Ancient and modern

IMG_8939The history of wine making in the south of France is undoubtedly long and at times turbulent.  It does not, however, date back to the first remains of human beings in the area. Tautavel, which has its own village appellation nowadays, is famous for being the site for the earliest remains of the human race in Europe, a mere 450,000 years ago.  Some think that the grape arrived with ancient Greek travellers from the eighth century BCE on. Certainly the vine was established here in the foothills of the Pyrenees by Roman times. Pliny the Elder (died CE 79) praised the wine of the area (‘in the province of Narbonensis ’, Natural History book 14, chapter 11).  As a result, the scene in the picture on the left of the Roman aqueduct – which still works today – at Ansignon is pretty much the same today as in Roman times. (I don’t suppose, but I may be wrong, that the Roman vines would have been as immaculately tended as these.)
As elsewhere, the history of vine cultivation then relates to political and landowning stability, often provided by the church over the centuries.  

The historical record springs into life in the late thirteenth century with the important discovery and patenting of the process which produces vin douxIMG_8666 naturels – add alcohol to partly fermented wine and you stop the fermentation, produce a delicious sweet wine and one that can be stored, aged or transported.  Arnau de Vilanova will get his proper acknowledgement on the vin doux naturels pages of this set of posts. 

The more recent history is of fluctuating fortunes.  This is shown graphically in the CIVR’s production figures for Roussillon. From a low of 9m (m=million) hectares of land under vine in 1741, the period of industrialisation and better transport saw an amazing and virtually linear rise to 76m hectares in 1882.  This crashed to 42m hectares in 1891 due to phylloxera. Replanting and recovery led to a modern high water mark of 72m hectares in 1935.  The story of the last two thirds of the twentieth century is one of reduction in land under vine due both to dropping consumption on the one hand and, in the middle of the century, competition from cheaper, more powerful wines in France’s then colony Algeria.  By 2009 there were 24m hectares under vine, still a sizeable amount, about 80% of the total plantings in New Zealand. However, the focus is increasingly on quality – over half the wine produced has a classification of geographical origin. 

What the simple graph does not show is the equally important developments in the twentieth century which saw the setting up of cooperatives (to ensure that small growers got a decent return for their labour), the consolidation of those cooperatives into larger units which could begin to market their wines in an increasingly competitive world and the growth of quality-oriented private firms trying to establish a reputation for quality at an excellent price.  Its a long way from the cheap bulk wine days of the 1880s.

Maison Cazes’ table wines 

Cazes, situated in the town of Rivesaltes, was founded in 1895 and so has seen many of the changes outlined in the preceding paragraph.  It is situated down a very ordinary side-street of the town, giving you absolutely no idea either of the modern visitor reception area it has, nor of its fine restaurant, nor its treasure trove of old wines.  On this page I shall deal with the dry wines – it is also noticeable for its contribution to organic/ biodynamic viticulture and for its vin doux naturels

This is a large concern with excellent marketing. The wines are organised in lines, starting with Le Canon de Maréchal, named after Rivesaltes’ resident and first world war hero, Marshal Joffre, whose statue stands in town’s square.  Then there is a line of AOC Côtes de Roussillon (Villages), most of which are oak oaked,  and finally there are the vin doux naturels.  Then in turn Cazes belong to the Advini group which enables them to cooperate with other quality wineries and offer a full range of French wines to distributors and restaurants. 

IMG_8672And what about the wines?   Le Canon de Maréchal line, all 2010 vintage, comprises very good examples of well-made contemporary wines. The white (2010) is a Muscat-Viognier blend, ithe Viognier moderating the Muscat aroma and fleshing out the wine attractively.  The rosé is Syrah and Mourvèdre, a striking full-on pink with good strawberry and raspberry fruit, very refreshing and savoury.  It showed its quality by opening up in the glass.  The red is a very modern Syrah/ Merlot blend with nice simple fruit, moderate richness and a rather drying finish.  These wines are very much modern creations, using whatever grape blend the winery favours, unconstrained by AOC regulation.  

At the next level, Ego, Côtes de Roussillon Villages 2009, is a 40/40/20 blend of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre, from 40 year old vines and aged a for year in stainless steel.  The blend is modern if within the AOC, and results in a very drinkable wine with lots of red fruit, a complex palate and a good tannic finish. The same blend is used in the first oak aged wine, Alter, Côtes de Roussillon Villages. We tasted both 2007 and 2005. The former shows a more structured palate and increased tannins in comparison to Ego; the latter delights with having had time for the bouquet to develop.  It shows red berries and leather, with silky tannins, and is very good indeed. Cazes sell half cases with a range of vintages of their top wines – I am looking forward to a splendid vertical tasting of Alter when my case gets to England!  Very unusually for Roussillon they have many old vintages still for sale.

The top wine is Le Credo, which has undergone a very positive development.  Until 2006 it was a Bordeaux blend, but now, excitingly, it is local blend – 40% Grenache, IMG_867630% Syrah and 30% Mourvèdre.  The previous wine is in a recognised ‘international’ style but now they are seeking to produce the very best that this particular corner of the South of France can offer.  Le Credo 2008 hits the scales at 15.5% alcohol so the question must be about balance.  But first there is a whole series of interventions to raise quality – green harvesting to reduce yields, picking by hand, sorting tables and fermentation  in 500 litre barrels, where it will mature for up to two years.  The result is a super rich wine, a very attractive and powerful bouquet of red and black fruit with the oak well under control. The depth of fruit neatly matches the high alcohol level.  It clearly has many years of development ahead of it. 

