Pas de L’Escalette
Natives of northern France, Julien Zernott and his wife, Delphine Rousseau, wanted less intense winters and brutally hot summers so they headed south to fulfill their life dream of having vineyards and making wine. Before establishing Pas de l’Escalette, Julien went to wine school in Dijon and capped his work experience with five years in the Loire Valley in the Menetou-Salon cellar, Domaine Henry Pellé. Together Julien and Delphine craft some of the most precise and unexpectedly elegant, organic and biodynamically farmed wines in the Languedoc.
Delphine was working in the south and she met Julien when he was working at Henry Pelle. They had little money so they had to go somewhere where they could afford to start something. Through the years of commuting from the Loire Valley to the Languedoc (where Delphine lived) they passed through through the Pégairolles Valley, and they knew that was the place. They found eight hectares of vines for sale in 2003, bought them and five years later they quit their jobs and went all in on their life project.
The philosophy at Escalette is simply to focus on farming their vineyards as naturally as possible using organic and biodynamic methods, and do as little as possible in the cellar, save for a severe triage when the grapes arrive and precision with their winemaking. They use a minimal amount of sulfites in their wines (no more than 30mg/l, or 30 parts per million total in their reds and a touch more for the whites) and allow them to finish both fermentations without the help of enological products. Sulfites are employed only at the time of bottling so the wine has time to define its personality during its aging process without the abrupt redirection sulfites can impose during this time.
They eschew the use of new oak and use large older wood barrels and tanks to help sculpt their wines grown on limestone and clay soils; they use a range of wood vessels from 500 liter barrels, 20 hectoliter foudre and 40 hectoliter vertical wooden tanks. In 2018 also they added cement vats to the mix with the intention to further protect the high-toned fruit qualities that their cool climate yields—a stark contrast to the majority of wines grown in the Languedoc, which are often dense, sun-soaked reds and usually uninspiring whites.
The focal red grapes at their estate are Grenache, Syrah, Carignan, Cinsault and a tiny proportion of Mourvedre, a grape that is more commonly grown in the hotter areas of the south of France due to its need for a long growing season. (In fact, the only Mourvedre on their property was mistakenly sold to them as Cinsault for one of their new vineyard, Les Frieys. But they liked the result of its contribution to the final wine and decided to keep it.) The whites are principally Carignan Blanc, Terret Bourret (an acid beast of a white grape and the backbone of their minerally white Clapas wine) and Grenache Blanc. The principal grapes they use have a natural affinity to demonstrate bright fruit qualities when grown in cooler climates and are fantastic transmitters of terroir specificity—all defining features of the Escalette style.
Delphine and Julien maintain more than twenty hectares of vineyards on their thirty-four hectares of land. The age of their vines runs from newly planted to more than eighty years old. All of their new plantings are massale selections and the vines are head trained (also called gobelet).
The Languedoc is a massive swath of vineyard land responsible for the greatest volume of wine production between all of France’s wine departments. With such a massive quantity of land there is a lot of diversity in soil type, microclimate and of course, wine quality.
The Terrasses du Larzac, where Escalette’s vineyards are located, is an exceptional terroir within the Languedoc; it would be too gross a generalization to lump it into the same category of wines from this extensive region with vineyards often fully exposed to an all day supply of sun on softly undulating hills and flatlands. It’s on the northern fringes of the region and nearly a complete contrast, save for the amount of daylight it receives and its geographical location. While it has a few less sunny days than areas further south and away from the Massif Central, it’s more mountainous, with steeper hills and cliffs with vineyards between 300 and 450 meters in altitude and a much cooler climate.
Inside small valleys located between a series of plateaus (known here as the Causses) the vines don’t see the same amount of direct sunlight as those on the fully exposed plains closer to the Mediterranean Sea. The diurnal shift—difference between night and day temperatures—is more dramatic due to the altitude and cold winds from the Massif Central. These factors influence the need to plant specific varietals from genetic material more suitable for this terroir and often on precise aspects within the valley to insure balanced maturity. For example, within the Pégairolles de l’Escalette and Lauroux valleys, where all of Escalette’s vineyards are located, all of the white grapes are planted facing east to catch the first rays of morning sun; this is also to avoid being scorched later in the day as the sun sets during the long, dry and hot summer days of the south.
Geologically speaking, this zone is different from most of the Languedoc. It’s a convergent point of many geological periods, making it a hot spot for geological research. The Larzac’s Jurassic limestone bedrock—depositions from the same period as those found in Burgundy’s Côte d’Or and the Jura—is uniquely distinguishable from the limestone that covers much of the Languedoc. This Jurassic stone is highly active with calcium, while the limestone within regions like Minervois are hard and have little to offer the vine outside of the grain and drainage of the soils. In the Larzac the wines express strong attributes that Delphine describes as “fresh, salty and minerally characteristics that are like licking the cold limestone from the vineyards.”
Most of the vineyards in the Pégairolles de l’Escalette and Lauroux are planted on terraces separated by stone piles (called clapas) or stone walls; not with single or double vine rows per terrace but rather medium acre-sized (or less) relatively flat terraces with a small community of vines that are usually accessible for tractors. The topsoil is meters deep before arriving at bedrock and are well drained due to the mix of stones that break up the clay. -TV