Pour the local French wine into an expensive bottle and my guests were eager to praise it, but it was hard to be out and proud about the regional wine. The cave in my own Pyrenean village sold its produce as industrial alcohol before closing down years ago, and vines were ripped up and replaced with apricot trees.
Then Robert Parker came along. The American wine critic is not yet writing a book on Langeudoc-Roussillon to rival his classic volume on Bordeaux. In fact in this region, that stretches along the French Mediterranean coast from Nimes to the Spanish border, he had acclaimed one wine before the 2001 harvest. Magnificently it came from close to me, the label George Pous from the village of Lesquerde. I bought two bottles at thirty eight francs each to lay down in my cellar for five years or so (how redolent that old currency feels as I write), then headed for the fields. It’s always fun to pick from the vines while anticipating the taste.
Lesquerde is essentially a coastal landscape, its land composed of granite and sand, but the glacial activity that prompted the Pyrenees to rise dragged this area up with it. The high mountains form a backdrop, while the vineyards of Lesquerde lie at 470 meters.
Christian Gervais was new to the winegrowing business. An ex-rugby player (in Languedoc-Roussillon the game is an obsession,) he has a build that would fit the Tongan national team – shiny head, gleaming bronzed skin, ready smile, and natural weightlifting bulk. His physique could do nothing to protect his vines against the weather. For the last two years hailstorms had cut swathes across his fields. One moment all was fine, ten minutes later the crops were destroyed.
Through 2001 Christian watched the skies the way others watched the stock market. He had taken such heavy losses that one more would bankrupt him. I hoped he had something worth picking.
The year’s harvest was three weeks early so any extra help was welcome. A head rose from behind a row of vines as I approached. Clothed in beige dungarees and a white teeshirt, Christian was beaming.
“How’s it going?” I asked.
“It’s good!” he declared.
I took a bucket, a pair of small secateurs, and joined in.
In that particular field it was hard to feel enthusiastic for Christian’s future. The plantings were fairly new. Whatever the method, whether vines are tied in rows as here or spaced to grow free, in ‘goblet’ fashion forming the shape of a wine beaker, the same number of vines are planted, 4,500 per hectare. The trick with new plantings is to trim them of grapes for the first few years, so strength grows into their roots. Instead the previous owner had encouraged the plants to spurt high. Most bunches were meager, while low ones were sucked dry by wild boar. I pointed out a bunch that looked like raisins and asked if they were worth picking.
“The land is so poor,” Christian replied, still smiling. “We take whatever nature gives us.”
A good yield is forty hectalitres of wine per hectare. The rough land and warm climate make thirty to thirty-five more attainable in Lesquerde. Tests on that year’s Syrah grape showed a high 13.4 (degrees) of alcohol, and a low acid count of 4, so while the yield would not be high the quality would be good.
Chris, a solid ex-army Englishman, stood with a plastic basket strapped to his back. As the porter, he ferried 70kg a time back to the trailer. Two young local men were the hired hands, earning the minimum wage of 320 francs a day. Each man would pick a daily average of 1100 kilos.
Five villages of the area are allowed to designate their wines Côtes de Roussillon Villages, and to do so their wines must contain at least three grape varieties. Standard to the area is Carignan, with some vines more than a hundred years old. Next in popularity are the Syrah and Grenache Noir grapes, the others being Lladoner Pelut, Cinsault and Mauvèdre. Having stripped one field we shifted our focus to another, the oldest Syrah vines on Christian’s land. They were thirty-six years old, and generous. I reached my cutters through deep foliage and pulled out bundles of sweet, mellow black grapes. My fears for Christian’s future eased. Such fruit had to make great wine.
Grey clouds swamped the sky and rain swept in. The first task on delivery at the cave would be for a man to measure the alcohol level. Too much rainwater in the load and this level would plummet. Such grapes are consigned to a lesser grade and so paid for at a lower rate. The picking stopped, Christian covered the bed of his truck with tarpaulin to keep them dry, and I followed his tractor back to the cave.
The Lesquerde cooperative was started in 1923, as part of an independence movement throughout the region. Until then companies would come in and negotiate separate deals and prices with individual owners. The cooperative movement traditionally produced a mass of mediocre wines, leaving the higher quality market to the chateaux. This has changed. In France, farmers under forty are officially termed ‘young farmers’. Out of twelve members of the cave’s council, eight are young farmers of whom three are women. New ideas and fresh enthusiasm is revitalizing this local industry. Wine snobbism might still look down on the cooperative efforts, but the co-ops have raised their standards to produce dry, dark red wines of real distinction.
The September sun shone once more and Christian grinned. The alcohol level on his load was measured on weigh-in, and came out high.
He tipped the load onto a broad conveyor belt, where the grapes settled en route to becoming wine. They shifted around each other as though belching life. “Wine is never dead,” Christian assured me. “For proof, look at the containers in the cave. In winter, the level drops. In summer, it rises. It is like the tide.”
Christian’s tractor rattled back down the lane to his fields. Buying an extra two bottles of the George Pous for home, I vowed to sign up for a case of the 2001. And as I write this, I’m drinking my first glass. It’s been selected for the local Bacchus 2006 journal as one of the best of the year for the whole region, and is robust and wonderful.