Saturday 28 July 2012

Pic Saint-Loup and the wines of Domaine de L'Hortus

Surely everyone knows the tale of Little Red Riding Hood? One of the earliest versions, titled Le Petit Chaperon rouge was written by French author Charles Perrault. In his telling, the one who has a happily ever after ending is the wolf, who lures the innocent lass into bed and devours her shortly after. The author ends the story by warning ladies to beware of talking to strangers, especially those who are sweet and charming. Advice that has fallen on deaf ears apparently, considering the number of illicit liaisons that have flooded the news of late. As an allegory, the wolf has been used rather unfairly, used to represent predators, savagery and wickedness.

© Gabriel Baker
Recently though we have come to look upon wolves more favourably (could this be due to the Twilight franchise?). The area of Pic Saint-Loup in Southern France (Loup means wolf in French) is dominated by a 658m tall mountain from which it takes its name. Some have fancifully described the mountain as resembling the teeth of a wolf, but local folklore has it that the mountain is named after Thieri Loup, one of three brothers in love with the maiden Bertrade. Upon their return from fighting in the Crusades and discovering that Bertrade had died, they lived out the rest of their lives as hermits on three neighbouring peaks.

This is the Wild West of French winemaking, a place filled with energetic producers who care little about rigid appellation laws. A good thing too, as the regulations which cover the Languedoc-Roussilon area can only be described generously as "messy". In 2007 the Coteaux du Languedoc AOC (of which Pic Saint-Loup is a subregion) was changed to Languedoc AOC and its borders greatly increased to cover more than 38,000 ha. The various regions within the Languedoc AOC are now fighting to establish a tiered system of classification. Pic Saint-Loup, which applied for AOC status way back in 2001, is still waiting to be confirmed. Meanwhile, the consumer's best guide to this region would seem to be in seeking out reliable producers rather than looking at the appellation.

One of the best, and indeed pioneering, producers of Pic Saint-Loup is Domaine de L'Hortus. This winery was the focus of a recent tasting held on the 12th of July at Praelum Wine Bistro. What was initially planned as a selection of small bites turned out to be a full-fledged five course dinner.

Domaine de L'Hortus, founded by Jean Orliac in the 1970s, is situated in a valley between the mountains of Pic Saint-Loup and the Montagne de l'Hortus. The climate is Mediterranean, but the altitude of the vineyards (around 150m) and cool nights produce wines of greater elegance than one would expect from a region this far south in France. The region is filled with scrubland and various herbs, with the soil having a high proportion of limestone. The labels are decidedly modern, with clean white labels and easy to read script.

Tasting notes:

2010 Domaine de L'Hortus Grande Cuvee Blanc - As the Pic Saint-Loup denomination is only for red and rosé wines, there is no indication of it on the bottle. A blend of varietals with Chardonnay dominating, the wine had a medium intensity nose of tropical fruits, pineapple, lemon and guava. The palate exhibited fresh vanilla bean with lemon and tropical fruits. Fresh and balanced with well integrated oak and good fruit concentration.

2008 Dolines de L'Hortus Rouge Coteaux du Languedoc - A youthful ruby robe, with aromas of red cherries, licorice, violets and leather. Medium+ alcohol with notes of black cherry, black olives and Provençal herbs on the palate. Ripe, medium+ tannins. Warm finish. A delicious, food friendly wine. 

2010 Bergerie de L'Hortus Rouge, Pic Saint-Loup - Rather closed nose with notes of chalk, blackcurrant and violet. Savoury and gamey on the palate with blackcurrant and olive notes. Alcohol shows through. Will need a few years to show at its best. 

2009 Clos du Prieur Rouge, Coteaux du Languedoc - The nose has notes of herbs and garrigue, very typically Languedoc. Well-structured on the palate, with firm acidity and intriguing notes of charred meat and black olives. Grippy tannins lend body to the wine. Very good. 

2009 Domaine de L'Hortus Grande Cuvee Rouge - Deep ruby. Violets and black fruit on the nose. Full bodied with high alcohol and medium+ tannins. Good concentration and ripeness, with notes of black fruits, black cherry and raisins. Needs some aging.