Cazes’s still wines are very exciting … and we still have the sweet wines to come. The smell in  the room in which they keep the maturing wines is amazing.  (Someone needs to create a ‘smell repro’ app for a smart phone …)  Many thanks to Béatrice for a splendid tasting. 

Domaine Gayda – South African entrepreneurship

Cazes represents something of both the history and the contemporary renaissance of quality wine in Roussillon. By contrast, Domaine Gayda is firmly a modern enterprise, though of course viticulture on the land has its own continuity.  Here south west of Carcassonne in the Southern Languedoc, South African enterprise has seen the possibility of a wine destination with winery, restaurant, wine school and accommodation.  They built (2003) to make an impact, to create a landmark in the countryside.  And yes, it is South African though the co-founders are Englishman Tim Ford and South African Anthony Record, with advice from Marc Kent of the Boekenhoutskloof winery.   

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Even the (most unusual) dullness of the weather on the day of our visit could not take away from the magnificent view from the roof level restaurant, built above the winery. As the resturant is literally above the winery, there is not much danger of a shortage of wine. The food is excellent and the fixed-price lunch a real bargain, which includes two of the wines, Sauvignon Blanc 2010 (rich, almost toasty for working with the lees, quite exotic fruit) and Grenache 2008 (from five different vineyards on limestone and slate; quite an intense nose, plums and preserved black fruit, rich on the palate, tannins well hidden and a refreshing finish). 

IMG_8778After lunch we had a tour of the winery and met wine maker Vincent Chansault who stressed the importance of blending, indeed of waiting to see how individual lots turn out, and then blending late.  With 10 hectares in this area and another ten further north in the Minervois which has old vines (50-70 years old) they have a range of plots to work with.  All the equipment is very modern and they have type of system which enable you to work the lees in the barriques by simply rocking them in situ (see picture). 

During our visit, we also happened on a facet of the winemaking scene that we have often been told about but never witnessed: the visit of the bottling lorry.  Unless you are quite a big concern and/or are committed to total control, a bottling line is an expensive piece of kit which takes up space and will used for a few days a year.  It makes sense then to use a mobile bottling service which can work to your requirements. 

IMG_8785The choice of grape varieties here are also very instructive and predictably wide ranging.  In addition to the typical Macabeu and Grenache Blanc for white and the Syrah, Grenache, Carignan, Cinsault and Mourvèdre for red, there is also Sauvignon Blanc, Marsanne and Roussanne, Vermentino, Chenin and Viognier for whites and Cabernet Franc for reds. I make that 14 and there are probably a couple of others tucked away as well.  Vincent expresses a strong preference for working with Macabeo which grows on the schist at 450 metres above sea level.   It is touching that with all the international grape varieties around him, he still plumps for the local grape.   

Highlights from the tasting

See above for the Sauvignon Blanc and especially the Grenache served at lunch in the restaurant. 

Figure Libre Macabeo 2009, from the steep vineyards at altitude, this is fermented in oak and then kept in the barrel for 6 months. Salty, a very fine mineral palate, very good length, the most interesting Macabeo we tasted on this trip. 

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Vermentino 2006, again oak fermented and in part-filled 500 litre barrels, so semi-oxidative in style. From this extraordinary treatment (usually you are aiming for maximum freshness in Vermentino) and for the fact that the wine on release is more than four years old, we can deduce this is no ordinary table wine, indeed the closest parallel might be a Fino sherry – dry, fine oxidized notes on the nose, then real freshness, very unusual indeed.  

Chenin 2008 but the single year hardly tells the story of the number of passes through the vineyard to pick the ripe grapes and leave the others: the earliest sorties were on 8th and 12th October and contribute freshness, while picking on 21st October and 14th November produces grapes partly affected by botrytis.  A nose of flowers, honey, quince and marmalade, only a moderate level of acidity. Enjoy rather than keep? 

Cabernet Franc 2009, being their second vintage of this wine and from the vines in front of the winery, so very young vines.  This spends 15 months in oak and smells of cassis, ripe peppers, some green leaves and has a real freshness.  Full bodied and with smooth tannins, this could be a wine with a big future. 

Chemin de Moscou 2008, said variously to be named after the landmark tree in the vineyard or the left-wing radical who liked to ferment revolution by giving speeches under it. The wine is mainly from old vine Syrah, with additions of Grenache and Cinsault.  In the glass it opened up to reveal rich mulberry fruit and spiciness, dense in colour and flavour, with a taut and stylish palate. It needs time – I have a magnum tucked away for some future event. 

Cazes and Gayda are standard bearers for innovation and quality in this area of France.  The range of wines produced, the creativity of the wine making and the sheer quality of the wines are very impressive.  While the history of the area is remarkable whether in pre-historic or historic times, the quality and range of the wines – at very reasonable prices – point to a bright future.

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