"You mustn’t stress. Every year you’ll think, ‘oh no, what have I done!?’ but you just have to wait. Wine will sort itself out with time.”
The appellation of Limoux, which sits within the much larger region of the Languedoc, is just a stone’s throw away from the Pyrenees mountains; one of the wildest parts of France where even brown bears roam.
As such, it has steep hillsides and a much higher elevation than many of its neighbouring subregions. This means that it has its own unique microclimate, making it an unexpected home for what are usually more northerly varieties – and a perhaps even more unexpected home for sparkling wine.
Sometimes love comes aknockin’ unexpectedly. In the case of Domaine Les Hautes Terres, it uprooted Genevieve and dropped her here, where she would marry Gilles and embark upon a new life as a Limoux vigneronne.
Domaine les Hautes Terres
Meet Genevieve and Gilles
Gilles grew up in Roquetaillade, the picturesque sleepy village where Domaine les Hautes Terres is situated. Before he was a grower and winemaker, he worked in a very different sector of agriculture: seeds. However, it was (very) conventional, and when the topic of GMO came on the scene he felt very uneasy. He decided to return to the village, and to give the life of a vigneron a go.
He began with six hectares in 1999 and had converted them to organics by 2000. Genevieve joined him in 2012, from Pic St Loup, where she had made wine before, and bit by bit they have collected more parcels to reach their total of 15 today. Genevieve smiles, reminding us, “two people can do more than one.”
Their land is spread across 19 parcels, some very small. Some vines are just babies, but they also have some older vines of Mauzac, some of which are over 50 years old. Although logistically it’s tough to manage farming so many plots, they prefer it this way. Genevieve explains,
“Having parcels all over like this, some of which border right onto the woods, means that we can avoid having too much of a monoculture. It also means we minimise risk – if one parcel gets hit by frost, perhaps the other one won’t.”
Somewhere between 80-85% of their production is sparkling and white wine. The high elevation and the constant breeze that blows over the hills means that instead of the Grenache Blancs and Viogniers found down the road, Limoux provides an unexpected southern home for Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc. It is also home to its indigenous, little-known rustic delight, Mauzac, which should not be underestimated. For the 15% of red wine they produce, they have some Pinot Noir and Malbec (which are rare to find in this neck of the woods, but with this unusual climate, it works), as well as Carignan and Cinsault, which they buy from Gilles’ brother.
Whenever they replant, they try to purchase massal selection plants (from several older, diverse mother plants as opposed to modern clones), although it’s not always so easy to find massal selection Chardonnay.
Although the duo feels strongly that organics should be obligatory, Genevieve admits it’s a ton of work.
“With these clay soils, when it’s wet in winter and springtime, you can’t pass through on a tractor on some of these slopes, so these plots demand a lot of work.”
They sow a cover crop composed of plants such as clover and vetch, depending on the soil type, to help prevent erosion and to make some mechanisation possible. They’re also keen to work more with the notion of agroforestry, planting fruit trees in the vineyards to bring diversity to the overall ecosystem. They’ve also been experimenting with various plant-based sprays for their vines, such as local organic orange oil, horsetail and valerian.
“Working with the plant preparations are interesting. We aren’t doing it to say we’re biodynamic, but rather to see for ourselves what they can do for the vines.”
In their village, there are now six independent domaines, which represent around 80% of the vineyards. Compared to Limoux as a whole, where 80% of the vineyards are tended with fruit sold to the cooperatives, this is significant. They are proud to be amongst other farmers who make their own wine, and they throw a fête at the domaine once a year with the other growers, where around 1000 people come from near and far to taste and buy wines.
With two decades under their belt, but still full of youthful energy, we get the feeling that this is a domaine entering its golden age. When we step into the cellar, we notice a barrel that’s marked with chalk as a solera. Genevieve’s eyes light up, and she explains that they began to toy with the notion of a solera (a perpetual blend of previous vintages, e.g. in Champagne and Sherry) in 2019, and will now add a portion of 2020, and so on, with the vision of creating a Limoux with added layers of complexity.
They’re also looking to add amphorae to the cellar. Genevieve says,
“I feel like old barrels sometimes tire the wine. Maybe the amphorae will give them more energy.”
Their white wines and sparkling wines start their lives in the same manner: they are pressed and left to briefly settle overnight, but not too much – Genevieve says “you need some of that matter in the wine.”
They make two kinds of sparkling wines; Méthode Ancestrale; which involves a single fermentation that occurs in bottle, and Méthode Traditionelle [see this article for further information].
Due to Limoux appellation laws, their Méthode Ancestrale must be labelled as such, they’re not allowed to use pét-nat, even though they make it in the same manner. Due to stricter rules, they cannot bottle their Méthode Ancestrale before December. This makes life difficult, as the harvest is getting earlier and earlier due to global warming, which means fermentation and the whole process is bumped forward a notch. For bottling purposes, when making ancestrale, the wine still needs to be actively fermenting, and the acid and sugar levels have to be right. This means they have to keep the fermentation extremely cool.
“There is so much risk involved. The appellation understand that they need to loosen up a bit. Not a lot of people around here go out of their comfort zones.”
While all of their base and still wines ferment naturally, for the traditional method sparkling wines (like Champagnes), they need to add a liqueur de tirage, which is composed of organic sugar and simple lab-cultured Champagne yeasts. One day, they’d like to try to isolate their own yeast to use for this, but Genevieve tells us that it costs €12,000 to do so; not exactly a simple investment.
“We could pay €12,000, or we could replant vines and renovate our buildings… We’d like to do it one day, but you can’t do everything at once. There are only two of us, and we only employ two others as seasonal workers. We’re enthusiastic, of course, but we also need time.”
Their still white wine, Autres Terres, come from their younger Chardonnay and Mauzac vines from a lower elevation, whereas their AOC Limoux comes from Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc, a selection from several parcels to give an insight into the appellation.
Each grape variety brings its own characteristic;
“Chardonnay can be a bit Coco Chanel – sweet and rich, whereas Mauzac gives this distinctive apple character.”
The trickiest aspect for Genevieve is the waiting game. She explains that as these are acid driven, terroir white wines, they really come into their own after two years in bottle, but people rarely wait that long:
“The gunflint minerality of our wines appears in the juice but then it takes around two years for it to come back again. It’s such a shame that when they’re really just starting to show their best, they’re already gone.”
As such, they’re trying to hold onto some more stock, but financially it’s not always easy to do so. For the reds, she finds the period immediately after bottling very difficult:
“With one of our reds, it appeared dark and muddy after bottling. I was so disappointed, but the wine was just going into a closed phase. It returned to how it had tasted in the barrel later. It’s a reminder that you mustn’t stress – wine will sort itself out with time. Every year is like that – you’ll think, ‘oh no, what have I done!?’ but you just have to wait.”
As if all of their cuvées aren’t enough to be handling, they’ve been running a bottling and disgorgement service for other sparkling wine producers, specifically for pét-nat, which has been seeing a huge boom over the past few years. It’s fulfilling, as they’re able to advise and help younger winemakers to get off the ground and have even hired one of them – local young grower Eteinne Fort – to help manage this segment of the business. Despite that, and although they make some money from it to pour into Hautes Terres, it means they work around the clock, seven days a week. But it’s worth every minute: