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Les Foulards Rouges is a long-standing favorite of Chambers Street Wines for a good reason: Jean-François Nicq is producing some of the best, most drinkable and consistent natural wines in France. I have not had the chance to visit the estate yet, but I love the region and really enjoy his work, so every year it is pleasure to see the wines arriving at the end of Spring. For 2019 (a lackluster vintage according to Jean-François) he has managed to pull out a really great line up of wines, which being low alcohol, are perfect to pop open and enjoy now. But don’t be fooled into thinking the wines are simple! With each passing year, the vintages have begun to reveal more and more of their own personality, terroir and unique expression. And despite being light on their feet, they are far from being fragile. I enjoyed them opened for over a week, keeping them in and out the fridge (I am unforgiving with my wines in a way, making them go through this test, but I learn so much in this process, and I have to say, most of the time well made wines are undoubtedly better on day 2 or 3!). Les Foulards Rouges 2019 are without a doubt really strong! The enticing, hedonistic aromatics really explode after 24 hours from opening. All of this to say that Jean-François Nicq is a really talented winemaker to be able to retain so much freshness without losing complexity. It also tells me he is a seriously good vigneron to be able to understand so well the possibilities to be had from his terroir. This is not by chance. Years of experience with low-intervention vinification, a method in harmony with his values, and a strong esthetic sensibility have granted Jean-François Nicq and Les Foulards Rouges a deserving reputation of excellence!
Jean-François Nicq is not from Roussillon, the beautiful French side of the historical Catalogne where the domaine is currently located. Growing up in the north of France, he studied geology before he discovered wine and later entered school for oenology. There he met Thierry Puzelat who introduced him to the burgeoning natural wine movement with Marcel Lapierre, Philippe and Michèle Aubéry-Laurent of Gramenon and the Dutheil family of Château Sainte-Anne. After his diploma, he moved to the southern Rhône near Tavel and in 1989 he became Director of the Estézargues Coopérative. Usually, cooperatives, especially in this part of France, are synonymous with industrial farming (high yield based on the alcohol level more than on the overall quality which leads to a massive amount of wine to vinify). Estézargues went in another direction thanks to Jean-François’s vision. By using a smaller structure of only ten or so growers (farming 500 hectares of vines which is not nothing), he could push for more collective work, better quality farming to enhance the identity of each domain. Instead of vinifying everything in bulk he started to make cuvées, stopping the use of added yeasts, and decreasing the amount of sulfur dioxide to almost nothing by using carbonic maceration. Smaller volume meant greater care was given to the wine. Within a few years, Estézargues became an example for the region, helping its members to move towards more organic farming. The line up quickly gained accolades for high quality wines at a ridiculously low price - which is still the case today!
During his time in Estézargue, Jean-François met Eric Pfifferling from L’Anglore. They briefly considered working together on the same domain but after 13 years in the Gard, Jean-François was ready to start his own project. Sidenote-They did create a wine together “L’Anglore aux Foulards Rouges”, a blend of grapes from each of their respective estates that I highly recommend if you can find it! Jean-François left Estézargue in 2001 (Edouard Laffittte and Denis Deschamps took over). It took him three years to find the place he wanted to be, a combination of affordability, good terroir and a beautiful environment. At the foothills of the Canigou mountain overlooking the little harbor of Collioure, the “Vermeille Coast” and the Mediterranean sea, he found his paradise, and 9 hectares of vines.
Les Foulards Rouges is located in the little village of Montesquieu-des-Albères, 6 miles from the Mediterranean Sea and 3 miles from the Spanish border. We are in the heart of the historical Catalogne, in the southernmost part of the Roussillon where the Pyrénées creates natural boundaries between France and Spain (the Albera Massif, where Jean-François’s vineyards are, became the official boundary between France and Spain in 1659 with the Pyrénées Treaty signed when Louis XIV took control of the French Roussillon from Philippe IV of Spain.) This is a traditional winemaking region dating back to the Romans. The hillsides of the commune used to be covered with head-pruned vines, the fruits of which were sold until the 1980s to the local cooperative. But today, these slopes are overrun by bushes, the vineyards relocated down from the slopes to the flat land to allow for the use of machines, and the co-op business died. The rising costs, the laborious nature of farming, and the changing taste preferences of the residents led to the disappearance of older independent vignerons. This painful reality became a blessing for Jean-François as he could buy his property for very little money. He was not the only one. Alain Castex was the first to arrive in the area, years before Jean-François, Bruno Duchêne and Jean-Louis Tribouley also started their domain thanks to the cheap price of land. It was thought that no one wanted to break his or her back on the sun-drenched slopes which could not be tilled by machine. Together they would start, with Castex as their mentor, the natural wine revolution of the region (If you are interested in the subject, I suggest watching the documentary called “Wine calling: le vin se lève” by Bruno Sauvard). What is remarkable is that most of the benchmark estates of the Roussillon did not exist 30 years ago.... The potential of the region for dry unfortified wines is just being discovered!
