The new old world
- Friday 1 March 2002
Minervois offers high-quality, good value and fruit-driven wines, says NORM ROBY, and out-terroirs the New World
'New Old World Wine' was a phrase that came quickly to Michel Julien, winemaker and owner of Château Villerambert-Julien, an estate created in 1858 in the village of Caunes Minervois. A man in constant motion with several projects going on simultaneously, Michel Julien was describing the kind of wine now being produced in the AC Minervois. Often dismissed as just another part of Languedoc, the Minervois region has a nucleus of winemakers who have taken steps to improve quality and are now ready to win over the price-conscious consumer with their distinctive Old World wines displaying New World forward fruitiness.
Timing is everything and Minervois' winemakers may be about to have their time in the sun – something they already enjoy plenty of. Minervois has an array of red wines based on Syrah, Grenache, Carignan and Mourvèdre. And as the wine world focuses more and more on terroir, Minervois can out-terroir anyone in the New World. Sensing that their wines are in vogue, growers and winemakers are showing the kind of energy, boundless enthusiasm and can-do attitude once reserved for youthful New World vintners. Michel Julien could not wait to put the last batch of Grenache from 2001 into the fermentor so that he could then supervise the clearing of new vineyard land for Syrah. Pausing over the 'New Old World Wine' description, he explains: 'Our Minervois wines are made from traditional varieties by winemakers who are artisans, not mass marketing people. Rather than trying to make "garage style" or mass- produced wines, we want to preserve and protect the terroir. What makes us now feel we can compete with those in Bordeaux and in other regions who once dismissed our wines is that we have access to New World techniques and attitudes.'
The 1999 Château Villerambert-Julien consists of 70% Syrah, 30% Grenache, aged for one year in French oak, 25% of which was new. This wine, like others tasted, reveals skilled winemaking in its depth and balance while it focuses on rich, ripe fruit and distinctive regional spice.First granted AC status in 1985, Minervois covers more than 4,500ha (hectares) which supply grapes to some 180 producers and 35 cooperatives. On average the AC produces 200,000hl a year, of which 90–95% is red. Unlike growers in neighbouring Corbières, many here prefer Syrah over Carignan. Many of today's leading growers credit Jacques Tallavignes of Château de Paulignan for encouraging others to plant Syrah in the 1960s. While Cinsault has been replaced by Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre are holding steady. Carignan is a special case. British-born Robert Eden of Château Maris made a 100% old-vine Carignan in 1999 that would knock Parker's socks off. But Eden also faults Carignan, explaining that, 'too much Carignan planted in the 1970s was highly productive clones whose vines were trained for massive yields'. In most blends, Eden thinks, Carignan at 15% makes its point strongly. Claude Drogga, third-generation winemaker at La Cazal, staunchly defends using Carignan because, 'it is what gives typicity to Languedoc reds'.
Shaped like an amphitheatre, Minervois encompasses beautiful land extending from the gates of Carcassonne down to Narbonne. Bordered by the Black Mountains in the north and the Canal du Midi in the south, Minervois is crisscrossed by five rivers which have created a series of gorges and terraces. Vines grow on plateaux, steep hillsides, a variety of elevations and valley floors. Its landscape sometimes reminds you of Châteauneuf-du-Pape with vines sticking out of rocks of all sizes, and at other times the limestone and bright chalky scenes seem right out of Burgundy. In Minervois vineyards are planted on other soil types such as shale, gravel, schist, sand, clay, flint, and even marble.It is no wonder then that Minervois is attracting outsiders interested in producing unusual wines reflective of the terroir. After working many harvests in Burgundy with numerous producers, Robert Eden settled in Minervois as proprietor of Château Maris. He likes to suggest an analogy between Minervois and Volnay. 'Both offer an array of expressive terroir from the top of the hills to the bottom. In La Livinière and Caunes-Minervois, there are extremely expressive terroirs with Grenache and old-vine Carignan excelling on the upper sites and Syrah on terraces running down the hills. When yields are restricted and the vinification carefully controlled, the wines of Minervois, like the wines of Volnay in Burgundy, are the most seductive and suave of the Languedoc.'
