After years of working in wine sales and marketing, Brigitte Chevalier, owner and winemaker of Domaine de Cébène, and her husband Pierre, relocated to Languedoc in 2006, to “start a new life” making wine.
Why would a lifelong Bordelaises leave such a celebrated region for the lesser-known wilds of southwest France? Among many reasons, one is key: Her passion for historically old vines.
“If I hadn’t purchased the old vineyards, the vines would have been pulled out. The rows are too narrow for tractors, they must be picked by hand. Nobody would have liked to work with these old vineyards, they are too difficult,” she says.
Languedoc, with its marriage of climate, topography, culture, and schist soil, is an ideal place for grape vines to grow old.
Chevalier found what she was looking for in AOP Faugères, a small region defined by a single soil type—schist.
Schist is a metamorphic rock formed under heat and pressure. This hard, dense rock is often layered with minerals. In the wine world, it is valued for its heat retention and drainage abilities. In Languedoc, a low rainfall region, schist is prized for its ability to retain moisture.
A fractured soil, schist allows old vine roots to penetrate as deep as 26 feet, offering the vine more resistance to extreme weather, drought, flash floods, and disease due its relationship with a vast underground microbial network.
AOC Faugères characteristics—one-thousand feet above sea level, the Tramontane winds blow pure air from a natural park, with the hills blocking the stronger winds from the Massif Central, make it an old vine oasis.
“My task is to save the spirit of this place. I am a link between generations. I hope [through my wine] I can translate this forward,” she says.
Her self-described “rural values” steer her toward traditional winemaking – hand working and harvesting the vines, certified organic farming, and limited cellar intervention, elevating her “artisan style” in crafting delicate wines of distinction.
She champions recovering old vines and is a founding sponsor of the Old Vines Conference. These heirlooms give her wines depth, savory, mouthwatering, and fresh are appropriate descriptions. Biodynamic experiments are underway in hopes of “giving the vines livelier soil.”
She grows Carignan, Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, explaining “no place else in the world grows Mourvèdre on schist,” which softens the grapes tannins. Chevalier’s passion for old vines is contagious. Domaine de Cébène offers an old vine sponsorship program. It’s a great way for wine lovers to support sustainable farming and artisanal winemaking, while aiding in the expense of maintaining old vine treasures.
AOP Corbières, a large and diverse region spanning from the Pyrenees Mountains to the coastal plains near Narbonne, is home to over 33,000 acres of vineyards. An area of historical tectonic upheaval, it is home to a wide variety of soil types.
Castelmaure, a wine co-operative more than one hundred years old, resides here. Today, the co-op employees fifty-four growers covering four-hundred hectares surrounding the village of Corbières. All vineyards are sustainably certified through the French High Environmental Value program, 20% and growing are organic, none use pesticides, and all are tended by hand.
Due to its age, the co-operative has old vines Grenache and Carignan growing in schist soil. According to Antoine Robert, winemaker director of Castelmaure, “old vines produce top-quality wine. We use them in our top cuvee.”
Additionally, the co-op has a two blocks vine conservatory – one is studying the DNA of historical old vines, the other is researching ninety different profiles of Carignan using new vines with old wood.
Gérard Bertrand is synonymous with biodynamic sustainability. As a fifth-generation wine producer, he feels strongly about taking care of the land and the vines. Within Bertrand’s large portfolio are many wines made from vines over thirty years old, but there are two very special old vine wines that are dear to Bertrand’s heart.
La Forge is an iconic wine of Domaine de Villemajou, representing the quintessential AOP Corbières-Boutenac terroir. It’s Mediterranean coast proximity, rocky 330-foot elevation, alluvial soils, and garrigue landscape, make it one of the distinctive cru regions of Languedoc. La Forge blends young Syrah with old vine Carignan planted in 1930 by Bertrand’s father.
Cuvee 101, Les Arbousiers, blends younger Grenache with ancient Carignan planted in 1920, by Paule Bertrand, Gérard’s grandmother, in AOP Corbières. She raised seven children and kept the vineyard going after her husband died in World War I.
