Sunday, 14 August 2011

A visit to Domaine de La Marfée - surely one of Languedoc's finest growers

With a backgound in accountancy, Thierry Hasard came relatively late to winemaking, making his first wines in 1997. He farms around 9 hectares of vines, on a dozen or so different plots near the village of Murviel Les Montpellier, within the relatively unknown Saint Georges d'Orques sub-appellation of Languedoc. Although the village of Murviel is situated just a handful of kilometres west of Montpellier itself, it can best be described as a relative backwater - indeed, a real hidden gem - since it isn't actually on the route to anywhere in particular. You really have to be going there to even be aware of its existence, which probably explains why, in almost 2 decades of visiting the region, I'd never been there before. Murviel is located on a hill, with views of the Mediterranean about 15 kilometres away. Here, prehistoric men lived and the Romans built a temple and an oppidum, from which the name of the village originates: "mur viel", meaning "old wall". It is a pretty village, surrounded by undulating countryside, given over partly to vines and a few arable crops, but interspersed with numerous forests of holm oak. It almost feels like you are in the middle of nowhere, even though a big city lies so close by.

On our recent holiday, I felt like I'd been far too lazy and spent far too much time at our gite, lazing around. So I called Thierry Hasard on a whim, on one of the rare overcast (though still warm) afternoons, and managed to steal a few hours away. We arranged to meet an hour later and, although he gave me some vague directions, I found myself driving around the outskirts of the village, feeling rather lost. To be fair, he did say it was difficult to find! I pulled over to the side of the road and was about to call Thierry on his mobile when a car hooted from behind, and there he was. I guess it isn't hard to spot a lost English tourist around these parts! We exchanged greetings and then drove out of the village, to take a look at a handful of Thierry's vineyards.

His passion for the vines and the land is obvious - he practices biodynamic farming, although (unlike many growers who have jumped on the bandwagon) he feels no need for the certification to prove it. But one only needs to compare his vineyards, which are a picture of health and full of life, to those of others around here, which have been treated with chemicals. You can simply see the vigour in the vines and the soil. Aside from the occasional use of a little sulphur, nothing else goes onto his vines or into the soil - everything else is down to hard work, occasional (though not too much) ploughing and plenty of TLC for the vines. I asked whether the vine tips (which you can see reaching skywards in the photos) would be cut back. Thierry explained that the tips are the "heads" of the vines, and therefore (as with humans, I guess) provide a crucial role in their development through the growing season, so it would not do to cut them off too early(!) Being mid-June, the grapes were still green, but an absolute picture of health - and heathy grapes make healthy wine.

Syrah - note the bits of green dotted about between the rows -
no chemicals used in these biodynamic vineyards - only careful ploughing and hard work

Grenache - bush vines, but with wires to keep them orderly and provide support for the heads

Thierry Hasard in the Vermentino plot, planted just a few years ago

Precious 60 year-old Carignan vines - a picture of health

Following our walk through the vineyards, we drove to Thierry's newly-built chai, set amidst gently rolling hills, a couple of kilometres outside the town of Murviel-les-Montpellier. He's built a house next to the chai, which he and his family will move into later this summer. It's a tranquil spot, with lovely views over the surrounding countryside. There are probably few - if any - other buildings within a kilometre or more of here, although the suburbs of Montpellier now appear on the horizon, just a few kilometres to the east. Thierry believes that the inexorable sprawl of the city will eventually reach this far, and fears that within a generation, these beautiful vineyards may well have given way to houses. Even in southern France, prime agricultural and viticultural land is so much more valuable as building land. And if that happens (and I pray that the powers-that-be will eventually realise the true value of this region's wine industry, before it is too late) some wonderful terroir and yet more precious old vines will be consigned to the history books. But that's for the future to decide - for now, we can still enjoy the wonderful wines from this beautiful and peaceful backwater of Languedoc.

The road leading to the new chais at La Marfée - the suburbs of Montpellier appear on the horizon, now just a few kilometres away

The view from the new house and chai -
- looking south-east towards the Montagne de la Gardiole and the Mediterranean

And so to the wines. Firstly, we tasted through various components of the 2010 vintage, all from barrel.

Vermentino 2010
The colour has a faint orange hue. Apples, tree blossom and minerals on the nose. The palate is generous and expansive, but beautifully poised and elegant - rich, but not too rich, with flavours of honey, soft citrus and a little bit of spice. Supremenly elegant finish, with lovely acidity. Thierry told me his wife said he was mad to plant Vermentino (a.k.a Rolle) but she has now changed her mind. This is a wine he can be rightly proud of, and although it tasted wonderful on its own, it will be blended into the white Frisson d'Ombelles - which can only make an already brilliant wine even better.

