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Vine Trail visit at Cyril Fhal on May 18th 2011

cyril fhal_photo.jpgWe visited Cyril Fhal on May 18th and took the opportunity to make a complete tour of his vineyard. Cyril settled down in 2002 in Latour-de-France, a small village situated on the Catalan border, in the foothills of Pyrenees. Latour-de-France marks the geological border between the limestones of Corbières in the North and the first foothills of Pyrenees in the South mainly composed of gneiss and schists. When Cyril took over his vineyards there were no other vignerons working organically. Now all the 10 other independent vignerons in Latour de France have followed Cyril's lead.

The domaine Clos du Rouge Gorge consists of 6 hectares of hillsides, planted mainly with carignan (3 ha), as well as grenache and cinsault for reds, and maccabeu for whites.These are very typical grapes of Roussillon, however many vineyards in the area were scrubbed up and replanted with syrah during the seventies and eighties. Indeed, in 1977, the decree of the Côtes-du-Roussillon Villages AC requires a minimum of 30 % of syrah and/or mourvèdre. A fervent defender of the autochtonous grapes, giving character and typicity to the wines, Cyril Fhal prefers the mention "vin de pays des côtes catalanes", rather than comply with this decree which holds no attraction for him. Most of Cyril's vines are between 50 and 100 years old. A rocky soil based upon gneiss, at an altitude that averages from 200 to 250 metres, and an exposition to the North are a few of the conditions which assure freshness in his wines.

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Cyril also possesses 1ha still not planted, where he strives to regenerate the life of the soil for 4 years by planting numerous leguminous plants to rebalance the ground with the requisite nitrogen. The plantation of new vines of grenache is planned for 2012. His vines of carignan intended for the cuvée Clos du Rouge Gorge are very old (80 years old +) and are located in a single parcel of land about 3ha, partly surrounded by a loose form stone wall (that is where the name of "clos" comes from) reminding me of artist Andy Goldsworthy's most beautiful land-artworks! The "clos" is a plot of land of an exceptional beauty, and an explosive vitality. That is what nature gives when we treat her with respect...

As with many wine growers of the region, Cyril's vineyard is fragmented in several plots of land, all presenting particular characteristics in terms of exposition and soil.  Since he took over the vineyards in 2002, Cyril emphasised the revitalisation of the soils, searching for a natural balance in the vineyard to help give finer and more complex expressions in his wines. In practice he tries not to damage the soil:

- Stop using herbicides, obviously

- Superficial (no more than 5cm)rather than deep working of the soils, at low-speed and only with light tools to avoid erosion: motorised cultivator (no tractor on the domaine), and a horse for the plot of land intended for the production of the cuvée 'Ubac'.

- As well as ploughing the soils(and hand hoeing between each vine), he keeps strips of grass planted with leguminous plants between the rows of vines. Their role as an ecological niche seems important: the flowering of these leguminous plants which extends throughout May and June attracts a large number of insects and helps to bring a certain vitality. Cyril does not cut these plants which enrich the soil in nitrogen, but prefers to fold them and to roll them so that they act as a reservoir of humidity helping every vine to keep enough freshness and to suffer less from the heat. The region of Latour-de-France is known to have the driest non-irrigated vineyard in the world (approximately 250 mm of rain a year)!

- Contribution of quality compost first year then composting of herbs and vine shoots. Then the contribution of biodynamic preparations completes this agronomic work.

Although working totally in biodynamy, Cyril has a particular approach of this type of viticulture. He indeed thinks that the essential contribution of the biodynamy is to place the Man in the centre of its environment and therefore, he grants an important place to the notion of observation. For him, there is no notion of "recipe", no calendar to be literally followed; he strives simply to observe with a lot of attention the nature of each of his vines and reacts according to their need. Among the numerous anecdotes which the wine growers like to tell, we found the following one particularly representative of Cyril's approach: to a customer who said to him that given that he worked in biodynamy, he had to work with stars, Cyril simply answered that, no, he worked especially with soils! Nothing dogmatic, nor esoteric. Simply a lot of pragmatism and humility in front of the behavior of nature.

View of the 'Ubac' parcel

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Cyril's production being small and the demand rather strong, wines once bottled quickly leave his cellar! So, very often, the only wines that Cyril can offer you to taste are still the ones in the course of ageing.

