Andrew Jefford finds great winemaking near Maury.
Wine lovers may remember 2003 as the hottest summer since the big bang, but it began with a very cold winter — and by autumn, too, the cold was again biting deeply. “Amanda, Sam and I were staying in a tiny cottage in a 9-house hamlet called La Vialasse in the middle of the Corbières”. Master of Wine Justin Howard-Sneyd, at that time one of Britain’s best-known supermarket wine buyers, was looking back on a turning point in his life.
“It was late October. We’d bought a few bottles in Maury earlier that day. Sam was aged five back then. He was asleep in bed, the wind was howling around the eaves, the wood-burning stove was lit, we’d got the doors of the stove open and a thick duvet wrapped around us, then I pulled the cork of the Clos del Rey 2001. It unleashed this extraordinary explosion of deep black fruit, plus garrigue aromas of myrtle, juniper, rosemary, and a palate of crushed black slate. Somewhere into the second glass, the vineyard dream, which until then had been rather insubstantial, took root. We’d found the kind of wine that I wanted to make.”
Clos del Rey is the creation of Jacques Montagné, and a little earlier this summer, I stood with Jacques, his son Julien and Justin in their cellar: the three Js. The reminiscences continued.
“There was a crisis of the vineyards around 20 or 25 years ago,” Jacques pointed out. “No one wanted our fortified wines any more; the market was collapsing. We had to do something.” He bought up the best old parcels of Grenache and Carignan he could find. The vines, he felt, had to have a future.
At the same moment, celebrated St-Emilion garagiste Jean-Luc Thunevin arrived in Maury, lured to Roussillon by those same old vines. He fell in love with the Clos del Rey wines. “He said to me ‘You vinify and I’ll sell'”. Jacques remembers being invited over to St-Emilion for en primeur season. He was astonished, as an obscure winemaker from a troubled fortified-wine zone, suddenly to find himself sitting with Thunevin, Alain Vauthier and Peter Sisseck as Jancis Robinson and Michel Bettane called to taste.
Thunevin egged him on to follow the garage techniques of the day. “Crazy things: new wood for malo, and then even more new wood afterwards.” Three years later, Jacques was joined in the cellar by Julien. At that point, he and Jean-Luc Thunevin parted company — and he barely ages his wine in any wood at all any more. “No more barriques! I got fed up with barriques.”
Father and son have 50 ha — but they only vinify the eight best hectares themselves, which goes some way to explaining why their wines are so good; the rest of the fruit goes to the Maury co-operative. Some tasting notes for this hidden star of the Roussillon are given below.
Howard-Sneyd, meanwhile, couldn’t forget the wine that he and Amanda drank in the autumn cold. He subsequently made friends with local British winemaker Richard Case of Domaine de la Pertuisane – and he asked him to report back if any good local vineyards came up for sale. Thus it was that, at an even colder moment in February 2004, Justin found himself (without Amanda this time) standing in a bleak vineyard of old vines on stony schist soils called Coume de Roy, sited directly beneath some of the very finest Clos del Rey vineyards. “I didn’t,” admits Justin, “have any idea at all about what I was doing, or what I should be looking for. It’s hard to tell much about a vineyard in February. But … I said yes.” This was the birth of Domaine of the Bee.
It could have been a folly. It’s hard to underestimate the challenge of Roussillon, where the average yield is around 25 hl/ha, and where outstanding wine is more likely to come from vines yielding around 15 hl/ha (that was the figure Justin used for his business plan).
“We asked ourselves how we could create a supply chain whereby we could make any money. I also realised that, as a producer, the only way I was going to maximise my enjoyment of my wine was by knowing my consumers.” So 85% of Domaine of the Bee’s production is sold in the UK, and of that around 80 per cent is sold directly, via the domain’s own wine club and at fairs. “It’s so important to tell your story and get a share of the headspace of your consumers.”
Even though the couple have bought more vineyards, giving them a total of just over 4 ha, it doesn’t justify a winery of their own — so they work with Jean-Marc Lafage, who bought Ch St Roch from Marc and Emma Bournazeau-Florensa (see last week’s blog) in 2007, and who also runs Domaine Lafage — a total of 170 ha altogether. The hyper-professional Lafarge had worked around the world as a consultant winemaker after training in part in Australia with Andrew Mitchell in the Clare valley, as well as at Brokenwood and de Bortoli, so the fit with the internationally minded Howard-Sneyd is a good one.
Both, though, are besotted with the Roussillon’s old vines, and the rich, concentrated, masterful wines they offer. “Those old vines are like people in a retirement home,” reflects Justin. “All you have to do is talk to them, and you’ll find they have something very interesting to say.” And the alcohol levels?
“Consumers,” suggests Justin, “like the flavour of wine at 15% alcohol. Ok, they’ve learned that it’s now fashionable to say that you want a wine at lower alcohol, but it wasn’t very long ago that people looked at the label of a wine and said they wanted it to be higher. We learned a lesson with the 2013 vintage. It was lighter here and the critics all loved it. But the public didn’t like it; that vintage sold less well. It’s a terrible mistake to say that everyone is moving towards low-alcohol wines.”
I agree (look out for a feature on this subject in the December edition of Decanter magazine). And if you object to wine at 14.5% or 15%, you’ll never have a chance to enjoy the wines which best express the sunlight, the stone, the wind and plunging, soaring hills of Roussillon. That, as I hope the following notes indicate, would be a shame.
Tasting the wines of the Three Js
Domaine of the Bee
Read articles from Decanter’s November 2018 issue, available online for Premium subscribers