The sprawling Languedoc wine region hides some fabulous wine treasures - but perhaps none so bountiful as the wines of Pic Saint-Loup.
Lying in the foothills of the Cevennes, 20 kilometres north of Montpellier, the area takes its name from the 658m limestone escarpment, a navigation point for ancient mariners in the Mediterranean. The mountain – shaped like a slumbering lion – is said to have given its name to the Gulf du Lion.
It faces the equally impressive Montagne de l’Hortus 514m plateau, with the two forming a moon shaped pass.
Local folklore has it that the two mountains were once a single entity, broken by a giant’s footprint to allow two young lovers to escape the pursuits of a rich unwanted courtier. Sadly for romantics the geological evidence that they have always been separate is rather stronger.
At ground level, the area is strikingly unspoilt and beautiful, the topography a patchwork of vineyards nestling among the indigenous dense and varied vegetation of fragrant wild garrigue plants and pine trees.
The diversity of the landscape is said to contribute significantly to the elevated aroma characteristics of the wines, with floral and herbal notes that accompany the fruit from the grapes.
Conscious of the need to preserve the beauty of the environment, in June 2015 the winegrowers and local councils signed up the Charte de Fontevraud, an international label that commits the signatories to excellence in sustainable development and preservation of the natural environment.
Many of the producers have also achieved organic certification, or are in the process of conversion to organic farming.
Talk to any of the winemakers and they will tell you the secret of their wines comes from with the appellation sitting between mountain and sea and benefiting from contrasting weather patterns.
As Fabrice Bonmarchand at Mas de l’Oncle states: “The winds and rain from the north irrigate the vines and keep them healthy, and warm air and sunshine from the south ripen the grapes. In autumn, hot days and cool nights ensures the grapes ripen with freshness, intensity of flavour and the warmth of fruit.”
This also happens to be the wettest part of Languedoc – so the vines tend not to suffer as much from water stress.
However, the confluence of Continental and Mediterranean climates also brings the potential for dramatic weather events, such as occurred on the afternoon of August 17, 2016, when - on the cusp of the harvest - dramatic hailstorms stripped many vines of their grape bunches and leaves.
Many winegrowers were affected, with some losing most of their crop, including such emblematic names such as Château de Cazeneuve, Clos Marie and Mas de L’Oncle, all based in the village of Lauret. The impact of the storm will be felt for several years, as the vines struggle to produce new growth.
In a year of triumphs and disasters, last September, after a 16-year wait, the area was finally granted its own AOP status, having previously been a suffix to the generic regional appellation AOP Languedoc.
The denomination now covers 1,000 hectares of vineyards, in 17 villages. Four of the villages lie outside of the administrative area of the appellation, an inclusion that was one of the reasons why the classification has taken so long to obtain, as it was resisted by several winegrowers.
In total some 52 independent producers make two-thirds of the production, and a further 60 producers are in one of three cooperatives in the area.
Only the red and rosé wines have been granted AOP status, with the whites remaining part of the regional appellation.
The new status will now provide them with opportunity to establish greater identity and potentially improve prices, although as the name is not one that is familiar to most wine drinkers it may be difficult to establish inthe market. Most wine drinkers will be familiar with Languedoc, but Pic-Saint Loup?
Paul Strang, a wine writer in Languedoc, considers that the quality of the wines is not merely an accident of geography, and that the winemakers themselves must be given most of the credit: “As elsewhere in the Languedoc, many new and often quite young growers have launched themselves, sometimes because they have decided to leave one or other of the coopératives, sometimes because, with a sound professional training behind them, they have persuaded their forebears to let them have a go and see what they can do with the family inheritance.”
The most significant thing the winemakers brought about to change the pupa into a butterfly began in the 1980s to plant new grape varieties, when the then omnipresent high-yielding Carignan grape was gradually replaced by the Holy Trinity red blend of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre.
That mix became sanctified with the new AOP status, which stipulates the wines must have at least two of the main varieties, in which Syrah must be not less than 50% of each wine, and to which 10% Carignan or Cinsault can also be added.
White wine is also made, but accounts for only a tiny percentage of the total production - a pity because they are extremely good. A range of grape varieties is used, mostly blended, including the exotic Roussanne, Marsanne, Vermentino and Viognier varieties, all of which offer scents and flavours that are far more exciting than standard Sauvignon or Chardonnay.
Which wines to buy and drink?
The appellation is often referred to as the cru of the wine areas of Languedoc, but as there is no formal hierarchy or classification of vineyards or estates in the region – each producer must rely on their reputation.
The ranking is made more difficult by the varied wine styles in the appellation, the result of differing terroir characteristics (soil, altitude, orientation), vinification practices and the commercial strategy adopted by each producer.
Thankfully, choosing an enjoyable wine to drink is not that difficult, as the vast majority are made to a high standard, a process greatly helped by the fact that the appellation has benefited from a succession of great vintages over the past six years. The most recent 2016 vintage is widely considered to be one of the best in a generation.
Most producers offer a fresher, lighter, non-AOP red wine for early drinking, with prices starting from around €6 a bottle, moving up to entry level AOP reds starting at around €10. Expect to pay €20 and more for greater elegance, concentration and structure, for wines requiring at least several years of maturation.
