Improbabile would be the Italian way to describe being a successful female wineaker in Puglia. Throw in being an Australian, and the fact that the winery is literally an industiral garage, and you have an interesting recipe for some of the best organic wine in the region.
Winemaker Lisa Gilbee went to her first wine tasting at 9. She loved everything about it, particularly the concentrated musty aromas that permeated the room. She knew then that she wanted to make wine. She left her native Australia for Italy in 1994 and landed in Puglia’s lesser-known winemaking region of Manduria. Seven years ago she started her winery Morella, named after her husband, Gaetano Morella.
Four years ago she applied for a building permit. Italian bureaucracy being what it is, the permit has just been approved, to which Lisa laughingly says, “The good news is that in that time we learned a lot about what we need. The bad news is that loans got tighter.” The building, which will include a home for her family, will be in the country amid their vines, a field of young ones (40 years old) on one side, and the old vines (80 years old) on the other. Lisa was lucky enough to purchase the old vine section from an elderly couple who tended the vines themselves until they passed away – 8 months apart from each other.
Everything Lisa does is natural. She holds herself to very high standards and employs a biodynamic “coach,” Ukrainian Alex Podolinsky, whom she knew from Australia. Before going biodynamic, as she puts it, “I stopped using the ‘icides’ – pesticides, herbicides, fungicides.” For her region this was radical, because most of the growers were in the sway of the chemical salesmen who promised increased yield. Naturally, this resulted in poor quality wine, mostly sold in bulk to other winemakers.
By choice, Morella is neither certified as organic or biodynamic. It’s not even DOC. Lisa follows her own farming practices and believes that her fans will trust that she’s done the right thing.
Despite the dreary, rainy day of our visit, Morella’s fields, even in their post-harvest state, glowed. The land and its plants radiated vitality, beauty and health. No wonder Lisa’s dream is to build her winery and home for her family amidst these vineyards.
Morella grows 4 varietals: Primitivo, Negroamaro, Malbec and Fiano. From these grapes, 6 wines are made: 4 red and 2 white.
Lisa describes her garage as a “lego winery.” Hand plunging, slow open fermentation and a basket press are her building blocks. The basket press – an old-fashioned cage with pistons that squashes the grapes – extracts 60% by volume and the grapes can only be pressed once with this method. Industrial presses yield 80%, the remainder of volume being stems and leaves. What’s left from her pressing is sold to distilleries.
The juice is then put into 300 liter barrels, mostly to segregate one varietal from another, but also to allow for micro-oxygenation and settling. The latter is essential because the wine will not be filtered. After 12–18 months, the wine is moved to either stainless steel or cement tanks for another 2–6 months. Then it is hand-bottled. She said, “It’s refreshing as an Australian to have wines with natural acidity. In Australia we have to add acid.”
Her final thought; “It’s old fashioned wine making with attention to cleanliness. If you have good vineyards, you don’t have to do much in the winery.”
The winery’s production is 20,000 bottles. 2000 are white. Most is sold in Switzerland, followed by England. A few palettes find their way to the U.S. so do yourself a favor and look for them. They are imported by Piedmont Wine Imports.
Morella Primitivo Negroamaro, 2010
Albero Damiano, the Maitre d’Hotel at Palazzo Indelli in the seaside town of Monopoli, tasted the wine and weighed in with the following – “Stupendous!” It’s not necessary to serve with this with meat, it would also work well with vegetables and fish. "Personally, I like wine that tastes of ripe fruit, which this does. Chocolate finish. Serve with figs, almonds, or biscotti.”
We agree with the expert. It’s elegant and sophisticated. Should be savored with a special meal, and if your meal isn’t special, this will make it so. This is a Châteauneuf-du-Pape-style wine.
