Andrew Jefford puts the Languedoc’s pioneer cru under the spotlight.

Languedoc has two seasons, not four.  At some point towards the end of October, the lacquered gold of autumn disappears behind menacing clouds, vatfuls of water sluice from the sky, and then winter begins, with winds cold enough to rattle your ribs and tear the flesh from your cheeks.  The frosts lurk behind, and linger until the end of March.  Then you wake up one painfully bright morning in April and realise you don’t need a sweater any more.  Summer’s back.

I was standing in the Mal Pas vineyard of Clos des Roques in Minervois-La Livinière towards dusk on November 6th 2017 when that winter moment struck: a slicing northeast wind (la Bise) seemed to cut through every shred of clothing I wore. Which was a shame, as the view was magnificent: the lonely village of Azillanet nestling in wooded seclusion to the left; Corbières’ Montagne d’Alaric hunched in front, across the Aude valley; in the distance, Roussillon’s snowy Canigou.  Plus the promise of hypothermia, in under an hour.

liviniere, minervois

The village of La Livinière. Credit: Andrew Jefford.

What’s Minervois-La Livinière?  It’s the Languedoc’s hare: a six-village zone disciplined and well-organised enough to have won itself cru status as long ago as 1999, and which is now hoping to push on further, dropping the ‘Minervois’ bit from its appellation formula in order to differentiate itself further from the rabbit warren of Languedoc zones.  It’s not large: 2,700 ha classified, but only 400 planted.

Like almost all serious wine-growing territory in Languedoc, it’s a balcony on the upland foothills behind the plain: 100m to 400m, after which conditions get too cool for vines.  There’s a little bit of schist on the higher land here, but essentially the soils are limestones of various sorts (we’re in what’s known as La Petite Causse, a causse being a limestone plateau): limey clays, soft limey marls, calcareous sandstones and stony limestone pebbles.  Marble quarries once made the fortune of Félines-Minervois and Caunes-Minervois, too.  Syrah has the varietal upper hand here, while old-vine Carignan fights a spirited rearguard stand; Grenache and Mourvèdre play supporting roles.

bertie eden, maris

Bertie Eden of Château Maris. Credit: Andrew Jefford.

The human dimension, though, may be still more important than the physical context.  The Cazes family of Lynch-Bages fame chose La Livinière as the place where it wanted to make Languedoc wine (L’Ostal Cazes), as did the swashbuckling biodynamicist Bertie Eden of Ch Maris.  Gérard Bertrand’s most ambitious wine, Clos d’Ora, is made here, as well as Ch Laville-Bertrou.  The aristocratic Lorgeril family, owners of the ‘Versailles of the Languedoc’ – Ch Pennautier in Cabardès — owns Domaine la Borie Blanche in La Livinière.

French wine giant Les Grands Chais de France (whose Languedoc holdings now amount to an astonishing 800 ha) has two estates here, Domaine Tour Trencavel and Domaine de Tholomiès; as Bertie Eden points out, La Livinière also benefits from the proximity of Celliers Jean d’Alibert, one of the Languedoc’s biggest and most professional bottlers and wine-service contractors.

Above all, though, it has been the work of long-standing local pioneers like Michel Escande of Borie de Maurel (the first La Livinière president), the Boyer-Domergue family of Clos Centeilles, the Piccinini family of Domaine Piccinini, and other local key properties such as Domaine Ancely, Ch de Gourgazaud and Ch Ste-Eulalie which have kept the La Livinière flag flying.

Does La Livinière taste in some way different to other Languedoc wines?  Each year a local selection of top wines called La Livinage is chosen by a tripartite panel of journalists and sommeliers as well as local producers.  Having tasted that cohort as well as a number of wines at different individual estates, my own response (plus tasting notes) is below.  What, though, do local producers feel might be the distinguishing features of their wines?

“Freshness and marked acidity,” points out Frédéric Glangetas of Domaine de Tholomiès, “means that the wines have balance, finesse, elegance and concentration”; he also works with many other GCF-owned sites elsewhere in Languedoc, where he says that Syrah can often be heavier, even in AOC land.  Michel Escande himself also identifies finesse as a feature, as well as “ripe tannins with plenty of fruit behind them”; Bertie Eden focuses on the “energy” in La Livinière fruit, especially when produced by biodynamic means.

