Last week, we had a morning at an organic vineyard, one of only 2 commercial vineyards in the whole of the Ariège. The vineyards at Coteaux d’Engraviès appeared on maps as long ago as 1310, and on later maps too, though eventually they disappeared. So the owner of the Domaine, Philippe Babin told us, anyway. He was the one who decided once again to cover the hillside in vines.
He introduced us to an Ariège from a time we couldn’t recognise. Now, we’re used to seeing fields of maize, sunflowers, food and fodder crops in addition to pastureland. Back in the Middle Ages, when Catharism was at its height, the area was covered in vines. Everyone produced wine for their own use. It wasn’t strong, maybe 5% or so, but it provided refreshment and nourishment for men, women and children alike. No neat rows here, the vines grew unsupported by trellising, higgledy piggledy. Over in Pamiers, from where any exportable wine was shipped, the notorious Bishop of Pamiers, later Pope, Jacques Fournier, received the taxes he imposed in the form of wine.
The Ariège was prosperous and, for the period, densely populated. Men made their living from mining and the forges, and their women and children reared stock in the high pastures. Only the Industrial Revolution, which arrived later in France than in the UK – just before the First World War in fact – put a stop to this, as the small scale of local operations were not suited to large-scale mechanisation. This, and the de-population that occurred when men failed to return from the trenches, began the Ariège’s descent into a less populated, often deprived area.
Phylloxera saw the end of wine production in the Ariège. Vines, decimated in the 19th century throughout Europe, were gradually replaced elsewhere by resistant American varieties. The local domestic vines, most of which were fairly low quality, weren’t worth replacing, and people simply walked away from them, leaving them to die. Only within the last 30 years have a couple of producers recognised that parts of the area are suitable for developing once more a high-quality product, and with modern and traditional savoir-faire behind them, worked towards developing businesses of which they can be proud. Philippe Babin is one of these.
Philippe went on to tell us more about the vines themselves. They need rain, and they need sunshine for their leaves to absorb and enable the fruit to mature. Vines put roots deep down into the soil and rocky earth, particularly in the first 15 years of life. Philippe chooses to grow his vines organically, because he recognises that the particular composition of the soils and rocks beneath in the area – ‘terroir’ – inform the character of his vines: fertilisers and other products would change this balance. The vines themselves change as they mature, and those plants which are 80 – 100 years old (his are a long way from this) produce little, but what they do is very fine.
Pruning forces the vines to produce grapes, and therefore seeds. Unpruned, they grow hundreds of metres long, and see no need to seed themselves. Wild vines are therefore innocent of fruit.
Then he showed us how to research a maturing grape. Does the skin peel easily from the fruit, and is it loosing its elasticity? If so, it’s ripening nicely. Have the seeds broken away from the ‘umbilical cord’ of the stalk and taken on a woodier appearance? Once that happens, the seeds are nearly ready to fall and have a go at germinating (they have a low germination rate). From now on, they’ll nourish themselves, like embryo chickens in an egg, from the flesh of the grape, which will wither as the seed digests it.
Lesson over, we went back to the Cave. A small band of workers were working to bottle the last of the 2010 vintage to free up space for the harvest which will take place in maybe a fortnight or so. The barrels in which the wine matures must never be left empty, so this is a last minute job.
And finally….the tasting. An opportunity to compare three of the wines he produces. Every year his blends are slightly different, to arrive at a consistent product. Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon…all have their part to play in blending wines to make a perfect complement to an enjoyable meal, whether roasted, casseroled or preserved meats, or a plate of local cheeses.