I must operate a LIFO approach to writing up People and Places, as this first post is about one of the producers I’ve most recently visited… anyhoo, here goes!
Visiting Gérard Bertrand for their Fête des Vendanges clearly demonstrated Gérard’s stated passion for the wines of the Languedoc-Roussillon and the associated lifestyle.
Key things I learned:
- They have a clear focus on quality, have estates on some great terroirs like La Clape and La Lavinière, and are shining a beacon for the region
- I really liked their pale rosé La Sauvageonne, and some of the top red blends like La Forge, Clos d’Ora, Cigalus and l’Hospitalus. I understand that prices of these more-than-reflect that quality!
- Their style uses plenty of oak, across all colours, which does work very well when integrated. On occasion it stands out – and may mask the expression of the terroir
- Their style is an expression of the Sun of the South, undoubtedly. Again this works very well on some wines; on others, a temptation to sur-maturité may again mask terroir somewhat
- These wines are often food wines, and Gérard’s chef made some exceptional matches
- The early harvest of 2017 across Europe is reflected in the South, where many bunches yet to be harvested were at least softened, if not well on the way to raisining, suggesting a ‘hot’ character
Ex-Stade Français rugby captain, Gérard Bertrand, got involved in the wine business courtesy of his father’s estate, originally bought in 1970. Since then, he has immersed himself in the wines of Languedoc and Roussillon, has acquired more vineyards and estates to total 14, and become not only the largest private producer in the Languedoc, but the 3rd largest in France, after the likes of Castel. He’s acted as an ambassador not only for his own wines, but for the region as a whole. As the note he wrote in Book 6 for me says, he certainly has passion for the South and is focusing on quality. Wines are a mix of estate production, and bought-in and blended. A significant proportion of his vineyards are biodynamically farmed, or in certification.
At the end of September 2017, I was invited to join a large end-of-harvest celebration at the Gerard Bertrand estate of Domaine l’Hospitalet near Narbonne – courtesy of Head of Communication and friend, Anne Serres. They were kind enough to fly me there, accommodate me and get me the 3 trains I needed to continue onto Turin, and our already-planned holiday in Alba / Barolo / Barbaresco.
The programme began on Friday evening, with local derby Narbonne vs. Carcassonne Division 2 rugby; Narbonne unexpectedly won a tight game 23-19, to much celebration:
With dinner, we tried our first selection of GB wines in a relaxed setting, including one of their flagship reds, La Forge, and a sulfite-free, funky Chardonnay. I had a horse burger; it was nice.
The next morning, more formally, we had a masterclass that examined their Cremant de Limoux rosé, through rosé and white, to their new vintages of reds. Here we really got to grips with the house style. Broadly that can be summarised as favouring oak use (with an 8,000-barrel stock, apparently they’re the largest buyers in France) – including on rosés and whites – and relatively high levels of ripeness, particularly in the reds. In each case, there were wines for which those elements worked very well and times when each didn’t. All the wines gave a sense of the South:
Al fresco lunching followed; below, Gerard is in orange, with Lenka Sedlackova MW to his left and Rosemary George MW in the foreground, inter alia:
The afternoon included a talk on biodynamics, then we had some fun harvesting in l’Hospitalet’s vineyards around the property. Apparently this was competitive, on quantity, so the Americans ‘won’ harvesting…
Finally, the gala dinner – with pre-poured wines, which was a first. These included GB’s top reds and a library release of Rivesaltes. But above all, these were exceptionally well-matched to each course, in particular the oak-influenced Sauvageonne rosé with a mushroom cream sauce.
So what did I learn?
Well, first and foremost, their marketing is not just spin: Gérard clearly does have huge passion for the region, its wines and its lifestyle. It’s also clear that he and his team are representing their region and showing the world the quality of terroirs that exist, by aiming to produce fine wines from them.
Whilst we were shown the premium range of wines, it is clear that they are aiming for quality, and have estates on some great terroirs like l’Hospitalet on the limestone plateau of La Clape, and Clos d’Ora in Minervois-La Lavinière (which is aiming for its own AOC, I believe). Their commitment to sustainable agriculture, including much of their vineyards being converted biodynamics, is also clear and admirable.