Let’s talk about geology . The Roussillon, especially the Agly valley, has an incredibly complex geological diversity only second to Alsace (which ranks at the top by its rich volcanic soil). You can find pretty much everything from every geological age from 500 million year-old precambrian schist and gneiss, marls, sedimentary limestone, granites, to a couple of thousand years old alluvial moraines. The erection of the Pyrénées is the main reason for such diversity. With the faults and slides created during the mountain formation the resulting geology and pedology (altitude, exposure, etc.) are varied and remarkable. And if you add on top of this the diversity of grape varieties, you will understand there is not one Roussillon but multiple Roussillons, with unique identities. One common point though is the weather which enjoys more than 2600 hours of sun per year thus very little rain (we are in the driest region of France, second once again to Colmar in Alsace!). The region is also beaten by the northwestern Tramontane - a powerful dry wind. Grown on the most arid soils, the fertile ones being kept for other crops, the vines historically suffered and produced sought-after, concentrated grapes (for distillation in the making of fortified wines). Today, this is of course, a less desirable outcome. Drought and over-ripeness are a constant threat, forcing harvest to be pushed earlier and earlier. In theory though, this has a plus: very little disease pressure. But with climate cycles changing, winters becoming warmer, and greater rainfall in the spring and the early summer, the region has been invaded by powdery mildew, decimating vine flowers, leaves and fruits (this disease usually touches more humid region like Bordeaux, the Loire, etc.). 2018 and now 2020 were badly touched. The other threat the region has to fight against is the flavescence dorée, a phytoplasma carried by a leafhopper (cicadelle) destroying the leaves, the crop and the vine. By governmental order, vignerons must treat against the insect, and unfortunately there is no efficient organic treatment.
The Albera Massif is the easternmost portion of the Pyrénées. In Collioure and Banyuls, the mountains drop majestically into the Mediterrenean, revealing dark schists. The hands of men sculpted them in undulating terraces and channels ( peo de gall in catalan) to make vine cultivation possible. But 6 miles inland, you will find, at 100 meters elevation, decomposed gneiss and granitic soils: this is one of the reasons why Jean-François chose this place. These terroirs, with lighter soils, could give lighter wines (way more than in the Agly Valley where you find Clos du Rouge Gorge, Gauby, Matassa, etc.). And with the influence of the sea especially at night, they could also give fresher ones (way more than in Banyuls). He knew it immediately after tasting wine that was made from the area, despite the low quality farming - he could sense the potential for complexity and tension.
