The southern French Languedoc region is home to a swathe of old vineyards, and hence incredibly diverse vine material. Before the boom of what would become known as ‘international’ varieties (such as Chardonnay, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon), the region was celebrated for varieties such as Grenache, Terret Gris, Cinsault and even Listan (Palomino).
These days, the region is slowly but surely undergoing a rebirth; rediscovering its roots; and these varieties are finally being given the limelight they deserve. Through the dedication and hard graft of growers such as Brunnhilde Claux of Domaine de Courbissac, the wine world’s focus is turning to these old vines and lesser-known historical varieties.
When we speak to Brunnhilde on the phone for this piece, she’s pruning in her vineyard. She is a woman who does everything herself; the definition of a vigneronne; that wonderful French word which encompasses both winemaking and grape growing.
From working at iconic Roussillon winery Domaine Gauby, she then travelled to Priorat to work at Terroir al Limit. After a few years, she found herself back in France. We ask her how she began working at Domaine de Courbissac. She says,
“My journey in wine is very linked to my personal life. Life takes you from one place to another… we all have these different moments in life which lead you to certain paths. I found Courbissac when I had nothing left. I had left Priorat with my son. The Minervois is one of the hardest places for wine, in my opinion. It’s not well known, there’s so much red wine, prices are very low, domaines are abandoned... But I met Reinhardt [the owner of Domaine de Courbissac], and when I visited, I saw that there’s a Romanesque chapel next to the domaine. That little chapel had a big impact on me — my grandparents had lived in one. When I saw it, it really made me think — this is where I should be.”
So, Brunnhilde found herself at the helm of this domaine.
“I decided to do it. I was 30, after all, and I had lots of energy. I knew I wanted to make wine, and this seemed right. But I never wanted to make grand wines, or big wines. I wanted to make ‘aliment’ wines — foodie wines — wines that are on the table when people gather around to eat. Those are the wines that the world forgot. At some point, people turned their focus to making these big cru wines. But those wines of nutrition — those everyday life wines — they are beautiful. And at that time, there were almost none left; nobody was making them.”
With that vision in mind, Brunnhilde set out to make Minervois wines in her way. There was no recipe, simply a feeling of following her gut — taking things day by day — simply with the vision of tending her vines organically, and making delicious, easy-to-drink wines.
The Languedoc region is arguably one of the wine regions in the world that has been hit hardest by globalisation. In the wine context, during the industrial era of the 70s, 80s and 90s — namely when vine material became fast and easy to reproduce — many of the old vineyards of indigenous treasures in the region were ripped out, instead replaced by the popular varieties of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay et al. Brunnhilde says,
“I began looking at our vineyards, and what was around, figuring out what I could do. When you look back in historical documents, you can see that varieties such as Cinsault, Listan and Terret Gris have been here for centuries. You can still speak to some people who remember when these varieties were everywhere here, and who remember when they were ripped out. But due to politics and big agricultural groups, those traditions changed.”
“People began to forget the notion of tradition, and instead planted Syrah, Cabernet, etc… they began to make wines with lots of colour, oak… no longer wines of identity, as they had to be ‘global’ wines. But traditionally, the wines here were around 11 or 12% — precisely because they were these aliment wines. They weren’t strong; rather they were wines you could drink a lot of. Because people drank a lot back then!”
For Brunnhilde, the chance to work with old vines and such diverse historic vine material is a dream come true. She says,
“These vines, they’re our patrimony. They’re a true gift. It’s almost unimaginable! They’re amazing. Free standing vines, without wire… to be pruning these 80-year-old treasures, well… these are very special moments.”
Additionally, in some parcels there are varieties unknown to her:
“We have varieties I don’t even know… we need to bring an ampelographer to look at it all! I’m not an academic, I do what I can with what there is. I work with what I have. It’s like being a mother with many children!”
These old vines are pruned in the traditional, old-school way of bush vine training, known in French as gobelet. When using this method, the vines appear more like little bushes or trees, and are free standing as opposed to relying on a wire. Brunnhilde says,
“Gobelet pruning is a much gentler form of pruning. If you train vines on a wire, it’s like you don’t have hands — all the sap arrives in one place. But when you do gobelet pruning, it’s like the vine has fingers which are spread out. It looks like a sculpture. And philosophically, for a farmer, it’s a lovely notion to be able to sculpt a wine and give it its form. I also think the sap flows better with gobelet. Plus, in the Mediterranean , pruning this way is important as it lets you create canopies and give the fruit shade in the sun, whereas when you train on a wire, all the foliage is just moving straight upwards.”
Since day one, she has been convinced that organics is the way forward. She puts it simply:
“I don’t go into my vineyards to get cancer. I go into them with the aim of trying to disturb them as little as possible. The importance of working organically is evident. Then, it’s also about consideration. The farmers of the past, they weren’t crazy! They used the methods they did because they worked, and because they felt good. When we spend all day in the vines, we must think about how we can find comfort in our work, too.”
She focuses on quality over quantity — and doesn’t believe in pushing neither her vines nor her soils too hard.
‘If you’re in the system of yields, and big brands etc, then you have to justify your means. Me, however, in 2018, I lost everything due to mildew. That’s just how it is, but at least I didn’t add copper, unlike so many people in Bordeaux!”
Using as little copper as possible is very important to her (copper is the material used to combat downy mildew), as it is a heavy metal which can result in copper toxicity in the soils. She explains,
“I only use copper perhaps one time, at the start of mildew pressure. But if we have loads of mildew, then I just stop treating. There’s no point — it doesn’t make sense to spray loads of copper, as it will stay in the soil.”
Otherwise, she sprays around six times or less per year, using sulphur (the most widely used organic treatment) in addition to stinging nettles, horsetail and Symphytum.
When it comes to winemaking, the methods are very simple. She works with whole bunches for her red wines, and mainly uses the concrete tanks which were already on the property for fermentation and ageing.
“The stems bring a lot to the wine, and I don’t think it corresponds to the fluidity in the wine to use oak. Plus, we already had concrete here, so I do what I can with what we have!”
The maceration period varies depending on the year, and she is very gentle with the extraction, to avoid having too much tannin.
Her white wine — Les Traverses — is a blend of Listan (Palomino) and Terret Gris. She says,
“Listan rarely gets to 12%. And that’s what’s so amazing! It’s from Andalusia, and it’s very very hard to get high alcohol. That’s why it’s so interesting for hot climates. Even at those low alcohol percentages, the variety has many things to say.”
Terret Gris, meanwhile, ripens very late — which given climate change could be a bonus. She explains that it gives a lovely structure to the wine, and an additional layer of depth.
The most important aspect of winemaking, she emphasises, is picking date. She says,
“I don’t look at alcohol levels really, but I taste the grapes, and I like when they’re still crunchy. There needs to be a kind of freshness in the berry. Listan, for example, doesn’t have a lot of acidity, so you really need to harvest it at the right time. When you make wine, the most important thing to do is to define your idea of maturity!”
She has also become known for her orange wine, made from Marsanne, Muscat, Grenache Gris and the aforementioned unknown varieties. She says,
“I’ve always made orange wine in my own way. I haven’t tried to copy someone else’s style to make it. I use whole bunches, just like for the reds. I don’t like extraction, and by working with whole bunches — without forceful extraction — we give the fruit the utmost respect.”
Ultimately, that word — respect — summarises the work and wonderful wines of Brunnhilde. All of her decisions, whether in the vineyard or in the cellar, are made with that word in mind. Whether it’s respect for history, for the living, for her wines, she has it in abundance, and we think her vineyards — and indeed the Minervois as a whole — is lucky to have her.