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Jefford on Monday: One from the heart?

Andrew Jefford explores Baron Eric de Rothschild’s Languedoc property, Domaine d’Aussières in Corbières...

The French consider themselves a highly logical nation (the customary shorthand for this is ‘Cartesian’, derived from the name of the philosopher and mathematician René Descartes) – yet in practice their actions are often proudly emotional. Anyone studying French, for example, quickly learns the phrase ‘coup de coeur’. Its literal meaning is a blow or strike (but not an ordinary beat) of the heart, and it can refer to everything from an adolescent crush to a hot preference, a ‘star buy’ or the passionate choice out of a range of options. In France, it’s always the coup de coeur which prevails.

Why do I mention this? A decade or two ago, it became fashionable for growers from Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, the Loire and Alsace to come down to Languedoc and buy an estate. They were beguiled by the Languedoc’s cheap land prices, long viticultural history, generally uncomplicated weather and glowing Mediterranean beauty – and I’d usually hear that they’d bought their particular estate on a coup de coeur.

No matter that the wealth which made the purchase possible was based on small patches of outstanding terroir back home, painfully proved by economics over centuries; no matter that the Languedoc was a vast area whose own great terroirs had not yet had a chance to make their economic proofs in the modern era, and which therefore remain as comprehensively hidden from view as lost earrings on the holiday beaches of Palavas, Carnon and La Grande Motte. In Languedoc, bizarrely, the coup de coeur was always considered enough.

Except that, with time, it wasn’t. A number of the emotional purchasers are now struggling or have given up, handing the land back to resilient but (alas) far less ambitious locals; and the accoutrement of ‘a Languedoc estate’ is no longer one to flaunt.

When I recently visited, for the first time, the Languedoc estate of Domaines Baron de Rothschild (Lafite), Domaine de l’Aussières, the first question I asked was why it had been this particular land on the northeastern edge of Corbières they had bought, and not somewhere else. Baron Eric de Rothschild, I was told, had been looking for an estate somewhere around the Mediterranean; it didn’t even have to be in France. And yet – you’ve guessed it — he’d felt “a coup de coeur” for Aussières.

Wait, though, before you assume the worst. The vertical tasting I did at Aussières (see below) surprised me by its quality. I doubt, in fact, there is a better-balanced and more satisfactorily textured red wine produced today in Corbières, though if you like Languedoc wines to have a streak of wildness to them, you’ll find more savage and unfettered examples from the high hills.

Something else struck me, too. You can see and hear the trucks beating up and down the A61 motorway from most of the vineyards of Aussières, and from the buildings of the property, all of which were in a dismal state, their shutters banging in the wind, when Baron Eric bought in 1999. Would a run-down domain near a motorway, I wondered, really have inspired a coup de coeur in a man who could, no doubt, have signed a single cheque for some of the most mouth-wateringly pretty and secluded plots in Provence or Tuscany had he wished? Perhaps this decision was more Cartesian than it first looked.

Aussières is a colossal property of 550 ha, and its vast butt end is indeed mountainous, savage and wild; the usable land is fully planted at 170 ha. Like much of the Narbonne hinterland, it may have been under vines in Roman times prior to the celebrated Domitian uprooting edict of AD92. In the medieval era, it became a large farm supplying the nearby Cistercian abbey of Fontfroide; in the nineteenth century, by contrast, it pumped out huge quantities of gros rouge for Zola’s Parisian workers to drink, and became a small worker’s hamlet in its own right, with a school, a chapel, a laundry and a communal dining room on the property.

Following the Baron’s reported coup de coeur, the property was technically assessed by Charles Chevalier and the Narbonne-based consultant Marc Dubernet. It was launched as a joint venture, like all of the Domaines Barons de Rothschild investments outside Bordeaux, initially with Listel. That arrangement didn’t outlast Listel’s sale to Vranken, and the (minority) partner today is Idia Capital Investissement, a branch of Crédit Agricole. Most of the estate had to be replanted since the purchase, so there is no ‘Vieilles Vignes’ cuvée, though apparently something special is in preparation.