Morella Old Vines Primitivo, 2010
Gorgeous wine. Full of ripe fruit, currants and berries, but not a hint of sweetness. Medium body. You can almost taste the gnarl in the vine. Legs linger on the glass leaving patterns like an historic leaded window. Deep ruby red (not as black as the Primitivo Negroamaro blend). Settles in after 10 minutes and becomes noticeably rounder and even more luscious. Albero Damiano added, "the ultimo Primitivo for typical Puglian food, like orrchiette with broccoli rabe, sausage and mushrooms.”
Learn more about Morella at www.morellavini.com
Tenute Mater Domini
It was a cold, rainy day when we arrived at Tenute Mater Domini (Mother of God Farm) in the Salice Salentino region of Puglia. For kilometers, the scent of smoky olive wood filled the air as workers burned the recently cut-down branches. The wet weather seemed incongruous with the frequent view of cacti framing estate entrances. Estate Manager and Marketing Director Andrea Fatttizo ran out with an umbrella to greet us.
Long an area of cooperative-bottled and blended wines, Salice has been gaining recognition for their quality and terroir. Leading this “natural” charge is Mater Domini. The estate is using dry-farming methods, made possible by the clay-loam soil with its excellent water-holding capacity, which allows the vines to survive the long, hot Salento summers.
Two training methods are employed: alberello-trained plants (i.e., bush vines without trellising) and cordon (trellising is integral to the plant’s growth). Needless to say, no pesticides, herbicides or fungicides are ever used. No heroics in the cellar either, aside from temperature control.
Andrea Fattizzo of Tenute Mater Domini
Both Andrea and the owner, Pierandrea Semeraro, who started the business in 2003 on land that had been in grape production for hundreds of years, have a firm commitment to the land and the vines. While using state-of-the-art agricultural methods, the goal is to produce traditional wines, honest to the grape and terroir. One of the ways they accomplish this is with low yields – 1 bottle of wine per vine.
Spread over 3 separate parcels, the winery totals 60 hectares (148 acres), a third of which are old vines. It produces 100,000 bottles a year: 80% red, 10% white, 10% rose. 10,000 of these bottles make their way to the U.S. in 4 different wines, via their importer Solair Selection. Many of the vines are too young for wine production, so even though their yield is intentionally low, the bounty will increase in the next few years.
Andrea has a full plate. He makes 4 reds, 2 whites and 2 roses from a surprisingly large assortment of varietals. Along with the expected Primitivo and Negoamaro, Andrea has planted 7 international grape types. He cleverly uses these to create interesting blends that are unique to the estate and, he hopes, will please an international audience
Wines of Tenute Mater Domini
Marangi, Primitivo 2012
A luscious, ripe, well-rounded wine. Primitivo is genetically a first cousin to Zinfandel, yet this wine has none of Zin’s shock value but all of its depth, full of dark-fruit character. Layers of flavor reveal themselves. Great viscosity, with a dark and smoky a color. We love this wine.
Marangi, Negroamro 2011
Tastes like honey, without being sweet. Inky. Creamy, rich taste of cassis and blackberries. After a few minutes, it opened up even more and became even richer. Long legs coat the glass. Smooth as silk.
Casili Salice Salentino Reserva Doc 2008
An extraordinarily delicious wine. Filled with dark cherries and full flavor, it’s big, delicious, round and supple, with notes of tar and leather. Layers of complexity continue to reveal themselves on the palate. This is Mater Domini’s masterpiece.
To learn more about Mater Domini, visit their website.
Fabrizio Rossi of Cefalicchio
Last week we profiled Cefalicchio, a biodynamic winery in Puglia. We also had a chance to speak with Fabrizio Rossi, who guided the winery towards organic and biodynamic production over 20 years ago.
You were the first in your area to practice organic and biodynamic winemaking. What led to that decision?
I came back home in 1985 and got involved in my father’s farm. We used to produce grapes and olives, and we used to sell them in the local market. I was interested in organic agriculture and I got in touch with the International Foundation for Organic Agriculture. They sent me to the Associazione per l’Agricoltura Biodinamica in Milan.
