Instead of picking a few grapes in the vineyards of Domaine Matassa, I spent more time in the cellar making myself as useful as I could, and truly learning just how physical winemaking can be.
Let’s just talk about one of the many tasks I took part in during the end of my stay there : transferring a cuvee from its original tank and taking it off the marc (the grape skins, pulp and pips that are left to ferment with the red wines after the juice has originally been pressed out of them), before the wine is put into oak barrels to continue maturing over several months, often well over a year. The cuvée in question was El Sarrat, a combination of syrah and mourvèdre that is a new addition to the Matassa line-up (the first vintage, 2006, fruity, supple and balanced, was just bottled and a large shipment sent to UK chain Waitrose – lucky Brits !).
I assisted Cédric, a quiet, careful vigneron who has been working with Tom Lubbe at Matassa since the very beginning, in 2002, in first getting a new stainless steel tank ready, and a pump to transfer the wine from one tank to the next. While the wine was being pumped away, I also pulled some leftover juice from another tank of grenache, so that those few dozen liters could be added to the El Sarrat we were transferring.
After the fermenting juice was run out of the tank of El Sarrat, I climbed in and helped shovel the marc out into a basket press, where it could be pressed to get the rest of the juice out. This involved filling and lifting bucketfuls of the stuff, as I tried not to get completely dizzy from the vapors rising from the skins and pips. And once that was done, I climbed directly into the basket press to run out as much juice as possible with my feet, before the marc was pressed hydraulically to get the rest out. The idea is that a gentler pressing will avoid adding too much dry tannins and extracts than what a hard mechanical pressing would. So I stomped around for a good twenty minutes while Tom and Cédric were examining the tank of cuvee Matassa, a old-vine carignan wine that is the domaine’s top, and a stunner every vintage. As a reward for my stomping and bucket-filling, I got to taste a bit of the 2007 from the tank. I was smiling and laughing in pure joy, it was so delicious – spicy, fresh, mineral, fruity, serious yet velvety.
That was just the morning, by the way. In the afternoon, there was more cleaning and moving of tanks, shoveling of marc, pushing pallets of wine around for a pickup by a truck that arrived (predictably) several hours later than announced by the shipping company), as well as a rather sobering trip to the local distillery where vignerons are forced, by law, to bring their marc and lees so that limited quantities of alcohol can be drawn from them (the domains could otherwise use the stuff to produce excellent compost for themselves).
I slept very well, that night.
The next morning, Tom took me to the mountain vineyards I was originally hoping to pick (the ones that the boars were starting to find way too delicious). So I got to see where that delicious Matassa Rouge is from. The weather was uncharacteristically foggy, so the impressive vista of mountains and cliffs that lines the area near Saint-Paul and Saint-Martin des Fenouillèdes was only semi-visible. A misty view of the village from the Poude Roude vineyard, at the very top of a rugged hill where the heather was beginning to flower, was reminiscent of the Piedmont and the fog that gives the nebbiolo grape its name. This led us Tom and I into a discussion about the relative similarities between Matassa Rouge and the wines of Barolo: you wouldn’t think that a carignan from Roussillon and a nebbiolo from Piedmont would have much in common, yet the velvety yet spicy, firm and aromatic yet supple and subtle character is certainly found in both wines.
Tom Lubbe at Poude Roude vineyard, where Matassa Rouge largely comes from.
Walking through the vineyards at this time, right after the harvest, gives you the chance to taste very ripe grapes off the grappillons, the tiny bunches left behind here and there on the vine. As I went through the various parcels and tasted the different varietals, red and white, I got a great lesson in terroir and vineyard management as well. The same varietal could taste considerably different from one vineyard to the next. The carignan at the mountaintop Poude Roude vineyard, made very small and concentrated by the tramontane winds that blow constantly through the area, were intense and tight, while the ones at the namesake Matassa vineyard, protected by a forest grove lower down the hill, where much smoother and delicate. Assembling such different grapes (even though both are essentially planted with old carignan vines), gives a cuvee its complexity and balance, as long as the winemaker knows how to work it, once he (or she) is back in the cellar.
Another thing: the grapes from the vineyards that Tom Lubbe has worked longer in biodynamic fashion, managing to restore soils that become dry and lifeless in the chemically-managed world, are consistently better than those from vineyards converted a year ago. The vines have been pruned and cared for more carefully, and that plays a part, but it’s also evident that a better load of topsoil, with its increased microbial life and mychorizzal activity, is essential to getting more character and flavor drawn from the soil and vines. However weird the biodynamic approach may seem at times, with its reliance on moon cycles and elemental forces, its effects are clearly visible in the field. And though biodynamics doesn’t automatically equate great wines (there can be some bad winemaking coupled with great vineyard management) you can generally taste it in the glass. If the grapes taste more intense, the wine should as well.
There was time to have fun as well. A television team from France 3 was in Calce, on Tuesday afternoon, concluding filming for a documentary show about the place and what makes it tick. This mountain village at the heart of the garrigue is home base for Matassa, as well as Domaine Gauby, Domaine Olivier Pithon and Jean-Philippe Padié, to name only the most distinctive producers.
All of these guys make a sizeable portion of their cuvees from old-vine plots in the nearby mountains, including some lovely vineyards in the coumes, the lower parts of small, steep valleys, where they seem to run like green rivers. There is a lot of good stuff coming out of those vines that are dug into the rocky faces of the local hills. And it’s good that these guys are taking them over: hectares of such old vines are being pulled out every year, thanks to generous subsidies from the European Union destined to reduce the huge wine production surpluses. And as sometimes happens with such initiatives, the good gets taken out with the bad. Older mountain vineyards are harder to work than ones on flatter lower terrain, and they produce less: on a strict economic basis, at a time when wine production is facing hard times in regions like Roussillon, and as less and less young people want to take over their parents’ vineyards, removing them seems logical. Yet that is often where the best stuff comes from.
I’ll probably post more about this, and about the winemaking philosophy that I discovered at Matassa, but in the meantime, my next stop is Pinell de Brai, in Terra Alta, southwest of Barcelona, home to Laureano Serres, another maker of natural wines. More on that by the end of the weekend.