This is part one of an interview of Michel Gassier from March of 2014. In an hour-long conversation we discussed the Costières de Nîmes, its terroir and history as an appellation and the varieties that grow well there. We also discussed Michel’s connection to the region and changes to his approach to farming and winemaking, which will be included in future posts.
There is some slight confusion about the Costières de Nîmes. Is it part of Languedoc or the Rhône?
It’s a vast question, but let’s go back in history, the appellation system in France was created in the 1930s. The family of wines, as we know it today, comes from the creation of the Appellation d’Origine. So in essence when the Rhône Valley was created, it sat on three original French provinces, Languedoc, Provence, and Dauphiné. When the Rhône appellations were created, Costières-de-Nîmes was not included. At that time nobody worried about the fact that Tavel, Lirac and a third of all Côtes-du-Rhône produced were produced in the administrative region of the Languedoc. And when Costières became an appellation at the same time as the appellations of the Languedoc, people assumed that it was or could be a Languedoc appellation. But you take one look at our terroir and you realize, that it’s a Rhône terroir. So when we became an appellation we had a choice of whether going with the Languedoc or joining the Rhône Valley. We collectively decided to join the Rhône Valley because our terroir had been created by the Rhône. Unfortunately for many political reasons due to personal ambition from elected officials in Costières de Nimes the confusion persisted for several years but Costières has been part of the Rhône Valley since 1989.
What is your terroir? What makes it like the Rhône and what makes it unique?
The terroir was created by the Rhône just like the rest of the southern Rhône Valley. Actually if you get into details there are two distinct terroirs in Costières de Nîmes: the northern part which was created by the Rhône – sediment that mostly came from the northern Alps and then the southern Costières de Nîmes coming from the Durance, currently a tributary of the Rhône, which comes from the southern Alps, but in both cases they were terroirs from the same origin. So the terroir is classically Rhône. What’s unique about Costières is the proximity to the Mediterranean Sea. We, for instance, have some vineyards that are overlooking the marshes of Camargue and you can see the Mediterranean from these vineyards. The result is a microclimate that is a little cooler in the summer because of sea breezes. We have thermal breezes, which result from the difference in temperature between the sea and the land during the day. When the land is heated by the sun the air becomes hot, rises, and creates a draft or pull, so cool air comes in from the sea. Because the air that comes in has a little more moisture it’s less dehydrating, it’s less stressing, the grapes keep higher acidity, their freshness, and that’s the signature of that zone. Fresh and better balanced.
With these two distinct terroirs which varieties do you grow and where?
We tend to put the whites on terroir with a little more clay, northern exposure, and with as much calcium content in the soil as possible. We tend to put the reds on drier soils. With Mourvedre we can use southern or western exposures, Syrah prefers cooler exposures.
Is Grenache the primary grape you grow?
We’re very balanced. We’re probably equal parts Grenache and Syrah at this point. Currently the variety I’m replanting the most is Mourvedre for several reasons. It grows really well where we are, historically it used to be an indigenous grape in Costières before phylloxera – when phylloxera killed all the French vineyards in the late 1800s, there was a big demand for high volume vines so high-producing varietals were planted. But Mourvedre is making a comeback, people are starting to realize that we have a great spot for it where it can ripen every year. I’m replanting more and more Grenache as well.
Mourvedre does very well in warm vintages, are you experiencing climate change in your region?
We are. On the human scale it is hard to see a trend but I’ll give you an example. 2013 was the latest harvest since the early 1980s. We had a very cold winter, summer was OK and we harvested almost three week later than normally. This year 2014 it looks like bud break will happen next week, and it looks like we might have one of the earliest harvests on record. So the climate change is yes, and huge variation from one vintage to the next.
So the diversity of what you are actively planting is a response to the change in climate?
Yes, and it also explains the option were taking with Mourvedre. Mourvedre is a late ripening varietal. Overall we have increased variation in climate but with an increased trend in warming, no one can deny that. Mourvedre has a tendency to retain its acidity, doesn’t shoot up in sugar, like Grenache does. We feel we have to temper the ripeness of Grenache with other varietals. Syrah in a hot year tends to be a little over-ripe but I feel that in a hot year late ripening varietals like Carignan or Mourvedre are the safest bets.
How much Carignan do you currently have?
Unfortunately they have been replacing Carignan for the longest time in our region because it was believed to be a shit varietal. I have a funny story. I have a Carignan vineyard that was planted in 1948 and about six or seven years ago I had planned to uproot it. Typically my wife and I, after harvest, go visit a wine region and that year it was Priorat. So we get to Priorat and we taste at a whole bunch of properties and the one varietal that I thought was the most amazing was Carignan. And everybody said, “Oh yeah, but you need old Carignan.” As I’m driving back from Priorat and I think to myself that I have a 60 year-old Carignan vineyard that I was going to uproot, I was going to do something stupid so we completely changed plans. I reevaluated the way we were managing that vineyard. It was our last standing Carignan vineyard. Based on what they told me, it takes forever for Carignan to become interesting so I haven’t yet replanted Carignan, I eventually might but I’ve favored Mourvedre because I can get some really interesting wines from younger vineyards.
Do you know of anyone who is replanting Carignan?
No. I’m currently looking for vineyards to purchase. I’ve scouted out a couple of plots with old, head-pruned vines. I’ve already started to talk to people. They’re not ready to sell but I feel it’s a better approach to scout because, people do not know what to do with it. It’s better to scout great vineyards of Carignan than to replant at this point. At least in my lifetime.