An otherwise frail, gentle looking woman of about just under feet and perhaps seven decades of time on earth elbows me to hobble into the train before me. As I stumble to get my balance back, I think, ‘Ah yes, it feels good to be back in France.’
A hazy afternoon of planes, trains and automobiles, I’ve ventured deep into the heart of the Languedoc with the owner of the import company I work for to meet with one of our loved producers in a little place called Minervois at Chateau St. Jacques d’Alba. Back in the day, it wasn’t a glamorous fairytale house that got you the prestigious title ‘Chateau.’ All it took was two wells and a chapel, as the British owner Graham Nutter explained to us. Sure enough, he had a handsome stone house, a gorgeous modern facility and a tiny little chapel off in the distance that has seen everything from pilgrimages to war to re-establishment and now an estate winery all in the course of 1000 years. This place has an old soul, a general feeling that hugs you throughout your visit.
Graham was the most gracious host. He made us a wonderful dinner of duck breast and ratatouille, complete with 2007 Marc Colin En Remilly, 2002 Domaine des Comtes Lafon Volnay Santenots du Mileu and then a 1999 Domaine Dominique Laurent Hospices de Beaune Mazis-Chambertain. The first displayed a wonderfully tense dance of elegance and opulence, the second was delicate and impeccably focused, the final was the most open and talkative– a perfect compliment to the plate of fromage. Great conversation and more history than you can imagine of the Languedoc (this man was such a great story teller) fleshed every second of our visit to make it truly memorable.
I saw a bit of the landscape the next morning, as I was feeling rather ambitious (and anxious from all the prior day’s sitting) to go for a jog. I found out quickly that the violent tramontane winds which were so kind to shuttle me quickly into town were only too eager to be my enemy on the way back. I had always heard of the strong winter winds that swept through the Languedoc, just as the mistral winds funneled through the Rhone. Still, I had never felt it on my skin, so personally, as I did today. This ferocity of character in the climate has always appealed to me– why I can’t explain. I suppose I think of the wines from Southern France as sort of survivors in a way. Always wanting a little more water. A little more calm. But rolling with the punches as they come. Builds character. At least, that’s what my ever pragmatic dad would say.
What struck me most about Graham was his very logical, efficient way of thinking. When he came upon this estate in the early 2000s, it was ideal in so many ways…excepting that he knew it would be a lot of work to restore both the houses and the vineyards to bring it up to snuff and situate himself in a way that the world would recognize his wine as one of the best in the area for quality and typicity. He reached out to a well known soil expert Jean Pierre Cousinie to apply his ‘Cousiniere Method’ to achieve vine and soil balance using organic fertilizers and mineral spraying. It took just a few years, and his vines were responding. Not only were they producing healthier fruit, they were building their own defenses against drought and diseases.
His vines were ungrafted, a point he seemed nonplussed or intentional about when I inquired. I was amazed that it wasn’t a consideration, as the vast majority of France is on rootstock. They certainly didn’t sit upon sand where he was, but he also didn’t feel it was something to worry about at this point. Plantings are primarily Syrah, then Grenache, some Mourvedre, Cabernet Sauviginon, and a decreasing amount of the high yielding, unruly (at times) Carignan. On northeastern facing slopes are the white grapes: Vermentino, Viognier, and Roussanne.
Our time spent in Minervois was so brief yet incredibly rich with history, education and really delightful company. I whole-heartedly recommend anyone and everyone to visit this estate and meet Graham. He even rents out his gites (small homes/cabins) on the property as well.
And so, what with our quiet, quaint interlude in this sweet Languedoc appellation, we pile into the car less than 24 hours later and press on the main event: the 2015 Millesime Bio, an exposition of the world’s (though mostly Europe… okay, mostly French) smaller, eco-focused operations. It is a common theme in our portfolio, so it will give us great opportunity to connect with many of our current winemakers as well as open the door to meeting new ones (we hope!).