Just south of Aniane, near Montpellier, there is a vigneron so focused on his pursuit of perfection that he consistently makes some of the greatest wines in all of France. In the age of social media and self-marketing, Laurent Vaillé of Domaine de la Grange des Pères is a rare breed: practically a hermit, who doesn’t use e-mail, mostly ignores the phone when it rings, and rarely answers questions in more than one sentence, he is a farmer who almost only works in his vines, uninterrupted on his quest to perfect the translation of his grapes and their terroir. Early in his career, Vaillé trained at some of France’s best wine addresses: Coche-Dury in Meursault and Chave in Hermitage. Now, a few decades later, he has earned his place alongside them in the pantheon of France’s most talented vignerons. Recently, our staff tasted our last remaining bottles of Vaillé’s older Vin de Pays de l’Hérault rouge—made mostly of Syrah and Mourvèdre, with a little Cabernet Sauvignon and Counoise blended in—going back to 1999. We also opened a bottle of the more recent 2013, of which we still have a few cases remaining. What did this range of wines show us? First, this is a producer whose sole red wine* can be vastly different from one vintage to the next, not forced into a tight box of what it should be, but naturally expressing the variations of each vintage. Second, each wine, regardless of the vintage, showcased mesmerizing complexity. While the 2007 rouge delivered notes of aged, savory Côte Rôtie, Bordeaux, and even truffly Alsatian Pinot Gris, for example, the 2005 was more youthful, remarkably bright and fresh, despite being older. Similarly, while the 2000 exhibited fragrant notes of mint, chocolate, earth, coffee, and paprika, the 1999 recalled luscious raspberries and pomegranate. It’s hard to say where exactly the 2013 will be in ten or fifteen years, but it is certain to boast even more complexity than it shows now, which is saying a lot. At the moment, it is a young wine—wild and tightly coiled, with notes of cherries, iron, black pepper, blackberries, leather, and pine. It is beautiful, but in a feral way compared to some of the older vintages, which have been tamed by time. Thrilling to taste now, this majestic red will deliver even more down the road, leaving you with a singular, unforgettable wine experience when you ultimately decide to pop the cork.
First, this is a producer whose sole red wine can be vastly different from one vintage to the next, not forced into a tight box of what it should be, but naturally expressing the variations of each vintage. Second, each wine, regardless of the vintage, showcased mesmerizing complexity.
Attaining cult wine status is not an easy feat, and certainly not when the odds are stacked against you. Laurent Vaillé has achieved what others thought impossible. He settled in the l’Hérault of the Languedoc and purchased land in 1989, near Aniane. In this area, the limestone is hard and abundant and the soil poor; no one thought he would have success planting a vineyard. Though it took dynamite and bulldozing to clear limestone, boulders, and glacial scree, he found great terroir. Laurent’s South-facing vines get very low yields and are all pruned in the gobelet style. The simultaneous restraint and power of his wines makes them ideal for aging. In his words, “Nature gave us a partition of land. It is up to us to interpret it.”
Ask wine drinkers around the world, and the word “Languedoc” is sure to elicit mixed reactions. On the one hand, the region is still strongly tied to its past as a producer of cheap, insipid bulk wine in the eyes of many consumers. On the other hand, it is the source of countless great values providing affordable everyday pleasure, with an increasing number of higher-end wines capable of rivaling the best from other parts of France.
While there’s no denying the Languedoc’s checkered history, the last two decades have seen a noticeable shift to fine wine, with an emphasis on terroir. Ambitious growers have sought out vineyard sites with poor, well draining soils in hilly zones, curbed back on irrigation and the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and looked to balance traditional production methods with technological advancements to craft wines with elegance, balance, and a clear sense of place. Today, the overall quality and variety of wines being made in the Languedoc is as high as ever.
Shaped like a crescent hugging the Mediterranean coast, the region boasts an enormous variety of soil types and microclimates depending on elevation, exposition, and relative distance from the coastline and the cooler foothills farther inland. While the warm Mediterranean climate is conducive to the production of reds, there are world-class whites and rosés to be found as well, along with stunning dessert wines revered by connoisseurs for centuries.
Trust the great winemakers, trust the great vineyards. Your wine merchant might even be trustworthy. In the long run, that vintage strip may be the least important guide to quality on your bottle of wine.—Kermit Lynch
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