Tag: French Wine

AOC Pic Saint Loup: A Majestic Setting Hiding Wonderful Wines

The Pic Saint-Loup (left) facing the Hortus Cliff (right)

Within the Languedoc region, 30 kilometers north of Montpellier, sit the dramatic peaks of the “Pic Saint Loup” (Saint-Loup Peak) and the Falaise de l’Hortus (Hortus Cliff). Facing each other in the middle of a breathtaking natural scenery that only the South of France has a secret recipe for. This incredible décor becomes even more unforgettable at sunset when the last sunlight reflects on these two rocky limestone mounts, igniting them with a superb reddish color. This area is also the spot where locals go for peaceful hiking and Ceceles lake summer bathing. What about wines? Well, the Pic Saint-Loup area is undoubtedly one of the most underrated appellations in the world of wine today. So, if you are anything close to a wine enthusiast and are planning to take your next vacation near Montpellier, you have selected the right post! So, let’s just dig into it and give you more details about the region I am from, its wine production, the spots that you need to go to, and, of course, the wines to taste.

Pic Saint-Loup: a whole province’s emblem

The infamous Pic Saint-Loup
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This absolutely incredible scenery has been known since antiquity, with Roman writers and historians praising its charms. Of the two peaks facing each other, the Pic Saint-Loup (648 meters high) is the most famous and the most iconic. The reason for that is mainly because, of the two, it is the one that can be seen from miles around. Either from beaches or from boats navigating through the Mediterranean Sea, its unique shape is unmistakable and dominates the landscape. The Hortus Cliff (500 meters high) is hidden by the Pic-Saint-Loup at most viewing angles. This is probably the reason why the “Pic Saint-Loup” is the one whose reputation shines. These two mountains are located in the Occitanie region (formerly called “Languedoc-Roussillon” before the administrative merger with the Midi-Pyrénnées region orchestrated by President Hollande). They are on the border of the municipalities of Valflaunès and Cazevieille in the Hérault Département (i.e., Hérault Province).

If you have the chance to go for one of the many hiking trails around that end up on one of the tops of the Pic Saint-Loup, you will enjoy a great panoramic 360° view. From here, you will be able to look down on one of the many vineyards, horse stables, and wild bull husbandries that you should have crossed during your drive through the area.

The many hiking trails that end up at the Top

Peak View from the North Trail

If you love hiking, this is a place for you. However, do not expect very sporty trails as none of the hikes are very difficult to do. They are almost all between easy and intermediate. Just make sure to have the appropriate shoes, some water, and some food. All the trails are well marked. My two favorite trails are the Pic Saint Loup Chapel and the Montferrand Castle.

For the Pic Saint Loup Chapel Trail, I advise you to park at the free Pic Saint-Loup Parking. From here, it should take you approximately one hour to walk (2.6 kilometers) to the top and enjoy the view.

For the Montferrand Castle Trail, I advise you to park at the free Montferrand Parking. From there, it will take you roughly 30 minutes to get to the top and enjoy a very different view.

Please note that there are many other very interesting treks to enjoy around here, like the Ravin des Arcs, Les Marches des Géants, Source de Gornies, etc. Some of the hardest treks are organized by some specialized local companies.

Cécélès Lake: the turquoise/emerald color lake at the foothills of the Pic Saint-Loup

Spring view of the Ceceles Lake

At the base of the Pic Saint-Loup, lies a private agricultural water reserve called “Lac de Cécélès”. The lake, which can be the starting point for a stroll (30 to 40 minutes to travel around it), a day of swimming, or a picnic, depends on the light. The parking and access to the lake are free in the off season (from September to June). However, be mindful of the fact that you will have to pay 5 euros per adult and 3 euros per child in July and August to access the parking and the monitored swimming area. This is because the lake is a private area owned mainly by the restaurant “La Guinguette des Amoureux”. As a consequence, if you are a client of the restaurant, the parking fees will be deducted from your final check. However, if you are in the midst of the summer season and still want to enjoy a walk around the lake, you can, but you will have to walk. Just park somewhere in the city of Saint Mathieu de Tréviers (Parking de la Grenouille, Parking de l’Ancien Abattoir, Parking du Boucher…), take your Google Map, and get ready to walk a little (maybe slightly less than 30-40 minutes). This is possible because the main road access and parking to the lake may be private, but areas and hiking trails around it are public. Just make sure to take the D26 road until this point to turn left, then make sure to turn right on the little trail before the Dominicaines des Tourelles. If you take the larger trail after the Domaine des Tourelles, you will have to go up, and you are going to hate the experience of the many detours and having to cut through inappropriate trails to go down the lake. Once there, you will be able to pic-nic, take a tour around the lake, sun bathe… But, please take note that everything from dogs and horses to fires, camping, fishing, and motorized vehicles is absolutely forbidden. The policemen are very strict and you may be fined very easily, especially at summer times when they are scared of wild fires. They do it in order to protect and preserve this fragile ecosystem.

