Every year, we like to invite our Wine Club members to come and join us in France for a weekend, over the harvest.
There is no doubt that harvest-time is the best time to visit a wine village like Maury – it is a hive of activity, with garage doors thrown open to reveal fibreglass wine tanks and a press, usually tucked into a corner, but once a year wheeled out, hosed down, and put into service to squeeze the last drops out of another vintage.
Most of our guests fly on Friday morning, have a leisurely drive from Toulouse over the hills, and arrive in time for a jaunt on Friday afternoon – this time to the extraordinary fortress of Chateau de Queribus, which keep benevolent watch over the Maury valley spread out below.
Friday evening dinner is informal – gathered at the Maison du Terroir (known locally to us Brits as the house of terror) for a bring-a-bottle soirée accompanied by some jambon and a local dish.
Saturday morning is when things get (briefly) serious – after a brief tutorial in the different grape varieties, and the bunches to reject because they will reduce the quality of the wine, it is a solid 3 hours of picking before lunch – enough to develop a twinge in the lower back, and to need a bit of a sit-down and a litre of cold water.
The target to fill a barrel is 45 full boxes, and this year we had to pick for another hour after lunch to produce enough grapes, after which we climbed into a small convoy of cars and snaked our way down the the winery.
Here, each box of grapes is upended in an open barrel, and trodden by foot with carefully washed feet, until most of the grapes are broken open to release the juice. The sensation of cool juice oozing up between the toes is surprisingly gratifying.
Once the barrel is full, we lift it into the cold room by forklift to begin a few days of cold maceration before the fermentation begins, wash everything thoroughly, and then we have a quick tour of the winery to look at the barrels that are already fermenting, and understand the end-to-end process.
The Riberach hotel is in a tiny village called Belesta, lost in the hills of the Upper Agly Valley, where an old wine co-operative has been turned into a luxury hotel, the old concrete wine tanks turned into bedrooms and shower rooms, and a fine restaurant. The end of the building is still a working winery, and the evening begin with a tasting of the (excellent) wines that they make, before heading in to the restaurant and sitting down to a 3-course dinner accompanied by wines from Domaine of the Bee.
Several of our guests were travelling onwards through France (one couple in a rather snazzy VW California campervan, another couple in a convertible), but for the remainder, a leisurely (and very plentiful) breakfast preceded a slow drive back to Toulouse for the flight home.
Anyone reading who wants to come along next year (7th-9th October), just email firstname.lastname@example.org.
An old man is being interviewed. He is asked where he was born.
And where did he grow up?
Where does he live now?
Where would he prefer to be buried when he dies?
With a wistful sigh, he answers, “St. Petersburg.”
Same man, same city, different names.
Why do I tell this joke in a preamble about the new Appellation of ‘Maury Sec’?
Maury used to be famous for making a port-style fortified red called Maury, Vin Doux Naturel (VDN). So the name Maury couldn’t be used for other wines.
So wines from the village went out under ‘Cotes du Roussillon Villages’, if they respected the rather strict appellation rules about which grapes were allowed, or under ‘Vin de Pays Cotes Catalanes’ if they wanted to use a freer set of rules.
When we first arrived in the valley, we bought three blocks, all around the beautiful village of Maury.
We could have made a Maury VDN.
But was wanted to make a dry table wine, and our winemaking friend Richard (in whose cellar we worked) didn’t like following the appellation rules, so out first few wines were labelled ‘Vin de Pays de Cotes Catalanes’
When we moved to work with Frenchman Jean-Marc Lafage at Chateau St Roch, we switched the classification of the wine (from exactly the same vineyards) to ‘Cotes du Roussillon Villages’.
And from 2019 we have registered our vines as Maury Sec, so that we’d have the right to use the rather more specific and helpful appellation, which homes right in on the most premium part of the Roussillon (Maury is a ‘Cru’ – the highest rank of classification, along with the little fishing village of ‘Collioure’, near the Spanish border).
So the same blocks of vines have moved through three different names (so far!), but the wine is essentially the same. We hope it tastes just as good as normal.
One of the perks of being a Domaine of the Bee Wine Club Member is that you are invited to be used as slave labour at harvest time.
16 of our Club Members came to Maury and had a gas over a gorgeous windy sunny weekend. Picking for 3 hours, stomping grapes for 2 hours, and hour looking round the winery and then back to the Hotel Restaurant Riberach La Cooperative for a wine-fuelled dinner.
We decided to pick enough to fill one barrel. This requires about 500Kg of grapes, so we only needed to pick about 30kg of grapes each, but that can take surprisingly long…. especially when there are complex instructions about primary and secondary bunches to take on board (watch Amanda’s explanation here)
And we were keen to use the simplest possible method of fermentation for this special barrel – ‘whole bunch fermentation’.
