The Parc naturel régional du Haut-Langeudoc in southern France is a ravine-laced landscape of lakes, wooded hilltops where the Mediterranean region meets the Massif Central plateau. It’s one of the country’s wildest, most natural areas, filled with lush vegetation and wild animals, including, among many others, wild boar, roe deer and stag, rabbits, badgers and foxes.
Around 75,000 people cohabit with this fauna within the park’s boundaries, including German-born Iris Rutz-Rudel, who, along with her late husband, Claude Rudel, created a two-hectare vineyard named Lisson here in the early 1990s. The 22 hectares of chestnut and green oak trees that they purchased had been a farm with a vineyard until it was abandoned in the 1930s as part of the general migration in France from the countryside to urban centers.
Clearing the two hectares that sits on a hillside above the centuries-old stone house (the first mention of “Lisson” in the Montpellier bureau of records dates from 1482) on the property took several years. During this time, Rutz-Rudel earned a BPA (Brevet Professionnel Agricole), a degree that entitles young French farmers to certain government aid and support. Rudel, the son of a winemaker from nearby Larzac in the Coteaux-du-Languedoc, recognized that the vineyard’s soil, which varies from limestone to schist, and the cooler climate of the hillside, which sits several hundred meters higher than the Faugères and Saint Chinian appellations to the immediate south, was a unique terroir.
In a comment sent recently to this blog, Rutz-Rudel recalls how Burgundy-based agronomists Claude and Lydia Bourguignon made a soil analysis at Lisson before any vines were planted. ”I still remember him digging a deep whole in the middle of our Cirque des Cèdres one of Domaine Lisson’s vineyard parcels and becoming enthusiastic like a child about what he called “une des plus riches vies microbiennes” rich in microbacterial material he had seen in the region.” This was not a surprise to them, as the ground had lain fallow for almost 40 years, allowing it to recover all of its nutrients, and no chemical treatments had ever been used there. Bourguignon went on to tell them that the vineyard reminded him of the Coulée de Serrant in the Loire valley, the legendary wine estate of Biodynamic guru Nicolas Joly and the only single-property appellation in France. To this well-known agronomist couple, Lisson had the right sort of soil (an unusual type of schist that can capture and radiate the sun’s heat and that drains water quickly), exemplary biodiversity, and the benefit of cool, mountain breezes that would pass through the vineyard on the way to the valleys below, cooling the vines on hot summer days.
Outside of any appellation and without any neighboring vineyards to provide them with empirical evidence on what grape varieties did well in the Jaur Valley, they felt unrestricted on what type of grape varieties to plant. Rutz-Rudel says that she and her then husband decided to plant grape varieties that they felt would do well at Domaine Lisson and that produced wine that they enjoyed drinking.
They planted Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Côt, Petit Verdot and Mourvèdre, grape varieties that are not native to the Languedoc region. It wasn’t until 1996 that they were able to harvest any grapes, and 1998 (after two years of barrel aging) that the first bottles (1,000 in total) of Lisson wine were produced.
There are three different Domaine Lisson wines: Clos du Curé is 100% Pinot Noir; Les Echelles de Lisson is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc (vinified together and which account for the major part of the blend), with some Merlot, Côt and Petit Verdot added in lesser proportions; and Clos de Cèdres, which is 100% Mourvèdre.
With the increasingly mature grapevines beginning to produce more complex and finessed wines, all of the hard work and the astute identification of this unique terroir appeared to be paying off for this French-German couple. Unfortunately, that’s when tragedy struck, and Rudel died in an accident in early 2001. Many people might, at that point, have given up on this vineyard with its terraced parcels that cling to 25-degree-or-greater slopes, no electricity and just one room of the huge stone house renovated.
Rutz-Rudel is not a quitter, however. She had first come to this part of France in 1971 to spend four weeks in Bardou, a 16th-century village that had been made into a rustic, medieval vacation resort for intrepid travelers, nature lovers and artists. That experience, she said, made her fall in love with this rugged, savage land that became a regional park in 1973. She had also lived in an apartment building in Düsseldorf in post-WWII Germany, with her family sharing a bathroom with three other families, so hardship was no stranger.
Just walking up the steep vineyard slopes is a struggle; working on these extreme slopes requires an incredible amount of energy. Paying people to do the work is out of question, given the vineyard’s tiny yield and the degree of difficulty of the labor. Most of the work is done by Rutz-Rudel and her partner Klaus, along with assistance from their friends at harvest time.
The Domaine Lisson cave is an ancient structure, built directly into the house’s foundation. The upper portion, where the vinification is done, is located directly above the aging cellar. This eliminates the need to pump the wine from the stainless-steel vats used for fermentation to the oak barrels where it is aged for approximately 18 months. The lower portion, where the aging takes place, is built into the hillside. This ensures that the oak aging barrels are kept at a constant temperature and humidity.
No yeast is added to the wines during fermentation, and during the lengthy maceration, the marc cap is plunged into the fermenting juices every day to ensure maximum extraction of color and flavor. All of the wines undergo malolactic fermentation in the oak barrels. The wines are racked (the clear wine is transferred to another barrel, leaving behind the sediment, or lees) two or three times during the aging process. This barrel-to-barrel racking is very labor intensive, as each racking inevitably involves cleaning a barrel. The racking is the only clarifying process that the Lisson wines undergo, the use of sulphur is kept to a minimum, and the wines are neither fined nor filtered.
