We took a night in Narbonne with the team– a much needed fast from decadent cheese, desserts and wine (by fast, I of course mean we just had a little)– the hotel where we stayed just off the A7 between a truck stop and an industrial park fortunately did persuade our palates to overindulge. We watched a little Reality Bites dubbed in French, caught up on some email and fell asleep early.
The next day, before venturing to the Spanish Pyrenees to continue on with the race, we took a final planned pitstop outside Beziers to visit Bruno & Sylvie Lafon at Domaine Magellan. Winding through the backroads, this first meeting of Languedoc’s beautiful countryside (I have cheated and been to a few others off the side of the freeway, but nothing like this) really made an impression on my senses. It was quite lovely and quaint– very rugged yet elegant. I really dug the contrast to the industrial side of the Languedoc I had just been and had more familiarity with in the past.
Bruno and his wife began this estate in 1999, realizing that there was huge wine potential for this part of France. Bruno was born to a prestigious Bourgogne wine family, whom you very likely have had or know– Comte Lafon. An almost hereditary quest for terroir, balance and finesse was written in his DNA, I am certain. But his evident knowledge of winemaking and viticulture attracted him to an area that has long been misunderstood and taken advantage of, really. The Languedoc can be almost to easy to sit back and make drinkable wine. Therefore, it has attracted many on mass scale to do just that– bare minimum.
To understand Lafon’s vision, one really must pause and reflect on a little Languedoc history. First, it was one of oldest, most important regions– dating back to pre-Roman era even. Its proximity to the Mediterranean and use of large amphora made it ideal for transport to places near and far. While it lost a bit of its significance to competition through the Middle Ages, it still held its dignity together and gained the respect of locals as well as foreigners. By the time phylloxera came and went, so had this region’s ambition to produce something worthwhile. Many were more focused on making money to recoup many years of terrible loss, the cooperative movement brought many together under one roof and label, cobbling resources together without much space for unique expression and a loosening of rules made it all too easy to just resign to be known as the region for cheap, mass market wine. Finally, the AOC came down a bit harder in the ’70 and even moreso in recent decades. In the last fifteen or twenty years, many artisan wineries are surfacing and redefining this region’s injured reputation. Wineries like Chateau Sainte Eulalie and Chateau Saint Jacques in Minervois, Domaine Begude in Limoux, of course the better known and established Fonstainte in Corbieres and, of course, Mas Daumas Gassac are just a handful of my personal favorites. And then there is Domaine Magellan– just a diamond in the rough, if you would ask me. I was convinced already before I arrived, but this visit only solidified my opinion of this incredibly sound and inspiring estate.
We began as we should– in the vineyards. He works on two different terroirs primarily. The first we saw was of sandstone mostly– a soil that isn’t too basic or acidic and naturally serves to drain very well, never allowing water to stagnate. This combination creates wines of finesse and fine-grained tannin. We passed by some Roussanne, which apparently had a tough time with this years extended Spring drought. The crop will be small, but likely quite good, as those that survived should weather the rest of the harvest well. The vines were a bit younger over in this area as well. Here, the grapes were still quite green, much like all the other properties we had seen to this point.
When we drove over to another spot, I noted that veraison had begun. Maybe a quarter of the bunch were beginning to turn. He explained that it would likely be an earlier harvest for these plots– September 10th or so (about 10-14 days before normative harvest times). The vines here were thicker, older and a mixture of Grenache across from fields of Carignan. More clay, schist and granite were in the soils here. They could hang on to water a bit better and churn out a bit more power, tannin and structure in the overall product in the wine. Lafon, always seeking balance, combines the two terroirs in his final blends.
We then took a quick glimpse of the winery. He is a huge fan of concrete for the overall management of the temperatures. He employs native yeasts– another detail he finds immensely important to retaining the true character of a wine. One major reason, he explained, was that this allows for longer fermentations (often 10-14 days). In this prolonged conversation, more can be translated and therefore understood. Just as you might imagine, a fast fermentation with a cultured, generic yeast would result in a fairly boring, replicated version of wine. It’s like that person everyone knows that mimics the current trends and sayings of popular culture but never seems to form an original thought or opinion. You never quite feel you know them at all. Nor do they encourage much desire to learn more. For this reason, I am always so moved by those who are willing to take a few more risks and do all they can to preserve an ancient, straightfoward, organic process. They let go of controlling each and every step. They allow nature to make some decisions as well.
We sat down to taste through a number of wines we both bring into the States as well as not. Even he appreciates a focused selection for each market–never really expecting everyone to carry the full line. Still, he explains, that the Languedoc gives him freedom to experiment in a way Bourgogne really cannot for lack of space as well as fairly rigid rules. Here, he can play with Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, etc. And he does.
We bring in a pretty tradition line to Colorado– the Domaine Magellan Rouge, Blanc and La Fruit Defendu Rose (a really delightful rose of very old vine Cinsault, which gains its name for the defense of this overlooked and often ripped up and replaced varietal). All of these are so representative of this region’s famed varietals– namely: Grenache Noir, Carignan and Syrah for the red, Grenache Blanc & Rousanne for the white and, of course, the Cinsault pink.
We then were introduced to another rose in their portfolio I really loved, a fruity, unoaked alternative their domaine white, a very easy-going Le Fruit Defendu Blanc and Noir as well as a sensational single vineyard Coteaux du Languedoc Grenache and Syrah. We then sampled his off-the-beaten-path Tempranillo blends, which really were quite delightful!
They laid out such a gorgeous spread of melon, meats, cheeses, fresh fruit and salads. I even tried boudin noir (blood sausage). Though it was a gesture of manners, I actually didn’t mind it too much. It didn’t have the strong finish of foie gras that usually puts me off such ‘delicacies.’ I have never taken to many strong flavored foods of my well-cultured friends. I struggle with mustards, cannot handle horseradish (or wasabi, for that matter) and I cannot handle strong seafoods like urchin, oysters and snails. I am a cheap date for the most part… until you hand me the wine list.
Domaine Magellan is a winery that is worth checking out in your local market or should you find yourself traveling to the south of France. They represent honest, thoughtful and beautiful winemaking. If you in Colorado, simply shoot an email, and I will find some shops that can help you discover these great value wines!