Before Chateauneuf … (A History of Lirac)

Lirac galetLirac’s 1,700 acres of vineyard are essentially the other half of Chateauneuf du Pape. Lirac sits on the West bank of the Rhone River, opposite Chateauneuf.

The climate and subsoil are essentially identical to Chateauneuf, and – like Chateauneuf – most of the vineyards are covered in large, rounded stones called “galet” left behind by the Rhone when it filled the entire valley in ancient times.

First Wines for the French Pope
When the Papacy arrived in Avignon in the early 1300s and began searching out sources of wine for communion and celebration, Lirac was quickly identified as the source of the very finest wine in the region. We know that Pope Innocent IV paid a premium for the 20 casks of Lirac he purchased in 1357.

Even after the Pope’s returned to Rome, Lirac’s fame as the Rhone’s best wine continued to grow. Both King Henry IV (late 1500s) and Louis XIV (1600s-early 18th Century) regularly served Lirac at their courts. From Lirac’s river port of Roquemaure, the region’s red wine reached England and Holland by the late 1500s and by the end of the 1700s Lirac was, as the Oxford Companion to Wine explains, “a much more important wine center than Chateauneuf du Pape.”

In History: The Southern Rhone’s Premier Wine Region
With high demand came the temptation for fraud, and unscrupulous winemakers throughout the Rhone – including in Chateauneuf – often tried to pass their “inferior” wines off as Lirac. To help stamp out this fraud, in 1737 the king of France ordered that casks shipped from Roquemaure should be branded “CDR” – for Cotes du Rhone – as a sign that they were authentic and of the highest quality.

Lirac MapLirac thrived as the Southern Rhone’s premier wine region right up until the 1860s. By the end of the 1870s, though, the vines were almost all gone and the economy in ruins. When Rhone wines began to return to fame and fortune after WWII, it was Chateauneuf that took the lead with Lirac only gradually recovering as a source of everyday rosé priced below the better known wines of neighboring Tavel.

Phylloxera, Economic Crisis, and War …
What happened? A large part of the blame falls to an unnamed winemaker at Lirac’s Château de Clary. In a well-meaning experiment with native American grape vines imported from California, he introduced the North American vine louse called phylloxera toLirac’s vineyards in 1863. Own-rooted European grapes had no resistance to the pest, and soon vines across the region began to wither and die. Phylloxera eventually spread across all of Europe, cutting wine production by 50-80% as it expanded until growers discovered how to defeat it by grafting European vinifera vines onto American lambrusca root stock.

Lirac, like the rest of the Rhone Valley, began to replant and recover at the beginning of the 20th Century, only to be set back by economic crisis, WWI, and increased competition for everyday red wine from Algeria and the South of France. As in neighboring Chateauneuf, growers began banding together in the 1930s to establish quality standards and promote their region. But, while Chateauneuf was able to complete the process and achieve legal recognition for its rules and “brand” by 1937, Lirac moved more slowly and was unable to complete the process before WWII brought an end to wine region creation. “Lirac” didn’t receive its formal recognition until 1947.

With its head start, better marketing, and – perhaps – decision to ban rosé in the appellation, Chateauneuf steadily improved its reputation and demand throughout the mid-20th Century. With more demand came higher prices, and with higher prices came the ability to invest further in quality in the vineyard and winery. Lirac growers lagged and increasingly turned to less expensive rosé wines that could be made in large quantities and turned into cash immediately after the vintage. By the 1980s, Lirac was best known in the wine world as a source of everyday red Cotes du Rhone and as a good value alternative to the more expensive pink wines from neighboring Tavel.

Recapturing Lirac’s Potential
Fortunately for us, several vigneron continued to understand Lirac’s potential and were willing to invest and take risks to return the region to fine wine status.

Christophe Delorme at Domaine de la Mordoree, Henri de Lanzac of Chateau de Segries, and Alain Jaume of Grand Venuer led the charge and, today, these three remain benchmark producers who are helping to return Lirac to the fame it once held.

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