Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A Pioneer in Pic St. Loup

When I began my life in the world of food and wine in Arles, it didn't take long for the region of Pic St. Loup to become known to me. Ahhh it has the most perfect climate, hot in the day time but cold at night. It creates the perfect grape: all skin and seeds and minimal pulp.

I heard names, Hortus, Lascaux, and a bit to the side, La Grange des Pères. When Erick and I began our wine tours -- three days of intensive wine touring, two market days and cooking every night -- we were sure to include the Languedoc region and in particular a trip to Pic St. Loup. We were never disappointed.

So as I manoeuvre my way into the world of a wine agent I am excited and decided upon having a winery of Pic St. Loup in my portfolio. And what a choice! I am working with Château de Cazeneuve, owned and operated by Andrée Leenhardt one of the persons responsible for remaking the reputation of this region.

While I roamed his vineyards, explored his cellar and tasted his wines (for a second time, but this time with a bit more presence and focus) he shared his history with me.

Andrée arrived in Pic St Loup with a science degree and a passion for agriculture. At that time, he was considering raising sheep. A first job as a technician at the local Chambre d'Agriculture brought him into contact with the local farmers and vintners. It is there that he learned of the upcoming sale of the Cazeneuve property and managed to purchase the portion devoted to the winery. This was in 1987, a time when the region was scorned by the decision makers for the AOC Côteaux de Languedoc.

However, where there is vision... Where there is a will...

Andrée was not alone. In the beginning the goal was to be accepted into the Côteaux de Languedoc AOC. Gradually the number of vintners active in this mission would climb to over thirty, from a cluster of villages surrounding the Pic. Together they raised the standards and put Pic St. Loup on the map. They helped choose the grapes for the appelation: Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsault and Carignan. They decided that they would seek quality and aging potential over quantity and quick sales. Thus many age their wines in oak casks for a minimum of a year and in Andrée's case 18 months.

And, with such momentum and faith, they have brought the reputation of Pic St Loup to such heights that it is now its own AOC and surpasses the Côteaux de Languedoc by both the strictness of their rules (no more than 45 hectolitres per hectare) and by the quality of the wines.

Andrée and many of his colleagues have rebuilt their cellars and invested in high quality vinification and storage tanks. At Château de Cazeneuve, Andrée put in the necessary equipment to permit filling the tanks from above using gravity, increasing concentration and skin extraction by using Pigeage rather than pumps to aerate the fermenting liquid.

Currently mayor of his village Lauret, he is collaborating with his neighbors to put in place a wine route showcasing the numerous local tourism possibilities from lovely bed and breakfasts to chic local restaurants.

I can see now a future in hiking and biking tours...

The Pic St. Loup region is a young region and the Château de Cazeneuve is a young winery. All the vines were planted over the past 20-30 years. And Andrée is still planting. He likes a white wine with rich and varied notes, cask-fermented. He has thus planted white grenache, viognier, roussanne, marsanne, rolle (aka fermentino) and muscat grapes. He will soon add another parcel to his whites on land he has himself cleared and prepared, no more than a hectare (2.2 acres) 400 meters higher in altitude than his other vineyards. Finding his white truly delicious, I'm delighted to note that Andrée has chosen to make a good quantity of white -- 25% of his full production -- so there is enough to export!

That the vineyards are young (but now old enough to produce concentrated grapes) is a plus. The vintners of this region are rarely plagued by problems of poor and over-taxed soil, nor with insect infestations. Surrounded by woods and isolated from other cultivated fields or orchards, they can more easily opt for organic methods with little worry of contamination.

After chatting, exchanging, learning and enriching our friendship, I walked away with two of his wines (I can't carry more at the moment!) to bring with me to Portland, OR and this summer to Chicago. His lovely white (hmmmm) with a rich blend of five of his grapes, supported by the rich Roussanne, cask-fermented and designed to age beautifully (oh the 2006...) and his classic cuvée, Les Rocs des Mates of grenache, syrah and mourvèdre aged in cask. The dense and rich grapes are balanced by their passage in oak (multi-passage), leaving the tasting with a sensation of pleasing freshness. I inhaled a blend of spices and toasted notes. A masculine and concentrated wine with good aging potential.

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