Most of the producers make wines at varying price points, but some of the best examples of relatively inexpensive wines that are ready for early drinking are those from Mas Theleme, Chateau de Valflaunès, Chemin des Rêves, Domaine de la Salade, St Daumary, Château Fontanès, Mas Peyrolle, Pech Tort, Domaine Clavel and Bergerie du Capucin.
At the top end of grand vins are Chateau Cazeneuve, Mas Bruguiere, Clos des Augustins, Clos Marie, Ermitage du Pic Saint Loup and Domaine de l’Hortus.
In between, are charming estates such as Château de Lancyre, Mas de l’Oncle, Domaine Mortes and Château de l’Euzière.
Visiting the producers
To date, the area is relatively undiscovered, so offers a charm and authenticity that is frequently missing in more developed wine regions of France.
While villages to the south of the area have become a backcountry to the Montpellier metropolis, there remains a wildness about the land and villages to the north, where most of the vineyards are located.
The centre of the appellation is the village of Valflaunès, off the D17 spine road that runs through the area from Montpellier in the south. Either side lie the villages of Lauret, Claret and Saint Mathieu. Between them they host most of the producers, with the village of Valflaunès alone containing no less than 12 independent growers.
Although slightly off the main wine routes, the road between Saint Mathieu and Saint Martin Londres is particularly breathtaking and worth a detour.
Most of the wineries welcome visitors and offer a complementary tasting, although your tasting is likely to be made more enjoyable and plentiful if you ring for an appointment.
No visit to the appellation would be complete without calling in at Domaine Hortus. There is no more iconic figure in the appellation than the totem figure of Jean Orliac, a former university lecturer, who in 1978 purchased land set magnificently between the twin peaks of the Pic and Hortus and with his family now runs one of the best wineries in the area. www.domaine-hortus.fr
Amongst the most prominent of producers offering a substantial wine experience are former notary Mireille Rambier and her brother Henri-Pierre, of Domaine Haut Lirou in the village of Saint Jean de Cuculles. Tutored wine tastings, a trip around the 95-hectare vineyards in a 4X4, bistro-style lunch and dinner in the courtyard and four lodges set among the vineyards to sleep it all off. shop.famillerambier.com/fr
Fabrice Bonmarchand at Mas de l’Oncle also have a similar offer in their new architect designed winery. In addition to tastings with food and wine tours, they offer bed and breakfast, a range of talks on wine growing and production, and accompanied horse riding among the vineyards. www.masdeloncle.fr
Although offering less in terms of total wine activity experience, another wine producer offer on-site guest accommodation is Mas Foulaquier in the village of Claret, who has a 75m2 gite and swimming pool in a lovely quiet location. boutique.masfoulaquier.fr
Also in the village of Claret is Domaine Zumbaum Tomasi, who have three gîtes to offer, with breakfast and dinner as optional extras. and who also provide breakfast and dinner. Wine tastings of both current and older vintages, déjeuner sur l’herbe and horse riding through the vineyards. www.domaine-zumbaum-tomasi.com/en
Although not a winery there is also good gîte and bed and breakfast accommodation at Mas des Violettes in Valflaunes (masdesviolettes.com) and the very knowledgeable English oenophile Sharon Nagel, at Domaine de Cantafaroune in Lauret, offers a gîte. Email: email@example.com
Though the tourist infrastructure is limited (www.tourisme-picsaintloup.fr/en), there is plenty to see and do. In 2001, the winegrowers pioneered a gigantic gourmet experience in the vineyards, when over a leisurely six-kilometre walk, participants can experience a fabulous selection of dishes and around 70 wines at points along the route. The event attracts over 3,000 people each year and is invariably completely sold out with hours of the tickets going on sale. To book, visit www.pic-saint-loup.com/les-vignes-buissonnieres.
Each October there is also the Festa De La Vendemia, a week-long post-harvest cultural festival in Valflaunès which attracts around 4,000 visitors. As well as wines tastings, there are a range of exhibitions and workshops featuring the area’s cultural heritage, street theatre, music and food.
Where to Eat
Dining in the area is best served at lunch and on the superb terrace at L’Auberge du Cedre, a rambling and isolated manor house outside of Lauret, which offers a range of both simple and more creative dishes, and an extensive wine list. www.auberge-du-cedre.com
In the village of Prades-le-Lez you will find the equally friendly and authentic Bistro Vinaigrette. Dine next to the fireplace in winter, or on the terrace in summer. Copious plates of food in relaxed surroundings with a good range of local wines at reasonable prices.
At La Belle Vigne in Valflaunès, in a former stone walled wine cellar you can also enjoy an extensive cellar, accompanied by a range of hot and cold tapas dishes. Special sushi evenings each Sunday and Monday. Lovely charming atmosphere. labellevigne.com
Other good wine merchants are in Saint-Mathieu-de-Tréviers (www.ville-saint-mathieu-de-treviers.fr) and Les Vins du Pic adjacent to Montpellier in the village of Mauguio (28 rue Cabernets, no website). In all cases, ring before you turn up as opening times vary.