Minervois: from rags to riches

Back in the old days, when wine was just wine to me and not the borderline obsession it is now, Minervois on the label invariably meant cheap and cheerful. Now it’s a far more serious proposition, as I found out back in the summer of 2019, when after a long drive through the twisting turning Black mountain roads, I stopped off in the picturesque town of Homps on the way to Carcassonne airport. With a couple of hours to kill before my flight, I found myself wandering aimlessly in the searing heat along the banks of the Canal du Midi before stumbling upon the Maison des Vins. Inside its cool interior and surrounded by hundreds of bottles all from the appellation I managed to persuade the proprietor, a young dude named Jules, to give me a private wine tasting, something which he was all too pleased to do.

I am a bit of a map geek and knowing that when you are in France the word ‘terroir’ is an essential word to drop in wine country, we were soon discussing the various sub-regions of Minervois in front of a giant map of the region.

As you delve deeper into wine, especially if you do a WSET (Wine & Spirits Education Trust) wine course with me, you really start to focus in on the many factors that can influence how wines taste. How, for instance, the same grape variety grown in a slightly different climate, soil or altitude can lead to subtle differences in the character of the wines produced.

Jules opened up four red wines from different parts of the appellation, all blends and made in different ways.

Minervois, I found out, is not uniform in terms of climate, soil, altitude, etc. Parts of the appellation are windier than others, parts drier, parts cooler.

The south of the region stretching down towards the coast has a more Mediterranean climate where the heat loving grape variety Mourvèdre comes into its own. In the north east – on higher ground – the limestone soils and higher altitude here help slow down ripening and extend the growing season leading to a notable freshness in the wines which take longer to reach their full maturity. I tasted a beautifully pure and fresh Syrah from here.

To the East is the celebrated sub-zone of La Liviniere, with its south exposure and warmer, sunnier and drier conditions where vines have to work a bit harder in the more extreme conditions. The wines from here can have great concentration and power and demand heartier dishes to partner them. In the south west, nearer to Carcassonne, there is a more moderate climate producing balanced wines.

Alas I wasn’t able to purchase any of the wines I tasted as the only beneficiary would have been the security guard at the airport, but I’m very glad I took that little detour and got a free map for my troubles and some blank spots of knowledge filled in. (For example I didn’t know Grenache only came to Minervois with the Spanish refugees after the Spanish Civil War!) They do white wines and rosés in Minervois too of course, but time was short.

If you are ever in that part of the world when free to travel, I definitely recommend a little visit to Homps and the Maison des Vins. Minervois is definitely on the up and an appellation to look out for and explore further.

To discover more, why not join me on my next wine tasting: Into the Wild: The Wines of the High Languedoc?