The red from the South

Sales of Pic Saint Loup, a red wine from Languedoc, have soared. Elizabeth Gabay MW explains its appeal.

Joël Julien
Joël Julien, director, les Costières de Pomérols

Languedoc-Roussillon, producer of 5% of the world’s wine and 30% of the French, was predicted to have the fastest growing global wine sales in 2017 to 2018. Official statistics show that within this buoyant economic market, Pic Saint Loup sales have been one of the fastest growing Languedoc crus.

New status

The Languedoc crus are the peak of the pyramid of Languedoc wine appellations. Languedoc AOP is at the foot, with 19.5% of Languedoc’s production, with higher yields and lower prices; the grands vins of Languedoc including regional appellations such as Minervois are in the middle with 69%, and the seven cru appellations, including Pic Saint Loup, are at the top with the remaining 11.5%.

In 1994, Pic Saint Loup was classified as a Grand Vin for its reds and rosés. In September 2016, it became Languedoc’s newest cru, with its first rosé wines appearing in 2017 and reds in 2018. Wine writer and Rhône specialist Matt Walls believes “the cru level wines of the Languedoc are all worth a look and all fairly unknown outside committed wine lovers in the UK”. Pic Saint Loup has some of the strictest specifications for appellation rules in Languedoc concerning density of planting, training and yields. With a high proportion of old vines and hilly terrain, yields average 38hl per hectare.

Benôit Viot of Le Chemin des Rêves, who is vice-president of the growers’ syndicate, recognises the importance of Pic Saint Loup’s new appellation status. “Since the creation of the appellation, the reputation of the wines has increased, attracting journalists,” he says. Yves Orliac of Domaine de l’Hortus agrees. “The coverage by international journalists has raised the awareness of the appellation in foreign markets, especially Anglophone, resulting in export becoming a significant part of our business.”

A focused export market to small distributors to the UK and northern Europe is successful. Orliac noted that for l’Hortus, “Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands are strong markets [and this seems typical for a number of estates] as well as North America, the UK and Ireland.” His aim is to sell to a quality market of good restaurants and independents, “three-star Michelin rather than Lidl, and to have a global reach”.

Tom Ashworth of Yapp Brothers, who sell Mas Brugière’s l’Arboise, retailing at £16.95 ($21.80), supports this view of Pic Saint Loup producing quality wines. “In terms of bang for your buck, Pic Saint Loup is one of the richest hunting grounds in all of France. After successive short vintages (2016 and 2017) and elevation to full AOC status, these high-quality wines are no longer the petit prix they once were but provide remarkable qualité rapport prix [value for money].” 

The wider French market has remained far more traditional and resistant to appreciating emerging regions, although Joël Julien, local grape grower and director of the Picpoul co-operative, les Costières de Pomérols, adds that proximity to Montpellier has always guaranteed a healthy regional market. Xavier de Volontant, former president of the Interprofessional Council of the Wines of Languedoc, or CIVL, believes that the focus on promoting quality has increased sales in the French restaurant trade and in export. Since 2007, sales of Pic Saint Loup wines have risen 150%, with exports of premium wines and sales to independent wine merchants and high-end restaurants in France increasing, especially wines selling at €17.00-plus ($19.41). In 2017, the CIVL found that seven out of 10 wine merchants in the Paris region stocked Pic Saint Loup, which is strong penetration compared to other regional Languedoc crus.

The wines of Pic Saint Loup remain, however, largely unknown to many consumers. One reason is the volume of wine produced. Despite Pic Saint Loup being the largest of the cru appellations, with around 1500ha, most producers are too small to seek large scale exports. In 2015, the three co-operatives accounted for 38% of production, and 55 estates the rest. Independents and the on-trade remain their main outlets.

 

Cooler climate

Pic Saint Loup, one of the most north-westerly appellations, is defined by the emblematic peaks of Pic Saint Loup (658m) and the Causse de l’Hortus (512m), rising up from the coastal plain and the sea, 30km away. The higher altitude and cold, dry tramontane and mistral winds, which blow down from the Cévennes and the Rhône Valley, create a cooler climate, more akin to the northern Rhône than the rest of Languedoc.

The complex range of soils, altitudes and gradients contribute to the range of wine styles. The reason for the varying styles of the appellation lie in the combination of terroir and percentage of the various varieties. Some blend the varieties from the different areas, others create terroir-based wines. L’Ermitage makes three different styles from vines from three different zones. One from a cool, high altitude red clay site, one from the lower limestone slopes and a third from white clay and galets (shingles).

Syrah, which, since the 2016 vintage must be a minimum of 50% in the red blends, tends to be planted on the cooler, higher altitude sites. This high percentage of Syrah and cooler climate has led to comparisons with the northern Rhône. The Syrah-based wines have the power, finesse and elegance of Rhône Syrah (L’Ermitage has planted cuttings of Syrah from the northern Rhône), but also the freshness typical of Pic Saint Loup and the Languedoc character of black fruit, mint, garrigue scrubland and eucalyptus. Jeb Dunnuck, critic for the Wine Advocate, described the wines of Clos Marie as being the “Côte-Rôtie of the South”. Orliac, however, prefers to aim “for a distinct Pic Saint Loup style”, tempering the Syrah with Grenache and Mourvèdre planted on the hotter sites.

Not all wines include Mourvèdre. It is often found in the top wines, giving an extra velvety depth, similar to the big wines of Bandol character; L’Ermitage has cuttings of Mourvèdre from Bandol. A higher percentage of Grenache gives the wine a more southern Rhône character, although Marcel Orford-Williams of The Wine Society feels that: “with exceptions, much is overrated, over-ambitious and over-priced. Syrah Grenache blends are often better and cheaper in the Rhône.”

While Pic Saint Loup reds have similarities to those of the northern Rhône, southern Rhône, Bandol and the GSM (Grenache-Syrah-Mourvèdre) wines of Languedoc, they are best described as a merger of all these styles.

 

A way to go

With appellation wines only just emerging, it is still early days. “It takes a while for a reputation to build,” says Walls, and “what would help is an ‘iconic’ property to work as a reference, but that’s not something that can be manufactured.” 

Viot observed that a sign of the growing success of the appellation is the presence of the next generation. “Fifteen years ago, the young left, seeing little future in the region,” he says. “Today, the next generation are returning, having travelled and worked at vineyards around the world, excited by the potential of Pic Saint Loup. Their new ideas and energy are driving the appellation even further.” Orliac also has confidence in the producers. “They are the region’s biggest ambassadors, making quality wine and promoting the appellation.” 

 

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