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Southern Star Rising

A difficult birth for Pic St.-Loup, France’s newest appellation
The Pic St.-Loup mountain looms over the vineyards of this Languedoc subregion.
Photo by: Robert Camuto
The Pic St.-Loup mountain looms over the vineyards of this Languedoc subregion.
Going Native: Camuto in Europe
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Posted: Mar 27, 2017 12:30pm ET

The 2016 vintage was a rollercoaster for France’s newborn appellation, Languedoc’s Pic St.-Loup.

In September, nearly 2,500 vineyard acres on the lower flanks of the jagged mountain “Pic,” some 15 miles north of Montpellier, achieved the independent appellation status its winegrowers had sought for more than 20 years. On the surface, the change is subtle: Red and rosé wines that had been labeled as the subappellation Languedoc–Pic St.-Loup will become simply Pic St.-Loup with the 2017 vintage.

But the new AOC designation—expanded from 13 to 17 winegrowing villages—also comes with tightened rules on quality, stricter limits on production, and a clear vision for the kind of wines it will produce: fresh, elegant and spicy red blends dominated by a trio of great southern varieties: Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre.

That is good news for wine lovers. Yet hopes for jubilation in Pic St.-Loup—which received the recognition in the middle of harvest—were dampened by catastrophe. Just weeks earlier, the appellation was hit by one of the most devastating hailstorms on record.

“It was like winter in August,” recalls Régis Valentin, 48, winemaker of his family’s Château de Lancyre, which dominates a rustic 12th-century hamlet of the same name. I visited Valentin on a winter’s day, and he pulled out his phone to show me photos of the hail-ravaged vineyards.

Overall, Pic St.-Loup lost about 10 percent of its crop. Valentin lost 70 percent. To make ends meet, he took advantage of an exemption granted by the Syndicat AOC Languedoc to buy grapes throughout the region for separate bottlings. “I have a lot of friends and contacts,” said Valentin, “and vignerons help each other out.”

Producers here, by necessity, are a pretty tough lot. Many, like Valentin, come from long lines of polyculture farmers, who gave up sheepherding in the 1980s because of competition from New Zealand.

At the time, most of the wine had been made from high-yielding varieties (such as Cinsault) farmed for maximum volume, and much of it was destined for jug wine or distillation.

But in the 1990s, a group of growers, including Valentin, created a quality movement, increasing high-density plantings of Syrah in particular (which, under the new appellation rules, must make up 50 percent of red wine vineyard plantings).

The latest AOC status change further distinguishes Pic St.-Loup as a unique terroir in Languedoc-Roussillon, one of the world’s biggest wine regions—hugging France’s Mediterranean coastline, spanning from the Pyrénées and the Spanish border east to the Rhône River, and up into southern France’s back country.

In the northern part of the Languedoc appellation, backed by the Cévennes foothills, “Pic St.-Loup is a Mediterranean climate with continental influences,” explains 14th-generation winemaker Jean-Benoît Cavalier, 57, owner of Pic St.-Loup’s Château de Lascaux and the president of the Syndicat AOC Languedoc since 2003.

The appellation’s terroirs are defined by varied calcareous soils (including hard limestone, marls, limestone scree and dolomite), cool nights during the growing season, higher amounts of rainfall than the rest of the Languedoc, and acres of Mediterranean forest and garrigue scrub laced with wild thyme, rosemary, lavender and rock roses.

The result is a lean, mineral-rich style of red: Think less-tannic structure than their Rhône counterparts, with their own aromatics and spice. Today, Pic St.-Loup is home to some 60 producers of what can be great-value reds. In the past 20 years, the area has produced about 40 red wines that scored 90 points or higher in Wine Spectator blind tastings—most released at retail prices less than $30. Not included in the official Pic St.-Loup AOC are the local Roussanne-dominated white blends.

“Languedoc was like a big screen that covered the back country with the best terroirs,” says Cavalier. “Thirty years ago, there were those who said that winegrowing was going to disappear—that Languedoc was over.”

“Now because of our terroirs, it’s being rediscovered,” he added, “but it takes a bit of time.”

Coming up in Robert Camuto’s Letter from Europe: Pic St.-Loup’s stunner of an estate.

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