Olivier Varichon and Emmanuelle Vinci’s domaine is sunk into the natural bowl of the Agly Valley, north out of Perpignan in Roussillon. This is untamed, rugged country, utterly remote, where their tiny plots are strung across poor, high altitude soils and hostile pebble terraces, wild with garrigue and native vegetation. Either side, there is mountain and wild boar-forest – both which crucially protect the vines from the fierce Southern sun, allowing for slow, complex maturation and sustained freshness of the grape. (Although Oliver has had to guard his grenache plot with a wire fence, to keep the boar from its favourite vines.)
Oliver and Emmanuelle, a former oenologist and biologist respectively, were drawn to the terroir up here and the richness of its native grapes. Their vines here date back in some cases over a century: old vines with deep searching root systems that have been forced deep by the paucity of soil. Their Carignan is 125 years old; and they also have Grenache, Lledoner Pelut , Mourvedre, Carignan Blanc and Macabeu. Olivier propagates via selection massale – via cuttings taken from his own vineyard vines, rather than the more common method of planting out genetically identical clones. This painstaking method invests in the genetic diversity and unique terroir of his vineyard, growing it from the inside, and from its own resources.
All of the vineyard work here is organic. In some places, the vines are almost lost under heavy carpets of native vegetation, wild flowers and grasses; organically maintained thriving ecosystems that are thick with bees (Olivier keeps hives), grasshoppers and the yellow and red spider which unfortunately loves the Lledoner Pelut. Far from Olivier’s neighbours and any contamination from their vineyard chemicals, the wildlife here grows outsize.
Olivier’s first vintage was in 2002: micro-volumes, which have only got slightly bigger since. Yield from his old vines is insanely small: typically 12hl/ha and down to just 10hl/ha. Grapes are harvested by hand into small crates in the early, cool part of the day and taken down the road to their vinery (more of a garage) in Estagel. There Olivier makes single varietal red wines – each named for their vineyard; and a white from a blend of Macabeu, Grenache and Carignan Blanc – he doesn’t have enough volume of a single, white grape. Grapes are crushed by foot, spontaneously fermented with native yeasts, unfined and unfiltered with no added sulphites.