Heretical Wines

BY ROBERT CALVERT

LeisureWineVer3 Image 1

Somebody must have been telling lies about the Cathars. A hodgepodge of peaceable ascetics who held admittedly quirky views about sacraments and such things, they lived quietly in parts of northern Italy, Spain and—especially—in Languedoc, in the south of France, between the 12th and 14th centuries. Somehow they fell afoul of the church.

After an unpleasantness involving the death of a papal legate in 1208, Pope Innocent III launched the Cathar Crusade against them. The pontiff sought military assistance from the French crown and offered to give Cathar property to noblemen willing to pitch in on the project. The king was not enthusiastic about the ecclesiastical enterprise, but the promise of land, loot and complimentary indulgences generated considerable interest among ambitious warlords. The die was cast.

Bitter strife laid waste to the land of Languedoc. Castles were captured and demolished. Cities were besieged, overrun and sacked. Tens of thousands of people were killed.

In 1209, when Crusaders took the town of Béziers, one of the officers asked his superior, Arnaud Amaury, the abbot of Citeaux, how to separate Catholic faithful from Cathar heretics among the captives. “Kill them all,” the cleric replied, “the Lord will recognize His own.” Amaury later wrote proudly to the pope that his men “spared no one, irrespective of rank, sex or age, and put to the sword almost 20,000 people.” Similar episodes occurred elsewhere. As military operations wound down, the Inquisition set to work.

LeisureWineVer3 Image 2
LeisureWineVer3 Image 3
LeisureWineVer3 Image 4
LeisureWineVer3 Image 5

It was hundreds of years before the region really began to recover. Construction of the Canal du Midi in the late 17th century was an important turning point. The new waterway allowed direct shipping from the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. Wheat and wine from Languedoc were its principal cargos. Trade increased further when the railroad arrived. Languedoc earned a reputation as a reliable producer of inexpensive wine for the industrializing regions of the north.

Cathar Country Today

Languedoc is the southernmost region of modern France, stretching along the Mediterranean Sea from the frontier with Spain to the confines of Provence. Borders have shifted since Cathar times. Parts of historical Languedoc are included in other administrative areas today. The new Languedoc-Rousillon region encompasses somewhat more than half of the old territory.

Wine expert Jancis Robinson describes Languedoc as the “archetypal Mediterranean wine country, with wild landscapes, Spain just over the Pyrenees and vines stretching in every direction.”

Indeed, grape growing has been important in Languedoc for a long time. Greek traders brought vines and began making wine there in the fifth century BC.

Over the centuries the region has produced ever more wine. Overproduction created problems. Wine writer Karen MacNeil reports that Languedoc wine ultimately “was bought in bulk and cost less than water.” Eventually the interested parties took measures to reduce production and improve quality. Under new regulations, yields are kept low, and there is a wine labeling hierarchy in which about 30 percent of the wines are rated AOC Languedoc (good), 60 percent are marked Grands Vins du Languedoc (better), and 10 percent are Crus du Languedoc (best.) The new system has worked well. Quality has improved and producers’ profits have risen. Wine growers and wine drinkers alike are happy.

My wife and I attended a Languedoc tasting a few months ago. The wines were excellent, and we wanted to sample them again. We decided to focus on exemplars from Gérard Bertrand, a leading producer who makes wine in multiple appellations.

Taste Tests

Picpoul de Pinet is the name of a white grape variety and of an appellation not far from the Mediterranean where the grape is grown. The Gérard Bertrand Picpoul de Pinet 2012 ($14) is a prototypical Picpoul wine, pale straw in color, offering aromas of peaches and pears that usher in round fruit flavors—peaches, pears, ripe apples—augmented by citrus, honey and herbs.

Grown on “sun-kissed slopes of sandstone,” the Gérard Bertrand Saint Chinian 2009 ($17) is a blend of Syrah and Mourvèdre. According to Bertrand, “one-third of the wine is aged for nine months in barrels, the rest being matured in vats” to keep its fruity character. Dense purple with a touch of ruby around the rim, the Saint Chinian offers fragrances of violets, cherries, blackberries and herbs. As promised, its flavor is fruity, too—full of blackberries, black cherries, and currants. This is an elegant wine with an intriguing subtext of rusticity.

The region surrounding the old Cathar city of Minerve is known as the Minervois, famous for beautiful scenery as well as for flavorful wines. The Gérard Bertrand Minervois 2011 ($15) is tasty as can be. A blend of Syrah and Carignan, it is a deep purple color and has an intense bouquet of crushed dark berries. Lean and focused at first, it blossoms gradually, revealing lush blackberry, black raspberry and blueberry flavors—with complementary notes of bitter chocolate and coffee.

The Château de l’Hospitalet is a resort and winery near Narbonne that “looks down on the Mediterranean from a height of a hundred metres.” A blend of Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvèdre, Bertrand’s Château l’Hospitalet La Réserve Coteaux du Languedoc La Clape 2010 ($19) is a darkly sophisticated wine with a dense color and tart bouquet of fruit and spices. Its flavors are round and dark—currants, plums, figs, licorice—with nuances of black and green olives, caramel, bitter chocolate and espresso.

The sparkling Gérard Bertrand Crémant de Limoux Blanc 2011 ($15), made using the traditional Champagne method, comprises an unusual blend of grapes—Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and a regional white variety called Mauzac. It has a pale honey color and an attractive, yeasty bouquet reminiscent of apples and fresh flowers. Its crisp, round flavors evoke succulent cantaloupe, honey and lime.

The white Crémant’s sibling, Gérard Bertrand Crémant de Limoux Rosé 2011 ($19), is a blend of Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Pinot Noir. Its lovely pale salmon color is complemented by a subtle bouquet of yeast and cantaloupe. Strawberry flavors seem to predominate, with pearly highlights of cantaloupe, citrus and honey.

Plus Ça Change…

Scars of strife have faded in Languedoc. Castles where Cathars and Crusaders fought long ago have become tranquil tourist destinations. Children now laugh their way down cobbled streets in the old cities, skipping past plaques that commemorate ancient massacres. Everywhere in the land, from rolling coastal plains to the shoulders of the Pyrenees and Massif Central, grapes ripen slowly under the warm Mediterranean sun, as they have through good times and bad for two millennia and more.

Robert Calvert drinks and writes in Chicago. Questions or comments? E-mail Robert at RBCalvert@att.net.