Adventures in my wine cellar (and in France): Domaine Clavel

Pierre Clavel farms grapes organically in several spots in eastern Languedoc, mostly in the dramatic setting of the Pic Saint Loup appellation. His wines are great examples of the taste of the south – sunny and savory, but with wonderful balance and freshness. We visited him at the domaine in Assas last spring.

Pierre Clavel in his tasting room in Assas. (Photo by Steve Jankowski)

Clavel, a winemaker since 1986, is a friendly and engaging guy. When my husband spied a 1977 Deux Chevaux – the Citroen 2CV, a classic French economy car that’s no longer made — behind a garage door and asked to look at it, Clavel offered us a ride. (Clavel says he takes the car “on the smaller roads” when he goes on vacation.) He opened the roll-back canvas sunroof and took us on a drive around the property surrounding the winery, with its organic vineyards, olives and wheat.

Clavel took me and my husband (behind the camera) on a drive in his 1977 Deux Chevaux. (Photo by Steve Jankowski)

After the quick tour, we returned to the cellar for a brief walk-through. Clavel showed off a concrete egg – “for the white, it’s incredible,” he said. But when I told him that concrete eggs are getting more popular in California, he laughed and said, “Merdre! We’ll have to invent something else.”

Pic Saint Loup reds – most of the area’s production is red – must be a minimum of 50 percent syrah, with a portion of grenache and/or mourvèdre. A few other grapes, including carignan, are permitted. Despite its popularity elsewhere in Languedoc, Clavel says, “in the Pic Saint Loup, carignan is not the best grape.”

One of Clavel’s best-known wines is not from Pic Saint Loup but from the stony soils of La Méjanelle, an area near the sea, east of the city of Montpellier. And that brings us to my wine cellar, in which a bottle of 1990 Domaine Clavel La Méjanelle resided until recently. I opened it the other day. The cork was in great shape – good sign. The color, which was browning a bit, reflected the wine’s age. And at first, the wine also exhibited the aromas and flavors of a wine that was perhaps a little past its prime. But the red fruit really started to emerge as the wine sat in the glass, and the finish was silky-smooth. All in all, a good showing.

Clavel’s red from La Méjanelle now is called Copa Santa. During my visit, I tasted the 2014; the 2013 is currently available in the States and sells for about $27. The 2014 – which is mostly syrah, with a little grenache — is concentrated and savory, with the nuances you would expect in a cool-climate syrah: pepper, smoke, roasted meat. It finishes with firm tannins.

A few of Domaine Clavel’s wines besides Copa Santa are sold here. The 2016 Mescladis Rosé ($12) from Pic Saint Loup is a blend of syrah and grenache that’s very refreshing with red berry fruit and a persistent finish. The 2015 Les Garrigues ($17), which carries a Coteaux du Languedoc appellation, is a blend of syrah, carignan and grenache that spends no time in oak. The wine is quite peppery, with plenty of bright red fruit and medium tannins. (The current release in the States is the 2014.) “Garrigues,” by the way, refers to the scrubby, aromatic wild herbs and bushes that grow throughout Languedoc and seem to perfume the wines.

Clavel’s 2014 Bonne Pioche ($20) from Pic Saint Loup is a blend of syrah, grenache and mourvèdre; it’s spicy and dark, with a lot of freshness. (The 2011 appears to be the currently available vintage here, so it’s unclear whether the 2014 will make it to these shores. Sorry.)

If you find yourself in Assas, which is a pleasant drive north of Montpellier, you can visit the estate for wine tasting. (Clavel makes several wines that aren’t imported into the U.S., including a lovely white called Cascaille.) The estate is open 2-7 p.m. Monday-Saturday. More information can be found here.