Andrew Jefford April 2011 column

  • Monday 28 March 2011

Gliding above the vineyards of France

Andrew Jefford

I’m strapped in to the front cockpit, my feet each side of the controls. Down comes the bubble of thermoplastic. René, who knows what to do, sits at the rear.

The tow rope tautens, and we slide off down the runway. The plane pulling us up is a fat little moth. It drags us round in a rising horseshoe; soon we’re heading towards the peak of Pic-St-Loup from the west.

Then René pulls a handle to release our tow-rope; the moth drops rapidly away. We’re on our own – set on a crash course for the rock face.

In trust lies serenity; René has done this for 30 years. He soon finds the rising air he is looking for, and we begin to soar over the ridge line.

There are hikers at the summit, and they wave at the fragile, engine-less sailplane banking, in silhouette against the sun, above them.

I’d always imagined gliding to be a silent thrill. In fact the wind rushing past the cockpit hisses constantly, and René and I can only talk on intercom.

The view dazzles. From the south, Pic-St-Loup is burly, hunched, a prop forward about to engage. But viewed from any other angle, it’s a giant wave of limestone, ramped towards the sky.

Just 1,500m away is the Montagne de l’Hortus, another surging lip of limestone, its teeth of stone grimacing upwards. We’re gliding between the two, over an undulating trench of garrigue and vineyard called the Combe de Fambétou.

The two peaks look like twins, but in fact they’re distant cousins: Pic-St- Loup (like Chablis and Sancerre) is late Jurassic limestone, whereas Hortus (like parts of Savoie and the southern Rhône) is early Cretaceous.

They made the transformation from sea bottom to land at around the same time the dinosaurs disappeared 65 million years ago, and were then squeezed, faulted and lifted into prominence 25 million years later.

Wine-wise, it’s a terroir of the Coteaux du Languedoc; its application for AC status has been sitting patiently on a Paris desk since 2001. Stylistically, there’s something fresh, graceful and aerial about the wines of this region.

The dominant winds are from the north (the Mistral) and north-east (the Tramontane). When those winds, which are usually accompanied by fine weather, hit the abrupt north face of the Pic, they soar upwards; that’s why there’s a glider base here.

Toss your hat off the summit of the Pic, it’s said, and it will blow right back onto your head. It would be simplistic to draw an analogy between a sky full of sailplanes and the taste of a wine … or would it?

Once René had got us up into the sky, we skimmed over towards the nearby foothills of the Cevennes: more altitude, more cool air. This part of Languedoc is wetter (up to 1,000mm a year) and cooler (an annual average temperature of 12.3°C) than most parts of the Languedoc – Montpellier, for example, gets around 700mm and has an average temperature of 14.2°C.

The two crags of Pic-St-Loup and Hortus provide a visual focus for the zone, but the region’s 50 or so wine estates are widely scattered to the north and south, providing a wide range of variations on the airy theme.

The white wine at Château de Valflaunès, for example, is elegant, concentrated and mineral, all white flowers and nougat (it’s a Roussanne-Marsanne blend), while Château de Cazeneuve’s white is much more herbal – mellow and perfumed (Roussanne again, balanced by Grenache Blanc, Viognier, Rolle and Muscat).

Cazeneuve’s Mourvèdre-rich Sang du Calvaire is astonishing: black olive and thyme scents, with austere, challenging flavours of almost painful intensity (crushed stones, liquorice root, tapenade). Mas Mortiès’ Jamais Content red (mainly Syrah) is a more sensual landmark: summer garrigue scents and a chewy yet perfumed palate of sweet red fruits.

The Grande Cuvée from Domaine de l’Hortus (Syrah with Grenache and Mourvèdre) is lighter, fresher, more poised, though the herbs which you can pick by the armful around here still drift through the fruit like sunlight through smoke.

You could pounce on the winemakers, the blends or the soils to account for the differences – but, up here in the glider, it’s tempting to give primacy to the air.

There’s Mortiès to the south of the Pic, for example, snug as a basking snake in its strange black marls, soaking up the sunlight from the sea. Hortus’s Syrah lies on the limestone rubble to the north of the Pic, gathering the mistral and evening shadows by the armful.

Valflaunès is in open, breezy country gazing up at both cliffs, while Cazeneuve is snugger once again, underneath Hortus’s northern cliffs and the wooded hill of Pioch de Dolgue.

As the sailplane banked groundwards, I remembered the assertion by viticultural consultant Claude Bourgignon (in his book Le sol, la terre et les champs) that 88% of all plant matter is derived, via photosynthesis, from the air.

Light and wind, in truth, fashion flavour more forcefully than do soils and stones. We live on the earth, so we turn first to the soil for explanations. If we were birds – as, for half an hour, I was – our understanding might be different.

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