Chardonnay 2010
A little bit reductive on the nose, but with some lovely "non-fruit" Chardonnay aromas. Reminds me of a Cote d'Or wine, actually. Thierry said the acidity was almost lemon juice in intensity when first vinified, but it has settled nicely into a medium-rich wine, with real depth and minerality, a touch of wood/grape tannin and wonderful length. Only 12.9% abv, too.

Roussanne 2010 (aged in a new 600 litre oak demi-muid - the only new barrel in the chai)
Aromas of citrus and orange blossom, with buttery, honeyed notes. Wonderfully tangy on the palate, with some richness and savouriness, but with a backbone of lively acidity. Delicious.

Grenache 2010 (only just put into barrel)
Very light in colour, almost like a Pinot (I can't divulge why). And the nose, whilst not really Pinot, does show some real elegance, with aromas of cherry, redcurrant and raspberry. The palate is richer, with a hint of licourice, but bags of fruit too.

Syrah 2010
Savoury, almost meaty nose, but with hints of minerality and white flowers. to complement the red fruits and a touch of citrus. Grippy, but very ripe tannins, with redcurrant fruit and loads of mouth-watering acidity.

Carignan 2010 (from 60 year-old vines)
Earthy, red and black fruit aromas, with notes of citrus and blackcurrant leaf. The palate is just lovely - a huge core of elegant red and black fruit flavours and wonderful lemon/orange acidity and a length that just goes on and on. A gorgeous wine, with immense potential.

Mourvedre 2010
Smoky! Meaty and savoury, too - it just screams Mourvedre. A touch of petillance/spritz, with lovely acidity (there's a theme to these wines), so fresh and full of life, yet with a richness and generosity. Still tannic, but fine-grained, even soft. Thierry describes it as being like a big, soft blanket, covering you with its multi-layered warmth. Delicious wine, with a serious side.

Part of the barrel room in the new chais - a bit foggy from the effects of the humidifier!

One of 5 new concrete "eggs" - these are becoming a popular alternative to oak and stainless steel

After tasting through the 2010's, Thierry showed me his private cellar. He was an accountant in his previous career (and indeed still practices a little, for a few chosen clients) and it is obvious that a good deal of his disposable income at the at time was spent on his love of good wine. He has a fair amount of classed growth Bordeaux, top-notch Burgundy and Rhone, and a rather impressive selection of vintages of Chateau d'Yquem. Clearly, though, he has a balanced perspective on what is worth keeping and what is simply too expensive for any normal person to drink, for he showed me a case of 1989 Chateau Haut Brion, which will soon be destined for the auction house. After all, life as a vigneron is much less lucrative than that of an accountant, and every little helps. I was much more interested in his collection of vintages of Domaine des Grange des Peres, which I assume must be in lieu of payment for professional services rendered - if you see what I mean. When I remarked that I had never - for my sins - tasted a Grange des Peres, he very generously gave me a bottle of 2008 red, which I shall do my best to avoid broaching for a few years.

Just part of Thierry Hasard's personal cellar -
- the fruits of a somewhat more lucrative previous career as an accountant

Finally, we tasted through the current release wines, from bottle - all 2008's, and all opened especially for my visit. After the tasting, Thierry kindly gave me the bottles to take away, so my initial notes are augmented by further impressions, written over the following couple of days;

Frissons d'Ombelles 2008 Vin de Pays de l'Hérault
A blend of Roussanne and Chardonnay (from 2010, Vermentino will also become part of the blend). Spring flowers, blossom and citrus aromas, with definite nutty and honeyed notes and a real mineral streak. The palate is supremely fresh and full of life, again slightly nutty and medium-rich, but with a wonderful citrussy, zesty acidity and underlying flavours of apple, peach and spice. The oak is very much in the background, on both the nose and the palate. Lovely structure and complexity, which makes it lovely to drink now, but with the potential to evolve for up to 10 years. 13.0% abv.

Les Gamines 2008 Languedoc Saint Georges d'Orques
Quite closed on the nose to begin with, but opens-up nicely to reveal some really quite complex aromas of leather, spice, bramble, vanilla, smoke, damp earth and soft citrus. There's a core of ripe (but not dense) red and black fruit on the palate, with perfect tannin/acidity balance, again with orange/citrus notes and a long, spicy finish. This is a classic "day 2" wine - on the first day, it seems in need of 2 or 3 years to soften, but by the second day it is really singing. A wine to drink now (preferably decanted well in advance) or to age for 5 to 8 years. 13.5% abv.

