Talking with Jean-Claude Mas
Earlier this week I was able to have a Skype interview with winemaker Jean-Claude Mas to check-in on how harvest turned out this year in the Languedoc. We met earlier this Fall at his home in the Languedoc, where I was able to taste through the large collection of wines Mas makes through multiple labels organized under Domaines Paul Mas.
Today, Mas heads his family’s multi-generational winery, Domaines Paul Mas, named for his father, and led by Jean-Claude since 2000. Under Jean-Claude’s leadership the vineyard holdings have expanded to include sites within each of what Mas describes as the seven distinctive terroirs of the Languedoc–each demanding distinct vine, rootstock, and maintenance techniques.
Terroirs of the Languedoc
soil map of a small portion of the Languedoc
As Mas describes, distinctive terroirs within the Languedoc can be identified through the unique combination of the following factors: altitude, proximity to the sea, the major characteristics of the soil, the wind influence, and access to water.
Depending on the region of the Languedoc, the area expresses a massive range of soil types including heavy clay, heavy limestone, schist, a predominance of pebbles, alluvial sand, and granite. The province also experiences significant wind influence (considered the windiest region of France) blowing both from the mountains, and the Mediterranean. Elevations change significantly approaching the mountains to the West or North offering hillside planting, and flatten as one approaches the Sea.
One of Mas’s primary goals in identifying quality vineyard sites is to locate land that can sustain dry farming. As such, natural availability of water (or not) also stands as a primary influence for his assessment of unique terroir.
One of the gifts of the Languedoc, as Mas describes it, is the huge range of growing conditions all within one province. “We do not have any less restriction than places like Bordeaux or Burgundy” when it comes to growing and wine rules from the AOP and IGP, he explains. “But we have access to incredible terroir, so anything you want to do can be done if you pay attention.” You look for the site with the right combination of factors in which to plant what you’re hoping to grow.
Jean-Claude Mas, during our visit in the Languedoc, September 2013
Mas is a fascinating, sometimes intimidating figure. His own work ethic is so clear, and efficiently executed his presence triggers (in me, at least) a desire to work and perform at a higher level. In stepping into the lead position with Domaines Paul Mas, Jean-Claude has expanded the family’s project multi-fold, turning it from a primarily vineyard focused business to a vineyard and winery project with other aspects such as a new restaurant as well. He has also greatly expanded the vineyard holdings. The resulting volume that the company now produces is unusual for a family owned business in France.
I tell Mas I am impressed by how much he is able to manage and accomplish but also with how readily he can recall details of each of their vineyard sites. Domaines Paul Mas owns now 440 hectares of vineyard land, and works with 1120 contracted hectares, meaning they harvested 1560 hectares during the 2013 vintage. He’s developed a strong team, but stays connected to the goings-on throughout the company, and especially the vineyards.
It turns out, for Mas, his ability to manage such a wealth of information arises both from his own familiarity with the plants and climate of the area — he grew up working in vineyards with his father, feeling an affinity for the local flora — and his intensive internal organizational and problem solving abilities. The two together mean he tracks and utilizes information in his own head efficiently.
So how did harvest 2013 go in the Languedoc?
Harvest 2013 and Sustainable Viticulture
There were several incidents of heavy rain in vintage 2013. As Mas reports, in three months there were three incidents of rain lasting two days each, including just before harvest. Some wine producers panicked, as a result, fearing the potential mildew that easily comes with rain. Mas and his other winemakers discussed the best approach to the vines when these rains were on their way, and agreed it was better to wait till grapes were fully ready, rather than rush to pick in advance. Those vineyards that were well maintained, and that were picked with proper hang time (rather than out of fear of the rains) gave “very good to exceptional fruit.”
In the last year, Domaines Paul Mas purchased a new-to-them 100 ha property, which means they increased their overall yield significantly. At the same time, the average yield for 2013 was down 5%, in Mas’s case largely thanks to management choices to focus on quality and ripeness.
Mas reports that in the end the rains were positive. His healthiest vineyards showed little or no mildew impact. The rains also had a positive affect in many cases as they slowed the maturation process increasing hang time to give a clearer balance to the resulting fruit.
Mas has been increasing the proportion of fully organic farming through his vineyards. Each of his sites focus on sustainable practices (he also intentionally leaves large parcels of land untended for a decade to reinvigorate) with an aim towards becoming fully organic. He reported that his already fully organic vineyards actually did the best at naturally resisting mildew production.
For Mas, organic farming arises out of his commitment to quality and the good life. “We can survive without wine, but wine makes your life better. How we farm affects nature, affects the environment around us. As long as the vine is well balanced in its environment, it is healthier and more resistant to disease.” The healthier the vine, the more we can have good wine.
Thank you to Jean-Claude Mas.
Thank you to Julie Billod, Anne Alderete, and Michelle McCue.
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