So the estate started in 2002 with 9 ha. Today the estate totals 20. It is composed of multiple plots, with two big islands. The vineyards on the lower, flatter part, mostly on decomposed sandier soil produce lighter, quaffable, easier-to-drink cuvées (La Soif du Mal, Le Fonds de l’Air est Rouge, Octobre). On the hillside, 100 meters up, are isolated single plots: Frida, Les Vilains, Les Glaneurs, Grenache. They lie directly on the bedrock with barely any topsoil and show more density. In the valley, most of the vines are on wire - a carryover from the previous mechanisation of the region, while on the hillside, they are mostly head pruned. When Jean-François needs to replant, he only replants “en gobelet” with massale selection made at a local nursery. Not being originally from a farming family and having studied more oenology than agronomy, Jean-François thinks he still has a lot to learn. Of course he converted the vines right away to organic when he arrived, exchanged a lot with other producers of the region like Alain Casteix, Cyril Fhal, Laurence Manya-Kref from Domaine Yoyo. He is also part of the organic farming association of the department which provides researchers to assist them with specific issues. The soils are lightly worked whenever possible with a mule called “Uma." A mixed cover crop (legumes, rye, cloves, etc.) and organic composts are used to create more humus rich topsoil. Yields are low, usually between 15 to 20 hl/ha. In the cellar, things are simple but precise. The goal is to make clean, highly drinkable wines with the minimum addition possible - sulfur dioxide is typically only used for some very early bottlings. Grapes are usually chilled for 24 hours or so, cooling them down. All the cuvées of red are whole-cluster but Frida and Les Glaneurs, they are all fermented at colder temperature with spontaneous yeasts in inox or cement tanks. Jean-François keeps the juice in the tank for the carbonic maceration. It lasts between 1 to 3 weeks depending on the cuvée, then they are blended if needed (between different grapes harvested at different times for example.) Most are then aged in larger used barrels to stabilize them. Aging is short, usually most of the wines are bottled before the summer, by hand at the estate without fining or filtration. For the white and the rosé, the grapes are directly pressed and vinified only in tank to preserve the freshness. Jean-François does not make wines to be kept 20 years before being drunk. He wants people to enjoy them almost right away after bottling or within a few years.
What about the vintage? 2019 was a warm vintage with hot spells at the end of June/July (with days above 43°C). Fortunately two rains at the end of July and mid August saved the vintage. He harvested very early in the second half of August, to preserve more freshness. In the end, it is a lovely vintage showing good fruit and gentle tannins, to drink within two years or so.
Finally a note on the names. When Jean-François bought the property with his childhood friend, Bijan Mohamadi, a mathematics teacher at Montpellier University, they wanted to pay tribute to the activism of their youth and to one of their favorite authors, Fréderic Fajardie who wrote a series of neorealist political fictions called “Les Foulards Rouges” - "The Red Scarves." Most of the cuvées are named after movies they were inspired by. The original labels were designed by a friend of Thierry Puzelat. They started to change with Octobre, which was designed by Jean-François’ daughter.
Thanks Jean-François for the discussion, and congrats again on the 2019 line-up. Pascaline Lepeltier.
Frida is part of the vineyard-designated cuvées. It comes from 3 small parcels (40 ares) of 100 year-old co-planted Carignan with Grenache Noir, Gris and Blanc on the bottom of the hillside. The head-pruned vines grow on deep sands. They are harvested and vinified together: chilled on arrival, they are destemmed then macerated at 15C temperature in tank without pigeage nor remontage in order to preserve the freshness. Jean-François used to make a carbonic maceration but it was enhancing too much the alcohol to his taste. Free-run and press juices are blended then aged in 500 liter used barrels before being bottled by hand in the beginning of Spring without any SO2 addition. On the nose, this is one of the most discreet cuvées of the 2019 line up, a little reduced first yet compelling and complex: it is full of elderberries, maraschino cherries, beach plum berry and herbs - myrtle and marjoram, with just a light sensation of Mediterranean sun. On the palate this is the most structured, densest wine without a doubt, with the spine of the old vines shining through: there is a great balance with the lightness of the extraction and the precise tannins. The aromas are more herbal and mineral, with notes of thyme, grain of paradise, blood orange zest, iron and graphite. I enjoyed it over the week: the wine held up very well, and found it's bouquet really after 24 hours. I think you could keep it 5 years and still have this freshness - don't hesitate to decant, it can be served slightly chilled (14-16C), enjoyed by itself but if you can drink it with some pastilla of pigeon, dates and plum, or a swordfish with romesco and black garlic you should have a great time! 50% Carignan 50% Grenache Noir-Gris-Blanc. Pascaline Lepeltier.
2019 Foulards Rouges Grenache, written in Arabic, is from a parcel of 100 year-old head-pruned vines on sandy gravel soils over granite. Hand-haversted, the grapes are chilled on arrival, macerated whole-cluster at 15C temperature in tank without pigeage nor remontage in order to preserve the freshness. Free-run and press juices are blended than aged in 500 liters barrels (used) before being bottled by hand beginning of Spring without any SO2 addition. The Arabic spelling was made by Jean-François's mom who started to learn the language: he found it beautiful and thought it was a great way to name this cuvée. On the nose, this cuvée is the most open and exuberant, with intense sun-kissed pomegranate, rose and lilac aromas, combined with sweeter, salted caramel hints, and a touch of raspberry preserve. The palate is rounder and softer, with upfront strawberry, red cherry marmalade and red plum. The oak is felt a little more than usual on this vintage with soft Bourbon vanilla hints. Acidity is there, just hidden now behind the flesh. The finish is on sapid, licorice like tannins. If you can give this wine 1 or 2 months it will come together no doubt. Otherwise pair it with smoked pork short ribs or an eggplant ragout seasoned with Moroccan spice, with a quick decant, served in a medium-size glass around 16-18C. 100% Grenache. Pascaline Lepeltier.
