On the Trail

languedoc-roussillon

A Visit with Séverine Bourrier of Château de l'Ou

languedoc-roussillonKate Soto
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We recently had the rare treat of having Château de l’Ou’s winemaker/owner Séverine Bourrier here in LA for a whole week. She poured for the staff last Wednesday and for customers on Saturday, then joined us for a staff get together. It was a great chance to really get to know her and her wines. It was likewise a chance for our customers to try her wines and get the full story behind each one–vintage, winemaking, you name it. Séverine was so open and friendly that it was easy to spend time with her and learn from her.

Her wines, too, can be described as open and friendly, though there’s clearly a complexity underlying them. Grown in the dry, sunny, windy climate of Roussillon, her wines are deep and concentrated but show a bright freshness that is truly appealing. She credits her long, cold macerations and her use of a technique called vinification integral (closed-barrel fermentation) for this sense of lift, which is present even in her deepest Syrah-based blends. Syrah, in fact, is her favorite grape–”a sexy grape.” she says. “It’s different in different soil.” Other grapes that they grow on their two estates are Grenache (Noir, Gris, and Blanc), Carignane, Muscat, and Chardonnay.

She’s been in this region at the base of the Pyrenees since 1998. She and her husband Philippe met at a wine fair, and he had just bought a winery in Roussillon. She joined him there and they developed everything from scratch. They removed the cellar and vineyard and spent 10 years establishing it to their own specifications. They were the first producer in the region to get organic certification.

In 2008 her mother died and she invested her inheritance in a high-altitude, schist-soil vineyard in the Agly Valley. It was a place that her mother greatly liked, and the terroir was like magic, producing elegant, earthy Syrah with an easy balance. Their first vintage of “Secret des Schist” was released in 2010, and Séverine considers each bottling an homage to her mother.

A turning point for the winery was in 2012 when wine critic Jeb Dunnuck came to visit. His subsequent article proved to be a great opportunity for them internationally. “It changed everything,” Séverine said. “People didn’t know about Roussillon before. It changed our life.”

Roussillon is a relatively small community of winemakers, but there’s a new generation making different wines–more qualitative than quantitative. And in the last 10 years there’s been an explosion of organic production. It’s paradise for organic farming because it is dry and there’s a strong wind called the Tramontane that keeps pests and rot and mold at bay. Still, climate change becomes more of a concern every year. Séverine says the last eight were particularly intense. There has been more of everything: more rain, more sun, more wind. It was 47 degrees Celcius in Perpignan while she was here in LA–that’s 117 Fahrenheit. They are worried, but they are looking toward the future. Séverine thinks that different, more drought-resistant grapes might be the solution. Recently they’ve planted the grape Marselan, a cross between Cabernet and Grenache that needs little water, and it’s looking very promising. “All of France is trying to find a solution. Different grapes will be the future, but France is slow to change. We need to be open minded,” she says.

She is deeply invested in Roussillon, though was born in Bordeaux and lived in Africa until she was 15. As a teenager trying to figure out her future, wine was far from her mind. She didn’t even like the stuff. After various internships, she met a professor from a local wine school. He saw some spark in her that led him to believe she’d be a good match for winemaking. It changed her life. “My father said, how can you do it, you don’t like wine?!” But it was a revelation. She was the only woman at the school. In France in general, people were not accustomed to female winemakers, so she had to blaze the trail on her own. She’s now at the center of a women’s wine initiative in Roussillon called Vinifilles. It’s a supportive community where female winemakers work together to find solutions. Severine says, “We don’t feel the need to protect our secrets, but work to help each other. It goes faster to work together.”

Needless to say she has grown to like wine. Love it, in fact. And with her talent and passion, she’s breathing life into Roussillon wines. Where they could be overripe and overwrought, hers are fresh and full of energy. It was a pleasure to drink them and a pleasure to meet the force behind them. They are well worth checking out!

