Do you know the Terrasses de Larzac?

This post by Annette Peters refers to a wine she discovered for World Class Wines a bit under two years ago, called “Les Ruffes” by the producer La Sauvageonne.  To our great delight, that wine was featured in Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list last year (link here), even though it was only available in two places: Minnesota, and an obscure retailer on the east coast that self-imported the wine.

This is a wine with huge bang for the buck, but gets lost in obscurity without a little background on the place and the people.

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SAUVAGEONNE – My recent visit in the Terrasses de Larzac

Terrasses-de-LarzacWHERE IS TERRASSES de LARZAC?

The area is part of the historic Diocese of Lodève. Since the days of Roman Gaul, it has benefited from its position close to a major traffic route, an artery known as the Cessero to Segodunum Way (St Thibéry to Rodez), linking the highlands of the Massif Central and the Mediterranean coastlands.  Grape growers have always lived around here.

WHAT IS IT LIKE?

A rugged terroir at the edge of the massif central. Three different soils;  1)”ruffes” on the low hills which is scrabble of schist and volcanic rock, 2) sandstone, gravel and schist, and 3) the hills which a rugged rocky schist as you see to the left.

WHY IS IT GOOD TO GROW GRAPES HERE?

Larzac_terroirWhen Gavin Chrisfeld had the opportunity to pick out vineyards anywhere in southern France here he settled here because, “the soils here are like nowhere else” says Gavin. “The vines cover 32 hectares on a band of schist at an altitude of between 150 to 400m. A variety of well-exposed sites and the prevailing north westerly winds ensure that our vines reach perfect maturity with little risk of disease.”

Now ask him how easy it is to farm here! The rocky terrasses tear up tractors as fast as they do your boots. There will be no traipsing about in sandals here!  Windblown, garrigue-y and remote it is in indeed a destination and not likely to get passers-by stopping for a swig.

How does all this affect the wines?

Gavin Chrisfield

Gavin Chrisfield

The vines work hard to here to penetrated the rocky domes and the prevailing winds keep air circulating in the vineyards and it’s easy for Gavin to work without any pesticides, mildicides etc.  It’s cold at night here and hot during the day so grapes get ripe but acids stay in that very “fresh” range.  The wines are strong and rugged like the terroir, with phenolic ripeness that gives texture to the tannins while remaining amazingly fine.  Vines here were planted 30 years ago, but the yields have lowered in the last decade, they are as low as 15 hl/Ha in some years.

Wines here at Sauvageonne are dark dense and powerful and due to the Syrah are on the reductive side in their youth.  They are natural wines however, not “built to last” but just will because the raw material is so “knitted” together.   The Ruffes, which is the lightest of the lot, still offers lots of bing cherry flavor with a textural component that is typically in wines at a higher price.

We import only Les Ruffes from this producer so far (Thanks weak dollar!). It’s comprised of Grenache, Syrah, Carignan and Cinsault.   This is 100% stainless steel tank.  I tasted the 2008, bottled just 4 days ago, and showing a little bottle sickness on the nose (a reductive mercaptin note)  but the dark intense fruit and big fleshy feel tell you what will be; a helluva red wine for a modest price!

Annette’s Southern France adventure, Part Two

Import director Annette Peters filed this final report from her Languedoc whirlwind.  She arrives back in the states tomorrow.

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MORE NOTES FROM FRANCE

MONDAY  in Saint Chinian

After a good night’s sleep  I am off to taste Saint Chinian.

We drive north of Beziers to the town of Saint Chinian,  There are three soils here: Schist to the north, clay and calcaire, and pockets of sandstone that make up 3% or so of the terroir.  The tasting is set up in the abbey at St Chinian, 20 producers are waiting to show their wines.  Depending on what you may be looking for, there are many different styles from this appellation.    Those coming from Schist are usually darker, more brooding and have higher levels of acidity.

One of our new producers ... details later!

One of our new producers ... details later!

The first producer I go to is the Bio-dynamic Canet Valette.    The wines are fresh, spicy, balanced and have the restrained style of producers that practice bio-dynamie   The prices make me hesitate as I wonder if customers will more for the natural aspect of these wines.   I spent the next 2.5 hours tasting mostly red wines, the occasional white usually made from Grenache Blanc, Sauvignon , Chardonnay and the more recently allowed Roussanne.  Finally I arrive at a familiar name Laurent Michel who makes very good Chardonnay/Viognier and even more  lovely  St Chinian called Cazal Viel which was luscious and suave.    Also tasted wines from a one man show who left his legal job working with Beaujolais producers to start his own estate, a tiny property of 5 Ha, with very low yields.  A serious man of few words, he is intense but still proud.  The wines are more raw and are from the last reaches of the appellation before Minervois at the northernmost end of St Chinian.   Clearly his goal is to make very concentrated wines and his yields are very low.  Another young vigneron is getting started with his wife as well.  It seems that the key here is making dark wines that are rich enough to command a little more money for the smaller amount they are able to make.

