France Au Natural: Part Trois. The Mountain-Dwelling Winemakers of the Roussillon
After dropping off our friend and travel buddy Soren at a local train station, Whitney and I continued our epic 9 hour journey to the southwest of France. Although we had thanked the genius that is GPS on countless occasions for navigating us through France’s unmarked back roads, it did have one little hiccup. After 7 hours of driving, we were sick of forking over our life savings for the privilege of driving on French motorways (as pristinely kept as they were) and so asked Mr. GPS to kindly avoid the toll roads and take us another route. Bad timing on our part. In exchange for a few extra euros in our pockets, we were made to endure several hours of winding mountain roads in the pitch black. My knuckles were white around the steering wheel, and at any moment we were expecting the bogeyman to fling himself in front of our little Clio. The prospect of breaking down in this wilderness was too much for our hearts to handle, so we blasted some Tom Waits (not the most upbeat choice for this particular occasion, I admit), and eventually were dumped into the tiny town of Maury.
We were greeted by Jean Pla, the proprietor of a little wine shop and restaurant in the heart of town, who’d kindly offered us his two rooms above the shop for us to stay while vineyard hopping.
After dinner at the restaurant and a much needed good night’s sleep, I awoke to this view out my window:
Well, there are certainly worse views to wake up to…
The next morning we headed to the nearby village of Montner to visit Domaine Le Roc des Anges. Having both enjoyed their wines for while now, Whitney and I were excited to meet Marjorie, the woman winemaker who had built up this successful winery from scratch. We were disappointed to learn that Marjorie was away for business, but her husband Stéphane, a well respected winemaker in his own right, turned out to extremely kind and generous with his time, particularly as it was a weekend and he was looking after his two little boys.
Nathan and Arthur under an almond tree
Stéphane showing Nathan and Arthur a piece of one of his over 100 year old vines
Bush–or ‘Gobelet’–trained vines sit low to the ground to absorb as much moisture as possible from the dry earth, and to protect them from the Roussillon’s strong winds.
Crushing delicious almonds from the tree
Domaine Le Roc des Anges make juicy, scrumptious wines from native Mediterranean grape varieties well suited to the hot climate, including Carignan, Grenache, and Maccabeu, with some Syrah as well. They recommend drinking the wine a day after opening due to the age of the vines and their terroirs. Amazingly, we tried some wines that had been open and unsealed for about 6 days and they were bright, fresh, and completely drinkable. If only all wines would last that long; I wouldn’t have so many ‘cooking’ wines lying around!
Before meeting up with our next producer, we stopped off for some lunch. Trying to be très Français, we ordered French onion soup. They didn’t have it. How about crepes? Nope. So we went with the next best thing, L’américaine.
‘The American’ was literally three burgers lined up on a bagette and smothered in fries with more fries on the side. Says it all about the way the French view the American culture!
Several antacid tablets and a bumpy ride later, we found ourselves in the company of Marcel Buhler of Domaine des Enfants.
In front of one of the most beautiful vineyard backdrops I’ve ever seen, Marcel and his mentor, horse expert Franc, showed us how to plough the land with the horses (see The Men and Their Horses post for pics of our attempts to plough). A tractor is of course much more efficient, but is far harsher on the land than the horse pulled, hand guided plough.
Marcel also showed us the difference between his organically farmed vineyard, and his neighbour’s chemically treated vineyard:
When lined up next to each other, the difference is astounding. Grass and other vegetation is left to grow on Marcel’s side, allowing a more balanced ecosystem and therefore healthier vines. On the chemically treated side, the earth is barren and nothing is allowed to grow except the vines. Which vineyard would you prefer to drink wines from?!
The next day were were up bright and early to visit a winemaker in the next town of Estagel. His wines were so good, and his winemaking principles so inspiring, I decided to reserve him his own little post (coming soon!).
Later that day, we drove up yet more winding roads high into the hills of the Coteaux du Fenouillèdes. We were met halfway by Tom Lubbe, South African (and sometime Kiwi) winemaker at Matassa.
Matassa’s old vine Carignan sits in granitic soil at around 450 metres, bathed in cooling breezes (which were more like gale force winds when we were there). The result is a growing season that’s about a month longer than the vineyards lower down. Tom, in–law to Roussillon winemaking superstar, Gérard Gauby, has been a leader of Biodynamic, natural winemaking in the region for nearly 10 years now.
On our last full day in the south of France, on the way to Provence, we stopped near Aniane in the Gassac Valley at Mas de Daumas Gassac.
The biggest of all the wineries we’d visited (although still not huge all things considered) and the only one not to fall into the ‘natural wines’ category (although they do follow mostly organic/minimal intervention principles), we both knew their wines and were curious to see the domaine. Being the high flying socialite that I am (*sarcasm*), I was only familiar with Daumas Gassac’s top wine, their 100% Cabernet Sauvignon ‘Cuvée Emile Peynaud’ (Mr Peynaud is a very well known Franch oenologist). An absolutely wonderful wine (see photo/desciption in Adventures with Vino), I was keen for Whitney to try it. Unfortunately it wasn’t on offer to taste, but I was able to try their second tier wines for the first time.
Not nearly as stunning as the big guy (but also less than a quarter of the price!), they were still incredibly drinkable crowd pleasers. Roberson Wine Merchant sell a range of their wines at affordable prices.
Our last evening in the south of France was spent at my friend Valerie’s house in Lancon Provence, a short drive from Marseille. We were treated to a dinner of a local speciality, Ratatouille, and a few shots of Valerie’s grandmother’s herbal liquors.
What a–um–random way to end a fabulous trip visiting natural wineries in France…with a few shots of homemade liquor. Santé et Salut!
Note: Wines from Domaine Le Roc des Anges, Matassa, and Daumas Gassac’s Cuvée Emile Peynaud are all available in the UK from Les Caves de Pyrene.