Think of Fitou, that wonderfully gutsy warm spicy wine from the south of France, that prides itself on being the Midi’s very first appellation for table wine, and the producer that immediately springs to mind is Mont Tauch, the cooperative of the village of Tuchan.
Quite simply, without Mont Tauch, Fitou would be made by a handful of small wine growers and the village of Tuchan would have no livelihood. As it is, the lives of the population of 800 people are focussed on wine. The name, Mont Tauch, comes from the mountain that dominates the skyline, forming a dramatic backdrop to the vineyards of the inland area of Fitou. Perversely Fitou is in two parts, with vineyards down on the coast around the village of Fitou itself, as well as inland around Tuchan, and mixed up with the vineyards of Corbières. The reason is historical; when the appellation of Fitou was created, the mayors of the villages between the two areas did not wish to accept the constraints on grape varieties and yields that an appellation would impose. Nowadays as Fitou is a more prestigious and successful appellation than Corbières, their decision is regretted.
Like many of the wine cooperatives of the south of France, Mont Tauch was founded just before the First World War, in 1913, to handle the grape harvest of the village. The appellation of Fitou was created in 1948 and the adjacent appellation of Corbières in 1985. And the cooperative has grown with the appellations. It has linked up with cooperatives from the adjoining villages of Paziols, Durban and Villeneuve, with everything centralised into an enormous wine cellar on the outskirts of Tuchan. You can see some of the most modern and streamlined winemaking equipment in the whole of the south of France. And each time I have visited, there has been yet more innovation and modernisation.
The cooperative is responsible for just under 2000 hectares of vines, owned by 250 members. Many cultivate just one tiny plot of vines, so that about a hundred members account for ninety per cent of the vineyards. Much of the success of Mont Tauch can be attributed to the attention the vineyards receive. Within those 2000 hectares there are some 7000 individual plots, all registered on computer, indicating one of twenty different soil types, as well as grape variety, which for Fitou can be Carignan, Cinsaut, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Grenache Noir, not to mention other varieties for vins de pays, white wines and the local vin doux naturel, Rivesaltes. Age of vines is another consideration, with about 300 hectares of Carignan described as old vines, which could mean as much as 100 years old. There are three viticulturalists who help and advise the wine growers throughout the year, and since 2001 there has been a concentrated move towards sustainable viticulture, entailing a reasoned approach in the use of chemical treatments, with a consideration of the prevailing climatic conditions.
More than any other cooperative in the Midi, Mont Tauch has encouraged the commitment and involvement of its members. They are no longer content merely to deliver their grapes to the cooperative on the appointed day. Instead they take an active interest and indeed pride as to where their grapes go, with the creation of wines like Les Douze and Les Quatre. The first vintage of Les Douze was in 1998, and as the name implies, it is the production of twelve vineyards. There is a tasting each year to determine which twelve and the wine is sold with a back label giving the names of the twelve growers, and their photographs. One grower’s wife said this was the best Christmas present they could have had: to be selected for Les Douze. In contrast Les Quatre, of which 2000 was the first vintage, comes from the same four best sites each year.
As well as these two flagship wines, the cooperative produces a wide range of different wines, starting with a range of cheerful vins de pays under the Village du Sud brand. The label for each wine illustrates a character from the village, with the aim to give the cooperative a human face, as the tendency is for large wine cooperatives to be anonymously impersonal. The rosé features Sophie the Flower Seller and the Merlot, Roland the café owner, while the tetrapak of Old Vine Grenache portrays witty cartoon characters from the whole village, designed by the talented Tim Bulmer. The Cooperative’s own label Fitou is a quaffable mouthful of rustic spicy fruit. Mont Tauch Fitou Reserve is given some oak ageing, and is more concentrated and refined, while l’Exception, the wine which is deemed to be the best expression of its vintage, has some discreet oak on the nose and is rich and structured with layers of flavour and a long finish. And our tasting finished with vins doux, a deliciously nutty Rivesaltes Reserve and a sweet grapey Muscat de Rivesaltes.
With an annual production of 12 million bottles, Mont Tauch is the largest independent cooperative in France, but despite its size it maintains a very personal touch. And if you should find yourself in Tuchan, in the heart of the Corbières hills at the foot of the Pyrenees do drop by their new shop where there are tastings and vineyard tours on offer.