Les Vignes Qu'On Abat 2008 Vin de Pays de l'Hérault
100% Carignan, from 60 year-old vines. Savoury, meaty, herby and sous-bois aromas, with masses of both red and black currant fruit. The palate is medium-bodied and almost understated, with a piquancy rarely found in a Carignan-based wine. The acidity is quite high, though nicely integrated with fine tannins and prominent cherry and redcurrant fruit - a beautifully poised, elegant wine, and the absolute antithesis of soupy. A real connoisseur's wine, with brilliant medium-to-long term potential. 13.0% abv.

Les Champs Murmurés 2008 Languedoc Saint Georges d'Orques
50% each of Syrah and Mourvedre. A very complex nose of leather, coffee, beef, allspice and polished wood. Savoury and meaty, but with plenty of rich bramble fruit and even some floral notes. Quite rich and velvety, but with ample acidity and plenty of grip. On day 2, the savoury notes are complemented by a hint of forest floor and red and black fruits steeped in eau de vie. The palate shows a lovely combination of ripe fruits, citrussy acidity and fine tannic structure. As with all of Thierry Hasard's wines, it is complex and expansive, but at the same time understated and carefully extracted. It is surprisingly drinkable now, but will be magnificent in 5-10 years - and surely longer. 13.5% abv.

Rosé 2010 IGP Pays d'Hérault
Thierry also presented me with a bottle of this wine, which we drank at home last week. And although I included it in an earlier post, I've included it here, for completeness. To be honest, I have no idea of the grape mix - I really should have asked. It is a fabulous colour - ultra-pale onion skin pink, with orange glints, and with a lovely nose, too - lightly zesty, forest fruits and orange blossom, apples and flowers, with hints of sweetly aromatic herbs. The flavours are wonderfully delicate and understated, rather than showy, with myriad red fruits, herbs, minerals and beautifully integrated acidity of the juicy (rather than pithy) kind. The flavours are long, spicy and gently warming, though without even the merest hint of alcohol. Most rosés can perhaps be dismissed as lacking identity - a sort of confected halfway house between red and white wine. But for me, this lovely wine is the very definition of the style, and worthy of real appreciation and contemplation - a wine of real structure. It may well age for a few years, and if I had any more, I'd be tempted to tuck a few away for a year or two, but it is just so lovely now, and it would give the very best Provence rosés a real run for their money. A truly lovely rosé. 13.0% abv.

I've written quite extensively about the wines of Domaine de La Marfée on several previous occasions (see the alphabetical menu on the right-hand side) but have no qualms about doing so once more. For I genuinely believe that Thierry Hasard makes some of the greatest wines the Languedoc has to offer. As it is, they remain hidden gems on the Leon Stolarski Fine Wines list - perhaps a relatively expensive leap of faith for the majority of Languedoc fans who look to the £8 to £12 category for what is perceived as the starting point for real quality/price ratio. And, of course, those who choose to spend their money on much more expensive wines from the more fashionable regions of France and elsewhere may never make that leap, despite the fact that growers such as La Marfée are making wines to rival - and in my humble opinion surpass - their over-priced trophy wines. It is their loss - and the canny Languedoc aficionado's gain.

Leon Stolarski Fine Wines currently stocks the full range of 2007's from Domaine de La Marfée, priced from £13.79 to £24.50. We also offer a 6-bottle sampler case, at the special price of £110.44 (a saving of £10).


Bob Rossi said...

Leon, theese wines sound wonderful. I hope to be able to try some of them at some point. Last year when we were staying in Lyon I spied a couple of Marefee wines in a small wine shop. At the time I thought I recalled reading something about Marfee somewhere, but couldn't remember where. So I skipped them and bought some cru Beaujolais, since we were so near that region. But next chance I get I'll make a point to look for Marfee wines.
I also found the part about the continued expansion of Montpelier into vineyard land very interesting (and saddening). I remember hearing about Chateau de Flaugergues losing some of their prime vineyard land a few years ago to make way for more roadways outside of Montpelier.

Leon Stolarski said...

Hi Bob - they are indeed wonderful ,and it's a shame that (in the UK at least) they are so under the radar. I did read about Flaugergues a few years back and thought what a shame it was. The thing is, once you have pulled vines up and built houses instead, there is no going back. So much for "progress". :-(

Vinogirl said...

That's one healthy looking vineyard!
Funny, I have an 'egg' post coming up...

Leon Stolarski said...

Vinogirl - isn't it just. A lot of TLC goes into those vineyards - and not a lot else. As I've said many times before, whether you believe in biodynamics or not, there is no doubting that many of its practitioners have wonderfully healthy vines - and make wonderful wines from them.

By the way, have you visited Joseph Swan Vineyards yet (see my previous post)?

Look forward to your "egg" post!

Anonymous said...

No egg post, just to say great story here.

Bob Alberta