Stylistically, it’s about oak and ripeness. In both instances, this can work very well – and the ripeness is certainly a reflection of the Sun in the South – something which Gérard is explicitly trying to represent. In the top red blends, where the flavour density can carry the alcohols that often top 15% ABV, these stylistic elements do work. But this is always a balance against losing freshness on the one hand and on the other masking the expressions of terroir that give distinctiveness beyond just ‘ripe fruit’.
In the top red blends like La Forge, Clos d’Ora, Cigalus and l’Hospitalus, this worked. In other cases, I couldn’t help wondering if the wines I was scoring at 16 could have been 17+ at 0.5-1% lower ABV. In fact, with Clos d’Ora, I preferred the cooler 2013 vintage to the younger and warmer 2014, where the 2013 had both more freshness and more non-fruit complexity. And in the case of the rosés, oak sometimes stood out over fruit. But in their pale rosé La Sauvageonne, the oak integrated beautifully and this is undoubtedly a fine wine. I also understand that the top wines have prices to match – with Clos d’Ora being in the region of €200.
I did find the Pinot Noir more challenging in the warmth of the South. Even from the cooler Limoux, its softer and slightly roasted character meant it was a power expression of Pinot rather than finesse. I suppose its the same challenge I have with some riper California Pinot styles too. By contrast, Chardonnay can carry off the riper style so well, and the same vineyard’s Chardonnay was a step up.
A final observation from walking the vineyards and talking to a few folks, is that the early harvest of 2017 across Europe is reflected in the South. I understand that some co-ops in other regions were caught out – literally being out on holiday when vignerons were ready to bring in fruit. Many bunches yet to be harvested were at least softened, if not well on the way to raisining, suggesting that the South will have a ‘hot’ character vintage and that picking time will be critical for producers seeking quality.
Oh, and a post-script on packaging. As the below picture shows, Code Rouge, is in fact a blanc de blancs Limoux. It’s a good wine too:
But I wonder if the red bottle packaging will confuse consumers as much as it gives shelf-standout? I assumed it was a lurid-deep sparkling rosé (as did others); if that’s what appeals to you, you’d therefore likely be disappointed when it poured white. Equally, if you were looking for a white sparkler, would you not overlook this bottle on the assumption that it wasn’t one?
From the masterclass session, in order presented, with any additional notes from the GB team in italics. A = Appearance, N = Nose, P = palate; scores are out of 20 because, well, I’m comfortable with that, and it’ll do!
Ballerine Crémant de Limoux rosé (15.5 / 20)
New; aiming for elegance, hence ballerina. Colour inspired by sunset from Paris Opera. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grown at altitude around Limoux. 36 months on lees.
A: Pale coral
N: Berry fruit, hints of fresh bread lees, white peach. Bright fruit, hint of flint
P: Medium-knit mousse. Fresh raspberry fruit, M+ acidity. Slightly phenolic finish
Château de la Soujeol Grand Vin Malepère rose 2016 (15.5 / 20)
Property bought 2 years ago in Malepère. Malepère AOC total 500Ha. Mediterranean influence on continental climate of the south west gives both freshness and ripeness. Quality levels in GB wines follow Reserve -> Grand Vin -> Single vineyard hierarchy. Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec blend
A: Pale salmon
N: Notable oak influence – cheesy hints, spice notes – quite dominant. Ripe citrus beneath
P: Soft, oaky entry, redcurrant, stone fruit, slightly salty. Medium length, warming finish
Chateau la Sauvageonne la Villa Coteaux du Languedoc rosé 2016 (16.5 / 20)
57Ha biodynamic estate. More volcanic soil (schist) influence from Massif Central, as more inland. Cooler nights than coastal area, steadier maturation; key for freshness and phenolic maturity. Choice of grapes for rosé: Grenache over Syrah for lower colour; higher yield vines. Minimum 80% red, max 20% white grapes. This wine co-fermented 90% Grenache, 7% Viognier and 3% Vermentino. Fermentation begins begins in tank, then to barrel after a few days, to integrate oak. 6 months barrel-age with bâtonnage initially daily, then reduced to twice a week afterwards to retain CO2.
A: Very pale salmon – almost white wine colour
N: Ripe, yellow peach and garrigue, with gentle toasty oak overtones – much better integrated than the Soujeol.
P: Rounded, lees-richness, mid-full body, spicy oak layers around richness of white peach & apricot fruit. Mouthfilling and probably a food wine. M+ length. Appetising
Château de Villemajou Grand Vin Corbières blanc 2016 (17+ / 20)
Family estate since 1970. Top parcel selection of Roussanne, Marsanne, Vermentino. Harvested separately for ideal maturity, fermented then blended. Barrel fermentation, then 6-7 months maturation with bâtonnage. General approach to maturity assessment by testing acidity / sugar, alongside berry tasting to assess tannin.
