Cresting a hill on the D610 as it winds its way north east from Puichéric, we are greeted by a blanket of vines, straddling the hills in regimented rows like a military cemetery, majestic in their orderly fashion, but uplifting, the jasmine, russet and golden leaves swaying gently in the morning breeze.
The sacrament of morning, said Elizabeth Barrett Browning: it draws you higher.
We’re heading towards Argeliers, where Steve will put together the blends for our French country wines. The Minervois is truly inspiring; passing La Redorte, stretching out on either side of the road, there are vines to the right of us and vines to the left of us as far as the eye can see, shimmering in the soft southern light.
But alas, things are not quite as sunny as they seem down here in the Languedoc.
As we are gee-ing ourselves up in the tasting room, Sébastien Tomasoni, the Co-Op cellar master, tells us that the Languedoc has lost half its production in recent years.
“Ten years ago we produced twenty million hectolitres, now it is closer to eleven million hectolitres. The future is bleak,” he says. “Spanish producers are very aggressive.” This morphs into a discussion on Marine Le Pen’s chances in next year’s General Election. Support for her in this part of the world is very strong. Sébastien shakes his head glumly.
He should be more positive: after a €5 million investment, the winery, originally built in 1931, is one of the market leaders in the region. As we limber up, Steve and I are both intrigued at the news that the Co-Op employs a mobile bottling line, capable of bottling 5,000 bottles per hour.
To business: lined up against the wall are twenty or thirty sample bottles. They look like shy schoolgirls at the village dance, standing on the edge of the floor, nervous, waiting to be asked, hopeful of making the cut.
At 9.15 we begin; the chips are down.
Sauvignon Blanc is first up. Sébastien explains that it was a difficult year for Sauvignon Blanc, and indeed the wine seems overly restrained.
We move onto the Chardonnay – again, a difficult year, according to Sébastien (“I am sad about the Chardonnay.”)
There are three different samples. The first is voluptuous but lacking in acidity. The second is aromatic, but lacking in intensity. The third has a touch of a bitter finish. Steve calls for a blend of the first two – much better, nice finish.
Vermentino is next up. This has a lovely spicy nose, and with huge intensity – a lovely wine. Steve blends some Vermentino into the Sauvignon Blanc and that wine immediately improves.
In between blending, Sébastien tells us that they had mildew for the first time in thirty years. “Bizarre, as the summer was quite dry on the whole.”
It is 10.15 by the time we turn to the Grenache Blanc – and this brings forth nods of appreciation. This is a gorgeous, expressive wine. This means our Tournee du Sud Grenache/Sauvignon will be really good. We go 70/30, then switch into 80/20. Wow – this is going to be a gorgeous wine! Steve rubs his hands in glee. “Never mind blending the Grenache,” I say. “We should bottle all of it as single varietal. Make a statement. It’s beautiful.”
Viognier is next. Two sample bottles. Both good, but both needing work. So we add in some of that Grenache Blanc in a combination of 60/30/10. Almost there. So we try 50/40/10 and – hey presto – this wine is a stunner!
Now it is 10.45. We take a deep breath, then crack on. The three house wines are next: Heraldique, Chevanceau and Les Boules. For this, Steve goes through around twenty four combinations of grapes using Marsanne, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Vermentino, before settling on the three different blends.
Now it is 11.45.
Time for the rose. This is where it gets tricky. It takes seven different blending combinations before we come up with a lovely Syrah/Cinsault/Grenache/Grenache Blanc/Vermentino number which does the trick. “There we go,” says Steve, handing me the glass. “Smells like a rose.” But I mishear the second part of the sentence because a lorry arrives to make a delivery and I think he has said: Smells like Teen Spirit. “Oh,” I say, “Nirvana.” “Not quite,” says Steve, “but getting there.”
And the tasting goes on. Through the Pinot Noir samples and then the Merlot samples, with the blending room now looking like a bomb site, purple-stained glasses, clumps of soggy kitchen paper, slippery and reddened worktops. Well after midday we continue, the pangs of hunger now beginning to kick in.
Three Syrah’s are evaluated, discussed, blended. Then three Cabernet Sauvignons, followed by three Grenache reds (which, like their white equivalents) look wonderful (or is this just psychology?) Then, we turn to our innovative Pinot/Grenache blend. The Pinot comes from young vines, and the combination of the two wines is really lovely.
1.30 pm and we’re still going strong. Some pizza has been delivered next door for a working lunch – but we must crack on!
Marselan, Mourvedre and Carignan are next in line for the treatment. We go through the blending for the house wines. The Marselan is a great sturdy blending wine. But it’s difficult to find the three combinations we want. And the smell of that pizza is beginning to waft into the tasting room.
Eventually, at 2.30, we bring the session to a close. It’s been a five and a quarter hour stint.
The pizza lasts 30 seconds.
Later in the day we will repeat the exercise in Florensac, before heading back across the Minervois the following day to Rieux, for another four-hour session. The visit will end with Steve and I slumped over merguez, calamari and frites in a café down the by Canal du Midi. As we sink a beer in the dusk, we reflect on some potentially very good wines. It’s been a good visit. But I cannot help thinking of Sébastien’s fears about the Languedoc, and some of his phrases keeps repeating themselves. “We need people to turn the Languedoc around. We need leaders. We need someone like Gerard Bertrand.”
Which, funnily enough, is exactly where we are heading…