Geoffrey Dean: hits the spot in Languedoc-Roussillon
When La Revue de Vin de Fance, the esteemed French wine magazine, gave Foncalieu one of its coveted annual awards in Paris in January, the wine world sat up and took note. Les Vignobles Foncalieu, to give them their full name, was crowned French co-operative of the year, following in the footsteps of La Chablisienne in Chablis and Embres et Castelmaure in Corbieres. Twenty years after its formation as a union of co-operatives, the Languedoc-centred Foncalieu had won a most notable accolade.
Until that point, Foncalieu was not especially well known, despite the fact it exports to as many as 41 countries. Perhaps, it concentrated too much on bulk production - in 2000, it made 29 million bottles of wine. From that high, it has reduced output to 19-20 million bottles per annum and striven for more complexity. And after flying out to Languedoc this month, we tasted some Foncalieu wines of real quality at competitive price points.
It certainly helps that, behind Foncalieu's rise, are two charismatic figures - its visionary president, the former rugby player, Michel Bataille, and a glamorous chief winemaker in Delphine Glangetas, 40, whose svelte grace and nonchalent good looks would interest plenty of casting directors. Having worked all over France as well as in the Barossa, she has considerable experience. The bottom line, though, is always the wine, and the general quality and range of Foncalieu's offerings, for both the on and off-trade, were very impressive.
The task of Bataille, himself a winemaker, and Glangetas is not easy. They have 1,200 growers to work with across 12 appellations and 7,000 hectares under vine to monitor. Indeed, Foncalieu is the only union of cooperatives with a presence in all the winemaking departments of the Grand Sud region, stretching from Gascony to Languedoc-Roussillon, and from the Cotes-du-Rhone to Provence.
How Foncalieu has become the best co-op in France? "The new icon range played a big part in this title," Glangetas said. "Second, we are doing a very good job in the vineyards, where Gabriel Ruetsch, our chief agronomist, and his team select parcels and ask growers to bring fruit at a particular hour for crushing. We have a very specific vinification plan for all the grapes."
Computer-assisted monitoring of each plot, sampling of key blocks and the highly precise planning of harvests all play a key part in quality, particularly that of the icon wines. These are made from fruit from some 30 growers, whose yields are extremely low (between 15 and 25 hl/ha). Vinification takes place at a new state-of-the-art winery named Atelier des Grands Vins.
Three of the four icon wines are single varietal Syrahs from different appellations - Le Lien from Minervois, Apogee from Saint-Chinian, and La Lumiere from Corbieres. All were well-balanced, had well-integrated tannins and lots of complexity and concentration as well as good length. The one blend - Les Illustres from Coteaux D'Enserune - is made up of 50% Marselan as well as Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah. Bataille calls Marselan ‘the flagship grape' of the Languedoc.
These icon wines retail at around the 20 Euro-mark, making them excellent value for money, but given that only 22,000 bottles are made each year, they represent a tiny proportion of Foncalieu's annual production. Around a quarter of it - or five million bottles - is exported to the UK, and Bataille's objective is to increase to that to 6.5-7m by 2015.
"Building the new winery especially for the icon wines was a big investment for such a small part of our production, so I had to fight with the growers to make them accept it," Bataille admitted. "Now the wines are a success, everyone is proud of what we have achieved. My mission is to fight for better margins so that we can pay our growers properly for all their work in the vineyard. We need to work on our image and make Foncalieu an international brand."
To that end, Foncalieu are working on a new entry-level wine for supermarket retail - "something really pleasant with lots of fruit and flavour with some wow factor, " says Glangetas. Expect France's co-operative of the year to come up with something that is a success. They are one to watch...and of course taste.