Bad news stories about French wine are ten a penny: falling consumption, losing ground to the New World, too much poor quality stuff still made. However, the picture is not entirely bleak and there are also many success stories to be told – and I do not just mean Bordeaux First Growths lining their pockets thanks to cash-rich Far East investors.
The Languedoc, the world’s largest wine-making region, covering a vast swathe of southern France, has, as you might imagine, its fair share of what might politely be called unambitious wines. However, it is also home to quality-minded producers, proud of their unique terroirs, their old vines and confident in the region’s ability to make top notch wine.
Languedoc is also a stronghold of wine-making co-operatives, organisations which unite independent growers who provide their grapes (or sometimes juice) to a central facility which makes, matures and bottles the wine; and finally, markets it. It’s clear that such a model does not automatically drive high quality production – in less switched-on co-ops, where growers are paid based on the amount of grapes they deliver, there is little incentive to focus on quality, by maintaining vineyards with lower-yielding old vines for example – or on such concerns as sustainability.
In today’s competitive wine market there is ever less room for such a quantity-driven approach, however. Those wine co-operatives which are thriving nowadays are those which are dynamic, forward-looking and who embrace modern technology, but who also respect what growers with valuable vineyard plots are able to provide them, focusing on quality rather than quantity. Off the top of my head I’d point to Plaimont Producteurs in France’s Southwest, the Caves de Turckheim and Ribeauvillé in Alsace and Mailly Grand Cru in Champagne as co-ops which fit this description.
Vignobles Foncalieu, headquartered near the impossibly picturesque medieval walled city of Carcassonne, near Toulouse, have also showed that they are determined to aim higher in their quest to provide a market for their 1,200 individual growers stretching from Gascony to the Rhône Valley. Those growers tend 5,000 hectares of vines and produce 23 million bottles of wine annually.
At those levels of production, it would be foolish to say that quality is uniformly high, but it is certainly true that Foncalieu, under the leadership of President Michel Bataille, is focused on driving up quality and moving away from the “stack ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap” mentality.
As part of their push towards the top, in 2012 Foncalieu bought the well-regarded Corbières estate, Château Haut-Gléon, which it now runs as a kind of business within a business. Its wines are hard to find in the UK currently, but if you would like a taste of what the sleeping giant of Corbières is capable of, keep your eyes peeled for them. Perhaps the best way to sample Haut-Gléon’s wines is to go and stay at the Château itself, which has been refurbished to provide luxurious accommodation.
But as any student of marketing knows, there is always more than one strategy for success in a market. To say that Domaine Jones is at the opposite end of the scale to Foncalieu is to risk understatement. Founded, owned and run by Katie Jones, this pint-sized winery in the Fitou region of Languedoc makes just 20,000 bottles of wine a year from 10 hectares of vines.
Katie moved to France just over 20 years ago and spent most of that time helping to market and sell the wines of the Mont Tauch co-operative. In 2009 she made the leap and bought her first parcel of vines in Maury just over the “border” in Languedoc’s neighbour, Roussillon. A small and isolated plot of old vines with blocks of different grape varieties, as Katie says “The very things that make my small vineyard unattractive to the big growers make it a paradise for me.”
Although size-wise these two producers may be poles apart, they do share some common ground. The vast majority of the wine they make goes to export markets – 80% for Foncalieu, 98% for Domaine Jones. They are also, in their different ways, part of the process of helping the Languedoc to climb out of the cheap wine ghetto.
Foncalieu and Domaine Jones wines in the UK
Katie Jones’ wines are available through Majestic, Naked Wines and The Wine Society – though, as they are necessarily made in rather small quantities, they are not all always in stock. Some of Katie’s most exciting wines are her whites and unfortunately, due to an act of vandalism last year, when the vats were deliberately emptied, all of her 2012 white wine production was lost.
Domaine Jones Côtes Catalanes Grenache 2012 - £11.95 from The Wine Society
At its most basic, Grenache makes wines that are fairly simple, combining strawberry fruit and white pepper. However, old vines such as these bring greater concentration and full-bodied, ink-tinged fruit.
Katie’s biggest production is of the red blend, Fitou, though currently both Majestic and Naked Wines have sold out of their stocks of 2011 – the 2012 will be on its way. Naked Wines customers can currently enjoy the simpler charms of her Le Petit Train Corbières 2012 (£9.99/£7.49)and Le Petit Train Syrah 2012 (£10.99/£8.25).
Domaine Cambos Gros Manseng 2012 – on offer at Hennings Wine Merchants for £5.50
From the Gascony end of Foncalieu’s production, Gros Manseng is a white grape incapable of making boring wines – fresh with a distinct grapefruit tang and a surprising amount of weight and persistence on the palate (and ony 11% alcohol).
Le Versant Viognier 2012 - £8.50 from Hennings Wine Merchants and otherindependents
Le Versant is Foncalieu’s core range of varietal wines, which you might come across on many a restaurant wine list. This Viognier is their top seller in the range and supplies plenty of the variety’s typical stone fruit and honeysuckle aromas, with a more savoury feel on the palate. Also look out for Le Versant Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon at around the same price.