In my last post I described the first session at VinoSummit 2019, the inaugural wine education conference hosted by Florida Wine Academy in Miami. We kicked the day off with Champagne Charles Heidsieck, tasting through their full range of non-vintage, vintage, and prestige bottlings. I’d be delighted if all my weeks began this way.
Session 2 took us from chilly Champagne to the warmer and sunnier slopes of Occitanie, a new moniker for three previously separate wine regions – Languedoc, Roussillon, and Midi-Pyrénées – now unified as one.
Situated in the far southwest corner of France near the border with Spain, Occitanie has a long history of winemaking that dates to the ancient Greeks. These days it’s a wine-producing powerhouse, with approximately 560,000 acres of vines planted in the Languedoc alone; that translates into 133 million cases of wine per year.
But along with that strong sense of tradition comes a healthy independent streak, evident in the many styles of wine produced here. Native grape varieties are commonly used, as are international varieties. Wines can be as creative as the winemaker’s imagination allows, with many choosing to label nontraditional blends under the IGP (Indication Géographique Protégée) categories rather than the stricter AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protégée) classifications.
Another hallmark of the Languedoc region is the number of producers employing organic or biodynamic principles in the vineyards. On one hand, that is due to the favorable climate: warm, dry conditions make it easier to eschew the use of fungicides and insecticides. Implementing a more holistic approach to vineyard health is less risky here than in cooler, wetter regions.
At current count, Languedoc boasts 54,117 organically farmed acres and it’s the most important producer of organic and biodynamic produce in France.
Gérard Bertrand: L’Art de Vivre Les Vins du Sud
Our guide for this session was Eric Hemer, MS, MW, one of only a few people in the world to have conquered both the Master Sommelier and Master of Wine certifications. As I pondered the virtual impossibility of this achievement, I had my own Wayne’s World moment:
No less impressive were the six wines from Gérard Bertrand.
Bertrand is the leading wine producer in the Languedoc, an eponymous operation headed by a former French national rugby player who first played in the family’s vineyards in the 1970s, learning about the grapes from his father, Georges. When Georges died in an accident, Gérard was just 22 years old. After some soul-searching, he took the reins at the Bertrand Villemajou Estate in Corbières. Within five years he had broadened the business to include a range of wines from the South of France.
Today, Gérard Bertrand includes 15 estates around the region, encompassing nearly 2,000 acres. Right now, about 1,200 of those acres are farmed biodynamically; by 2020, all of them will be.
Tasting the Wines
2017 Domaine de Cigalus Blanc IGP Aude Hauterive (SRP $49.99)
Located in a secluded valley in Corbières, Domaine de Cigalus plays host to a wide variety of grapes, meaning there is no “typical” wine made here. Red wines include international varieties like Merlot and both Cabernets, as well as local specialties Mourvèdre, Syrah, and Carignan. Whites depend on Chardonnay, Viognier, and Sauvignon Blanc. The main thing they have in common is all have been farmed biodynamically (Demeter-certified) since 2002.
This wine is a blend of the three white grapes mentioned above. After pressing, the juice is split into two batches: 70% of the run is sent to new oak barrels for fermentation; the remaining 30% is vinified in stainless steel tanks. All of it undergoes malolactic fermentation, then the wine rests in barrel for another eight months (until the spring equinox), with regular stirring of the lees.
Color: Pale gold, fading to clear at the rim.
Nose: Pronounced aromas of ripe white peach, apricot, white flowers, and sweet grass; a hint of vanilla and nutmeg.
Palate: Ripe fruit, as on the nose, with medium acidity and body. It’s a rich wine balanced by just enough acidity to keep it fresh and clean. There’s a nice interplay of flavors contributed by each of the grapes and the blend really works. The finish is long and soft, remaining broad on the palate. I could drink this every day!
2016 Château La Sauvageonne La Villa Rosé AOP Coteaux du Languedoc (SRP $85)
A blend of Grenache (67%); Mourvèdre (23%); Vermentino (7%); and Viognier (3%).
Bertrand calls this wine his “Child of Fire,” named for the extreme landscape on which the grapes grow: summer days scorch the hills only to be chased away by chilly night-time currents. The grapes can ripen at their leisure, getting plenty of sunlight, but they cool off at night, ensuring there’s enough acidity to balance the sugar.
Vineyards are Demeter-certified, with varieties planted on parcels that favor them. Grenache and Mourvèdre come from old-vines with low yields; Vermentino and Viognier come from schist-laden slopes. Only the free-run and first-press juices are used, with fermentation in vats and aging for six months in oak barrels. The Grenache is co-fermented with the Vermentino and Viognier. This wine was named the One of the Best Rosés in the World by The Drinks Business in 2016.
Color: Palest pink; almost clear. In the dim light, it looks like a white wine.
Nose: Peachy, citrus notes, some white pepper and a whiff of strawberry.
Palate: Bright berry-cherry flavors complemented by saline notes and some southern France garrigue. Medium+ acidity and medium body and a long finish that brings back the fresh strawberry and white pepper flavors. It’s a beauty!
