Can a wine speak to you? Can it beckon you to visit? In the case of Chateau Pech Latt, located in the Languedoc region of southern France, the answer is yes.
Several years ago we bought a sampler case of organic red wines, twelve different bottles from all over the world. One winter evening we opened the Pech Latt and that is when the voice started. It spoke of the sun, the wind and the dry soil that gave it birth. It told us of the thought, care and effort that went into the grape growing, harvesting, fermenting and blending. It told us to visit.
Several years elapsed and problems with U.S. distribution caused us to temporarily lose the thread. But now, I’m delighted to say that we just spent a few glorious days at Pech Latt, finally answering the call.
Languedoc is hot, dry and very sunny. It doesn’t rain there for most of the growing season. The land is stony and sparse, the beauty austere. The vines, struggling to nourish themselves, put down deep roots. Only grapes that can survive this hardship grow here: Carignan, Mourvèdre, Shiraz, Marsanne, and Grenache. For centuries, these hardy grapes from Corbieres, in the southern half of the region, and Minervois, in the north, stayed at home. If they traveled at all it was in the guise of an everyday blended wine, drunk at breakfast, lunch and dinner by France’s blue-coated workers.
But this was a dead end. Simultaneously they drank less and the world became saturated with better quality cheap wine. The result was a glut of Languedoc wine leading to the removal of 2,500 hectares of vines. While driving, you see the ripped out vines all around, their gnarly wood piled high in the center of a fallow field, fallen soldiers in a global war of industrial grape-growing that Australia and Chile have won.
The surviving vintners have taken the high road. They, like Pech Latt, are decreasing yields, planting newer and healthier stocks, and treating the vines with love, care and respect. They have hired vignerons with world-class credentials and are aiming for the wine buyer both interested in tasting something not found in the faceless blends of the mass-market wines, but also not ready to pay for the classified growths of Bordeaux or the boutique bottles from Napa capable of consuming a day’s salary of a twenty-something.
To a large extent, they have succeeded admirably and have placed their wines on the shelves of stores in America, Germany, Scandinavia, Japan, and the nascent markets in Hong Kong and China. The French, however, still resist, preferring to remember an earlier time of lesser quality.
This area, with a climate and soil that make the fight against mold, mildew and insect pests possible with natural methods, has always been on our radar because it is a hotbed of organic and Biodynamic farming. Organic Wine Journal has over 50 Languedoc vineyards listed, which finally brings us back to Pech Latt.
Certified Organic in 1996, but practicing organic since 1991, it is one of the early Corbiere vineyards to capitalize on their terroir. Situated near the idyllic town of Lagrasse, the vineyard is 130 hectares (320 acres) of beautiful land, bounded by hills on 3 sides, and divided into parcels, each planted with a specific grape. With its natural spring, Pech Latt’s grape-growing pedigree can be traced back almost 2,000 years. The Romans first planted vines there in the 3rd century. Three hundred years later, the Visigoths took over and turned the area into a fortification. Then, in 784, Charlemagne gave the land to a group of sheep-farming monks. Being landlocked and unable to transport wine the only feasible way, via water, it wasn’t until a railroad reached the area in the mid-1800’s that Corbiere and Pech Latt went back into the wine business.
Recently, Europeans are pouring money, vanity and energy into Languedoc. Its beautiful chateaus and charming medieval towns are perceived as a real estate bargain when compared to its eastern neighbor, Provence, or to Tuscany. As Jancis Robinson pointed out in a recent Financial Times article, French winemakers too, with Burgundian backgrounds, are coming to Languedoc to make wine. Fortunately, the trend is to do it organically.
The man overseeing Chateau Pech Latt, a series of stone buildings, including a tower built on a Visigoth foundation, is Philippe Mathias. He’s been there since 1998, and is the vigneron who made the wine that brought us here. Forty two and movie star handsome, he has the charm and ease of someone pleased with the life he’s chosen. He studied agriculture, not specifically wine, in Toulouse and did a winemaking stage in the state of Washington. Being the person responsible for the product from planting to shipping, Philippe believes, “Wine is made in the field. If I have very good grapes, the wine is already well-made.”