This involves tipping the bunches into the barrel without removing the stalks, and gently crushing the bunches underfoot, to release the juice.
So we lined up to wash our feet, and then climb in to the barrel of surprisingly cold grapes, to give them a good old stomp.
The resulting wine will have a slightly lower alcohol, and will pick up some tannins from the stalks, which will give the wine a slightly ‘fresher’, and more pithy, green character. “Whole bunch” is becoming very fashionable these days, as some of the opinion-formers among the journalists and sommeliers look for reds that are a bit lighter on their feet.
Once we had worked our magic, we retired to enjoy a gorgeous dinner at the only luxury hotel in the region, in a refitted old wine co-operative building in Belesta, where many of the rooms are located in what were originally concrete wine tanks.
After we had finished with it, our barrel was lifted into a chilled container for 5 days, to keep it too cold to ferment, and to allow as much as possible of the colour and flavour from the skins to leach out into the juice.
Then, once the barrel had warmed up again to around 18 degrees, the fermentation started spontaneously, and took just over a week to ferment to dryness.
I made regular short videos to send to the harvest crew via WhatsApp. We’ve now downloaded most of them to our YouTube channel, which you can have a look at here
The wine is now fermented dry (well, there were 4g/l of sugar left when sampled on Monday 28/10).
A bottle of the fermenting wine was brought back by me for our Club Members to taste on the 2nd November at our Winter Tasting.
Ever since I first drove up the road from Cucugnan, past the castle of Queribus, and then down to the village of Maury, I have been smitten.
And ever since then, I have brought countless hapless visitors to the same spot, and watched them fall in love too.
For some rather foolish reason, about a year ago, I stuck my hand up and volunteered to organise an ‘MW trip’ to my favourite region.
Now, the MW trip is one of the best perks of being a Master of Wine. Essentially, for a modest contribution towards costs, MWs can enter the ballot to gain a place on one of 6-8 trips that are run every year to different wine regions.
The idea of the trip is to condense the best wines and best producers in a region into a very focussed and intense visit. The outcome should be that every MW feels fully up-to-date with what is going on in the corner of the wine world that they are visiting.
But my secret plan for this Roussillon trip was to make sure that they too fell in love with this stunning part of the world.
Our first visit was to the hugely inspiring pioneer of the Roussillon – Gerard Gauby, who has torn up the rulebook of biodynamics and written his own. He told us that “If Steiner [founder of biodynamics] was a Catalan, he’d be doing what I am doing”
Everything Gerard does has ‘love’ written all over it – love for nature, love for biodiversity, love for the people who work with him, and love for simple wines, naturally made. He has pioneered something he called ‘agro-forestry – inter-planting rows of vines with rows of olive trees and fruit trees, and this helps to encourage the wild birds that eat the destructive insects that give rise to grape diseases.
An inspiring and fascinating visit.
The next component of my secret plan was to coax the unsuspecting MWs away from wine for a brief hour, and plunge them into the cauldron of Cathar history that is the castle of Queribus. Never taken in battle, this stronghold could be held against all comers with fewer than 20 men.
With incredible views of the whole region, and buffeted by gusts of wind that could lift a child off her feet, we were lucky to climb to the top on a day of stunning visibilty.
No-one escapes Queribus unmoved.
Later in the week, we added into the mix a masterclass on ‘Vins doux naturel’, the famous fortified wines from the Roussillon, a walking tour of historic Perpignan, a ‘sea and mountains’ safari in Banyuls, a dip in the sea at Collioure, a night in the world’s only hotel built in a revamped co-operative winery, and countless excellent tastings, lunches and dinners.
And, of course, the chance to taste some Domaine of the Bee.
With all this planned, I hoped we had the recipe for a visit that the MWs would remember for many years to come
I think it worked!
We had some very effusive thank you notes from almost everyone on the trip, and the feedback forms are coming in think and fast studded with enthusiastic exclamations.
No other MW has, to my knowledge, yet bought themselves a vineyard in the area, but it is only a matter of time…..
My father started inviting his children to his Christmas parties when we were old enough to hand around canapés and pour champagne.
For some years, he had made his living as an art dealer. Back in the eighties, the London art world was a rather splendid melting pot of colourful and eccentric figures who had more style than most, and much more scurrilous anecdotes…..
We learned a lot, as we wove through the throng waving bottles of fizz, and scoffing smoked salmon when Dad wasn’t looking.
My favourite job was making the Champagne cocktails, and to this day, it remains a copper-bottomed Christmas classic – very simple, rather sophisticated and decadently delicious.
Take one sugar cube.
Apply 2-3 drops of Angostura bitters.
Drop into the bottom of a champagne flute.
Cover (generously) with decent brandy (not the cooking stuff).