Les Foulards Rouges "La Soif du Mal" is one of the emblematic wines of the domain. As most of the cuvées, the name is a tribute to a movie, in this case Orson Wells' "Touch of Evil." In 2019, it is a blend of different plots of Grenache (5-year old vines on the hillside, 10-year old on the bottom part) with 20% of 60-year old Mourvèdre coming from a newly acquired plot also on the bottom of the hillside. Hand-harvested, the grapes are chilled on arrival, then vinified whole-cluster for 15 days at low temperature in carbonic maceration. All the free run and press juices are blended, then the wine is aged for 6 months in cuve before being bottle by hand without any fining, filtration or SO2. The nose is at first a little shy, then after 30 minutes, opens up on exuberant patchouli, lilac, coriander seed notes enhanced by some blueberry and vine peach hints. The palate is darker and chewier than expected, without losing its delicacy - I would put this on the Mourvèdre. It adds also some black raspberry, rose water, leathery and smokey notes, balancing very well the volubility of the Grenache. I picked up a little dissolved CO2 at opening so if you don't care for it decant or serve it in a larger glass. The wine held up very well over a couple of days. Enjoy it with roasted duck breast, cranberry and coriander seed jus or with beet carpaccio seasoned with pistachio oil and grapefruit zest. 80% Grenache, 20% Mourvèdre. Pascaline Lepeltier.
Les Foulards Rouges "Le Fond de l'Air est Rouge" is made from 80 year-old Cinsault vines grown on sandy granite soils giving yields of 25hl/ha on the bottom of the hillside of Montesquieu-des-Abères. Like most of the wines, the cuvée is a tribute to a movie, here a 4 hour documentary by Chris Marker about the rise of the "New Left" in the world (its US name is "A Grin without a Cat".) Hand-harvested, the grapes are chilled on arrival, then vinified whole-cluster for 7 days at low temperature in carbonic maceration with wild yeasts. The free run and press juices are blended, then the wine is aged for 6 months in cuve before being bottle by hand without any fining, filtration or SO2. Cinsault is still an under-appreciated grape variety: mostly planted and used today to make insipid rosés, the grape can really produced delightful, light reds without being thin or simple. Jean-François loves Cinsault but surprisingly you found very little in this part of the Languedoc-Roussillon (probably because it has no color, no high potential alcohol and it is sensitive to rot). So when he found these vines he jumped on them. If you like Cantillon Kriek, the nose is all about it: sour red cherry, raspberry, fresh hop, wild rose. But the palate is definitely a delicious, uplifting wine, with its light structure and its spine of acidity. You pick a bit of crab apple and green curry. Natural wine fans will love this wine, but more classic drinkers will also enjoy it for its savory quaffability. Chill it a bit - 16C -, serve it in a medium size glass and enjoy it with a celery, green apple and pine-nut salad dressed with apple vinegar, or a Thai green curry with halibut. 100% Cinsault. Pascaline Lepeltier.
Les Foulards Rouges "Glaneurs" comes from a single vineyard planted in 1970. It is 100% Grenache grown on the decomposed granite hillside, giving yields of 15 hl/ha. The name is a tribute to a French documentary made by Agnès Varda,"Les Glaneurs et la Glaneuse" ("The Gleanears and I" in the US.) Hand-harvested, the grapes are chilled on arrival, then vinified 50% de-stemmed, 50% in whole-cluster carbonic, both macerated for 3 weeks with wild yeasts. The free run and press juices are blended, then the wine is aged for 6 months in used barels before being bottled by hand without any fining, filtration or SO2. This is the most aromatic Grenache of the line up right now, with heady red and purple flower, pink peppercorn-strawberry jam, vine peach, darjeeling tea and much more. On the palate, consider it a Beaujolais of the south. You pick up some aromas from the carbonic maceration - strawberry, a little varnish - but then it is all about rhubarb marmalade, tangerine zest, dates, Mediterranean spices. It is tarter and a little dirtier on the finish, but over a week the palate cleaned and softened up. The tannins are ripe and gentle. Keep it 2-3 years or enjoy today slightly chilled in a medium-sized glass with a beet, arugula and hazelnut salad with raspberry vinegar dressing or a black lentils stew with Lebanese spices. 100% Grenache. Pascaline Lepeltier.
