PIC ST-LOUP
Decanter|February 2021
Dominated by the tilted limestone block of Pic St-Loup itself, this appellation on the cooler, wetter eastern side of the Languedoc AP region is noted for its fresh and fragrant wines, with Syrah the star. Andrew Jefford charts its progress and predicts a bright future
Andrew Jefford

A long march, a novel, a saga: there are many analogies for the slow emergence and differentiation over the past 40 years of Languedoc’s appellations. Why slow? Geography, in a word. In contrast to regions such as Burgundy or the Rhône, Languedoc’s appellations unfold east to west, not north to south. That means that there are no clear climatic contrasts of the sort that distinguish Chablis from the Mâconnais, or Côte-Rôtie from Châteauneuf-du-Pape. All lie in ‘the Mediterranean zone’ – so differences between them in soil, climate and performance are a matter of nuance. With every year that passes, though, those nuances acquire more light and shade, and the personality of each appellation can be perceived more clearly.

None, I would argue, more clearly than Pic St-Loup. Lean, clean, fragrant, vital and fresh: it’s the track athlete of the Languedoc. Its wines are less rich, fruity and opulent than those of Minervois, La Clape or the limestone zones of St-Chinian. It has more homogeneity of terroir and hence style than the equally concentrated Terrasses du Larzac; it is less stony-sweet than Faugères or the schist zones of St-Chinian; but it’s also more distinctively Mediterranean and garrigue-scented than Cabardès or Malepère. If Hermitage or Cornas could be said to have an authentic southern echo in the Languedoc, it would be somewhere in the beautifully lit stone fields that swirl and skirt the Pic.

The rise of Syrah

It’s come a long way. ‘Things were in a dismal state here in the 1970s,’ points out appellation president Régis Valentin of Château de Lancyre. This was a region of sheep pasture as much as viticulture, and much of the wine – which was based on low-quality Aramon, and Carignan (ill-suited to eastern Languedoc) – was so bad it had to be distilled. The zone made its long march through VDQS in the 1950s and through the overall Languedoc appellation in the 1980s to reach cru status by 1994. Thirteen years to get to an AP of its own required stamina, ‘but, humanly speaking, it was a very enriching period’, remembers Guilhem Viau of Bergerie du Capucin, who served as appellation president during the key years of 2011-2016. ‘The cahier des charges [appellation rule book] changed a lot between 2009 and 2016, both in quality terms and in developing the emphasis on Syrah.’

The starring role of Syrah here merits attention. This much-travelled variety was planted throughout the Languedoc in the last decades of the 20th century as a cépage ameliorateur or ‘improving variety’. A good idea at the time, but accelerating climate change often leaves Syrah tasting cooked and gloopy, especially in western Languedoc. Not in the Pic: it loves the much cooler and wetter conditions here. The northern Rhône aside, nowhere in France can offer better Syrah aromatic profiles than Pic St-Loup: floral, lifted and beguiling yet authentically southern, like a citrus grove on a warm spring evening. Grenache at its best is very distinctive, too, with a grip and poise closer to that of Gigondas than Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Mourvèdre doesn’t always ripen easily here, but when it does it seems to be a wonderful vehicle for those enigmatic yet alluring garrigue notes, which are also pronounced here.

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