1997 Clos Des Truffiers “Hommage a Max” Syrah, Coteaux du Languedoc, France

One of the things I love about being a wine lover is the connection that can be made between more academic and intellectual learnings about wine (names of varietals, appellations, winemakers, techniques) and personal sensory experiences. We wine lovers, with enough practice and attention, can literally taste what we have learned over time. One of the things that most interests me is the transformation and expression of a place over time. I won’t get into a deep contemplation of terroir here, but leave the discussion at a simpler place: it’s delightful to taste the evolution of a wine region — to literally experience the wines get better and better.

I can only claim to have a fleeting acquaintance with the wines of the Languedoc. I’ve probably tasted a lot more of them than most people, but they’ve really only been on my radar for about six or seven years. While I can’t say that I’ve consistently sampled the variety of wines produced in this, France’s largest winegrowing region, I have had the pleasure of tasting better and better wines from this area as time goes on. This may be due mostly to the fact that good wines are now being searched out and imported for the first time (as opposed to mediocre or even plonk wines, which have long been the majority of the production in the Languedoc), but it is no doubt also a reflection of rising quality levels in the region as a whole, and a revival of small wine estates dedicated to making expressive, high quality wines.

When Jean Paux-Rosset finally decided to ask his father for control of the family vineyard in 1992, it had simply been an agricultural business venture for the family. His father, Max Rosset, sold trucks as his main business, and operated the vineyard on the side — half as a second home, half as a business, maximizing yields and cranking out as much industrial quality wine as the big distributors would buy. Yields were somewhere above seven tons per acre. When Paux-Rosset told his father that he was going to make high quality wine from these vineyards on the rocky slopes of hills above the town of Saint Pargoire, the reaction was bemusement. But the elder Rosset, who in the 1960s had the idea to plant Syrah on these rugged hills must have known something about their potential. At the time, everyone else was growing the typical grapes Bourboulenc, Carignan and Cinsault, but Max Rosset, then mayor of Saint Pargoire and the father of newborn Jean believed that Syrah could flourish. It is for that foresight, and no doubt a bit of familial respect that this wine, made from the family’s choicest parcels of Syrah, is named “Hommage a Max.”

Clos de Truffiers (which could be loosely translated as “field of the truffle hunters”) is a second label made by the family domaine called Chateau de la Negly. Under Paux-Rosset’s management the Negly domaine has severely reduced yields and focused on making smaller lots of much higher quality wine. Many of the wines are in the $10 to $20 price range, but this wine, from a single 12 acre vineyard at the highest point on the family property is a separate project unto itself.

This vineyard, which holds what are most likely the Languedoc’s oldest Syrah vines, is kept to incredibly low yields, around one ton per acre. All of the grapes are hand picked and sorted in several passes through the vineyard to ensure that only perfectly ripe fruit is selected. The clusters are individually destemmed by hand, and crushed entirely by foot, the traditional (and some say gentlest) method of juice extraction which Paux-Rosset employs to avoid crushing the seeds which release bitter tannins into the wine. The extracted juice is then hand poured (rather than being pumped) into a new French oak vat for an 8 day cold soak before fermentation begins.

The wine is fermented for about 40 days before being poured into 100% new French oak for 17 months, some of which included exposure to the lees (the sediment that forms during fermentation). It is then bottled unfined and unfiltered. About 260 cases are made.

I first encountered this wine at a tasting of some of the world’s top Syrahs, where this wine stood out for its unique character, depth and complexity, and the fact that it rated a perfect 10 on my ten point scale. When I spotted it at a local wine merchant I jumped at the chance to pick up a couple of bottles despite the high price tag. This bottle (whether due to storage, bottle variation, or just amount of time exposed to air) didn’t quite match my initial taste of the wine, but it remains one of the singular expressions of Syrah I’ve had the chance to experience.

Tasting Notes:
Medium ruby colored in the glass with a slight cloudiness that speaks to its unfined nature, this wine has a mysterious brooding nose which captures aromas of black truffles, olives, capers, anise, and dark blackberry and black cherry fruits. In the mouth it is silky and sumptuous with a gorgeous mouthfeel and full body that is lush with flavors of dried cherries, leather, and exotic woods with flavors of figs as the wine tapers to a very long finish that exposes very fine grained, soft tannins. Surprisingly, the wine betrays little of its treatment in 100% new oak. There is only the slightest lack of the deep complexity that I experienced in my first taste of this wine which keeps it from again meeting the 10 point mark on my scale.

Food Pairing:
This is a wine to be drunk with dark rich meats. We served it with steak on the night it was consumed, but had we more time it would have been a perfect accompaniment to a rich classic beef daube.

Overall Score: 9.5/10

How much?: $90 to ‘outrageous’ depending on the retailer.

This wine is available for purchase online, though it looks like the 1998 vintage is easier to find.