The most convenient solution is to pay for the parking and enjoy a great meal at The Guinguette des Amoureux, a very romantic restaurant with a great view of the lake. The food is good and there are many animations all year long (yoga sessions, concerts, famous DJ performances…). Just make sure to call first, as the restaurant is often fully booked.

If you are looking to enjoy another great lake spot around, you can try to go to the Claret Lake (i.e., Lac de Claret). If you take some small and sinuous roads, you will be able to park next to the lake and still enjoy a good view and setting.

Pic Saint-Loup Wines: the next big thing?

Traces of wine making in this area date back to the Roman empire. Part of the production was brought to the Roman port of Lattara (an inland city called Lattes today) to be sold across the Roman empire.

Between 1955 and 1966, the producers started to organize and became one of the founding members of the VDQS Coteaux du Languedoc (see my article on VDQS to learn more), which became the AOC Languedoc in 1985.

View on the Hortus Cliff from the Domaine de l’Hortus winery

Prior to being granted its own AOC in September 2016, the Pic-Saint-Loup (also spelled Pic-St-Loup) was one of the most popular named crus in the AOC Coteaux du Languedoc (later renamed AOC Languedoc). This means that this renowned terroir was allowed to juxtapose its local name next to the regional appellation to distinguish its peculiarities from the rest of the region. Well before 2016, almost any local customer knew of these wines to the point that it was very common to order a “Saint-Loup” at some of the best restaurants around. This appellation is known for having very few (almost no) Carignan vines throughout the area, which is quite rare in the Languedoc. It is also historically known for its very low level of Caves Coopératives producers (jointly owned winemaking facilities).

This appellation only produces red wines and rosés. Consequently, white wines are produced under the local PGI (IGP) or the larger umbrella appellation (AOC Languedoc). They are usually a blend of Marsanne and Roussanne. The AOC Pic-Saint-Loup covers 15 towns in the Hérault and 2 in the Gard, all dominated by the sharp point of the Pic Saint-Loup, one of the most spectacular sites in the Languedoc vineyards.

Appellation requirements

“winegrowers have found that the Syrah grape was one of the best fits for the combination of the unique soils and micro-climate”

The Pic Saint-Loup vineyard, planted on predominantly limestone soils, is part of a landscape of scrubland and pine forests, a succession of ridges and valleys. The climate there is cooler and wetter than in the rest of the Languedoc. The rains, which fall in spring and autumn, allow the vines to avoid drought and water stress. This in turn allows planting at a high density, a factor of concentration. In August and September, the significant thermal amplitude between day and night promotes aromatic expression and acidity. These conditions are conducive to the syrah grape variety, one of the main varieties of the new appellation, alongside the grenache and mourvedre. This results in the infamous GSM blends (Grenache Syrah Mourvèdre), which are representative of red wines from the south of France. The other accessory grape varieties allowed for reds are carignan, cinsault, counoise, and morrastel. As for the rosé production, the gray grenache grape can also be added to the blend. Both the reds and the rosés must always combine at least two grape varieties, with Syrah (= Shiraz) being generally the most dominant (50% minimum for reds and 30% for rosés). Empirically, winegrowers have found that the Syrah grape was one of the best fits for the combination of the unique soils and micro-climate. This is why it plays such a key role in the wines of this area. They have, on the other hand, decided to plant Grenache and Cinsault in the driest areas. As per the Mourvèdre and the Carignan, they have shown better adequation in the hottest part of the Pic Saint-Loup production area.

Vineyard on the foothills of the Hortus Cliff

Characteristics

“the common trait of all the wines produced in the appellation is the “garrigue” perfume”

Red wines derive from Syrah their dense texture, their intense aromas of black fruits and licorice, and their potential. They can live for 4 to 8 years without any problems. The rosés are also invigorating and fruity, but need to be consumed within a year of release.

The styles of red wine produced may be very different from one winery to another. They range from elegant with a medium body to a richer, stronger style. The more robust styles are probably made by wineries around the Claret area. The finest wines are probably made closer to both of the peaks dominating the valley. The most representative wineries of the latter style are: Chateau de Cazeneuve, Domaine de l’Hortus, Ermitage du Pic-Saint-Loup, Chateau de Lancyre, Château de Lascaux, Domaine de Mortiès, and Mas Bruguière.

By and large, the common trait of all the wines produced in the appellation is the “garrigue” perfume. “Garrigue” can be defined as a form of low scrubland ecosystem and plant community typical of Mediterranean regions. Accordingly, it is often possible to distinguish this distinctive rosemary-thyme-pine fragrance from these wines.

