Stone, Vine & Sun is a hardworking independent wine merchant based in Hampshire with a particular interest in the Languedoc, the source of so many great-value wines. At its tasting in London in May, I came across a white based on the vibrant Clairette grape, local to the Languedoc, that seemed a steal. It still does even though it has gone up in price, as most wines have, from £10.95 to £11.50 in this case.
I wanted to order some for our summer in the region and contacted the producer, L’Estabel, which is situated in the village (and appellation) of Cabrières. It is a co-op, meaning it makes wine for grower-members who don’t have the will, expertise or equipment to make it themselves. Luc Flache, who turns out to be both director and winemaker, was extremely responsive, and I decided to pay him a visit in late July, encouraged by the fact that France’s annual wine bible, Le Guide Hachette des Vins, had made L’Estabel a 2023 vigneron de l’année. This was the first time a co-op had been so honoured, Flache told me with pride when we met in its wine shop.
I tasted a range of its wines, including a no-added-sulphites red cleverly named On Souf(f)re Pas that Flache had devised. I was impressed. When I asked to see the winery, I was led in via a crowded office, the door between the two left open so that Flache and his colleague could benefit from the air conditioning installed 20 years ago.
Once inside, I’m afraid to say I was mildly appalled. Air con apart, it looked as though little had changed since it was built in 1937. It was dark. The concrete vats were grey with age. There was a tangle of pipes on the floor. It reminded me of one or two Bulgarian wineries I’d visited in the 1980s before EU money was poured in to spruce them up. I felt certain that neither the buying team of Stone, Vine & Sun, nor the editor of the Guide Hachette had visited L’Estabel, and I was right.
Spending my summers in the Languedoc, I know there are wine co-ops just like this all over the region. They make the sort of very ordinary wine that the French government recently promised to spend €200mn distilling into industrial alcohol as it is surplus to requirements in today’s shrinking and increasingly discriminating market.
But Flache, in his seven-year tenure, has somehow managed to make some really good wines. He has also increased the proportion of organic wine produced from 1 to 30 per cent. The answer, to recall a phrase some older readers may remember from the radio programme Beyond Our Ken, must lie in the soil.
Cabrières, west of Montpellier and surrounded by mountains, has a strange geology. It has layers of limestone and the same sort of slate-like schist as adds nerve to many wines from its neighbours Faugères and St-Chinian, but here those layers are unusually positioned. The area, with about 300 hectares of vines, must have something going for it because the king of Languedoc wine production, Gérard Bertrand, makes a rosé here, Clos du Temple, for which he asks more than £100 a bottle. And Tony Laithwaite, king of direct-to-consumer wine retailing, is also about to buy a vineyard in Cabrières. L’Estabel already supplies Laithwaite’s with white and rosé under the label Le Roi Soleil. Cabrières wine is locally supposed to have been loved by The Sun King Louis XIV.
Ten days later, I visited Santadi wine co-op in southern Sardinia and couldn’t believe the contrast. Admittedly Santadi produces about twice as much wine as L’Estabel, about three million litres a year, but here everything gleamed. One could actually eat off the floor. I certainly wouldn’t measure quality in terms of the number of oak casks, but at L’Estabel there were 20 of varying ages. At Santadi there are 3,000 French barriques in its glamorous barrel hall and it renews about 20 per cent of them every year. Since 2019, in line with current winemaking fashion, it has also been experimenting with ageing wine in terracotta pots imported from Tuscany.
I was taken on a tour of its many spotless winery buildings, including the one inaugurated in 2018 with Tuscany’s most famous wine producer Piero Antinori in attendance. All was sweet-smelling. “We clean the cellar daily. It’s a maniacal situation for us,” the commercial manager Massimo Podda told me.
So how come Santadi seems to be so much more sophisticated? Partly it is down to the vision of co-op chairman Antonello Pilloni, who has been in post since 1976. In 1980, he decided he’d had enough of simply providing usefully potent, deep-coloured blending wine in bulk for the likes of Antinori on the mainland. He persuaded Antinori’s famous oenologist Giacomo Tachis to come and advise Santadi on how it could make fine wines to be sold in bottle at a much higher price. The result, from 1984, was the barrique-aged Terre Brune and, subsequently, to ensure only the very best and longest-living wine went into it, a sister wine Rocca Rubia made using the earlier-maturing potential ingredients for Terre Brune. Both are made from the Carignan vines that thrive here in sandy soils by the emerald sea. Carignano del Sulcis reaches heights that I find very few other Carignans do. Today, Santadi makes a range of excellent wines of all three colours, and claims to pay more for its grapes than any Italian wine co-op other than the best in subalpine Trentino-Alto Adige.
Santadi has a winemaker and an agronomist, and each of its 220 growers can access an app devised in conjunction with the University of Turin that advises them on the state of their vines.
But how can it afford all this? There’s a clue on the homepage of Santadi’s website in a box that says “Campaign financed according to EU regulation N. 1308/13”. As a wild generalisation, Italian wine producers are past masters at navigating bureaucracy towards a pot of useful money. The statistics for EU spend on the wine industries of its members show Italy way out in front, having received nearly €5bn from Brussels since 2009. It has had the lion’s share of the budget available to promote wine outside the EU, but the biggest share has been spent on what is called restructuring.
Podda explained as we toured his beautiful wine country, “Yes, we get EU funds via the regional government to grow the cellar and buy new equipment. For us it’s normal to try to participate in what’s available.”
L’Estabel’s Flache says he applies for public funds to renovate the winery every year. Perhaps he should get some tips from Santadi.
Superior co-operative wines
Grande Cuvée Comtesse 2022 Languedoc 13%
£11.50 Stone, Vine & Sun
Fulcrand, Cabanon 2022 Clairette du Languedoc 13%
€39.50 for six bottles estabel.fr
Le Grand Pan 2022 Clairette du Languedoc Cabrières 13.5%
€49.50 for six bottles estabel.fr
Antigua 2021 Monica di Sardegna 13.5%
From €8.89 in many European markets – a steal
Noras 2020 Cannonau di Sardegna 15%
£21 Great Wine Co and other UK merchants, $27.60 Saratoga Wine Exchange (NY)
Rocca Rubia 2020 Riserva Carignano del Sulcis 14.5%
£21.70 VINVM, $27.98 B-21 (FL)
Shardana 2019 IGT Valli di Porto Pino 14.5%
SFr29 Liechti Weine and Bottega Alimentare
Terre Brune 2019 Superiore Carignano del Sulcis 15%
£52.95 AG Wines and other UK merchants
Follow @FTMag to find out about our latest stories first
Source: Financial Times