Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Visit to Leon Barral

If asked the reasons for visiting a domaine then enthusiastic consumers, wine merchants/importers and journalists would exhaust my list of the obvious. The day after picking late harvest grenache at his Domaine Ribiera, Régis Pichon invited me to join him on a visit to meet Jean-Luc Barral. Jean-Luc is one of the two brothers who founded Domaine Leon Barral in Faugères back in 1993, calling it Leon after their grandfather. The purpose of the visit was to see some equipment.

The equipment in question has origins in Brazil and is used as a means of controlling grasses and "weeds". The French seem to call it a rolofaca. At Leon Barral there is no ploughing. In winter cows, horses and even pigs roam the vineyards to keep the vegetation in check. When the vines are active the roloafaca is used to gently break up vegetation and enable it to mulch into the soil. Rather than a traditional tractor a caterpillar version is used to avoid over compacting the soil - the tracks have a considerably greater surface area than tires.

The vines, starting to take on autumn colours, are on Faugères schist of course. The trunks are all well below knee hight so picking and pruning must be excruciating. Look carefully to see bones lying in amongst the lumps of schist.

In the winery the large traditional wooden press was being cleaned after a morning of pressing - look for the figure standing at the back for a sense of scale.

In 2010 construction of an extraordinary new chai started and is still ongoing. A chronological gallery of pictures is on the Leon Barral website. How long has this car been there?

Finally we were shown the black pigs feeding on the vines by a stream and oak forest of 18 ha where they roam. The organic waste from households in the village also goes to them.

Jean-Luc bonds with the contented hog who services 18 sows.

A treasure trove of sustainable viticulture. No ordinary Domaine, no ordinary visit, and not a glass of wine in sight.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

All over? It is now

It can be measured in weeks since the main grape harvest was wrapped up. My 18th and final days picking took place 18 days after secateurs previously saw vineyard action. At Domaine Ribiera (Aspiran) two modest parcels of grenache were left patiently to let the grapes ripen further and shrivel a little. The objective was to produce a sweet Vin Doux Naturel - think modern vintage Banyuls or Maury in style. The old low yielding vines are sited on exposed windy slopes with thinning foliage as autumn beckons. This all combines to facilitate rapid drying after rain and those occasional humid days.

In 2014 all was lost to the deluges at the end of September that, more seriously, claimed several lives in the Hérault. This year the potential alcohol was around 16 degrees as mid-October approached. In order to make a Vin Doux Naturel with minimal winery intervention at least 20 degrees is needed for a good chance of a safe fermentation. For some reason (summer heat? too dry until mid-August?) ripening had been blocked for too long and 20 degrees wasn't going to happen. The Pichons decided to make Cartagene, a Languedoc speciality that involves adding alcohol to the must before fermentation gets going.

As usual the harvested grapes went through the de-stemmer and into a tank. To speed up the maceration they received 10 minutes of manual pigeage from Regis Pichon.

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Independents - an upwards trend

Aspiran took the European Weekend of Heritage (patrimoine) seriously this year and included in the events and exhibitions was a display covering wine. Specifically highlighted were the Aspiran producers who now number 10, along with the cave cooperative (Clochers & Terroirs).

The longest established are Domaine de Fabrègues (1835) and Chateau Malautié (1900). Domaine des Montèzes arrived in 1995 having been displaced by the building of the A75 autoroute above Lodeve. The grapes around their Aspiran property apparently go to the cooperative with wine being made on site from grapes brought down from their Pégairolles de l’Escalette vineyards.

It was after 2000 that new arrivals took root, possibly fuelled by the decline of the cooperative before relatively recently joining the Clochers & Terroirs clan of cooperatives. Domaines Mon Mourel, Ribiera, Clos Mathelisse, Villa Symposia, des dimanches and most recently Gregory White and Mas Troqué complete the list.

Interestingly several producers in nearby villages have vineyards in the commune, ones I know about being Mas Costefere (Adissan), Julien Peyras (Paulhan) and Domaine les Quatre Amours (Bélarga).

Are there trends here? Of the new arrivals at least two (David Caer of Clos Mathelisse and Christelle Duffours of Mas Tronqué) have strong local roots. The six most recent arrivals practice organic standards with minimal intervention in the cave. Five of them appear regularly at Vins Nature events.

Perhaps the main observation is that villages with relatively dynamic and successful cooperatives have content viticulteurs and precious little land for sale, so have few independents. Witness nearby Fontès and Cabrières that both have exciting terroirs but few independents. The nearest equivalent commune with a similarly diverse land (limestone Villafranchien and galets roulés, clay with silt and limestone, basalt et al) is Caux, where independents also thrive while the abandoned cave cooperative building decays into an eyesore.

Wine from almost all the producers can be purchased from the Aspiran Tabac which is by the village crossroads.