Subscriber login Close [x]
remember me
You are not logged in.

Geoffrey Dean; part two of his travels in Languedoc-Roussillon

Published:  30 July, 2012

If you head west from Perpignan up the picturesque Agly valley, you
encounter the winery of Mas Amiel some 50km inland.

If you head west from Perpignan up the picturesque Agly valley, you
encounter the winery of Mas Amiel some 50km inland. This relatively
obscure corner of Roussillon is Maury country, deep in the heart of
the Pyrenees-Orientales departement. While Banyuls' fortified vins
doux naturels (VDNs) may be better known, many consider those of Mas
Amiel, Maury's leading producer, to be as good.

The domaine's old,low-yielding vines and breathtakingly dramatic scenery combine to provide a bewitching cocktail of outstanding wines and a real sense of place.

Mas Amiel has almost a 'Wild West' feel about it. It is partly the
semi-arid terrain, much of it schist, and partly the endless hours of
hot dry summer sunshine. Then, there are the hills all around, with
the bulk of Mas Amiel's vines being tucked into the side of the
Corbieres mountains to the north.

Overlooking the property is the one of the five magnificent tenth century Cathar castles that were strategically built to defend the French border from the Spanish. This one, the Chateau de Queribus, adorns the skyline and has commanding views for tens of miles in all directions.

The sense of splendid isolation and Old World timelessness at Mas
Amiel is complemented by its three working horses - Rambo, Angelo and
Nepal - that are used to plough and spray for nine months of the year.

Nor is it just the Pyrenees, just to the south, that remind you that
this is frontier country, for among the pests confronting vineyard
manager, Jean Marie Pique, are the wild boar (sanglier) that have
developed a taste for his grapes. These often large units can be a
hazard at night, as I discovered when nearly hitting one on a drive
back through the vineyards after dinner.

So much about Mas Amiel is unusual. The ginormous 350-hectolitre
wooden foudres, in which the estate's VDNs are aged after they spend a
year in large glass demijohns in the sun, are 120 years old. Nicolas
Raffy, Mas Amiel's talented young winemaker, says these are the only
ones of that size in a privately-owned winery in France. To do the
maths...that's 46,666 bottles (75cl) in one foudre (of which there are
seventeen). Taransaud, which produce them, need four years to make

In these days of 100% new oak (200% in some well-heeled French
wineries) and reverse osmosis/acidification in hotter climes, it is
refreshing to hear Raffy's laissez-faire vinification techniques. "I
use no new oak, do not remove any alcohol, never add acid and filter
very little," he told me. His approach seems to be working -all
450,000 bottles he released last year were sold.

Not that Raffy is complacent about sales, for if you go into the
office at Mas Amiel, you will hear some Chinese being spoken over the
phone. Not by any of the French administrative staff, but by a 26-year
old Chinese he recruited to try to increase sales to China and Hong
Kong. "She rang from the college of wine in Perpignan earlier this
summer and asked for a job selling," Raffy revealed. "I thought why
not? She's already made a difference to Asian sales."

What has also helped add to the number of visitors to Mas Amiel's
cellar door is the enticement of signed walks of varying length
through the vineyards. These can be as long or a short as people like
- a few hundred metres or a few kilometres. Picnic tables are also
situated under various trees along the way, and and if you've ever
wondered what a Michelin-starred restaurant's picnic is like, the
excellent Maison du Terroir, in Maury village,will provide one. You
can take a bottle of Mas Amiel's highly quaffable entry level white, a
blend of Grenache Blanc and Macabeu.

Exquisite as they are, Mas Amiel's famed fortifieds (made from
Grenache vines up to 80 years in age) account for no more than half
the winery's production. The other half are all dry wines, including a
single varietal Carignan (Vol de Nuit) that is made from a blend of
two parcels, one 90 years old and the other 110. "This is the image of
Roussillon," Raffy says proudly. "It's not easy to make as carignan is
so sensitive to oidium, but there is so much complexity."

After tasting it, I happily concurred, noting also the wonderful
concentration and intensity of fruit. As this Catalan corner of
France has no AC of its own, the wine has to be modestly labelled Vin
de Pays des Cotes Catalanes. That is doing this wine a grave
injustice. Vin de pays from 100-year old vines with an average yield
of 22 hl/ha! If all VdP was as good as this at this price point (20
Euros), you might not want to drink anything else.

Nicolas Raffy of Mas Amiel....take a bow.

* Geoffrey Dean is a cricket correspondent for The Times and is about to enter his second year studying for the MW