THE NEW YEAR is met with the inevitable swag of resolutions designed for selfbetterment and prosperity. That being the case, if the Languedoc and its contiguous, yet more southern and distinctly different neighbour, the Roussillon, were to come up with a New Year's resolution, it would surely be the development of a few strong brands to help bring attention to its wines. After all, Languedoc and Roussillon are among the most diverse and interesting wine regions of Europe.
Realising this, the chief wine buyer of the Flo Group of restaurants, Alsacian Gregory Hecht, together with winemaker François Bannier, originally from Bordeaux but with winemaking experience in Australia up his sleeve, decided to collaborate. They formed Hecht & Bannier, one of the more dynamic winemaking teams in France.
At Flo, Hecht's responsibilities included purchasing and managing the wine programmes at such Parisian institutions as Bofinger, Brasserie Julien, Terminus Nord and the most famous, La Coupole. Today, Groupe Flo (as it is known in French), is introducing its sprawling brasserie models throughout Asia, most recently in Beijing.
Bannier, on the other hand, was among the winemaking team appointed by Rémy Martin when it owned champagne houses Krug and Charles Heidsieck. Both of these houses boast masterful blending regimes steeped in old and deep reserve wine stocks, although Bannier is quick to speak of his particular affection for Charles, possibly the most underrated of all champagnes.
While the warm southern reaches of France are far from the frigid climate and white chalk soils of Champagne, Bannier honed assiduous blending skills with a seemingly paradoxical, yet ultimately obvious, affinity with making wine in southern France, where a perspicacious approach to shaping wines from multipatterned soil types and structures, elevations and the quintessential Mediterranean polyglot of grape varieties, is imperative.
What makes the Hecht & Bannier brand particularly fascinating, however, is that it's built around a business model of purchased fruit and/or finished wine, rather than the ownership of vineyards. In France, this is known as being a negoçiant, a term that has long connoted a less-than-caring approach to making wine, although today such a stereotype is anachronistic. Indeed, many fine Burgundian producers, including Dominique Lafon, are turning to crafting wines from purchased fruit.
This approach has repercussions for both volume and quality, while cushioning pricing, particularly when the vineyards are leased under strict contractual arrangements. In other words, while others may tend the vines, Hecht & Bannier dictate how this is done across all aspects of vineyard management, according to organic or fully fledged biodynamic principals, in most instances. Yields are kept well below the regional norm and the elevage, or “raising” of the wines, is done entirely by the duo. This incorporates the use of oak, if any, the nature of the oak and how long a wine is aged. The grubbiness that frequently mars wines from southern France due to low acidity and less-than-ideal hygiene in the cellars is eschewed. There is no old wood and pH is controlled with gentle extraction techniques.
The focus is solely on appellation wines, including a frothy sparkling from Crémant de Limoux; reds from the top crus of Minervois, Saint Chinian, Faugères and Maury; as well as wines from the appellations of the Côtes du Roussillon Villages and the newly promulgated appellation Languedoc AC. Here, a wonderfully tensile white is blended with the unorthodox combination of Roussanne and Picpoul, an assemblage that makes complete sense when the wine is tasted as the nervy Picpoul whips the viscosity and precocious baked apple notes of the Roussanne into a saline lash of spiky tension.
There is also a juicy Languedoc AC red built around a skein of acidity and silky tannins that drinks like a southern interpretation of top Beaujolais. In fact, it is my favourite wine in the range, alongside the Saint-Chinian; a sophisticated red with a core of sombre minerality that plays the baritone against the soprano of bright red and dark fruit notes and tenor of herbal flavours, such as lavender and thyme. As a side project, the range also includes a ferruginous red from the well regarded Provençal appellation of Bandol.
Bannier suggests that operating as a negoçiant is savvy in this part of the world due to the dominance of cooperatives, which, even today, account for more than 75 percent of total production. The middling quality of wine that mostly results, mires much of these southern zones in a moribund state, with no brands and little external mainstream recognition. Hecht opines that if a premium is paid, however, the very best fruit can be purchased because the cooperatives cannot compete. Exploiting this status quo, Hecht & Bannier are able to produce fine wines and ultimately cultivate the brands that the Languedoc and Roussillon so desperately need.
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