Last week I had the pleasure of tasting the latest release from Ron Laughton’s joint venture in the south west of France, Agly Brothers Côtes du Roussillon 2014. This is the third vintage I’ve tasted and it just seems to get better each time. It’s a style of wine I really enjoy and one that I think more winemakers will emulate. It combines a new world generosity of sun-filled fruit, with old world savouriness and a tight, lean structure.
Previously Ron has hosted the tastings, however this year his daughter Emily McNallywas running the show. Those of you familiar with Ron Laughton’s iconic Jasper Hill winery will make the connection between Emily and ‘Emily’s Paddock’ Shiraz. These days Emily is a well regarded winemaker in her own right, although I’m sure she’s sick of being told she’s a dead ringer for her father.
Ron Laughton (left) and Michel Chapoutier.
Agly Brothers is a collaboration between two famous wine names - Ron Laughton of Jasper Hill, central Victoria and Michel Chapoutier of Maison M. Chapoutier in the Rhône Valley. The story, the landscape and the single red blend they make together are fascinating.
Maison M. Chapoutier is without a doubt one of the Rhône's most famous producers, largely due to the dynamic Michel Chapoutier. The family's winemaking roots go back to the early 1800s in the village of Tain l'Hermitage - which is where you'll still find them. Despite acquiring some of the best vineyard sites in the Rhône, by the late 1980s the business was on the verge of bankruptcy. In 1990, at the age of just 26, Michel purchased the company from his grandfather and promptly fired his family members, including his father! He converted to organic and biodynamic practices in the vineyards, updated vinification techniques and began to bottle many vineyards separately instead of blending. This single-minded and sometimes unorthodox approach has brought global success to the company.
Many of Michel's proposed innovations for his estate were not possible though - some due to environmental factors, some due to restrictive French appellation laws. So in the mid-90s he set off to find less prohibitive surroundings. He visited several regions around the world, including the Coonawarra, where I remember meeting him in 1997 while working in a winery.
But it was his chance meeting with Ron Laughton in Heathcote that struck a chord. Ron and Eva Laughton started Jasper Hill in 1975, with it eventually becoming one of Australia's most sought after estates. The two men shared a passion for biodynamic principles and Michel found many of Ron's practices fascinating. In 1998 the two men started a joint venture, La Pleiade with the planting of a Shiraz vineyard in Heathcote.
In next to no time, the energetic Michel had found another vineyard, but this time it was Ron's turn to wing his way to the other side of the world, to the region of Roussillon.
You'll often see Roussillon lumped together with Languedoc - referred to as Languedoc-Roussillon. This combined region in southwest France runs along the Mediterranean coast, then inland from Montpelier and right around to the border with Spain. It's vast.
But Roussillon is quite distinct from Languedoc. Roussillon covers the mountainous appellations closest to Spain and has its own Catalan identity, quite separate to Languedoc. It's a rugged and exciting place, and while the Greeks established viticulture here about 3,000 years ago, some appellations have only recently been discovered by outsiders.
The village of Latour de France.
Michel found an old plot in the foothills of the Pyrenees in the upper reaches of the Agly Valley. The nearest town, Latour de France, is a picturesque village situated on a bend in the Agly River. Dominated by an 11th century castle, the town has a significant military history, but its main role was as a customs post between Catalonia and France. On many of the valley's vantage points you'll still see castles in various states of decay, built by the Cathars in the 13th century.
These days Latour de France has about 100 inhabitants who are legally allowed to fly the Catalan flag and speak the Catalan language, and even though the town is only about 40km from the Mediterranean coast, it's very isolated, with few visitors. You can only wonder what they made of a foreigner looking to buy a local vineyard!
The generic appellation in this area is Côtes du Roussillon, but due to the quality of its wines, Latour de France was granted its own sub-appellation in 1977. This allowed the village name to be used as a suffix to create the snappy Côtes du Roussillon-Villages-Latour de France.
Latour de France is robust red territory. The principal varieties are Syrah, Grenache and Carignan. Also allowed are Mourvèdre and Lladoner Pelut (I don’t know it either). Three of these five varieties must be used, and Syrah and/or Grenache must constitute at least 20%. Historically though, the highest percentage used has been the tannic Carignan grape.
Organic and biodynamic cultivation methods are used in the vineyards.