Corconne’s Gravette

“crossed by a little river, nicknamed the “Emerald River” (Le Ruisseau de Vère) due to its particular green color”

It has to be noted that some vineyards located on the ancient plain of Corconne enjoy a unique soil called Gravette (75% limestone chips and 25% silty clay). This terroir is composed of little gravels (2 to 6 meters deep). This is probably one of the most exceptional Terroirs of the Languedoc, inherited from the melting of a Jurassic glacier which carried all these gravels to the plain. This whole area is crossed by a little river, nicknamed the “Emerald River” (Le Ruisseau de Vère) due to its particular green color. The cave co-operative of La Gravette de Corconne, located in the Gard province, is one of the rare historic co-operatives in the area and produces very high-quality wines. Its “Intégrale AOP Pic Saint-Loup” is definitely worth a try and will show every wine lover that co-operatives can also produce top-end wines when they decide not to produce mass-market wines.

Pic Saint-Loup: early adopter of Organic and Biodynamic winemaking techniques

If you visit the little towns all around the Pic Saint-Loup, you will see many official city road signs saying “0 Phyto” (meaning no pesticides and other synthetic products). In fact, the region has been one of the early adopters of both organic and biodynamic grape growing. This was greatly helped by the sunny conditions, the strong Mistral winds, and the high level of rocks in the soil. It dries grapes rapidly after any rain, preventing fungal diseases from occurring as well as draining water effectively into the soil to avoid damp and moist conditions.

Today, the area is also a bastion of natural wine making, which can be summarized as “nothing added, nothing removed”.

My Top-3 wineries to taste

o Domaine de l’Hortus

Domaine de l’Hortus
Grande Cuvée Rouge, AOC Pic Saint Loup

This is probably one of the flagships of the appellation. The Domaine de l’Hortus, belonging to the Orliac family, has made great choices in grape varieties, acquiring new land to plant vines on, and above all, in modernizing its wine making facilities. When you visit the facilities, you will immediately feel that many investments have been made to make the best wines possible. From the regulated stainless-steel tanks for precise fermentation to the best oak barrels to age wines. And the result can be clearly felt in the glass, with the “Grande Cuvée” red wine playing in the big leagues.

Taransaud Oak Barrels, Domaine de l’Hortus Wine Aging

o Mas Bruguière

Mas Bruguiere, AOC Pic Saint Loup

Located right next to the Domaine de l’Hortus, Mas Bruguière enjoys the same unique position of its vineyards sandwiched between the North flank of the Pic Saint-Loup and the South flank of the Hortus Cliff. This creates an ideal and unique micro-climate where Mistral winds are accelerated by this corridor, the sun disappears earlier, and soils are free-draining. Its red wine, called “La Grenadière” made from 90% Syrah and 10% Grenache is an exceptional value for money (only 29 euros for that!)

o Ermitage Pic Saint-Loup

Guilhem de Gaucelm
AOC Pic Saint Loup

The Ermitage Pic Saint-Loup‘s obsession with biodynamically grown grapes and natural wine making processes is an absolute pleasure in terms of results in the wine glass. Its Guilhem de Gaucelm red wine, made from 95-year-old Grenache vines (50%, the rest is from Syrah), is a true wonder.

 

Local Honey Madeleine (left) Chestnuts Madeleine (right)

My final advice: if you are planning to visit the region during the month of June, I really advise you to register for the “Vignes Buissonnières” festival (to be booked in advance). It is a renowned event where you walk around the area and can taste wines from over 70 local producers. Otherwise, you can go to the Maison Chabanol in Saint Mathieu de Tréviers and take some of their hand-made madeleines, my favorite: the honey one! Then go for a trek to the top of the peak. Enjoy eating them while they are still fresh with the 360° view. In the evening, just buy a good bottle of red wine (little aged if possible) at one of the many wine shops around. Finally, have dinner at one of the public picnic areas with a panoramic view of the Pic Saint-Loup and enjoy the sunset.

 

Oray


Wine is a gourmet treasure, do not abuse alcohol!

None of this content has been sponsored

I did not receive any gifts or free samples that could be related to this article

A Trip to the AOC Baux de Provence: The Stronghold of Organic & Biodynamic Winemaking

Let’s take a trip to the fabulous and picturesque fortress city of Les Baux de Provence to discover the wines made in this region. The old city of Les Baux de Provence is perched on a rocky hillside in the extreme west of the Provence region (near the end of the Rhone Valley). The region, located at the foothills of the French Alpilles, is known for its numerous Michelin-starred restaurants, local microclimate, and breathtaking scenery (especially at sunset). This highly praised wine region is famous for having been one of the first strongholds of organic viticulture, with prestigious wineries converting very early. So let’s dive into it.

 

The City of Les Baux de Provence: The Wine Region’s Icon

Les Baux de Provence, Panorama, Provence, France

Let’s start with the city that gave its name to this beautiful wine region. In the old local language (i.e., the “Provençal”) a “Baou” is the name given to a rocky hilltop. This “Baou” is part of the label “Les Plus Beaux Villages de France” (=”The Most Beautiful Villages of France”). If you have the chance to stop by to visit, you will have to park your car around and climb up to the old city by foot as it is inaccessible to vehicles. After walking up the stairs, you will be able to discover the tiny streets running around the old castle. They are full of small shops selling all kinds of handcrafted products and local specialties. Consequently, the streets are perfumed with a mixture of typical Provence made of olives, olive oils, dried lavender, dried thymes, dried rosemary, and dried sages. This really makes it a unique experience.