Our very capable bus driver, who maneuvers this huge bus through roads I would not even attempt on my bicycle, takes us to another estate located up in the schist hills of St Chinian for lunch.  Everyone in the group is critical as they think the wines are uninteresting. They are not bad, they are just very commercially correct.  Straight forward, juicy fruity, they are good but not great wines.

They are fairly priced.  I think that sometimes what people accept from a HIGHLY commercial winery in California, they will not accept in France.  The wines may not be compelling but they still reflect terroir and are, well, correct.  I will not buy them, but I will not damn them either.  Everyone clamors for the Bio guy and the wines do show great material, however the tank wine has reduction, nobody seems to mind but I fear it is unresolvable.   The wooded wines  here are better and yet are now out of the price range for the dollar that has just sunk another 10% lower!  Four more producers and then a piping hot dinner.  Clafoutis of olives,  Sanglier Daube ( a roast of  wild boar in red wine and southern herbs), cheeses and finally figs and pears soaked in red wine.

WEDNESDAY  – FAUGERES

Tasting St. ChinianFaugeres never had an excess of production and when the wine was available it was a tannic wine that was often too overripe and so rugged it was not favored by importers.  With more wine available Faugeres now has  a problem, it is unknown especially by  Americans.     We arrive  at Domaine Liquiere for a tasting of 5 producers.  One producer been passed over by the others as the they think the wines are a little pricey.    However after I get the first wine in my glass I can see that this wine as far, far away from the pack.  Every wine gets better and better from this tiny Domaine of 5 hectare.   He is Organic and becoming Bio.  Wines made from Syrah, Grenache Carignan and Mourvedre bear a striking resemblance to wines I have had before,but from where?  Not France.  Ah yes, Spain.  We talk some more and I found out he got many of root stocks from Priorat and in fact has adopted the Priorat technique AND is very good friends of Rene Barbier.  This is the best wine I have tasted on this trip.  This name shall remain a secret until this order is confirmed!

Pintade lunchLunch is Pintade with Broccoli  tart and more Faugeres; one from the Faugeres cooperative and the other a new producer with less than a few acres.  The coop wines are good, and cheap and cheery- I like them a lot.  The new producer is passionate but the wines are not cheap, but I love her north facing vineyard, “keep the freshness plan”.
Dinner is at a Beziers wine bar.  The wine list is incredible!  Never, never let a group of wine geeks loose on a wine list like this without someone in charge!  It is pandemonium!     We had enough wine on the table that certain people stared to panic.  I thought “Are you crazy?”  The whole bill for all of us is maybe $100!   So many choices under $20 it was  like being at a penny candy store when I was a kid!

Off to bed everyone its after midnight!!!

Ayala Champagne joins World Class Wines

Two years ago I attended a French Trade tasting in Chicago and was introduced to several new Champagne producers but one of the standouts was Champagne Ayala.

The Brut Majeur which is the real value of the line-up is a dryer style NV Brut with only 9 grams of sugar (some cuvees have as much as 200 grams!) but still delivers a broad palate of richness and flavor, but with a delicate bubble bead that is creamy and elegant.  The Brut Majeur also has an average of “93” on the Echelle des Crus scale*!   I was equally excited about the rosé here, very refined style and yet persistent and refreshing.

A petite histoire……..
The only French champagne house with Latin roots, AYALA was established in 1860 in Äy, France by Edmond de AYALA, the son of a Colombian diplomat in Paris, who married the niece of a noble Viscount and received the Chateau of Äy as his dowry, along with prime vineyards located in Aÿ and Mareuil sur Aÿ.

The House of AYALA was one of the elite founding members of the “Ivy League” of the top champagne houses, the Syndicat des Grandes Marques de Champagne.  AYALA was purchased by Bollinger in 2005.

On December 26th, 2008, Ayala was named Wine Producer of the Year 2008 and Ayala Cuvée Rosé Nature named Wine of the Year 2008 by the highly regarded American writer and Champagne expert Ed McCarthy.

Ayala Brut Majeur is also one of the 8 champagnes recommended by the Wall Street Journal and in the Top 10 Affordable Champagnes of Food&Wine.

Welcome Ayala to the World Class Wines family!