Tuesday, 22 February 2011

THE MONTPEYROUX COOP

Montpeyroux is one of the leading wine villages of the Languedoc, situated in the hills to the north of the lively city of Montpellier. The skyline is dominated by mountains; Mont St. Baudile, which gives its name to the local IGP, rises to 847 metres. and in the distance you can see the Pic de Vissou. There is an attractive village square, with an old market stand and a lively wine bar, the Terrasses de Mimosa, which is related to one of the better restaurants of the area, Le Mimosa in St. Guiraud. The village really comes to life on the day of its wine festival, now held every other year, in the middle of April. Virtually all the wine growers host a stand or open their cellars, and offer their current vintages for tasting, for the price of one empty glass. Music and local gastronomic delights add to the atmosphere.

Montpeyroux has undergone the most extraordinary development in the last twenty years or so. I first visited the village back in 1987 when the village cooperative was the only producer of any significance; by 1998 there were at least ten independent wine growers who were beginning to create an international reputation for themselves, and today there are about twenty cellars, of varying sizes, with a good feeling of cohesion for the common cause of Montpeyroux. The wine cooperative has contributed in no small way to that success.
Montpeyroux was one of the early villages to be singled out for its quality, in a sea of indifferent red wine. Along with its neighbour, Saint Saturnin, they were both created VDQS (Vin Délimité de Qualité Supérieure) back in 1959, for the quality of the hillside vineyards was recognised at a time when much of the bulk of the wine of the Languedoc came from the coastal plains. Then in 1985 it was incorporated into the all-embracing appellation of Coteaux du Languedoc. Today things are in a state of flux; it could be part of the terroir of the Terrasses du Larzac, but prefers to maintain its independence with aspirations for a cru in its own right, but only for red, not for white wine. When this will happen, and if it will happen, depends upon the vagaries of French viticultural bureaucracy.

There is no doubt that Montpeyroux has a strong sense identity, enhanced by the work of its cooperative, which is responsible for 85 per cent of the production of the putative cru. Altogether the cooperative members cultivate some 530 hectares, but not just Montpeyroux, also Coteaux du Languedoc, Terrasses du Larzac and IGP, for which they concentrate on the varietal market, with a range of single grape varieties. The village is surrounded by vines; as the director, Bernard Pallisé observed: ‘without the vines, there would be villas’, with a reference to the proliferation of new houses surrounding so many villages in the Languedoc, for this is one of the areas of fastest population growth in the whole of France. Quite simply the village is dependent on the cooperative for its economic stability. The big question is : how to manage the agricultural heritage of Montpeyroux? How to manage the vines?

Of the 130 families who are members of the cooperative, about fifty live from their vines alone, with holdings of about 35 – 40 hectares. The others may be as small as 20 ares. As M. Pallisé explained: their raison d’être is the well-being of those families who depend upon the cooperative for their livelihood. In a village with a population of just 1200 people, they represent a significant percentage of the population. The full name of the cooperative is Montpeyroux Coopérative Artisanale, implying that this is a cooperative with a human face. Enormous vats of anonymous wine are not their objective. And it is a welcoming place to visit. There is a tempting shop, selling not just a comprehensive range of their wines, but also local gastronomic products – I succumbed to a small barrel, a beautiful piece of workmanship, for making vinegar.

Talking to M. Pallisé, who has been at the cooperative since 1999, first as its commercial head, and now as director, since 2006, you sense that he is continuously concerned with quality, while at the same time emphasising the human scale of the cooperative. They have a viticulturalist who is responsible for managing the vines, helping and guiding the members. What the French call lutte raisonnée or integrated viticulture is practiced for 200 hectares, while 13 hectares are cultivated organically. There has been considerable investment in the cellar and a new young winemaker, Jean-Marie Lasmenes, who arrived in 2006, is having an impact on quality.

Highlights from a varied tasting included a Cuvée Prestige, with some warm spicy red fruit and Roquefeuil Montpeyroux, named after the Counts of Montpeyroux, with some appealing peppery flavours. For M. Pallisé the expression of Montpeyroux is smokey spice and blackcurrants, coming from the principal grape varieties of the south, Grenache Syrah and Carignan, which grow so well on the rugged hills of the Languedoc.

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