Hitting the high notes

Sat, Oct 27, 2012, 01:00

High achievers in the Languedoc region are sending out some very classy wines

LAST WEEK I looked at some of the less expensive wines coming out of the Languedoc, a region noted for the value it offers. However, at the other end of the price scale, a few ambitious individuals there have managed to carve out a reputation for producing wines out of the very top drawer, wines that compare favourably with those from better-known regions such as Bordeaux and Burgundy. The one glaring difference is price; those from the Languedoc are considerably cheaper: €50 or less buys you the very best the region can produce. In Bordeaux, you will taste only combinations of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot with a few minor grapes; in Burgundy all great reds are made from Pinot Noir, the whites from Chardonnay. The Languedoc by contrast features virtually every grape variety going. The wines of the Languedoc have an amazing intensity and character.

Experiments abound, and sometimes fail, but the will to succeed is strong. Those that have succeeded in pulling away from the pack have done so by looking for finesse rather than brute force. Whilst some of the top wines, such as Mas de Daumas Gassac, rely on Cabernet Sauvignon, most have come to the conclusion that some sort of combination of southern varieties, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Grenache, Carignan and Cinsault works best. Interestingly, while a few still use the Vin de Pays designation, almost all of the top wines now come under the appellation contrôlée umbrella. Generally speaking, the best vineyards are to be found in a broad semi-circular sweep in the mountains behind Montpellier and Narbonne. Many fall under the general Coteaux du Languedoc appellation, sometimes with their own region as an appendage. The French are a competitive nation, and a number of appellations vie for supremacy. La Clape has a number of great estates, including Château de la Négley, there is Domaine de l’Hortus in Pic Saint Loup, Canet Valette in St Chinian, Alquier in Faugères, Borie de Maurel in Minervois, not forgetting Clos des Fées, Gauby and others in Roussillon.

However, one sub-region of the Coteaux du Languedoc, Terraces du Larzac, seems to be the name on everybody’s lips. Not only does it include two established superstars, Mas de Daumas Gassac and Granges des Pères (although neither of which use the term Terraces du Larzac), this area also has the greatest concentration of both great and very promising estates in the Languedoc.

The Terraces du Larzac is a large v-shaped area, covering 32 villages, with varying soils, although the two most important sub-soils are schist and limestone, generally a good indicator for quality wine. Based along the foot of the Larzac plateau, the vineyards have the advantage of good drainage, a cooler climate, and – of real importance – greater fluctuation of temperature between day and night. This happy combination seems to be ideal for growing grapes that ripen fully, but retain acidity. The resulting wines are therefore medium- to full-bodied, but refreshing, with an elegance not always found elsewhere in the region. It is fascinating to see a group of vignerons, many inexperienced, replanting the hillside vineyards of the Languedoc that fell into disrepair during the 20th century. I suspect in years to come, other sub-regions will be discovered. One thing is sure, the future for the Languedoc is both intriguing and bright.

BOTTLES OF THE WEEK

La Clape, Languedoc, Château des Karantes 2010, 14.5%, €19.99 In contrast to the other wines here, Karantes is from La Clape, a rocky outcrop by the Mediterranean coast, which has been recognized as one of the finest places to grow vines. Although founded recently, Karantes has won a string of prestigious trophies and awards. This blend of Syrah and Mourvèdre, with a little Grenache, is rich, voluptuous and rounded with silky dark fruits, some tobacco and spice, and good smooth length. Stockists: Blackrock Cellar, Blackrock; McCabe’s, Blackrock; The Gables, Foxrock; Wines on the Green, Dawson Street; Red Island Wines, Skerries.

Coteaux du Languedoc, Terraces du Larzac 2009, Mas Jullien, 14%, €36.75 I was delighted to see Olivier Jullien’s wines reappear on the Irish market, as he is one of the very best producers in the Languedoc. Something of a maverick, he has experimented over the years, often changing, or dropping particular cuvées. For now, he seems to have settled on two reds, the Mas Jullien and Etats d’Ame, which gives him freedom to experiment. The wine recommended here is a classic of the Jullien style, with smooth, ripe, dark fruits, with a savoury, earthy touch and a mineral edge. It has perfectly integrated tannins, lovely balance and elegance throughout. Stockists: Wines Direct, Mullingar, winesdirect.ie, tel: 1890-579579.

Les Cocalières Coteaux du Languedoc, Montpeyroux 2009 Domaine d’Aupilhac, 13.5%, €25.95 I have just polished off a superb bottle of the 2001 vintage of the basic red from Domaine d’Aupilhac – there are very few sub €20 wines that can age for more than a decade, but Sylvain Fadat is one of the great winemakers of the Languedoc. Since taking over from his father in 1989, he has issued a string of wonderful expressive wines from his small domaine. Les Cocalières is a special cuvee, made from roughly equal proportions of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre, grown on a terraced limestone vineyard. This is a wonderfully balanced wine with concentrated dark tarry fruits, showing some soft smooth maturity, nice length and a lovely freshness throughout. Montpeyroux is part of the terraces du Larzac but has its own sub-appellation. Stockists: Wicklow Wine Co, wicklowwineco.ie; Terroirs, Donnybrook; Redmond’s, Ranelagh; Corkscrew, Chatham Street, Dublin 2.

Languedoc, Terrasses du Larzac, Mas de l’Ecriture Les Pensées 2007, 14%, €29.99 Lawyer Pascal Fullá set up this estate as recently as 1998, but has ascended the ranks rapidly with a series of wonderfully soft, subtle wines. This is quite delicious wine; it has a subtle, complex nose of dark fruits that continue on to a wonderful expansive mature palate, combining nicely with minerals and herbs. Perfectly balanced, with a lingering smooth finish. Red Nose Wines in Clonmel also has limited stocks of La Pièra, one of the new superstars of Terraces du Larzac. Stockists: Red Nose Wines, Clonmel; Curious Wines, Cork.

Braaiv new world

South Africans are fond of their braai, or barbecue, and learn to cook red meat from an early age. Wines of South Africa has put together two wine and meat nights, with various chefs discussing the different cuts of meat, and wine expert Jean Smullen providing the wines to accompany them. The events take place in Ely CHQ in Dublin next Wednesday, October 31st, and Barry’s, Douglas, Cork on November 14th. Tickets are €25. To book, email Jean Smullen, jean@jeansmullen.com