlike other countries, we don’t speak with one voice in France when we talk about our wines and this is an important thing to do especially in this market.” Creyssels says that in Quebec, with a largely French-speaking population, talking about wine producing regions like Corbières, for example, is not too hard. “In the English-speaking market, however, it’s much more difficult. When we do promotional campaigns for this market we should be joining together to promote France.”
It will be interesting to see how the wines from Bonfils, including its Château Vaugelas Le Prieuré Corbières, fare across Canada. While promotional activities will no doubt help, it is also up to the consumer to take an active role in getting to know the wines from France’s lesser-known regions. Be they traditional appellations like Buzet and Corbières, or those that are still developing, experimenting and emerging, there is a plethora (I’ll refrain from using the word “lake”) of unique wines yet to be tapped into by Canadians. Do so and you’ll be rewarded with wines of exceptional quality and value.
Do South – tasting notes:
Pico “Vieilles Vignes” 2011 (Domaine du Poujol, IGP Pay de l’Hérault, 750mL, 13%, $20.00)
This intriguing white is a blend of Vermentino (aka Rolle), Carignan Blanc, and Roussanne from vines dating as far back as 1961. Very aromatic, with suggestions of spring flowers and lime zest, it is extremely well balanced and surprisingly full on the palate with a unique blend of ripe, borderline tropical fruit enhanced by some hints of rose petal and a touch of mineral.
Jazz 2011 (Domaine du Poujol, AOC Coteaux de Languedoc, 750mL, 13.5%, $17.00)
Grenache and Cinsault are the main players in this red blend, with Carignan, Syrah, and Mourvèdre playing additional roles. The aromatic emphasis is on dark fruit, but there are also nuances of tobacco leaf and wild herbs. Medium weight, with crisp, clean, well-defined, mineral-tinged flavours, and a touch of char on the finish.
Sauvignon Blanc/Viognier 2012 (Domaine de l’Arjolle, IGP Cotes de Thongue, 750mL, 12%, $12.00)
Another interesting blended white that gets an aromatic supercharge from the combo of two fragrant white varieties, and a bit of added heft courtesy of the Viognier. Ripe melon, peach, and flower blossom carry over to crisp, lively, peach/citrus flavours.
Z de l’Arjolle Zinfandel (Domaine de l’Arjolle, 750mL, 14%, $20.00)
Uprooted and transplanted many thousands of kilometers away, the hearty Zin seems to be enjoying itself in the south of France, as witnessed by this “first in France” offering. Blackberry, black olive, dried herbs, vanilla, and cedar are all evident on the nose. Rich and smooth, with dark berry, mild spice, mineral, and smoke. If you like your reds rich and cuddly, this is for you.
Buzet “Red Badge” Merlot Cabernet 2010 (Les Vignerons du Buzet, AOC Buzet, 750mL, 14%, $14.00)
A “Bordeaux” blend, but definitely a southern experience. Fresh berry, red apple, cocoa, cinnamon, dried herbs and mint all make an olfactory appearance, with juicy berry, dried herbs and wet slate covering off the flavour profile. Nice complexity and a long, coffee-tinged finish.
Corbières Le Prieuré 2011 (Château de Vaugelas, AOC Corbières, 750mL, 13.5%, $14.00)
The 150 hectare Château de Vaugelas was purchased by the Bonfils family in 2000, adding another jewel to the vinous crown of this family’s ever-expanding empire. Enticing aromas of black cherry, dark plum, vanilla, smoke, mineral and a hint of black pepper segue to a fairly rich, full palate with layers of ripe black cherry, plum and a slight earthiness. Manages to be both modern and slightly rustic at the same time.