This careful, natural vinification produces structured, characterful wines that explode with strength and warmth in your mouth, with a harmonious balance of rich, rounded tannins and loads of fresh fruits; mainly cherries and strawberries for the Clos du Curé Pinot Noir and a spicy, herbal nose for the Clos des Cèdres Mourvèdre. Lisson wines have the ripe tannins and acidity needed for longevity and positive maturation. They age magnificently, growing in complexity and depth through the years.
The Domaine Lisson vineyard parcels offer magnificent views of the valley below. From a promontory point above the highest of the parcels, one of France’s most beautiful villages, Olargues, is visible. However beautiful the location, working these vines is dreadfully difficult. Rutz-Rudel recounted that her late husband Claude had fond memories of his father working his vines near Larzac, on the lowlands much closer to the Mediterranean, with a mule. They tried that at Lisson, she said, but the mule didn’t want to work on the steep slopes. They then tried to plow with a draft horse, but the horse only wanted to go straight and not to follow the vine rows, which had been planted with the contour of the hillside. This presented them with a dilemma; to maximize the use of their small vineyard and to limit the grape yield, they had planted certain of the grape varieties in a high-density fashion–up to 8,000 vines-per-hectare for their Cabernets on the narrow terraces.
These high-density plantations were too narrow to work with a tractor, and mules and horses were evidently not the answer. They next tried a cable plow that they knew Swiss winemakers used to plow their steep, hillside vineyards. This consisted of a plow blade connected by a cable to a gas-powered winch that was attached to a strong tree or rock at the top of the hillside. You don’t even have to see this in action to imagine the danger. The blade, she recalls, was constantly catching on rocks or roots, or if you weren’t extremely careful, the vines themselves. If the person operating the winch at the top of the hill didn’t cut the power at the first sign of a problem, the plow blade would cut and hack at anything that got in its way. Fortunately, she says, they only lost a little bit of skin, and not any appendages when they used this cable plow.
So, the cable plow went the way of the mule and the draft horse, and they now work the vines by hand, with hoes. Their only concession to modern conveniences seems to be a small, motor-driven cart (also of Swiss origin) with caterpillar treads that they use to haul up water or their pruning tools and other equipment.
There was no electricity on the property until Klaus, who is somewhat of an electrical wizard, arrived. He has hooked up enough solar panels to provide them with electricity for the property. Rutz-Rudel has survived the untimely death of her husband, the trials and tribulations of maintaining a vineyard on a 20-to-25-degree slope, hanging onto a plow blade while being dragged up the hill with a cable, but she may have met her match in Sus scrofa, otherwise known as wild boar. Five electric fences have been erected around the vineyard parcels. Some parcels even have double electric fences. These work to some respect, but this year, when the summer drought left fewer berries, nuts, insects and roots to eat in the forest, the brazen boars dug under, pushed aside and broke through the fences—electric shocks be damned.
While viewing this damage, your heart cannot help going out to this lovely, smiling, enthusiastic lady. I don’t think that I’d be smiling if some wild boars had eaten over 75% of my grape crop. Instead of the 1,000 or so bottles that she can produce in a good year, Rutz-Rudel will likely only be producing several hundred this year. But this is one determined lady, and she’s not giving up.
“Twenty years ago,” she explains, “they set free cross-bred, domestic-wild pigs. They give birth to twice as many piglets as the native wild boars, and our oak and chestnut trees in the area, which are no longer cultivated, provide them with nourishment.” According to the French Ministry of Agriculture, the area’s wild boar population has quadrupled since 2001. “They can smell when the grapes are ripening,” she says, “and it’s always a race to harvest them before the wild boars do.”
When nature calls
Besides electric fences, they’ve also tried loud music (loudspeakers were placed around the vineyard, and they blasted rock music—“even Radio Monte Carlo,” she said—a particularly annoying radio station), but the only ones bothered by it, she reports, were the hunters. Her companion Klaus dreams of turning his electrical prowess against the wild boars by constructing a fleet of small drones that would patrol the vineyards day and night.
“Why not shoot them?,” I wonder, but evidently neither Rutz-Rudel nor Klaus are given to violence (if one doesn’t count small electric shocks, Radio Monte Carlo or drone planes as being violent). Natural winemaker extraordinaire Didier Barral, from down the hill in Faugères, who is about the most close-to-nature vigneron that one would ever imagine meeting, told me, when I recounted Rutz-Rudel’s plight to him, that they should shoot one of the boars and then dumping the skinned carcass in the vineyard or pee on the vines.
These are two daunting options. One requires a strong constitution, the other a strong bladder. I cannot really see Rutz-Rudel or Klaus resorting to nailing a wild boar skin to a post, but who knows…
Anyone who wants to try the Lisson wine, which is even more rare this year than in any past year, should not hesitate to make the trek down the slightly challenging road to this vineyard. But consider stopping to view the many beautiful sites in the nearby village of Olargues before doing so, and maybe have five or six cups of coffee or tea before heading over to the vineyard. There are, after all, up to 8,000 vines per hectare on some of the vineyard parcels, so every little bit helps.
You can read more about Iris Rutz-Rudel’s wine and her battle with the wild boars of the Parc naturel régional du Haut-Langeudoc on her Domaine Lisson wine blog, which is in English, French and German.
Slideshow of the village of Olargues, nearby to the Domaine Lisson vineyard and one of France’s most beautiful villages.
Click any of images to start Slideshow; press “esc” (“Escape” key) to stop.