Deep in the Languedoc, between the Cévennes Mountains to the north and Montpellier to the south, the Pic Saint Loup and its neighbor, Montagne de l’Hortus, rise majestically over the landscape, giving an impression much like that of Yosemite Valley. Seeing this area in the changing light of dawn or dusk is truly an otherworldly experience. Once a single entity, these two peaks are now separated by a narrow valley dotted with prehistoric cave dwellings carved into the limestone cliffs. Since the time of the Romans, the peaks had been a thriving area for grape production until the phylloxera epidemic of the late 19th century decimated much of the region’s vineyards. Growers replanted the low-lying plains, which were easier to farm, leaving the upper slopes to mountain climbers and goats.
When Professor of Agriculture Jean Orliac came to climb these cliffs in the early 1970s, there was an instant connection. Over time, he gave up his teaching career, and with the help of his wife, Marie-Thérèse, bought 50 hectares of wooded slopes that were in disrepair. Bringing these vineyards back to life was a task nothing short of herculean. Entire parcels were cleared out of the dense garrigue and planted to vineyards. It wasn’t until 1990 that the Orliacs were able to bottle their first vintage and shortly after build a new winery. Their hard work and dedication have put them at the forefront of a new wave of producers who have brought fresh energy and talent to the Pic Saint-Loup Coteaux du Languedoc AOC. Today, their children Marie, Yves, François and Martin run the estate.
The Languedoc is one of the most geologically diverse landscapes in France, and nowhere is that more prevalent than in Pic Saint-Loup, where fault lines differentiate vineyards from one side of the road to the other. While the predominant bedrock here is limestone, various minerals in the soil impart different qualities to the wines, so the Orliacs plant the white varietals in the white soils and red varietals in the red soils. Syrah, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are planted on the north-facing slopes, because of their preference for a more temperate climate, while Grenache, Mourvèdre and Viognier grow on the south-facing slopes because of their preference for a warmer temperature. The Orliacs aim for low yields, averaging 35 hl/ha. The wild savory, thyme and rosemary that grow around the vineyards—known as garrigue—lend their unmistakable aromas to the grapes. In addition, the breezes from the Cévennes and the diurnal temperature shifts temper the hot days with cool nights, helping to create wines of both power and finesse.
After the harvest, the reds are de-stemmed and undergo a cuvaison of 25 to 30 days. They are aged for 18 months in oak barrels before bottling. The resulting red wines have a perfect balance of the spicy, smoky Syrah and the bright fruit and floral nose of the Mourvèdre and Grenache. The whites and the rosé are pressed and the must is cooled and left to settle. Depending on the cuvee, the wines are racked into both neutral and new oak barrels, as well as stainless steel vats, where the wines undergo a 4-week-long fermentation. The whites and the rosé are then aged on their lees for eight months before release. As a result, they show bright, crisp acidity with tropical and floral aromas. The wines of Domaine de l’Hortus strike the perfect balance between fruit, acidity, tannins and alcohol. Through their long-term investment in the area, the Orliacs have set the bar high for other producers of the Pic Saint-Loup, making this one of the greatest crus of the Languedoc.