Ageing gracefully in the Languedoc

Picking older wines to drink doesn’t have to be all about the classics, as Peter Ranscombe reports.

WHEN we think of wines that will be laid down in cellars to age, names like Bordeaux and Burgundy or Napa and Gimblett naturally spring to mind.

Yet the right ingredients for creating an age-worthy wine – ripe fruit, fresh acidity and structured tannins – can all be found in the Languedoc region of South-West France too.

Back in the 1990s and 2000s, the UK market was flooded with “Vin de Pays d’Oc”, very drinkable every-day wines from the Languedoc.

The popularity of such fruity and approachable wines has sometimes blinded drinkers to the more complex examples from areas within the region, such as Corbières and Minervois or Fitou and Saint-Chinian.

A recent vertical tasting of two of the flagship wines from Foncalieu – a co-operative that marks its 50th anniversary this year – demonstrated how wines from the Languedoc can age.

As well as showcasing the flavours that develop over time, vertical tastings are also good for highlighting vintage variations from year to year too, like the recent Bolney blanc de blanc and pinot noir events.

Reaching for the peak

L’Apogee Saint-Chinian is a classic Southern French blend of 85% syrah and 15% grenache. The 2015, the youngest of the wines on show and from a hotter year, was full of fruity blackberry, blackcurrant and black cherry flavours, along with vanilla and a fresh acidity that characterised all the Foncalieu wines.

Matthew Stubbs, the master of wine who led the tasting, noted that 2014 was a cooler vintage and for me the aromas of the wine focused far more on violets and blackcurrants. Much less new oak was used in the aging of the 2014 – 35% compared to 65% for the 2015 – and I felt that was reflected in the lushness of the fruit flavours.

The 2013 – which appeared in Scottish Field’s “50 Wines for Christmas” last year – was described as a cooler and more complicated vintage, with the blackcurrant and violet notes featuring on the nose. There were still tonnes of black fruit flavours, but with some milk chocolate and coffee notes showing through too, along with redcurrant and a savoury finish.

At five years old, the 2012 was starting to show some of the roast meat flavours that come with age. But it was the minty and herbal aromas that stood out most for me, along with the more forceful tannins, which stretched passed the fruit and made me think this wine has a lot of ageing ahead of it.

There was a port-like quality to the aromas of the 2011, with redcurrant, red cherry, warm earth and heavy wood smoke. The mixture of red and black fruit on the palate was still really concentrated, with the mouth-coating fruit balanced by firm yet ripe tannins.

While 2010 and 2009 may both have been hot vintages, the wines were showing different characteristics during the tasting: the 2010 was more restrained on the nose, with some wet leaf and damp earth aromas amongst the dark fruit and smoky oak, with its high acidity and high tannins outstripping the fruit, demonstrating the ageing potential it has ahead of it; while the 2009 had more complex and concentrated fruit, ranging from red cherry and redcurrant through to blackberry and blackcurrant.

The 2009 and the 2008 were both assembled from 95% syrah and 5% grenache. Even the 2008 still felt fresh and fruity, with aromas ranging from cold coffee and mint through to dark chocolate and redcurrant, and only a touch of the mushroom flavours that come with age beginning to show on its long finish.

Finding a link

The blend for Le Lien Minervois – another of Foncalieu’s flagship bottles – has also changed over time. The wine began life in 2009 as a 100% syrah, which was now showing lots of roast meats notes on the nose during the tasting, but still had fresh blackberry and black cherry flavours on the palate.

The acidity was still really fresh in the 2009, showing how far it could still age. And it’s a similar story with the 2010 too, which had a touch of smoke on the nose and some mint and milk chocolate flavours on the palate.

In 2012, Le Lien evolved into a blend of 80% syrah and 20% grenache, which the winemakers wanted to add complexity. The black fruit flavours were still all present and correct, plus there’s a slight herbal aroma on the nose and a softness in the mouth that comes from the grenache.

A cooler vintage in 2013 brought fresher violet and blackcurrant aromas to the nose of the wine, with a noticeable freshness to the acidity. The 2013 was tasting great during the vertical, but had the structure to age further too.

Although the blend hadn’t changed, there were far more red fruit aromas from the 2014, with red cherry and red plum joining the familiar blackberry and blackcurrant, with lighter wood smoke notes and a whiff of sage or bay leaves. For a young wine with ageing potential, the structure was already really well-balanced, with plenty of interesting milk chocolate, coffee and liquorice flavours too.

Black fruit aromas were the order of the day once more on the 2015, with deep damson notes joined by sweeter cinnamon and clove spices. The fresh acidity on the palate was intertwined with redcurrant and red cherry flavours.

Both L’Apogee and Le Lien demonstrated just how well syrah and grenache can age – and that the structure needed for such blends isn’t confined to the Southern Rhone further to the east. Look out for these older vintages on wine merchants’ shelves and restaurants’ wine lists; they’re well-worth exploring.