Lately, everyone seems to be talking about Occitanie (the new department name for the merger of Languedoc-Roussillon and Midi-Pyrénées). Maxim called it The Wine Soaked Region that is France’s Best Kept Secret. Vogue said to Skip Bordeaux – This is the New Wine Region to Visit in France. Condé Nast Traveler wrote Why Langeudoc is Like Nowhere Else in France.
This all opens up a more serious conversation (despite the clicky headlines) about the wine of the region, as newcomers discover an area that is home to multi-generational winemakers as well as those that see the potential in re-starting life fresh as a winemaker in Southern France. In other words, both sides of the story are listening: the producers and the consumers.
After a recent trip to Occitanie I noticed several themes in chatter about the area, present both in southern France and abroad. My recent conversation with Bastien Lalauze – winemaker and estate manager at sustainably-farmed Château Martinolles in Limoux, a sparkling wine property in the Domaines Paul Mas family – brought to life these themes, illustrating where practice and perception are coming together in a very exciting circuit.
On New Quality In Occitanie
Lalauze confirmed stories that I heard while in Occitanie, that yes – vines have been pulled up. In Minervois they used the term “grubbed up” and the assumption is that this is being done because some of the vineyards produce low-quality (bulkish) wine; order for Languedoc to shine they must replant. There is truth to this, but the decade-old reforms that initiated this practice have now expired, allowing for the results to come to fruition. Lalauze shared that he is now planting about 20 hectares each year, most of it on vineyards that have rested under cover crop for 5-7 years.
There are still beautiful heritage vines there, including some Clairette that Lalauze refers to as “ancient” along with 38 other varietals sprinkled throughout the Domaines Paul Mas vineyards. Paul Mas, of course, is a significant name in the area, under the guidance of namesake Jean Claude Mas. Domaines Paul Mas owns more than 600 hectares of vineyards (including Château Martinolles) and their partnership extends to another 1,312 hectares of vines husbanded by other local growers. This depth is indicative of the pulse of creativity in a wine region capable of both large quantities and forward-reaching fingerprints. There is room for change, room for outsiders, room to breathe in the Languedoc – and where there was (10, 20 years ago) room for improvement – there is now, simply, improvement.
Lalauze himself could be seen as a fresh face, having joined Domaines Paul Mas in 2011 at his first-ever post as estate manager and winemaker. Flush with an education in agriculture, engineering, biology and geology, Lalauze says he was ready to “accept the challenge” when offered the post at Château Martinolles. Not from a winegrowing background, the “diversity of tasks” and the opportunity to create something new each year appealed to Lalaluze.
On Sustainability + Biodiversity in Occitanie
Château de Martinolles is farmed sustainably, with a certification from Terra Vitis, a wholly interesting concept with influence in six major wine regions in France. Of their mission they state, “Humankind and its environment are at the heart of the Terra Vitis project. The protection of natural resources is one of the major stakes today, but not the only one. The health of the estate manager and that of their employees, neighbours and consumers is just as important to Terra Vitis.” This holistic approach was echoed by Lalauze in our conversation as he told me that he has to “take the vineyard globally” in a culture of organic and even biodynamic influences. “It’s a patient job,” he said, and one that is a big change in Occitanie. However he is not alone. In Limoux there is a gathering of around ten other vignerons, allowing for “a lot of exchange” in terms of the way they look at the farm, “not just at production but also the people”.
It became apparent during my conversation with Lalauze, that he has a passion for biodiversity in the soil of his vineyards, which he constantly works to increase. The use of gentle machines to “kill the weeds without shocking the vines” is on the uptick as he adds to the acreage receiving such treatment each year. He plants his vineyards with three to five varietals that don’t compete directly for soil space – those with varied root systems, those that reach for different levels in the earth (top to deep, and those that reach wide). He’s working on the issue of lack of water (when applicable) by utilizing mulch.
One of the most exciting things about Lalauze’s vineyards is the intense soil biome that he’s constantly cultivating, the living organic matter that rules the roost under the visible vines. He says that “nitrogen created by chemistry was easy, but the microorganisms aren’t able to work anymore and now we have to do it all again”. So instead of using synthetic fertilizers, Lalauze cultivates plants that trap nitrogen in the air and deposit it back into the soil. Mycorrhizal Fungi increases the presence of microorganisms that are suitable to the soil – creating a natural balance in the vineyard that depends less and less on fighting back nature with harshness and synthetics.
