Old grapes, new barriers

Sunday, 28. January 2018 - 15:45

“I’m not an outlaw,” says Thierry Navarre, with a slight note of irony in his voice. “This is just an experiment – but then life is an experiment, isn’t it?”

Navarre is talking about his steadfast devotion to resuscitating and vinifying ancient grape varieties at Domaine Thierry Navarre in Roquebrun, St. Chinian – a passion that has frequently placed him in a grey zone when it comes to law. Yes, law. France doesn’t just have complex, restrictive appellation rules, but  even stricter stipulations about what can and cannot be planted in a vineyard.

In the Languedoc-Roussillon, the safe choice is to stick with Syrah, Grenache or even the now fashionable Carignan – all of which are from  Spain, albeit dating back centuries. But replanting some of the region’s historic indigenous varieties such as Ribeyrenc Noir or Œillade Norie can theoretically land the vigneron in court.

More about the legal part later – but why are producers, including Navarre, so fascinated by these obscure cultivars? Only a few decades ago, Languedoc-Roussillon’s winemakers were encouraged to grub up Carignan and anything else that might be cohabiting (field blends were once the norm) in favour of “improving varieties” such as the now ubiquitous Syrah and Grenache.

An acute need
It seemed like a good idea to rid the south of an excess of basic, rustic wines. But with an ever warmer and dryer climate, it’s since become clear that Syrah or Grenache are not the silver bullet that was once assumed. André Dominé, a strong advocate of historic varieties, is a Roussillon-based journalist who formed Les Vieux Cépages, a loose collective of producers who meet twice a year to compare notes on old vines and rare varieties. 

“Today people realise that Syrah is not really an ideal variety here,” he said. “In fact Carignan is the most well adapted red grape for a hot, dry Mediterranean region such as the Roussillon.”

Carignan, it turns out, is far better able to retain acidity to give wines freshness than its theoretically more auspicious vineyard brethren. Now, after 30 years, it has had a welcome resurgence, along with far better understanding of its ideal sites (hillsides, to cut a long story short) and vinification methods (not too much extraction, keep the yields low).

But the story doesn’t end with Carignan. When  Navarre took over his family’s estate in 1988, he was curious about the grape varieties that had proliferated in the region pre-phylloxera. Ribeyrenc Noir – also known as Rivairenc or Aspiran Noir – was almost wiped out in the 1880s, but Navarre managed to find some plants in 1994.

Visiting the Chamber of Agriculture to declare his intentions resulted in a rather delicate situation: “They said, ‘This is going to be very complicated because the variety doesn’t even exist in the catalogue’ ”. Navarre went ahead and planted, even without the official blessing. He escaped the wrath of the powers that be, and more recently Ribeyrenc Noir and its two mutations Ribeyrenc Blanc and Gris have all been added to the catalogue of permitted cultivars.

He has similarly pioneered the re-introduction of other historic varieties such as  Œillade, a red variety with a close relationship to Cinsault and all three colour mutations of Terret – Blanc, Noir and Gris.

Navarre is fortunate in having one of the world’s largest ampelographic collections on his doorstep. Domaine de Vassal, located just outside Montpelier, boasts some 7,800 accessions and well over 3,000 distinct cultivars. He was able to source otherwise extinct varieties, such as Terret Noir, from the facility. Vassal’s invaluable resource is shortly due to commence a forced relocation, but this is another story.

A resolutely down-to-earth character, Navarre is one of those people who appears to have a permanent smile on his face. He doesn’t come across as an academic or a geek – so why the fascination with some of the planet’s most obscure Vitis vinifera sub-species?

 “I live in a desert and I’m looking for camels,” comes the disarming reply. Ribeyrenc Noir is one such camel – able to tolerate drought, very resistant to diseases and able to ripen at around 11% alcohol.

About Œillade, his most recent fascination, he said, “This wine is exactly what my customers are looking for – it’s light, fruity and fresh. I don’t have a single bottle left to sell right now!” His Vin d’Œillades 2016, from an extremely poor schist soil, has a rustic twang but lip-smacking earthy red fruit. It is the kind of wine suited to joyful consumption by the litre rather than with prim little sips.

