This Saturday I get to indulge in a few of my favorite things: the Vuelta a España (Tour of Spain) cycling race begins, which takes me – strangely enough – to Southern France for the first two days; and the Winophiles blogging group meets to discuss affordable French wines. Spain, France, cycling, and wine – who wants to come with me?
If you’re so inclined, please join our chat on August 19th at 11 am EDT. You can find us on Twitter at the appointed time, using the hashtag #Winophiles. We’d love to hear your wine suggestions too, so chime in at any point. Just be sure to append #Winophiles to your tweets so we can welcome you. Our host this month is Jill Barth, who captures the exquisite beauty of France in her blog L’occasion; you can read more about this month’s topic here.
Here is a preview of what the group will be talking about:
The Languedoc and Wine Production
As with many parts of France, the Languedoc has a long history dating back to the Greeks (6th century BC) and then the Romans. Under Roman rule, it was part of the expansive Kingdom of Narbonne, which included all of present-day Languedoc-Roussillon, Côtes du Rhône, and Gaillac. Wine was made throughout the kingdom.
Later, the Catholic church became the center of winemaking, not only for sacramental purposes but also as a source of revenue. The annual pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela brought thirsty travelers to the local churches and monasteries, which turned them into satisfied customers who would spread the word.
Despite early commercial success in selling their product to passersby, winemakers had few options when it came to expanding their market: existing roads, built by the Romans, were adequate but forced merchants to pass through toll zones, where hefty fees were exacted in exchange for unfettered passage. Aside from adding to the wine’s cost, these tolls were imposed to protect the market dominance of Bordeaux producers, a fact no doubt irksome to the farmers of the Languedoc. The only other option was a long, stifling sea journey through Gibraltar and around Spain to the Atlantic: a viable plan for shipping fortified wines but not so great for table wines.
And then in 1678 came the Canal du Midi, a man-made passage between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic that allowed more efficient transit between the fields of southern France and the wine markets to the west. Once approved it took 12 years and 12,000 men to build. Coupled with the expansion of the French rail system, the Canal leveled the playing field among the wine regions, removing the problems of onerous tolls and impractical shipping.
In the 19th century, growers began to focus on high-yielding varieties that enabled them to churn out copious amounts of wine, most of dubious quality. After phylloxera devastated the vineyards, however, a few farmers opted to grow grapes well-suited to the climate and soil, focusing on quality wines rather than plonk. Unfortunately there was still plenty of thin, unpleasant wine (often supplemented by dark, powerful wines made in north Africa) on the market.
With Algerian independence from France came a shift in winemaking in the Languedoc: Muslim rulers frowned on wine production and outlawed its export. Purveyors of pallid, high-production wines could no longer rely on Algerian juice to beef up their product. And thus began a more widespread effort to craft wines of integrity and quality. With each successive generation of winemakers, there was an uptick in the level of technical expertise. More and more young people left to pursue formal winemaking education, coming back to revamp their family enterprises and put their stamp on the wines they made.
Today, the Languedoc is considered a region where delightful wine treasures at reasonable prices may still be discovered. The industry finds itself at a commercial sweet spot, producing wines that reflect the unique terroir of the region, featuring grapes at home in the climate. And, best of all, they represent relative bargains at the wine shop.
The Wines of Domaine Magellan
Located in the department of the Hérault, northwest of the city of Montpellier lie the vineyards of Domaine Magellan. Founded in 1999 by Bruno Lafon, a winemaker with roots in Meursault, Burgundy, and his sister-in-law Sylvie Legros, the domaine represented a “self-liberating” exercise to Lafon, who says that winegrowing and winemaking are “in my blood.”
Casting off the myriad rules and regulations of Burgundy, Lafon headed west to explore the Languedoc, a region that was beginning to generate a buzz of excitement in wine circles. With more freedom to plant the varieties that suited his terrain, and the ability to adapt winemaking techniques to his style, Lafon immediately winnowed the hodge-podge of grapes in the vineyard to just 12 varieties.
He concentrated plantings on three sites, each with unique characteristics:
- Pech Redon – acidic soils of Triassic sandstone that lend a mineral quality and fine tannins to the finished wines.
- Caves de Paris – low-yielding soils of compact clay and pebbles that give rise to powerful wines with spicy notes and rich, silky tannins
- Pézenas – sandstone soils, with Grenache planted on south-facing slopes; Syrah planted on the north-facing slopes. Lafon says harmony in the vineyard leads to harmony in the wines.
