'A great drinker's wine': why it's time to buy bottles from Lirac on the right bank of the Rhône

Vineyards in Lirac
A geography lesson brought home the fact this Rhône cru deserves to be better recognised Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

It’s certainly a striking view. We are standing on a plateau in the Rhône cru of Lirac, basking in September sunshine, with the territory laid out before us as clearly as if on a map. “Here you’re on the Villafranchian terrace,” says Rodolphe de Pins, president of the local winemakers’ association and the owner and winemaker of Château de Montfaucon, indicating the large, rounded, reddish stones deposited here between one and three million years ago by the mighty, roving river Rhône.

I’ve come to Lirac because I’ve been drinking and enjoying its wines for years, and had slowly become aware that, while this is a part of France I’ve visited often, I didn’t have a clear idea of what gives the region its DNA. The geography lesson I’m about to get is a large part of it.

“Look straight north,” de Pins points into the hazy distance, “and you go to Hermitage or Côte Rôtie. Further round we can see three hills and the village of Séguret like a scarf in front.” Close by the white limestone crags of the Dentelles de Montmirail stand out against the blue sky, acting like markers for Gigondas and Vacqueyras. The conical cyclist-terrorising slopes of Mont Ventoux rise up beside them. And the Luberon extends out to the south.

As for Châteauneuf-du-Pape, that’s, “just there,” says de Pins with a twitch of his faded, coral-tomato Aertex, “Just across the river. We have exactly the same soils as Châteauneuf – the galets roulés [those large, rounded stones], sand and limestone.”

Just across the river. When talking about the Rhône we usually parse it into north (for the serious syrah) and south (for the grenache-based blends) so the distinction between right and left banks isn’t immediately obvious. In the southern Rhône, the more familiar wine (and holiday) names are on the left bank: Châteauneuf, Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Rasteau (and Avignon, Orange with its immense Roman amphitheatre, Mont Ventoux and countless holiday villages set among the sweet-smelling, olive-strewn scrub).

Lirac’s position on the right bank, adjacent to Tavel (known for its deep pink wines) was once an advantage, says de Pins, “In the 16th and 17th centuries, Lirac was more famous than Châteauneuf-du-Pape because of the dynamics of the river port of Roquemaure, from which the wine was shipped.” Now perhaps its point of difference helps to seed confusion – we expect it to taste like all the other southern Rhône wines but it doesn’t.

Lirac is one of the older Rhône crus, established in 1947. “At the beginning, because of the proximity to Tavel, a lot of rosé was made here,” says de Pins. Now most – 85 per cent – of lirac production is red, with about 10 per cent white (and growing) and five per cent pink. And while the likes of gigondas and vacqueyras are usually redolent of soft, ripe red berries, lirac is usually more on the black fruit with skeins of black liquorice. This difference could be because there’s often a good wallop of feral mourvèdre alongside the grenache and syrah in the blend, but I also notice a qualitative difference in the taste of grenache grown here. It makes for a darker-tasting wine.

The Lirac name has been something of an issue over the years. “One person thought I said I made wines in Iraq,” said one producer with a roll of his eyeballs. It is more frequently mixed up with the Bordeaux commune of Listrac. However, the name is becoming better known thanks to a combination of more dynamic producers and a genuine improvement in quality.

De Pins is one of those who has done a lot to improve the visibility of the appellation. He is also a flag-bearer for quality. Lirac can be a very heavy, thick wine but the Château de Montfaucon reds are notably elegant. Still, even he admits that when he began bottling wine – rather than selling off grapes to the local cooperative – at his ancestral property in 1995 he did not use the lirac designation, labelling his first wines as lirac in 2010.

Other impressive producers in this area include Domaine Coudoulis (the owner of the estate used to work in concrete and construction materials, then fancied a change of profession; I like the 2016 Hommage); Domaine Maby; Domaine de la Mordorée; Domaine des Carabiniers; Domaine d’Arbousset and Domaine du Joncier.

Notably, many producers in Châteauneuf have bought land here in recent years, attracted by the quality potential and the fact that the price per hectare is many multiples lower than it is in Châteauneuf. One of these is Ogier, which makes the very good Les Closiers Lirac 2017 France (14.5%, M&S, £10) – all blueberries and black liquorice.

Another is Domaine Alain Jaume. “Most are buying land from the older generation of cooperative producers who want to stop and sell up,” says consultant winemaker Gérald Lafont. “But we could also grow this appellation – there’s a big potential.”

For the time being, though, it’s a great drinker’s wine – and still slightly undervalued.

Lirac wines of the week

Domaine des Carabiniers Lirac Lunar Apoge 2018, France

(13.5%, Davy’s, £18.50)

A family winery – father, son and daughter all work here – that has an impassioned commitment to looking after the planet. At Carabiniers they have been working organically since 1997 and certified in biodynamics for the past 10 years. This red is delicious – softly fruity and relaxed. Davy’s is still on the 2017, which is also recommended, the 2018 will come in on the next order.

Domaine Maby La Fermade Rouge 2016, France

(14.5%, Yapp, £14.25)

Dark, deep and slightly redolent of farmyards, this is a lirac for a cold night and a rich stew. The 2017 that will eventually follow is a very different wine – thanks to problems with the 2017 grenache harvest 80 per cent of the blend (as opposed to 50 per cent in 2016) is syrah and mourvèdre, which bring more crispness and a finer structure. I actually love the 2017. Richard Maby, the winemaker, looks downcast and says the 2016 is “more lirac”. Both are good.

Chateau de Mont-faucon Baron Louis Lirac 2015, France

(14.5%, Haynes, Hanson & Clark, £16.35/18.15 mixed case/single bottle price)

The lirac made by Rodolphe de Pins is notably elegant for a red lirac – he cites burgundy as an influence – combining dark berry flavours with freshness and finesse.