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Jefford on Monday: The time test

Maturation potential: is this the difference between ‘good wine’ and ‘fine wine’? Not simple endurance, in other words, but the way in which a wine’s infant beauty is able to modulate, to deepen and to blossom as the years eddy by.

Producers of Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier might dissent, but I feel that this has to be at least part of any definition of fine wine.  All of Europe’s greatest reds stride through the test; every ambitious producer outside Europe keeps a cache of his or her finest red wines, too, to see how time becomes them.  Australia and California, in particular, can point to many outstanding successes.

And the Languedoc?  We’re all curious.  This is the region, remember, which has reinvented itself from the 1980s onwards.  It would like, I suspect, its top wines to be seen in the same light as the best of the Rhône valley.  If that ambition is to be realised, then sooner or later it has to find equivalents to Jaboulet’s 1961 Hermitage La Chapelle or Beaucastel’s 1989 Hommage à Jacques Perrin.  No one in Languedoc is making these kind of claims for the time being – but, back in May, the region organised a modest gaze backwards. Fifteen leading producers were each invited to submit two wines made at some point during the last two decades.  The wines were tasted blind, in vintage order, by a visiting international panel.

Soil Terrasses du Larzac benchlands

Soil at Terrasses du Larzac. Image: Andrew Jefford

Honesty must trump partiality: it wasn’t a resounding success.  On my sheet, only four wines managed a score of more than 90 points.  One was a magnum of 2000 Mas Jullien from Terrasses du Larzac (harmonious, savoury aromas and concentrated, bright but rather sinewy flavours, 90); another was the 2001 Prieuré de St Jean de Bébian from Pézenas (lush, dense and complex, with mushroom, stone and leather notes, 91).  The second leading pair were younger, from the 2006 vintage, though interestingly enough from exactly the same zones: 2006 Solen from Domaine des Aurelles in Pézenas (textured, elegant and open-pored, with plenty of herbal complexity, 90) and the 2006 Combariolles from Mas Cal Demoura in Terrasses du Larzac: for me the most complete wine on the table, with perfumed black fruits, fine tannins, amplitude and poise, suggesting that it still had more in reserve (91).  All of these wines would have merited higher scores, I feel, in their youth.

Among the other domains from whom wines were solicited were Peyre Rose from Pézenas; Clos Marie, Mas Brugière and Ermitage du Pic St Loup from Pic St Loup; as well as Alain Chabanon from Lagamas and Domaine d’Aupilhac from Montpeyroux, both of them in Terrasses du Larzac.  Some of the wines were frankly tired; others were unbalanced (especially Peyre Rose: dry fruit and brutal tannins, though Marlène Soria certainly creates wines of extraordinary concentration); a few were thin and acidulous.  Older wines from Pech-Redon in La Clape and the co-operative Cave de St Saturnin in Terrasses du Larzac were drinkable but unimproved: time had passed to no obvious benefit.

After these disappointments, I opened my last bottle of the 1998 Mas Jullien, as well as another fine Languedoc red I have been able to age, the 2006 La Pèira (another Terrasses du Larzac wine).  Both seemed to me to be better than anything we had in the tasting itself.  The 1998 Mas Jullien was serious, dense, refined and well-preserved, with lots of warm spice; truly a wine which had improved in time, and one that I have blind tasted – and which showed honourably – against classed growth Bordeaux before now (94).  The 2006 La Pèira was more of a ‘sexy beast’ than a Languedoc classic, but it was hugely beguiling, ample, concentrated and still very young (92).  Both, by the way, were drunk in the Languedoc, but had been principally aged in ideal cool storage conditions in the UK.  The Languedoc, with its dry air and huge annual temperature swings, provides a poor environment to age wines unless in an air-conditioned unit or with proper underground storage: do producers fully grasp the importance of this?

With no wines from La Clape, Minervois, Fitou or Corbières, the western Languedoc looked under-represented in this tasting, while I personally feel that any serious quality survey of Languedoc should include St Chinian and Faugères.  (I reported in the June 2014 edition of Decanter magazine on an impressive tasting of aged Cabernet-based wines from Mas de Daumas Gassac.)  For all that, I doubt that a broader showing would have greatly changed the result.  It is, let’s face it, early days.

No wise winegrower sets out to make ‘wines to age’; if you do, the project generally proves misguided.  The aim, rather, should be to make the purest, densest and most finely balanced wine possible.  You then entrust that wine to time, to see how the polymerization of its phenolic compounds proceeds, how capable of transformation its fruit flavours are, and how much aromatic refinement is unlocked by these processes.  It is an experiment which never stops – and wine collectors, by the way, are vital partners in the enterprise.  Collectors run more of these experiments than producers themselves do.

Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Rhône have had the benefit of centuries of unbroken quality-wine tradition and a passionate, multi-generational following among collectors; neither is true of the Languedoc.  The experiments are underway again; the best wines are indeed collectable.  Now, though, we need the decades to roll by.  I’m uncertain if Languedoc (or Roussillon: quite different but potentially as grand, if not grander) will one day compete against the Rhône in this respect.  I’ll be long gone, though, before we know for sure.

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