Thirty five people brought in for the task pick 95% percent of the grapes by hand. As is the norm for the region, the grapes are then fermented and aged in the large cement tanks. In the past, when the wine was more of a commodity, there was no varietal separation, so the tanks could be huge – 27,000 liters. Our visit coincided with the arrival of new, smaller cement tanks (10,000 liters), which will allow for custom blending. The only wine finished in oak is the reserva-style Tamanova. Pech Latt is meant to be drunk somewhat young. Ripe and fruit forward, their complexity and softness comes from the blending of grapes, not the aging.
“When we started bottling wines in 1970, we were one of the first. At that time everyone was selling their crop to the local cooperative, which blended it with other vineyards’ crops and sold it in bulk. Needless to say, no one was proud of the wine.” Once Pech Latt was bottled, it developed fans in Germany, specifically a group of academic ecologists, who suggested Pech Latt could increase its German sales by being organic. The plans were so successful that sales went from 6,000 to 30,000 bottles a year, which still only accounted for a quarter of the crop. The rest was bottled by negotiants.
Once the organic bandwagon was rolling, the British climbed aboard, followed by the Swiss and Scandinavians. The Japanese came later. In fact, during our visit, several large pallets of wine, complete with Japanese back labels were being readied for shipment. Pech Latt keeps winning awards, but Philippe ruefully observed, “The French don’t care about medals. They follow what the journalists tell them to drink.”
On our second morning at Pech Latt, under a crystalline blue sky, we toured the land with Philippe, who pointed out the varietals on different tracks and proudly showed us where he’d planted olive, almond, plum, and acacia trees to separate the parcels, break the ever-present wind, increase biodiversity and attract birds, whose songs tell him his vineyard is healthy. Despite these additions, Philippe knows “monoculture leads to disease, so most agriculture leads to disease. The only real balance is in the primordial forest.”
Naturally, he can identify not only each varietal but also its age. He showed us healthy plants, a few that were nearing the end of their natural life cycles, and plants that had been dined on by wild boars that consume 5-10% of the crop. Regarding the latter, he gets his revenge in the winter, when he and the neighboring vignerons have a hunter’s dinner of wild boar.
During our visit harvest was imminent. Along with sending juice to a lab for sugar analysis, Philippe tested the grapes for ripeness by evaluating taste, seed color (they must turn from green to brown), skin smoothness and suppleness and leaf color.
Things are going well at Pech Latt. The owner, Louis Max Corp, which owns several other vineyards and is based in Burgundy, are pleased with Philippe’s wines, the medals they receive, the export growth and the fact that each year the Chateau sells out. Capital improvements have been made – Philippe’s first goal of fixing the fields is done. The new smaller vats are ordered and other upgrades to the winery are in progress. As interest in organic wine and Languedoc grows, the world is finding its way to Pech Latt.
Our last evening, Philippe showed us yet another side, chef. Metaphorically not straying too far from his winemaking roots, he barbecued locally sourced ribs over a blazing fire of discarded oak barrel stays. As the ribs cooked, we sipped his wines, ate anchovies from a nearby seacoast town and tomatoes from his garden. We talked comfortably of wine and cities and life. We were leaving the next morning, but consoled ourselves, trusting we would return having found a vigneron worth knowing.
2008 Marsanne: Wheat and minerals in a medium body from fully ripened grapes, hint of an exotic fruit like pineapple. Only 1000 cases made and primarily sold to restaurants.
2009 Marsanne: Stronger fruit presence than the 2008. More food friendly. We preferred this vintage.
All are a blend of Syrah, Mourvèdre, Carignan, and Grenache
2009 Tradition : The color of the sunbaked red earth. Full-bodied, smooth, yet fresh at the same time. Meant to be drunk young. Not overly sophisticated. This is the pure enjoyment of Pech Latt.
2008 Selection Vielles Vignes : This higher alcohol red (14%), exhibits the concentrated flavors of old vines. Bigger, fuller, richer than the Tradition. Within the deep fruit are hints of raspberry and blackberry.
2009 Selection Vielles Vignes: Philippe’s favorite wine. Notes of aromatics, including rosemary. Delicious, earthy, dark fruit. You can taste the sun’s heat in the wine.
2007 Tamanova: This is the “reserva” of the Chateau. It shows off Pech Latt’s finesse. Oak barrel aged from hand-selected fruit. Liquid ecstasy for Pech Latt lovers, ultra smooth, concentrated dark fruit, smoky leather, tar, and spice. Would stand up to roast meat, cassolet. Best drunk in front of a roaring fire.