That term, Mycorrhizal Fungi, is very important to Lalauze; he created a diagram to explain how this underground process works. I found the following explanation from the New York Botanical Garden, “Mycorrhizae are symbiotic relationships that form between fungi and plants. The fungi colonize the root system of a host plant, providing increased water and nutrient absorption capabilities while the plant provides the fungus with carbohydrates formed from photosynthesis.” Basically, these create a link between the soil and vine benefiting the exchange of nutrients. When the soil is over-processed or treated with chemicals, these die out or lose their working power – something Lalauze authentically wants to avoid. He leans heavily on preventative rather than curative methods when it comes to disease, and exhibits confidence that Limoux is the perfect place to showcase the capability of a healthy vineyard, “Our Languedoc climate is conducive to organic farming because it is dry and windy which decreases the pressure of diseases like powdery mildew.”
On Sparking Wine In Occitanie
The story goes that first sparkling wines were invented at Saint Hilaire Abbey (in Limoux) in 1544 – setting the stage for the show-stealing Champenois that people world wide associate with bubbles in their wine. Lalauze is a specialist when it comes to sparkling wine, in charge of all sparkling wines at Domaines Paul Mas, which are produced exclusively at Château Martinolles. He says that he “learned from the sparkling wines how to make still wines” because one must “be precise when making sparkling” wines. But in the cellar, he says, they are the most interesting.
A few examples from Lalauze’s portfolio:
Crémant de Limoux Brut, AOP Limoux: 60% Chardonnay, 20% Chenin Blanc, 10% Pinot Noir, 10% Mauzac. Aged 18-24 months before disgorgement, rich and acidic. What is crémant? Translated as creamy, in the wine world this is a sparkling wine where the second stage of fermentation (to be thanked for the bubbles) happens in the bottle. Made similarly to Champagne, but termed crémant because it is made outside of Champagne. In several wine regions throughout France, one will find the regional crémant, bubbled similarly but with slightly different requirements. (NV, retail around $16)
Crémant de Limoux Brut Rosé, AOP Limoux: 70% Chardonnay, 20% Chenin, 10% Pinot Noir. Made in the style mentioned about but with a beautiful rosé shade. (NV, retail around $16)
Blanquette de Limoux Méthode Ancestrale, AOP Limoux: 100% Mauzac, a regional grape with notes of fresh cut grass and apple cider. I find this to be particularly delicious and I’ve featured this wine here. (And other Blanquettes de Limoux here and here.) Méthode Ancestrale is an ancient process employed to create bubbly wines by bottling the wine before the first fermentation has finished. This creates a release of carbon dioxide in the bottle as the fermentation rolls on. (NV, retail around $16)
Brut Blanc de Blancs, IGP Vin de France: 100% Chardonnay made in the same method as the crémant, but because it is not made under the Crémant de Limoux standards, it is called a mousseux, or sparkling wine. In this case it is the sourcing of grapes outside of Limoux, from elsewhere in the Languedoc, that prevent the stamp of the Crémant de Limoux label. (NV, retail around $16)
On The Real Message in Occitanie
Notice two sub-themes, both significant in Occitanie. The first is the scope of styles: local tradition (the Blanquette, with native grape and the historical méthode ancestrale) / regional, yet French (the crémants, made in a French style with regional flair) / open and stylized (the flexible, international blanc de blanc).
The second is the price: all high-quality, primarily AOP wines priced under $20 – for a carefully made bubbly by a respected domaine with sustainable standards. Those two things: scope and price attractiveness/value (and yes, they are available in the US) ring through every conversation I have about Occitanie.
On the Place that Has it All
I asked Lalauze to tell me what it’s like, in his words, around his vineyards. He noted the Mediterranean climate – those hot days and cool nights. Lots of acidity in Limoux wines, with vines at around 300 meters elevation. There are hills, trees and streams. A diverse terroir of garrigue to oak forest. When hiking the vegetation will change, new environments will emerge. The mountains, Mount Alaric and the Montagne Noire range…these are the things he pointed out. No mention of monuments or ramparts, of museums or shopping. No mention of restaurants or hotels or universities… all of that is there, for sure, but a winemaker like Lalauze keeps his eyes on the vines, the land and terroir and “accepts the challenge” of being part of the new face of Occitanie.