The Causse Marines winery is located in the Tarn département, in the Marcillac/Gaillac area in the north-eastern tip of the South-West (Sud Ouest) Appellaton region (the dark-green patch north-west from Rodez). It is maybe 5 kilometers away from another outstanding winery, Domaine Plageoles, the two of them being largely credited for having improved the status and viticultural practices of a small region which is the oldest recorded wine region in France. As you may know, one of the challenges for this old wine region was also to reintroduce indigenous grape varieties which had been replaced in the 20th century by standard varieties of the Bordeaux region, in the belief that the region had to adapt to what was supposed to be the preference of the average consumer for well-known blends. I met Virginie on a couple occasions, including on a barge tasting along the Seine in Paris (scroll down the linked page) where I had a very nice 12-year-old veil wine. Going through the region again briefly a few weeks ago, I had the chance to visit the wine farm at last and taste a few wines.
The winery was started by Patrice Lescarret in 1993, he bought it from a retiring farmer who also grew other crops and who was until then selling all his grapes to the local Coop. The name of the estate comes from the plateau on which the farm and vineyards sit, causse being a French word from the Languedoc for arid plateau, and the other part of the name (Marines) coming from the small stream which runs through the area. Patrice Lescarret studied enology in Bordeaux and he jokes that after learning the wrong way in the school and being paid for a few years to apply this conventional winemaking in other wineries, he now tries to vinify the right way. Patrice and Virginie do all the work by thelselves, taking vacations separately so as there's always one of them in the winery and to overlook the vineyard. The wine farm is located a handful of kilometers from the small village of Vieux (pictured on left), in a setting which is just so beautiful, with no major road in view, it's in the middle of a hilly region with lots of woods, prairies and winding side roads with little traffic. The suburban sprawl hasn't yet touched the villages around, unlike what you see in Provence or near Avignon, and the whole region is a wonder at every turn, like when we saw the fortified village of Bruniquel overlooking the Vère river and canyon (picture on right) on our way back to Paris.
This is where it all started in 1993, from a vineyard surface of 8 hectares with the old farm in the middle, so that you can literally walk to the vineyard to work on the vines. With his interest into indigenous varieties that had been set aside by the Appellation rules, Patrice Lescarret bottled from the start his wines under the vin de table label, as he was not allowed to use the commercially-safe umbrella of the AOC, especially for his single-variety wines made with the salvaged indigenous varieties. But his work with these varieties, and the pure, unique wines that he soon produced made this winery well-known among the demanding wine amateurs. This wine region which had largely fallen behind along the years because of ill-conceived choices of the appellation bodies and because of standardized winemaking, owes its comeback in the wine scene to these two rebels and pioneers : Bernard PLageoles and Causse Marines.
Virginie Maignien is showing us around today, but don't think that she's just the partner of the vigneron, she is an enologist herself. Now a young mother (with a 3-year old son), Virginie who is originally from Besançon in the jura, was trained in a prestigious French business school in her former life (ESSEC), and she decided one day to quit everything and enlist a wine school in Beaune. During her cursus she came here to for a training and never left.
The yields are quite low, with 13 to 30 hectoliters/hectare along these last 10 years, and the vinification is made without biotech tricks, with little filtration and fining, and sometimes without SO2 for certain cuvées.
The cement facility or chai stands on the side, a few meters from the house, it was built by Patrice as there was no winemaking facility in the farm (the previous owner sold his grapes to the Coop). It has no particular charm, this is just a large vat room with enough room to maneuver and store a few resin, cement and enamelled-metal vats and also tools like a belt conveyor. The cask room is just a few steps away at the other end of the building.
The plot of Muscadelle above which was planted circa 1948 is a favorite playing ground for wild animals like roe deers and wild boars. the former owners told Patrice that when young, this parcel had yields of 200 hectoliters/hectare, amazing variety. Now as it is aging, it is producing a mere 20 hectoliter/hectare. When Patrice took over this plot, it needed 5 years to have grass grow again between the rows, because the soil was so thick with weedkillers.
They also had a few isolated old vines of Ondenc on the property, so with the help of Bernard Plageoles who is the pioneer near here for reintroducing forgotten indigenous varieties (he began 20 years ago), they made a massal selection for a replanting on the very first year of the winery. Otherwise they have a pretty old vineyard in general, one of the oldest in the Gaillac region on average, like for example their Mauzac (part of Zacmau) which was planted in 1928 and their Muscadelle (used for sweet wine) which was planted in 1932. They have also 70-year old Syrah and Duras. They also have some Serine Syrah, it's a Syrah-type variety with small grapes which is common in the Hermitage area, they got the selection from Chapoutier in the Rhone.
Among the vineyard work they do every year, they thin out the leaves on the eastern side of the rows at the beginning of summer, not the western side, so that the grapes keep a leaf cover from the sometimes-scorching sun.,
The 3 concrete vats are the ones they use for the fermentation of the reds, they were already in the farm when Patrice purchased it, they're good for the fermentation because of the temperature inertia inherent to concrete, but they don't make the élevage inside. For the reds, they use a destemmer and a conveyor belt. For the fermentation and maceration of the reds, it all depends of the quality of the vintage. In 2011 for example they made short macerations with the destemmed grapes, 2 or 3 weeks (the latter for the old vines). She says that they tried whole-clusters a few times but they felt it would give always the same type of wine and erase the terroir part, so they decided to destem the reds. they taste alot in fact to decide the maceration length. Tasting the juice/wine everyday at this stage helps a lot decide when you have to stop. They have been doing it for years now and have developped the instictive understanding of the wine. Once, she says, they had a visitor from New Zealand who was surprise of the way she checked her vats, just putting her hand on the vat to "feel" the temperature and tasting the juice in a glass, the visitor expected some kind of scientific checks from a lab or something, but Virginie says that what you feel in the glass will not have its equivalent in a lab analysis.
