STEPHEN BROOK gets to grips with the complex Coteaux du Languedoc and recommends the most exciting producers in each sub-region.
I have in front of me a map of the Languedoc region and, even after many visits to this exciting region, I still have difficulty making sense of it. The region falls into two broad sub-regions: the Coteaux du Languedoc and the rest. The rest is by no means insignificant, since it includes important appellations such as Corbières and Minervois. But the Coteaux du Languedoc, which concerns us here, is the part of the region that lies roughly between Montpellier and Narbonne, stretching inland to distinctly mountainous regions.
The Coteaux is divided into various sub-regions, some of which, as they grew in renown, gained AC status. At present the ACs are Faugères, St-Chinian and Clairette du Languedoc. However, the number is set to swell as other sub-regions such as Pic St-Loup and Picpoul de Pinet petition for a similar promotion. In addition, in recognition of the region’s diversity, the Coteaux falls into seven ‘climatic zones’: La Clape, Pic St-Loup, Terrasses du Larzac, Terres de Sommières, Pézenas, Terrasses de Béziers and Grès de Montpellier. These should not be confused with terroirs that may be identified on the label: the most important being Cabrières, Montpeyroux, Picpoul de Pinet, St Christol, St Drézéry, St Georges d’Orques and St Saturnin.
It is the peculiar genius of the French AC system that, as the wines of a large and diverse region mount in quality, so the system for identifying them becomes more incomprehensible. For instance, growers in Pic St-Loup may use that name on their red wine labels but not their whites, which remain basic Coteaux du Languedoc. A comprehensive blind tasting of older red wines from leading properties seemed to demonstrate that relatively few wines age well. Keeping bottles past their eighth birthday would be something of a lottery. However, winemaking advances are leading to better balanced and more elegant wines, so this may change. This brief introduction to the Coteaux du Languedoc will outline the most important of the sub-regions. It does not include the many excellent wines, such as Daumas Gassac, that fall outside the appellation although they are in the same region. It must also ignore the large number of varietal wines from the region. Almost all AC wines from the Languedoc require a blend of varieties, so single-varietal wines must be sold as Vin de Pays d’Oc.
Since 1998 all vintages have been good, though 1999 was problematic in inland zones such as St-Chinian and Pic St-Loup, where grape selection was essential. 2000 is excellent throughout, but some grapes struggled to attain physiological ripeness in 2001, despite high temperatures.
A mountainous region divided into two zones: one on limestone soils, the other, more northerly, on schist soils. It is spread over 20 communes. The most important in the schist zones are Roquebrun and Berlou; the most important in the limestone zone are Causses-et-Veyran, Murviel, Villepassans and St-Chinian. In general Grenache fares better on limestone soils, Syrah on schist.
Chateau Borie La Vitarele, St Nazaire
Various cuvées in a solid, tannic style, bottled without fining or filtration. The most interesting cuvée is Les Crès, mostly Syrah.
Chateau Cazal-Viel, Cessenon
Large, well-known estate. Cuvées mostly Syrah-dominated. Best cuvées: L’Antenne and the new-oaked Larmes des Fées. Chateau Canet Valette, Cessenon
Organic estate. Top wine is the expensive but delicious Maghani from very low- yielding Grenache and Syrah.
Mas Champart, St-Chinian
Powerful yet elegant wines. The best wine is the meaty, opulent Simonette. Clos Bagatelle, St-Chinian
Numerous bottlings. New-oaked La Gloire de Mon Père is svelte and concentrated.
Domaine Fontaine Marcousse, Pusserguier
A new estate. Capellou is mostly old Carignan, and Quercus is a spicy, tannic, oaky blend of Syrah and Grenache.
Chateau Maurel Fonsalade, Causses-et-Veyran
Sleek, elegant wines with a hint of barrique-ageing.
1,600ha. The wines must have at least 20% Syrah or Mourvèdre and a maximum of 40% Carignan. Three cooperatives produce half the wine. The schist soil gives the wines their character. Carbonic maceration is now rare.
A very serious estate. Finest wine: Syrah-dominated Les Bastides. Recent vintages have shown a worrying TCA problem.
Chateau d’Estanilles, Cabrerolles
Remarkable wines: as well as the excellent Faugères Prestige, there is a cuvée almost entirely made from Syrah, and an oaked Mourvèdre rosé.
Chateau La Liquere, Cabrerolles
Splendid wines from the veteran Bernard Vidal. The Vieilles Vignes is juicy and supple, and the delicious oak-aged Cistus more appetising than its name.
Chateau Moulin de Ciffre, Autignac
Very elegant wines, especially the Cuvée Eole, aged in 50% new oak.
