Susan and Peter Close at Camplazens in the heart of the Massif of la Clape are relative newcomers to the Languedoc and a classic example of the new breed of wine growers in the region. They have had a successful career in another field and they are now energetically applying their expertise to their new enterprise, bringing a breath of fresh air and questioning established practices.
Although they are British born, they lived in New Orleans, where Peter ran his own company, a consulting business specialising in chemical engineering, which was successfully listed on the stock market in 1997, and then in 1999 he retired, and they decided to return to Europe and buy a vineyard. They spent eighteen months looking, in Spain and even considered Mexico as well, and then somebody suggested the Languedoc. They based themselves in the port of Sète, and on the Massif of la Clape, they found Camplazens outside the village of Armissan. And everything fell into place. The property had had a rather chequered history during the previous few years. It had belonged to a M. Greffier, who was an eccentric inventor, who went bankrupt, and it was then bought by a Dutchman, who already owned another property near Montpellier. Unfortunately the vineyards had been rather neglected, with many of the vines seriously diseased and needing to be replaced, so that there was much to be done. The cellar too, an enormous barn and a typical Languedoc cellar, that was built in the 1880s, also needed renovation. But Susan and Peter were ready for the challenge.
They made their first vintage, in 2001, from just 13 hectares. Altogether the entire estate comprises 112 hectares, with 43 hectares of vines, as well as hillsides of garrigues, the typical scrubland of the Languedoc. Syrah forms the backbone of their wines, and they also have Grenache Noir, Carignan and a little Viognier, and also more Marselan than they would really like. This is a crossing of Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache Noir, which they were encouraged to plant by the local viticultural research station. Marselan was thought to resist disease and drought well and produce good yields. This may be so, but any idea that it might become a permitted grape variety for La Clape has proved unfounded, so it used as a vin de pays, or IGP. And with future planting in mind, they also have some experimental vines, such as Muscat and Vermentino. For la Clape white, they also need Bourboulenc, but Peter doesn’t like it.
A drive through the vineyards takes in some dramatic scenery. La Clape is a rocky outcrop north west of the city of Narbonne. It was once an island and only became part of the mainland when the river Aude silted up and changed course. The Massif, often described as une montagne vallonnée, a mountain with several valleys between the hills and rocks, reaches 214 metres at its highest point. The scenery is wild, with hillsides covered with garrigues and vines, and from the highest point there are views of the coastline, the inland lagoons, and the Mont Ste Claire outside Sète in the distance. The scenery changes sharply from mountain to sea, the blue water contrasting vividly with the rough scrub-covered hillsides. The maritime influence, with the wind coming in from the sea can have a dramatic effect on climate. However, the prevailing wine is north west and it can be violent, but this is also one of the sunniest parts of the south of France with about 3000 hours of sunshine, balanced by an average of 600 mls. of rain per year. The soil is a mixture of clay and limestone.
The traditional Languedoc cellar has been renovated. Peter has added new tanks, double tanks that allow for the fermentation on the top, and for storage below. These are also very efficient for pumping over and make for flexibility with the cellar work. Peter also favours some mechanical punching down and is equipped for that. And there is a barrel cellar with about 200 barriques, which are generally kept for about three wines. Usually it is the Syrah component that is aged in oak, and also part of their Viognier crop.
They make both vins de pays, or IGP Pays d’Oc, with single varietals, Viognier, Grenache, Marselan and Syrah, and appellation La Clape, with four different la Clape, with variations in style. Susan and Peter have given a lot of thought to their range of wines, something that you can do when you are starting afresh. While it is true that your choices are determined by your vineyard, the flexibility of the Languedoc regulations can make for more creativity. Peter and Susan describe their Viognier, as being à la façon de Condrieu and I would not disagree. About a third of the blend is fermented in wood, and the wine is rich, peachy and textured with good balancing acidity. The Grenache Noir is unoaked, with ripe spicy cherries and the Syrah has some satisfying varietal fruit. The Marselan is quite simple – its flavours are not particularly distinguished, but its warm fruit makes for a good barbecue wine.
More satisfying for my taste buds are the various interpretations of la Clape. The appellation regulations demand a minimum of 70% of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre, and a maximum 30% of Carignan and Cinsaut. There is no Cinsaut or Mourvèdre at Camplazens, so that their la Clape mainly comprises Syrah with Grenache. They have sixteen different plots of Syrah, and the style of Syrah also varies according to the élevage, in oak or not. Their entry level wine is La Garrigue, a blend of 60% Syrah with Grenache Noir, of which 20%, and only Syrah, is aged in oak. The name is appropriate; I found the wine redolent of the herbs that cover the hillsides of the Mediterranean, with a touch of sunshine and spice.
Next comes the Réserve la Clape which includes a little Carignan, as well as Syrah and Grenache. There are spices and tapenade (olive pâté) and a little more oak, which is well integrated, with a fresh finish. Premium is a blend of their best vats of Syrah and Grenache, with still more oak ageing, and more tannin and structure, and finally there is Julius, an almost pure Syrah, and so called for the region’s associations with Julius Caesar. It is said that his favourite wine was la Clape, to which he added honey. This story cannot be verified, but as Peter observed, ‘why let authenticity spoil a good story?’ It is certainly known that the Romans invaded this part of France, or Gaul as it was then, in 118BC, and that Caesar came here in 44BC and gave away land to the 10th legion. Camplazens means a camp of pleasure in Latin, and it is the only vineyard on la Clape with a Roman name. Consequently all the labels at Camplazens bear a Roman chariot to maintain the association. With Julius they wanted to produce an expensive wine that has exuberance, power and elegance. They only make it in the very best years, so far 2006 and 2009, and just 1500 bottles.
I left with the feeling that Susan and Peter will not stand still. Each year they try something new that will improve their quality. 2010 saw them using micro-oxygenation for the first time and Peter is certain that this has enhanced the elegance of their wines. And asked about the tipicity of la Clape, which is one of the most homogeneous parts of the Languedoc, contained as it is in a montagne vallonée, Peter replied ‘minerality, the herbs of the garrigues and the influence of the sea’, and that is what you can taste in a glass of Camplazens.