In France every region has their own wine cooperative, called cave. In the south of France, you can find caves in almost every village, large or small. Some of the best value French wines that you can find in the SAQ are actually made in a cooperative. I recently had a chance to revisit two of the flagship wines of Cave de Roquebrun, an important co-operative in St Chinian. In an impressive vertical tasting lead by Alain Rogier, director and winemaker, I tasted vintages as far as 1994 to 2014. The tasting was an important opportunity to corroborate that a co-op is quite capable of making ageworthy wines that can also be affordable. For this special occasion, I was invited by its importer AOC & Cie in Quebec.
In France, wine cooperatives were born in the late 1800s, mostly out of economic necessity, and continue to flourish today. A wine cooperative essentially consists of a physical site with winemaking facilities and a wine store. During the harvest period, local farmers bring grapes from their land and either make their own wine, or pool their fruit together with those of their neighbors to make a local wine. There are more growers than winemakers and not every grower has the desire, skill or finances to be a winemaker. Growers then hire or designate a winemaker who utilizes the wine cave’s equipment and resources. The winemaker selects the best grapes grown under optimal conditions and crafts a wine with the input of the collective, displaying the best qualities of the region’s grapes and land. The wine is then sold by the cooperative, with proceeds shared proportionately among the growers.
Lets put in perspective the importance of the wine cooperative in the French wine industry. A recent article in Forbes Magazine ( Cooperative Wine, Catching On and Catching Up) states that ” In France 65% of all independent wine growers (grape farmers / wine producers) belong to a wine cooperative. That does not quite mean that 65% of all wine is made by cooperatives since many growers do a bit of both: bottle their own wine while also being part of a cooperative”. The Coop is a big business player producing making rougly half of the french wine production in France (Source: Confédération des Coopératives Vinicoles de France)
In the Languedoc Rousillon, there are 200 wine co-operatives that holds 150,000 ha of vineyard with a production of 9,000,000 wine hectolitres ( Source: Coop de France-Languedoc Rousillon). In 2014, the whole region produced 11.7 million hectolitres of wine, so the co-op contribution of the output is an impressive 76 % ( Source: Languedoc Wines)
The history of Roquebrun goes back to the 19th and 20th century. At the beginning the enterprise focused on vinegrowing until 1967 when they officially formed the coop. There are about 150 members which all together hold 650 ha of vineland in poor schist soils of the St-Chinian appellation. The co-op production is an impressive 3 million bottle and wine box per year. Roquebrun exports to USA, Canada, China, Belgium and Japan.
The favourable climate and soils of the appellation allow Roquebrun to grow Syrah, Mourvedre, Grenache and Carignan for the reds and Grenache Blanc and Viognier for the whites. They make wines under the Saint-Chinian Roquebrun appellation as well as the regional IGP’s ( Pays d’Oc and Haute Vallée de L’Orb). The village of Roquebrun enjoys a very favorable microclimate that allows besides wine, orange culture, lemon and tangerine trees in the ground, that produce citrus harvest for local consumption. This ideal climatic conditions have earned Roquebrun being nicknamed “the little Nice of Herault” and makes it a tourist mecca of the Orb Valley.
Cave de Roquebrun uses diverse vinification techniques for their wines including Carbonic Maceration and extensive oak program for their premium cuvves. All the grapes are harvested by hand and there is a meticulous grape selection program. After bottling, the wines are stored underground in a semi controlled temperature cellar until they are ready to be exportes. This method maintains the wine freshness and protect the bottles from temperature variation.
It is important to mention that Cave de Roquebrun is the largest specialist of Carbonic Maceration in the region. This technique is the norm in the Beaujolais region where Gamay is king. The technique is widely used in other parts of the world. For instance, in the late 1700’s it was the dominant winemaking method in Rioja. In Chile, native Burgundian Louis-Antoine Luyt makes some excellent País, Carignan, Cinsault, and Carménère using carbonic maceration.
What is Carbonic Maceration?. Simply, it is a chemical reaction in which wine grapes ferment in an anaerobic environment rather than an aerobic one meaning absence versus presence of oxygen. Unlike standard fermentation, in which yeast is manually or naturally added to grape must to convert sugar into alcohol, carbonic maceration does not use yeast to start fermentation. This method increases the freshness and fruit aromatics of a wine. Since, I am not well versed in this winemaking technique, I reccomend that you read the excellent post by Jamie Goode, Carbonic maceration
A closer look at this winemaking techniqueé
Another excellent article that you must look into is by one of my favorite wine writers, Andrew Jefford. He made a superb piece on Caves de Roquebrun: The Carbonic Maceration Virtuoso. Mr. Jefford explains this particular method and also discuss its application in the vineyards of Roquebrun. By reading this article, I learnt how carbonic maceration helps brings out the perfume of Syrah in the schist soils of Saint Chinian. Here is a passage of the article that I particularly like:
The aromatics of schist-grown Syrah fermented by this technique are, it’s true, astonishing. They easily evoke the thyme and privet which grow wild in the garrigue scrubland of the hills, but have a viscerally appealing orange-blossom charm, too, like a night stroll in a Tunisian citrus grove. Nor are these wines unsatisfying on the palate: there is plenty of structure beneath that rich, low-acid flesh, thanks to Rogier’s insistence on what are (for carbonic maceration) unusually long maceration times.
