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Languedoc Masterclass 2014

by Tom Cannavan, 04/2014

In April 2014 a group of Languedoc winemakers came to Edinburgh in Scotland to present their wines to members of the wine trade and press. I was asked to present a masterclass as part of the day, which looked to explore the diverse - and sometime surprising - faces of the region.

map In numbers the Languedoc-Roussillon region is impressive. Today it accounts for a quarter of all wine produced in France, with the IGP Pays d'Oc category accounting for 65% of all IGP wines in France. A single appellation - Corbières - is the fourth biggest Appellation Contrôlée in France after Bordeaux AC, Champagne and Côtes-du-Rhône. But a few decades ago much of that volume of wine was of very poor quality. Yields of over 100hl/ha resulted in poor, over-stretched red wines (the Languedoc is dominated by red wine production) that often had to be bolstered with wines from Algeria and elsewhere to be sellable.

The Languedoc today has been transformed. The creation of the Vin de Pays (now IGP) classification in the 1970s allowed winemakers to experiment and make quality wines that did not fit within the existing Appellation Contrôlée rules, which in turn led to inward investment in the area and a whole generation of young French winemakers becoming enthused about the possibilities for their family farms. This also led to a move away from farmers selling carelessly produced wines to one of 350 local co-ops, some of whom had poor reputations, to many more estates bottling their own wines of high quality. The co-ops had to up their games to survive, and the knock-on effect has see the classic regions evolve too, with the division of large appellations to create small and specialised sub-appellations like Picpoul de Pinet, Grès de Montpellier and Minervois La Livinière that are really focused on quality.

the wines

Some of the wines featured do not have UK distribution currently, but are available in other territories, sometimes including retailers who will deliver to the UK. I have included wine-searcher links to international stockists for all wines.

white wines

Piquepoul Côte Mas, Piquepoul Frisant Brut NV, Vin de France
A highly unusual wine to kick off the selection, this is a gently sparkling Piquepoul (or Picpoul), bottled with less than 3 bar of pressure, so significantly lower than the average Champagne, and with 11g/l of residual sugar which is around the same as most Brut Champagne. A 'Vin de France' designation, it's a charmat method fizz, with secondary fermentation in tank rather than individual bottles, and it has 12% alcohol by volume. It pours a very pale lemon/straw colour with lots of only gently streaming small bubbles. Apple is the immediate aroma, with a tiny hint of almond, indeed it has a gentle custardy softness. In the mouth the delicate bubbles really suite the wine, with no aggression to the mousse, and those creamy apple flavours filling the mouth nicely. It feels soft - even just off-dry - but there's lemon and hint of orange to the acidity in a really nice alternative to quality Prosecco. 87/100. 9.60, Michael Jobling, see all stockists on wine-searcher.

Mas St Laurent, Picpoul de Pinet 2013
100% Picpoul, from vineyards 800 metres from the sea near Sète. The vineyards are on clay and limestone soils, on a sub-soil of fossilized coral. The wine undergoes a long, slow fermentation at low temperature, that took two months to complete. It has 13% alcohol. The colour is a pale green/yellow, with that nice creaminess to the nose, of oatmeal, almond and soft herbs, with orchard fruit notes too. In the mouth it has plenty of refreshing flavour. It is dry, with a lemony acidity and the fruit is of cool, fresh apple and Asian pear. The acidity is gentle, with a nice little saline note too, making this aperitif and fish and seafood-friendly. 87/100. Around 10.00, see all stockists on wine-searcher.

red wines

Domaine de Clovallon, Les Pomarèdes 2001, VdP d'Oc
What a treat to be able to taste and include this mature Pinot Noir in my masterclass. Domaine de Clovallon is an organic estate, owned and run by Alix and Catherine Roque, the Pinot having been grown on a cool, north-facing slope near Faugères, in magnesium-rich soils which they believe suit Pinot much more than the typical Mediterranean varieties of the region. The wine spent 18 months in barriques. The colour has plenty of orangey maturity, and the nose is immediately and evocatively Pinot, with truffle and mushroom, and softly decaying undergrowth, spices and still a core of red berry fruit. On the palate the silkiness of the texture is lovely in a 12.5% alcohol red wine, with lots of spice, good herb-touched fruit and even a hint of chocolate. There's real fruit sweetness, now becoming wrapped in those leafy and coffeeish notes of maturity. Intriguing and delicious. 91/100. This vintage is for sale at the cellar door, but the 2010 is on sale currently at around £17.50, see all stockists on wine-searcher.

cabanis Château Haut-Blanville, Grès de Montpellier Clos des Légendes 2009
From the Appellation Grès de Montpellier, this is almost all Syrah (with 2% Grenache), grown on gravel soils over limestone and harvested at a less than 30hl/ha. It spends 15 months in new barriques and has 14.5%. Rich, dark colour and nose of cassis and blue/black damson and olive, minty and obviously smooth, full and ripe. There's a touch of almost floral spice and cedar. Full spice and bold black fruits on the palate, but retaining a brambly bite of rustic acidity and plenty of sweetness to sit against the tannins structure. 90/100. wine-searcher.

