Tag: South of France

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

When Summer Rhymes with Rosés: A Tour of the Côtes de Provence’s “Crus Classés”

The hashtag #Roséallday is currently trending on social media, so let me take you to a sunny location where rosé wines have always rhymed with sea, vacation, sun, beach, food, olive oil, and breathtaking landscapes. This place is none other than the Provence region, which lies in the South of France. It is located between Nice and Marseille, and faces the Mediterranean Sea. Phocaeans, Etruscans, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Barbarians, Celts, Genoese, and so many more civilizations have settled here. Even the Allies landed here to liberate Europe in August 1944. This region has been producing Rosé wines for centuries. Here, the terms “Rosé” and “Cotes de Provence” are synonyms. It is the land of the “Crus classés de Provence” and of Saint-Tropez. Let me take you to the region of the Bourride, Escabeche, Pissaladière, Bouillabaisse, Pistou, Tapenade, Fougasse and the Tarte Tropézienne, just to mention a few local food specialties.

Côtes de Provence vineyard

A little bit of History

“his region was producing wines with a clear color even before the Romans”

The Phoceans founded the city of Massilia, now called Marseille, around the VI century B.C. They started to cultivate vines almost right away, and, concomitantly, Massilia quickly became one of the main ports on the Mediterranean Sea. The Romans established the city and its surrounding region as the first Roman province outside of Italy around the second century B.C. They renamed that province “Nostra Provincia” which means “Our Province”. This is where the current name of the region, Provence, comes from. Strikingly, this region was producing wines with a clear color even before the Romans. It was known for its praxis, consisting of quickly separating the skins from the juice of the grape while pressing. That is probably where the characteristic and unmistakable color of the Côtes de Provence Rosés comes from.

More about the region

“one of the distinctive climatic features is probably the Mistral”

Sometimes it is wrongly reduced to the much smaller “Cote Varoise” (“Varoise Coast”). The Côtes de Provence region is not limited to the “Var” county. It goes way beyond toward the east, as you may find some vineyards north of Marseille. It also extends inland, as the Coteaux de Pierrevert (also part of the Côtes de Provence) are located beyond the Durance River. The whole region is very sunny, with an average of over 3000 hours of sunshine per year. It is the prime example of the Mediterranean climate, with hot and sunny summers and mild winters. However, when you go inland, you tend to find a cooler climate. Apart from its sunny characteristics, one of the distinctive climatic features is probably the Mistral. The Mistral is a strong northerly wind that funnels through the Rhône Valley (the region just north of Provence). It gives strong winds almost all year long, with very powerful peaks. As the locals say it, “the Mistral hunts the clouds”. However, it also imposes vine training systems to be kept low from the ground and traditionally bush-trained for better wind resistance (some trellised systems have been adopted recently). Some wineries also use row of trees and olive trees (the emblematic local tree) to protect vines from winds.

Rows of Olive trees in Provence

Destroying pre-conceived ideas about the Côtes de Provence

“the AOC Côtes de Provence covers over 20 000 hectares and 5 non-contiguous sub-regions that range from the coast to way inland”

While the Côtes de Provence are often associated with Rosés, you have to keep in mind that this region also produces very high-quality Whites and Reds. The AOC (Appellation d’Origine Controllée = Protected Denomination of Origin = PDO) is in fact an umbrella appellation that gathers local appellations. Hence, winemakers have the right to select either their local appellation (i.e., Cotes de Provence Féjus for Rosés and Reds) or the larger AOC Côtes de Provence for their wines. That seems quite complex when it is really not. You just have to keep in mind that the AOC Côtes de Provence covers over 20 000 hectares and 5 non-contiguous sub-regions that range from the coast to way inland. Consequently, in the same appellation, there was a lot of difference in terms of climate and soils, with the northern regions receiving more continental influence than those on the coastline. This is the reason why winemakers grouped into smaller and more homogeneous sub-regions (subappellations) called Dénomination Géographique Complémentaires (D.G.C.). Most of the time, these D.G.C. are added as an extension to the name Côtes de Provence.

Protected from the Mistral wind by the forest and olive trees

Aside from the large AOC Côtes de Provence, the Provence region is also home to some very prestigious and separate AOCs (PDOs) like: AOC Baux de Provence, AOC Palette, AOC Cassis, AOC Bandol, and AOC Bellet. It is very important to note that they have nothing to do with what we call the “Cru Classés” of the Côtes de Provence (different appellations).

The “Crus Classés” of the Côtes de Provence: where “Rosés” become prestigious

The Ranking

“In Provence, either you are a “Cru Classé” or you are not, period”

The “Crus Classés” of the Côtes de Provence is a ranking system created in 1955 which distinguished the best 23 estates initially. Nowadays, there are only 18 estates remaining, and they are the only ones to be allowed to put the “Cru Classé” mention on the label. This ranking system differs from the other wine rankings in France as they do not have sub-levels such as “Grand Cru”, “Premier Cru” … in Burgundy or “Classé A” … in Bordeaux. In Provence, either you are a “Cru Classé” or you are not, period. It may be a little unfair to some other wineries that produce very high-quality wines but are just not ranked.

