DOMAINE JEAN-MICHEL ALQUIER
Following on from the St. Chinian Faugeres tasting, here is a article that was published in the Quarterly Review of Wines, a year or so ago. I thought I might as well recycle it!
The surge in quality amongst new estates over the last decade or two in the Languedoc has been nothing short of breathtaking. Much rarer, however, are the estates where quality, rather than quantity, has been the main focus for more than a single generation. Gilbert Alquier was one of the pioneers of the small appellation of Faugères. He was the first to plant Syrah in the area, back in 1960and one of the first to bottle his own wine, rather than selling it in bulk to local merchants. When I met Gilbert in 1986, he had begun ageing his wine in small oak barriques, rather than the large foudres that were traditional to the Midi. 1983 was the first vintage of his cuvée prestige, aged for a year in new Tronçais barriques. Again this was another revolutionary step, in a wine region where change was slow to come.
Gilbert Alquier had two sons, Jean-Michel and Frédéric, who worked together with their mother, after Gilbert’s death. When she retired in 1996, they decided to part company, dividing up the family vineyards into two separate estates, and it is now Jean-Michel Alquier who is generally considered to have taken his father’s place, making some of the most stylish of Faugères. The appellation of Faugères takes its name from a tiny village, nestling at the Languedoc hills.
Like all the appellations of the Languedoc, Faugères has benefited from the introduction of the so-called cépages améliorateurs or improving grape varieties, Grenache Noir, Syrah and Mourvèdre, which served to enhance the flavour of the sometimes diluted Carignan and Cinsaut, and replaced undesirable varieties such as Alicante Bouschet and Aramon. The soil is schist, with the vineyards lying between 150 and 400 metres, with the vineyard area totalling some 2000 hectares. White Faugères is a more recent development, recognised since 2004, and made from Marsanne, Roussanne, Grenache blanc and Rolle.
I tracked down Jean-Michel in a large house on the edge on the edge of the village. There is an elegant brass plaque telling you the opening time of the bureau, but no indication of a name to reassure you that you are at the correct front door. “Je suis anti-marketing” laughed Jean-Michel, who greeted me warmly and immediately suggested a look at the vineyards. It was late August and he was preparing to harvest his white grapes in a couple of weeks, and the reds a week after that.. Altogether he has ten hectares, including just one of white, all within in the commune of Faugères itself, on south-facing slopes. I admired rows of neatly trimmed vines. Jean-Michel favours lutte raisonnée, which translates rather clumsily into English as integrated viticulture. He is sceptical about organic viticulture, but he uses no pesticides or insecticides and very little weedkiller. In some plots the weeding is done by hand, as the terrain is so stony to make the use of a tractor impossible, and in other plots he keeps grass between the rows of vines. If you enjoy wild hills, with scrubby vegetation, you will find the scenery breathtaking. There is a ruined house hidden in the trees, with an old dovecot; Jean-Michel would love to restore it. And no Faugères vineyard is without a capitelle, one of the dry stone shelters shaped like an igloo. A pair of partridges scuttled past us, and Jean-Michel asserted that he is not a hunter, unlikely so many of the local wine-growing community. And in the warm sunshine, the scent of garrigues was intoxicating, with wild mint, fennel, thyme, rosemary and cistus.
Back in the cool barrel cellar, with its pebbled floor, Jean-Michel talked about his wine making, as we tasted, from bottle and barrel. We began with a Sauvignon. Jean-Michel has just fifteen rows of this variety, planted for the simple reason that he and his wife like it. And he makes an elegantly understated interpretation of the variety, that is fermented in oak and then put in vat in December.
His other white wine does not yet qualify for the appellation of Faugères. There was much discussion as to which varieties would be allowed; Viognier was discussed and rejected for being too aromatic; Muscat likewise. Jean-Michel has Grenache blanc and Marsanne, but also needs some Roussanne, which he only planted only three years and so it is not yet in production. The wine spends a total of fourteen months in wood, with one third of the barrels replaced each year. The flavour is beautifully textured and amply demonstrates the wonderful, but often overlooked potential for white wine in the Languedoc.
Next came the red wines from barrel. Maison Jaune is a blend of about 70 per cent Grenache Noir, with 20 percent Syrah and a little Mourvèdre. The three varieties are blended after the malo-lactic fermentation and age together in barrel for about eighteen months. This barrel sample of 2007 will be bottle in April 2009. Already it conveyed the sense of place that is essential to all the great wines of the Languedoc, conjuring up the warmth and herbs of the garrigues, with flavours of black and red fruit, blackberries, cherries. Jean-Michel is really pleased with his 2007s, which are not unlike 2005s, with more freshness than the
Les Bastides is made from grapes from the higher vineyards, including the oldest Syrah vines, which account for 70 per cent of the blend, as well as Grenache Noir and just a drop of Mourvèdre. The wine is denser and rich, more concentrated and chocolate, with some hints of new oak. This is a wine for keeping, as was illustrated by the final wine of our tasting, 1996 Les Bastides, with its flavours of game, leather, and garrigues. 1996 was a good year, with a hot summer, and the wine did reach 14º, but was in perfect balance, with lovely ripe fruit.
And how would Jean-Michel describe the tipicity of Faugères? He explained that the soils of Faugères are lightly acidic, so that you can have really ripe grapes, while retaining freshness in the wine, while the schist gives a slightly animal note, adding something a little wild to the blend. Above all Faugères is an association of elegance and power.
2007 Pierres Blanches Vin de Pays de l’Hérault SauvignonNicely rounded with good stony fruit. The hint of oak fills out the palate, which finishes with good acidity. Good mineral character.
2006 Vin de Pays de l’Hérault – the future Faugères Blanc, a blend of Marsanne and Grenache blanc. Elegantly understated oak, beautifully textured, with layers of flavour. Rich and rounded, with a long finish and ageing potential.
2006 Faugères la Maison Jaune.
Deep colour; spicy leathery notes on the nose. Lovely spicy fruit, with a firm streak of tannin. Very harmonious.
2005 Faugères les Bastides d’AlquierDeep colour; quite firm oak, and again on the palate, with fine textured fruit; depth of flavour, rich fruit, leathery notes, and balancing tannins. Good ageing potential.