The Château de la Liquière mirrors, in many ways, the Faugères appellation. The Vidal family has been making wine here since the 1700s. Jean Vidal, the father of the present owner, Bernard Vidal, helped to create in the early 1950s, along with his brother Lucien and a third winemaker, the VDQS (Vin Délimité de Qualité Supérieure, or “Delimited Wine of Superior Quality” in English) that preceded the AOC Faugères Red wine appellation that was put in place in 1982 (white wines received an AOC in 2005). The Vidals, convinced that their wild, rocky terroir was capable of producing distinctive wine, were among the first growers in the region to bottle their wines for commercial sale.
Faugères is at once the smallest and, with its rocky, schist-dominated landscape, the most homogenous terroir in the Languedoc. The AOC Faugères sits like a natural, stone balcony 100 to 300 meters above the Béziers plain and the Mediterranean Sea that is 40 kilometers to the south.
The schist here was formed long ago. The same clay sea deposits that created the Massif Central, the elevated mountains and plateaus in south-central France, were compressed into sheets of rock. Schist terroir can be an extremely beautiful silver, or grey, or burnt-ochre in color. The rock’s color and its composition—flakey, layered, or a silky dense texture, are determined by where the clay sat on the seabed and how great a pressure it underwent.
Faugères winegrowers have explained to me that certain colors of schist are better than others for planting grapevines (light-colored schist, evidently, is better than dark schist). It may have something to do with the formation of the microfissures that allow grapevine roots to bore down three to five meters through the schist in search of moisture. Schist has amazing, natural thermal powers. Like primitive solar collectors, the rock captures the sun’s rays. This captured heat is then slowly released; winegrowers on schist terroir often say that their grapes mature during the night.
The Château de la Liquière has a good number of contour-planted vines, a planting method where the vines follow the curve of the land. It’s a vestige of the 1970s when unusually heavy rains washed through the Faugères vineyards, taking tons of soil with them. Many of the farmers did not have tractors, making it difficult or impossible to push the soil back in place. Terracing the hillsides and then using contour planting helped to reduce this erosion. A side benefit was the water-capturing capacity of the terraces.
Most vineyards now plant their vines in a straight line (driving a tractor in a straight line is easier than maneuvering around bends, and when trellises are used or mechanical harvesting is done, contour planting is almost out of the question). Straight rows also allow the vines to capture the maximum sunshine by orienting them in a north-south direction; they also maximize disease prevention by orienting vines parallel to the prevailing wind. There are still a number of Faugères vineyards, besides the Château de la Liquière, using contour planting, but they are in the minority.
Is that Siena in the distance?
According to Bernard’s son, François, who works, along with his sister Sophie and Sophie’s husband, Laurent Dumoulin, in the family winemaking business, the contour vine cultivation method has always been used on the slopes of Château de la Liquière. In the cost-benefit analysis of history and tradition vs. the practicality of running a tractor in a straight line and sun-capturing capability, the Vidals have gone with what has always worked for them. As the above photo demonstrates, it also makes for an extremely photogenic vineyard.
The Vidals use this philosophy of maintaining tradition in other aspects of the vineyard. Two wine cellars are located on the estate: a traditional one with concrete, underground vats that uses gravity to gently move grapes and wine through the winemaking process, and a more modern, functional one with stainless steel vats and an oak-barrel aging cellar. They make some excellent wines in these cellars, such as their AOC Côteaux du Languedoc, mineral-rich Les Amandiers, a white wine made from Roussane, Grenache, Terret, Viognier and Clairette grapes, an exceptionally fresh rosé made from Cinsault and Mourvèdre grapes, and the elegant, mineral-rich, concentrated, fruit-forward Vieilles Vignes, a red wine made from a blend of grapes from 50-to-100-year-old Carignan vines, and Grenache, Mourvèdre and Syrah grapes.
The Vieilles Vignes wine is an example of how good a traditional-style Faugères AOC red can be when tweaked with some modern winemaking techniques. Schist terroir, with its poor, highly acidic soil, naturally limits the grape yield. The combination of poor soil, old vines, and a dry 2009 summer led to a minuscule yield of 15hl/ha this fall for the Carignan vines that provide the grapes for this wine. Once the hand-harvested grapes reach the cellar, the vinification process varies, according to the grape variety. Part of the Carignan (20%) undergoes carbonic maceration: the grapes are placed whole in a vat and then left intact for 25-30 days. This intracellular vinification is carried out at a 28-30°C temperature range. The Grenache, Mourvèdre and Syrah grapes are vinified in a more traditional way: following destemming, they are placed in a fermentation vat for three weeks. The temperature is kept between 27 and 29°C, and the fermenting wine is regularly pumped over the cap created by the grape skins and other solids in the wine. This cap is also punched down regularly to encourage color and tannin development.
The Vieilles Vignes wine, with its elegant tannins, lovely spices and old-vine Carignan notes of licorice and cigar smoke, demonstrates how a traditional wine can transcend tradition to fit more modern tastes. Bernard Vidal says that this is the greatest challenge facing his children and future generations of winemakers: retaining the character of their terroir, with its unique soil, climate and traditional grape varieties, while making a wine to fit consumer tastes. “Go too far in making a universal, easy-drinking wine,” he says, “and the wine could have been made anywhere. We are proud of our wine, of our family’s winemaking history, and of Faugères,” he added.
Transcending Faugères, while remaining true to Faugères’ roots is a worthwhile objective. The multi-generational Vidal-Dumoulins seem to have achieved that balance with their Vieilles Vignes wine and others, like the estate’s Grand Cuvée, the Château de la Liquière Tucade. A Mourvèdre-dominated blend (the other grape variety is Syrah), Tucade is only made in exceptional years like 2001 and 2005. With a production of just 2,500 bottles, this wine is not available everywhere–but it’s worth seeking out. It has a dark, glossy, reddish-purple hue. The nose is decidingly more international than the Vieilles Vignes (but similar in style to their other “international” wine, Cistus, which is predominately Syrah, with smaller amounts of Grenache, Mourvèdre and Carignan).
In the local Occitan dialect “Tucade” is a “whim” or an “extravagance.” Tarry, roasted black fruit, balanced with the right touch of oak, and supported by a strong tannic structure make this a rich and complex wine. It would be perfect with a good cut of beef, or the roast hare or hare stew that is found on many Faugères dinner tables during hunting season.
An even more limited-production wine than Tucade is the estate’s 100%-Carignan, memorial-in-a-bottle Nos Racines. Like its name says in French, “Our Roots” is a testament to the Faugères terroir, previous Vidal generations, and the old Carignan vines on the property. Only 1,600 bottles are made annually of this well-balanced wine, which combines rich blackberry and blackcurrant flavors with raw, smoky, concentrated power.
It’s not easy keeping one foot in the past while trying to get a good footing in the future. The Château de la Liquière, with the patriarchal Bernard Vidal, his wife Claudie, and their oenologist son and daughter (capably aided by a hard-working son-in-law), seems to have found the secret.
And just as their grandfather helped to create the Faugères VDQS, and their father was and is a strong supporter of the appellation’s AOC, the youngest generation of Vidals is blazing new trails in making and marketing their wine. The Château de la Liquière is part of Les Terroiristes du Midi, a group of 23 producers from the south of France who have joined forces to raise awareness of the region’s terroir and to raise the overseas profile and export sales of its members. Although the name may give one pause, I think that it’s an admirable step forward in helping to market the high-quality, distinctive wines that are available from the lesser-known appellations in this part of France. The effort is under the direction of the Chamber of Commerce of Montpellier.