Friday, April 15, 2011

A Tale of Two Wine Regions - Languedoc & Ribera del Duero

Last week we were invited to two wine tasting events scheduled for the same day, the 2011 Les AOC du Languedoc Ambassador Tour and Drink Ribera. Drink Spain. These two wine regions may be in two different countries, but are not terribly far apart. Yet the wines crafted in each region differ remarkably.

Languedoc is located in the south of France adjacent to the Mediterranean sea. Wine has been produced in the region for two and a half millenia - starting with the Greeks, then the Phoenicians and Romans. In fact, the Roman historian Titus Livius was lauding "wines of light" from Limoux two thousand years ago. And sparkling wines from Limoux were the first wines we had tasting from the region. Based on the Mauzac grape, these are some of the best sparklers we have ever tasted. Getting back to Languedoc, the region is divided into many AOCs, with almost a dozen represented on the Ambassador Tour. And as expected, the wines differ by AOC because of terrior and the grapes planted. Besides some indigenous grapes, the most popular grape varieties are Rhone varieties: Syrah, Cinsault, Carignan, Grenache, and Mourvedre for reds and Rousanne, Grenache Blamc, Marsanne, and Muscat for whites. Not too surpising since Languedoc and Rhone border each other.

The Ambassador Tour was comprised of 31 wines selected in a blind tasting by American panelists from over 120 wines submitted. Most of the wines should retail between $15 and $25, although there were a few higher end wines that were priced closer to Grand Cru Bordeaux. And almost all the wines were were made from hand picked grapes, grown in small lots, using organic farming practices, and by family estates that span generations.

The best part of the tasting was listening to the winemakers or their representatives discuss their passion for wines made in the region. The region's history, the AOCs, the grapes, food pairings - all contributed to fabulous discussions.
  • The region's popular wine grape, Carignan, has the second largest planting in France. Can you guess the first?
  • The traditional method of sparkling wine production, "méthode champenoise", where the bubbles are produced by a second fermentation in the bottles, may have originated in Limoux before it was utilized in Champagne.
  • The La Clape AOC was once an island - now connected to the mainland by the runoff of sediment. And the Château des Karantes Grand Crus Rose and Rouge from La Clape are quite good. These wines as well as the Château des Karantes Blanc, based on Bourboulenc grape, are available locally at Cobblestone Cellars.
  • The vines used by the Domaine la Croix Chaptal, a small winery in the Terrasses du Larzac - an AOC, have been tended by Monks for over 12 centuries. The vines were ravished by the Phylloxera epidemic almost 150 years ago; thank God for American rootstock. The present owners restored the original cellar from the Abbey and are now making very good wine - as evident by the Les Terrasses Rouge and Cuvee Charles - each differing blends of Grenache, Syrah, and Carignan.
  • Château la Dournie is owned and operated by one of the oldest families in the region - going back almost 140 years of continual production. What's even more interesting is that the gender relationships are reversed and the winemaking has been handed down from mother to daughter for 6 generations, with the males acting as hunters and gatherers. Oh yea, there Syrah based wines are quite good.
  • The oldest continually owned property was Château du Donjon, which has stayed in the same family for 500 years. For Americans, this length of time is unimaginable. When Columbus was sailing the seas, this family was plowing the same soil they do today. And not to be outdone, wine has been made at the estate of Chateau de Lancyre going back to 1550. These wines as well as the highly recommended Château Saint Baulery Rouge are available from Hand Picked Selections out of Warrenton VA.
  • Organic farming -Agriculture Biologique (AB) - was proudly on display at Gilles Louvet Vineyards. They are the largest AB producer in France and the second largest in Europe. What differs from most organic wines made in the States is the price, $15 for the Vignobles Gilles Louvet Rouge. This blend of Syrah, Grenache, and Carignan is not only excellent but priced in our ballpark. Their Esprit de Sud is a sparkling wine from the Blanquette de Limoux that also fits our budget. A perfect expression of Languedoc sparklers - dry, aromatic, and flavorful.
  • Still wines are also crafted in Limoux by the Château Rives Blanques using Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay and Mauzac. Whereas they produce 100% varietal wines from the first two grapes, my favorite was the La Trilogie a blend of the three with 50% Mauzac.
  • The most interesting white wine was the Domaine Félines Jourdan Blanc made from 100% Piquepoul in the Picpoul de Pinet AOC. I know, Piquepoul - never heard of that grape - but it makes a good wine in this case.
  • And the one person you would want to spend time with the most is the unofficial Ambassador for the Languedoc region, Gerard Bertrand. Besides making excellent wines, he's a professional rugby player. Most of his wines are made in Corbières but he owns or sources from vineyards in other AOCs including Monervois la Liviniere - the source for the Gerard Bertrand La Viala Rouge. Along with the Gerard Bertrand La Forge Rouge from Corbières Boutenac, these wines are made from old, low yield vines. The La Viala is a blend of Syrah, Grenache, and Carignan whereas the La Forge is a 50/50 blend of Carignan and Syrah. Interestingly we learned that Carignan is the second largest planting in France. Can you guess the first? These wines are outstanding, full bodied - balanced between tannins and acidity. And they are priced for the quality - $75.
There you have it, a short guide to Languedoc. No longer just a source for sparkling wine; this region will provide us with plenty of excellent red and white still wines.


Mike Ching said...

Nice post Todd, very informative. I really Like Languedoc and drink a lot more Limoux sparklers than Champagne. I've had some that I think are just as good but at a much more affordable price. I also love the red blends since they have so many varietals to "play with", again for great QPR. I often think I can sense the smell of that region in the wines, with lots of herb and lavender character. I will have to admit that although I've tried Piquepol a couple times I wasn't a big fan. Maybe I need to give it another chance.
Again, nice writeup.

Todd M. Godbout said...

Thanks Mike, I got the impression from some of the other winemakers that Domaine Félines Jourdan is a highly regarded winery. Maybe their Piquepol is the exception.

Todd M. Godbout said...

We also just learned that the Château des Karantes, La Clape, 2009 jsut received a Gold medal at the 2011 Decanter World Wine Awards: