On my travels again. This time in Languedoc-Roussillon, following in the footsteps of Louis XIII by staying in an immense historic edifice, Chateau de Pennautier. The chateau is but a short car ride away from the famous walled city of Carcassonne. I’m there as a guest of Nicolas whose family have inhabited the chateau since 1620 and his wife, Miren. Now lovingly restored, Chateau de Pennautier is available for corporate functions and also occasionally houses guests like myself who are there to taste and assess the quality of Lorgeril’s wines.
The Lorgeril company is in the forefront of the movement to revive the fortunes of Languedoc-Roussillon by upgrading its wine production. Geographically, the area is huge, producing around a third of France’s wine but it used to be a byword for mediocrity. Now things are changing and changing fast, for appellations within the region such as Faugeres, Saint-Chinian, Minervois, Cabardes, Fitou, Boutenac, Cotes de Roussillon-Villages and Limoux are producing clean, classy, modern wines that fully reflect the terroir – that word again – in which the grapes are grown. It’s maybe worth re-emphasising that ‘terroir’ is more than just the soil; other components include the sub-strata, the micro-climate, the alignment of the vineyard, even the altitude. I find it helps to think of ‘terroir’ as ‘a sense of place’, a bolt-on goodie that helps take wine far beyond being fermented grape juice, enabling the imbiber to get maximum enjoyment out of the glass.
Though Lorgeril’s export manager, the convivial Frank Flugge, might deny it, the company’s approach struck me as remarkably antipodean. “No, we don’t grow the viognier here. We bring it over from one of our other estates” might have come from a winemaker in Marlborough or McLaren Vale. At any rate, it’s far removed from the rigidity of the old guard up in Bordeaux and shows the open-mindedness and flexibility of the Languedoc-Roussillon wine people in the quest to upscale the wines.
The ones I tasted paid tribute to their efforts. Cabardes, the appellation in which Chateau de Pennautier is located has devised a set of interesting rules. Traditionally the grapes grown were an assortment of both Bordeaux and Rhone varietals – cabernet sauvignon often stood next to syrah; merlot to grenache; cot (malbec to you) to cabernet franc. What was grown where, the philosophical locals didn’t much care. When the appellation was formalized the stipulation became that a wine could consist of a minimum 40% of either Bordeaux or Rhone and 50/50 became a commonality. Again, akin to the Aussie approach where they see no heresy in mixing, say, cab sauv and syrah/shiraz in one bottle. Lots of parallels here.
Dunnes Stores retail Pennautier wines here. The unoaked Ch. De Pennautier “Classic” Cabardes Rouge is a well upfront mélange of dark fruits – plums, damsons, blackcurrants – easy drinking, without the big alcohol wham that all-too-often accompanies new world reds. I’d almost defy anyone not to like it.
Grading by the altitude at which the fruit is grown is not an original idea – the coffee people did it many years ago, separating plants into Arabica and Robusta – but Lorgeril’s decision to label their superior wines, made from selected grapes from more elevated sites, “Terroirs d’Altitude” has something to commend it. The sensitively oaked Château Pennautier AOC Cabardès Terroir d’Altitude red took silver at the International Wine Challenge last year. I’m not a fan of ‘stickering’ as you’ve probably realised but I can say that this wine is as good as it gets for the €11.34 ask and when, as you occasionally do, you find it ‘on special’ for just of €9, I’d regard it as a ‘must buy’. Other wines that impressed were the clean, understated Marquis de Pennautier “Terroir d’Altitude”, Vin de Pays D’Oc Chardonnay (€11.39) and the beguiling AOC Cabardès rosé (€9.95).
Lorgeril have a number of other properties, including Château de Ciffre which straddles the appellations of Faugeres (my nomination for ‘one to watch’) and St.Chinian. Traditional wine merchants Mitchell & Son stock, among other Lorgeril wines, the genuinely exciting Château de Ciffre “Terroir d’Altitude”, AOC Faugères, red (€16.95) and the warm, uncomplicated user-friendly Rhone-like Mas des Montagnes Classique, AOC Côtes Roussillon Villages, (€11.95).
One the last morning we killed time in Carcassonne, not the World Heritage hilltop site but the working town down in the valley. Locals are apt to be rather scathing about it but we thought it a decent place in which to spend a few hours, with a large food market, a more than adequate supply of bars and a very fine deli.