When one thinks of Southern French wines, the immediate image that comes to mind is a bold, rich Châteauneuf-du-Pape or perhaps a strapping, high-octane red from somewhere in the Languedoc-Roussillon. But to say that ALL Southern French wines fit this mold would be the same as saying that ALL California wines are 15% alcohol blockbusters. We know of course that in the cooler terroirs, whether in California or in Southern France, these regions can produce beautifully elegant and fresh reds and whites.
Domaine l’Hortus is located in one of these choice cooler sections of the appellation of Pic Saint Loup, with vineyards nestled in a valley between two limestone cliffs, Pic Saint Loup itself and the Montagne de Hortus. Until recently, Domaine de l’Hortus was the only producer in this valley, though recently, a few other producers have purchased vineyard land seeing the enormous potential of this terroir. This area is unique in that it is influenced climactically by both the Mediterranean Sea which is only 15 km away to the south, but also by the Cevennes Mountain range to the north. From the sea comes the south wind – called the Marin – which provides warmer, moderated weather and moisture, and from the north, there is a daily flow of cool, dry air. These contrasting forces help to create a significant diurnal shift, allowing Rhône varietals to ripen fully, but in a manner that provides both power and finesse to the wines.
The winery was officially started in 1978 when Jean Orliac, then a professor of Agriculture at the University of Montpelier, purchased some vineyard land in and around these cliffs. Jean had been an avid mountain climber and used to scale these sheer limestone cliffs. Over time, he gave up his teaching career, and with the help of his wife, Marie-Thérèse, bought 50 ha of wooded slopes that were in disrepair. Bringing these vineyards back to life was nothing short of herculean. Entire parcels had to be cleared out of the dense garrique and then replanted to vineyards. In the initial vintages, the grapes were all sold to the local co-op, and it wasn’t until 1990 that the Orliacs were able to bottle their own wine, and shortly thereafter build their own winery. Today, their children, Yves, Martin, François and Marie all share in the responsibilities of running the estate. It is definitely a full-family affair!
The vineyards are made up of a patchwork of small parcels over many expositions and variations of soil, each paired with an appropriate varietal. In general, cooler climate varietals such as Syrah, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are planted on North-facing slopes. Conversely, Grenache and Mourvèdre are given full south exposure. The vineyards are farmed with respect for nature. Though when you bring up the word, “Organic”, the Orliacs tend to roll their eyes a bit. Throughout their history, they have always avoided using chemical additives in their vineyards. But to them, the whole organic thing seems more like a marketing ploy than a basic way of doing things. Moreover, in the south, the disease pressures are much less than in other wine regions, so there is little spraying of any kind required.
The winery produces three distinct ranges of wines. The first is called “Le Loup dans la Bergerie” (loosely translated as “The wolf in the hen house”). These wines are made from purchased grapes from nearby vineyards just outside of Pic Saint Loup but classified as Vin de Pays. They are fun, easy-drinking and fresh-style wines. The second, and most significant production, are the Domaine de l'Hortus estate wines themselves, the Bergerie de l’Hortus Classique red and white, plus the higher end “Grande Cuvée” red and white made from their best vineyards closest to the base of the cliffs. The third project, called Clos du Prieur, is a separate estate in the Terrasses du Larzac area, another cool, high-elevation sub-zone in the Languedoc featuring a red wine only.
During harvest, grapes are brought in at night when they are cooler. All the wines are fermented in temperature-controlled tanks except for the roughly 50% of Chardonnay that goes into the Grande Cuvée Blanc which is barrel fermented in barriques. In terms of élevage, the Loup dans la Bergerie wines are raised in tank, while the main Hortus Bergerie wines see a combo of tank and used wood, and then all barrel aging (about 20% new oak) for the Grande Cuvée wines. Finally, the Clos du Prieur wines are raised in a mix of used 400-liter tonneaux and concrete tank.
In sum, the wines of Domaine de l’Hortus are balanced wines made to drink and give pleasure and not to win tasting contests with their sheer brawn. As we know, the best wine on the table is often not the one with the highest point score or the grandest reputation, but the one that goes down easy and is drained first. So, just pop the cork, pour it into the glass, and let the wine do the rest!