- Kate Soto

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Roussillon Meets Hollywood: A Visit from Jean Marc Lafage

languedoc-roussillonKate Soto

I love meeting winemakers. There is so much to understand about a glass of wine but learning about the person and story behind it appeals to me as much as what’s in the glass. And winemakers are a passionate, interesting bunch. Their stories are usually full of twists and turns, and, at the very least, a whole lot of heart. Jean Marc Lafage certainly is a winemaker full of heart, though he’s smart and thorough and works as precisely as possible in both the vineyard and the cellar. This week, I had the pleasure of getting to know him.

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First thing on Monday morning, we sat down at K&L and talked brass tacks. Both Jean Marc and his importer, Jean Philippe from European Cellars, were basking in the glow of France’s recent World Cup win, but we quickly got down to the meat of the meeting: what Jean Marc does at his winery in Roussillon and what he’s trying to do with his wine. We talked vineyards and soil and cellar. He took over his father’s bulk wine business around 2000, and he quickly turned the barebones operation into something completely state-of-the-art. His team members walk around with remotes on their belts that can monitor the exact level of oxygen in the wines at every stage of the process. Yet, these are not over-produced wines that he is making. His main objective is to correctly match the right varietal to the specific terroir in the first place, so that the vines thrive. If he’s planted correctly, he doesn’t need to mitigate various climate influences, just manage the vines. He and his team work organically and sustainably and think about the long-term health of their vineyards. His description of process really seemed like a symbiosis between raising good material in the field, then protecting it every step of the way.

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I learned so much about Roussillon while speaking with him and researching. What a wild, unique place. It has one metaphoric foot in Catalonia and one in France. Though it’s lumped in with Languedoc, it’s a very different place culturally, historically, and vinously. Per Jancis Robinson: “Quite unlike the flat coastal plains of the Languedoc, Roussillon's topography can be guessed at by the fact that today it is effectively the département called Pyrénées-Orientales, the eastern section of the Pyrenees, a mountain range so high that much of it remains snow-covered throughout the summer.” It is France’s sunniest climate, and it also bears influence from the nearby Mediterranean sea. Plus, rocky soils, fierce wind--it has so many different climatic factors giving it a very unique sense of terroir.

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Then, the next day, we got to sit down to dinner and I learned more about who Jean Marc is. He’s a warm, charismatic person. He is a passionate Catalan who learned French, Spanish, Catalan, and English growing up. His daughter is beginning to chart her own course in the winemaking world, just off to start an internship at Gary Farrell winery, and his teenage son loves tennis. He and his wife, who is from the Languedoc, make wine together, so the children really grew up immersed in this world, watching their parents build from the ground up, seeing both their struggles and triumphs. In 2001, they produced 2000 bottles; this year they produced 5 million.

We ate at Bavel, a new Mediterranean restaurant in the Arts District by the good folks at Bestia. The meal was just completely on point that night. The wine list had an eclectic selection, pulling from France, Spain, and Italy, but also Greece, Lebanon, and the Canary Islands. The food—grilled octopus, lamb neck shwarma, mushroom kebab, duck confit, duck sausage hummus, citrus-marinated olives, topped off with a mulberry ice cream—harmonized beautifully with the bottles we chose. We drank the 2016 Yves Cuilleron St-Peray “Les Potiers” 2016: Marsanne and Roussanne from a phenomenal producer in the Rhone, showing stone fruits and blossoms on a luscious palate. We moved on to the 2013 Glinivos Vlahiko from Ionnino, Greece—an indigenous grape to the Epirus region, not usually bottled as a single varietal, so a rare find. A delicious, medium-bodied wine that sang with ripe mixed berry fruit and black peppery spice, with soft tannins that made it the perfect match for the food. Both are producers we carry at K&L, but it was fun to try different cuvées from them.

It was truly lovely to sit down and break bread with Jean Marc, Jean Philippe, and Keith, our French Regional Buyer/Guru. If there’s a better way to learn about wine, I can’t think of it! So, a big thank you to all three for your knowledge and friendship. Stay tuned for more on Lafage in our French Regional newsletter, which will land hot off the presses very soon!

- Kate Soto