The Languedoc region has so many different appellations and terroirs that it's not fair when we just refer to one of its wines by the generic term Languedoc. I was invited to a press trip recently with a focus on two of its appellations, Corbières-Boutenac and Minervois-La Livinière, and the event that was organized by the communication agency Clair de Lune allowed the 8 of us to have a better visual and gustative experience of the two small exclusive wine regions nestled in the mountains west of the city of Narbonne.
Driving through the region you stumble on many signs of a long history of rebelness, conflicts and faith, this area was a hotbed of Catharism in the 12th century and wherever you drive in the hilly mountains you'll see remains of castles and fortification, like the ones here on left and right, spotted along the road as we approached the Appellation of Boutenac from Narbonne. These countless architectural remains (some in pretty good condition) testify of these feuds that spanned along centuries between the local faith and the centralized Catholic church and also between rival princes or againt invading hordes. This chapel of Saint Simeon above is more recent (it was built in 1895) but it is rooted in the story of the former bishop of Catalonia, a man born in 940 who took part in his 40s' to the fight against the invading Moors (defeated by the Spanish princes in 998) and who died an ermit in 1025 after having retired for an ascetic life in a cave near here. Saint Simeon kind of became the protector of Boutenac and farmers & growers pray him for rain.
Boutenac is a relatively recent sub-appellation of Corbières, it was created in 2005 after bringing together all the vignerons and growers on the common project focusing on the higher requirements. Navigating through the French AOC sections & names is tricky and here is a shortcut : Languedoc has presently 7 Crus or Appellation Communale, Corbières Boutenac, Faugères, La Clape, Minervois La Livinière, Pic Saint Loup, Saint Chinian Berlou & Saint Chinian Roquebrun, taken out of 23 sub-appellations : Cabardès, Clairette du Languedoc, Corbières,Fitou, Cabrières, Grès de Montpellier, La Méjanelle, Mintpeyroux, Pézenas, Quartouze, Saint-Christol, Saint Drézéry, Saint Georges d'Orques, Saint Saturnin, Sommières, Limoux blanc & rouge, Sparkling Limoux, Malepère, Minervois, Muscats, Picpoul de Pinet, Saint Chinian, Terrasses du Larzac.
We're not going to focus only on the history and gorgeous architecture (you might come here just for that, driving the side roads is like experiencing pas glories) but the new Appellation could well have been named Gasparets instead of Boutenac, Gasparets being a hamlet 2,5 kilometers away with as an iconic symbol this 12th-century chapel or church known under the name of Eglise Saint Martin de Gasparets. It is sitting alongside a tiny among beautiful old vines with view over the region, and if not much used nowadays, masses are still held inside now and then, the faithful or visitors being poured a glass of wine at the end (in French it reads : La cérémonie sera suivie d’un verre de l’amitié). I might go to church in this region... There's a non-profit group (Association pour la Restauration de l'Eglise) that is collecting funds and energy to keep the chapel and restore it.
We then were toured in two 4WD vehicules on gravel roads through the hills on the massif du Pinada to have a look at the regions; there's nothing like travelling a bit along steep back roads when you want to feel the region, and here it looks and smalls like Provence, like the mountain ranges inland in the Var département for example. I was sitting in a vehicule driven by Pierre Bories who is the president of the small AOC that has 20 producers and he runs with his family the flagship winery of the area, Ollieux Romanis. He's very upbeat about the appellation and why it stands out among the generic Corbières, he's learned to spot the different terroirs and says that the region benefits from a north-west wind the Cers, that keeps the wines fresh, even if they remain high-alcohol wines.
The particularity of the area is the galets roulés, these round rocks or pebbles which you find also in Chateauneuf du Pape. The appellation produces 6600 hectoliters, all reds, the total surface is 184 hectares and the varieties are Carignan (the backbone variety here), Grenache, Mourvèdre & Syrah. Some of the terrois of Boutenac benefit also from a direct maritime influence, like in Bandol I'd say, adding to the freshness of the wines. The vineyards stand usually at an elevation of 120 meters on a stony, well-drained soil, among the typical Provence bushes, plants & trees including thyme, rosmarin, juniper, olive trees & Holm oak.
We then stopped at a beautiful renovated farm/mansion, the Chateau Boutenac, where the appellation has a top-of-the-art tasting room that could fit maybe 60 tasters, complete with individual sinks and desks, two young women passing regularly to fill the glass from bottles identified only by a number. We tasted blind some 30 wines from Boutenac, all reds of course, each of us taking his/her time to take notes and taste again or take away the bottlesock if wished.
That was very interesting to taste blind in order to really not being influenced, even for oneself, by the domaine's name or whatever else, and the following selection are for me the best of the best of what we tasted (they're in tasting order); I wrote these tasting notes totally unaware about the origin of the wine and later added the bottle info. For the other wines not listed in this story there were 27 in all) they went from nothing exciting (includin OK but standard) to excessively extracted or burning/alcohol feel.
We spent part of the day with several influential players in the Boutenac appellation, among them the 3 men here on the picture, David latham being now the president of the appellation syndicat, Pierre Bories (Chateau Ollieux-Romanis) & Eric Virion (Chateau Maylandie).
__ Villa Ferrae Maylandie Boutenac 2015, nice balance, harmonious power feel, fruit, nice substance in the mouth. Savory wine, not bad for a first wine in a tasting line, usually you have to adapt your palate to the style of wine. 40 % grenache (30 years), 30 % Carignan (90 years), 30 % Syrah (17 years). Soil clay limestone. Destemmed grapes and traditional maceration in separate fermenters with temperature control; élevage in oak one year for syrah, blended 2 months prior to bottling. Public retail price 13 €.
