My Life in Wine – Part 11 – Discovering the Midi

MidiJean Gaichet made our first Epervier label wine, decades ago. He lived high and remote in a tiny village in the Corbières, I forget exactly where. Even Dubernet had trouble finding his little house. Jean had said to look for a door covered with wild-boar hooves. The problem was, every door had these grisly decorations; it was the local hunting-trophy tradition. But one door was absolutely covered and that was Monsieur Gaichet. A crack shot? Not necessarily. Just old … and a survivor.

My son Henry was once – only once – drawn into one of these wild boar hunts. Being young and fit, he went with the other lads to find the sanglier – wild pigs – and push them up towards the guns. The older men had the rifles. They went up early to the ridge, with ham, cheese, bread and plenty wine … and settled to a good, long breakfast. By the time the pigs arrived those old guys were very happy, and their shooting was not the best. Any movement in the undergrowth got a full volley from crazy, old, red-faced men. Henry lived to tell the tale but he never volunteered again.

Old Monsieur Gaichet had a lovely wine to sell that year. But not the next, or ever again. People think warmer regions like the Midi have nothing but good vintages. That is fairly true of some parts but the higher vineyards have very irregular vintages, and higher costs, which is why so many have gone out of production.

An Epervier winegrower I got know better was Jean Cabrol … who lived in the lovely village of Minerve, from which the northern Minervois district takes its name. Minerve is perched on a high sliver of rock where two deep river canyons meet. From his tiny back yard there was a sheer drop to where far below you could see one river disappearing underground into a great cave. This is real limestone country. 100 metres away were his vineyards but the poor man had to go miles to the next village, where there was a bridge over the ravine, to get to them.

The Cabrols were poor – everyone was – they lived on what they caught or shot or grew or culled from the earth – rabbit, hare, herbs, snails, frogs. They ate well, though. I will never forget that aroma of wild rabbit in a wild-garlic sauce that wafted out of Chez Cabrol on my first visit. Their house was tiny and sat on top of the wine cellar which was only four small tanks … but was all very neat and clean. He did maceration carbonique which had been the tradition here for centuries, where grape bunches are not crushed or even de-stalked but tipped whole into the vats. Dubernet explained that unfortunately for Madame Cabrol, the matrimonial double-bed which almost filled the tiny bedroom, lay above the trap into a tank. At harvest time grapes had to come in through that bedroom window and old Jean would have to prop their bed up on a slant, so as to get his grapes through the trap and then tend to the bubbling ferments below … throughout the night. La mere Cabrol just had to put up with it.

A local paper sent a photographer to capture the Cabrols and me doing business. A British merchant was news in those days. Their rooms were too small and dark, so we had to carry their table outside into the light. You can see in the picture Madame was not wildly amused by that either. Suffered a lot did Madame Cabrol.

Image-1 These days the small independent farmers like Gaichet and Cabrol are far fewer in number and likely to get fewer. Making a living on less than 1000 litres a hectare is almost impossible (when Bordeaux, for example does around 6000 litres per hectare.) Every time I go back I see more patches of vines have been abandoned. An abandoned vineyard is not a pretty sight. Nature will quickly heal the scars on the land but you can’t help thinking of all the generations of backbreaking effort that had been put into that piece of land by nut-brown, sinewy guys and sturdy women in bonnets. My friend Andrée got a painting from a local artist, Max Savy. We got it made into a lovely poster.

image002We wanted to do whatever we could to show customers that wine isn’t all about châteaux and grand estates. These small growers have a hard life, but they are like their vines; they just hang on in there as long as they can.

Jean-Charles Duran is perhaps our current favourite. Like Cabrol, his cellar is tiny and lies below the family home, a terraced house on the main street in Maury, in the Roussillon district. Still young – thirty something, I guess – with a young family, he finds his life quite a struggle. He doesn’t have a lot of vineyard and it is pretty remote. He’d had to give up his tractor when I last called in, and his wife had to stop helping him on the farm, and get paid work in the supermarket. But J-C still carries on, by hand, because he still believes his land is special and his gnarly great centenarian vines, to him, are old friends. Also, there’s his Mum and Dad to consider. They still help out. He can’t really abandon the family farm, can he?

Last time we went the old man had been out all night after the rains. We all feasted on the escargots he’d found, grilled in garlic butter over glowing vine embers. Sitting around in his garage … it was still raining. His friend, our Mark Hoddy, will age and bottle his wine for him (because he just can’t afford the kit needed to do a good job). Our customers, thankfully, are very faithful to his wine. Though none I suspect know quite how hard Jean-Charles must labour in what are the hottest vineyards of France, with that ever-present, Tramontane wind trying to drive everyone mad. His Un Vent de Folie is a triumph over almost insurmountable odds.

Mark and JC in his vineyard

Mark and JC in his vineyard

As I’ve said, co-operative wineries do help the smaller winegrowers to survive. Jean Charles was a co-operateur at the Maury cellar where we get what is now one of our biggest selling wines, the ‘XV du President’, a big fifteen-degree Grenache red. They and we do very well with this wine, our customers adore it. But co-operatives too are vulnerable. We first found the strong XV wine at another co-op; in the village of Opoul, just down the road. But Opoul got things slightly wrong (they stayed focused too much on making their sweet aperitif VDN wines when the market for that style had all but vanished). The cellar had to close … over ten years ago. A very sad day for a village which had nothing else. Some of the growers started to take their grapes to Maury, so we followed.