Navarre has endured, perhaps due to a combination of doggedness with an incredibly sunny temperament. “I get no money from the EU for planting these varieties,” he said. “It’s cost me a lot of time and energy, and it’s really buggered me up on a few occasions – but it gives me a lot of satisfaction.” Even when he started, “I didn’t have any allies here, not even one.”

That at least has changed – there’s a small but ever-increasing band of similar quasi-outlaws who are prepared like Navarre to forsake appellation classification (none of the varieties mentioned above are yet permitted in AOP wines) and even occasionally work outside the law to reintroduce and research varieties that could be key in a more globally warmed Languedoc-Roussillon.

Fraud squad
Not everyone has Navarre’s devil-may-care attitude to officialdom, though. Vineyard plantings and varieties are controlled by the snappily titled “Direction Générale de la Concurrence, de la Consommation et de la Répression des Fraudes”, a strict institution that functions like a vineyard police force.

More and more of Navarre’s colleagues have experimental plots with forbidden varieties, but no-one wants ‘La répression des fraudes’ on their backs, and none of those interviewed would give their names for fear of legal reprisals. The vast majority are small, artisan growers. If, like Navarre, they bottle their more obscure varieties, the quantities are usually tiny. Some are experimenting with Morrastel-Bouschet, better known in Rioja as Graciano. The variety was once very popular in the Languedoc, and appears to be much more drought-resistant than more modern imports to the region. 

More recently, micro-negociant Calmel and Joseph entered the Vieux Cepages arena with its first bottling of Terret Blanc, the white variety originally championed by  Navarre.
There is nothing especially unusual about larger producers – Calmel & Joseph produces almost a million bottles a year – conducting experiments like this. Except that in this case, the concept was initiated by UK supermarket buyer Daphne Teremetz from Waitrose. 

“I first tasted this grape variety in 2016 and felt it had strong potential with our customers thanks to the flavour profile (crisp, lean, mineral) and good intensity combined with low-moderate alcohol level,” she said. “My brief to Laurent Calmel was to look for grapes with good intensity due to older vines or deliberately restricted yields and to select based not just a fruity flavour profile but also good steeliness/stony minerality, akin to great, top flight Muscadets.”

The Villa Blanche Terret Blanc 2016 has achieved Teremetz’s aim admirably, and for a low retail price to boot. £8.49 ($11.21). The Waitrose write-up compares it to Chablis, which is ambitious – but at the same time the mouthwatering freshness and attractive chalkiness do head in a certain kimmeridgian direction.

Teremetz is very pleased with the customer response so far: “It is selling well and interest is building. This is very positive for a little-known grape variety.” She also said that UK wine and TV personality Olly Smith not only recently made the wine one of his top picks, but also – more surprisingly – commented, “Terret is the grape that got me into wine and I haven't tasted one this good in 20 years”.

Meininger’s asked Olly Smith if anyone was really making a varietal Terret Blanc in 1997, and he confirmed that the wine came from Francois Lurton’s range, then sold by Oddbins in the UK. It’s a potent reminder of how fast fashions can change – and that the collective memory of the wine trade is sometimes rather short.

Calmel is clear why Terret fell out of fashion those few decades ago: “There was a lot planted in the 1960s, mainly for Noilly Prat,” he said. “But then it became a ‘has been’ and nobody wanted it anymore”. The negative view of Terret wasn’t helped by the fact that these vineyards were designed solely for mass production, not for quality.

There are those in the region who seem jealous of Calmel and Joseph’s success, or regard their decision to create a more mass-market Terret Blanc as mere marketing or bandwagoning. But André Dominé is all for it: “It can only be a good thing when a major producer gets behind something like this.”

Calmel and Joseph have more surprises up their sleeves. Their first Picpoul Noir (2016) is about to be bottled, and may also be destined for supermarket shelves. It’s expressive and charming, absolutely befitting its ‘Pinot Noir of the Languedoc’ nickname.

Advocacy of forgotten grape varieties needs to come from all levels if it is to make further inroads. If the Languedoc-Roussillon’s venerable camels are to thrive once again, the help of Calmel & Joseph – and others like them – will not only be invaluable, but also signposts quite clearly that their time may have finally come.
Simon Woolf