__ Ollieux-Romanis Boutenac cuvée Or 2015. Already nice legs on the glass, I guess a color that looks lightlt milky like an unfiltered wine. Mouth : fresh and neat, warmful and with energy, gives you definitely pleasure while going down the throat. Very nice wine indeed, stands out. Light astringency on the side of the palate but you still want to drink more.
40 % Carignan, 25 % Grenache, 20 % Mourvèdre and 15 % Syrah. Vines aged 60 to 100 years with density 400/hectare and yield 35 ho/ha. Soil : red mediterranean, round pebbles & limestone. élevage 13 months in oak (70 % new), then 9 months in bottles. Public retail price 25,8 €
__ Chateau Maylandie Carnache Corbières-Boutenac 2015. Aromas of sweet spices, refined tannic texture in the mouth with a nice acidity. There's maybe a little bit of something missing to make it fully exciting.
80 % Carignan (100 years), Grenache (30 years), stony soil with clay-limestone. Hand picked with 1-month traditional fermentation in separate, temp-controlled vats. Elevage in vats then in bottle. Public retail price 15 €.
__ Ollieux-Romanis Atal Sia Corbières-Boutenac 2015. Exciting nose, good omen. Mouth, Oh yes, that's good for sure, you swallow that (not that we'd drive ourselves but when tasting dozens of Languedoc wines you swallow carefully). Powerful wine, majestic feel, suave, onctueux, nice suppleness. This remains a very powerful wine, but in its own style of southern wine, I love it.
45 % Carignan, 30 % Grenache, 25 % Mourvèdre; Vines aged 60 to 100, density 4000/hectare, yields 35 ho/ha. Hand picked, carbonic maceration, variety kept separate. 12 months in vats & 9 months in bottles. Public retail price 22,8 €.
__ Chateau Fabre Gasparets Corbières-Boutenac La Serre 2014. Nose with eucalyptus notes, aromatic dry leaves like laurel. Oh yes, in the mouth, a promising complexity with balance and freshness. Quite splendid wine, nicely made, you want a refill. There's an enjoyable warmth going down your throat when you swallow, and believe me, that's not just the alcohol level, it would be too easy... And the nice aromas come back to you.
40 % Carignan, 25 % Syrah, 25 % Grenache, 10 % Mourvèdre. Soil : round pebbles miocene clay/limùestone. Hand picked Car & Gre vinified whole-clustered, élevage 12 months in oak. Public price 24 €.
__ La Voulte Gasparets Corbières-Boutenac Romain Pauc 2014. Nice aromatic range, harmonious wine, just lacks maybe a little bit of something. The color is welcomely clear for the region, I feel. No, that's quite a nice wine, I love the balance in this wine.
Carignan 50 %, Grenache 25 %, Mourvèdre 15 %, Syeah 10 %. Hand picked, long vinification whole-clustered for all varieties in cement & stainless-steel. Elevage 12 months in oak, 20 % new. Filtration before bottling. Public price 20 €.
__ Chateau Aiguilloux Corbières-Boutenac, cuvée Anne-Georges 2011. Not bad, in the mouth there's a silky texture with a milky side giving it a suave, smooth edge. Nice balance and drinkability, and I say that after having tasted 27 wines (this was the last one)... Very nice, refined, floral and it's a 2011. Kudos for this one.
Carignan (older than 60) 50 %, Syrah (25 y) 50 %. Hand picked, sorting. Whole-clustered carbonic maceration for 20 days. 12 months barrels, then more in bottles. Retail price 18 €.
We had dinner at La Table Saint Crescent in Narbonne, a top table with Chef Lionel Giraud, exquisite food, served with Corbières Boutenac and Minervois La Livinière wines of course. I was sitting next to Richard Planas who has been working for a while at Gerard Bertrand, a major player in the region that now ooperates a dozen of domaines. It happens that Richard was hired by Gerard Bertrand in 2002 (the group had only 3 domaines then if I remember) when this La Forge 2002 was vinified and he brought a bottle for us to taste; it's not labelled as Corbières-Boutenac as the AOC was to be created in 2005 but it was an opportunity to have kind of an old vintage of Boutenac.
The wine was beautiful on the food (no notes sorry), still some freshness but I'm sure now 15 years later they vinify this cuvée slightly differently. We by the way also tasted the recent available production of La Forge (a 2015 if I remember) which was among the selection of 27 bottles of Boutenac, and my notes (blind) say wow, pretty extracted with aromas of dry aromatic leaves, garrigue (Provencal scrubland), but the whole thing is too much concentrated, too much cooked fruit; I added : no, definitely not my style of wine. Sells for 45 € retail.
Richard Planas who is now Directeur des Domaines remembers that the hiring interview lasted 15 minutes, and all the projects of Gerard Bertrand they spoke about during this interview were implemented in the following years including the biodynamic farming. He remembers that 2002 was a difficult vintage, it was a late vintage which is tricky for maturity at picking and there had been rain late august with signs of rot on the grapes. the vignerons were beginning to pick although not fully ripe and GB made a gamble and decided to wait, putting down leaves to make things healthier. Then around mid september, a strong north wind began to blow again for 10 days, drying up the rot and the maturity came at last. They had a lot of sorting but the result was worth the wait.
Pic on right : this is David Latham's Chateau de Saint Estève in Corbières, a family winery where we had lunch.