But there are happier stories. There is a small dirt track that runs north from Opoul up into the empty hills and for miles across the border into the Corbières. At the other end it comes down into the Vallée du Paradis and the village of Embres … or Castelmaure. I forget which. Doesn’t matter, they share a co-op that could well have gone the way of Opoul, but hasn’t … and is, in fact, remarkably successful. Why? People. Two people; the coop President, Patrick de Marien and its Directeur, Bernard Pueyol.

Embres et Castelmaure, again, have nothing in the joint village but their winery. If that closes, the villages die. Houses fall into ruin or become holiday homes for foreigners. Dubernet, all those years ago, reckoned this is what would happen here because the place was just too remote. But these two stubborn guys decided they would not let that happen.

I remember Bernard – who is a large, bearded, friendly guy – showing me with great pride his computer; one of those very first Apples. On this he said he was going to map every single patch of vines in the village. He was going to note its soil and rock, (this part of the world, crushed between the old Massif Central and the ‘new’ Pyrenees, is a geologists paradise with all sorts of rocks and soils all scrunched up). He said he would then note the grape varieties planted, their ages and condition … and then keep a record of the qualities of the wine each patch produced every year. With his data, he would advise the grower if it might be good to change things or just improve. He saw this gradual lifting of standards and development of styles as many years’ work and indeed it has proved to be his life’s work.

Bernard

Bernard

Patrick, for his part, decided he would work at livening up the way the growing range of different styles of wines would be presented. Cooperatives, when they get around to bottling their own wine do not usually do labels with any great flair. But go to Embres et Castelmaure today – and I would encourage that – and you will be amazed by all the wild and wonderful labels and boxes in their shop. Masses of flair. Many devotees from all over now find their way up to the Vallée du Paradis – and that ain’t easy – and it seems to me the future of the village, as a thriving colony of hard-working small winegrowers is as assured as it ever could be. I am proud to have helped them just a little. And thrilled by such clear evidence that devotion to the pursuit of quality can really pay off.

The very first Midi wine I bought came from the co-op of Berlou in the St Chinian district. Today we buy from the next village and co-op to Berlou, Roquebrun, which is having huge success these days with wine from that same schist soil.

Roquebrun

Roquebrun

When I was at the International Wine Challenge collecting our award as Wine Merchant of the Year – did I mention that? – I was able to meet up with Alain Rogier the directeur of Roquebrun who was up for Winemaker of the Year. I was almost more pleased for him than I was for me. To lead a remote Midi cooperative from its usual obscurity to where it is today you have got to be a genius level winemaker – and he is. You also have got to be a great leader of men and women, because the co-operateurs don’t work for the Directeur … he works for them! That’s the co-operative way … and can lead to anarchy. But not here, Alain’s cellar at Roquebrun, Saint-Chinian is now up there for the top award, vying with the wealthy, great estates of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Napa, Barossa … everywhere.

I have shipped Midi wines since 1971. I believe I was the first, maybe second, wine merchant – of any nationality – to drive round those geologically mixed up hills and dig out totally unknown wines from places where special soils – schists of various colours, limestone, granite, gravels of all sorts – could produce extraordinary results. My customers loved the wines immediately. They were very cheap then. Now a top cuvée from say, Roquebrun, can easily be £12.99 or so, but … they taste way more wonderful than they were. They are really worth it. And they need to be because the growers must get a reasonable return to survive.

Monsieur Dubernet would be so proud …he started all this.

Marc Dubernet continues his father’s work and fights the same battles against what he calls the New-style Industrial Wines. These are now from vast acreages of Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet planted in the Midi … on valley-floor flat land; machine pruned and machine harvested. What they make is far better than the Old-style Industrial Wines (which haven’t entirely gone away) but for me these ‘International’ style wines lack the magic of the unique, characterful and very human wines from the ancient vineyards. Luckily, surprising numbers of customers seem to agree.

The Midi has always done well for us in particular. Not any particular wine, but lots of them, good healthy wines of character. And delivered with no pomposity. Things have improved some for Midi growers generally, but they do still live on the edge.

The wine riots could kick off again. That evening in Narbonne thirty years ago when a gendarme and a winegrower had been shot dead, and huge crowds were sacking the council offices, throwing filing cabinets down on to great fires in the street just by the railway station … I’ll not forget that. They’d smashed the taps off Jean Demolombe’s great tanks and made the canal turn red. I just wanted out of there. But they had blocked every road with trees.

Not always a gentle, jolly, sitting around laughing game, is wine!

About Tony Laithwaite

Tony Laithwaite, founder of Laithwaite's, whose passion for wine is still going strong!
  • Andrew Stevenson

    30, or more probably nearer 40 years ago, I went to the Embres & Castelmaure co-op with Andrée Ferrandiz (then the Laithwaite’s Epervier) and Jim Ainsworth (a wine writer, who later went on to be editor of the Good Food Guide). This was on a particularly successful Sunday Times Wine Club tour that is etched in my memory. It seemed half the village had turned out to join us and help us eat an enormous paella, cooked over vine stocks in the car park. That was after seemingly unlimited quantities of delicious prawns grilled over a separate pile of burning vinestocks on the other side of the car park. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/e75932a3b07c910411565e25305546e06eda97bf6ab8a91e07aa9df400173b1a.jpg https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/32c66f8829ec8d6c09f8486d09ac857e3ac0aea3184b8baae0503123905d70e4.jpg

    • Andrew Stead

      Yes, I remember that tour. Didn’t the maitre de chai sing for us too?
      Still in touch with Jim. Retired in Shropshire. And Andree retired in Narbonne. Me, not retired anywhere! Nice memory thanks.

      Tony