Domaine Reveille

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France Crispeels was our most gracious host for two days in Cassagne, a tiny hillside village the likes of which there are dozens scattered throughout the French Catalan coast. We know this because France frantically drove us through a good number of them in the fierce tramontane wind and mist to show us her four quite separate and different vineyards.

Perhaps the most striking is the vineyard she calls Climax, which in the biological sense is the point at which all elements of an ecosystem are in perfect harmony. She initially started with just half of the vineyard, which is planted to grenache and carignan. She bought the second half when it came up for sale to prevent another buyer from potentially poisoning her half by spraying chemicals. The newer half is in various states of conversion to organic, which will take another few years to complete. When all is done, there will be a good amount of grenache gris and syrah to complement the already productive vines. She gets a little bit of help working the soil between the vines from the wild pigs that live in the forest surrounding the vineyard. The isolation from any directly adjacent vineyard, and the majestic view of the vineyards that spill into the Agly Valley, inspire a special feeling that borders on the mystical.

In the couple of days we got to know her, we found France to be incredibly generous, limitlessly energetic, and full of spirit. Her wines might be described in much the same way.

Les Enfants Sauvages

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What would you do if you had been climbing treacherous mountains all over the world for fifteen years, and we’re looking for a change of pace? Probably start a winery in the south of France, right?

Nikolaus Bantlin and his wife Carolin seem to do very few things with a conventional mind. She dropped her career at a successful architectural firm to join her daredevil husband to live their dream of raising vines and children in Fitou, a wild neck of the woods close to the Mediterranean coast. Their home is warm and full of life, an older building largely restored by hand, decorated with a charming cacophony of art and photography. We arrived just as they began to eat the archetypal farmer’s lunch of local fresh bread, butter, charcuterie, and cheese.

After lunch, Nikolaus, Carolin, and the three visitors piled into a beat up truck suitable for banging around the rocky roads that curl around the garrigue to the vineyards. We approached with a full view of Canigou, the iconic, snow-capped peak just to our south. We stepped out of the truck and into the tramontane, the nearly constant and sometimes extreme northern wind. Two vineyards, separated by a short walk through the garrigue, lay before us.

This is where it all becomes very difficult to describe. I could go on about natural viticultural practices, or the back-breaking work required to maintain the vines. But this is not enough. Walking in these vineyards is like stepping into the unconscious mind of Bach or Picasso. Vines, olive trees, planted and wild flowers and herbs, earth, stone, garrigue, wind, mountains, and sky all seem perfectly in concert.

We will talk more about the wines someday soon. They are really, really good.

Champ D’Orphée

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Stéphane Lucas is a very small-scale producer in Gaillac, where another 200 or so growers also tend their vines. He is among the roughly half of those who do so independently, and among the small but growing number of those who work organically. To supplement his income as a vigneron, he continues to work with the A.O.C., a job which allows him the opportunity to visit other growers regularly, see their work in the vineyard, and taste the results. He was the first to know when a vineyard became available, which is how he came across the vineyards that would become Champ D’Orphée.

Stéphane sees it as his advantage being a grower from outside Gaillac, and one who did not inherit family vineyards. He had the opportunity to choose his vineyards, and enjoys the freedom to experiment in the vineyard and cellar without having to deal with a preservationist older generation. He brings a fresh set of eyes and new ways of thinking about producing wine in Gaillac.

We toured each of three separate vineyards that he works, planted entirely to the local variety braucol, with dramatically varied soil composition and exposition. Much of his work in the vineyard is in pruning each vine so that it has the best chance of producing the highest quality grapes. This means providing extra nourishment and leaving extra branches on the slower vines and cutting back those with too much vigor.

Stéphane and his father built by hand both the small, efficient winery and the adjacent house where he lives with his wife and two sons. There is a unique look and feel to both buildings, which seems a personal expression of humility, efficiency, and joie de vivre. We stood on the opposite side of the kitchen counter as Stéphane opened a bottle of the four vintages of his best wine. Every one had a story to tell, but the 2008, the first wine he bottled, was special. Even he could hardly contain himself, as it had been over a year since the last bottle he had opened.