In terms of soil, the limestone rocks composing the hill on which it has been built are rich in “bauxite”, a particular type of limestone composition named after the city.

The “Carrières des Lumières”

Limestone Quarries , Les Baux de Provence

Before going to the top of the old city, you can visit “Carrières des Lumières“, the impressive white limestone quarries dug to extract the rocks used to build the castle and the old town. If you have never visited them, I really advise you to go there at least once. The visit to the quarries starts with the monumental “Picasso Entrance” which will give you a glimpse of what to expect once inside. You will be able to take a walk in these monumental galleries dug under the mountain that are cut by the huge columns left by the quarrymen to carry the “ceiling”. Usually, children love the experience, especially since the quarries have been transformed into large natural screens for film projection with hundreds of different illuminations and art theme exhibitions.

Wines from the AOC Baux de Provence

Chateau d’Estoublon, AOC Les Baux de Provence

Before the creation of the AOC Baux de Provence, wines produced in this area had to be labelled as AOC Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence. It was only in 1995 that this wine region gained access to its own independent appellation. One of the main reasons behind it was that the local micro-climate is warmer and wetter than the major part of the AOC Coteaux de Provence. The status of this relatively new AOC was changed in 2005 to make it far more stringent than the AOC Coteaux de Provence. As a consequence, red wines (57% of the total production) are mainly made from a blend of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre (the infamous “GSM” blend). This GSM blend needs to represent at least 60% of the total blend. It can be completed by Cinsault, Counoise, Carignan, and Cabernet-Sauvignon (but only if together they account for a maximum of 20% of the final blend). Red wines from this appellation need to be aged for at least one year before being released. The average level of quality is high; wines are well made and can be aged easily. They are probably one of the most underrated quality red wines in France as they are hidden in the shadows of the Rhone Valley reds and Provence rosés. But, make no mistake, there will come a time when the wine world will realize the full extent of its true potential.

Regarding the rosés, they can only be made from Grenache, Syrah, and Cinsault. They amount to around 40% of total production. Remember that we are in the Provence region where rosés rhyme with Cru Classé.

It was only recently that the white wines were allowed to be produced under the AOC Baux de Provence label. They only make up 5% of total production. They can be made through a classic local blend of Rolle (= Vermentino), Grenache Blanc, Clairette, and more recently, Marsanne and Roussanne (two grapes more specific to the neighboring Rhone Valley whites) were allowed to be incorporated into the final blend.

AOC Baux de Provence: the hidden bastion of organic and biodynamic viticulture

“the strong “Mistral” wind combined with its unique dry micro-climate that helps vines to be very healthy”

When you hear about biodynamic viticulture, you often hear producer names from Burgundy or even Nicolas Joly and his iconic and marvelous Coulée de Serrant. However, you scarcely hear experts talking about the AOC Baux de Provence. And yet, this AOC was one of the very early advocates of organic and biodynamic viticulture in France. For sure, this was greatly helped by the strong “Mistral” wind combined with its unique dry micro-climate (close to the “Val d’Enfer”) that helps vines to be very healthy. Another factor was the importance of the production of super-premium olive oils in the region, for which quality labels imposed very early the abandonment of pesticide use. As the vines were traditionally grown together with olive trees, the wineries had no choice but to suppress any agrochemicals in order not to lose labels for their pricy olive oils. As a result, this wine region was probably the first to exhibit the fact that organic and biodynamic viticulture can go hand in hand with top quality in the finished products. The quality of the wine production in the region was already high before this revolution, but the whole region jumped to another level after it, showing to the world that a large-scale endorsement of these disputed techniques was possible and viable.

The Domaine de Terres Blanches and the Domaine de Hauvette were among France’s very early converts to totally abandoning agrochemicals and converting to full organic viticulture.

Château d’Estoublon: when a picturesque setting fosters excellence in wine and olive oil production

Château d’Estoublon in Provence

Close to Les-Baux-de-Provence, between Arles and Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, lies the Château d’Estoublon, a historical castle dating back to 1489. This estate covers 200 hectares, 120 of which are olive trees, and 20 hectares of vines. Its chapel, its parks, and its vineyards are all carefully kept. Its olive oil and wine production are both covered by their respective high quality Protected Denomination of Origin (= AOC = AOP = “Appellation d’Origine Protégée). On the estate, grapes and olives are grown and harvested while adhering to organic farming practices and using only manual and mechanical manufacturing methods devoid of the use of chemicals.

Olive Oil PDO Baux de Provence

While the estate is highly prized for wedding celebrations, it is also known for excellence in olive oil making as being one of the first producers to produce single varietal olive oils that are highly prized by connoisseurs and gastronomic restaurants. The various olive varietals each contribute their own unique olfactory score, just like the wines. Atypical and complimentary, Bouteillan, Salonenque, Grossane, Béruguette, and Picholine are all available as monovarietals and in blends. The best thing is that, if you stop by the little shop, they will be very happy to make you taste the different olive oils. This experience will definitely change your perspective on olive oils and you will find a lot of astonishing similarities between the world of wine and the world of olive oils. Nonetheless, its wine production is not left out and does not escape the quality reputation of the estate, especially with its elegant reds.