Bertrand says it takes a clever person to plant vines that live a long time. The planter must understand the varietal’s relationship with the soil and climate of the place. Carignan demonstrates throughout Languedoc that it is an ideal grape for the terroir, begging to grow old there.
He shares with Wine Spectator the difference in taste of very old vine wines compared to younger vines is in the texture and expression of the terroir due to deep roots. Old vine wines are more concentrated, marrying power with finesse.
This year, the winery begins a ten-year focused study on old vines seeking to understand how they adapt to live so long in hopes the vines will provide a prophetic voice for the future.
Situated between the Mediterranean Sea and AOP Corbières, AOP Fitou is the oldest region of Languedoc. Divided into two finger-like zones protruding north, fierce Tramontane winds impact both areas. The inland, hilly zone of Fitou Montagneux is known for its schist soil and high-quality, low-production old vines.
Over twenty years ago, Katie Jones left her home in England for the remote mountains of Languedoc to work for a wine co-operative. In 2008, she bought her first old vine vineyard and began making wine.
She likes to say she buys the vineyards no-one else wants. Similar to Brigitte Chevalier, Jones embraces traditional wine making methods. Today, her old vine vineyards range from 50 to 116 years old, allow her to produce an array of single varietal and blended small-lot, high-quality wines with a distinct sense of place.
Along with her Vieilles Vignes Fitou, a blend of over 100-year-old Carignan, Grenache and Syrah, Domaine Jones’ Vineyard Collection wines offer rare old vine wines, such as Grenache Gris, Carignan Gris, and what she believes is the last remaining old vine Macabeu.
Jones, a sponsor of the Old Vine Conference, shared with them in 2021, “Old Vines represent such a large part of our history, they tell a thousand stories of the people who have worked with them over the years and the people who have enjoyed wines from their fruit. They need more care and attention, but it is worth it for the quality and style of wine that they produce.”
Through her adopt-a-vine program, of which I am a proud recipient of old vine Syrah in St. Roch vineyard, and her regular Instagram virtual vineyard rambles, she strives to educate wine lovers on the unique, heirloom aspect of old vines.
AOP Saint Chinian
After traveling the world working harvests, Vivien Roussignol and Marie Toussaint decided in 2016, to return to Roussignol’s home and resurrect his family’s vineyards, planted by his grandfather with grapes being sold to local co-operatives for around twenty years, in Saint Chinian. Domaine Les Païssels was reborn.
Just outside the commune of Babeau-Bouldoux, the winery’s vineyards benefit from this part of AOP Saint Chinian’s elevation and schist soil. Passionate about making high-quality wines the “old way,” says Roussignol, the two oenologists converted the family vineyards to organics and sought additional old vines growing in schist to purchase.
When they discovered a buried treasure walking distance from the winery, a vineyard with over 100-year-old Carignan, they knew once the soil recovered, it would produce beautiful wine.
“For fifty years this vineyard was plowed with a horse, then came fifty years of chemicals. We took it back to organic, it’s now a gem,” says Roussignol. This Carignan is now part of the Les Jalousses and Les Païssels (which also contains old vine Syrah planted by Roussignol’s grandfather) Cuvees.
Their vineyards are filled with quintessential Languedoc flora. Roussignol and Toussaint recently introduced sheep for winter vineyard maintenance and further biodiversity. After a morning of rain, the sweet smell of garrigue meanders through the air, the ground feels like a sponge underfoot, and the rainbow across the sky seals the deal – this place is heaven.
Additionally, through Domaine Les Païssels experimental vineyard, they have recovered grapes near extinction, such as Œillade Noire, Olivette Blanche, Petit Bouschet and Gibi Blanc.
The winemaking team’s focus is on quality, looking forward to their new plantings becoming old vines. “We focus on learning proper pruning of old vines. I watch how older generations gently prune by following the vine. I am trying to do the same,” he shares.
“The secret to old vines is well-planted vines, properly pruned in schist soil,” shares Roussignol. This is Languedoc.