Gerard Bertrand: Domaine de L’Aigle

23 06 2020

By Peter Vetsch

[These bottles were provided as samples for review purposes.]

The South of France is paradise, for vines and tourists alike.  Consistent weather, tons of heat and sunshine, yet just enough reprieve thanks to surrounding bodies of water — it’s the recipe for both stress-free ripening and a highly satisfying vacation.  Because of these climatic blessings, the growing areas around the Languedoc-Roussillon can successfully cultivate almost any grape you can think of, which helps its ability to generate value-priced reasonable facsimiles of varieties grown at enhanced pedigree and cost elsewhere.  This flexibility may come at a cost, however, hindering the area’s ability to carve out its own identity, one not tethered to other regions’ preconceived notions.  Languedoc luminary Gerard Bertrand has above all sought to let his home region’s soils sing loud and clear, and over the years he has cultivated an impressive array of vineyards and standalone estates that aim to do just that.  It is somewhat ironic, then, that one of his most compelling recent acquisitions is a place that doubles as a convincing stand-in for what I would have told you was the least possible French region to reflect in the deep South:  Burgundy.

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I should be careful to clarify:  Domaine de L’Aigle is nobody’s copycat.  Located at the northern peak of the Limoux appellation, which itself is slightly inland of the Mediterranean Sea and just south of famed fortified board-game city Carcassonne, the Domaine is situated at the foot of the Roquetaillade cliff, always the home of numerous nesting eagles (hence the winery name).  The combination of the highest altitude in the region and the cooling air coming down off the adjacent Pyranees mountain range makes average temperatures here 2-3 degrees Celsius lower than its neighbours in the Languedoc, resulting in substantially more rainfall and a massive drop in temperatures overnight.  In this one specific spot — which was France’s first home of sparking wine, by the way, back in 1531, before Dom Perignon figured out bubbles in Champagne — the climate is sufficiently moderate and bracing that the Burgundian duo of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay excel.  The focus of Domaine de L’Aigle is to explore these northern French varieties (as well as a little Gewurz, in a nod to even-more-northerly Alsace) as translated by the Languedoc’s terroir.  Gerard Bertrand acquired the Domaine in 2007, and it is now one of 16 biodynamic estates under the Bertrand umbrella, joining the previously reviewed Domaine de Villemajou and Chateau la Sauvageonne.  Bertrand’s focus is eternally on clearly transmitting the voice of the South; let’s see how it speaks through the grapes of the North.

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2018 Domaine de L’Aigle Chardonnay (~$38)

Limoux is best known globally for its sparkling wines; of the four formal appellations in the area, three of them are for bubbles, including Blanquette de Limoux and Cremant de Limoux, which remain happily co-existent despite the apparent overlap between them.  The permitted white grapes of the Limoux AOP are the ancestral Mauzac (which forms the backbone of Blanquette), Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc.  For still wines, Limoux whites are the only ones in the Languedoc that legally have to be fermented and aged in oak casks, a treatment that Chardonnay handles exceptionally well.  The Chardonnay vines at Domaine de L’Aigle’s 31-hectare estate are very densely planted at 5,000 to 6,000 vines per hectare to help control plant vigour and to encourage a competition for nutrients, all aimed at increasing grape quality.  The vines are tended and the grapes are harvested manually, after which winemaking is handled in a delicate fashion, using pneumatic presses to extract the juice and cold soaks to settle the must before fermentation.  Part of the resulting wine sees malolactic fermentation in oak barrels, and all of it sees time on the lees before bottling.

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My first Burgundian Languedoc Chardonnay is deep yet vibrant, almost glowing with a proud lemon-gold colour flecked with fresh traces of green.  It presents at first with the classic sun-drenched ripe Chardonnay nose:  lemon curd, banana, apple pie, brûlée, vanilla bean and tapioca, but expands with further searching and time in the glass to reveal pistachio, lemongrass and even agave accents.  A broad and wide mouthfeel ultimately turns lively thanks to a bell curve of prickly acidity; the wine seems languid and lazy for the blink of an eye before the acid rush kicks in, but it then has the heft and ballast not to be swept away, fending off the rapids and finishing long, calm and quiet, with what appears to be discernible tannic presence.  White chocolate, golden apple, sage, lemon meringue and almond brittle round out a delectable flavour profile, if one that needs every ounce of the acidic balance to keep its form.  A stately take on France’s royal white, with just enough verve to carry it through.

90 points

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Cork Rating:  7/10 (Classic as always…but maybe the standalone estates deserve their own corks?)

2017 Domaine de L’Aigle Pinot Noir (~$38)

Now here’s where appellation laws get weird.  As noted above, Limoux is largely a region of bubbles.  There is no more iconic red grape for bubbles than Pinot Noir.  The Limoux AOP allows for six different red grapes to be used, but none of them is Pinot Noir, and all red single-varietal wines are forbidden.  A Limoux Rouge must contain at least three different varieties, one of which must be Merlot, another of which has to be Cot (Malbec), Syrah and/or Grenache, and the last of which has to be Cabernet Franc and/or Cabernet Sauvignon.  What?  Why??  This means that if you want to grow Pinot Noir in Languedoc’s home (and France’s birthplace!) of sparkling wine, you can’t call it Limoux.  Domaine de L’Aigle’s Pinot Noir hails from the exact same estate vineyards as its Chardonnay, but because of its oddly shunned variety, it must be labelled not as Limoux AOP but as IGP Haute Vallee de L’Aude, an ex-vin-de-pays level designation that directly overlaps Limoux’s boundaries and is named for the Aude River that flows down from the Pyrenees and cuts through the vineyards.  Look at the climatic description of Limoux above and tell me that Grenache is better suited here than Pinot Noir, and yet one is an AOP red and the other is not.  Who says wine is confusing?

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This non-Limoux Limoux Pinot receives even more careful treatment than its Chardonnay sibling, with painstaking sorting and destemming, 5 to 8 days of cold maceration before fermentation and an ultra-cautious single punch-down of the cap at the start of fermentation to assist with extraction before pressing.  Only the free-run juice from the press makes it into the finished wine.  The result is fairly dark and brooding for a Pinot Noir, a deep ruby with only a hint of translucence.  While the eyes try to take in the colour, the alluring waft of maraschino cherry powering out of the glass is a tremendous distraction, which only amplifies as the wine fully envelops the senses.  There’s strawberry too, and mint leaf, and Thai basil, with a faint trace of topsoil, but at its aromatic core it is a full-throated cherry aria.  Fleshy, juicy and highly tactile, this Pinot entices on the nose but does its real work on the tongue.  A healthy dose of fine, dusty tannin does wonders to add gravitas and exert some control over the hedonistic fruit on display, although that too pulls back a bit on its own in favour of more measured plum, black raspberry, Herbes de Provence, warm rocks and lavender notes, which remain in pinpoint balance through a pleasurably restrained finish.  It is not Burgundy in style or flavour, but it is much more importantly itself, telling a unique and compelling story about this small, special, and under-appreciated corner of the Languedoc.

91+ points

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