We were able to taste the 4 following wines:

Clos du Rouge Gorge Jeunes Vignes 2010

(tasted from the barrel, bottling planned for June, 2011): the cuvée "Jeunes Vignes" of the domaine consists of 25 year old 100 % grenache planted on upturned schist created during formation of the Pyrenees mountains. This parcel comes from a lieu-dit called Mont-Redon after the famous CNDP estate. It was vinified in wooden cuve, and pressed after 1 week, when there was still a lot of unfermented sugars remaining. It was then returned to 500 ltr wooden cuve and fermented (including malos) until December. It was then racked and transferred to stainless steel cuve to help preserve the fruit. Translucent mid purple colour. Very young and very clear cut with a real freshness on the attack. Very beautiful wild notes of brambles, red berries and floral hints on the nose. After a little bit of time some notes of chocolate appear. The nose is very precise, subtle and fine. The mouth is delicate with excellent acidity, a nice tension and elegant tannins. The finish ends in light gamey notes. I am impressed by this wine by its' aromatic precision, the delicacy in the mouth and by the purity. It is clear that Cyril has a very good control in wine making with soft extractions.

Clos du Rouge Gorge blanc 2010

(tasted from the barrel, bottling planned for June, 2011): 100 % maccabeu. Very clear colour. Discreet and fine nose with hints of anise and wild flower, still closed, but already marked by minerality. In the mouth, it is a "contained aromatic explosion". Delicacy and balance characterise this wine with a rare elegance, very silky. Notes of precious wood and aromatic herbs (liquorice, white pepper, lemony thyme, anise, lavender, mint) appear. The wine stretches out and the acidity and the bitterness come into play. It is complex, very "infusion", a little citrus fruit, always aromatic plants, the grain is already fine. A beautiful tension and especially a terrific freshness for a white wine from Roussillon. Finish is long. No sensation of alcohol. It is very fresh and mineral; the soil imposes its imprint frankly with a cutting edge on the bitterness of the citronella, and a smoky and salty character. As with the Jeunes Vignes, this wine demonstrates a magnificent control of the winemaker. And if it is doubtless that it is still restrained by its youth, it is a very good wine. It is ethereal, subtle, fresh and elegant.

Clos du Rouge Gorge Vieilles Vignes 2010

(tasted from the barrel) : Cyril emphasised the difficulty of working carignan to produce a wine with finesse. It is extremely sensitive to oidium, and a ‘bastard grape to grow well'! Cyril has worked with whole bunch fermentations since 2007. This has enabled a quicker fermentation and produced less reduction at all stages, and also given wines with a much finer texture and superb grain in the tannins. Working with volcanic sulphur has also helped to emphasise the wine's finesse and purity. Dark and deep colour with purple reflections. We are seized by the depth, the amplitude and the elegance of the nose even if at this stage, the wine is still very young. In the mouth, the tannins are present but quite gently. It is silky, homogeneous and deep. A point of austerity maybe today, but it is only because of its very young age. Wine centred on the delicacy, the freshness and the purity, with its silky tannins bringing an almost Burgundian feel, a magnificent balance, aromas of blackberry. We are in the South naturally, there is some weight and some volume, but the alcohol (13%) stands out in no way and the freshness is unbelievable.

Clos du Rouge Gorge Vieilles Vignes rouge 2009

(tasted from the barrel): darker colour and more concentrated than the 2010. Black fruits and huge depth on the nose. In mouth, the wine is frank, straight and precise, concentrated but fresh, absolutely not solar. The tannic structure of this wine is still impressive and, for that reason, Cyril thinks of prolonging the ageing a little longer. The wine is always marked by this purity, this tension, a just ripeness of the grapes and a very discreet oak ageing. It has been kept in stainless steel since last June. He will probably bottle the 2010 before the 2009. Needs racking. Update from Cyril May 27th - ‘Racking has completely woken the wine up. There was just a light deposit at the bottom of the cuve and that served to close down the wine. The texture has now softened up and the bouquet is very clean. A lovely wine.'

More than a domaine to be followed, the Clos du Rouge Gorge is a reference in my personal pantheon. Cyril is a workaholic, and he is endowed with an enormous sum of invaluable knowledge (both in the vineyard and in the cellar). All his wines are exceptional: southern by their flavours, and northern by their tension, their acidity, their precision and their freshness.

We have followed Cyril's wines for several years now and always try to offer them when they arrive at maturity; we propose at present the following wines:

Clos du Rouge Gorge Vieilles Vignes rouge 2006 £18.75 exc. VAT
Clos du Rouge Gorge Vieilles Vignes rouge 2007 £18.75 exc. VAT
Clos du Rouge Gorge blanc 2007 £15.21 exc. VAT

And, for the first time, we shall be presenting by the end of the year the cuvée Clos du Rouge Gorge Jeunes Vignes from the 2010 vintage. Cyril produces only small quantities of this wine but we managed to persuade him to let a little come to England!...

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