WineWriting.com & French Mediterranean Wine
Richard Mark James' wine and travel blog

22 January 2010

France: "Relentless Roussillon: strange goings-on in Maury..."

There's nothing new about a high-profile "outsider investment" story round these parts: Calvet-Thunevin's stark statement winery fashioned from blocks of orange Gard stone was the boldest testament to this up until now, and has somewhat altered the view on the way into town (I also noticed, by the way, the logo on the facia now runs "Domaine Thunevin-Calvet": we probably shouldn't read too much into that?!). But the once slightly dull and dour village of Maury has rapidly become the centre of the Roussillon wine universe, maybe even of the Languedoc too. I'm constantly amazed, and pleased I have to say, that the momentum is still going strong; it's getting difficult keeping up with everything that's happening...

Mega-bucks: the Americans are here
Grenache-loving Dave Phinney (pictured) of Napa's Orin Swift fame (the man behind the, I'm told, hugely successful "Prisoner" label, a Zin/Cab/Syrah blendl), is the first to put American $$$ behind an even bigger, and arguably bolder, site just up the hill from the village centre (off the Route de Cucugnan). This huge - relatively for the area - high-tech winery, along with the whole project, is being managed by Englishman Richard Case of Domaine de la Pertuisane. As well as his own wines, Richard already does a couple of special labels for his US importer (Kimberley Jones and David Shiverick in Ohio) and has moved Pertuisane lock, stock and barrels onto the new premises. When I first called in, Richard gleefully pointed out some of the brand new equipment (including something resembling "the machine that goes ping") like a spoilt child in a toy shop.
This very contemporary winery, called Department 66 (the region's French département number = Pyrénées Orientales) was operational for vintage 2009, not a bad year to start I'd say, although the aesthetic finishing touches have recently been put in place. To fill up all these neat shiny vats and scented oak casks, Dave has bought a staggering, for this old-parcelled neck of the woods, 80 hectares (nearly 200 acres) in total dotted around Maury. I'm told much of this fine and well-established, although not very economic, vine-land was destined to be reluctantly ripped up by retiring locals glad to see the viticultural landscape being preserved. So why here and why now? I'll be meeting Dave in the near future hopefully, and tasting some of his 2009 reds no doubt, so will publish an interview and tasting notes then.
You might well question whether these new-build wineries are a sore on the area's beautiful dramatic terrain and if everyone here sees this kind of development as a good thing? Personal taste and any local jealousies aside, Charles Chivilo, mayor of Maury, told me: "Some of the old co-op growers were happy to sell and pleased the vineyards would be looked after... vines are our landscape. The winery was built on a vacant piece of land and there are vineyards behind it. There was only one objection from people who'd planned to build a cellar next to it, but it came to nothing. With the viticulture crisis, we see this kind of investment in Maury as very positive. As long as there's local dialogue and they respect the village traditions and people." Mind you, some hooligan broke into Richard's old cellar a few months ago and emptied much of his 2007 reds onto the floor, so obviously someone out there felt hard done by...

Ah, but the Mexicans were here before them!
On a less ostentatious but no less ambitious scale, the "Mexican thrust" is being headed up by Hugo d'Acosta. "La Borde Vieille" is Hugo's baby, along with a few other Mexican investors, who purchased a 25 ha (60 acre) chunk of vineyards and the cellar, previously Domaine La Colline des Vents, all in one stunning spot near Felluns (beyond Lesquerde southwest of Maury). And there's a second, even more intrepid "Mexican project" taking in a further 50 ha and two village co-ops: I'll come back to that in a minute... The soils around Borde Vieille have "lots of grey schist," as Hugo explained, with some white varieties, Carignan blanc and Macabeu, mixed in with the majority, usual-suspect reds all planted mostly on east-west facing slopes.
"Wine has always been my dream," Hugo told me more about is background. "I went to viticulture school one summer, got a qualification in agriculture then went to study winemaking at Montpellier and Torino. I've worked for 15 years in different wineries in Mexico and started my first vineyard there in 1997." My next question inevitably brought the conversation round to: why, and how, here? "I was looking for a few years in the Corbieres and Roussillon," Hugo continued and, like many who've come to the Maury area, the right thing cropped up at the right time.
So, 2007 was their maiden vintage which was looking a bit closed up when I tried it, although chunky yet quite subtle and promising. I also tasted several different 2008s and 2009s from vat and cask. They make three reds, each one dominated by each of the three main varieties - so c. 60% Carignan or Syrah or Grenache with the remainder being the other two blended according to the vintage. I won't go into detailed notes on all these unfinished wines; but my favourites included a 2008 50/50 Syrah/Carignan, another duet of the latter with 65% Syrah, a 100% Grenache and two single-plot, "oldest vines" varietals: 20 year-old Syrah and 40 to 100 year-old Carignan. And from the challenging-to-taste but radiant 2009 vintage, a north-facing Grenache, two stylish Carignans and a gorgeous Syrah.
Next stop, the former village co-op cellars in Felluns and nearby Assignan, which had both closed down. An extraordinary (ad)venture: Hugo has rallied a dozen Mexican wine producer investor friends plus a few locals, who together purchased both of these old winery buildings along with 50 hectares (125 acres) all around the two villages, which lie on splendid terraces at 250 to 500 metres altitude (850-1700 feet) divided by a patch of hillside woodland. In Felluns, they were fermenting the first reds in square-looking, small-batch plastic "tubs" (1000 litres: the cube shape allows very good skin/juice contact), as "we didn't want to use the old concrete vats this year. The plan is to split them all into two levels to make everything on a smaller scale," and get rid of any geriatric equipment and completely remodel the grape reception zone.
Naturally, I was intrigued about what investing in all of this has cost Hugo and his colleagues. He was commendably frank about it and prepared to give me some approximate figures: €500,000 for the land and buildings and €400K for the new gear, plus €3K per year to run the vineyards and €1K for winemaking and ageing costs. "Over half of the vineyards are already sold... each individual will make their own wine and handle sales themselves," but this is a kind of private co-op venture implying they're pooling their resources too. Everything is picked block by block, so some of the vats I tasted from were already mixed thanks to those traditional "field blends," e.g. an attractive 2009 Grenache / Carignan and a few different promising Syrahs.

