Winemaker Jean Baptiste Senat is behind the wheel of his 4WD, hurtling down a narrow dirt road between two vineyards near the town of Trausse-Minervois, in the foothills of the Montagne Noire in France’s southern Languedoc region.
After a tasting of his latest wines at his cellar in town, Senat has insisted we visit one of his vineyards, a block of organically farmed, dry-grown, bush-vine carignan planted in the 1940s on top of a hill a few kilometres away. Finally, we pull up on the side of the road, and Senat, a big man with a thick black beard streaked with grey, strides off, cutting a swathe in hot air thick with the thrum of cicadas and the scent of garrigue.
“In the cellar, the winemaker is always a liar,” he says as we walk up another dusty track. “The vineyard doesn’t lie.” He reaches down into the earth under his old vines and brings up a handful of soil, rich in clay and limestone, offering it to me to smell and feel, proof of organic life and health. On the other side of a row of trees, in his neighbour’s conventionally managed vineyard, the soil is hard, dry, dead.
For Senat, keeping these old vineyards flourishing – especially the ones planted to local varieties such as carignan, cinsault and grenache – is a matter of local pride. “Wine is culture,” he says. “It is important to protect these Mediterranean grape varieties. They are the identity of the Languedoc. Not the international varieties, the syrah and cabernet and merlot that have been planted in this region. Merlot – pah! You know what I call merlot? Merde l’eau!”
You can taste this passion in Senat’s wines. His sole white, for example, the 2017 Aux Amis de Ma Soeur, is made from local grapes grenache gris and grenache blanc. Both varieties were dismissed by an older generation of producers as inferior, but in this wine, they shine with floral perfume and apricot-fuzz texture and richness. And his 2017 La Nine, a carignan- dominant blend that also includes grenache, cinsault, syrah and mourvedre, is a wine that Senat describes as a typical Languedoc assemblage, full of the warm ripe fruit and distinctive garrigue twang.
A few kilometres away, up another dusty road, winemaker Brunnhilde Claux is equally passionate about the old vines she farms organically at Domaine de Courbissac.
“My fight is for the old varieties,” she says, arguing that for too long, too many people have thought of Minervois as just a region of huge vineyards of international varieties planted on the plains, forgetting that there are old, low-yielding varieties in hillside vineyards such as hers.
“They have no idea of the territory, of the history and knowledge we have here,” she says – not to mention the indigenous varieties. “We can use these grapes to make wines of elegance and finesse.”
Again, the passion can be tasted in her wines. The 2017 Domaine de Courbissac L’Orange, a skin-contact blend of old local varieties, such as grenache gris, carignan blanc and terret gris, spiced up with some muscat and marsanne, is one of the most exquisite examples of the style I have tasted. And her top wine, the 2015 Roc Suzadou, made from a prize block of 70-year-old carignan and 90-year-old grenache bush vines, has the most extraordinary flowing tannins on the tongue.
After the tasting, Claux also insists that we visit the vineyard where this last wine is from, so we climb into her Land Rover and bump up yet another dusty track through the garrigue. As we walk across the stony ground, through the gnarly old vines, she talks about the labour involved in farming organically, pulling no punches when it comes to the realities of the life she’s chosen, especially this year, with high humidity and mildew problems.
“It’s a serious job, to be a vigneronne,” says Claux, gravely. But you can see in her eyes that all the hard work is worth it, if it means preserving these old vines and this special terroir, to proudly produce Languedoc wines with elegance and finesse.