2009 Domaine Leon Barral, Faugeres

Kermit Lynch Imports… The King of Faugeres (?)

2009 Domaine Leon Barral Faugeres  (50% Carignan, 30% Grenache, 20% Cinsault)

large-Leon Barral Faugeres 09 LABUnlike the 2008 which was so delicious right off the bat, Barrals 2009 Fargeres was so tight on release that I wasn’t sure it would be ready now, only a year later. My fears were unfounded. The wine is drinking well, but will should smooth out a couple rough edges with another 6 month to a year in the cellar.  This bottle is showing a significant amount of the yeast Brettanomyces, showing loads of dusky, earthy, leathery, with notes of mushroom, refried beans, and let’s face it, baby poop. The plus side is that often Brett tends to add cohesion to a wine, and an element of complexity. (More on Brett and a Napa Valley winemaker’s fascination with it Here.) While the Brett can be almost challenging, there is a tremendous amount of fruit to this wine. This level of fruit is miraculous since Brett can bury the fruit flavors of wine it grows in. The palate is impossibly broad and deep, spreading across the palate like a tidal wave of sweet blackberries, black plum, and raspberries, with meaty roast lamb flavors, coated by cocoa powder and espresso.  There is a massive amount of fruit and structure, but the fruit has the upper hand here, with it wrapping effortlessly around the tannins. But the tannins are evident, with the Brett hanging off them with furry, musky, gamey notes being the longest lasting impression. This is a big wine by French measure, and it pulls it off with aplomb.  On the finish there is the briefest bitterness with a

Brettanomyces yeast
Brettanomyces yeast

note similar to rubbing alcohol, riding alongside the tannins. That negative flavor was absent on the second night, so it seem that medicinal note will readily resolve itself with another year of aging.  This is a particularly interesting wine, if not an intellectual one of significant complexity. Normally I would not quote a wine critic, but how to evaluate the wine with a score, leads me to quote Rosemary George a Master of Wine who lives in the Languedoc. She writes of Leon Barral in her blog Taste Languedoc: “Domaine Leon Barral – More contentious.  I have very mixed feelings about Didier Barral’s wines, and sometimes wonder if this is not a case of the Emperor’s new clothes.  I have liked some of his wines in

the past, but more recent tastings have been a less happy experience.” So that was Rosemary’s take, in true critical fashion not mentioning Brett. At the heart of the difficulty for me is how do you evaluate Brettanomyces? It is generally considered a flaw today, but historically it was not. The British critics described it as barnyard, or in French, simply merde. But today, some beer makers are intentionally introducing Brett into their beer to give it ‘character’.  I will give it two scores, the first, considering Brett is not a flaw (those who know they are intolerant of it should already know to stay away) but this is a very solid wine in all other regards, with a long life ahead of it. Score 92 points.  For those who don’t like Brett, this is something of a failure: 82 points.  The truth lies somewhere in between.   $32

Faugeres is small in this map of Languedoc, but is in yellow, just above the center of the map.
Faugeres is small in this map of Languedoc, but is in yellow, just above the center of the map.

Domaine Leon Barral

Domaine Barral is a relatively new winery, being founded by Didier Barral in 1993 but within a decade had become one of the most highly regarded estates in Languedoc.  Didier Barral has farmed his old vines biodynamically from early in his domaine’s inception. He allows his horses, cows and pigs to munch down the cover crop across his large vineyard of 30 hectares, all the while working the soil with their hooves, and fertilizing, I suppose, as they go. There is something so simple and natural about this approach.

The schist formations beneath many of Languedoc's vineyards
The schist formations beneath many of Languedoc’s vineyards

Faugeres AOC, Languedoc

Unlike most of the other wine regions of France, Faugeres was farming community centered on the production of grains and olives, not wine grapes, before the French Revolution. Once vineyards were established, most of their production was dedicated to making eau de vie (brandy). The gradual switch to wine didn’t happen until after the second World War, and  it took until 1982 to achieve AOC status. The appellation covers 1800 hectares, and some hills in the Northern part of the appellation are up to 500 meters.