1,000ha. Between Narbonne and the Med, this limestone massif gives some of the finest white wines of southern France, as well as impressive and often perfumed reds, which are essentially blends of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre.
Chateau de Capitoul
Two ranges of wines: Lavandines and the richer Rocailles. Look out too for some impressive Viognier.
Domaine de l’Hospitalet
Vast estate and tourist complex. Quality has been patchy but this may change under the ownership of négociant Gérard Bertrand.
Chateau de la Negly
Some very stylish wines. Best cuvée: the Syrah-dominated Cuvée La Falaise.
A large property, producing good varietal wines as well as La Clape.
Domaine de Pech-Redon
Best wines include the dependable L’Epervier (60% Syrah) and the powerful and concentrated La Centaurée.
800ha. The most fashionable of the Coteaux sub-regions, cowering beneath the dramatic cliffs of the Pic. The limestone soils and cool nights give the wines elegance. Syrah tends to dominate, though Grenache and Mourvèdre are also planted. Pic St-Loup hopes to win its own AC soon, which will require a reduction in yields to 45hl/ha.
Various cuvées from this established grower. L’Arbouse is unoaked, and Grenadière is aged in one third new oak and rugged.
Chateau de Cazeneuve
Delicious wines: the juicy Les Calcaires bursts with black fruit flavours; and the weightier Syrah-dominated ‘Roc des Mates’, oozes liquorice and spice.
The cuvées called Olivette and Simon win great praise, but are strictly for those who like reds that are extracted and very oaky.
Domaine de l’Hortus
The pioneer. The Grande Cuvée is dominated by Mourvèdre, which gives a wine of great finesse. The whites are excellent too.
Chateau de Lascaux.
The best wine here is Nobles Pierres, oaked and marked by menthol tones. The regular white wine can sometimes be appealing.
Mas de Morties
Look out for the splendid full-bodied Cuvée Jamais Content, which is 80% Syrah.
Chateau de Valflaunes
The major bottlings are the Syrah-dominated
Favorite and the Carignan-dominated Un Peu de Toi. Both are quite oaky.
The marne and schist soils give powerful, rich wines that can be quite austere in their youth.
As well as rich, solid Montpeyroux, there is also a pure Carignan, a Bordeaux-style red called Plos de Baumes, and a wine called Le Clos, aged 30 months in new oak. All wines are unfiltered and unfined.
A biodyamic estate founded in 1992. A wide range of wines, from the supple Tradition to the all-Grenache Boissière to late-harvested Chenin. L’Esprit, from Syrah and Mourvèdre, is arguably the best.
PICPOUL DE PINET
650ha. A welcome oasis of white grapes (Picpoul, also found in Châteauneuf-du-Pape), almost always vinified in an unoaked style. Always marked by fresh acidity, this is the ideal accompaniment for local oysters and other shellfish from the nearby coast. The growers are applying for their own AC.
Cave de l’Ormarine ‘Duc de Morny’, Domaine Felines Jourdan, Domaine Ludovic Gaujal, Domaine des Lauriers, Domaine de la Mirande, Domaine de Morin-Langaran, Château de Pinet, Mas St Laurent.
THE COTEAUX: best of the rest
Abbaye de Valmagne
A long-established estate near Montpellier.
Domaine Clavel, Gres de Montpellier
A large, quality-conscious estate. Its Copa Santa from Syrah and Mourvèdre is oak-aged and very consistent, showing a smoky, herbal complexity and considerable elegance.
Mas Jullien, Terrasses du Larzac
Olivier Jullien is constantly experimenting and his wines are always worth tasting, although some have failed to age well.
Domaine Peyre Rose, St Pargoire
Two dense and powerful cuvées (Léone and Cistes) from Syrah which, unusually for the Languedoc, are not barrique-aged. Expensive.
Prieure de St Jean de Bebian, Pezenas
Well-known estate. The wines, red and white, are sophisticated and elegant, but prices are high. Domaine de la Prose, St Georges d’Orcques An ambitious enterprise founded in 1995 by Alexandre de Mortillet. The white Grande Cuvée is lush but rather heavy; the red is pure Syrah, spicy, concentrated and tannic.
Chateau Puech-Haut, St Drezery
Cuvée Prestige is mostly Grenache, while the Tête de Cuvée is 60% Syrah, aged in a good deal of new oak. Impressive wines from very low-yielding vines. Chateau St Martin de la Garrigue, Gres de Montpellier A wide range of wines here, the best being Bronzinelle, a Rhône-style blend, and Cuvée St Martin from Syrah and Mourvèdre, which show a skilful and unobtrusive use of oak.
Written by STEPHEN BROOK