N: Subtle gunflint oak note (some reduction?), then fleshy, scented Marsanne notes with hint of white flower / honeysuckle tones over white stone fruit. Tight / restrained
P: Some phenolic grip on entry, then spicy, stony, salty savoury tones to a core of fleshy yellow stone fruit. M(+) acidity. Food wine. Long
Chateau la Sauvageonne Grand Vin Coteaux du Languedoc 2016 (16+ / 20)
Volcanic schist, with red-orange volcanic ruffe soils. Biodynamic Demeter certified. Grenache Blanc, Vermentino, Viognier blend.
A: Pale-medium lemon
N: Fresh-cut wood tones with cinnamon, some green apple tones beneath, but oak dominant
P: Ripe apple and stone fruit. Lots of oak spice. Salinity. Needs time to integrate
Aigle Royal Chardonnay Limoux 2016 (16.5 / 20)
Estate has Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris on limestone causses. Wetter, cooler and highest zone at 500m. Top wine from the estate: €45 ex-cellar. 2016 warm year so no malo-lactic fermentation (MLF). 2017 showing higher malic levels, so likely will do MLF. 100% barrel fermentation, with 50-60% new medium toast French oak; oak now starting to integrate.
A: Pale-medium lemon
N: Ripe, rounded, oak tinged stone fruit. Lees cream and ripe mixed citrus. Dusty mineral tones with plenty of oak spice
P: Rich, rounded medium-full body. Spicy oak mid-palate. Yellow apple and citrus. Lees creaminess and vegetal touches. Warming finish. M+ to long
Aigle Royal Pinot Noir IGP Haute Vallée de l’Aude 2015 (16+ / 20)
Pinot Noir from same plot as Aigle Chardonnay. Fermentation with Pigeage for 3 weeks, then MLF in tank. 12 months French oak maturation.
A: Mid-depth ruby-purple
N: Slightly roasted black fruit. Meaty. Dark chocolate oak tones with spice.
P: Blackberry, black cherry, M+ acidity. Sandy textured, M(+) intensity tannins – oak tannins too? Spicy. Quite long, perfumed finish. Needs time to come together. Warming, but with freshness
Chateau de la Soujeole Grand Vin Malèpere 2015 (16.5 / 20)
Cabernet Franc is principal variety of both the appelation and estate (and wine). 50% Cabernet Franc, with 30-35% Merlot and the rest Malbec.
A: Deep purple
N: Black cherry. Mint / menthol. Subtle oak spice.
P: Sweet cherry fruit entry. Bright acidity. Black cherry. Firm-ish M(+) intensity, chalky tannin. A little warming. Tobacco finish. Stony, saline mineral. M+ length
Château la Sauvageonne Grand Vin Terrasses du Larzac 2015 (17 / 20)
Schist and ruffe volcanic soil. Old-vine Grenache and Syrah. Biodynamic.
A: Mid-deep purple
N: Violet floral tones, hint of gravel stones and fresh leather, fresh black cherry. Spice.
P: Slightly sweet entry. Spice. Stone. Garrigue. Oak spice. M+ intensity fruit. Black cherry. M intensity, peppery tannins. Dried tobacco. Perfumed finish. M acidity. Warming
Château de Villemajou Grand Vin Corbières-Boutenac 2015 (16.5+ / 20)
Source of La Forge. Pebble soils with high proportion of iron. Old vine Carignan, over 80 years average age, yielding 15-20 HL / Ha
A: Deep ruby
N: Very ripe blackberry and slightly smoky; lots of scented fruit – semi-carbonic. Bacon fat. Garrigue-herb note.
P: Ripe blackberry entry. Spice. But a savoury / bitter (nice) smokiness on mid-palate. Warming. Savoury. Saline. Long
Cigalus IGP Aude Hauterive 2015 (17.5 / 20)
6 variety blend: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Syrah, Grenache, Caladoc (Malbec x Grenache). Caladoc gives dark colour and both fruity & spicy notes. First estate to biodynamics. No SO2 during vinification; only at bottling
A: Deep purple
N: Subtle, broad, integrated berry fruit nose. At the heart, floral, slightly stewed plum and cassis. Notable black pepper, but still integrated. Subtle cedar oak
P: Fresh acidity; lively. More focused cassis. Subtle oak spice. Beautifully integrated oak and alcohol, with marked freshness. Long
L’Hospitalitas La Clape 2015 (17+ / 20)
Icon wine of Domaine l’Hospitalet. Limestone and marl soils. Parcel at foot of a cliff, so protected from strong winds. Mediterranean influenced. 3 week traditional vinification, MLF, then barrel ageing. 60% Syrah, 40% Mourvèdre.
