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Joint venture brings out best of Languedoc; WINE.

Byline: HELEN SAVAGE

EVERY now and then a wine appears that has a huge impact on how many other wines are made, marketed and appreciated.

Aim Guibert's Mas de Daumas Gassac is one of them. It was first released in 1980 and showed that great wine can be made in Languedoc.

At that time, as his son Samuel told me, with only a slight trace of exaggeration, "the Languedoc was the land of mass-produced juice. When my parents arrived in the Gassac Valley they had no idea of the quality of the land they'd bought".

Fortunately they had knowledgeable friends, including Henri Enjalbert, the distinguished professor of geography at Bordeaux University. He told them that it reminded him of some of Burgundy's finest sites and was "Grand Cru terroir." In other words, it had everything going for it to enable them to make really special wine. And they did. Helped by another distinguished Bordeaux academic, Emile Peynaud, who had trained some of the world's most gifted winemakers, Mas de Daumas Gassac astonished everyone who tried it.

Like the greatest red wines of the Mdoc, it's a blend dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon. It was soon put up in blind tastings against the best of them and was not shown up.

Gault Millau called it 'a Languedoc Chteau Lafite.' Others likened it to Chteau Latour. It's not really like either of them, not least because the rest of the blend is made up of an extraordinarily eclectic mix of around ten other French and Italian varieties.

I was privileged to try a cask sample of the 2008, which even at this relatively early stage in its development already displays a fabulous mix of ripe, spicy black fruit, with licorice and the herbs of the surrounding garrigue, and has a wonderfully silky texture. It will be very, very good.

There are now four other Mas de Daumas Gassac wines, including an intriguingly fine dry white - an even more bizarre blend, a kind of United Nations of white wine grapes in a bottle.

Although Mas de Daumas Gassac has inspired other Languedoc wine makers to craft wines of a quality undreamed of a generation ago, it remains something of a wine apart. That special terroir - the unique soils and unusually cool climate of the Gassac Valley means, as Samuel told me, that its production will always be fixed and limited.

The Guibert family could never make enough Mas de Daumas Gassac to meet the huge demand for it and so set about crafting a new range of wines, worthy of their name, but much more affordable.

And so, after the disappointment of an initial rebuff from his local co-operative winery in Aniane, in 1991 Aim persuaded a group of vignerons in neighbouring villages to work with him.

Expansion of the business also put an end to the grubbing up of old vines, previously thought to be uneconomic in the vineyards surrounding the Guibert estate.

"We respect our growers and work in parallel with them," said Samuel.

"We hope there's a feeling of shared ownership in the project. The Guibert family didn't try to buy new land, but relied on a handshake agreement to secure the grapes they need. "It would have been inhuman to pressure folk to sell, if their land had been in the same family for a dozen generations," Samuel insisted.

These wines, sold under the Moulin de Gassac label, feature local Languedoc varieties such as Carignan and Grenache for the red wines as well as Syrah, while the indigenous white varieties are complemented by Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Viognier. "As soon as you get out of the valley," Samuel told me, "the local varieties do much better than ours."

Like the wines of Mas de Daumas Gassac itself, they are grown using sustainable methods. They aren't registered organic, but as Samuel says, "we do the traditional things."

As well as being clean and green, Samuel hopes that the Moulin de Gassac wines display finesse. They sell well and as Samuel says: "It means that we can supply 390 shops all year round" - especially in Quebec - though they have also found their way to our region, courtesy of Michael Jobling.

Aim is now 84 but is still very much in charge. Samuel, the eldest of five sons, joined the family firm in 2000 after a Master's degree in soils science and then eight years importing Evian water and European wines into New Zealand. He is now assistant winemaker and had come to the North East for a dinner at Caf 21.

Although work on the estate means that "you don't see me for four months in every year," he travels a lot to showcase his wines. After the weeks of harvest, he tried to persuade me, "this is the first time I've worn clean clothes in a month and a half."

WINE OF THE WEEK Moulin de Gassac, Faune, Vin de Pays de l'Hrault, 2008 Michael Jobling pounds 7.19 Crisp, dry white, with an almost floral bouquet with pear and peach (the main grape is Viognier) and then a juicy taste of perfumed fruit, with a nice twist of end acidity. Try it with white meat, oily fish or gently spiced dishes.

WINE EXTRAS The main stockist in our region for Moulin de Gassac and Mas de Daumas Gassac is Michael Jobling www.michaeljoblingwines.com (0191) 378 4554, who lists seven different wines in the Moulin de Gassac range as well as two vintages of Mas de Daumas Gassac itself: 1999 (pounds 20.01) and the superb 2005 (pounds 21.74).

The cheapest wines, a basic red and white Guilhem are bargains at pounds 5.98 each - if my sums are correct (Michael Jobling's website only gives ex-VAT prices - irritating to maths-strapped mortals like me). The dry white Guilhem 2006, a blend of Sauvignon Blanc with Clairette and white Grenache is ripe and spicy - quite a big mouthful of green fruit. The red Guilhem 2006 a mix of Syrah, Carignan and Cinsault is plummy, but quite lean and also a little spicy and minty. Elise 2006 (pounds 7.19), a blend of Merlot and Syrah, is full of perfumed, juicy, brambly fruit. It too is relatively light and elegant - certainly not a big jammy southern blockbuster.

CAPTION(S):

GOOD CROP The vineyards at Mas de Moulin Gassac. GENERATION GAME Samuel Guibert, and right, Aime Guibert, at 84, still the chief winemaker. FRUIT OF THE VINE Bringing in the harvest at Mas de Moulin Gassac where some great new wines are being produced.
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Nov 20, 2009
Words:1091
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