Friday, September 28, 2007

Château de Caladroy

The Languedoc–Roussillon region of France runs along the Mediterranean coast, from the Pyrénées along the southern border with Spain, to the Rhône and neighboring Provence in the east. The area is blanketed with some 170,000 hectares of vineyards and produces nearly a third of the country's grapes. It is a region that has been producing wines - some of France's best wines - since vines were first planted in the 5th century B.C.

Near the town of Perpignan, in the arid hills of the southernmost part of Roussillon, lies Château de Caladroy, once a 12th-century fortress on the kingdom of Majorca's frontier and, for roughly a hundred years now, a small and relatively unknown winery. The château, begun in the late-19th century and built within the fortress walls, functioned as a tiny, self-contained city, with separate living quarters for estate workers, stables, a school and a chapel.

In about 1920, Château de Caladroy began bottling its own wines, but a devastating fire in 1923 essentially halted all production, delaying success by decades. The structures have long since been restored to working condition, but only recently have they been given a more worthy renovation, thanks to owner Michel Mezerette and estate manager Serge Maurin. Today the site serves as a unique example of a layering of medieval-through-modern architecture, constructed as needed in order to remain operable for nearly a thousand years.

Prior to the fire, the château extended along the hilltop above the olive orchard. In the distance is one of the 12th-century towers of the original fortress.

The château, nearing completion, 1902

The fall harvest, 1903

With its prime location on the Fenouillèdes hills, nearly 1,000 feet above the Mediterranean, Château de Caladroy's vineyards are continually buffeted by the warm Tramontane winds that sweep down from the mountains. The resulting wines have consistently earned high marks for their intense fruit flavors and subtle, herbal nuances. This January, Wine Spectator wrote of the 2004 Côtes du Roussillon-Villages Cuvée Saint Michel, "Ripe, rich and concentrated, with lovely raspberry, dark plum and cassis flavors. Fine-grained tannins, with luscious spice notes. Balanced and structured with a lilting finish of granache and thyme. - 88 points" Not bad for a vineyard whose wines run about $12 a bottle.

Today the vineyards have been extensively replanted, primarily with Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre grapes, but with yields of only about 25hl/ha, they remain far below the allowed 45hl/he. In 2001 the cellar was completely renovated, enabling vintner Jean-Philippe Agen (one of a recent influx of young winemakers to the region's estates) to make some terrific wines -- from Les Schistes to the Syrah-based La Juliane, to Le Saint Michel, a Mourvèdre-based cuvée. To round out the estates overall production, they also sell olive oils and jams made from (you guessed it) grapes.

But of all the treasures and surprises at Château de Caladroy, the chapel, which survived the 1923 fire, is by far the most charming. Built at the end of the 19th century, it is a quirky, if not awkward, composition of popular styles: Its Romanesque Revival exterior features low, heavy brick arches and double windows; the marble balustrade and altar are carved in a Renaissance Revival style and the wood paneling in the apse is Gothic Revival. The most modern flourish was the decoration of the stained glass windows, done in stile floreale, Italy's answer to Art Nouveau.

At Château de Caladroy, visitors will find lessons not only in vinification, but the Mediterranean climate and geography, and thousands of years of history, architecture and design. What they'll also find is a lesson in survival and the spirit of endurance, which has reigned so long at this tiny, frontier vineyard.

Château de Caladroy
66720 Belesta de la Frontiere

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