On the opening day of the Vinisud Wine Fair, Andrew Jefford takes a look at the work of one of the Languedoc’s most influential wine consultants and tastes some of the wines he has helped create.
What are the qualities a great wine consultant should have? Everyone who’s worked with Michel Rolland testifies to his uncanny blending abilities. Stéphane Derenoncourt understands vineyards, is prepared to modify his opinions in the light of experience, and helps create wines of beguiling tenderness as well as texture. Eric Boissenot, like his late father Jacques, enables those he works with maximise grain, grace and finesse in their winemaking. Philippe Cambié is skilled at making southern extravagance both intelligible and beautiful.
When talking and tasting with the influential Languedoc consultant Jean Natoli recently, though, I realized that human sympathy might be the most important quality of all, and stand behind all those others — ‘to work with the grower,’ as Natoli puts it, ‘and not to impose anything on him or her.’ Any consultant setting out with a formula (the way in which Michel Rolland was traduced in ‘Mondovino’) would be doomed to failure. Magic tricks don’t work in wineries. Using a consultant as a marketing aid won’t wash. What wine producers need is a partner, an interlocutor, a bringer of confidence. Any consultant will have technical resources, and should always have a sensitive palate, but it is the exchanges with the grower which follow on from those things which can really move a region forward.
Jean Natoli is, together with the Narbonne-based consultant Marc Dubernet, one of the prime movers in the renaissance of Southern French winemaking over the last three decades. Natoli began work at Dubernet’s Narbonne-based laboratory in 1983, but eventually set up on his own from a base to the north of Montpellier. Now he has a staff of 30, working across not just France but southern Europe, too; and he and Dubernet have jointly taken control of Inter-Rhone’s consulting service Diœnos, which has clients like Chave and Chapoutier. As was the case with the Boissenots, both Dubernet and Natoli now work with their sons (Matthieu Dubernet and Pierre Natoli). Perhaps the avuncular nature of consulting lends itself to family transmission.
One reason why Natoli’s name is less well-known that it should be is that he’s tended in the past not to work with headline, big-name clients, preferring to help smaller growers and those who are under the radar. His principle is that every wine should have its own raison d’être, whether that wine costs three euros or a hundred. ‘Sometimes you come across a wine and you think “What’s it for? What was the point of making a wine like that? What does it bring?” There are too many useless wines. Of course wines can be coherent and meaningful in different ways – thirst-quenching, or gastronomic, or emotionally intriguing – but it is basic wine-growers’ politeness to make sure that every wine has some kind of clear appeal.’ Subtlety, as for the Boissenots, is a key quality Natoli seeks out. ‘Once you do things in a caricaturial manner, you quickly pay for it.’
He’s astonished by the progress the South of France has made over the last three decades. ‘In complete sincerity, it’s really incredible the level of complexity we are now able to achieve, compared to when I started.’ Varieties and soils are now understood far more intimately, as is the process of blending itself (the new-year blending meeting, he says, is always the most important and longest visit of the year). The ‘toolbox’ of techniques is much larger; and nature, too, is more generous (when he began, he remembers, the weeks after harvest were spent helping growers fill out the forms authorising them to chaptalise, something no one need do today).
Above all, confidence has improved. ‘There were a few people who made great wines here in the early 80s, but on a Sunday they used to go off and buy a bad Bordeaux or a thin little Burgundy – and that was what they thought was ‘great wine’.’ He’s in no doubt that Languedoc can go a lot further, and that there will be wines from here which compete at the highest levels in fifty years’ time. ‘But that also depends on communication, on commercial networks, on the broad question of ‘legitimacy’.’ Is the world, in other words, prepared to allow that a particular Languedoc wine might be great? ‘That only comes with time,’ suggests Natoli, surely correctly, ‘and it’s a very difficult process to short-circuit. I’m glad I’ve had the freedom to work here, to discover, to create synergies — and to nourish that process along.’
A consultant’s work
Jean Natoli co-owns a Terrasses du Larzac estate with German organic specialist importer Peter Riegel: Mas des Quernes. He also owns a tiny Vaucluse vineyard planted with white varieties only, Mas Cascal, whose fruit he vinifies at home in Montpellier. The other wines below are a selection of those for which he and his team consult. They all exhibit remarkable sureness of touch.
