Interview with Rob Dougan

If you had to briefly describe La Pèira, what would you say?

Well, I would say it’s a vineyard site that’s existed for hundreds and hundreds of years. So I see it as something that existed before we came along in 2004. A lot of the vines we inherited, were planted before I was born. I don’t see us as tremendously involved, apart from in the viticulture and the winemaking and just paying a tribute to the site. That’s our only role I think. I didn’t want a certain result of a certain nature. I just wanted to see what the result would be. Some people come into wine and they say “What I’m trying to do is this or that or this.” But that’s not why we came into this thing. It’s like fishing. You put your rod in the ocean and you see what comes up.

What drew you to the Terrasses du Larzac?

My wife was born in Montpellier so that made the region something that I felt something for. And the history of the region with its Occitan past, and its difficulties in being embraced by France, and that feeling that it had been troubled in some sense, that appealed to me hugely as well.

When did the idea to take the next step, which is to essentially purchase a part of it?

Everyone does things in their own way. Some people really understand the world through reading about it, or maybe someone needs to get to grips with things by writing about it. But I don’t really enjoy things unless I’m actually doing something.

You’re originally from Australia?

I was born in Sydney and I’ve lived in London for about twenty years.

So there’s no recent history of farming in your family?

Oh, there’s definitely a history of farming in my family. But farming with sheep and cattle; huge amounts of land, that’s probably as big as the Terrasses du Larzac just in one farm. Not viticulture, no, but both sides my family come from country towns.

What was already planted in the first vineyard you purchased? 

The first vineyard had been planted in the last fifty years. I don’t really buy into the idea of “noble” or “local”. But let’s start with the local. The local varieties were Cinsault and Carignan – and then the other varieties were all from the Rhone: Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvèdre. Then on the white side, we have Viognier, and Roussanne and we’ve planted Marsanne, Grenache Blanc, and Clairette.

It felt like a mosaic – or a kaleidoscope – of really well-planted vineyards of fantastic different varieties. When you looked down at a property transaction list in France – the contract – you see all the previous owners. You see sixty people and they’ve all planted a vineyard, they’ve all taken care of it and they’ve all got it to where it was when you start working with it. I had a sense of I’m coming upon a found object.

When people see the name Terrasses du Larzac, it might conjure up images of the Mosel, the Douro or Côte Rotie but Terrasses is more of a geological term is it not?

People are very surprised when they visit. Firstly it’s quite diverse, so you have these eight hundred meter high vineyards on slopes. You have south-facing slopes; you have north-facing slopes. But I think the reference is different deposits of different types of soils that may not be so dramatic. The area we’re working on is what Andrew Jefford calls the “tenderloin”: a quaternary alluvial rock and gravel bench –a rather flattish area. David Schildknecht very kindly called it, “only mildly tilted.” Which I thought was a rather euphemistic way of calling it flat. So then you just see little changes. The change in altitude is subtle and the change in that little slice of soil is small. This has been described as a cake with several different layers, and you’re having small variations in the compositions of soil.  It’s interesting because we work with three plots. You can see from this picture here, this map, this is the area we work in and that’s where we are.

You have three sites that are very close together…

A lot of domaines in our region have vineyards that are scattered around, and specifically chosen in a very clever way to get – two kilometres over there you’ve got north-facing Syrah on one type of soil: two kilometres over there you’ve got your south-facing Mourvedre – the aspects, the soil type, the fact they’ve been planted there, is all designed fabulously. And then someone is going to bring all this stuff together and make a wonderful blend. Unfortunately or fortunately, just the sheer nature of our place is that we have Mourvèdre, Syrah, Grenache, everything – it’s the same aspect, it’s the same soil type, and it’s all centered around our cellar.

We started off with two plots, the Bois de Pauliau and Belle Fiolle, and we’ve acquired another plot called Les Pointes. La Pèira is made completely on this plot of Pauliau. Las Flors – the second wine – is made completely from Belle Fiolle. So that’s very interesting in the sense that they’re very close to each other. And when you look at them you think these are the same soil type, the vines are around the same age…

But never has the Belle Fiolle plot ever entered into La Pèira. And you get to taste Syrah from these two plots adjacent to each other, a few hundred meters away, and the Grenache from these two plots. They’re all sitting in their own barriques and they’re not the same Syrah; they’re not the same Grenache. So that is definitely puzzling. To a skeptical mind, you want answers as to why.