2016 Kosmos Organic Red Blend, Vin de France (SRP $25)
This wine is named for the unique position Gérard Bertrand occupies as an expert on biodynamic and organic farming. Kosmos is meant to reflect those underlying principles as they manifest in wines from the finest terroirs of Southern France. According to Bertrand, it “shows the soul of our terroir and our unique know-how.”
A blend of Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, and Marselan purchased from certified organic vineyards, each variety is macerated separately to coax out its unique characteristics. The final wine is aged in French oak barrels for 15 months.
Color: Deep ruby, all the way to the rim.
Nose: Delightfully spicy and earthy, with notes of blackberry, cherry, and tobacco. Subdued aromas of vanilla and toast.
Palate: Earthier than the nose, with flavors of leather, green pepper, and ripe red fruit. Moderate acidity, tannin, and body. Long finish with spice-box, leathery notes.
2016 Château l’Hospitalet Grand Vin Rouge AOP La Clape (SRP $50)
Perched on a rocky outcrop at the foot of the Pyrénées Mountains, Château l’Hospitalet was once the site of the Hospices de Narbonne, a place of refuge for pilgrims on the holy route. It was once an island inhabited first by the Phoenicians, and then the Romans. Limestone soils and proximity to the sea imbue the wines with freshness and salinity. Thanks to long, sunny days and cool, breezy nights, biodynamic farming is the norm.
This wine is a blend of Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvèdre, each vinified separately. Grapes come from plots located on each of Bertrand’s estates. Wine spends 12-16 months in 225-liter casks, with occasional lees-stirring. Only the best barrels of each variety are selected for the La Clape blend.
Color: Deep ruby, with glints of violet toward the edge.
Nose: Lovely aromas of red fruit, spice, wet earth, and spring leaves. There are layers that continue to emerge; wish I could elaborate over this wine for a few hours!
Palate: Ripe red and black fruit, silky tannins, moderate acidity. And then a wave of licorice, black tea, and leather. Then some punchy pepper notes on the long finish. Super wine!
2016 Domaine de Cigalus Rouge IGP Aude Hauterive (SRP: $60)
A blend of biodynamically certified Merlot (21%); Syrah (19%); Cabernet Franc (18%); Cabernet Sauvignon (17%); Caladoc (13%); Grenache (7%); and Carignan (5%). The Syrah and Carignan undergo carbonic maceration separately; the other varieties are vinified in stainless steel tanks. The final blend, which is assembled in February following the harvest, is aged in oak barrels (60% new) for 12 months. No fining or filtration.
Color: Deep, dense purple.
Nose: A combo of cherry-berry notes, vanilla spice, and hawthorne blossom. There’s also some garrigue and a touch of ripe olive.
Palate: Chewy but fresh, with flavors of ripe red berry, cassis, blueberry pie, and rosemary. Tannins are forceful but in line with the rest of the elements: full body, ripe fruit, alcohol, and acidity. The finish is long and full of variety, with fruity, earthy, and herbal notes all chiming in. A sip of this wine had me longing for a rare steak grilled over a handful of herbs.
2009 La Forge AOP Corbières-Boutenac (SRP: $80)
La Forge holds a special place in the Bertrand portfolio: it was the favorite vineyard of Georges, who adored the wines made from old-vines Carignan (100 years old) and Syrah. Gérard expresses his sentiments about La Forge this way:
“La Forge is the veritable alchemy of the grapes, the terroir, and everything that I know. It is like no other and incarnates the personality of Georges Bertrand.”
Yields are extremely low (25hl/ha) and the vineyards are tended manually. Most grapes are harvested and then vinified separately via carbonic maceration. After malolactic fermentation, the different wines are blended and put into new oak barrels for 12 months. Bertrand sources their barrels from a list of favored coopers who specialize in different types of barrels: many types of wood, toast levels, and sizes are used, depending on the characteristics desired in the final blend. There is no fining or filtration before bottling, and the bottles rest an additional 12 months before release.
Color: Deep ruby, a touch of garnet at the rim.
Nose: Ripe black olives right off the bat, with blue and black fruit aromas following suit. Then there is bacon grease, dried herbs, and a hint of caramel. And there’s definitely some pepper from the Syrah!
Palate: A powerful taste of stewed and dried fruit, molasses/burnt sugar, and those olives again. Savory elements emerge, more like the nose – grilled meat most prominent. All I can think of is how much I want seared duck breast with potatoes roasted in duck fat. One of my favorite wines of the day.
Thanks to Gérard Bertrand, Eric Hemer, and Florida Wine Academy
I had never before sampled so many biodynamic wines in one sitting – and these were a real treat. I appreciated the family story behind the wines, the commitment to healthy viticulture practices, and the unique personality of each wine I tasted.
Stay tuned for more notes on my experience at VinoSummit 2019. One more post to come! And I will be revisiting the wines of Gérard Bertrand in a future post for the French Winophiles blogging group.
If you’d like to read about my Monday-morning breakfast with Champagne Charles Heidsieck (VinoSummit’s first session of the day), please click here.