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Lirac AOC Is in Its ‘Fresh’ Era and Ready To Take on Climate Change

Lirac AOC Is in Its ‘Fresh’ Era and Ready To Take on Climate Change

Lirac AOC

Lirac AOC wines of today are different from those in 1947. When the appellation became an official Rhône Valley cru, “Winegrower’s choices were maybe less assertive with simpler wines,” says Hélène Jaume, who runs Alain Jaume with her two brothers, Christophe and Sebastian. 

With origins in Châteauneuf-du-Pape since 1826, Jaume’s lineage focused on farming for over a century. Her parents were the first in the family to vinify a vintage in 1978 and later expanded to the rocky terroir of Lirac in 2002. 

“Now, in Lirac, winegrowers make more qualitative choices,” Jaume adds, exploring the dichotomy of the area’s identity then versus now. “They talk more about the potential of the terroir.”

Terroir. One of the most overused terms in wine. But the only one that can distinctly define the unique characteristics of Lirac AOC. From the Mistral wind to the surrounding woods, they contribute to the “fresh” identity of the region’s wines, which compete at a fraction of the price of its famous neighbor. 

“With the price increase of some appellations like Châteauneuf-du-Pape, some say Lirac is a lot more stable and probably the best value alternative in the Southern Rhône Valley,” says the co-president of Lirac AOC, François Miquel. 

Fresh, drinkable, and elegant wines are the underlying narrative of every Lirac winemaker. As one of the most underrated crus of the Southern Rhône, however, it’s not the quality of its wines or the $20-$40(ish) price tag that underscores its potential. It’s the fact that Lirac is ideal to face climate change head-on. 

Climate Change and Lirac AOC Grapes

The Lirac appellation lies 9 miles (15 km) northwest of Avignon, on the right bank of the Rhône. Despite its proximity to the river, temperatures are rising.

“Over the recent years, we have noticed that winters are not as cold and summers are warmer,” explains Rodolphe de Pins, owner and winemaker of Château de Montfaucon. “We’re getting more days over 95°F (35°C), and we have seen more heat waves, lasting 5 to 10 days. 20 years ago, we barely had any; it was exceptional to go over that temperature for 1 or 2 days.”

Lirac AOC

The need for adaptation becomes more pressing with the increasing changes in weather. Ambre Delorme, co-proprietor of Domaine de la Mordorée, emphasizes this, stating, “As climatic hazards intensify, winegrowers must support their vines.” Part of that support includes increasing biodiversity and taking a pragmatic review of the region’s traditional grape varieties. 

Lirac AOC is intrinsically tied to the GSM blend, with Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre on center stage. “We think Grenache is well suited to temperature increases,” states Miquel, as it typically thrives in hot, windy, and dry climates. This is particularly significant as Lirac AOC stipulates that Grenache must account for at least 60% of plantings and represent 40% of each blend composition. This resilience to heat and dry conditions positions Grenache favorably in the face of climate change.

In contrast, “Syrah could become more challenging,” Miquel says, as it lacks depth and complexity if it doesn’t get enough water. Irrigation in Lirac AOC is limited to only four weeks of the growing season, with approval dependent on the year’s resources. 

Producers are actively diversifying their vineyard plantings in the face of water restrictions and fewer potential harvests of Syrah (and Mourvèdre, which also relies on water). Alternatives include Counoise and, according to Jaume, “Vaccarese and Cinsault because they are more resistant to drought.”

Demand for white Lirac AOC wines is also increasing, providing further paths for producers to choose from. Lirac makes 85% red wines, “but the proportion of whites is growing fast and gaining recognition for their quality,” says de Pins.

Grenache Blanc, Clairette, and Roussane comprise 73% of the region’s white grape plantings. However, Roussane (along with secondary grape Viognier) is sensitive to heat and drought, allowing opportunity for grapes like Bourboulenc, Piquepoul Blanc, Ugni Blanc, and Marsanne, which are all very adaptable and do well in multiple soil types. 

Lirac AOC Soils

Lirac AOC is home to three distinct soil types, each contributing its unique character to the wines. “Grapes have a different expression according to their soil; it doesn’t mean any will be better or less good,” says de Pins. 

The galets roulés, renowned as the hallmark of the Southern Rhône, including Châteauneuf-du-Pape, play a pivotal role. They act as a natural thermostat, absorbing heat during the day and releasing it at night, fostering ideal grape ripening conditions, especially for Grenache. They also preserve soil moisture during the crucial months of September and early October.

Lirac AOC - galets roulés soil
galets roulés with red clay undersoil

The red clay in Lirac’s undersoil is a game-changer, enriching the soil with nutrients and retaining water, a feature that sets Lirac apart from its neighbors. “In Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the undersoil temperature can vary by 46-50°F (8-10°C). In Lirac, the galets layer acts as a protective shield, similar to a cover crop,“ de Pins elaborates. 

Meanwhile, the sandy soils of the river plain offer excellent drainage, ensuring vines remain healthy and vibrant. The rocky limestone soils found in certain parcels of Lirac impart a mineral intensity to the wines, adding complexity and structure. Jaume explains, “Sand and limestone are best for Syrah and Cinsault, plus most white varieties.”

Lirac AOC - rocky limestone soil
lauze soil (rocky limestone)

These diverse soil types provide Lirac with a distinct advantage, allowing the region to adapt and thrive in the face of adversity. “These three soil types act as a club sandwich, as we can find layers from each,” says Miquel, particularly “in combination with many different exposures because we have a lot of hills and valleys.”

Biodiversity and ‘the Elements’ in Lirac

A few natural factors lend favor to Lirac wines, none more so than the Mistral wind. This powerful, cold wind originates from high-pressure systems in the north and gains speed and force as it flows through the Southern Rhône towards the Mediterranean. 

With speeds averaging 45 miles per hour (74 km), the Mistral dries vineyards quickly after rainfall, helping prevent rot. It also helps bring cool airflow through the vines, which is pertinent during heat spells. Lastly, it rids the sky of cloud cover, helping bring more ripening hours from the sun. 

The Mistral is a critical reason 29% of the cru’s vineyards are certified organic, according to Rhône Valley Vineyards key figures from 2022. 

In addition, forests surround a large proportion of the appellation; approximately 3,000 hectares of forest protect 1,200 hectares of vines. Forests also grow in the middle of the area, “like Bois de Clary (Clary Wood in English),” says de Pins, “which helps maintain biodiversity, freshness, and shade due to the humidity the trees maintain.”

A significant number of Lirac vineyard owners are not just passively benefiting from the natural environment, but actively promoting biodiversity on their properties. To help control pests and diseases naturally, “We’re preserving the forest and woods around our vineyard and planting more trees and hedges,” says de Pins, reducing the need for chemical interventions and further mitigating the impacts of climate change.

It would be easy for some producers to let Lirac’s natural attributes do the heavy lifting. But it’s clear there’s a strong winemaking community working to elevate the region’s wines on the global stage and not just survive but thrive. “We are lucky to have natural diversity, a multitude of terroirs, and a lot of forest, which protects our beautiful appellation,” concludes Delorme. 

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