A mon seul désir, Ch de Montfrin, Costières de Nîmes 2015
An undemonstrative but quietly compelling blend of Roussanne with Grenache Blanc and a little Viognier: flowers and yellow fruits, plenty of finishing substance, but charm and lift, too. 90
Bréchallune, La Croix Gratiot, Picpoul du Pinet 2014
A perfectly judged Picpoul: sappy, sea-breeze scents; slowly unfolding, lemon flavours and a chewy texture with a saline edge. 89
Le Clos, Domaine de Berguerolle, Cevennes IGP 2013
Truly successful Sauvignon is rare in Languedoc, but this gastronomic Sauvignon/Viognier blend from grown at over 300 metres above sea level in the Cévennes works well: fresh, zesty, with apple and lemon fruits and just a hint of creamy asparagus. 88
Que ma joie demeure, Mas Cascal, Vaucluse IGP 2013
Like the red wine of Mas des Quernes (see below), this tiny production white – which carries a different ‘literary’ name every year, is masterful. It’s bright coloured, bubbling with honeysuckle aromas. The palate is glycerous, supple, succulent and vinous, but with lots more flower scent to seduce and distract, and with pure, fine-drawn acidity too to add class and freshness. It’s a seamless blend of Roussanne with Grenache Blanc, Vermentino, Muscat and Viognier. 92
Obladie, Clos des Nînes, Coteaux du Languedoc 2011
A similar blend to Mas Cascal (Grenache Blanc, Vermentino, Roussanne and Viognier, grown together, harvested on the same day and co-fermented), but this wine from luminous vineyards between Montpellier and Sète has forest and fresh-fruit scents in place of the wild flowers, and a more tender palate, though subtle and nuanced too. (The 2012 was a Gold Medal and Trophy winner at the 2015 Decanter World Wine Awards.) 90
Godot, Grechetto, Podere Marella, Umbria IGT 2011
The most purely ‘mineral’ of all the Natoli whites I tasted, this Umbrian Grechetto is seemingly packed with powdered stone and quarry dust over relatively neutral but elegant and fresh summer fruit. 88
Nunci, Priorat 2008
A very fine blend of Grenache Blanc and Macabeo grown on Priorat’s distinctively fractured llicorella slate, with succulent fruit scents and a perfumed, balsam-like aroma. Dense, serious and lingeringly stony on the palate, this is a great gastronomic white in mid-life which deserves better packaging. 92
La Villa Romain, Mas des Quernes, Terrasses du Larzac 2013
Natoli and Riegel’s Mas des Quernes is a new star in this propitious, extraordinarily exciting AOC zone close to Aniane. The Villa Romaine cuvee is a blend of Mourvèdre with Carignan and Grenache. It has scents of remarkable intricacy: black fruits subtly nuanced with thyme and lavender. The palate is concentrated, dense, vivid and poised, again with a perfumed hinterland to it. It’s a wine of masterly focus, grip and drama, but with finesse, too. (The 2012 Le Querne, the domain’s top cuvee — which I haven’t yet tasted — was a Gold-Medal winner in the 2015 Decanter World Wine Awards.) 94
La Dournie, St Chinian 2012
This blend of 85 per cent Grenache with the balance from Carignan, both grown on schist, has all of the plush, sumptuously upholstered charm of St Chinian but with enough nerve and sinew behind to stop it toppling into excess. 89
360 du Mas des Armes, Vin de Pays de l’Hérault 2011
A Syrah-Cabernet blend from immaculately tended Aniane vineyards, made in a much richer style than Mas de Daumas Gassac: voluptuous, mellow, truffley aromas and succulent, soft, deep-pile layers of black fruit. 90
Pic de Vissou, Mas Coris, Cabrières 2011
Another hugely impressive wine from a pocket of Languedoc schist, this settled and savoury wine has refined, graceful, typically Languedocien aromas: stone, dust, relaxed plum, sweet thyme. On the palate, it has soft tannins and smooth yet springy textures, with gentle, ripe acidity shaping its herbal fruit. There’s liquorice and chocolate in the glowing finish, too: a subtle, drinkable red of near-perfect pitch for its region. (The disappointing label doesn’t do the wine justice, though.) 92
Le Parc, Ch L’Engarran, St Georges d’Orques 2011
This dark, sumptuously rich Syrah-based red from vineyards increasingly embraced by the city of Montpellier comes across like a kind of Mediterranean Angélus: concentrated, classy and luxurious. Its black fruits flirt with over-ripeness, but the wine’s depth, textures and mushroomy complexities make for generous compensation. 91