WWC23 – Alain Almes, by Robert Stanier

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In this entry to our 2023 wine writing competition, English vicar, long-standing Purple Pager and regular contributor to our Members' forum, Rev Robert Stainer writes about Alain Almes, a winemaker in Languedoc's Côtes de Thongue region. See our WWC23 guide for more.

Robert Stanier writes Robert Stanier is the vicar of St Andrew’s and St Mark’s church in Surbiton; he is married with three children. During a sabbatical in the summer of 2022, he spent a month touring the domaines of the Cotes de Thongue, a wine region buried deep in the Languedoc, and published the first ever guide to this area: www.cotesdethonguewines.co.uk. Alain Almes was one of the people he met.

There are some people who are pioneers, who think differently and are able to reshape the world as a result; there are others, who work with such precision and exactitude that their products resound at a different level from their peers; there are still others with such natural flair and talent that in their hands the impossible becomes possible. These are the heroes of our time, but Alain Almes, my favourite wine person, is none of these things. 

Alain is in late middle age, with a 30 hectare domaine near Pouzolles, in the Languedoc, in the Cotes de Thongue wine region. For the first fifteen years of his working life, his grapes went into the local Co-operative, but in 2004 he decided to take the leap into making his own wine and Domaine Bobian was born; the name, Bobian, comes from the hamlet in which his house is found, on the outskirts of Pouzolles, which is hardly big in itself. And it’s not so much a winery as a detached house with an extended garage attached.

He makes a small range of wines, mainly using the local grapes, and the quality level is earmarked by the name. His basic wine – a carignan-syrah-grenache blend – is called ‘Symphonie’; his mid-level one – a pure carignan – is called ‘Opus’; his top wine is Symphonie Grande Reserve, another carignan-syrah-grenache blend, but aged in oak for four years. 

At least, those were the names. Ten years ago, Robert Mondavi’s lawyers called up and demanded that he drop the use of ‘Opus’ in case his wine was mistaken for their flagship joint project with Mouton Rothschild, ‘Opus One’. At this point, the classic Languedoc hero makes a heroic case for the defence, and refuses to budge; certainly, there is a strong case that his thousand bottle cuvée of carignan sold for around ten euros each was unlikely to be confused in consumers’ minds with the Opus One retailing at four hundred euros. But Alain is not like that; law courts are tedious things. He gave way and rechristened his carignan as ‘Altiorem’.

He has a passion for carignan, the other local winemakers call him ‘Monsieur Carignan’, and he has even started up a local contest for wines made from this grape, the Concours de Carignan. His wines haven’t won.

It’s not that his wines are bad; they are charming, and his Symphonie Grande Reserve is the genuine article, with a beautiful integration of the oak and the fruit. But equally, there are other local winemakers who – if we are honest – do it better.

Nevertheless, Alain’s wines are amply good enough to him to make a living. He has a small number of retail and restaurant clients in France and Belgium and he works hard to keep them happy. As we tasted together in his garden, he watched me taste his basic wine, ‘Elisa’, and I must have winced a fraction.

“Yes,” he said, “It’s too acidic; it needed longer in the tank. But they called me up and said, ‘Alain, we need your wine; send us your new vintage.’”

Again, at this point, the truly dedicated winemaker refuses to yield until he truly believes that his wine has reached its apogee in tank, explains to his customer that it’s not yet ready, and makes them wait. 

“So I just had to bottle it then and there,” continued Alain. “What else could I do?”

Of course, the wine world needs its pioneers, the people who refuse to compromise, the ones for whom quality of the wine is the only consideration. But then there are those whose contribution is more modest, all too willing to compromise, but who are still bringing their individuality all the same. Domaine Bobian’s range are defiantly Alain’s wines, from the village where he was brought up, from the vineyards that he has tended for decades, and from the grapevines he inherited.

When he showed me his wines, we sat in his front garden under an olive tree. There was no view to speak of; for we were on a small street not quite at the edge of the village, but the cicadas were thundering away all the same, and the heat of the day was offset by a gentle breeze. 

We sat longest with the Symphonie Grande Reserve, giving due consideration to its colour, its rich nose, and then its sumptuous finish. As the alcohol kicked in, there was the mildest degree of loosening up of the senses that comes with a good glass of wine. Just then, in the companionable warmth, there was nowhere else either of us particularly wanted to be. 

“You see,” he said, as he raised his glass to his lips, “life’s not complicated, really.”

This wasn’t a scene – two middle aged men sipping wine in a shaded front garden - that would go viral on Instagram; these weren’t wines to give you an epiphany of the taste-buds; and this wasn’t a man who has changed the landscape of the wine world. He has, however, made his own small contribution and he continues to do so, in his own parcel of land, with his own resources, and his own level of skill. Life’s not always about breaking boundaries; it’s also about contentment. And that is what makes Alain Almes my favourite.

Image: Vectorig via Getty Images.