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September 2009


WINE & SPIRITS

The Wine Women
By Baroness Sheri de Borchgrave

A FABLED FRENCH WINE REGION PRODUCES BOTTLES BORN FROM THE FEMININE MYSTIQUE

In the wine region of Maury in the South of France, I communicated with ghosts of the past as I sipped a wine from 1880 beside the foothills of the Pyrenees. The 129-year-old wine, vinified during the Third Republic after Napoleon was defeated and France entered La Belle Epoque, still displayed acidity and a hints of mocha, leather, toffee and smoke. Drinking it felt quasi-religious, like resurrecting the ancestors' spirits.

[Photo of High-Altitude Vineyards]
FLYING HIGH (click photo for larger view)

On a recent trip to Languedoc-Roussillon, now called Sud de France, I met with 10 female winemakers in an attempt to discover whether wine made by women has a special feminine je ne sais quoi. It was the perfect testing ground because the vast wine region—whose southern border ends at Spain, runs along the Mediterranean and meets the Côtes du Rhône in the north—has been the floodlands for France's bulk wine. Only in the last 20 years has the territory entered the global marketplace.

The first wine I tasted, the 1880 fortified dessert wine from Domaine de la Coume du Roy, the oldest winery in Maury, was a private family reserve made from black grenache grapes. The winery sells many rare vintages—the oldest dating back to 1925. Agnes Bachelet, a member of the family's sixth generation, says the wine takes on the rancio (literally, "rancid") quality of old Maury. She suggested pairing the older vintages with sautéed foie gras and the younger vintages with game or stinky cheeses.

From Maury I headed to the seaside medieval village of Collioure to Domaine Pietri-Geraud, where I met another sweet-wine maker who spoke about AOC Banyuls wines. Winemaker Laetitia Pietri-Clara, fifth generation in the family, showed me the demijohns and barrels where the wine oxidizes in attic heat for four years.

In 1992, Pietri-Clara's mother, then winemaker, was first to make a white Banyuls from white grenache. I tasted Banyuls Blanc and fell in love with its vivid honey, almond and ginger notes. Mademoiselle O, a rouge Banyuls made from black grenache, displayed intoxicating, complex flavors. Cuvée Mediterranée 2003 spent five years in barrel, giving it notes of prune, fig and marmalade against a balanced acidity. These were "sexy, sensual wines with a little worry mixed in," according to Pietri-Clara. She compared her wine to children: "As much as you put into them, you can never know how they'll turn out."

Next it was to the manor born to Chateau de Pennautier, headquarters of La Maison Lorgeril, which owns six wine estates in nine appellations. Miren de Lorgeril, from the 10th generation winemaking dynasty, gave me a tour of her family castle, built in 1620, with its portrait of a family ancestor who made it possible for Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI to marry. Some of the estates' best wines come from terroirs d'altitude (high-altitude vineyards), a cool micro-climate that gives the grapes a good acidity. La Maison Longeril makes whites, rosés and medium-bodied red blends.

At least half the winemakers were practicing organic, sustainable or biodynamic viticulture. At La Reserve d'O, biodynamic winemaker Marie Chauffray's high-altitude vineyards—surrounded by the garrigue (shrubby bush land) overlooking the Herault Valley—are a virtual nature reserve with big blue lizards, snakes, scorpions and all sorts of other creatures. She planted blackberry bushes and thyme, and her red blends (made from syrah, grenache and cinsault) reflect the flavors of the terroir.

Delphine Maymil of Chateau Maylandie has some of the best terroir with which to grow grapes sustainably in AOC Corbières. Her Exquise Esquisse ("exquisite draft," in English) is a grenache with blueberry flavors. Under the Corbière-Boutenac AOC, she makes Villa Ferrae (a blend of grenache, syrah and carignan), her "virile cuvée"—indeed, I found it highly seductive.

If the female gene pool counts in this particular contest, then the winner is Domaine Preignes le Neuf, which has been passed down by its women over five generations and now has sisters in charge of the winemaking and sustainable vineyard. Winemaker Beatrice Lassere benefits from volcanic soil in appellation Coteaux de Libron and creates three different lines of wine. Her cinsault rosé was fresh and charming; her line of crisp chardonnays was intensely perfumed.

Yet, it was through another contender, Chateau Coupe Rosés, that I discovered wines that best exemplified the female touch in Sud de France. With the family estate dating back four centuries, Françoise Frissant makes wines that are strong and concentrated, yet round and delicate. From Cuvée Vignals (blend of syrah, grenache and carignan) to Granaxa (blend of grenache and syrah), Frissant imparts a signature streamlined sensuous style to all of her wines. Indeed, Frissant's wines had just the je ne sais quoi I was looking for.

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