Les Foulards Rouges "Les Vilains" usually comes from one single plot of 80 year-old Carignan on the sandy granitic hillside of Montesquieu-des-Abères but because of the heat wave Jean-François Nicq added 20% of Grenache in 2019. It took a long time for him to make the wine as he wished: Carignan is a beautiful but complicated grape which tends to reduce, and if fermentation stops can develop a lot of brett aromas. Adding Grenache helps the fermentation and makes the wine less reduced. Using carbonic maceration helps too. Hand-harvested, chilled, the whole-cluster grapes undergo a carbonic maceration at low temperature (15C) for 2 weeks or so. The free run and press juice are blended then aged in used barrels until beginning of Spring. The wine is bottled by hand, unfined and unfiltered with no added SO2. "Les Vilains" has the most opulent nose of the line-up, full of red and black currant, sloe berries, roasted dark spices, nutmeg and pepper finishing with leather and smoked meat. The palate has the typical acid tension of the Carignan, with its blue fruit vibrancy, as well as its typical reduction, faintly in this release, and its angular tannins - clove, musk and roasted Provençal herbs. It is a quite a fresh and crunchy red for the Roussillon. A good decant will be a plus if you drink today - it can also be kept 2-3 years. This wine would be delicious with a Ruben sandwich, or any type of hearty charcuterie. 80% Carignan, 20% Grenache. Pascaline Lepeltier.
Les Foulards Rouges "Soif du Mal" Blanc is usually a blend of 40% Muscat petits grains, 30% Muscat Alexandrie and 30% Macabeu grown on the flatter part of Montesquieu-des-Albères on decomposed sandy granitic soils giving yields of 20 hl/ha. Because of the heat wave in 2019 the blend changed to 80% Alexandrie and 20% Macabeu: the Muscat Alexandrie direct press, fermented in cuve with wild yeasts, no added SO2, aged four months in cuve. To preserve the freshness, Jean-François stopped using oak for this cuvée, and tries to pick earlier (he knows how easily acidity can drop for this terroir). This cuvée has a beautiful nose, between white peach, lemongrass, limoncello, yuzu zest and freesia. The Muscat aromas are all nuanced. The palate is really fresh, with a bright zesty acidity finishing with a touch of quinine bitterness. The finish was a little blurry at opening, but it opened up over a couple of days: the wine was at its best on day 3, clean, full of orange blossom water, fenugreek and marzipan. Don't hesitate to decant the wine and serve it in all-purpose white wine glass not too cold. Pair it with sea bream ceviche, salicorn and yuzu, or some fried zucchini blossoms served with an aïoli. 80% Muscat d'Alexandrie, 20% Macabeu. Pascaline Lepeltier.
Les Foulards Rouges "Soif du Mal" Rosé is made with Syrah, Grenache and Carignan grown on a lower part of Montesquieu-des-Abères on sandy decomposed granite soils giving yields of 30 hl/ha. Hand-harvested, chilled grapes are directly pressed, fermented at low temperature (15C) with wild yeasts with no added SO2, aging in 5 year-old foudres. The wine is bottled at the beginning of the Spring by hand with no fining and filtration. With its pink salmon color, you know this rosé will have a little body and structure, but you don't expect so much bracing freshness: with a lot of rhubarb and pink grapefruit acidity, a hint of bitterness, almost no tannins, it is a highly drinkable wine. The nose needs a little bit of aeration though, so don't hesitate to quick decant. It will reveal more fresh herbs, fresh pepper, and pomegranate. Drink this wine this summer in an all-purpose glass not too cold, it will be perfect with a tomato and watermelon panzanella or grilled sardines, salted butter, rye bread and lemon preserve. Pascaline Lepeltier.