La Table d’Estoublon’s terrace

Finally, it also offers a great restaurant, La Table d’Estoublou, that many international gourmets like to pay a visit to. The restaurant’s daily supply of produce from the Domaine’s vegetable garden serves as inspiration for the menu. A variety of aromatic plants, vegetables, fruit, berries, and flowers are available in the 24 organic vegetable patches… The chef uses all of his culinary skills to create dishes that feature seasonal ingredients, vibrant colors, and delicate scents.

 

My final word: the AOC Les-Baux-de-Provence has a bright future in front of him. If you are staying nearby and wondering which winery to visit, you can try the Chateau d’Estoublon as you may find a little something for everyone and every taste. The only downside is that its marvelous parks are not accessible to visitors due to past degradation.

 

Oray


Wine is a gourmet treasure, do not abuse alcohol!

None of this content has been sponsored

I did not receive any gifts or free samples that could be related to this article

Label_CGV_1909

VDQS, the ancestor of the current French Appellation System: a leap into the past to fix the present

If you have ever paid attention to any French wine at all, you should have seen many different acronyms on their respective labels. The AOP, AOC, IGP, and VdF are probably the most common. However, they are very controversial nowadays given that many extremely talented winemakers have decided either to leave the AOC or even not to apply for it. This article aims to explore the current French wine appellation system and its flaws while taking a look at recent history to better understand what is happening today.

 

The current French wine appellation system: a quick reminder

French Appellation Quality Pyramid

First things first, let’s take a look at today’s most used acronyms and what reality they cover. Schematically speaking, we often represent the French (and European) appellation system as a pyramid where the least demanding constraints seat at the bottom with the VdF (Vins de France = Wines from France), then gradually increase in demandingness through the IGP (Indication Géographique Protégée = PGI = Protected Geographical Indication) to end up with the hardest appellation to obtain, the AOP (Appelation d’Origine Protégée = PDO = Protected Denomination of Origin). Well, that is theoretically true, but theoretically only!

PDO, is it self-sufficient?

Super Tuscan, not showing any IGT on label, IGT Toscana

That is where things are starting to get more complex, as you may well find extremely high quality wines (sometimes way better than AOP ones) in the PGI (=IGP) category. This is true not only in France, where stunning biodynamic wines by Alexandre Bain do not bear the AOC Pouilly-Fumé designation, but also in Italy, where super-tuscans like Tignanello bear the PGI designation. However, the reasons behind this state of fact are different from one to the other.

sell their Sassicaia as a DOC while Antinori, for example, has left its Tignanello as an IGT

For the super-tuscans like Tignanello it is probably more due to the fact that at the time when Tuscans started producing wines from a blend of international grapes like Cabernet-Sauvignon, there was no existing appellation that allowed their use at that time. Then, by default, these wines ended up in the PGI category where rules regarding grapes, winemaking techniques, traditions (etc.) were less stringent. Since then, things have evolved and a new DOC (Denominazione di Origina Controllata = PDO) in Tuscany has been created to cover this gap, the DOC Bolgheri. Consequently, some producers, like Tenuta San Guido, have decided to sell their Sassicaia as a DOC while Antinori, for example, has left its Tignanello as an IGT. That is a prime example of the fact that considering PGI as an inferior wine category is only true on paper. To make things even more complex, the advocates of appellation systems should wonder why Bolgheri is only a DOC and not a DOCG although Super-Tuscans have reached international recognition for decades. (It is important to remember that PDO in Italy is sub-divided into DOC and DOCG, with DOCG representing the most demanding process). But this point is not the main subject of this article, so let’s not get lost in this other controversy.

wine syndicate in charge of managing the appellation, may league against a winemaker despite the quality of his final product

For French wines like the ones made by Alexandre Bain, the reasons why he has not been able to sell their production under the prestigious Pouilly-Fumé appellation are very different. I personally find (and I am not the only one) that Alexandre Bain’s biodynamic white wines beat hands down most of the labeled Pouilly-Fumé on the market in terms of quality. This issue between the producer and the local appellation syndicate has been the subject of many fierce attacks and counterattacks, so let’s not get into too much detail. Let’s just summarize this by saying that it could be considered as an example where some powerful local producers, part of the wine syndicate in charge of managing the appellation, may league against a winemaker despite the quality of his final product. Unfortunately, similar situations have happened in many other appellations and countries (such as Spain and Italy). Aside from the dispute between heavy pesticide users (more focused on mass production and profit-seeking) and passionate biodynamic/organic winemakers (focusing on health and safety for consumers); too many times, blind tasting committees are judged partial and favor the status quo rather than encouraging new paths of quality improvement.