While the name Faugeres refers to the kind of shale found in the region, the vineyards of Faugeres are planted above the flaky schist rock formations that are prevalent in growing regions across the South of France. Schist is notable for its ability to retain water, an important feature in the warm Languedoc-Roussillon.  Faugeres proximity to the Mediterranean is mitigated by the cooler mountain influences ripening is enough of an issue that most vineyards are planted on south-facing slopes to ensure maximum exposure to the sun. Many winemakers there say that ‘the grapes ripen at night’, from the warmth retained by the schist dominated soils. But according to the Kermit Lynch website, Barral’s vineyards are pruned in the Goblet style to protect the fruit from the ‘blistering sun’. To say it’d difficult to separate the truth from the myths, and myths from the marketing efforts of the wine world, is and understatement. It seems like there is a spin on everything.


Tasting Note: A Burgundian Minervois? Anne Gros

From the author: "THe vinyards are all ar...
The vineyards are all around the village of Minerve. Minerve gave its name to the Minervois, a region and a wine appellation” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here is a wine from the formidable Burgundian husband and wife team of Anne Gros and Jean-Paul Tollot. But this wine isn’t from Burgundy, it’s from the Languedoc’s Minervois appellation. I suspect that a Minervois has never tasted like this before.

There are so many pieces to this puzzle of a wine, that I suppose I should just deal with the tasting notes first. Later, I can talk about all of the perplexing peripheral issues this Minervois presents. I have to say right up front, this is a wine that raises many more questions than it can possibly answer.

2009 Domaine Anne Gros & Jean-Paul Tollot, “Les Fontanilles” Minervois 

This blend of  GrenacheSyrah, Carignan and Cinsault is dark, almost black in color. On the nose, there is some liqueur of cherry and raspberry fruit, but this wine isn’t giving off much in aroma. In the mouth, the wine is soft, very soft, much softer than anything I’ve tasted in quite some time. But the there is considerable fresh, red cherry fruit, and deeper black fruits, particularly the deep black cherry I associate with a riper premier cru, or grand cru Burgundy. The significant fruit of Les Fontanilles is accented with faint notes of smoke, thyme and a touch of black pepper. The mouth-feel is round and supple, but not the slightest bit heavy, and it has a very creamy texture. This wine has a remarkable delicacy, and I keep getting a watermelon-like fruit, right on the surface of this wine. It’s pretty, very pretty in fact, and surprisingly it has tremendous balance. It is really quite delicious, and just calls out for a second glass.  $32   86-92 points

And that is it.  That is all I could find in the wine. It was delicious. It was very pretty. But without much acidity, it’s range of flavors was limited. I really can’t explain how the wine had so much fruit, with virtually no acidity or tannin, yet somehow it remained so remarkably balanced. It had good richness, and it never once approached being flabby.

“Did I kill this metaphor?  No, I don’t think you can really understand the dichotomy of this wine.”

This wine was like a beautiful, delicate young girl, with really nothing to say. Very nice to be around, but you can’t talk politics or philosophy with her – maybe the most basic current events, but not much more. Did I kill this metaphor?  No, I don’t think you can really understand the dichotomy of this wine. This is a wine of great finesse, balance and elegance, with really lovely fruit. It’s like a beautiful top-flight Burgundy without the nose, or any complexity, really at all.

The 2009 Les Fontainilles is a very difficult wine to judge.  You can’t really throw a number at it, and say this is an 86 or a 92.  It is both of those scores depending on which angle you look at the wine.  It does some things magnificently well, and almost fails in other areas. It is both fascinating and perplexing.  I guess the bottom line is, would I buy this for $32?  The answer is yes; not only is it really elegant and finessed, it delicious. And most importantly, all this rigorous head scratching makes it well worth the price.

The Winemaker, Anne Gros

anne Gros pic   For those not familiar with Anne Gros, she is one of the real succ ess stories of Burgundy. In 1988, at 22 years old, she took over her father’s failing Domaine Francois Gros. He had health issues, but really, he had never made the quality of wines his brother, the famed Jean Gros, produced. She was almost instantly a star. By the mid-nineties, her tiny production of Richebourg, Echezeaux and Clos Vougeot were highly sought after, and prices were going up. That was twenty years ago, now she is married to another vigneron, Jean-Paul Tollot, of Domaine Tollot-Beaut in Chorey-Les-Beaune, and together they have three children.  Anne now wanted a new challenge.  So they began a long search for a new project. It had to be somewhere else, and it had to have soil similar to Burgundy’s marl and limestone. The search lead them to Minervois, and a property with very old vines.

