WINEMAKER DINNER AT CHEZ OLIVIER ON APRIL 2th
Clos des Fees-Herve Bizeul
“I returned to my place of birth, the Roussillon, also known as the Pays Catalan (Catalonia), to prove that this region could also produce great red wines…” – Hervé Bizeul
Former sommelier, caviste and wine journalist Hervé Bizeuil set up his 7ha in Vingrau in the Roussillon in 1998. Hervé started with no money and the grapes were brought in and the wines produced out of the back of a friend’s cellar. Hervé’s day started when his friend’s day finished as he was borrowing his facilities bar the four tiny resin tanks he had purchased. In 1999 he converted his garage into a small winery which is where he continues to make his wines today.
He has gradually acquired many more hectares and his estate is now 30 ha and he has a team of eight people. The vines span across a number of differing terroirs (granite to schist to limestone to small pebbles) including old vines (up to 100 years old in some sectors) the steepness of the terrain dictates hand picking. Grenache, Carignan, Syrah, Grenache Blanc and Grenache Gris make up the majority of the plantings. The wines are aged in oak barriques for at least a year and are bottled without filtration. Hervé has succeeded in establishing these as some of the most sought-after wines in Southern France, offering his first en primeur in 1999 which gave him the means to continue. In 2005 Le Revue de Vin de France named Clos des Fées as the number one estate in Roussillon. He has continued to produce wines which gain accolades and certainly this estate played a large part in putting Roussillon on the map for fine wines.
Domaine du Clos des Fées: Producer Profile
Fairytale magic or eye for the main chance, Hervé Bizeul’s star is certainly in the ascendant. A former sommelier, restaurateur and food and wine pundit, he left the boulevards of Paris for the wild tracts of Roussillon in 1998 to chance the life of vigneron. Six years on he is the talk of the region, his wines fetching an incredible price and the aptly named Domaine du Clos des Fées (fée meaning fairy in French) more than truly launched.
Spellbinding is the word to describe the region he chose to enact a change of career. The Agly valley in the north of Roussillon offers a spectacular landscape of steep-sided hills, stony garrigue and bush-trained vines offset by the high Corbières and almost permanently sunny skies. In its upper reaches lie prehistoric Tautavel and the magnificent bowl-like cirque of Vingrau. This is the heartland of appellation Côtes du Roussillon-Villages and home to the Clos des Fées.
Hervé Bizeul’s confidence and willingness to turn the page has already led to various highs and lows in his vinous career. He became Meilleur Jeune Sommelier de France in 1981, opened a fashionable wine bar in Paris and in the 1990s published an ambitious directory of wine producers and professionals, Grappes, which saw three editions. In 1997 he visited Vingrau. ‘I was fed up with Paris and impressed by the terroir at Vingrau so decided to buy a parcel of vines to cultivate as a hobby,’ he explains.
The ball rolled quickly from there. A house, marriage to Claudine, the offer of other parcels of unwanted old-vine Carignan, Grenache and Lladoner Pelut at a knock-down price and before he knew it he was faced with the 1998 vintage. ‘I had no practical experience of winemaking – only what I’d learned as a journalist – but friends like Gérard Gauby helped. 1998 turned out to be a great year.’ The first vintage was vinified in one cellar, pressed in another and aged in a third.
A positive review in French magazine La Revue du Vin de France and doorstepping familiar wine shops and restaurants helped Bizeul to sell 7,000 bottles en primeur which in turn persuaded the bank to extend his loan. With 7ha (hectares) now in production he was in better shape to handle the 1999 vintage. The garage was converted into a cellar and a part of the bank’s loan invested in new oak barrels.
It was in 1999 that he clearly defined the direction he wanted to take and the line of wines he intended to produce. ‘The Agly valley has schist, gneiss and clay-limestone soils but I have only bought parcels of vines on clay-limestone as these produce wines that correspond to my taste – rich, powerful with fine tannins and the ability to age,’ he reasons. Tasting the wines, it’s clear that ripeness (pushed to the max), volume and texture are what he seeks. These are ‘modern’ wines, rich, full bodied, luxurious, gourmand to the point of excess, but with a curious harmony.
The basic cuvée, Les Sorcières, is mainly a blend of old-vine Carignan and Grenache with a seasoning of Syrah and Mourvèdre. It’s aged on fine lees in tank for eight months and represents half the production of the domaine. The aim is to produce a soft, round, sweet but lively fruited wine that has wide appeal. ‘It’s the most difficult wine for me to produce as the style is popular but doesn’t correspond to my personal idea of ripeness and concentration,’ explains Bizeul.
Next up is the Vieilles Vignes which is more his signature wine. This is produced from the oldest vines on the domaine, all between 50 and 100 years. Carignan and Grenache again feature heavily in the blend but there’s also some Syrah and Lladoner Pelut, a downy leaved form of Grenache accepted in the region. The wine is aged in oak barrels, a third new, for around 12 months without racking.
There’s no doubting the concentration – the fruit’s rich, dark and condensed, the palate full and fat with a powerful but refined tannic structure. Recent vintages have balance, the fruit lively, and the wine sculpted. Practice makes perfect and Hervé Bizeul’s winemaking is improving with the years.
Le Clos des Fées follows in line, an audacious wine which sells at an audacious price. ‘I try to see the limits to which I can go,’ he exclaims. On this occasion Syrah, Mourvèdre, Grenache and Carignan are blended in equal quantities and yields kept ridiculously low (12 hl/ha).
The wine is an extreme in concentration and power, the fruit confit and sweet with a touch of residual sugar. The oak is well integrated with just a hint of vanilla. The texture, in particular, is incredibly soft, voluptuous and creamy.
Trumping Le Clos des Fées would seem difficult but Bizeul went one better in 2001 with a wine he named La Petite Sibérie. This was the local sobriquet for the parcel of old Grenache vines he bought in the iron-bearing district of Calce. The sometimes glacial Tramontane wind blows through here over 200 days a year, making working conditions in the vineyard somewhat severe.
Cultivation is much the same as in the other parcels and there’s a similar concentration in terms of yield. Ageing is in 100% new oak, and as with the Vieilles Vignes and Le Clos des Fées, La Petite Sibérie is bottled unfiltered.
The wine, of course, is the antithesis of its name, being big and warm in style. It’s a one-off that’s rich, sweet and intense but with a surprising freshness on the finish and a not quite definable minerality. With only 1,800 bottles produced in 2001 and a heavy price tag, La Petite Sibérie is best viewed as a unique work of art, a Damien Hirst that you’ll either love or hate.