I did not know much about organic agriculture, and I knew nothing about biodynamic agriculture and antroposophy, but I was puzzled and somehow fascinated by what appeared to me a funny mixture of philosophy and agricultural engineering. I thought that the challenge was an interesting one and I started with the biodynamic method in my own little farm, and later in on my father’s farm. In 2003, along with my brother and sister, we decided to pool our energies and start a small family winery. We started with a blend of Nero di Troia and Montepulciano grapes.
How does your land lend itself to biodynamic production? Is the soil, climate and pest profile easier or harder than other Italian regions?
It is certainly easier to produce grapes in our area than in many other regions. The climate is very favourable. As far as pests and diseases are concerned, we have only a few key problems, but we solve them easily. The soil is very favourable too. It is sedimentary rock, a limestone born from the deposits of sediments in a marine environment.
But, of course, reality is more complex than we anticipate. In our climate, due to a fairly hot summertime and a very high solar radiation, the ripening process tends to be a little bit too fast and the acidity tends, in some vintages, to fall before the perfect ripeness of the fruit. So it is often difficult to spot that perfect day when sugar content, acidity and phenol maturity are aligned. This problem seems to be more relevant with international varieties, especially Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.
Even the soil, as I said, seems to be very favourable, and the grapes do like it very much, although it looks like a very poor soil. The good “minerality” of our wines is probably due to the soil.
Do you think biodynamic farming enhances the quality and taste of your wines?
I am convinced that biodynamic farming enhances the quality of our grapes in the sense that the grapes are more “faithful,” if I can use the word, to themselves, to the farmer and to the terroir. The grapes, after the harvest, undergo a very complex process where the components are decomposed, during the maceration process, and rebuilt again in a completely different way. The colour, the taste, the flavour of the fruit may tell us a lot about the life of the plant. However, the wine may tell us a different story, as the alcohol in it points toward a direction which may have been normal in different times, but not anymore.
What are some of the challenges that biodynamic farming have presented?
The main challenge is that I have to keep studying and thinking and, of course, making mistakes. But this is more a pleasure than a challenge.
Now that you’ve been Biodynamic for over 20 years, have other vineyards nearby followed your lead?
Not many in Canosa. In Puglia there are quite a few biodynamic wine producers.
Do you talk about your biodynamic practices in your marketing?
I admit, when I started with biodynamic agriculture the main interest was an economic one. But, after so many years, I think that if we survive economically, and if we have some success, it is mainly because people like what we produce. But, I only take care of the agricultural production. Marketing is my brother’s job.
Vineyards at Cefalicchio
At Villa Cefalicchio
Barrels at Cefalicchio
Wine Cellar at Cefalicchio
Fabrizio Rossi of Cefalicchio
When your family has been in Puglia since 1650, a hundred-year-old winery is considered a recent acquisition. Driving up to the majestic Villa Cefalicchio we felt as though we’d been transported to the set of the classic 1963 Italian film The Leopard. We are met by Nicola Rossi, whose family has owned the property since 1871. He is gracious, elegant and a born aristocratic. First a lawyer, then a PhD from the London School of Economics and until recently he served in Italy’s Parliament. Now, he divides his time between Rome, where he teaches economics, and the Biodynamic wine estate he runs with his brother, Fabrizio, an agronomist and teacher.
Villa Cefalicchio has been producing wine since the late 1800s. However, like many in Puglia, these were vin de table, with the emphasis on quantity, not quality. In the early 1900s, Nicola’s grandfather started a cooperative in nearby Canosa. The Rossi family brought their grapes to the cooperative (which was the custom of the day) and also made their own wine. Everything was for local consumption. When the Nicolo and Fabrizio took control, they decided to leave the cooperative.
A generation later, the brothers have modernized the winery to compete in the world market. Fabrizio determined that Biodynamic farming was the responsible route to take, so in 1992 they became Demeter certified – the first vineyard in Southern Italy, and one the pioneers in the country. In keeping with their belief in sustainability, they’ve installed enough solar panels to produce three times more energy than the estate uses.
