Confidence and hard cash have transformed the Costières de Nîmes from a mere drop in the southern French bulk-wine lake into a vibrant region. JOHN LIVINGSTONE-LEARMONTH charts the quake that has shaken the Gard

Confidence and hard cash have transformed the Costières de Nîmes from a mere drop in the southern French bulk-wine lake into a vibrant region. JOHN LIVINGSTONE-LEARMONTH charts the quake that has shaken the Gard

The fringes of the southern Rhône have caught the Languedoc-Roussillon bug in the past 15 years. Former tag-along cousins like Costières de Nîmes and Côtes du Ventoux have emerged in their own right. Both have a widening core of good, progressive domaines making exciting wines of character and intensity. And who drinks most of these wines? On the whole, anyone other than the French.

Maybe the French share my hangover from the early 1970s, when exposure to the raw, dilute reds of Costières du Gard was a threatening experience. Certainly much of the quality drive in lesser appellations comes from more adventurous, broad-minded growers selling to equally broad-minded drinkers.

I have recently drunk good estate-bottled Costières – red and white – in cities like Oslo, New York and Copenhagen, but these wines only represent about 30% of the area’s production. Most is mass-produced, low priced and sells into the French supermarkets.Confidence and cash are why a vineyard region comes alive. And by 1985, Costières du Gard was a full AC after agitation from far-sighted people like Chantal Comte of Château de la Tuilerie, and in 1989, the decisive name change to Costières de Nîmes occurred. These events led a lot of viticulturists to become vignerons and to round off the grape-growing process themselves.Yet until the 1980s, the area past Avignon running towards Nîmes was a wine hinterland. There was much fruit growing – peaches, apricots, nectarines, plus asparagus suited to the fine soil – on the tracts of dry, wind-torn land that ushered in the clear, open skies and radiance of the Mediterranean and its salt flats. Wine was a pure commodity crop, with the quality left to the swells up in the southern Rhône. Even so, there was a vast area – now 3,700 hectares (ha) and larger than Châteauneuf-du-Pape – of potential, running 30km across and 10km north to south.The AC has three sub-divisions, all subject to the same severe regime of drought and sudden, heavy falls of rain. Much of the sub-soil is made up of mares, a clay layer under the alluvial galet stones so well known at Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The galet presence is strong on the northeast side of the AC, nearest the Rhône, a corner attacked by the fresh northerly Mistral winds. This area, a source of big, structured wines, is home to fine estates like Mas des Bressades.

Towards the Camargue, in the south, there are the alluvions of the Durance – smaller stones, russet coloured and swept by a prevailing, sultry westerly wind from Narbonne. Here the influence of the baked south is that much stronger, around Saint-Gilles and Vauvert. These flatland wines have higher acidity and are less complex.

The last sector is in the extreme east, where the red dust soil is covered by fragile white stones. Château Mourgues du Grès is located in this area, its stoney soil is well suited to Syrah. The Mistral wind bounces off the Rhône Valley corridor here, with its usual effect of cleaning the vines after rainfall.The next forward charge – as awareness increased and cash allowed replanting – came from a series of domaines run by younger people. As a tentative move, mainstream cash generators like Merlot and Cabernet were planted for Vin de Pays du Gard or d’Oc (90 hl/ha yield against 60hl/ha for Costières de Nîmes). The Cabernet results have been for the southern style of soft, rounded, black-jam fruit – long on easy appeal, short on terroir. These are value for money from the progressive domaines.

The growers next went for a more local feel and Syrah was a popular planting. Domaines like Mas des Bressades have worked on softening the Syrah by leaving it to macerate for four to five weeks: the early surge of fruit on the palate reminds one of a young Crozes-Hermitage bursting out.

Some of the older Syrah around is at Château Mourgues du Grès. ‘Ours is 30 to 35 years old and does well on the slopes towards the plateau,’ says François Collard, wine journalist-turned-winemaker. ‘It has a better structure than the “plainland” Syrah, which is more aromatic. But the stoney plateau Syrah is harder to get right and is more closed.’ These comments mirror those from growers in the Vaucluse over the years, where the mix of clay and Syrah often brings flabby tastes and a lack of cut in the fruit. Grenache can be okay, but extreme – if it is diluted, it is badly diluted. The same applies with oxidation. Syrah is more regular.

Grenache is definitely more contentious. ‘It can be too vigorous,’ states Cyril Marès of Mas des Bressades. ‘We prefer Syrah.’ Syrah also has the advantage of being harvested 10 days before Mourvèdre and two weeks before Cabernet, removing some of the risk from late rain.

’The dry, hot soils here are the most fertile, so the rapport between lots of juice and skin on the Grenache is wrong – too dilute,’ adds Benoit Dardé of Château Grande Cassagne. But Pierre Bardin of Domaine du Vieux Relais is in favour: ‘Cut your yield back from 60hl/ha to 40hl/ha – four to six shoots per vine – and then you have extra body and density with just the same alcohol level. You have to take steps.’But Bardin’s real favourite grape is Mourvèdre, now very popular in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. ‘I planted mine in 1987,’ he says. ‘I don’t like to interfere with it much – just a little potassium to encourage it – but it doesn’t give high yields.’ Mas Carlot has five hectares of vines planted in the 1990s, and all growers like the facility of training Mourvèdre along wires, unlike the free standing gobelet-trained Grenache.

Syrah and Mourvèdre add structure to the reds. There is a tighter tannic frame around the wines, making them more complex and longer-lived. But providing Grenache is lightly cropped, it can provide a more dense, black-jam experience – full and satisfying – than the taut berried-fruit style of the other two varietals.Whites are made from Marsanne, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Rolle, Ugni Blanc, Bourboulenc, Maccabéo and Clairette. Viognier, although planted, is not officially allowed to find its way into the whites. The serious cuvées are often oaked Roussanne, and are impressive. Roussanne’s acidity is a vital factor, but it also combines well with the fatter Grenache Blanc.

Suprisingly, rosés are about 15 to 20% of the production, and are formed around Grenache, plus the Syrah. Some good examples exist (Mourgues du Grès), but are harder to track down. The style is for a Tavel-type wine of inherent fullness but greater liveliness.

Most of the quality domaines favour longer fermentations, some vatting lasting up to 30 days. De-stalking is the norm. Some, like Nages and Grande Cassagne, prefer a cold maceration instead of crushing at reception. Syrah is left in cuve for longer and a little hotter than the Grenache, given its greater richness and, above all, smoother tannins.

Top cuvées receive what new oak there is – a year for the Syrah at Château de Nages, plus the Mas des Bressades and Château de la Tuilerie’s Cuvée Eole. Top whites, always including Roussanne, are also destined for new oak vinifying and raising.

Written by JOHN LIVINGSTONE LEARMONTH