As the seven pillars of the tallest bridge in the world loom into sight above the clouds, it is impossible not to be more than a little bit excited. Around me cars all imperceptibly speed up as they see the first glimpses of the Viaduct of Millau, as if the bridge is going to disappear before we all reach it.
The Canary Warf skyscraper, can fit easily in the space under the bridge and the valley floor below.
The sense of wonder, excitement and mystery that now courses through every person who approaches the bridge is the perfect compliment to its status as the 21st century gateway to the ancient and mysterious region that is France’s Languedoc.
The viaduct cuts hours off the journey south to the Languedoc, but even more radically it leaves you high in the mountains, which is where we find the most radical and the first great breakthrough winery of the modern age, Mas Daumas Gassac, home of Aime Guibert, now in his 80s but who in the late 1960s became the lightening rod for an anti-globalist, diversity prioritising, sustainable movement in all things, but especially wine that has echoes in the global Occupy Wall Street movements of today.
As you might imagine of a Woodstock era venture, the organic nature of the winery and its vineyards is not in doubt, but Guibert’s distaste for the traits of industrial capitalism went much further than that. This was an entirely new way of living and making wine within capitalism.
Aime Guibert’s wife Veronique was also an integral part of the Mas Daumas Gassac revolution and provided an intellectual and philosophical backbone to work on the winery that no other estate then or now enjoys. She was and is a leading academic, and ethnologist, interested in myths, language and culture. Her main publications have in fact been on Celtic Mythologies and Ireland is her main object of study.
For this reason and for Aime Guibert’s belief in the unspoilt nature of the Ireland’s Atlantic Edge, the family had a house in Kerry, returning almost every summer.
“This is why I have given my children Irish names and why this is a home from home, my summers growing up were here, in rural Ireland. The tin roofed pubs, the long walks to anywhere, the fresh, wholesome food and the long quiet evenings.” Says Samuel Guibert, Aime and Veronique’s eldest son, of summers in the 1970s and early 1980s growing up in Ireland.
He managed it seems to blot out all memory of the rain, the single channel of television that began at ten to six and ended before midnight, and, brown, corduroy bell-bottoms.
Famously, within a decade of planting the first vines at Mas Daumas Gassac, France’s bible of all things wine, Gault-Milau had been joined by Hugh Johnson in calling Mas Daumas Gassac, the ‘Lafite of the Languedoc’. Later the US critics lead by Robert Parker would crown Mas Dumas Gassac as perhaps the most important new Grand Cru wine in the world for a century.
Something special was clearly going on high up in the remote mountains of the Languedoc.
Birth of a Mythic Hero
Every great mythic hero needs a mysterious ordeal leading to their triumph and Mas Daumas Gassac’s origin tale is equal to such a challenge.
The new Millau Viaduct brings visitors directly into the deep, dense forested high mountains of the heart of the Languedoc.
It is in these high remote mountains to the north and south of this great wine region that most of the best wine is made, and it was here for thousands of years that the great mysteries of the Languedoc were preserved from the DaVinci Code style cults hiding Jesus’s bloodline in the hills, to mysterious Cathar castles hiding some great heresy.
It was remote and isolated so it preserved old ways and ancient rights long after the rest of the world had crushed or abandoned them.
Endless trees blanket the hills in every direction, not tall oaks or redwoods as in California’s almost manicured forests, but dense, gorse, brush like trees with pitch dark interiors. This is what they call garrigue in the Languedoc.
In amongst this dense, 15 to 20 foot undergrowth that marks the edges of the forest there are huge riches of plant life, lavender at ankle height, strawberry in bushes, berries are everywhere, mint is the only other thing I noted but if you knew you wild leaves, there is thyme and fennel, in fact a whole spice rack in every step.
In the rest of the south of France I see the word garrigue being used for scrub land that is more obviously dry and scented. And easy to walk in. This was much rougher and less pungent.
Aime Guibert de La Vaissière, to give him his full name was not a hippy looking to get back to the land. On the contrary he was a craftsman, a tanner and glove-maker from a line of business people. Guibert came from what be described as a traditional market capitalist background, the making and selling of things.
His purchase and development of the Lafite of the Languedoc was really the result of a series of happy accidents.
“My father was looking for a remote house, a place to retreat to. So my parents looked in many places in the region, they were from Millau and eventually fell in love with what was almost a ruin, an ancient farmhouse complex.” Says Samuel Guibert.
A Mas, is the name for a semi-fortified farmhouse that was typical of the whole of southern France in the era before police forces. It would have acted as a sort of storehouse for the cereals and crops for the farm and its neighbours and a place of refuge from bandits and marauding gangs.
The name Mas Daumas Gassac, means, the Mas of the Daumas family in the valley of Gassac. In fact Guibert bought the Mas from descendents of the Daumas family.
The forest had encroached right up to the Mas, concealing the 50 hectares of lands and of course preserving them from the industrialisation of agriculture that occurred in the 1950s in Europe.
