Some excellent and some not-so-excellent natural wines

by Tom Fiorina on November 15, 2014

Open-cellar, wine-tasting à la Catalan.

Open cellar, wine-tasting à la Catalan.

Going to the Roussillon region two-and-a-half hours south of my home in Toulouse is like visiting another world. The ruggedly arid, Sergio Léonesque landscape, with its scrub trees and twisted rock formations, is totally different from the green, rolling hills that surround the “Ville Rose,” as Toulouse is known because of its pink-brick buildings.

The Roussillon abuts Spain, more accurately its Catalan region. France’s Pyrénées-Orientales (Eastern Pyrenees) department (which consists mostly of the Roussillon region) was once part of the former Principality of Catalonia, and the influence on the language (over 30% of the inhabitants speak Catalan) and its culture are evident in the architecture and gastronomy.

I visited the Roussillon village of Latour de France for an Open Cellar wine-tasting in early November. The purchase of a glass for €5 allowed you to taste the wine made by around a dozen vineyards with wine cellars in Latour. Actually, there were more like 25 participating producers because each cellar had two or three different winemakers from nearby communities also pouring their wines.

The Roussillon, along with the nearby Languedoc region, is the wine region in France with the largest number of organic wine producers. Its warm, arid climate, combined with almost constant wind, help to limit fungal diseases that attack grape vines. From zero hectares in 2000, Latour today has over 185 hectares (457 acres) of organic vines.

Readers of this blog know that I enjoy wine made from grapes that ferment as naturally as possible, and that see a minimum of chemicals and a maximum of attention in the vineyard. With the majority of La Bande de Latour, the moniker used by the organizing winemakers, producing organic wine, I was looking forward to the visit.

You give [natural] wine a bad name

Music and dancing in the streets.

Music and dancing in the streets.

A small historical digression: Latour de France (like all of the Roussillon region) has been repeatedly pounded into submission over the last few millennia. The name, in fact, comes from a tower (“La tour,” in French, means “the tower”) that formed a strategic defence element on this much-coveted frontier. First the Romans, then the Visigoths, and then the Saracens sacked the village–and that was just before 1000 A.D. Then, the Counts of Toulouse, on behalf of the Kingdom of Aquitaine, which preceded French rule in southwestern France, and the Counts of Barcelona, followed by Spanish rulers when Catalonia was absorbed, played their own Game of Thrones in this strategic area.

The Bande de Latour had done an admirable job of decorating the town, which, like many Middle Age-era villages in the region is mostly high stone walls, warren-like mazes of narrow streets (to better entrap intruders unfamiliar with the village), and windowless facades. They had prepared a printed list, and map, of the participating winemakers; the day’s entertainment (which included Catalonian music, street acrobats and puppeteers); and a nice selection of regional foods that were available for tasting.

How did these two get past the city defences?

That’s not natural. How did these two get past the city defences?

But the adage that “natural” is not interchangeable with “good” was the main take-away from the tasting. I didn’t taste all of the wines on offer; even with the Tasting map and a good pair of walking shoes, I only made it to perhaps two-thirds of the participating wineries. But even that limited sample showed that heavy, flabby, high-alcohol reds and over-oaked whites were in abundance. Judging from the level of volatile acidity (vinegar taint) and “Brett” (brettanomyces–a wild yeast that produces animal-like aromas) in many of the wines that I tasted, it appears that the most natural thing in many of these cellars was a rich microbiological fauna.

And this is from someone who belongs to the segment of wine drinkers with a high tolerance for such volatile odorants. Several of the red wines that I appreciate the most demonstrate that, in small quantities, Brett can bring a distinctive “stink” that is part of a complex interplay of aromas. But the over-extracted, high-pH red wines on offer at many of the tasting tables were even too much for my lenient palate.

Sylvain Lejeune pours some of his Domaine de Sabbat wines.

Sylvain Lejeune pours some of his Domaine de Sabbat wines.

This isn’t saying that all of the wines were flawed. A number of the winemakers in attendance, notably Cyril Fahl from the Clos du Rouge Gorge, Sylvain Lejeune at the Domaine de Sabbat and Loïc Roure from the Domaine du Possible were offering deliciously-elegant red and white wines.

On its own, Lejeune’s 2012 Côtes du Roussillon Village rouge, a blend of 80%, old-vine Carignan and 20% Syrah, made the five-hour, round-trip drive worthwhile. An intense peppery nose with spicy red fruit and a touch of chocolate on the palate, fine tannins from the 80-year-old Carignan vines and the complex aromatic richness of the Syrah, followed by a long finish, combined to make an unusually complex and smooth Roussillon red. And all of this for a price of €12.

Enthusiastic fans of Cyril Fahl's Clos du Rouge Gorge wines.

Enthusiastic fans of Cyril Fahl’s Clos du Rouge Gorge wines.

Cyril Fahl from the Clos du Rouge Gorge had a selection of excellent wines available for tasting. His whites are crisp and saline, while the reds show crunchy red fruit, brilliant acidity and refreshing balance.

I will certainly return to taste more of the Domaine du Possible wines, made under the Côtes du Roussillon A.O.C. label by Roure in an old Roussillon wine cooperative that he shares with another winemaker. He started in 2003 with 2.5 hectares, and then added one- or two-hectare parcels until he reached his present 10.5-hectare vineyard.

Loïc Roure shows that it is possible to make excellent natural wine.

Loïc Roure shows that it is possible to make excellent natural wine.

His vines, which are on clay-limestone and schist soils, are farmed organically, and he uses little intervention in the cellar. He uses the typical Roussillon grape varieties of Carignan and Grenache to make his reds, blended, in some cases, with Syrah and Mourvèdre. The whites are made with Grenache Gris and Macabeu. All fermentations are spontaneous, using only indigenous yeasts. The wines are meant to be fresh, bright and easy-to-drink, so the extraction and alcohol remain low. His focus is on fruit purity, minerality and acidity.

If there isn’t already a Catalan expression for “excellent natural wine,” I would suggest, after tasting the remarkably bright, fresh, juicy wines of the Domaine du Possible, that “vinos naturales de posible” might serve admirably.

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