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One Bottle: 2019 Domaine Pégaline Le Côté Obscur Pic St Loup

Le côté obscur means “the dark side.” Darkness, in these rancorous times, haunts our consciousness and discourse; dark arts have taken public life, of late, to dark places—or so it appears to many. The difficult label of this illuminating wine, though, seems to be making not so much a political statement as an orbital allusion. It shows the light that disappears beneath a horizon at one moment reappearing at another. It’s the best Pic St Loup I’ve ever tried, and one of the most memorable Languedoc reds; it may be obscure, but deserves to be influential. Even, perhaps, a new horizon in itself. More of this in a moment.

Pic St Loup lies just down the road from where I live, and from where I write this—in a Covid-immobilized Europe. I’ve barely left home for four months, during which all that is local has assumed great significance for us all. The elimination of frenzied journeying, given its carbon cost, makes an atmospheric tonic. I needed confinement; I was a danger to my children and our biotope. It is nothing other than good fortune, of course, to find myself living in a place where agricultural endeavour is best rewarded by the creation of bottles of fine red wine. I grew up among the cold, clinging beet fields of higher latitudes; those wiping chill mud from their boots every night deserve fine red wine, too, though it must travel to them, scattering carbon in its wake. Lucky, yes—but there’s still a zeitgeisty pleasure in being able to open and drink a wine that has journeyed no more than 12 miles (20km) in a small, utilitarian vehicle to our table. And then find it so very good.

Happy vines

Pic St Loup lies at the cool, eastern end of warm Languedoc. It’s a little farther north than most Languedoc appellations; it’s wetter and breezier. Its vineyard soils are among the most beautiful I know: century-chiselled limestone pebbles gleaming in the gold of morning; marly beds, slurping up a downpour; free-draining glacial screes into which roots plunge like divers. There’s a mountain (the Pic itself), and a long, wobbly, drunken escarpment; the vineyards play below, feasting on all the rock debris, the garrigue humus and the soil microbiota of a place never intensely cultivated, and historically more sheep-trodden than farmed. The vines seem happy, Syrah in particular. Overplanted in the Languedoc in general, Syrah can be hot, fat, and gloopy; here, by contrast, it’s chic and perfumed. The unbaroque Grenache of Pic St Loup is rarely facile and strawberryish, and at best pitched somewhere between juicy and meaty. Mourvèdre is brooding and collegiate hereabouts, happy to ballast a blend without too much aromatic invective, providing it has been planted in a snug site.

All this can be thrown away, of course, by not growing good enough grapes, then failing to consummate the relationship between juice and skins with delicate perfection, and after that by falling for the oak trap. Small-oak aging of fine red wine is often a terrible idea in Languedoc, as it sweetens and dries wines that need neither. It’s hard to blame ambitious Languedoc growers for thinking it almost obligatory, since the world at large remains deluded about oak; many drinkers still equate oak with quality. In fact, though, palpable oak means homogeneity and intrusion for all but the longest lived of wines. One day we will see this clearly. One day the oak era will end.

A new path

Pégaline’s “dark side” is that new horizon: Languedoc red wine of great purity, aged in earthenware, subtly scented, textured and vivacious on the palate. Suddenly a place in Languedoc reveals individuality of character in a way that proves elusive if oak’s involved.

There’s no shouting going on. You have to search for the aromas. Search, and you’ll find: crisp blackcurrants, blood, rust, forest plants, sheepskin. On the palate, it is dramatic and seamless: singing Syrah (80 percent) backed with less articulate Mourvèdre. The tannins are magnificent: une trame tannique délicatement crayeuse (“a delicately chalky tannic frame”), to quote Philippe Martin, who makes it. The tannins have danced out, with a single punch-down. The flavors have the rewarding bitterness of mountain plants, of juniper berries and gentian roots. The acidity is all energy in sculpted smoothness. I find it hard to limit my enthusiasm—yet I had no idea this wine existed six months ago. And I live down the road.

Philippe Martin created the domaine with his partner Nathalie Héricourt, a graphic designer. They don’t have much land—just 12 acres (5ha) or so, all of it rented; he has worked for other domaines for the previous 20 years. It’s in a village called Claret, where the escarpment pulls back to create a kind of amphitheater, and where you will find France’s only surviving cade distillery, catering to perfumers; cade is the emblematic Occitan scent. Pégaline’s domaine name indicates cool clay, which sticks to the boots as it might do in a high-latitude beet field (péguer in Midi dialect)—but which keeps the vines refreshed over a long, dry summer, and which plumps up tannins in grape skins. There are only 400 bottles of the Côté Obscur—but 6,000 of the Elémentaire, its little brother, which is very nearly as good, which is also free of oak, and which also shines a light on a new path. May there be many more to come.

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