We're quite pleased with this: two almost-all-Syrah Languedoc reds that emerged as the very best in the 2019 Decanter World Wine Awards (DWWA19).
We'd been looking to reinforce our showing in quality Languedocs for quite a while; the trick lies in finding out what's good and being able to offer it at a good price.
We reckon we've done it. These two are glorious.
Languedoc wine-wise, it must be said, is a mixed bag. It accounts for a huge proportion of France's very everyday reds under the broad IGP Vin de Pays d'Oc banner. A great deal of all that unspecified "Syrah from France", "Grenache from France" one sees on supermarket shelves hails from Languedoc. Indeed, some 60% of all of France's IGP wines (below the classic appellation controlée /AC/AOC - now also known as AOP - level) are languedocienne.
You know us. What we have here is not those wines. Bear with me a paragraph longer.
A level above lies the broader Languedoc AOC/appellation d'origine contrôlée - a catch-all zone for undesignated regions producing better wines - to higher standards - than mere IGP status. Above that again, you have the designated appellations - some that existed before Languedoc AOC (eg Minervois, St-Chinian), and some that have emerged since (most famously, Picpoul de Pinet). At the very top of the tree, and driven by the fact that some inordinately good wines were finding themselves stranded in lower designations than reflected their high quality, the Languedoc wine authorities have now decreed 5 very top crus, all producing wines already of great note, now with even more stringent production standards. This guide to the Languedoc appellations - from the local AOC board itself - is particularly good.
The key thing to say is that Languedoc has undergone a huge winemaking revolution in the last 30 years. That is, it was once just a bulk wine, high-volume-producing region but we now see some of France's very best wines hailing from Languedoc. After all: Mas de Daumas Gassac, anyone?
Tha hallmark of quality reds from the better appellations is a blending of Syrah, Mourvedre, Grenache and Carignan. For all that the Northern Rhone is steeped in fame for the finest Syrah, that grape grows brilliantly - and with great complexity and ageability - in the higher-altitude zones and barren soils of the foothills of the Cevennes and Montagne Noire (southern outposts of the Massif Central). As in the Rhone, the challenge for quality winemakers lies in finding that fine tolerance window of exposure/temperature that the fickle Syrah needs to ensure it neither over- nor under-ripens. In general, the finest red wines emerging from Languedoc are those with high Syrah content. Indeed, as the appellations have sought to drive improvements in quality and reputation, it has invariably been by an increased regulated use of Syrah and Mourvèdre at the expense of Carignan (and, lesserly, Grenache).
A map of the region - also showing the two wines/producers we are about to offer you - is just here...
To the wines themselves:
Only one Languedoc wine makes it to Best in Show status (and, for good measure a Platinum medal and 97 points) - the very top 50 wines globally of the 16,500+ at DWWA2019. And we - alone in the UK - have it. It's a Pic Saint Loup, one of those 5 top crus above - nestled up in the steep slopes of the lower Cevennes, north of Montpellier. There's a useful article from 2017 from Decanter - by Andrew Jefford that explains a lot more about this newly-designated (2016) cru, and which focusses almost solely on the producer of this wine.
That producer is (La) Bergerie du Capucin - named after a historic family sheep barn just above the domaine. Their wines and standards have stood at the forefront of Pic Saint Loup for many years, and were a significant part of the cause of the creation of the new AOC.
Their Best in Show is their red flagship - the Larmanela 2016 - a near-100% Syrah (98%, 2% Grenache, in actual fact, domaine owner Guilhem tells me) that adheres well to Jefford's words in the article: "the Pic St Loup style of Syrah has a lift and purity to it".
The DWWA panel leave little doubt: "Pic St Loup is one of the coolest and wettest zones of Languedoc, which is one reason why it's such a great zone for Syrah; its stony limestone soils, too, privilege the perfumed side of Syrah's character. Roll the two attributes up, and you have the groundwork to create a wine like this: spellbinding Syrah scents in southern French style (forget blackcurrants, think citrus grove perfumes) infusing a wine of huge charm which would most properly be described as a midweight. The acidity is softly supportive, as are the tannins in which you can discern just a little thyme flower perfume; any oak is all but invisible. Gorgeous stuff".
We just had to try to get some. We did get some. We tried a bottle. It is no exaggeration to say that it is the best bottle I have tried in 2019. I do disagree with the "midweight" word of the DWWA team - there is more weight here than that, unless you calibrate using only Barossa Shiraz as your heavyweight benchmark. But I do 'get' it: there is an acidity and lightness of touch here that makes this very elegant. What grabbed me most is an almost-addictive multi-layeredness and complexity of flavours - fruit, minerality, oak, yes - even the slippery garrigue thing - and a real concentration thereof that goes nowhere near clumsiness or too much horsepower. Truly: this is fabulous ... I really get it, DWWA.
Granted, it's not exactly cheap at £24.95 a bottle (but very little more expensive in France, mark you). For that, though, you get - frankly - heaps more of a wine than you'd get from Bordeaux, Burgundy or the Rhone at the same price-point. We have just 150 bottles - that's all we could obtain - a result of small production and its selling well in France for some months. DWWA say it'll drink well to 2024, but I reckon it'll do rather more than that.
Bergerie du Capucin
Larmanela (rouge), Pic Saint Loup
If £25 is a bit rich for your Languedoc DWWA19 spending, we can assist. Frankly, what we're about to offer, you should take anyway.
We're off to the Faugères AOC, some 40 or so miles west of Pic Saint Loup, and 20 miles north of Béziers, again abutting the Cevennes. Whilst Pic Saint Loup is much situated on limestone, Faugères is famous for being "a ramp of pure schist" (Jefford again, The New France), a metamorphic rock on whose infertile soils the Languedoc grapes grow particularly well. Jancis Robinson (in the OCW) describes it as "one of the Languedoc's most distinctive and consistent appellations"...
... which is defintely to understate this award winner. Again, it's a Syrah-very-dominant flagship wine, this time of Château Grézan in Laurens. It's a staggering-looking place...
... making, in this, case, a pretty staggering wine, the DWWA19 Platinum, 97-point Schistes Dorés 2017, named after the golden bedrock that gives rise to this 95% Syrah (5% Mourvèdre) gem.
In this cynical world, you may see us as partial, merciless marketeers, so we'll hand to the DWWA19 panel for a description: "This is very classy stuff. Blackcurrant jam is the dominant flavour, but is flanked on either side by toasted cinnamon and vanilla, the superlatively integrated oak adding yet another layer to this already complex, ravishing wine. Delicious weight of rounded, brushed cotton tannins, and lush super-ripe black fruits – totally delicious, persistent and racy! Perfect with food."
Certainly, it has a richness, warmth and 'abundance' that goes beyond the Larmenela, albeit with perhaps less overall tension and (only) a fraction less complexity. And that's at less than £20. This is again a truly rich, elegant, complex specimen that you should not miss.
As you can see from its tech sheet, it's a wine that has consistently won a hatful of awards over the years, and we're delighted to be offering it at a truly great price.
No limits on this one...
Les Schistes Dorés, Faugères