Thursday, March 13, 2014

Domaine Olivier Pithon - "Vin Différent" from the Roussillon

Olivier Pithon.
In January, I spent a week touring and tasting my way through the Languedoc-Roussillon region of Southern France. One of the highlights of the trip was the time I spent with Roussillon winemaker Olivier Pithon. Based in the tiny village of Calce, Domaine Olivier Pithon produces terroir-driven wines of elegance and depth. His wines are lively yet age-worthy, with earthy and mineral accents.

In a region that still carries something of a reputation for bulk and sweet wine, Pithon aims to make “vin différent,” as he puts it. And I think he’s succeeding.

Olivier works 8.5 hectares (21 acres) of old vines planted on the rocky slopes surrounding Calce. He practices organic and biodynamic winemaking because, as he describes it: “You cannot speak of respect for the land whilst putting on products with a skull on the cans.” Some of his best wine comes from old vines that were used to make sweet wines for decades. (To read more about this changing dynamic, click here for my recent piece in Terroirist, “In the Roussillon, Shifting Lines Between Sweet and Dry.”)

Old Carignan vines, rocky soil, lots of sun, unforgiving wind...
A Loire Valley native, Olivier’s grandfather was a winemaker in Anjou, where Olivier started an apprenticeship when he was only 14. After studying winemaking in Bordeaux, Olivier chose to settle down in the Roussillon because of the abundance of available old vines (80-year-old vines are everywhere) and the vast diversity of terroirs. His Loire Valley background shows in his admiration for crisp, cellar-worthy whites. His 2007 “La D18” white blend was one of the most exciting wines I came across during my trip.

On a sunny winter morning, I toured some ancient Carignan vineyards with Pithon and his assistant winemaker Emilie Gendron. The knotted old vines clung close to the rocky soil, like all the other plant life in the area. The constant Tramontane winds whipped southward from the mountains with intense force — 35-40 miles per hour was my conservative estimate.

After a windswept morning, we dined at the only restaurant in Calce, a quirky little place called the Multiservices Café. The food (particularly the foie gras and lamb hock) was incredibly tasty, verging on the sublime. Eating local food and drinking local wine in this beautiful enclave... it was an amazing day.

©Domaine Olivier Pithon. Calce, France by night.
Here are my notes...

Whites and a Rosé

2007 Domaine Olivier Pithon “LA D18” - Vin de Pays des Côtes Catalanes
Smells of white flowers, ripe peaches, along with notes of crushed rocks, candle wax and a distinct oceanic breeze, almost liked aged Muscadet. Lovely acid and a creamy mouthfeel. Flavors of white peach and dried honey mix well with notes of white pepper, herbal tea, smashed rocks a bit of nutshell. Incredibly complex with a long finish. A blend of old-vine Grenache Gris, Grenache Blanc and Macabeo from a vineyard formely used to make Rivesaltes. Still going strong. Tasted from a magnum, this was one of the best surprises from my Roussillon trip. (91 points)

2011 Domaine Olivier Pithon “LA D18” - Vin de Pays des Côtes Catalanes
Strongly aromatic, with nectarine, flowers and sea breeze. So tangy and mineral-driven on the palate, with flavors of orange and grapefruit. Tastes like a bunch of mixed rocks all crushed together and topped with lemons and mineral water. Crisp, long, a great sense of verve to this. I’d like to cellar this for a few years to see what else comes out. (90 points)

2013 Domaine Olivier Pithon “Mon p’tit Pithon” Blanc - Vin de Pays des Côtes Catalanes
A slight spritz in the glass. Smells of orange blossoms and ocean breeze. Creamy on the palate, with a fresh, easy-drinking style. Nectarine, white flowers, a bit of circus peanuts and honey. A blend of bought grapes (Grenache Blanc and Macabeo), this sells for about 9 Euros. Olivier Pithon says he “looks for simplicity” in this wine, and it’s exactly that. Simple, but fresh and tasty. The name of the wine is a play on words; “my little Pithon” sounds a bit like Monty Python in French. (85 points)

2012 Domaine Olivier Pithon “Cuvée Laïs” - Vin de Pays des Côtes Catalanes
Aromas of orange peel, sea breeze and some salted lime. Crisp acid on the palate, with juicy white peach and lychee. Clean and tangy with a limestone and flowers on the finish. Mouthwatering, showing some nice depth. (87 points)

2013 Domaine Olivier Pithon “Mon p’tit Pithon” Rosé - Vin de Pays des Côtes Catalanes
Very, very pale copper color. Aromas of grapefruit and lemon and salt. Tangy, crisp with flavors of watermelon, minerals and tobacco. Spicy, lean and fresh. (86 points)


2013 Domaine Olivier Pithon “Mon p’tit Pithon” Rouge - Vin de Pays des Côtes Catalanes
Smells bright, also some cherry jam and red licorice. Juicy and fresh on the palate, some medium tannins, a red fruit medley. Pepper, charcoal and red licorice. Crisp, easy, fun wine, a blend of Grenache and Syrah. (85 points)

Here, "local ingredients" includes picking some wild rosemary.
2012 Domaine Olivier Pithon “Cuvée Laïs” - Côtes du Roussillon
Roasted plums, smoke and granite on the nose. Firm tannins, fresh acid, along with juicy black currants and plum fruit. Rustic but fresh, with rocky, earthy and violet notes. A blend of Carignan, Grenache and Mourvedre, from different vineyards. These blends are named for Olivier’s cow, whom Olivier loves and speaks of frequently. (88 points)

2009 Domaine Olivier Pithon “Le Pilou” - France, Languedoc Roussillon, Roussillon, Côtes du Roussillon
100% Carignan from 80+ year-old vines. A deep aromatic display of plums, earth, iron and meaty notes. Firm tannic structure with freshness from the acid. Plum skins, olives, clay soil and granite flavors. The wine is very elegant, which is something I rarely say of Carignan. A long and fresh finish with red floral notes. A beauty that I’d love to taste again in two or three years. (90 points)

2011 Domaine Olivier Pithon “Le Pilou” - France, Languedoc Roussillon, Roussillon, Côtes du Roussillon
Smells of plums, currants, granite, braised meat and violets. Full and pure, well-structured. Rich but elegant, with plums, violets, roses, iron and savory spices. Complex, could develop a whole lot over the next two to three years. 100% Carignan. (89 points)

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