Former sommelier and restaurateur Hervé Bizeul has found his niche in Roussillon making full-bodied reds at Domaine du Clos des Fées, writes JAMES LAWTHER MW
Fairytale magic or eye for the main chance, Hervé Bizeul’s star is certainly in the ascendant. A former sommelier, restaurateur and food and wine pundit, he left the boulevards of Paris for the wild tracts of Roussillon in 1998 to chance the life of vigneron. Six years on he is the talk of the region, his wines fetching an incredible price and the aptly named Domaine du Clos des Fées (fée meaning fairy in French) more than truly launched.
Spellbinding is the word to describe the region he chose to enact a change of career. The Agly valley in the north of Roussillon offers a spectacular landscape of steep-sided hills, stony garrigue and bush-trained vines offset by the high Corbières and almost permanently sunny skies. In its upper reaches lie prehistoric Tautavel and the magnificent bowl-like cirque of Vingrau. This is the heartland of appellation Côtes du Roussillon-Villages and home to the Clos des Fées.
Hervé Bizeul’s confidence and willingness to turn the page has already led to various highs and lows in his vinous career. He became Meilleur Jeune Sommelier de France in 1981, opened a fashionable wine bar in Paris and in the 1990s published an ambitious directory of wine producers and professionals, Grappes, which saw three editions. In 1997 he visited Vingrau. ‘I was fed up with Paris and impressed by the terroir at Vingrau so decided to buy a parcel of vines to cultivate as a hobby,’ he explains.
The ball rolled quickly from there. A house, marriage to Claudine, the offer of other parcels of unwanted old-vine Carignan, Grenache and Lladoner Pelut at a knock-down price and before he knew it he was faced with the 1998 vintage. ‘I had no practical experience of winemaking – only what I’d learned as a journalist – but friends like Gérard Gauby helped. 1998 turned out to be a great year.’ The first vintage was vinified in one cellar, pressed in another and aged in a third.
A positive review in French magazine La Revue du Vin de France and doorstepping familiar wine shops and restaurants helped Bizeul to sell 7,000 bottles en primeur which in turn persuaded the bank to extend his loan. With 7ha (hectares) now in production he was in better shape to handle the 1999 vintage. The garage was converted into a cellar and a part of the bank’s loan invested in new oak barrels.
It was in 1999 that he clearly defined the direction he wanted to take and the line of wines he intended to produce. ‘The Agly valley has schist, gneiss and clay-limestone soils but I have only bought parcels of vines on clay-limestone as these produce wines that correspond to my taste – rich, powerful with fine tannins and the ability to age,’ he reasons. Tasting the wines, it’s clear that ripeness (pushed to the max), volume and texture are what he seeks. These are ‘modern’ wines, rich, full bodied, luxurious, gourmand to the point of excess, but with a curious harmony.
The basic cuvée, Les Sorcières, is mainly a blend of old-vine Carignan and Grenache with a seasoning of Syrah and Mourvèdre. It’s aged on fine lees in tank for eight months and represents half the production of the domaine. The aim is to produce a soft, round, sweet but lively fruited wine that has wide appeal. ‘It’s the most difficult wine for me to produce as the style is popular but doesn’t correspond to my personal idea of ripeness and concentration,’ explains Bizeul.
Next up is the Vieilles Vignes which is more his signature wine. This is produced from the oldest vines on the domaine, all between 50 and 100 years. Carignan and Grenache again feature heavily in the blend but there’s also some Syrah and Lladoner Pelut, a downy leaved form of Grenache accepted in the region. The wine is aged in oak barrels, a third new, for around 12 months without racking.
There’s no doubting the concentration – the fruit’s rich, dark and condensed, the palate full and fat with a powerful but refined tannic structure. Recent vintages have balance, the fruit lively, and the wine sculpted. Practice makes perfect and Hervé Bizeul’s winemaking is improving with the years.
Le Clos des Fées follows in line, an audacious wine which sells at an audacious price. ‘I try to see the limits to which I can go,’ he exclaims. On this occasion Syrah, Mourvèdre, Grenache and Carignan are blended in equal quantities and yields kept ridiculously low (12 hl/ha).
The wine is an extreme in concentration and power, the fruit confit and sweet with a touch of residual sugar. The oak is well integrated with just a hint of vanilla. The texture, in particular, is incredibly soft, voluptuous and creamy.
Trumping Le Clos des Fées would seem difficult but Bizeul went one better in 2001 with a wine he named La Petite Sibérie. This was the local sobriquet for the parcel of old Grenache vines he bought in the iron-bearing district of Calce. The sometimes glacial Tramontane wind blows through here over 200 days a year, making working conditions in the vineyard somewhat severe.
Cultivation is much the same as in the other parcels and there’s a similar concentration in terms of yield. Ageing is in 100% new oak, and as with the Vieilles Vignes and Le Clos des Fées, La Petite Sibérie is bottled unfiltered.
The wine, of course, is the antithesis of its name, being big and warm in style. It’s a one-off that’s rich, sweet and intense but with a surprising freshness on the finish and a not quite definable minerality. With only 1,800 bottles produced in 2001 and a heavy price tag, La Petite Sibérie is best viewed as a unique work of art, a Damien Hirst that you’ll either love or hate.
Bizeul’s success has been a motivating force in Roussillon. A number of younger producers have now set up in the Agly valley, including his vineyard manager, and it will be interesting to watch the progression here. There’s also been a flurry of investors from outside including several high profile Bordelais such as Bernard Magrez and the Lurton bothers, Jacques and François.
So where to now for Hervé Bizeul? ‘I’ve got 18ha at present and five people working full time for me, and a debt I hope to clear over the next four years,’ he says with a smile.
Further progression has to come from the vineyards where the old vines are being nurtured into better shape and the young vines take on a bit of age. It’s hard to see Les Sorcières and the Vieilles Vignes changing, but who knows what he might pull out of the hat next.
James Lawther MW is a Decanter contributing editor, and is based in France.
Written by James Lawther