Cefalicchio’s philosophy is simple, “If the grapes are good enough to be table grapes, they’re good enough for our wine.” In keeping with this credo, they intervene as little as possible with the process. Yeasts are indigenous and the wines are lightly filtered. “We never filter so much as to prevent the wine from evolving; that is we never micro filter,” says Nicola. He further emphasized, “One of our few concessions to modernity is refrigeration. We thought about putting our tanks underground, but even then we would have needed refrigeration.” Because 70% of the wine is exported, and needs to be stable, sulfites are added at the end, but in such small amounts that they remain well below the limits for organic certification in the EU.
The estate encompasses 78 hectares (193 acres), 20 of which are currently planted in grapes. The rest is a combination of olives trees, fields ready to be planted in grapes, and woods for the all-important birds. They also have a second holding of 27 hectares at another location.
Interestingly, their biggest export market is China, where Nicola feels the government’s push toward environmental awareness is fueling his wines’ success. And, because the market is so large, a “small” shipment to China is 4,000-5,000 bottles. Overall, his wines’ top destinations after China are Japan, U.S., and Italy.
Cefalicchio produces 4 red wines, all of which contain, either in whole or in blend, the Puglian grape Nero di Troia. Nicola views this grape as their regional equivalent of Pinot Noir, thus its Burgundian style. Unlike other Puglian wineries, they use Primitivo only as a blending grape, which he views as Bordeaux-like in its characteristics. Their other blending grapes are Montepulciano and Cabernet Sauvignon.
They also bottle 2 whites and a rosé. Of interest is their Moscato, which, counter to expectations for this grape, is dry. They hope it will take the place of prosecco as an aperitif. Nicola feels “It starts as an aromatic wine, but ends with a bitter note which prepares you for the [fish] meal to come.”
Before we went to the cellar, we were shown the tasting and event room. This inviting, yet cavernous space with arched ceilings was once an almond storeroom – the estate was previously an almond farm. When renovating, they retained the original chute in the ceiling through which the almonds were poured.
The cellar is dug out from the tufa stone that underlies the entire estate. This is where the barrels lie on their sides as the wine ages in large oak barrels. They intentionally selected large barrels so that the oak to wine ratio would be low, and the flavors of the delicate Nero di Troia grapes would prevail. “We don’t want to drink a chair,” he joked.
The tufa is oceanic in origin. Nicola told us that as a kid he regularly found fossils in the soft rock, including an entire fish. He believes his wines’ minerality come from the tufa’s essence. “We are doing nothing but taking the memory of the sea and putting it into the glass.”
Ever the entrepreneur, Nicola works to expand the markets for his wine. Accordingly, he convinced another large wine producer that they needed a Biodynamic wine in their portfolio. They now include his wines in their catalogue, and since they’re distributed in places his small company can’t penetrate, this inclusion has opened up new markets.
At the end of the tour, Nicola reflected on his 1992 decision. “What convinced me that my brother was right in going Biodynamic was that when you grab the earth here, it’s living. You see earthworms. It’s moving. It doesn’t matter whether the season is wet or dry. We get consistent results. It’s like a baby who hasn’t been spoiled.”
We were fortunate enough to sample Cefalicchio’s wines over a dinner at the estate’s popular restaurant, which serves classic Puglian specialities to customers who often travel long distances for the pleasure of dining here. The beautifully appointed room is an inviting blend of clean sophistication and artifacts from the country’s past.
First pour was Jalal, the Moscato successfully made to replace either prosecco or a white served with fish. Delicious. Aromatic and floral. Restrained in its fruit, we thoroughly enjoyed the freshness. This is an interesting wine and a perfect match to the house-made antipasti, which included home-cured wild boar.