However, most producers on the cutting edge are small and family owned with long, deep ties to the region. At Château Coupe Roses, winemaker/owner Françoise Le Calvez works the various terroirs as she revels in the art of assembling cuvées. After taking over from her mother in 1987, she introduced stainless steel tanks for fermentation and has recently brought small oak barrels to her functional,compact winery built into the hillside of La Caunette. Echoing sentiments heard elsewhere, she adds: 'Little by little we are upgrading the facility here, experimenting with oak ageing and learning more about the terroir.'
In 1999, Le Calvez made a lovely, pure fruit style of 100% Grenache bottled as Cuvée Prestige, and her 1999 Cuvée Orience, 95% Syrah, displays richness, Syrah character and finesse. Both were made by carbonic maceration, a common practice in Minervois. Looking to make still finer wines, she is excited about a fermentation experiment with one batch of 2001 Syrah. Her enthusiasm and dedication are typical of many second- and third-generation Minervois winemakers. Minervois is also home to dozens of old-time vignerons who are most at home talking about terroir. Anyone interested in experiencing a typical Mediterranean garrigue should visit Domaine Le Cazal in another corner of La Caunette. Claude Derogga works the vineyard with his father, Pierre. They farm 80-year-old Carignan, 30-year-old Grenache and 10-year-old Syrah, using equal portions of each to produce their intense, garrigue-scented 'Cuvée Le Pas de Zarat'. To compete in today's wine market, Le Cazal, a bare-bones ancient winery using old basket presses, relies on oenological and ongoing technical assistance from its marketing agent, Val d'Orbieu, the large owner of Cordier and other marks.This arrangement with Val d'Orbieu is also working well at Domaine Lignon in Aigues-Vives where Remi Lignon took over the family's 26ha vineyard in 1991. Easing into winemaking with assistance from oenologist Catherine Tournie, he makes a delicious Syrah (Les Vignes d'Antan) by carbonic maceration using five stainless steel tanks wedged into an old gravity-flow winery. The winery investment may be minimal, but the 1997 and 1999 Les Vignes d'Antan are super, good-value wines. Contrary to the impression created by the recent exit from the Languedoc of the Robert Mondavi winemaking team, Minervois welcomes change. At least change from within. The rallying cry of Minervois La Livinière, the new village appellation and the first of its kind in the Languedoc, is Que non ascendum. Since 1990, the Syndicat du Cru Minervois has urged all growers who want to survive to join the move towards tighter village appellations so the region can develop a hierarchy. The thinking is this hierarchy of appellation will reinforce the diversity of wines produced and will provide buyers with more information. 'Minervois-Minerve' is the leading candidate to become the next village AC. Approved by the INAO in 1999 and assumed to be the first of several, Minervois La Livinière sets high standards. A small delimited area in the centre of the region, La Livinière extends across five tiny villages, and encompasses 2,600ha. When approved, only 150ha were planted. This has created a mini land-rush to develop vineyards within the area.
The AC rules stipulate that a minimum 60% of the wine must be made from Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre, with some Carignan and Cinsault allowed. The allowed yield is set at 45hl per ha and the rules call for specific pruning methods for each type of vine. Furthermore, the wines must obtain 12? alcohol and be aged for at least 15 months before being bottled. As it ages the wine must be submitted twice for official tasting, and once after being bottled. When all the appellation's conditions are satisfied the wine's capsule can bear the official logo of La Livinière. While these requirements may sound like another example of French bureaucracy, the first significant vintage of Minervois-La Livinière was 1999 and the wines speak well for the new appellation. Among my favourites is the 1999 Grand Terroir (60% Syrah, 30% Grenache, 10% Carignan) from the Cave Coopérative of La Livinière. It held its own against the local cult winery, Domaine Borie de Maurel, whose 1999 La Féline (70% Syrah) is polished and stunning. Owned by Sylvie and Michel Escande, Borie de Maurel makes Cuvée Stella (100% Syrah) which sells for $25 (£17.50) a bottle. That makes it the most expensive Minervois and also the most coveted on the market. Michel Escande, who apprenticed at Château Rayas and now heads the La Livinière AC, has become a local hero. It is most fitting if not absolutely necessary that the first cult wine from Minervois should be made by a native.