The essence of wine is people. The people who farm the land, the people who pick the grapes, the people who, with skill, experience and intuition, turn it all into the drink we all love.
Some great wines still need great people, but their identity is wound up in the wine, or the château and so forth. Not the people.
Whereas some wines can only be made be certain people. Force of personality, unstinting toil, and as much a sense of place as the wines themselves.
Colline de l'Hirondelle could not be made by anyone other than Jen and Didier.
Douzens is a small commune in the Aude, 20 kilometres east of Carcassonne. No more than 800 souls. Four of them are soon to move into a new house surrounded by their family's old vines, scattered around the Corbières hills.
Still a shell, but Jen dances around the empty rooms and makes it feel like the family home it one day will be. With an incredible view.
Jen and Didier call their 20 hectares of vineyards "the sort we look forward to seeing in the morning". In small parcels here and there, farmed by Didier's families for generations. Maybe even centuries. Local grapes like Roussanne, Grenache, Syrah and Carignan, along with curiosities such as Chenançon (a crossing of Grenache and Jurançon Noir), and the legendary Joupatière vineyard with its multifarious field blend (more of that below).
They farm organically, because among other well-meaning environmental reasons, it means Jen can "harvest delicious wild arugula and other lettuces in the vineyards, which in itself is reason enough for me to go organic!"
These are the sort of stumps Jen and Didier farm. Crazy. Decades old, straining year after year to produce another crop of fruit. Harvests small, but quality off the scale.
American girl Jen graduated from university, packed her bags and went travelling to France. Probably to find herself, or something like that, you know the sort of things kids do. Cutting a long (but lovely) story short, girl met boy, and girl stayed. That boy was Didier Ferrier, and Didier came from a family of vignerons in a little village called Douzens.
After working the vines, barrels and tanks of Spain, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Morocco, Mali and California (what, Mali??), Didier restored an old barn in the centre of Douzens (the former village inn's coach house) and they returned to his roots, in order to plant roots of their own.
Roots. Back to that people thing again. Vines have roots. Old vines have very deep roots, particularly in poor soils, the plants having to burrow farther to find nutrients. Old families have deep roots too. Didier's family has been here since the Middle Ages.
Nutrients? Jen and Didier put on quite a spread! Gratefully for our part given this was Corbières in February, the wind blowing through the wide valleys and chilling even our winter-hardened British bones. Local saucissons, fromages and charcuterie, with a bean casserole and fresh bread.
And the wines. They're pretty lovely.
Let's start with La Joupatière, because it's in the above photo with sausage serving tongs and Didier.
Colline de l'Hirondelle La Joupatière 2011
Coming from a half-hectare vineyard, the oldest in Douzens, planted towards the end of the nineteenth century. It has survived phylloxera, and thrived. But no one knows what's in it. At least, not all of it. Variously Carignan, Grenache, Cinsault, Morrastel Bouschet, Rivairenc Noir, Grand Noir de la Calmette, Mourvèdre, Terret Noir, Terret Gris, Terret Blanc, Olivette Blanche, Chasselas Doré, and three other grapes even a bona fide ampelographer can't identify.
The wine? Incredibly complex. Layered. Smoky, deep, dark, elegant black fruit, bracingly thrillingly historic in every way. Sorry to start with this, as it's all downhill from here, but the rest are properly brilliant too. 400 bottles made.
Colline de l'Hirondelle Cocolico 2011
Jen and Didier's fruitiest wine is a blend of Chenançon (40%), Grenache (40%) and Syrah (20%). The latter too we know well, the first? Peculiar. An old crossing of Jurançon Noir and Grenache, developed in a lab in Montpellier, once recommended then reviled, but if you have some old vines on your hands you've lucked out. It makes deeply coloured, strongly flavoured juice. This comes from Les Ponts vineyard, on clay-loam soil, harvested early in the morning to preserve its explosive fruit aromas. The Grenache is 30-years-old, from Coudoulet vineyard, pebbles on sandy soil. And 25-year-old Syrah is from La Bade, on sandy clay loam. Both of those picked by hand when very ripe.
Everything vinified separately. Chenançon for 5-7 days on skins. Grenache & Syrah for 15-25 days, nice and slow.
It's massive. Full of life, like the people who made it. Ripe strawberries and raspberries, long and generous. Banging juice. 5,400 bottles.
Colline de l'Hirondelle Oiseau 2011
The bird. And the spiciest, earthiest red, a blend of Carignan (55%), Grenache (25%) and Syrah (10%). The latter comes from La Bade vineyard, the Carignan is very old (89 years), and Grenache from Cambou. Clay-limestone soils. All hand-harvested when very ripe. Then all do their stuff in stainless steel.
Again dark, but unlike the fruitier approach of Cocolico, this has exotic sweet spice like cinnamon and baking spice, garrigue herbs and a mid-palate of blackberries. Tannins are fine, well integrated. Complicated, intriguing, keeps you coming back. Love it. 10,700 bottles.
Colline de l'Hirondelle Carignan "1515" 2012
Two different Carignan vineyards, two different methods. Carignan is hand-picked from L'Hirondelle vineyard (rocky sandy loam soil), its vines nearly 90-years-old, de-stemmed, crushed and fermented slowly and gently for 20 days. Carignan from Almayrac (65-year-old vines on deep sandy loam) undergoes carbonic maceration for 15 days. One-quarter of the final blend goes into a neutral oak barrel for 8 months.
Huge. From every angle. Herbs and spices, cigar box, bay leaves, very powerful and full-bodied, harnessing that intensity of noble old-vine Carignan. Blackberries, kirsch cherries. Awesome. 2,000 bottles.
Jen and Didier make beautiful wines. And you'd have to travel very far to find lovelier growers. They leave their imprint on every bottle, themselves patiently aged in that old converted barn in the centre of Douzens, never released till Jen and Didier believe they're ready to be drunk. Challenging for cash flow, but it shows how much it matters to them that their wines are drunk when ready to fly.
Comme les hirondelles.