With our primi pasta course, Nicola opened his favorite creation, a 2009 Romanico (100% Nero di Troia) that spent 1 year in a barrel before being bottled. Since this wine requires a minimum of 3 years on the bottle before it’s ready to be opened, our 2009 was still young, as evidenced by the “Biodynamic fizz” and “still alive” taste. Over time, it will soften as the tannins mature. In our glasses, it did the same. The intense ruby red color lets you know that it will be jammy with withered fruits, spices and licorice. If we didn’t know better, we would have labeled this as a restrained Zinfandel. Ultimately the taste defies easy categorization. Romanico is a unique wine.
With our secondi carni course, which included two local cucina povera dishes, horse and donkey, we drank the Totila, a 50/50 Nero de Troia and Cabernet Sauvignon blend. Another deep ruby wine, this is full and fragrant with hints of red fruit, spices and vanilla.
The wines were delicious, but the true treat was being able to pair them with the chef Giampiero’s unique and artisanally prepared food.
Cefalicchio’s website has detailed information on their wines, olive oils, and growing methods.
Graham Nutter in his bird-friendly sunflower field.
There is something inspiring and satisfying about meeting people who are living their dreams. While most of us defer our ambitions, Graham Nutter went to the Minervois region of Languedoc in the south of France, and bought a vineyard. There he settled in to refurbish and reinvent Domaine St. Jacques D’Albas.
Jean-Pierre Riou, of Gifted Grapes in New York City, who distributes the Chateau’s wines, introduced us to Graham. An energetic Englishman, he radiates dynamism and enthusiasm both physically and intellectually. Forward seems the only gear engaged.
Luck played a big part in Graham’s introduction to wine. While a student at Cambridge, a powerful dean took him under his wing. “I had a fortnightly dinner invitation and each time he raided the college’s wine cellar for the very best claret.” So, at a tender age, Graham was exposed to the most expensive classified French Bordeaux.
11th century chapel.
His interest in wine transformed into an interest in winemaking when he was 26 years old. “I was in St. Emilion, randomly knocked on the door of Chateau Figeac and Monsieur Thierry Manoncourt (the owner, who died this past August) spent all afternoon with me. He took me into his library, opened bottles of Figeac ’64 and ’66. I’ll remember the ’64 until the day I die.” Manoncourt’s graciousness, enthusiasm and desire to educate all had a profound effect on Graham, who decided this was a lifestyle worth having.
A career in global money management and finance took Graham all over the world, allowing him to indulge his passion for drinking and collecting wine. Also, it introduced him to the man at the next desk, Nicolas Joly, now a leader in the Biodynamic wine world. Graham recalls that Joly trod barefoot around the stuffy Morgan Guarantee offices drinking cup after cup of hot tea, a habit he developed while in India.
A Roman road.
Talking to Graham, it is obvious that he has a keen mind and has chosen to wrap it around the complexities of wine. You may have met someone like this before: they study countries, regions and sub regions; they learn all about grape types; they delve into the mysteries of winemakers, chateaus, vintages and aging. They challenge themselves to master one of the most esoteric of all trades. Then, when they are ready, when their knowledge barrel overflows, they need to make their own wine.
Graham knows the world is awash in wine, he knows how hard it is to make and sell good wine, yet he had to try it. So, a la A Year In Provence, he moved to Minervois in 2001, an area his long-time French wife, Beatrice, selected. They purchased Chateau St. Jacques, 180 acres, 40% of it vineyards.
The property came complete with working Roman roads, 7th century Visigoth tombs, and an 11th century chapel. Unlike Peter Mayle, he did not just observe and criticize his neighbors and tradesman. He formed strong bonds with them as they helped uproot vines, laboriously alter the substrate and replant. He hired experts to help him with everything from organic farming to the winemaking, modernized the facilities (including sleekly styled stainless steel tanks) and developed new markets from Brooklyn to Hong Kong.
Along the way, he and Beatrice rebuilt and added a catering kitchen, concert hall and tasting room to their centuries-old farmhouse. They even designed an outdoor amphitheater for al fresco concerts.
Water-pump windmill built on Visigoth ruin.