Alain Roger won the prestigious International Wine Challenge 2015 on the category red winemaker of the year. In addition, the wines of Roquebrun have earned a myriad of medals and accolades in the International wine circuit. Despite the fame, Alain Roger remains quite a modest man. He is very easy to talk too and he is very passionate about his wines. Alain proudly deserves the title Southern France’s virtuoso of carbonic maceration!!.
The Fiefs d’Aupenac 2015 ( SAQ # 10559166) retails in the Quebec Market for $20.45.
Tasting Notes Roches Noires 1994-2014
( Usually a blend of 60% Syrah, 20% Grenache and 20% Mourvedre, plot selection of old Syrah vines)
1994: Dry prunes with aromas of pipe tobacco and cigar box as well. Complex notes of macerated black fruit ( prunes and pitted cherry). Round and elegant with subtle tannins.
1995: Wood smoke and cracked black peppercorns. Aromas as well of fine leather with dry coriander, cumin and licorice. On the mouth, very pleasant and fresh with balsamic notes and mature tannins.
1998: A complex set of nuances that I like to call ” mineral dust ” with a palette of barnyard aromas. On the mouth, quite elegant in the mid palate with flavors reminiscent of black plums. Tannins are drying up a bit but overall a lovely finale.
2001: Fresh nose bringing to mind cassis coulis or compote with christmas cake spices. Complex and elegant with a beautiful elegant finale.
2004: Intriguing nose bringing to mind Maraschino cherries liqueur, fountain ink and notes of cloves. Round and subtle with a beautiful acidity. A pleasure to drink this wine. One of my favorite from the tasting.
2005: A very deep nose bringing to mind black sesame seeds, zatar spice mix with confit violets and licorice. On the mouth, very balanced and racy with a beautiful lingering finale.
2008: Outstanding nose, the way I like it from an old wine. Iron, dry blood. Menthol and eucalyptus with star anise and dark fruit sauce. Powerful and well structured with cashmere tannins. A very poetic wine.
2009: Spicy with complex animal notes that brings to mind something that I recall to be musk. Garrique nuances as well that bring to mind wild rosemary and thyme. Beautiful and harmonious palate quite mineral recalling the schists terroir of the appellation.
2011: Santal, licorice, tiger balm. A very balsamic bouquet. On the mouth, more floral than dark fruit. Powerful and complex yet with graceful tannins.
2013: Luscious fruity nose. A rich palette of ripe black fruits as well as hints of vanilla bean. On the mouth, dense but not unbalanced with just the right acidity. Long finale
2014 Roasted bell pepper with coffe and black cherry jam. On the mouth, warm and generous with a silky midpalate and velvety tannins.
Tasting Notes Fiefs D’Aupenac 1995-2014
( 60% Syrah, 20% Grenache and 20% Mourvedre. Aging in french oak for 12-18 months)
1995 Roasted black coffe beans with a slight vegetal nose and sandalwood. Also some cigar box as well. On the mouth, a very fresh beautiful expression with mature tannins. Long finale.
2002 Vibrant and alluring with nuances of dark chocolate, violets and blueberry jam. Spicy with deep blackcurrant notes and black tea nuances supported by fine tannins. A soulful aftertaste bringing to mind black forest cake.
2003 Caramel butterscotch with roasted bell pepper character. Exotic spices such as asofetida and black cumin. Fresh vibrant and subtle. Still amazing and youthful after more than 10 years in bottle.
2005 Beautiful mineral nuances with intense notes of confit violets and ripe blue and black fruits. Fleshy with lots of power. No signs of aging at all.
2006 Umami like flavors, coal smoke and cracked black pepper. On the palate, very elegant with notes of menthol and red cherry. Very long finale.
2007 Harmonious and aerial with notes of redcurrant, cacao and spices. Creamy and very fresh with a nice elegance and persistance
2009 Peppery with notes of ripe raspberry, lavender and balsamic undertones. Structured and intense with spice and dark chocolate flavours. Very long with an amazing depth finale.
2010 Floral with aromas that bring to mind church incense, habanero pepper jelly with notes of dark chocolate truffle and cassis. Harmonious with a persistent finale.
2011 Meaty with hints of tiger balm and violets and ripe dark fruit ( Cassis and black cherry jam). Delicious with attractive tannins. Intense flavour, harmonious and very complex.
2013 Aromas of cofee with an alluring animal side, black truffle and confit violets. Rich and beautiful palate with an elegant finale.
2014 Powerful dark fruit aromas with complex notes of forest growth, cedar and mushroom medley. Rich with silky tannins and a lingering finale.