Doing what we do, it’s both hard and risky to have favourites, more so to make too much fuss about them. The risk is that you inadvertently demote the rest of your wines in putting your favourites on an apparent pedestal.
But, like you, we're only human. There are inevitably wines that take a special place in your heart and on your shelves. And that you then make a bit of a fuss about.
All of which describes the Larmanela (rouge) from Bergerie du Capucin, in Languedoc’s Pic St Loup. It’s almost certainly the most continually highly-rated wine at the DWWAs each year. It’s also one of those rare wines that subscribes to The Goldilocks Principle: (through very hard work by its maker), everything is Just Right.
Let us explain.
Bergerie du Capucin is named after a historic family sheep barn just above the domaine. Their wines and standards have stood at the forefront of Pic Saint Loup for many years, and were a significant part of the cause of the creation of the new AOC. Whenever there is an article about Pic St Loup in Decanter, you can be sure of which producer will see the most billing in the text. See, for example, this one on the Pic generally and this one on Bergerie du Capucin.
This 15-hectare estate is the passion of Guilhem Viau, who produces multi-award-winning wines from vineyards situated at over 600 metres of altitude on the first spurs of the Cevennes and Massif Central hills. The vineyards are cultivated sustainably respecting the environment of this rugged landscape and allowing for the full expression of the garrigue and wild herbs that characterise this countryside.
I’ve got to know Guilhem pretty well over the last few years. Most winemakers are determined, driven, passionate and busy folk, but Guilhem takes it to the extreme. His innate understanding of what he does is exceptional; his fine tuning (in both vineyard and cellar) to optimise every barrel or tank is remarkable.
Languedoc isn’t typically the first name in fine French reds, much less for 100% Syrahs like the Larmanela. Sadly, Languedoc, under the banner of IGP Vin de Pays d'Oc is better known for its affordable gluggability. When I talk to French Syrah fans about the quality of the Larmenela, I often get blank looks and some of disbelief. After all, it is pointed out, Languedoc is not the Northern Rhône and hardly Hermitage or Côte-Rôtie.
But that’s where Pic St Loup and Guilhem come into the picture. As Guilhem pointed out, Languedoc is a huge region. Such a huge region has many climates within it, and the higher altitude and limestone soils of Pic St Loup set it much apart ... to such an extent that it has been separated as one of Languedoc’s 5 top crus; these have markedly more stringent quality standards and typically produce the region’s most noteworthy, elegant and expressive wines. This guide to the Languedoc appellations - from the local AOC board itself - is particularly good.
The higher altitude of Pic St Loup, says Guilhem, means you have a climate very akin to that of the Northern Rhône, and this is crucial. Syrah has a very fine window of tolerance to be got Just Right: a bit too hot for too long and it becomes fat, flabby, almost sludgy (alas much the tale of so much Languedoc Syrah); undercook it and you can end up with something very green, often ‘stalky’, grippy and needing years in the cellar to soften. Yes, I think we’ve all bought a Crozes Hermitage like that. Pic St Loup allows for an optimal blend of sunshine, warmth and coolness that allows a) fruit to ripen, ‘blacken’ and become plush b) tannins to ‘crack’ and soften and c) acidity to be preserved to keep the wine taut.
The Larmanela achieves just that, year in and year out. It was a DWWA Best In Show (97 points) in 2019 (2016 vintage), a Gold (96 points) in 2020 (2017 vintage) and is a Platinum (97 points) this year with the 2018 vintage (click links for the DWWA reviews and words). It’s very consistent and is special every time. The 2017 stemmed from a very hot harvest and was remarkable for its flavour concentration. The 2018, this time, is, I’d say, most noteworthy for a particularly (black-)fruity, powerful set of aromas and a huge finish.