The press juice of the reds is blended with the basic red cuvée, not with the upper cuvées.
They tend to use old barrels, particularly for the white Zacmau and the veil wine. they are just beginning using casks for the élevage of the reds, one of the reason for example is that the Duras variety makes wines that are very prone to reduction, and they've put part of this cuvée in wood to see if ther's an overall influence in terms of reduction flavors. They actually don't like to feel the taste of barrels in a wine, so they just experiment a bit for the reds right now. Virginie says that they don't have problems with stuck fermentations even though they don't use lab yeasts, nutrients and all the other additives, but they still check the wines very often. They also have some wine from the Peyrouzelles cuvée (a blend of Braucol, Syrah, Duras with a bit of Alicante, Prunelart and Jurançon) in wood this year.
__ Causse Marines Dencon 2010 (table wine, or vin de France). Ondenc with 5 % of Petit Manseng. Not old vines as they were planted 20 years ago. This is one cuvée they put in barrels. THe fermentation is sometimes verty long with Ondenc, sometimes 10 months, but it gives something richer in the wine. Virginie says that Ondenc was known for the sweet wines that were made from it in the past, that's because the variety is very prone to botrytis and you can get noble rot with it. This variety always gives a good level of alcohol too, on the borderline of overmaturity. You actually feel aromas of dry raisin here, very enjoyable. Speaking of the fact that the wines are mostly in table wine label now, she adds that patrice stopped presenting his wines at the commission d'agrément (except for 3 cuvées) in 1998, especially that these commission judgements are not for free (it's 3 € per hectoliter), and you have to pay even if the wine doesn't get the Appellation approval. Anyway here for Ondenc it's not possible to get the AOC Gaillac, even if the taste of the wine was deemed conventional by the commission : Ondenc is considered a "secondary grape variety" [!!] and it's not allowed to make a 100% Ondenc in the AOC. A minimum of 60% of a "primary grape variety" is the rule in Gaillac AOC, primary varieties being Mauzac, Len de Lel and Muscadelle. Ondenc by the way has no relation with other grape-variety families and it stands isolated, you may know that many varieties are somehow related to each other. There are only 6 hectares of planted Ondenc in the Gaillac area, with two wineries only working with it, the other winery being Bernard Plageoles 5 kilometers from here. They made 2500 bottles of this cuvée.
__ Causse Marines Zacmau 2010. Another white, made with Mauzac with 5 % of Chenin. There are many types of Mauzac grapes but even when the skin is dark, the inside of the grape is white, so you can make white with it too. Very aromatic wine. 3,5 grams of residual sugar, the fermentation stopped at some point. The variety is sensitive to oxydation, that's why they make also veil wines with it. Also an élevage in casks here, from october to september. Nice mouth with aromas of white flowers. The vines were planted in 1928. She says that in addition to yielding aromatic wines, Mauzac gives the structure to its wines, and this variety is close to Chenin. Yields here (like for the wine above), SO2 makes 38 mg total per liter, with adding at harvest and at bottling.
__ Causse Marines Préambulle 2011, a white sparkling. Ancestral method (picture on left). Only white Mauzac here. No SO2 added. Right now (when we tasted) 12gr of residual sugar but a month from then it will be 7 or 8 grams. They don't disgorge the bottle so as to keep the aromas that they tasted in the vat. The mouth is very refreshing. They have been making this cuvée for 12 years. Next year they want to make a red sparkling too, using Jurançon Noir. They protect the sparkling with CO2 so as not to add SO2.
__ Causse Marines Peyrouzelles 2010, Gaillac AOC (picture on right). Blend of mostly Syrah, Duras and Braucol, with a few other things. Cooked cherries aromas. Some reduction (that's the Duras). Youngest vines, 15 to 20 years old. Only fiber vats here, no wood. High acidity because of the limestone-thick soil. 12,5 ° in alcohol.
__ Causse Marines Rasdu 2008. Table wine. Name is a play of words as saying overtly the variety name would be a problem I guess, like for Zacmau. As said above, 1/3 of the volume is raised in casks. The wine needs aeration. Deep nose. Vines planted in 1937. tHe variety (Duras) is close to Barbera with lots of acidity and low tannins. A bit astringent. Pairs well with spicy food, she says, because it is a very refreshing wine. But the wine is a bit closed, now, she adds. After we speak about Jean-François Ganevat whom she knows well, we taste the wine again and it begins to open prioperly. They only make this wine on even years, but it's a coincidence, not a plan.
In general, the cuvées at Causse Marines have a volume going from 2000 to 4000 bottles. We just tasted what was ready to taste and/or still available, but they make from 10 to 13 cuvées depending of the year at Causse Marines.
Causse Marines wines are exported to the United States (Louis Dressner in New York and Cordon Selections in Seattle), to Canada (Quebec, Rezin), Australia (Living Wines), the United Kingdom (Dynamic Wines), Japan (Le Vin Nature), Switzerland, and Denmark.
General information on Causse Marines (in French) including about the prices of the cuvées and about the wine gatherings and tasting fairs they're taking part to (bottom of the page).
Article about Causse marines in Libération.
Virginie Magnien speaking about natural wine (video interview with English subtitles by Jules Dressner).