A: Deep black-purple
N: Liquorice, meaty Mourvèdre tones and black olive, rosemary. Very scented. Vanilla tones. Stewed blackberry and black cherry
P: Ripe, rich. Blackberry. Black olive bitterness. Saline. Smoky. Black pepper finish. Fine, M+ tannins. Warming (15%?). Long. Could do with more freshness, but fine
Le Viala Minervois-La Lavinière 2015 (17.5 / 20)
Château Laville-Bertrou icon wine. Warmest area in appelation and dry, but Montagne Noire nearby gives cooler nights. Southern red blend: Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Carignan
A: Deep black-purple
N: Lifted minty / tomato leaf note (CF or CS? No, none), bloody mary note! Schisty mineral / crushed rocks. Oak spice
P: Sweet black fruit entry but decent acidity. Ripe blackberry and black pepper. Black olive touches. Supple tannins on entry, that grip more through the finish – M(+) grainy. Some salinity. Lots of schisty minerality and spice
Gala dinner wines:
Château la Sauvageonne La Villa AOP Coteaux du Languedoc 2016 (16.5+ / 20)
Overall: Notable oak again, but again well-integrated.
A very good match to raw egg yolk in a hot mushroom cream
Cigalus IGP Aude Hauterive 2009 (17 / 20)
A: Deep gold
N: Oaked Chardonnay character with stone fruit (Viognier character). Cinnamon, baked apple, honey. Can’t see the Sauvignon Blanc
P: Rich, full-bodied, apricot & baked apple. Spice, vanilla, oak-tannin grip. Long. Full
Pretty good match for foie gras and smoked sea bass
Aigle Royal Pinot Noir IGP Haute Vallée de l’Aude 2012 (16.5 / 20)
N: Slightly roasted, meaty, game notes. Vanilla & cinnamon. Earth touch
P: Ripe, smoky and dense, but with some acidity to hold it together. Better than the 2015
Meatiness of the red mullet worked pretty well
Clos d’Ora Minervois-La Lavinière 2013 (17.5 / 20)
A: Deep garnet
N: Mint, rosemary, herbal dark spice; allspice oak. Black pepper and bacon fat. Schisty mineral
P: Lovely freshness, inky, juicy blackberry fruit. Peppery spice and medium, peppery tannins. Long
Clos d’Ora Minervois-La Lavinière 2014 (17+ / 20)
A: Deep ruby
N: Toasted, roasted meat & black cherry; cedar, oak spice
P: Supple entry; spiced sweet black fruit. Moderate, but fairly fresh acidity
Legend Vintage Rivesaltes Tuilé 1955 (16.5 / 20)
A: Pale-medium ruby-to-brick fade
N: Rancio VA note. Dried strawberry. Gentle spice
P: Sweet, but not overly so. Woody touch. Dried berry fruit and baked fruit. Hazelnut. Spice. Notably long finish. Just marred by a marked spirity character
Other wines tasted along the way, with impressions more than well-taken notes:
Code Rouge Crémant de Limoux Blanc de Blancs NV (16 / 20)
70% Chardonnay, 20% Chenin Blanc, 10% Mauzac, with 36 months on lees
A: Pale lemon; medium-sized, persistent bead
N: Plenty of fresh dough and bread lees over ripe apple and citrus
P: Nicely balanced, bright appley acidity with decent lees complexity. Fairly fine mousse. Fair length
La Forge Corbières-Boutenac 2015 (17+ / 20)
N: Dark chocolate oak pretty dominant, but plenty of ripe black fruit beneath and some mineral dimensions. Should develop well
P: Plenty of weight and power, but alcohol is held well by flavour density. Compact, firm tannins will need time
Prima Nature Chardonnay 2016
Organic grapes. No added So2. Skin contact.
Overall: deep gold. Funky, very odd / different Chardonnay. Both wild, natural and orange wine style. Different