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Historical conflicts have influence on winemaking today

| Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Minerve and Gigondas, ancient villages in southern France's vast swath of Mediterranean vineyards, offer enthralling tranquility amid the rugged beauty of spectacular natural settings. But delving into the villages' histories reveals dramatic, conflict-laden pasts with direct bearing on winemaking.

Located in the Hérault department of the Languedoc-Roussillon region, Minerve sits atop a sheer gorge over the River Cesse. Today a tall, stone-arch bridge allows Minerve's 122 residents to drive home, but visitors must walk into the village.

Before the bridge, the walled village enjoyed a naturally strong defensive position. So, in 1210, the Cathars, branded as heretics by the Catholic Church, chose Minerve as one of their last refuges.

Even without unified catechism, many Cathar beliefs directly challenged Roman Catholicism's authority. For example, Cathars embraced sacred texts other than the New Testament, rejected the sacraments of marriage and Eucharist and favored women playing leadership roles alongside men.

They viewed “resurrection” akin to Buddhist “reincarnation.” To prevent reincarnation to a corrupt world, Cathars taught asceticism involving abstaining from worldly pleasures — including, presumably, the pleasures of the grape — in favor of spiritual pursuits.

In 1209, Catholic Church crusaders massacred an estimated 20,000 Cathars in nearby Béziers, while about 140 Cathars retreated to Minerve. An ensuing six-week siege featured the use of trebuchets, massive counterweight slings capable of hurling 350 pound rocks into the village.

Undermining the fresh-water supply eventually caused Minerve's militia and citizens to surrender, thus leaving the defenseless Cathars to be captured and burnt at the stake. Lingering Cathar remnants over the next century could no longer challenge the Catholic Church and its monasteries.

Later, monastic orders excelled in cultivating vineyards throughout the Languedoc including around Minerve. The legacy today continues with the increasingly well-respected Minervois appellation, a jurisdiction encompassing 10,500 acres and 45 villages including Livinière and Minerve.

The region's terroir creates ideal grape-growing conditions. Persistent winds prevent diseases and molds. Warm, sunny days give way to cool nights to regulate ripening and retain fresh acidity. Meanwhile, predominant gravel, clay and limestone soils give the fruit fresh mineral notes. Stands of wild lavender, thyme and rosemary add exotic herbal aromas.

The L'Oustal Blanc “K10” Vin Francais, France (Luxury 36287; $15.99 — available at Penn Circle South and McIntyre Square stores only) offers a terrific introduction to the regional style. Winegrower Claude Fonquerle hand picks carignan fruit from old, head pruned vines in Minervois and in neighboring St. Chinian vineyards.

After careful sorting prior to fermentation, most of the grapes ferment and age in cement vats. A small portion ages in used, large barrels for five months before bottling.

The dark, ruby colored wine unfolds ripe red and black fruit with floral lavender hints. Ripe, round plum and dark berry flavors balance with terrific fresh acidity and silky, smooth tannins.Highly recommended.

In the heart of Provence, Gigondas nestles below the striking presence of the Dentelles des Montmirail, a brilliant white ridge of massive vertical limestone. The village's ancient stone houses hug steep and narrow cobbled streets snaking down to the quiet main square. The perch provides a breathtaking view of a sea of vines unfurling on rolling, stony plains below the village.

Little seems to have changed since the Roman era in the first century when retired legionnaires settled in Gigondas to plant vines and live the peaceful good life in Provence. In fact, in Latin the village name of “Jucunditas” signifies joy.

But not far away from Gigondas, little more than 150 years earlier, the predecessors of those same legionnaires fought a monumental, bloody battle with the Cimbri and Teutones tribes. Rivalry between Roman commanders undermined coordination resulting in an initial devastating defeat.

It took until 35 B.C. for the Romans to vanquish the tribes completely and then found what today has become the modern city of Orange. While building an amphitheater, public baths, a public forum and religious temples, a thirst for local wines emerged. Villages such as Gigondas put down deep winegrowing roots extending to modern days.

For a terrific traditional example, enjoy the 2011 Domaine de Cayron Gigondas, France (48191; $34.99), a delicious, intriguingly aromatic vin de terroir blending grenache, syrah and mourvèdre. Highly recommended.

Dave DeSimone writes about wine for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at

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