What is the total size of your vineyards?

It was 11.4 ha and now it’s getting up to around 14 ha.

What are your farming practices?

Short-pruning, not too many buds, then very fastidious work in the vineyard; working of the soil ‘by hand’ or with tractor, keeping the canopy open, taking away weeds and things by hand and not working with chemicals. Aerating the soil, having a really natural life of the soil and green work that’s needed; and just a lot of work with the vine’s canopy

How do you work in the cellar?

First of all the most important thing obviously is getting wonderful raw material into the cellar. The second thing is a pre-fermentation cold soak. Then they’re held in that state with the skins for a good length of time, several weeks. Then the temperature gradually rises and the fermentation is allowed to very slowly begin. Everything is really very gently; there’s no punching down. Everything’s done very gently and slowly.

Are you destemming everything?

All the grapes are de-stemmed, and we’ve started doing things like pre-blending. Everything used to be blended at the end. Now, because I think we’ve realized that La Pèira is always going to be Syrah and a bit of Grenache, we commit earlier.

Is there something with co-fermenting that you can achieve that can’t be achieved with blending?

This is not my area of expertise, but the feeling was it worked better, with it co-fermenting and blended up front, rather than blending at the end. Maybe it was just the feeling of let’s commit to something. And for so many different things, winemaking or life, committing to something early on actually is not such a bad idea.

What about elevage?

We use lots of different coopers: Taransaud, Boutes, Seguin Moreau, François Freres. In different sizes: 300-liter, 600-liter. With different ages: new barriques and old barriques. So the idea is a bunch of diversity. It’s surprising when you have two barriques with the same wine – as we did with our Mourvèdre one year (Matissat) and we bottled it only from one barrique, and we didn’t bottle it from the other barrique. Both were an expression of a hundred percent Mourvèdre, but it was like it had gone to two different schools. It had blossomed in that barrique, in that school, in the environment, and it had done alright in the other environment but it wasn’t as dynamic and exciting.

So we try and have a real thing so that it’s not… you obviously want to get the benefits of Elevage without having it steered into one direction which is based on that one barrique maker, or that one toast, or that one new barrel, or old barrel; or a lack of a clean barrel.

When you started in 2004, which cuvées did you make?

We made exactly the Cuvées that we make now, well apart from Matissat which we made later, so La Pèira,Las Flors de la Pèira, and the Les Obriers de la Pèira.

The La Pèira is the Syrah-Grenache blend from Pauliau. The Las Flors was Syrah-Grenache-Mourvèdre initially – and now with a little bit of Cinsault and Carignan from the Belle Fiolle. Les Obriers is a Cinsault and Carignan dominant blend from the Belle Fiolle plot as well. That has never changed. The white, Deusyls, which was Viognier and Roussanne, now has Marsanne and Grenache Blanc all entering into the blend.

La Pèira, from the very first vintage had its characteristics that it has today. There has been no change; the fundamental characteristic of that wine is still in that wine, and all our incompetence of competence in any given year, or lack of experience or increased experience, it been impervious to these things.

So it seems that from our very first vintage the wines were comfortable in their skin. They knew who they were and they never fundamentally ever changed. Of course it changes from vintage to vintage, but the core quality that you get from those wines seems to be always there. The wine has changed a little bit is Las Flors, which was a blend of Syrah-Grenache-Mourvèdre at the beginning and now has the input of Cinsault and Carignan.

What did you make this change?

Actually, this is the one area where we did re-jig something in a way. Las Flors was great, and it was a very interesting wine from day one, but it was not a classic second wine in the Bordelais sense, which is what it was intended to be. In the beginning the domain was structured on the Bordelais system and the point of a second wine is that there is a classic second wine experience. You want a wine that is going to speak of what the first wine might be in ten or twenty years, but you want to approach it a bit earlier. I always had the sense that Las Flors, or flower in Occitan, was operating on the same level, in terms of density, in terms of richness, in terms of tannic presence, in terms of this feeling of those elements, as La Pèira, stone in Occitan. So we added Cinsault and Carignan to the blend. And it’s a much more charming, floral, approachable, classic second wine.

