Before continuing on my Languedoc journey, I should reiterate the emphasis of my wine research in the South of France and Spain: that is the quest to fully understand the unique characteristics of the individual growing regions here. Above all though it is to enable myself to recognize what constitutes typicality and authentic terroir expression in these wines and share this with the "wine community". This task is, I believe, most daunting in the Languedoc, due to its plethora of micro-climates, soil types and grape varieties. Of course, the task is made easier when examining wines produced from organically-grown fruit and with minimal intervention on the part of the maker. These are the wines that can best be used as standards for comparison for typicality - but it must be noted that this alone doesn't guarantee wines of the highest quality in a given region. e.g. the grower must also be meticulous about choice of vineyard site, suitability of grape varieties to the site, monitoring crop levels and knowing when to pick in a given vintage. I will always have respect for the growers and vintners who are dedicated to the most natural approach in vineyard and cellar, but admittedly, my greatest admiration is reserved for those who can also translate this respect for minimal intervention into wines with great balance, intensity of fruit character & complexity while preserving the wines' integrity and unique terroir attributes.
So it's time to move north from the Corbières to the neighboring Minervois wine region and beyond. This region shares so many of Corbières' attributes, yet has its own distinct character. The predominantly limestone-clay soils here greatly resemble those of Corbières, however the single biggest difference between the two regions has more to do with typical exposures: i.e. whereas Corbières has greater diversity in vineyard orientation, Minervois' vineyard slopes are much more predictably south and southeast - this due largely to the fact that the Massif Central plateau rises along the northern edge of the region. Also like Corbières, although carignan is still the most widely planted grape variety here, syrah, mourvedre & grenache have all seen a significant increase in acreage in recent years.
On the recommendation of friend and French wine writer, Michel Smith, I made an appointment to visit Jean-Baptiste Sénat in the little village of Trausse. With limited time on this short trip, I was already focusing my attention on organic/biodynamic producers and with the added burden of harvest, I was only able to connect with Jean-Baptiste and his wife Charlotte to arrange my sole Minervois visit. But an auspicious visit it was, especially considering we shared so much in common regarding vineyard and cellar philosophy. Like my former estate, Evesham Wood (Willamete Valley, Oregon), Domaine Sénat is fanatical in its dedication to natural, hands-on techniques, for the purpose of allowing the wines to express their native terroir. Like Evesham Wood, Sénat is a member of a small band of winemakers/growers ("Changer L'Aude en Vin") formed for this very purpose. In the case of Evesham Wood's group (Deep Roots Coalition) there is a big emphasis on non-irrigation (dry farming) in the vineyard, something that in France's AOP wine regions is of course taken for granted as a requirement for adherents. Otherwise the tennets are essentially the same: elimination or minimalization of any vineyard/winery techniques that might inhibit a vineyard's or wine's distinctive typicality or authentic character.
Entrance to Domaine Sénat, Minervois
Finishing up their last day of grape processing when I arrived, Jean-Baptiste was understandably a bit distracted, yet he still found the time to do a little tasting and chatting. We sampled both from newly fermented reds of the current vintage, as well as bottles of the recent '09 and '10 harvests, two excellent and ripe vintages, with the 2010 being the most structured and suitable for aging, and 2009 being very supple and balanced. All the wines I tasted shared a common intensity of dark fruit and all showed an authenticity of origin: excellent structure with spicy dried herbs (garrigue), and a hint of reduction for complexity. These were the diametric opposites of your fruity, mass-produced grocery store Minervois wines - but then what else would you expect from a passionate practitioner of organic/biodynamic winegrowing? You'll find a review of one of Baptiste's current releases - 2010 "La Nine" in my March blog, as it will be the "non-locally available ringer" in a Minervois tasting I'm conducting next month.
Jean-Baptiste Sénat in "harvest mode"
Fermentation & holding tanks at Dom. Sénat
A couple of days later I made the trek northeast to the Languedoc applelation of St. Chinian to the little village of St. Nazaire de Ladarez, where I had an appointment with Yannick Pelletier at his estate of the same name. The youthful and dedicated Yannick operates what may be the smallest cellar in the region - and is proof positive that shiny expensive equipment isn't required to make authentic high quality wine. With a facility even more humble than my own in my embryonic winery stages, I could strongly identify with Yannick's noble efforts (and achievements). From the inception, he has wisely focused his attention on the best grape sources in the region vs. investing heavily in building and equipment.....and his wines display their origins very well. The three I tasted, 2009 "L'Oiselet" (cinsault, grenache & carignan blend), 2009 L'Engoulevent (grenache, syrah & carignan blend) and 2008 Les Coccigrues (mostly grenache with carignan), had great intensity of dark brambly fruit, but were also remarkably restrained and subtle, and with firm tannins, indicating great potential for aging. It was undoubtedly his training with the famed Leon Barral in the neighboring Faugères appellation, that influenced Yannick's choice of the primarily schiste-based soils of the north side of St. Chinian, for his ca. 10 hectares of biodynamically farmed vineyards (multiple sites). Not surprisingly, soils on the south side of the St. Chinian AOP more closely resemble those of the Minervois - i.e. clay-limestone. Although Pelletier's wines are imported into the U.S. they will likely never be widely available due to the tiny production. Stay tuned for a review of the '09 L'Oiselet in March.
The only indication one has arrived at the right place
Yannick Pelletier (old press spindle in background)
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