AOC vs. AOP: What is the difference?

I have been asked this question many times, especially by foreigners: “I see AOC or AOP on labels and French people usually call any wine labelled AOP an AOC. I am lost. What is the difference?”. I totally understand that it can be very confusing and that clarification is needed. Simply put, the AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protegée) is the equivalent of the PDO (Protected Denomination of Origin) at a harmonized European level. The AOC (Appellation d’Origine Controllée) can be seen as the inspiration that gave birth to the AOP label. It was a French appellation system designed to distinguish the highest level of quality, mainly for food specialties and wines.

INAO Official Logo

The first wine AOC was created in July 1935 by the INAO (Institut National des Appellations d’Origines) under the proposition of a French Senator. Today, all AOCs in France (wine and non-wine) generate nearly 22.94 billion euros in annual revenue, with alcohol, wine, and spirits accounting for 20.6 billion (source INAO, 2020). After their inception, the different AOCs have rapidly been adopted by the French. They quickly covered many parts of the French gastronomy legacy, such as Noix de Grenoble (1938), Champagne, Poulet de Bresse (1957), Camembert, Roquefort… It really became a symbol of French identity, to such a point that products that are labeled AOP are still called AOC, and that producers keep labelling their products with the AOC mention (instead of AOP).

AOC: Where does it come from?

o The first Anti-Fraud Wine law

The creation of the AOC label was a legal answer to fraud and counterfeits that had been waiting for a very long time. Indeed, after the phylloxera crisis in the late 19th century, France became a Far-West in terms of winemaking in order to supply the national demand for wines. Some merchants imported wines from nearly anywhere to blend them, and they sold the same dubious wine under many different labels. To an extreme, it led unscrupulous merchants to transform regular water into wines (sometimes directly on boats) by adding coloring agents and low-quality distilled alcohol (even replacing ethanol with methanol, which made consumers blind).

1907, The Winegrower Uprising in Montpellier, Public Domain Image

Merchants quickly understood that these new ways of making wine were far more profitable than traditional wines. As a result, many wine makers and grape growers shifted their production toward high yields and low-quality wines in order to survive (traditional wines became too expansive compared to the “fake” ones). The situation kept deteriorating until 1907, when the vinegrowers from the Languedoc (South of France, today Occitanie) could not take it anymore, and manifested for months in key cities. This is sometimes referred to as “The Winegrower Uprising” and culminated in the Montpellier demonstration where between 600 000 and 800 000 manifestants (1 000 000 inhabitants in the Languedoc at that time) invaded the streets led by Marcelin Albert. As a direct consequence of this spreading uprising, the French government decided to pass the Anti-Fraud Wine law.

The two main components of this law were:

  • First, “to prevent the watering of wines and the abuse of sugar by a surtax on sugar and the obligation of traders to declare sales of sugar higher than 25 kilograms (55 lb)”; which targeted the practice of making extremely diluted wines that could be chaptalized (adding external sugar and starting fermentation) to increase tremendously the production level
  • Second, “No drink may be owned or transported for sale or sold under the name of wine unless it comes exclusively from the alcoholic fermentation of fresh grapes or grape juice”, which targeted the practice of mixing alcohol, coloring agents, and water to produce artificial wines.

o From the Anti-Fraud Wine law to the AOC

Save the wine for our Soldiers, Public Domain Image

After the Anti-Fraud Wine Act was passed, the Fraud and Repression Service was created. Unfortunately, in 1914, World War I began, and the French military authorities needed extreme amounts of wine for the soldiers to keep fighting despite the absolute carnage. The demand was so huge that there was barely enough wine and alcohol for widows and heavily wounded soldiers to lick their wounds.

Bien Tassé, Drawing, 1917, Public Domain Image

After 1918, the over-consumption of alcohol by soldiers during the war led the remaining part of this generation to be destroyed by alcoholism. This rampant alcoholism, together with the “Années Folles” (the Roaring Twenties), where people just wanted to live and party, did not help to improve the quality of production as the emphasis was put on providing enough alcohol to meet the demand. It was only in 1936 that the INAO (created in 1935) issued its first appellations.

French Students Alcoholism Prevention poster,
After 1918, Editions Armand CollinPublic Domain Image

o The VdP, AOS, VDQS, and AOC: a brief history

the risk was for the AOC to be seen as too common and easy to obtain

Given the success of the first wine AOCs (both in terms of reputation and sales), many other wine-producing regions wanted to have their own AOC. Then, the authorities faced a challenge given that the AOC was supposed to reward excellence and quality; the risk was for the AOC to be seen as too common and easy to obtain (which would have destroyed its value). The VdP (Vin de Pays = County Wines) was created quickly for “table wines” and “cooking wines”, the category for everyday and regular wines with an obligation to be made from grapes and locally. Then, they rapidly established a hierarchy with the creation of the AOS (Appellation d’Origine Simple = Basic Origin Appellation) and the VDQS (Vins Délimités de Qualité Supérieure). VDQS was way harder to obtain than the AOS. VDQS could be seen as an equivalent of the DOC in Italy, with just slightly less stringent rules than the AOC (DOCG in Italy to keep up with the comparison).