I agree with Frédéric Glangetas that marked acidity is a feature of La Livinière; to me it seems almost excessive on occasion.  Sugars accumulate easily here, too, and the tension between rich alcohol levels, sweetish fruit and high acidity can be a slightly exhausting one, weighing on drinkability; tannins, by contast, are often soft here, so for me some of the wines lack structural depth, savoury poise and substance.  These features, though, may also account for La Livinière’s popularity, since it makes them a natural stepping stone for lovers of non-European reds in search of Languedoc’s aromatic wild-country complexity – and that’s something La Livinière has in plenty.

Might the Languedoc’s hare one day become its lion or its eagle?  The greatest Languedoc wines I have tasted so far have come from Terrasses du Larzac, with a few further contenders from St Chinian and Pic St Loup (plus some individual outliers in other zones); and all of them may be eclipsed by what Roussillon’s Agly valley has yet to give us, assuming that climate change doesn’t trash its potential.  But it’s too soon even to open betting on the lion race; best to sit back and enjoy what the entire menagerie has to offer as it canters round the paddock.

Tasting Minervois La Livinière

Jean Michel Arnaud of Château Faîteau.

Jean Michel Arnaud of Château Faîteau. Credit: Andrew Jefford.

Here are the five top-scoring La Livinière wines of those I tasted in early November.

J P Charpentier, La Closerie 2014

A new domain based in Félines-Minervois, and one of remarkable ambition if this concentrated and dramatic wine is anything to go by.  Like Piccinini’s Line et Laetitia (see below), it is a blend of 40 per cent each of Syrah and Mourvèdre with the balance from Grenache.  Its 18 months of oak is evident, though not unduly so when set alongside its intensity of fruit: subtly mentholated, freshly spicy aromas set the scene for a big gust of flavour, bright, high-focus, packed with vibrant plum-sloe.  90 points / 100

Ch Faîteau, Cuvée Gaston 2015

A vertical tasting of this cuvee and its predecessors from winemaker Jean Michel Arnaud was outstanding.  I don’t know if it’s Arnaud’s collection of sites (around the village of La Livinière itself), his viticulture or his winemaking, but these wines have the wealth of extract, structure and depth to compete with the most accomplished Languedoc peers.  This has flower scents (carnation and oleander) behind the dark cherry fruit, and complex, deep, sinewy, searching flavours and textures.  Yes, the acidity is relatively prominent, but it’s also resonant and fruit-charged.  The finish conveys classic Languedoc wildness – the prickle of holly and the thick tangle of holm oak.  A look at the refined, savoury 2010 vintage suggested just how well this wine might age.  (This cuvée has also, by the way, been a repeat silver medallist in the Decanter World Wine Awards.)    93

Ch Maris, Dynamic 2015

Pure Syrah aged in 600-l demi-muids: very dark in colour, with pure, fresh, sweet scents … the enticing sweetness of spring plants, though, and not the sometimes cloying sweetness either of oak itself or of raisined fruit.  On the palate, this is plunging, brisk, bright, searching and long with a little base-line structure to ballast what is genuinely very intense, almost explosive fruit.  As good as its name.  91

Domaine l’Ostal Cazes, Grand Vin 2015

Certainly the best packaged wine in the appellation, this is a majority Syrah blend with smaller contributions from Carignan, Grenache and Mourvèdre; most of the wine gets a year in barrique.  Perhaps the purest, most fine-drawn Syrah aromas out of La Livinière: fine-lined and fragrant, with a delicate blackcurrant character.  On the palate, this is pure, smooth and long, but velvet-textured: liquorice, pressed tobacco leaf, with almost liqueur-like plum and blackcurrant fruits: toothsome.  92 

Domaine Piccinini, Cuvée Line et Laetitia 2015

Many La Livinière reds have rather sweet, tobacco-and-spice scented aromas; this wine, by contrast, based on low-yielding, old-vine Syrah and Mourvèdre (40 per cent each) with the balance from Syrah has lighter, almost floral aromas and perfumed, zesty, lifted flavours – but there’s grip and density here, too, meaning that it works well at table.  Beautifully crafted, authentic La Livinière.  91

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