“Everyone told my father to cut back the forest, to create a clearing to farm in, it was not clear whether they would plant maize or melons or olives at the time. Olives were the big obvious choice I think. Vines were not in the front at all” says Guibert.
“Fortunately a friend of the family was a great academic, a geology professor, Professor Henri Enjalbert. He was in fact professor of geology in Bordeaux, so obviously as you might imagine, soils, were his speciality.” Says Guibert.
“After a day or two with my parents, Professor Enjalbert was very excited, he said you have to plant vines, he had never seen anything like this anywhere in the Languedoc, the valley of Gassac was a bubble of well drained, hummus poor, mineral rich soil that was nearly identical to the soils of the Cote D’Or in Burgundy.” Says Guibert.
“It did not end there a visit by Professor Emile Peynaud, the great Bordeaux oenologist confirmed the unique character of the valley.” Says Guibert.
This was 1973 and at that time the Languedoc was the source for the majority of Europe’s Vin de Table.
“Even that is not the whole story, it was the good stuff that got into the Vin de Table and was bottled, most of the wine was in bags and plastic.” Says Guibert.
The idea that somewhere in the Languedoc, even high in the hills there was an undiscovered potential for a Grand Cru wine was laughable to most people and particularly wine buyers and wine shops.
A Strange Lost World
Soil alone was not the key to the eventual triumph of Mas Daumas Gassac, climate and the decisions about style were equally important to its success.
The Guibert’s refused to cut down the forest, this was the magic of the place, so they made tiny clearances and planted vines amongst the forest in what can only be described as groves.
When you arrive at Mas Daumas Gassac you cannot see vineyards, you have to travel into the trees to find the plots scattered around the very privileged site. It means harvesting is done by hand, as is almost every other activity, you simply cannot get machinery into this landscape with much usefulness at all.
With the trees comes shade, but it is the valleys position as a trough for cold air from higher hidden valleys every evening that is its secret. Coupled with cool mountain water in aquifers beneath them this provides the diurnal swing in temperature that is required to make many great wines. That is a swing from heat to actual cold each day during the summer.
“The vines that we picked were also important. We did not want clones, this was part of the move towards the reasoned agriculture my father was searching for. We found old vines, unique individuals. In the end we moved towards Cabernet Sauvignon, which makes up the majority of the planting but more than 20 varieties are planted and all of them end up in the wine, It is very interesting.” Says Guibert.
Today Mas Daumas Gassac is operating as a sort of Ark for many rare vines and varietals.
Aime Guibert’s life’s work became the creation of an authentic, sustainable, anti-industrial agriculture. The vehicle through which this was accomplished was the wine of Mas Daumas Gassac, where he showed that organic, traditional, thoughtful and sustainable low impact agricultural practices could not only make one of the best wines in the world, it could do so elegantly and rewardingly.
His wines became highly sought after and eventually the importers and wine merchants who told him they did not need his wine and he was foolish came knocking on his door.
However in 2004 the octogenarian Guibert broke through into world celebrity status with what at the time seemed like a very radical and minority stance. He, a capitalist of the merchant kind, foresaw a disaster ahead in the concept of global corporate capitalism, which he saw all around him.
He argued convincingly, but alone, that corporate capitalism was a hollowing out philosophy which sought to impose a sort of global feudalism on the world by getting nations to compete with each other to race to the bottom in wages, standards and diversity. He suggested it was aimed at producing a homogenous global consumer, for a homogenous global product.
For him, local, individual, national and regional diversity was the key to a fruitful life as it is to bountiful nature and great wine.
He urged resistance to globalisation in all its forms, from a deep seated belief in the value of diversity, complexity and regionality.
The wines of Mas Daumas Gassac reflect this unconventional, individualist philosophy. They are wild, offbeat, exuberant and joyous. Unlike standardised wines they evolve in unique ways, Pinot Noir like and wirey in youth, rich and luscious emphasising cabernet and Syrah in middle age, complex and persistent like a fine Bordeaux with age.
A set of wines for the open minded explorer seeking treasures off the beaten path.
Tasting Diversity and Healthy Scepticism
Mas de Daumas Gassac Rose Frizante 2008 (89) around €22.99
Wines from the Domaine –
Moulin de Gassac Blanc 2009 (86) around €8
Moulin de Gassac Guilhem Blanc 2010 (87) around €9.99
Moulin de Gassac Faune, Viogneir, Marsanne and Chardonnay 2010 (89) around €11.99
Moulin de Gassac Albaran, Rouge 2009 (88) around €11.99
Reserve de Gassac White 2009 (89)
Pont de Gassac Rouge 2010 (89) around €14.99
The Estate Grand Vin
Mas de Daumas Gassac White 2009 (91) around €38
Mas de Daumas Gassac Rouge 2009 (91) around €38
Mas de Daumas Gassac Rouge 2007 (92) around €37.99
Mas de Daumas Gassac Rouge 2004 (94) around €38
The wines here are available in Ireland from from Red Nose Wines, Clonmel, Tipperray, 052 6182939 and Curious Wines, Kinsale Road Commercial Centre, Kinsale Road, Cork