Jefford on Monday: The Tipping Point

After an unusually grumpy spring, the Languedoc summer is beginning to surge. The bees are harrying the lavender; the nightingales have stopped singing, their marital arrangements concluded; linden trees spill scent over village boules pitches.

Terrasses du Larzac

The engine of warmth is purring; we’re unlikely to see many clouds over the next three months. If it hadn’t been for the lavish rain the region gathered in April and May this year, the vines would be in trouble. As it is, they’re smiling.

That warmth was upmost in my mind as I blind-tasted, over a couple of days recently, almost ninety of Languedoc’s finest red wines. I’ll outline some of the star performers below, but two key elements emerged from this tasting, as they have from almost every similar tasting I have done over the last year or so.

The first is that money spent on small oak barrels, and on the time idled away by Languedoc red wines inside them, is often wasted. Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Carignan: the register or timbre of these varieties is a different one to Cabernet, Merlot, Pinot and Tempranillo from cooler zones (and cool-climate Syrah, too). The flavours of oak are often discordant here, obscuring the diagnostic but fugitive wildness which can send your pulse racing in Languedoc’s finest wines. Those wines need a little time, but that time is almost always best spent in larger and older wooden vessels, in concrete, or in bottle. No Languedoc wine I have ever tasted needs a lot of maturation time. Few, indeed, finish a decade in credit.

And then there’s the heat, the ripeness, the flamboyance. Much, here, depends on terroir and yield, but the tipping point between ripe and over-ripe seems to be one which is quickly passed under the generous Languedoc sun.  I applaud producers here for their willingness to make wines of natural articulation, wines imbued with a sense of place, but it does call for fine aesthestic judgement if the results aren’t to topple over into galumphing caricature (or bretty bathos). Drinkers may find expensive Languedoc wines outclassed by cheaper ones. Given the enormous aesthetic width evident here, nothing can beat a pre-purchase taste – so accept any Languedoc tasting invitations which come your way with alacrity.

Some of the leaders? Sébastien Fillon at Clos du Serres in Terrasses du Larzac is doing a wonderful job with his fifteen scattered parcels of vineyard: I tasted his range at Vinisud in February, but coming across the 2009 La Blaca cuvée in the blind tasting context recently, with its floral refinement and perfect balance between flesh, extract and freshness, confirmed the rare combination of great skill and great terroir. Among other top values for less highly priced cuvées is the 2010 Carline from Ch de Cazeneuve in Pic St Loup (complex, vivacious, even truffley); the 2009 Chant des Cigales from Ch la Liquière in St Chinian (fragrant citrus and herbs); and the 2010 Bergerie from Ch des Karantes in La Clape (the extravagant ripeness of this coastal massif managed with enticingly spicy poise).

Among the top cuvées, wines which repay the extra outlay include the fragrant 2009 Grande Cuvée from Domaine de l’Hortus in Pic St Loup (like springtime in Tunis: all jasmine and orange blossom); the dense, beautifully crafted 2009 Clos de la Simonette from Mas Champart in St Chinian; and an old friend in its 2010 guise, the Cuvée No 3 from one of France’s greatest and remotest co-operatives, that of Embres et Castelmaure in far-flung Corbières (another wine which captures the heady fragrance of Languedoc hill country with poise and precision). The attractively priced 2010 Ste Hélène cuvée from Mas Belles Eaux near Pézenas is surely the best ever from this domain: Languedoc at its most drinkable and refined, and balm after some of the region’s more chaotic excesses.  A wine which has aged well (though needs no further keeping) is the 2007 Grande Cuvée from Prieuré de St Jean de Bébian, also near Pézenas: multi-layered and structured, pure fruited, yet with those lingering notes of thyme and cade still softly apparent.

The tasting finished with a flight of wines whose prices march boldly into Bordeaux and Burgundy territory: €55 for La Grange des Pères 2007, €64 for La Pèira 2009, €82 for the 2007 Porte du Ciel from La Négly and €83 for the 2008 Clos des Truffiers, also from La Négly. It was, in taste as well as in price, a battle of the sauropods, but on my scoresheet as well as for those I was tasting with, the winner was a new arrival: the 2009 Matissat from La Pèira (€40 from the cellar; Berry Bros, by the way, will be stocking both the 2007 and 2009 vintages later this year). It was pure Mourvèdre, but I don’t think Bandol-lovers would have recognized it, so pristine were its black fruits, and so elegantly had the garrigue allusions been incorporated. Yes, it had tiptoed right up to the tipping point, looked over -- and stepped back: delicious.  
 
      

Jefford on Monday

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Award-winning writer Andrew Jefford's Monday column on Decanter.com