As the interest in, or preference for, lower alcohol, fresher wines continues to grow, it’s creating a dilemma for many regions that have traditionally considered their dry, warm climates as advantageous. Burgundy or Germany might struggle for ripeness in cool vintages, but not Languedoc or Puglia. It’s not just about trendiness; the focus on ripeness predates the rise of the so-called “international style” that favored ripeness, alcohol, and extraction. Since ripeness wasn’t always so common as it might be now, regulations for almost all European appellations call for a minimum level of alcohol, not a maximum. Nowadays these warm regions are working to show they can retain freshness, with ripeness now being a “given.”
This came up in April during a presentation at the Languedoc’s Terroirs and Millesimes event, held in Carcassonne this year. A seminar led by Matthieu Dubernet of Laboratoires Dubernet focused on alcohol levels in wine and how they relate to oak management. In principle, the seminar accepted climate change as an established fact, and the accompanying increase in sugar levels and potential alcohol, as a fait accompli. Dubernet noted that from 1984 to 2017 the average alcohol level of Languedoc wines had risen from11.2% to 14.2%. How does oak use fit in? “You can’t keep using oak to enrich wines when they’re already too rich,” says Dubernet.
As far as oak use goes, less time in barrel is just the first step. Proper seasoning of the wood -- the time the staves spend aging in the yard, subject to the work of bacteria and fungi, is important to avoid astringency, which the higher alcohols can extract more readily. Moving the wine to barrel earlier, while the lees are still in the wine, also helps. Finally, the use of larger barrels or vats, to change the ration of wood exposure to wine and protect the wines’ fruit and aromatics from oxidation, is also a classic method to balance oak use. Dubernet noted that some top wines were eschewing oak use altogether, keeping their wines in tank for a short time and in lieu of oak, giving them greater bottle aging before release.
Oak use gets a lot of attention, but for me the real takeaway from the seminar was to put wines tasted during the rest of my visit into a freshness vs. ripeness context. Different producers and different regions found different points of balance, as you’d expect in such a large and diverse region (home to almost one-third of France’s vineyards, Languedoc, if it were a country in its own right, would have the seventh largest vineyard plantings in the world). The tools, or means, that producers used to achieve that balance varied:
Elevation was a factor in places like Minervois La Liviniere, where the vineyards can be found as high as 400m. Terrasses du Larzac, an appellation I’ve written about on Wine Review Online previously, relies on large diurnal variations -- 20 degrees Celsius between day and night is typical -- and in the freshest examples, a substantial amount of Cinsault.
While the best wines I tasted from Minervois La Liviniere and Terrasses du Larzac leaned toward red fruits, freshness, and elegance, those of St. Chinian and Faugeres achieved a darker, denser balance. Actually St. Chinian showed a divide, the lighter wines being from schistous soils rather than calcareous, or having a greater proportion of Grenache Noir (Given the amount of variation in producers’ blends in the Languedoc, it’s hard to isolate factors like terroir or elevation and their contributions to the wines.) The top Faugeres wines I tasted shared the schistous soils that the lighter St. Chinian’s enjoyed, the blends favored a blend that emphasized density and grip -- balanced wines, but powerful. Which is great; dealing with climate change shouldn’t be a matter of overcompensating, but allowing each appellation and each producer to find the right way forward with their vineyards. That the wines of these appellations was so varied shows terroir at work much more honestly than the “international style” era wines, which might have been rich and generous, but showed a sameness that hid the character of the locale.
Some recommended wines are profiled briefly below. All are available in the U.S. It is worth noting, though, that here are a number of exciting producers in the Languedoc who aren’t currently represented here. In particular there are some “young gun” producers in Faugeres whose wines I hope find their way here soon:
Minervois La Liviniere:
Chateau Maris “Cuvée Dynamic" 2015: Shows a generous mix of dark and red fruit aromas, with some floral touches. Dense but bright, with good length.
Clos Centeilles 2013: Spicy red fruit on this Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre blend. Medium-bodied, with a smooth mouthfeel and well-integrated tannins
Terrasses du Larzac:
Clos des Serres "L’Humeur Vagabonde" 2015: Old vine Carignan blended with Syrah and Grenache, aged in tank. Medium-bodied, with wild herb, garrigue, and raspberry notes.
Domaine La Croix Chaptal Le Secret de Gellone 2015: Spicy o the nose, with red berry fruit. Fresh and medium-bodied, with a peppery finish.
Gerard Bertrand Chateau La Sauvageonne Grand Vin 2015: Some of the Syrah in this blend goes through carbonic maceration, which gives added freshness and pop to the fruit. Shows notes of black cherry, black raspberry, and gingerbread. Weightier than some of the other wines here, but still fresh, with well-integrated oak.
Domaine de la Réserve d’O Hissez O 2016: A darker-fruited example, with notes of blueberry, and black cherry topped by generous floral aromas. Fuller, too, but still nimble, with elegance and a refined finish.
Clos du Prieur 2016: Supple and elegant, with a mix of baking spice and red berry notes.
Domaine du Pas de L’Escalette Le Grand Pas 2016: A blend of Grenache, Cinsault, and just a touch of Carignan. Red plum, cherry, and strawberry notes show on the nose, with a bit more earth and spice on the palate. Fresh and long.
St. Chinian Rouge:
Domaine La Madura 2014: Floral and spicy on the nose, with black cherry and black plum notes on the palate. Powerful and dense, but still fresh. Aged in old oak and concrete.
Les Vignobles Foncalieu L’Apogée 2015: Move powerful, with red and black cherry and currant notes and touches of rosemary. Dense, but not heavy.
Borie La Vitarèle Les Schistes 2015: Aromatic, with plums, black cherries, and some floral notes. Full but very fresh and vibrant.
Chateau Viranel Tradition 2015: Floral, bright, and fresh, with notes of black cherry and currants. Moderate tannins and good length.
Mas des Capitelles Collection No 2 2011: A grippier, bigger wine, with plum, black olive, and garrigue notes. Serious tannins, but not drying, with good length.
Domaine La Cébène Felgaria 2015: A dense and chewy blend, thanks to a high proportion of Mourvedre. Shows notes of licorice, black raspberry, and floral touches. For all its intensity, it’s still lively and spry, with good length.