And that’s the only area of our domain, and where just through blending, and through not letting the yields sink too low, we have changed something. Because the La Pèira has really been impervious to our best efforts, which is a good thing. It was born grown up.

Could you just talk briefly about what you find unique about the characters of each of the cuvees you make?

The only way I can describe La Pèira is…If you stand in the vineyards at dusk, there is no-one around. There is the enormity of this huge sky and this darkness descending on you, and this huge mountain range in front of you, which leads up to the Massif Central. You feel quite insignificant and small. And you feel like the world around you is huge. Also it’s getting dark and the darkness there feels all-enveloping; you feel like you’re certainly on this planet looking out at space. You have that sensation.

The La Pèira has this enormity to it, and it has a great density to it. It feels quite monumental, but at the same time it has a contradiction to it; it’s a very elegant, ethereal. So that’s the La Pèira for me.

The Las Flors de la La Pèira: now the wines have aged and also the blend has changed in the younger wines, it has this charming quality to it; this floral quality to it. In its youth, in the early vintages, I’m not sure it did have that, but now we’re in a situation where the older vintages have aged and the younger vintages have this slight adjustment in the blends. So that has more of a charm to it; a youthful charm. A bit less of the enormity of the La Pèira.

Les Obriers de La Pèira’ is the ‘workers of the stone’  in Occitan. Which is a reference to the stonemasons that built all the wonderful structures in the area – from small Mazets to much bigger farmhouses, all are made from these stonemason’s work. That for me is a weekday wine; it’s a blue jean wine. It’s two local varieties, Carignan and Cinsault – derided for many years – but now it’s quite respected. And you have to remember that denim is “From Nȋmes – de Nîmes” and so I always saw this as a denim wine, you know?  So that’s the spirit of that.

You sometimes make a tiny cuvee of Mourvèdre, the Matissat.  This came later?

In the beginning the Mourvèdre was good. But it wasn’t crying out to be bottled alone. In 2007 it was of such an excellent quality that it was clearly going to enter the La Pèira, and it was the first plot that hadn’t entered previously but was obviously going to. Yet when the blend was happening, it was not fitting in. It was not speaking as part of the blend. The sum of the parts were not increasing, even though it was excellent. So we just had to bottle it by itself and that was thrilling because: you’ve suddenly had blending taken out of the possibilities that you as a person can be contributing to the situation.

And I thought wow, this is interesting because there’s not many 100% Mourvedres in France and ours is 100% to the point that we’ve topped up the Mourvèdre in barrique with more Mourvèdre. This is an expression of Mourvèdre from where we are. The only sadness is there have been years where we haven’t bottled it. And that pains me. I suppose you have to keep philosophical about that.

And the whites?

We’ve worked with the white varieties now for a decade. A decade of really intensive vineyard work and farming. We planted more white varieties. We started off with Viognier and the Roussanne, and we’ve added Marsanne and Clairette Blanche and also Grenache blanc. So there’s a huge amount of work that’s happened on the white side at La Pèira in the last ten years. Which is just now finding its way into the cuvées.

We are improving our viticulture, the trellising and working of the vines with the planting of new white grape varieties, so this huge white development program. And also, on the red front, planting Syrah in Bois de Pauliau in 2009 & 2012 – which is now just coming on board and will hopefully enter the La Pèira wine – and planting some more Grenache also in Bois de Pauliau in 2012.

So really the white has now come on leaps and bounds. We’re also now in a position to look back and taste the 2005 and see how is that white – the Deusyls de la Pèira – is coping and how is it tasting after ten years. Last year we bottled for the first time a La Pèira blanc. And we intend to make that in the same spirit as the La Pèira red. Where there the La Pèira blanc is the first wine and the Deusyls is the second wine. It was interesting with the Deusyls because when we started off, we didn’t have the confidence on the white front, and it was always positioned as a second white. The new plantings and all the vineyard work has finally given us the confidence to make a La Pèira Blanc.

What’s specific about growing white varieties in your region that was harder to understand about that than the reds?