And, 10 years on, these efforts are being rewarded. Now, the grape crop, which consists of primarily reds (30% syrah, 35% Carignan, 25% Grenache, and 5% Mouvedre) with a much smaller planting – 1.5 hectares — of whites (Roussanne, Viognier and Vermentino) is healthy. The Chateau’s wines sell out and have won awards in many European countries. Distribution is in 14 countries and counting. An example of Graham’s forward thinking is his efforts in India. Due to its huge population and low wine consumption, he sees great opportunity. “On a recent visit there, I was treated like a Maharaja.”
One of the hallmarks of Graham and Beatrice’s Minervois world is hospitality. They seem to love being surrounded by people and playing off their energy. They have two gites (apartments) for rent and it is not unusual for them to befriend their paying guests. While we were there, a few ex-pat chums came by, so their houseguest, renowned pianist Rustem Hayroudinoff, could practice on the Chateaus’ antique baby grand. Wine dinners, jazz concerts and Irish weddings all receive Beatrice and Graham’s welcome. Even migrating birds are invited. Graham keeps a field of sunflowers specifically for them to feed on as they pass by.
But what of the wine? The Minervois, like much of the Languedoc, was growing and producing a vin du table of low quality that was sold in bulk to blend for the diminished legions of blue-collar drinkers. Wine consumption has plummeted; younger Frenchman often have a beer after work. The only hope for Graham’s and other vineyards was to upgrade to a name brand domaine and make really great wine that could be exported.
To accomplish this, Graham reached out to master planter and grower, Jean-Pierre Cousinie, whose Cousinie Methode is built on the Steiner’s Biodynamics but incorporates proprietary laboratory analysis that was not available in Steiner’s day. To facilitate ripening and allow for manual harvesting, an aggressive pruning program to restrict yield to 35hl/hectare and re-establish the shape of the vines was undertaken.
These harvested grapes produce 4 AOC wines: 1) a large volume “Clos de Garric of young Syrah, Carignan, and Grenache vines; 2) an aged in the tank Domaine of Grenache/Syrah; 3) a Chateau wine of Syrah/Grenache, the Syrah aged in oak barrels; and 4) the limited release (4,500 bottles) Chapelle, which Graham calls his Super cuvee of predominantly Syrah. He also produces 3 vin de pays d’Oc wines: rose, red, and white. Total release is approximately 9,000 cases.
We ended our stay where we started it – at their dining table, sharing conversation, delicious food and wine, and a commonality of values and interests. Our hosts went an extra mile, well, literally, an extra 100 feet, down to their extensive, electronic ID-access-only, subterranean wine cellar, to share with us their incredible library wines, one a Figeac (in honor of our conversation of the day before) and the other a biodynamic beauty, Domaine Leflaive, made by Madame Anne-Claude Leflaive, one of Graham’s winemaking inspirations.
For our departure, early the next morning, our consummate host arose to give us a smile and a final send of. We left knowing that his day would be filled improving and enjoying everything that bears the Chateau Saint-Jacques d’Albas label.
The tasting room.
Vin de Pays d’OC
2007 Le Petite St Jacques Red (50/50 Cab/Grenache)
A fresh and agreeable wine, smooth and berry red. This unusual blend is very fruity, ultra low tannins. Hints of mocha and leather. An authoritative French wine guide says, “A serious wine for non-serious moments.”
Chateau St Jacques d’Albas
Silky smooth and chewy. Bright and sun-kissed, fruit forward yet dry finish, this is a winner. A great expression of the best of the “new” Minervois. The Syrah’s 12 months on oak gives the wine depth and complexity. Hints of anise and pepper.
La Chapelle St. Jacques d’Albas
2006 (Old vine Syrah with 4% Carignan or Grenache)
This pride and joy of the estate has a deep bouquet of dark fruit with strong flavors of spice and incense. Elegant, rich, 1st class. Simply delicious. Hand punched down. Limited release of 5,500 bottles
The vineyards at Pech Latt
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.
Entrance to the wine cave.
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.
Determining grape ripeness by seed color.
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.
The chateau's private chapel.
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.