Cru Classé Cotes de Provence

The current list

Below is the list of the 18 remaining “Cru Classés” of Provence:

Château Sainte-Roseline, Château Minuty, Domaine de la Source Sainte-Marguerite (now called Château Sainte-Marguerite), Domaine de la Clapière, Domaine de l’Aumérade, Clos Cibonne, Domaine de Rimauresq, Domaine de Castel Roubine (now called Château Roubine), Château du Galoupet, Château de Saint-Martin, Château de Saint-Maur, Clos Mireille, Château de Selle, Château de Brégançon, Domaine de Mauvanne, Domaine de la Croix, Domaine du Jas d’Esclans, and Clos Mistinguett (Domaine du Noyer)

Below is the list of the 5 estates that were part of the 23 initial ranking:

Clos de la Bastide Verte at Garde, Coteau de Ferrage at Pierrefeu, Domaine de la Grande Loube at Lorgues, Domaine de Moulières at La Valette, Clos du Relais at Hyères

Peculiarities of the ranking

“This distinction was put in place with the strong willingness to represent the highest level of production quality in the region”

Contrary to other ranking systems that may exist, the “Cru Classé” is based solely on the estate. It means that only the estates as they were in 1955 are ranked, and no new vineyards can be bought in order to be added to the originally ranked estate. This ranking has not been revised since.

This distinction was put in place with the strong willingness to represent the highest level of production quality in the region. The main criteria of judgment were (non-exhaustive list): the quality of the winemaking process; the quality of the vineyards; the quality of the finished wines; the ability to sell wines directly at the estate; and most importantly, the notoriety acquired by the estate before 1935 (date of the creation of the French Appellation System – INAO).

A production not limited to Rosés

Chateau Sainte Marguerite, Cru Classé Red

At this point, it is really important to mention that, as the ranking is based on the estate and not on the wine, these “Cru Classés” have the right to mention “Cru Classés” on the labels for White and Red wines as well (when the other colors have been validated in the ranking). And they do it with quite a lot of success, as their production of Whites and Reds represents the epitome of what the region has to offer for these colors. The winemakers are investing a lot to produce excellent red wines that often surprise wine connoisseurs with their quality level.

“Cru Classé » Rosés: The pale pink color as a Watermark

“there are two main ways of making rosés wines from red grapes”

Now, let’s switch to the production of the dry Rosés of Provence, which are very distinctive when compared to Rosés made elsewhere. Indeed, the Rosés of Provence are known worldwide for their distinctive colors. Their color is very pale with very subtle hints of rose. But, apart from evoking summer and the sun prevailing in this area, where does this color come from? In fact, there are two main ways of making rosés wines from red grapes. The first consists of letting the juice macerate (for a short-controlled amount of time; otherwise, it gives a red wine) with the skin of the grape after crushing, which allows the juice to acquire a rose hue. The second way, called “rosé de presse” is where the grapes are crushed and pressed very slowly so that the skins of the grape are in contact with the juice enough during the pressing to produce this distinctive light color. In Provence, they mainly use the red-skinned Grenache grape in the process for its low levels of anthocyanins and its fruity character. As a fact, the color is probably closer to Whites than to traditional Rosés.

Chateau Roubine exhibiting the typical pink color
of Cotes de Provence’s Rosés

It is really worth noting that they are the only rosé wines to be ranked in the world. No other region in the world has created a dedicated ranking for rosés. That should really give you an idea of how serious this region is about rosé wines.

“Cru Classé”, a prime example of excellence in Whites, Rosés, and Reds: Chateau Sainte Roseline

Visiting the Chateau Sainte Roseline

Why this one? Because the efforts made to maintain Rosés production excellence while pushing Reds and Whites to another level deserve recognition. They wanted to raise the three categories to a gastronomic level, and the result is very convincing. Another point is their recent endeavor to convert to organic viticulture after a 3-year accreditation process. They also organize events open to the public all year long (concerts, exhibitions, After-Works, Christmas Market, Truffle Festival, Flower Fairs, etc.) which makes it a perfect place to visit for tourists and foreigners nearby. Additionally, the staff speak English, which can be quite convenient. Another original point, they made a collaboration with the famous singer Kylie Minogue to co-brand a a new line of Rosé.

Located just a 30-minute drive away from Saint-Tropez, Cannes, and Aix-en-Provence, it is very convenient to fit into your busy visiting schedule. The estate is composed of 110 hectares of vines planted with over 11 different grape varieties. This former Abbey benefits from an exceptional terroir with clay-limestone soils and the presence of a deep-water source. Its 12th-century cloister has been renovated and can be visited. As for the cellar, it exhibits the results of important investment to modernize the facility in order to produce the best quality.

My advice: if you ever buy a bottle of “Cru Classé” Rosé, try it with some local foods and make sure to pair it with some Aïoli sauce. The Aïoli is a sort of local “gralic-mayonnaise” that has a special relationship and affinity with Rosés.

 

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

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