We had a very small amount of white in Belle Fiolle – Roussanne and Viognier. A really a tiny amount. So really we weren’t focused on the whites, but the first year we harvested the white, we fermented it in two barriques. It was very interesting as it was very exotic and it was very charming. It was a huge success but we didn’t have much of it.

I suppose – to be frank – we were not absolutely sure how those two slithers of vineyards of Viognier and Roussanne were going to contribute to a white that could age. We didn’t have any experience of growing whites in our region, that we didn’t feel incredibly confident how this was going to age in the same way that the reds would. As the different grape varieties we’ve planted have come on board, it has changed the acidity, etc, and the capacity of the wines to age. Just having more parcels entering into the blend makes you more confident, because we are not relying on two tiny slithers of vineyard.

Can I just say something which might tie together a few things? We were very naïve when we started off. Since 2005, a lot has changed with the region, for instance, the Terrasses du Larzac AOC has come on board and whites in the region have changed over the last ten years enormously. We’re also in the village of Saint-André-de-Sangonis and that’s been part of Clairette du Languedoc, a white wine appellation since 1948, then we’ve really got to jump up, you know? And really get these whites sorted and that’s what we’ve done. That has been something that we never ever anticipated when we started the domain; when the focus was very much on the reds.

Then another thing I read: the first reference of French wine in literature ever of being any merit comes from the Roman writer Pliny the Elder. He makes two mentions of France. One is of the area of Vienne, just above Côte Rotie and the other is Béziers, which is the entire viticultural region around Béziers, and that is a white wine. He describes a white cuvée made there, which was situated within the current AOC, Clairette du Languedoc. That’s all Quaternary alluvia. Which is the type of soils we’re working with. So you start to have this sense which is gosh: this whole swathe of alluvia has been making white wines since one of the first wines of France to be mentioned in literature.

What else have you learned about the region in the last 10 years?

The thought that occurred to me sometime around the start of the domaine was: if you could A) grow great structured red wines on that side of the Massif Central on Quaternary alluvia with ‘Bordelaise varieties’ and an Atlantic climate, why could you not B) grow wonderfully-structured, equally superb red wines on this side of the Massif Central on Quaternary alluvia with ‘Rhone varieties’ and a Mediterranean climate?

It seemed a perfect symmetry.

And then when you look into the history of our region, you see that almost every single Roman vineyard and Roman winemaking archaeological discovery follows the path the Hérault River and this Quaternary alluvial band. The area where La Pèira is, is the most northerly of that Quaternary alluvial vein that follows the Hérault River. To me, all logically added up to the production of really exciting wines.

Is your site unique in that regard or is there a larger context of discovery in store for the Languedoc and Roussillon?

For me, the Languedoc region, the Roussillon region, the South of France region in general, is the region that’s unfolding before our eyes, in our lifetime. In the way that we’d love to go back to Burgundy and see the nascence of Burgundy when the discoveries were made.

What would we not pay to go back to that time? and be part of that? and see that all happening? And see those famous, wonderful expressions in their first moment of lighting that flame? Or to go back to Bordeaux, when the Dutch engineers were draining the swamps, and they were going to plant the first of these famous vines? When they had no certainty about what was going to be achieved, and they were just discovering that.

But we have that process unfolding before our eyes, in our lifetime, and we have the key to be part of it. And that for me is extraordinary, and we can do that in the French wine region, and we can do that in a wine region that’s not just making history now but is also the oldest wine region in France. The idea that we can make history now, and we can be a part of that is exciting.

And that’s what I find – I find I’m amazed, and whenever you’re astounded or amazed, you want to tell someone. If you see the most extraordinary collision of planets, or you see an eclipse…gosh you want to tell someone. That for me is something astounding that is happening in our region and I’d love people to jump on board.

“The only way I can describe La Pèira is…If you stand in the vineyards at dusk, there is no-one around. There is the enormity of this huge sky and this darkness descending on you, and this huge mountain range in front of you, which leads up to the Massif Central. You feel quite insignificant and small. And you feel like the world around you is huge. Also it’s getting dark and the darkness there feels all-enveloping; you feel like you’re certainly on this planet looking out at space. You have that sensation.”