The vineyard Michel found was on steep, rocky and inhospitable ground. It was planted with Carignan in 1902, but since WWII had been nuked with herbicides, which had left the soil dead. Low yielding and expensive to farm, it lay, like many in the area, largely abandoned. Few saw any potential but Michel recognised its underlying quality. It was a treasure trove of age-old vines with the suitability of both a Mediterranean climate (warm without being too hot, with mild winters) and the perfect soil (schist and gneiss).
In 2002, the two decided to buy and resurrect the vineyard in its hundredth year and so began Agly Brothers. The 'brothers' bought a few more vineyards, mere 50-year-olds, to provide Shiraz and Grenache, then put their organic and biodynamic practices to work. As they've brought the vineyards back to life, it's interesting to see the corresponding quality of the wines and the upward trend in scores from Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate:
"The Agly Brothers releases… seem to have hit another level of quality, with these 2013s and 2014s the best yet. Unfortunately, these are made in tiny quantities and are hard to find in the market. Nevertheless, even at $50, they remain solid value given the quality.” Jeb Dunnock, The Wine Advocate #218.
Since 2012 the Agly blend has been moving away from being Carignan dominant, to Syrah dominant, and 2014 is the first vintage without any Carignan at all. The Carignan is now so old and the yields so minuscule, that it’s become very difficult to work and has had to be grubbed (ripped out).
The 2014 blend stands at 60% Syrah and 40% Grenache. What with Michel being from the northern Rhône and Ron from central Victoria, it's hardly a surprise they're devotees of Shiraz.
The fruit for the wine was picked by hand and de-stemmed, before the ferment was carried out using natural yeasts in small open concrete fermenters, with the 2 varieties fermented separately. There was a long maceration period of about 5-6 weeks post ferment, with skins left to soak, a technique designed to extract flavour, colour and tannins. The wine was then pressed and further aged in lined concrete tanks - so no oak. The wine was not fined but did see a light filtration before being bottled at the Chapoutier winery in the Rhône.
Even though the wine was grown and made in Latour de France, because the bottling occurred outside the appellation, it's not allowed to use the village name. So it's labelled Côtes du Roussillon rather than Côtes du Roussillon-Villages-Latour de France. Of course.
The 2014 is a different wine to the 2013. It still has wonderful lifted notes of violets and sweet dark fruit on the nose, but I found it more elegant on the palate than the 2013. The wine has delicious savoury elements, a mouthful reveals flavours of leather, pepper, olive and dried herbs. The vineyard is surrounded by scrub known as 'garrigue', where many French culinary herbs such as sage, thyme and tarragon grow wild. Just like you see the effect of nearby eucalyptus on some Australian wines, you can taste these garrigue flavours in the wine. The blend offers the perfect balance of elegance and oomph, structure and intensity. Fine tannins give it length without being heavy or harsh. Delicious - this is such a nice wine.
I gave Ron a buzz a few days after the tasting and asked him why he thought the Agly wines were continuing to improve year after year. He puts it down to ongoing work in the vineyard that’s improving the quality of the soil, specifically the use of biodynamic preparations. He also referred to the change in the blend with the gradual reduction and final removal of Carignan. He sees the 2014 as a very approachable style, slightly rounder and with better fruit definition and expression than previous vintages.
“… the 2014 Cotes du Roussillon is shockingly good. It has incredible purity and elegance to go with lots of kirsch, black raspberry, violets, crushed rock and olive tapenade characteristics. Also medium to full-bodied, with beautiful concentration and ultra-fine tannin, this will most likely surpass the 2013, yet I suspect it will drink at an earlier age. Again, these cuvées are made in tiny quantities, so don’t miss a chance to try this.” 94-97 Jeb Dunnuck, Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate.
This is simply an extraordinary review for a wine of this price. It also illustrates the changes that have occurred with The Wine Advocate’s scoring system. There was a time when a score as high as this meant a big, rich, opulent red, with masses of ripe fruit, tons of sweet oak and high octane alcohol. Not any more.
You’ll find many 94-96 Parker-pointed wines selling for hundreds of dollars a bottle, but here's one for less than $50. A mere 300 cases are made of this wine and only around 30 of those came to Sydney.
I can offer it for $45 a bottle. Order online