It’s technically 99% Syrah; there’s a mere splash of Grenache in each barrique. There are also very few of those barriques, too. This year, Gulhem tells me that number is “around 15”. To limit the overt oak impact on the wine, those barriques are some 400 litres in capacity, so I make that about 6,000 litres and thus 8,000 bottles overall. That’s very low production for such a sought-after wine (we have a few hundred bottles, a pretty large allocation and that’s our lot). Barriques are French oak (various regions), with around two or three being replaced each year (so ~20% new oak each vintage). Barrique time is just over a year (to keep the freshness to the wine), with a final stand-in-tank before bottling being a crucial component. Guilhem also tells me that he is moving to ever-gentler (if slightly longer) macerations to seek the subtlest balance of tannins, colour and fragrance.
As ever, the proof is in the pudding. I’ve recorded a video tasting (which admittedly features some of the above detail). But here’s what I make of it:
- In the glass: dark, almost 100% opaque. The deepest of indigos, almost black.
- On the nose: Huge. A massive hit of blackcurrant/cassis, backed up by plenty of blueberry, fruits of the forest and bramble. Just a sniff of menthol, Mediterranean herbs and chocolate sweetness. Very heady and fresh.
- On the palate: starts quite subtly and progresses to a big finish. Upper medium fullness, and stops short of being full-bodied only by the softness of its tannins. Blackcurrants less obvious in the mouth (than the other black fruits), but very ripe, more-ish, plush and generous. A decent streak of subtle acidity keeps the tension in the wine and marries well with the aromatic nose. Alcohol, even at 14.5%, is entirely integrated with the density of the wine; it does not at all stand out or burn.
That tasting reinforces a view and way I have of explaining the Larmanela. It is more ‘New World’ than a good Northern Rhône Syrah: it has an immediacy, softness and approachability that is rare (at this quality) in a French Syrah. But it is categorically French – there is a freshness and tension to it that I have seldom run into in Australian Shiraz, or even that from South Africa, NZ or even the Andes. It’s perjorative to call it ‘hybrid’, but you would see what I mean if I were to call it that. I’d liken it to a good Cornas in a good year; yes, it’s that good.
"I put this wine to my nose and all I want is a steaming bowl of civet de sanglier. It’s a swarming, bramble tangle of obdurate tannins and tiny dark berries with bitter-thick skins and tart-sweet flesh. It’s fennel seeds and celeriac peel and the taste of burnt coal-grill crust on your steak. It’s licking your fingers after throwing a log on the fire, after crumbling sage into a pot. It’s a warming, hearty wine with the mountain-cool freshness of Pic St-Loup tucked into its collar".
There's also a video tasting from Andreas Larsson, one of the world's top sommeliers (in English, French subtitles!)
As to drinking windows, it is unquestionably drinking now (I’m using it at tastings and dinners and that view is much shared). Guilhem says it is at its best 5 years from vintage and still excellent at 10-15 years, although not as long-term a cellaring choice as the very top Rhône Syrahs.
We are currently the sole retailers of this wine in the UK, at £25.95 a bottle. That’s not a cheap bottle, we know, but for what you get, compared with other top Syrah and Shiraz, it’s a great buy. I’d go so far as to say you’d need to spend double that in the Rhône for something so good. You also get - frankly - heaps more of a wine than you'd get from Bordeaux or Burgundy at the same price-point.
What’s more - and please take this the right way - when we run out, you’ll be paying probably £6-£8 more for this. Such is Guilhem’s fame now that he’s been courted by a UK importer with greater reach. In his shoes, I’d have fallen for them, too. We know and work with them well and like them muchly, but, in a world where we supply via them, there are more mouths to feed. So, when this lot’s gone, you’re looking at £30+ for the Larmanela, as you can see from the DWWA review. Just so that you know.
If you fancy some 'Larmenela-lite', do try Bergerie’s Dame Jeanne. It’s a GSM (Grenache-Syrah-Mourvedre), with no oak, a little more earthiness and a little less darkness, but it’s lovely, as its recent Decanter 94-point review made very clear. It’s also only £17.95 (it recently underwent this same price shift).