March 12, 2010 Domaine Navarre
Domaine Navarre Cuvée Olivier
carignan, grenache, syrah
The vigneron jokes with us that he drives a Lamborghini to work. We are witness to the fact, it is there in the shed when we stop by — a twenty-five year old piece of farm machinery that sits ignobly among all the other equipment that it takes to run a winery.
Thierry Navarre has an enduring sense of humour. It lasts throughout the time he takes from the constant business of making wine to accompany us to his vineyards and explain what he has set out to do with his Domaine Navarre.
Like many vignerons in Languedoc his is a passion he inherited from his father, and from his grandfather before that. One of the winery
signs (just before the bridge across the river Orb that leads into Roquebrun) is an old one, it would seem from the days he and his father worked together. He has inherited something else, a terroir of brown schist with wonderful potential to produce wines of enduring quality. He knows this land intimately, has studied its geology in detail, and cares for it in a way that reflects the heritage and culture of Languedoc, stretching back through the years when the inhabitants spoke just that, the langue d’oc, the historic language of Occitan, which Navarre could use were I up for it. (I have enough challenges with French.)
The thin soil of his 13 hectares is exclusively brown schist. It is very permeable to rainfall, forcing the roots of the vines deep in search of moisture, where they also finds the coolness to withstand the intense heat of the Languedoc summer. (In July and August temperatures sometimes reach 40 C.) The surface schist reflects the sunlight onto the vines, allowing steady maturing of the fruit. September brings the harvest, careful selection of the best grapes by hand. Vinification and bottling follow in the buildings just off the road into Roquebrun.
While the majority of the production of Domaine Navarre is within the St. Chinian appellation, what emerges in some bottlings is unique to the area. The vigneron is also an historian. He produces two wines, each he calls a ‘Cépage Oublié du Langedoc’ — a forgotten varietal of Languedoc. They are a white, terret, and a red, ribeyrenc, varietals that were for the most part lost in the phylloxera epidemic which ravaged the vineyards of France in the late 1800s. Thierry Navarre carefully collected what vines he could find, from many different sources, until he had enough to produce a modest bottling of both. I could drink these flavourful wines over and over again, and never tire of their distinct character.
Overlooking his vineyards, he points out something interesting he has noted in recent years. With global warming the alcohol content of syrah and grenache (non-traditional varietals that government officials have encouraged local vignerons to be growing) has climbed steadily to about 14%, while that of the traditional carignan and ribeyrenc has remained constant at about 11%. Could it mean the latter are better suited to the heat and terroir of Languedoc? And does the fact that ribeyrenc produces a lower yield, and a lighter, medium-bodied, less-alcoholic wine mean it will never make a comeback in a wine world where it is dark and dense reds that gather the attention of wine critics and their ratings?
In the end I select a bottle that is a combination of old vine carignan, grenache and syrah, in part because it is one of the Domaine Navarre wines most widely available, and a very fine wine to be sure, generally considered the leading cuvée of the domaine. It is named after the son, now fourteen, of Thierry and his wife Mireille, and here finds a place overlooking Roquebrun, a rainbow curving across the sky.
Domaine Navarre Cuvée Olivier 2007
You know you are in the hands of a skilled vignernon when the attraction to the wine lasts throughout the bottle, from beginning to the very end. This is a wine flavoured by the land, enriched by it. To be sure the depth of the scarlet fruit is there, from its colour in the glass, to the aromas and taste, but beyond that is a polished earthiness, a sense of the schist that is both profound and wonderfully integrated with the other properties of the grapes. Its concentration makes for a wine mature in its attitude, not overwhelming, but rather, content in offering the taster a pure, yet complex expression of the terroir from which it came. It is a wine imbedded in my memory, a standout I will carry with me long after leaving Languedoc. $