Soil expert and former consultant Olivier Trégoat now oversees the Lafite properties here and in Chile (Los Vascos, a joint venture with Santa Rita), Argentina (Caro, a joint venture with the Catena family) and Penglai in China’s Shandong Peninsula (a joint venture with the Citic Group); while Aussières itself is managed by Aymeric Izard. The soils here, according to Trégoat, are a mixture of limestones, sandstones and gravels, and perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the site is that most of the vineyards face north, making this relatively cool for Corbières. It’s windy (300 days of the tramontane a year, to which those north-facing vines would be fully exposed), but the Massif of Fontfroide to the south blocks the property from the entrées maritimes which tend to bring rain in Languedoc. Acid retention is never a problem, but the team has to wait for full ripeness.

Grenache struggles here, perhaps because of the cooler-than-usual situation, so the grand vin (Château d’Aussières) tends to be at least 60 per cent Syrah with the balance from both Mourvèdre (which works well in some parcels here) and the best Grenache; around 40 per cent of the blend sees some oak. There’s a second wine called Blason d’Aussières which includes Carignan as well as the main varietal trio – and there are two Pays d’Oc IGP wines, too (Aussières Rouge and Blanc). One is a Chardonnay, and the other is one of the rare Languedoc wines to feature the great Australian blend of Cab-Shiraz. There are around 120,000 bottles of the grand vin, selling for around 20 euros each and offering good value at that price. “There aren’t many domains in Languedoc which manage to sell 120,000 bottles at 20 euros,” says Olivier Trégoat, returning to the Cartesian theme.

The existence of Aussières means that bottles bearing the appellation of Corbières go off around the world with the five-arrow motif next to the appellation name and ‘Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite)’ underneath the property name, though strangely enough no one seems to make much of this asset locally, and the wines are little seen in Languedoc.

Never mind: at least the proving of terroir by economics is underway — and the extensive buildings are being restored, underlining the fact that the Baron is not about to give up on his coup de coeur. Or his cunning Cartesian plan.

Tasting Domaine d’Aussières wines

Château d’Aussières 2015

This unbottled sample could with time prove to be the finest Aussières yet, with magnificent purity of fruit lifted by floral perfumes, ballasted by dense backing tannins, and given life and length by resonant, fruit-saturated acidity. 92-94 points

Château d’Aussières 2014

Aussière’s Syrahs are on aromatic song in the ’14 vintage with enticing black-cherry notes over a succulent, truffley base. After this highly attractive scent, the palate is a little awkward just now: lushly fruity but at the same time drivingly acid, lacking a little structure, density and harmony. There’s still much to enjoy in its energy and fruit expression, however, and more time in bottle may draw the strands together and mean that the wine merits a higher score. 88

Château d’Aussières 2013

Just how cool a site Aussières occupies is evidenced by this elegant, shapely, fresh but herbaceous 2013 wine. It’s finely crafted, but the long season wasn’t quite long enough, or summer forceful enough, to get the necessary sense of glowing ripeness into the wine. 85

Château d’Aussières 2012

The distinctive cherry fruit of Aussières Syrahs draws you into the glass, while on the palate this is a very pretty, poised, chic wine which combines scented grace and a soft and fresh fruit core with rounded, brightly phrased tannins. There’s huge drinking pleasure here.   90

Château d’Aussières 2011

The aromatic purity and freshness which marks many of the other Aussières vintages isn’t on display in the 2011 at present, and the wine has a slightly grouchy aromatic profile. On the palate, though, it is exuberant, bright, light-spirited and acid-dominated, for short-term drinking during which there will be much to enjoy in its energy and poise.   86

Château d’Aussières 2010

The hugely impressive 2010 Aussières is one the finest Languedoc wines I have tasted so far this year. The nose is packed out with ripe, warm black fruits which are promisingly understated at this stage and will continue to develop and build; the palate has real weight, drive and grandeur, with soft, ample tannins and resonant, liquorice-root depths.   93

Château d’Aussières 2009

The 2009 was just too warm in some zones of the Languedoc, but not at north-facing Aussières where it has produced an impressively lively, shapely wine whose warm-vintage sensuality becomes more evident towards the end of the palate, when the fruits (more plum than cherry in `09) take on a dark chocolate allure. Delectable soft tannins are keeping the wine in fine shape; no hurry to drink.   92

Château d’Aussières 2008

This is a fully evolved but still exciting wine with a voluptuous tobacco-and-spice scent and an elemental palate combining currant freshness and satisfying structure, though without the same mid-palate wealth you’ll find in the `09 and `10. Mushroomy, autumnal flavours are beginning to qualify the fruits.   90

Read more Jefford columns on Decanter.com:

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