Has PGI become the new AOS?

some PGIs now give their label to wines made from Chardonnay when, traditionally, it has never been grown in the region

The AOS category disappeared in 1973 in France because most of its members improved their quality enough to switch to the VDQS category. Nonetheless, there is a raging debate because today’s PGIs across Europe are becoming, every year, more and more permissive in terms of grapes, yields, winemaking techniques, etc. It is becoming less and less homogeneous in France and in Europe. Some PGIs are quite restrictive, while others tend to accept almost everything. It has reached a point where some producers and customers are starting to question the true value of labelling their wines as PGIs. And the ‘new world’ trend consisting of labelling bottles by grape names does not help. Just to stick to this trend, some PGIs now give their label to wines made from Chardonnay when, traditionally, it has never been grown in the region.

PGI: When the basics are missing?

made to recognize local, trustworthy, and consistent uses”

Let’s go back to our very interesting French wine appellation system prior to its integration into a harmonized European appellation system. At that time, the distinction between AOS, IGP, and AOC had the same common ground to distinguish them from the VdP (Vin de Pays). According to French law, they were made to recognize “local, trustworthy, and consistent uses” (“usages locaux, loyaux et constants”) to make a given certified final quality product within a certain tradition. Therefore, we can wonder if the PGIs are not moving too fast in accepting certain new grapes and new practices. What is the incentive for producers like Alexandre Bain to label their wines as PGIs? Would it be fair to label it with other PGI producers (for example, making Chardonnay or other grapes that we have never seen in the region) although it has all the characteristics of the Pouilly Fumé from Sauvignon Blanc?

VDQS: The missing category in today’s European and French winemaking?

VDQS Wine Label, Public Domain Image

The VDQS category was created in 1949 and imposed strict rules regarding winemaking techniques, grapes used, terroir, alcohol level, yields, vine training systems, and vinification. It even required a detailed wine analysis (laboratory) and blind tastings by independent experts. As a result, the VDQS category did not require much time to be adopted by the French customers and gain excellent quality recognition. It really served as a launching pad for many regions before becoming an independent AOC or as an aspiration for the AOS. Sure, the brand power of some super-Tuscans is powerful enough to be self-sufficient. However, some talented but less recognized winemakers are struggling to gain recognition and establish themselves. Wouldn’t it be fair for them to create an in-between category which will recognize distinguishable quality without having to suffer from the flaws of heterogeneous and “one size fits all” PGIs?

 

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Wine is a gourmet treasure, do not abuse alcohol!

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Discover the wines from the AOC La Clape

 

My Web Story on the AOC La Clape

Overview of the AOC La Clape

The AOC (“Appelation d’Origine Controlée” = Protected Denomination of Origin) La Clape is located in the South of France in the Languedoc part of the former Languedoc-Roussillon region (a region called Occitanie since the reform from president Hollande that grouped the Languedoc-Roussillon and the Midi-Pyrennées region into one larger region: Occitanie).

La Clape, near the City of Narbonne

Noticeably, the AOC La Clape is recognized as a standalone appellation since June 2015 by the French INAO (Institut National des Appellations d’Origines, the state-led organization that oversees the whole French appellation system). Before that, this appellation was only a subpart of the larger umbrella appellation “AOC Languedoc” and needed to be called AOC Languedoc-La Clape. This point can be very confusing for foreigners and not to make things easier it is worth noting that this standalone recognition has nothing to do with the decision from the French government to create the larger Occitanie administrative region. It was really due to the sustained efforts for years by the wine makers in La Clape to improve the quality of their production and express the singularity of their terroir into their wines. It is an appellation nested on a limestone hill in-between the city of Narbonne, the Mediterranean Sea and the city of Gruissan. It is a very sunny and dry area famous for its windy conditions all year long which can make the wine growing process quite challenging.

View of La Clape

Unlike in Burgundy the word “Cru” here does not carry an official value (yet), however, it is recognized unanimously as one of the very best “Crus” the Languedoc has to offer both in terms of wine quality and terroir.

Peculiarities of the AOC La Clape

“you can recognize these “garrigue” aromas in the best red wines from the appellation”

Besides its wonderful and well-known hiking trails that pass through many of the wineries in this hilly area, the area is distinguished by its “garrigue” (= scrubland) vegetation. In fact, apart from the garrigue, local trees and vines, nothing else can really grow in this area given the climatic conditions. Broadly speaking, the garrigue can be defined as a mix of various ground-level vegetations (rosemary, wild thyme, sage, lavender, boxwood…) covering limestone soils together with some adapted tree species (pine trees, olive trees, junipers, holly oaks, holm oaks…). This “garigue” produces a very characteristic smell that you have no problem recognizing when you walk the hiking trails around here, especially during summer. It smells like a blend of resin, pine tree aromas, and aromatic compounds derived from wild thymes, rosemaries, and sages. We generally consider that the higher the temperature, the stronger the smell is. This is of particular interest for the wine produced locally, as you can recognize these “garrigue” aromas in the best red wines from the appellation. These aromas, together with the typical level of minerality inherited from the limestone soils of the area, are what make these wines standout.