The Vineyard, “Les Fontainilles”

This vineyard, Les Fontainilles, is a north-facing, bowl-shaped, 7 acre vineyard of flaky, grey sediment-soil, the French refer to as Gres. The vines were planted between the 1960s and the 1980s, predominately to Grenache, although Syrah, Carignan and Cinsault are grown there also. Half the wine is aged in wood, the other half in stainless, preserving all that fresh cherry and raspberry fruit. A good description (by Robert Parker) of the project can be found here. The property is in the far South of Minervois, right on the St Chinian border in a tiny village called Cazelles.

And All of the Unanswered Questions….

So, there are a multitude of questions that revolve around how to judge such a wine.  The winemaking style clearly has transformed what we expect from these varietals, and from the region in general.  That said, the style is non-interventionist, and done with a much more delicate hand. Clearly, this wine was not acidulated or manipulated in any way. Presumably Anne and Jean-Paul believe acidification of grape must is a tremendous mistake (as many top winemakers do), this is intended to be a true expression of the vintage and the terroir. Has it succeeded in this?

The key question, I suppose, is should you treat the grapes of the Sud (Southern France) as you would Pinot Noir? Is Anne Gros revealing the true nature of the grapes and the vineyard? Is she really getting everything out of these grapes that she should in order to tell the whole story of the land and the grapes? This is a beautiful wine, with a lovely finesse, but it doesn’t really have much in the way of complexity or verve, and these are serious nagging issues. Is she leaving those qualities in the must? The alcohol is 14.5 percent, so these grapes were ripe.  Did they pick them too late, forsaking the grape’s natural acidity?  It wouldn’t seem so, since there were no signs of over-ripeness to the fruit character. But the fact remains, that with Grand Cru Burgundy vineyards needing attention five hours away, these Minervois vines may not get that minute-by-minute attention they might need in a hot year like 2009. The winemakers simply can’t be in two places at once.

And then, there is this question: if you break the mold of a regional wines typicity, such as Gros and Tollot have done, will others realize it as brilliance and embrace the approach, or will they walk away? This is always a risk that the visionaries and the rule-breakers contend with. These are great gambles, that pay off for some like Piero Antinori when he bottled Tiganello as a Vino di Tavola and so many others who have done things the way they think is best, regardless of convention. These are risks that make reputations and change the industry. But for every maverick that succeeds brilliantly, and are vindicated by their position, there a countless others who fail quietly.

Anne Gros and Jean-Paul have staked a significant energy and money into this project, and are relying on their position as great Burgundy producers to help sell their wines, which are definately Burgundian in style.  It is a tough road for sure, one that a fellow Burgundian has traveled. According to an article by Jancis Robinson MW, the well-regarded Jean-Marie Fourrier from Gevrey-Chambertin, had bought a winery in Faugerers, nearer the coast. His experiment resulted in having to walk away from the venture after just a few years. Advice he would give to other Anne and Jean-Paul, whom he had never met?

Spend lots of time with local people from the Languedoc as they can be very helpful – or they can make your life much harder. When you run two businesses 400 miles from each other, the temptation is to work, work and work with the obligation of success. But don’t forget that you are considered a foreigner by the local people. 

This is not to say that Anne Gros is on the wrong course. But as delicious as this wine is, it raises more questions than tasting it can answer. I am interested to see if the 2010s will have better retained their structure, being a year that was cooler, and the wines from 2010 generally had much brighter acids.  For me, that would be the deciding factor. But when a wine is this delicate in a hot, fruit driven year that is marked by most wines being massively concentrated and heavily structured, it’s hard to imagine what will come next.  I may get to taste a couple of the 2010’s in a couple of weeks time. We’ll see then.  I personally can’t wait to read the next chapter.   Dean