Château de la Salade Saint-Henri, Pic Saint-Loup 'Aguirre' 2011
From a family who have farmed here since 1803, this blend of 80% Syrah with 10% each of Grenache and Mourvèdre comes from the small but very high quality Pic Saint-Loup appellation within the Coteaux du Languedoc. Only 18 miles from Montpellier on the Mediterranean coast, it is the Pic Saint-Loup mountain in the centre of the appellation that makes these wines so distinctive: the vineyard elevation means very cool nights, which give real freshness to the wines. Fermented in concrete and aged in barrique for 18 months, this wine from the limestone soils and was harvested at just 30hl/ha. It has a bold, dark purple colour and a lovely nose, all finesse and taut, slick black fruit, just sprinkled with white pepper and bolstered by a little creamy oak. On the palate there's a wonderful intensity and sweetness to the fruit, and whilst there is a little vanilla note, it is the grippy edge of the tannins and clear acidity that balance, cutting through the ripeness and extending into a long, spicy finish. There's a touch of noticeable heat from the 14.5% alcohol, but the balance and freshness is there. 93/100. Around €20. wine-searcher.

Domaine Bassac, Côtes de Thongue 'Je t'aime' 2012
An organic certified estate since 1990, Domaine Bassac's vines cover 80 hectares of clay and limestone soil not far from Pézenas in the Côtes de Thongue. The blend here is a little bit different, for as well as the expected Mediterranean varieties Grenache (40%) and Syrah (20%) there is 40% Cabernet Franc. It has a little floral, violet lift, a little graphite, lead pencil note, and a touch of the green olive suppleness of the Cab Franc. In the mouth it is juicy and savoury, with a sour cherry rasp of acidity but some flesh and fruit weight - as well as 14% alcohol - to power it on. Finishing with spices and good levels of fruit and tannin, it is a rustic and rather extracted, but enjoyable style. 87/100. Price not known. wine-searcher.

lastours Domaine Cabanis, Costières de Nîmes 'Jardin Secret' 2009
Another certified organic estate, family run since 1932. It lies in the Costières de Nîmes, a southerly extension of the Rhône Valley close to the famous Camargue. This blend is dominated by 70% Syrah, with 15% of Mourvèdre and 15% of Carignan, the latter made with carbonic maceration. It is made in a combination of concrete vats and stainless steel tanks, but is unoaked. It offers very dark, spiced, liquorice-tinged aromas, with a touch of prune and dark chocolate. On the palate this is really concentrated and grippy. There's a certain silkiness to the wine, but a huge core of acidity and firm, tight tannin that leaves this dry and perhaps a touch leathery. It is made as a 'Vin de Garde', so perhaps a few years more will tame it a little. 87-88/100. wine-searcher.

Château de Lastours, Corbières Grande Réserve 2008
Lastours has been the property of the Allard family since 2004, a substantial property of 850 hectares, 100 of which are terraced vineyards in the middle of the estate. Winemaker here is Bordeaux's Stephane Derenoncourt, and the blend of this wine is Syrah, Carignan, Grenache and Mourvèdre from the estates oldest vines, around 75% of which is aged in barrique for a year. It has a rich, dark colour and nose of cassis and blue/black damson and olive, with a subtle cedar and peppery lift. On the palate this has copious, sweet black fruit. There's a sense of plushness and smoothness to the satin tannins, with a nice coffee-like richness and a rasp of plum skin acidity. But the svelte concentration and power of the 14.5% alcohol add up to a full and generous style with real substance and ageing potential. 91-92/100. wine-searcher.

Château la Croix Martelle, Minervois La Livinière 'Belaya' 2011
From Minervois La Livinière, an appellation that was created in 1998 as a 'Cru' of the Minervois region: a specific sub-area identified because of its specific qualities, including its vineyards arranged in a south facing amphitheatre of clay and limestone soil. This estate, certified organic since 1998, lies at the foot of the Cévennes mountain. The wine is a blend of 60% Grenache with 20% each of Syrah and Mourvèdre, fermented in cement tanks and matured for one year in oak vats. Bright, rich red in colour and aroma, there's a pleasing earthiness and savoury character, a touch of something sauvage, and lovely poise. Very good fruit: punchy, with a cherry and raspberry character, underpinned by smoothing layers of chocolate and toast and very good acidity. 89-90/100. wine-searcher.

Massamier La Mignarde, Minervois La Livinière 'Tènement des Garouilhas' 2010
Also from Minervois La Livinière, the blend here is 60% Syrah, 20% Carignan and 20% Grenache, in a massive wine weighing in with 16% alcohol, part-fermented in barrel and aged 18 months in new oak barriques. Inky purple. Huge, powerful nose, some prune but also kirsch and aromatic cherry. An almost minty note of mocha and espresso. Hugely sweet and intense on the palate, reminiscent of an Amarone, maybe even a young Port, the high alcohol a touch strident, a little spirity, though it is undeniably show-stopping. Is it unbalanced in the final analysis? I guess that depends on your tolerance for the alcohol and abundance of oak, but it's a singular wine that would delight many I'm sure. It sells for 72 Euros per bottle. 89/100. wine-searcher.