 

Winegrowing in the AOC La Clape

Vineyards in La Clape

As mentioned earlier there is a warm, dry and windy microclimate. Consequently, the vastly dominant training system is the “Bush Training”, where vines are conducted as little bushes low to the ground and not trellised. This has two advantages. First, it protects the grapes from sunburn as leaves from the bushes provide shadows for the grapes. Second, it also protects the vines from being deteriorated by strong winds (if they were trellised, they would need to be trained higher from the ground, which would generate more surface exposition to the winds which in turn would deteriorate leaves, grapes and the trellising system).

“vines need to suffer to bring their best”

Another typical trait of local winegrowing is “Dry Farming”. Here, despite the climatic conditions, they do not irrigate their vineyards. Combined with these very stony soils, how is it possible to grow vines there? The answer is quite simple, they select drought resistant rootstocks in vine nurseries (also resistant to other diseases such as Phylloxera…) and graft them with drought resistant grape varieties (such as Grenache, Mourvèdre…) that happens to be widespread in the hot Mediterranean area (Grenache is called Garnacha and Mourvèdre is called Monastrell in Spain) for that exact same reason. Don’t mistake it, that is absolutely not synonymous with low quality. In fact, it is totally the opposite. Such conditions bring out quality in wines. There is an old saying in France that “vines need to suffer to bring their best” and it is totally the case here.

 

Grapes and Blends in the AOC La Clape

When talking about wines from the South of France, and those from the AOC La Clape make no exception, you will often hear the acronym “GSM” or the term “GSM Blend”. But, what does it mean? It is very easy, GSM means a combination of the three following grapes: Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre. It is the typical blend or base blend of wines made in the Languedoc/ Languedoc-Roussillon/Occitanie region in the South of France. Schematically summarized, Grenache brings fruity aromas, Syrah brings spicy and peppery aromas, while Mourvèdre brings tannins, alcohol, more aroma complexities and helps toward a better integrated final blend.

“it is not a grape that is valued by wine consumers as they just do not know about it”

Another feature of this region is the autochtonous Bourboulenc white grape. You will find it in many wineries around, either as a standalone wine or as a major component of the local white blend. Most of the time they combine it with Marsanne, Roussane and/or Grenache Blanc. It is a very intriguing grape as it can give a very different tasting profile depending on the wine-making process selected and/or on the final blend. However, it is not really difficult to recognize its presence given its very singular combination of acidity, minerality, astringency and aromas. Unfortunately, it is not a grape that is valued by wine consumers as they just do not know about it so its potential remains far from being exploited to its true value.

 

Wineries that standout

Château l’Hospitalet

Some names from the AOC La Clape such as Chateau Pech Redon (certified Organic since 2005) or Domaine de la Ramade (certified Organic since 2012) sound very familiar to wine lovers. I really suggest you give a try to the wines from the Chateau d’Anglès (HVE level 3 and converting to organic) directed by Eric Fabre. I really like their Grand Vin Blanc based on a blend including grapes from old Bourboulenc vines. Anyway, I really advise you to direct your choice toward biodynamic or organic wineries from this appellation, as I see no reason why some of the wineries have such wonderful results from organically grown grapes while others are pleased with pesticides usage and lower quality end results.

Château l’Hospitalet, 2019

Finally, if you have only a very short amount of time to spend in the area and can visit only one winery, I would strongly encourage you to go to the Chateau l’Hospitalet owned by Gerard Bertrand. This wine estate was formerly owned by Jacques Ribourel who invested a lot to bring it to a high standard. Now, Gerard Bertrand and his team make a wonderful job in terms of wine quality and environmental care (Biodynamic – certified Demeter). You will always feel welcome with open arms to taste their best wines, such as l’Hospitalitas and Chateau l’Hospitalet Grand Vin rouge. You will also be able to taste wines from their other great estates such as Clos d’Ora. The site offers a great Hotel facility with Spa and restaurants. Last but not least, if you are a honey lover, I cannot recommend you enough to buy their Rosemary honey which is for me the best honey I have ever tasted so far. If you are a foodie, then buy one and go to take a tour of the city of Gruissan (starting around the Tour Barberousse for instance) or to the beach (you will find some fresh and crispy French bread on your way – it pairs perfectly with it, the crispier and the most toasted, the better). If you love hiking, then park (for free) near the Auzils Chapel (Chapelle Notre Dame des Auzils) and go for the easy hike to the Vigie de La Clape, where you will have a panoramic view on most of La Clape and the Mediterranean Sea.

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Wine is a gourmet treasure, do not abuse alcohol!

None of this content has been sponsored

I did not receive any gifts or free samples that could be related to this article

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