It is no exaggeration to suggest that the south of France, the vast vineyard of Languedoc-Roussillon, is currently the country’s most exciting wine region. Twenty years ago such an idea would have been preposterous; even ten years ago it would have been debatable, but over the last few years there has been a veritable flowering of new wines and new producers. The principal appellations, Coteaux du Languedoc, Corbières and Minervois were established in 1985. Since then there have been moves towards the recognition of even more qualitative but smaller areas or crus, of which Minervois La Livinière is the very first.
Where is Minervois la Livinière?
Quite simply, Minervois la Livinière forms part of the larger appellation of the Minervois which stretches from the outskirts of the medieval city of Carcassonne eastwards to the neighbouring appellation of St. Chinian. The cru covers a much smaller area, centred on the village of La Livinière, but also including five other nearby villages, namely Siran, Cesseras, Félines-Minervois, Azillanet and Azille, all situated on what is called Le Petit Causse, the high land that forms the part of the foothills of the Montagne Noir. The altitude of the vineyards may vary between 50 and 260 metres. The Montagne Noir protects the vineyards from the north wind and, looking south, you can see the Montagne d’Alaric, the Canigou and the skyline of the Pyrenees. It is wild, dramatic scenery. In spring the hillsides are covered with cistus and bright yellow broom; in summer they become parched and arid. The bell tower of the church of La Livinière, with its distinctive shape, has been taken as the logo of the cru, so that bottles of Minervois la Livinière are instantly recognisable from the outline of the tower on the capsule.
Climate is a major determining factor in the taste of any wine. Essentially the weather follows the classic pattern of the Mediterranean, with mild, wet winters and warm, dry summers. The prevailing winds are an important influence: the Marin blows in from the sea, bringing rain, the Cers from the west bringing dry weather. Rainfall is usually low and sunshine abundant. The wines of Minervois la Livinière taste of the warmth of the deep south, with the herbs of the garrigue, thyme, bay and rosemary, with the scents of cistus and broom.
Minervois la Livinière is only red wine, while Minervois may also be white and rosé. Five key red grape varieties are responsible for most of the red wines of the Midi, namely Syrah, Grenache Noir, Mourvèdre, Cinsaut and Carignan. The first three are considered cépages améliorateurs, an expression that translates somewhat clumsily as ‘improving grape varieties’. Their importance has grown over recent years and for the cru of Minervois la Livinière they must account for 60 per cent of the blend. That percentage is the same as for Minervois, but with the difference that Syrah and Mourvèdre must comprise 40 per cent, as opposed to only 20 per cent in simple Minervois. Grenache Noir contributes weight and warmth to the wine; Syrah colour and elegance, while Mourvèdre, which traditionally performs best nearer the sea, can sometimes prove rather temperamental and consequently plays a lesser role. However, it is the blend of different vineyards and grape varieties that is all-important.
Most Minervois la Livinière is a blend of the complicated patchwork of soils. There is a zone of schist in the north, and another of limestone; the central part is dominated by sandstone; and a lower area, called les terraces, contains clay as well as limestone. Some vineyards are immensely stony, seeming to defy anything to grow, but the stones perform the useful functions of reflecting heat, improving drainage and retaining humidity in the soil, so essential in hot, dry summers.
Minervois la Livinière enjoys a longer period of élevage or ageing than Minervois, for it must remain in vat or barrel until 1st November of the year following the harvest. Ageing in oak is not essential, but many producers favour it, in order to differentiate la Livinière from their simple Minervois. This means that Minervois la Livinière is a wine with more structure and staying power. The grapes are the best of the estate, the result of careful viticulture, and in the cellar the wine making is finely tuned. The assemblage may be done before or after élevage, such decisions depending on the wine-maker’s personal preference.
Two men take the greatest credit for the creation of the cru, Minervois la Livinière: Roger Piquet from Domaine Gourgazaud and Maurice Piccinini from Domaine Piccinini; in each case the younger generation has now taken over. From the creation of the cru in 1999, with a retrospective acceptance of the two previous vintages, the number of producers has increased so that they now total 38, with 365 hectares currently registered as Minervois la Livinière. Some are wine growers with long-standing family traditions in the Minervois; some are new to wine-making since they have taken their family vines out of the cooperative; and others are newcomers to the region, following the example of the pioneers and adding their own broader experience to the cru. There is no doubt that there is a pervading feeling of excitement and commitment in the appellation.
Quality is the all-important issue. The wine growers of Minervois La Livinière are not content with the customary labelle tasting for the appellation: a tasting panel visits the cellar of each producer before the wine is bottled as Minervois La Livinière to ensure that the quality is maintained. This aspect of stringent self-regulation and control is rare among French appellations, and its enforcement can only benefit the wine lover, who will enjoy some of the best that the south of France has to offer: wines with an indisputable sense of place, wines that are born in the warm south, redolent of the herbs and scents of the wild hills of the region.