His goal was to create wines with what he calls a “southern accent;” fruity and generous wines with the capacity to surprise. Key to that character is minimal intervention in the winery, allowing the pure fruit expression to tell the story. Lafon believes wholeheartedly in the potential of the Languedoc as source of premium wines. As he says, “After all, it took Burgundy 1,000 years to become what it is today. We have just begun.”
After tasting three of his wines, I suspect he is on the right track.
2013 Domaine Magellan Rouge, Languedoc AOP ($16 retail)
A blend of Grenache (55%), Syrah (30%), and Carignan (15%), all of which come from old vines. The Grenache vines are between 25 and 50 years old; the Syrah are 30 years old; and the Carignan date back 60 years. Grapes are hand-harvested from the Pech Redon and Caves de Paris vineyards and are destemmed. Each variety is fermented separately using natural yeasts and then they are blended. The finished wine is aged in neutral French oak.
Tasting note: Deep ruby with violet flashes. Aromas of cherry, raspberry, lavender, and smoke waft from the glass. A sip reveals ripe and dried red/black fruit, peppery spice, and chewy tannins. Acidity is medium + and the finish is long. A lovely wine that I’d have guessed came with a much bigger price tag. Overdelivers on the QPR.
2015 Domaine Magellan Blanc, Languedoc AOP ($19 retail)
A blend of Grenache Blanc (60%) from the Caves de Provence vineyard and Roussanne (40%) from the Pech Redon vineyard. The Grenache comes from 25 year-old vines; the Roussanne from vines that are 30 years old. Grapes were hand-harvested and pressed lightly at low pressure. Juice was cold-settled and put in neutral casks for alcoholic and malolactic fermentations.
Tasting note: Lemon-green color. Notes of stone fruit (white peach), tropical fruit (pineapple), and citrus (lemon, lime) mingle with herbal notes of mint and fennel. On the palate, there are flavors of peach, lime, mixed herbs, and almond. It has a soft, round mouth-feel that is a foil for the crisp acidity. Another winner, in my book; a wine I’d be happy to drink any time.
2015 Domaine Magellan Le Fruit Défendu Rosé, IGP Pays d’Hérault ($14 retail)
This wine is 85% Cinsault and 15% Syrah, the former of which comes from plants originating in Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the 1960s. The vineyard comprises just six hectares, all sitting atop sandstone soils. After being harvested by hand, the grapes are destemmed; once in the tank, the juice takes a short soak on the skins. Only free-run juice is used. After settling, the juice ferments in stainless steel tanks. There is no oak treatment.
Tasting note: Bright pink-ruby color. Aromas of cherry and blackberry and pepper are a bit reluctant at first but emerge as the wine warms up. Berries and spice hit the palate, braced by some nippy tannins that are quite a nice surprise. Acidity is medium. I love that the fruit is balanced by structure. Pair this with food – it’s no wimpy pink wine!
2017 Vuelta a España Starts August 19th
The third of cycling’s Grand Tours sets off on Saturday, with a team time trial in the French city of Nîmes. Yes, it seems strange that a Spanish race would commence in France, but it’s really not. In fact, the race route also takes us through Andorra before venturing onto Spanish soil. As I’ve done the past two years, I will be posting throughout the Vuelta, offering up wine tasting suggestions based on where the peloton rides on any given day.
Stages one and two meander around the Languedoc and Roussillon wine regions of France, so consider this post your sip-along guide to the first two days. After that we’ve got some exciting places to explore: Tarragona in the northeast; Valencia and Alicante on the east coast; Jerez and the southern beaches of Andalucía; then to the Sierra Nevada and the amazing city of Granada. Heading toward the finish in Madrid, the peloton will race through the famous wine regions of Navarra and La Rioja, the Basque country, and the lush, beautiful scenery of Green Spain – and the wines of Rías Baixas and Bierzo. It’s going to be a fun three weeks!
Who will win? Oh, that’s anyone’s guess. But one thing’s for sure: there will be epic mountain stages set among the most dramatic landscapes you can imagine. The Pyrénées and the Cantabrian peaks will challenge the riders and thrill us with their beauty. Why don’t you pour yourself a glass of something delicious and join me?