Let's not forget the South Africans... and the Swiss
The Cape's Grier family made a move on the area a few years ago now and has vineyards and an understated winery off the main road through St-Paul de Fenouillet, ten minutes west of Maury. Heading back to Maury, located up the hill on the Cucugnan road almost next door to Dept. 66, Swiss-owned Domaine des Enfants is another great-potential "start-up" estate. Marcel Buhler made his third vintage this year (i.e. kicked off in 2007) in his compact cellar, formerly owned by Serge Rousse (of the sadly defunct Domaine Terre Rousse), gleaned from 20 ha (50 acres) split across seven sites (Maury, Caramany, Latour-de-France among others) with alarmingly low final yields of eight hl/ha. "We pick late then really select through (the fruit)," Marcel clarified, "we must've chucked away a quarter of it this year. Everything's very manual as the vineyards are old, so I've got two horses. No herbicides are used and I'm going for organic certification in 2010."
Marcel's background was in Zurich banking; he then studied winegrowing/making at Germany's esteemed Geisenheim university. "I looked (at vineyards) in the Languedoc, in the Montpeyroux and Pic St-Loup areas, and Priorat and elsewhere in Spain... but it was all too expensive. Then I stopped off in the Roussillon and met Jean Pla (proprietor of Le Pichenouille wine shop & restaurant in Maury, vineyard real estate broker and all-round "Godfather of Maury," as someone once said, affectionately)..." At the moment, Domaine des Enfants' wines are mostly sold in Switzerland and Germany, by (e)mail order or at Jean's place above. He, like other newcomers aiming high, has priced the wines at a pretty ambitious level: €18, €36 and €55. My tasting notes of Marcel's 2008 reds are here. More info @ domaine-des-enfants.com.

Small is beautiful too
No less spectacular is the continuing number of mostly French-owned, one/two-man/woman domaine start-ups in the Maury area. Last April's version of the annual Fenouillèdes wine show, which takes place in Tautavel a few kilometres up the road, threw up yet more surprises and several new names showing 2008 wines, their first vintage. Worth mentioning briefly are Domaine Deveza (Estagel), Mas Mudigliza (St-Paul), La Petite Baigneuse (Maury) and Clos Serre Romani (Maury) among others: click on those links to see profiles. Winegrowers at the show confirmed something else I've been noticing more and more: there are now quite a few cracking white wines too, making this region much more than a one trick pony ("hearty reds" are what spring to mind first). Plus a winemaking shift to youthful Vintage-style Maury, but that's another story... No doubt the Fenouillèdes 2010 fair will reveal more new names and newer wines...

Et les Anglais?
Not content with buying up holiday homes and gites, there's a handful of budding British vignerons who've either settled or purchased vineyards here. Katie Jones is no stranger to the area, at least the Fitou/Corbieres region just to the north, as she used to be marketing and export director at the Cave de Mont Tauch co-op. The lure of the land obviously proved too overwhelming for Katie, who's bought a few, more-or-less adjoining old parcels perched up behind Maury on pretty steep, very rocky soil (mostly pure grey/black schist on top), which are a challenge to access even for her old faithful 4x4. She's going to make three or four wines (two reds, one dry white? Watch this space...) including a super-late harvest Grenache gris sweetie picked from a few vines deliberately left until just before Christmas! Once again, I'll be tasting these when they're ready and will knock up a fuller profile (UPDATE: now done so click on this link for notes and more words). And have a look at her blog to keep up with the Jones'. Other English winey goings-on include Justin Howard-Sneyd MW's Domaine of the Bee and the longer established Les Clos Perdus (actually an Anglo-Oz partnership).
Meanwhile, back in Maury village: will the Maison du Terroir, Pascal Borrell's ambitious upmarket restaurant, help pull in the crowds? They're also working with the on-site Tourist Office organising wine routes and tasting suppers, for example: more info @ www.maison-du-terroir.com. And not far away in the Trilla / Bélesta area, Vincent Balansa, whose track record includes working at Le Soula, Gauby and Bizeul among others, is the man behind another new, organic-from-the-start project. He and a consortium of private investors have bought up some great parcels otherwise destined to be ripped up: more details @ biotrilla.blogspot.com, and a profile on this might follow at some point...
So, what does this all mean for lovers of authentic, terroir-oozing Mediterranean wines? In these "doom and gloom" times, the momentum just hasn't stopped in this "New Eldorado" (as the region has been called in the past but still seems appropriate), where newcomer and established winemakers alike are obviously convinced there are plenty more exciting discoveries to be made and shared here. And maybe Maury itself could finally become the wine tourism must-go place it deserves to be.
Profiles on the wineries mentioned above, along with lots of tasting notes on their wines and web details, have now been teleported across from 'old' WineWriting.com: see links in the Roussillon winery A to Z.

All rights © Richard Mark James January 2010

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