By Rose Murray Brown MW Published in The Scotsman 27 January 2018
Anyone looking for a soft herby winter warming red with liquorice and blackberry flavours, should head to the best value appellation in southern France – the currently little known Rhone Cru, Lirac.
This quiet unassuming village and vineyards hidden amongst low hills on the left bank of the river in the Southern Rhone was once much better known. With a long history to pre-Roman times, in the C16 Lirac wines were enjoyed by Popes and Kings shipped from Lirac’s Roquemaure river port – becoming the premier wine centre in those days compared to its neighbour Chateauneuf du Pape.
In 1863 Lirac village gained a dubious legacy. It was believed to be the origin of the phylloxera pest in France, when a winegrower at Chateau de Clary in Lirac attempted to plant Californian vines which proved fatally disease-ridden. The Lirac name temporarily disappeared, changed to Cotes du Rhone.
In 1945, Lirac gained appellation status for its whites, reds and rose – but it was Lirac’s easy-drinking roses which dominated production (whilst neighbour Chateauneuf du Pape banned rose production). Lirac roses were sold in bulk here until the late 1960’s, until a decline in their popularity meant that growers had to change focus to improve Lirac’s whites and reds again - and focus on quality.
One of Lirac’s great benefits is its soils. Ranging from ferruginous clay soils to limestone - to the same large round drift bolder pebbles (galets roules) that are found across the river in the much larger and more famous appellation of Chateauneuf du Pape. The key to the galet soils is that they help to absorb valuable moisture and retain heat during the day which is then slowly reflected back on the grapevines at night. This crucially aids much better and more even grape ripeness.
Not only do their share the same soil and climate as Chateauneuf du Pape, but Lirac’s wines are made from similar grapes. Lirac reds are made from Grenache (minimum 40%), Syrah, Mourvedre, Cinsault and Carignan. Grenache providing the round soft texture, smooth tannins, high alcohol and peppery herby notes, whilst Syrah adds more tannin, structure, acidity, liquorice and minty notes.
One interesting new development in Lirac is the increase in the use of Mourvedre in Lirac red blends. Mourvedre needs moisture-laden soils and low cropping, which the better producers of this commune are beginning to understand; it can get badly affected by drought. At its best, Mourvedre can add structure, depth and gamey notes to softer rounder Grenache.
To the west, Lirac is surrounded by Cotes du Rhone and Cotes du Rhone Villages vineyards – and it borders with rose-only outpost Tavel as its southerly neighbour. Tastewise, Lirac reds are rather like upmarket Cotes du Rhone Villages. Currently the Lirac appellation produces the best whites and reds of the Gard – and one of the best kept secrets of the Rhone.
With just 700 hectares and 50 wineries, the Lirac appellation is fairly small compared to its popular neighbour; Chateauneuf du Pape in the Vaucluse has 3,200 hectares and 250 producers. Whilst Lirac will never achieve the top quality and longevity of the wines of the best estates of Chateauneuf du Pape, but the current quality of Lirac reds offer excellent value compared to many humdrum commercial overpriced Chateauneuf du Papes sold in our supermarkets.
Lirac Rouge Moulin des Chenes 2014 (£14 Oddbins; Rude Wines) ***STAR BUY***
A wonderful example made by the Brechet brothers in the hot 2014 vintage; predominantly Syrah with Cinsault, Grenache and Mourvedre from one of Lirac’s best vineyard sites. Soft smooth mouthfeel, herby and scented: 14%
Lirac Rouge Domaine des Garrigues 2016 (£8.99/£11.99 Majestic Wine)
The Garrigue in the name refers to the surrounding heathland of wild herbs which add interesting herbal notes to this unoaked red. Fresh vibrant youthful style, best enjoyed in its youth: 14%
Lirac Rouge Chateau Mont Redon 2013 (£15.99 www.virginwines.co.uk; www.justerinis.com) ***STAR BUY***
Made by a prestigious old Chateauneuf du Pape producer. A fine example of Lirac with hints of maturity, fine secondary aromas and luscious ripe soft dark fruits; they also make a good Lirac Blanc: 14%
Lirac Rouge Fermade Domaine Maby 2015 (£10.95 The Wine Society www.thewinesociety.com)
A good example of the use of Mourvedre alongside Grenache and Syrah. A very vibrant example with deliciously jammy blackcurrant notes from a top estate run by Richard Maby: 14.5%
Lirac Rouge Vignobles Abeille 2015 (£13.99/£15.99 Majestic Wine)
Hefty robust in style, deeply coloured, very herby with fine liquorice flavours. Quite rustic in style with smoky undertones; this was part-matured in French oak for 18 months - also made by Chateau Mont Redon: 14%
Join Rose’s Loire & Rhone wine & charcuterie tasting at Royal Scots Club, Edinburgh on Friday 23 March £45 www.rosemurraybrown.com