Reconnoitering Roussillon

Gerard Bertrand is one of the most visible figures in the growing international presences of Languedoc-Roussillon. A former football star whose family has been in the wine business for generations, he has used his fame and charisma (and considerable business acumen) to push his own wines and the region in general to ever-higher levels of quality and renown. 

2011 was the best ever vintage in the south of France. Period.
— Winemaker Gerard Bertrand

When he called and told me he thought 2011 was “the best-ever vintage in the south of France,” I listened and happily agreed to meet him in New York for a Languedoc-Roussillon master class (Languedoc and Roussillon used to be separate provinces but today they are joined in a single entity and viewed a single wine production zone). Bertrand brought 20 wines - three whites and 17 reds from 2011. He also brought his vineyard manager, Cedric Lecareux, who had stashed a couple of surprises in his suitcase as well.

When it rains….

 Map of Languedoc-Roussillon. Bertrand is based in Narbonne, with vineyards scattered throughout the region

Map of Languedoc-Roussillon. Bertrand is based in Narbonne, with vineyards scattered throughout the region

Lecareux noted that rainfall is important in the region, and varies considerably over the appellation, giving some significant differences to the sub-regions despite their relative proximity. The soil varies widely as well. “You can find all the types of soil of France within Languedoc-Roussillon,” he said. And what made 2011 so extraordinary? “The wind,” he said. I looked up. Really? 

He nodded. “Yes, absolutely. The wind can come from the northwest or the southeast – after the Scottish islands, it’s the second windiest area in Europe. We have a wind of more than 20 kilometers an hour from NW more than half the days of the year; another 25% of the days the wind comes from the SW, so only 25% of the days have wind of less than 20kmh.” What does that mean to the grapes? The wind from the sea brings wet weather and hot temperatures, and other winds keep the grapes dry and free of mildew and rot that plague other vineyard areas. “Between the wind, the variety of the soil types, and the hilly terrain we have many areas of biodiversity,” added Bertrand.

Geek Speak

At this point, things get a little technical, so if you aren’t into the geekiness of wine, feel free to skip directly to the tasting notes in the tasting archive. But for some interesting insight into how and why wine works, read on…

There are conditions that affect every vintage in Languedoc-Roussillon, including the wind. What made 2011 unique is all the other factors that got layered in: 

Bud break was very early over ten days beginning around March 15, so early vintage. It was quite warm in April and May so the flowering was quite early as well, but by the middle of June there was a shift in the fast pace. “During end of June, and throughout July and August, we had cooler temperatures and regular rain every ten days or so. This brought us grapes that were full of juice and had very good aromatic potential. The grapes didn't dry out as can happen in some vintages. With so much rain, we were concerned but then we had six weeks of wind from the northwest without any rain at all. To make it even better, we had normal daytime temperatures and very cool nighttime temperatures.” 

Temperature Amplitude

Vineyard managers call this spread between day and night the temperature amplitude and it’s a big deal because it encourages slow, even ripening and a good balance of sugar and acidity in the grapes, which translates to balance in the wine. “It was amazing as we were watching the grapes move toward perfect maturity with no dilution from the rain,” said Bertrand. “We did not have to make any compromise in quality.” He gave one of his rare grins at this point, and poured the first glass. 

 Gerard Bertrand, with some of the bottles we tasted in New York in 2013

Gerard Bertrand, with some of the bottles we tasted in New York in 2013

My notes on the tasting with Gerard Bertrand are in the Tasting Note archive, where I’ve listed my comments on each wine, noted the grape blend and marked my favorites with one to three asterisks (*). It’s worth looking at the notes because some of the wines are spectacular and a great value – they are easily the equal of many wines costing two or three times as much.

After the tasting, we had lunch, and drained a few of the bottles we’d opened earlier. Then, Bertrand pulled out a special treat (as if everything so far were not interesting at all!), a wine he called “a legend.”

Legend is both an appropriate description and also the name he’s given to a series of special releases that seem to fall into his lap. In this case, he purchased a winery from an old gentleman with whom he’d done business over the years. “He had lovely vineyards but no heirs who wanted to work the land, so I bought the vineyards and he gave me some old barrels he’d been saving, including some incredible Rivesaultes.” 

 Gerard Bertrand's "legendary" Rivsaultes 1936

Gerard Bertrand's "legendary" Rivsaultes 1936

Rivesaultes (the name translates as “high shore”) is an appellation near the Mediterranean coast that makes sweet wine from several grape varieties including muscat and grenache blanc. As with Port wine, the fermentation is stopped partway through by adding enough alcohol to kill the yeast. Called “fortification,” this process retains some of the grape’s natural, unfermented sugar and bumps the alcohol to around 18%. That amount of alcohol guarantees a degree of freshness and allows the wine to slowly mature for 50 years or more. Clearly the wine last for decades because the one Bertrand poured for me had been living in its barrel since it was made in 1936! You can see from the photo that the wine has a dark but vibrant color and the flavor was sheer ambrosia – only slightly sweet, with flavors and aromas of apricot, dried orange peel and a hint of honey and herbs. It is, in a word, otherworldly.