Despite the periodic declarations that the Languedoc is on the cusp of becoming the “next big thing,” it has remained largely an afterthought in the minds of retailers and restaurateurs and fairly unknown by consumers. Over the last 25 years, European Cellars has represented a fair number of growers from the various appellations that stretch from the very edge of the Rhône valley to the mountains that separate French-speaking France from their Catalan cousins – notice that we resolutely refuse to call it Languedob-Roussillon. You might as well say Burgundy-Beaujolais or Rioja-Navarra. What keeps bringing us back to the Languedoc is quite simple – terroir. While the tendency in the region over the last few decades has been to over-emphasize grape variety or to fixate on the latest in modern winemaking, there are a few estates dedicated to a more nuanced approach where soil and site is respected and nurtured. One such estate is Domaine de Courbissac.
Reinhard Brundig, a successful film producer from Germany, founded Domaine de Courbissac in 2002. What drew them to this property located in the La Livinière sub-zone of Minervois was three fold: established and well tended vines, the complexity of the soils, and the proximity to La Montagne Noire. At the heart of Domaine de Courbissac are 90 year old Grenache and 70 year-old Carignan as well as some solidly middle-aged Syrah and Mourvedre of about 40 years-old. Farmed biodynamically since 2002, Reinhard has expanded the size of the vineyards, now totaling 30 hectares, by planting some additional Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre. At the end of 2013, Reinhard partnered with the talented Brunnhilde Claux, a young vigneronne with an impressive resumé. Brunnhilde got her start at Domaine Gauby where she learned how to handle the natural exuberance of grapes grown in the generous Mediterranean climate. From there she moved on to Terroir al Limit in the Priorat where she worked with Dominik Huber for three vintages before Reinhard tapped her to lead Domaine de Courbissac.
At 250–300 meters above sea level, Domaine de Courbissac benefits from its location near La Montagne Noire, the southern edge of the Massif Central and the terminus of the Cévennes. At the far western border of the Languedoc, Minervois has a semi-Mediterranean climate, especially as you approach the northern boundary of the appellation. While the growing season is warm and dry – as the wide, rocky and parched local river beds can attest – winter brings plenty of precipitation to recharge the soils and sustain the vines through the growing season. Daytime temperature in summer are moderated by the influence of the mountains allowing the grapes to reach ripeness in sync with their physiological maturity. This allows for not only freshness and balance, but makes whole cluster fermentations possible. The primary soil of the region is clay limestone which was laid down millions of years ago. This terroir is fractured with bands of gravel and sandstone – glacial debris and outwash from the mountains to the north. The heavier clay soils benefit Grenache, Mourvedre and Carignan while the rockier, lighter sandstone soils are perfect for producing high-toned and vibrant Syrah.
With her training and experience making wines at Domaine Gauby and Terroir al Limit, Brunnhilde takes a decidedly hands-off approach at Domaine de Courbissac. She has continued the biodynamic farming practices instituted in 2002 and harvests each plot and variety separately and manually. The grapes are transported in small bins where they are sorted at the winery. The younger vine fruit is usually destemmed while older vine fruit is left mostly intact. Fermentation are in tank and open top wooden fermenters. If Brunnhilde is fermenting with whole clusters, she will gently layer the fruit in the vat and with the weight of her feet, pressing out any oxygen between the bunches. This process releases a small amount of juice and once the vat is full she covers it and leaves it to ferment with the natural yeasts present on the grape skins. After 9-12 days of maceration she removes the bunches – most of them still intact and presses the wine. Fermentation finishes in the respective aging vessel– tank, foudre or demi-muid. Unless necessary, SO2 is not used until right before bottling.