A Dose of La Clape: Visiting Chateau L’Hospitalet

L'Hospitalet wine

It may sound like a smutty seaside postcard, but in fact La Clape is a wonderful, seaside wine region very close to Narbonne in the South of France.

A ‘defined terroir’ within the Coteaux du Languedoc AOC, La Clape is dominated by a modest mountain overlooking the Mediterranean, a mere 10km or so away. It is classic garrigue territory: dusty, hot earth populated by wild thyme, rosemary and vines – and is one of the sunniest vine growing areas in France.

The wines are among the most exciting in the Languedoc: spicy, powerful and robust but blessed with a cooler, maritime-influenced climate and vine-loving limestone soils.

Nestled in a bowl in the hills is Chateau L’Hospitalet, the HQ of Gerard Bertrand. Gerard is something of a phenomenon in the south of France. A local boy made good, he first hit the headlines as a professional rugby player for Stade Francais and the French national team. Whilst still playing, he inherited the family’s wine business and has gradually built it up, acquiring vineyards and estates across the Languedoc. The jewel in the crown is L’Hospitalet, which he bought in 2002.

The estate is surrounded by 52ha of vines but in addition to a fully functioning winery it also comprises a hotel, restaurant, conference centre and public cellar door. Incredibly, it is the third most visited tourist attraction in the region. The top two are the old city in Carcasonne and an African themed safari park.

What is even more incredible is that despite the size of the business and the obvious commercial nous, the wines are outstanding. Not many wineries manage to combine quality and quantity, balancing the volume demands of the market with the desire to make brilliant wines that genuinely reflect their terroir. Bertrand and his team deserve a lot of praise for doing just that. Don’t take my word for it either, doing some background googling for this post, I discovered an old article on Jamie Goode’s website that made the same point, noting that “if France had more wine companies like this, they wouldn’t have too much to fear from new world competition.”

We began with a walk through the vines to the top of the hill overlooking the complex, learning how the carefully managed pine trees play an important part in the winery being officially certified as carbon neutral and spying the gorgeous stand alone vineyard (below) which lies in a sheltered dip sandwiched between the winery and the sea. This parcel ripens a full two weeks after the vines that surround the chateau, and is bottled separately.

Chateau L’HospitaletIf ever you wanted to understand the relationship between a wine’s taste and its place of origin then sipping a glass of that single vineyard wine from the spot the above photo was taken would be the perfect demonstration. With the sea breeze on your face and the wild herbs under your feet, matching the flavours to the environment could not be simpler.

After a quick whizz round the spotless, gravity-fed winery and it was time to taste. The Bertrand range is extensive ranging from classic varietal wines through to top class material from the estates in Minervois La Liviniere, Cigalus, Corbieres – and, of course, La Clape. Here are my top picks:

Viognier L’Hospitalet 2009 –

Rich, peachy nose with bags of flavour. Hints of spice and refreshing acidity. A ripe, summery wine. This might just become my house white this summer.

Chateau L’Hospitalet Blanc La Clape 2009 –

A blend of Bourbulenc, Vermentino, Marsanne and Roussanne that knocked me for six. Rich,, mouth-filling texture with ripe peachy fruit and stony minerality. Fantastic energy and lift with real refreshment on the finish. Wonderful balance between oak and fruit. Who needs Burgundy when you can drink this?

Chateau L’Hospitalet Rouge La Clape 2007 –

Like the white, this wine is sourced from the vineyards surrounding the chateau that we had just been walking through. Herby, warming and spicy with dark black olive fruit rounded out by the oak. Smooth and well-balanced but full of character with some classic cool La Clape minerality.

L’Hospitalet ‘Special Vineyard’ 2007 –

I’m not sure what the actual cuvee name for this is, but this is the wine made from that special stand alone vineyard by the sea. Tim likened it to an Islay whisky with its powerful saline, iodine characters. Big and bold with intense fruit, fine tannins and peppery spice. Excellent length too. This is a real gem that avoids the trap that so many flagship wines fall into: that of being overcooked in the winery and turning out glossy, sweet and polished but with no sense of its terroir.

Rivesaltes 1984 –

Yum. This was the bottle that found its way into my basket in the winery shop. Classic rancio wine with demerera sugar, almond and walnut notes alongside hints of Agen prunes and sultanas. Intense and full of character. That’s my Christmas day drinking sorted.

Post tasting there was just time to squeeze in a quick three hour lunch at L’Hospitalet’s restaurant involving raw scallops with wild thyme, grilled fillets of rascasse – both of which went wonderfully well with another bottle or two of L’Hospitalet Blanc – and finishing off with some fantastic local goats cheeses. A very fine way to spend an afternoon.

Chateau L’Hospitalet is open to visitors for tasting. You can find out more on their website www.gerard-bertrand.com or by emailing caveau@gerard-bertrand.com

Gareth Groves
29th June 2010

Company No. 2550982 | 109a Regents Park Road London NW1 8UR | Call: 0845 263 6924 | AWRS Number: XVAW00000101595

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