Leave until a guest arrives, and then top up with moderately good champagne (no need to use the Krug, but for God’s sake please don’t attempt with Prosecco)
Thereafter, circulate and top glasses up with fresh Champagne, and gradually the Angostura and sugar melts away until, by the second top-up, guests are drinking pretty much pure Champagne
As we approached our later teens, we were allowed a glass or two each.
The problem was always that I would put my glass down half finished, and then forget where I had put it (or someone else would pick it up), and I’d have to start another, with a fresh slug of brandy.
After three of these. I found the room would spin pleasantly, and everyone was much kinder, funnier and I became less shy and more talkative.
The parties were always hugely fun, and there was often an after-party that would end up in one of the many Indian or Lebanese restaurants that dotted the Edgware Road. Occasionally these would become rather loud.
After three or four of these parties I began to find my social footing, and discovered that interesting conversations only need a little bit of small-talk to get them going.
And I have been rather fond of Champagne cocktails ever since…..
One of the reasons we started the Domaine of the Bee Wine Club was to give us more excuses to crack open bottles of wine, and to share them with lovely people.
And for the second year, we have encouraged our members to have a fossick in their wine rack, and to pull out a bottle of something they wanted to share with us.
Last night, we gathered in the upstairs room at Sonny’s Kitchen in Barnes, where we had negiotated a ‘zero corkage’ deal in return for filling the room for the evening. This meant that we had three fabulous courses for a mere £45 a head.
And what a great list of wines we enjoyed. Here is a list of what we drank, along with an approximate current retail price (where available)
Hart of Gold 2010, Herefordshire, England – n/a, but would be around £35 a bottle
Vasse Felix Chardonnay 2016, Western Australia – around £20 a bottle
Kumeu River ‘Hunting Hill’ Chardonnay 2015, New Zealand – around £30 per bottle
Taronja de Gris 2017, Roussillon, France – £30 – http://www.domaineofthebee.com
‘Our Fathers’ Shiraz 2014, Barossa, Australia – approx £25
Domaine of the Bee ‘Les Genoux’ 2011 – £45 a bottle – only a few bottles left
Rustenberg ‘Peter Barlow’ 2015, Stellenbosch, SA – around £40 per bottle
Quinta Vale D.Maria 2008, Porto, Portugal – around £40 per bottle
Cote Rotie 2009, M+S Ogier, Rhone, France – around £40 per bottle
Chateauneuf-du-Pape 2000 Vieux Telegraph – around £40 per bottle
Chateauneuf-du-Pape ‘Deux Freres’ 2005, Usseglio – around £90 a bottle
Chateau Suduiraut 2001, Sauternes – around £70 a bottle
Everyone who brought a bottle was asked to say a few words about why they liked it, and then pass it around the table.
All of these wines were made with love and care, by interesting people, with interesting stories to tell, and it is such a pleasure for a winemaker to see that their bottles are tasted with attention, discussed and dissected, and then slurped with abandon.
We’ll certainly do it again next year, and maybe will introduce another such session in the summer too – please come along to the next one, and if you are not yet a Wine Club member, it’s not too late to join!
Available from supermarkets at this time of year, they cost between £4-£6 a bottle for a lightly spiced, sweetened red wine of about 9% alcohol. They are frequently brewed up in Germany using Europe’s cheapest source of thin red wines, and then industrially flavoured with cloves, cinnamon, orange, and other Christmassy flavours. When hot, they taste thin and weedy and artificial. Waitrose’s version maybe better than most, but still……
Here’s two methods that will guarantee you a decent drop.
1. The quick and easy method with a pre-bought syrup
– Buy a bottle of Mulled Wine syrup, or sachets of mulled wine spices
– Buy an inexpensive red, with a soft generous flavour, I find simple Cotes du Rhone a very reliable bet, or any other red that is ripe and not too tannic. If you are a millionaire, and you want to use Domaine of the Bee, that is fine by me, but it might be a bit of a waste….
(I sometimes use up red wine that has been sitting around open for a few days, as mulled wine is a bit more forgiving if the wine has become a little tired.)
– heat the wine in the saucepan with the recommended amount of syrup – or with the infusion of mulled wine spices steeping in the wine.
– add sugar or honey to taste
– slice an orange into quarter slices and float in the wine
– be careful not to boil
– serve in heat-proof glasses when piping hot.
2. The slower and more complicated (but better) method by making your own syrup (serves 24-36)
Making the syrup
– boil 3-4 litres of water, and dissolve 1 kg of sugar
– when the sugar has melted, add 3-4 sliced oranges (you can also collect orange peel over 2-3 days before, and add this too)
– add 20-30 cloves, and 2-3 cinnamon sticks, snapped into 3-4 pieces
– add 5-6 star anise
– other spices can be added if you like the flavours – nutmeg and allspice are good
– allow the syrup to boil until it has reduced to half the original volume
– allow the syrup to cool a little, strain into jugs, or bottles (especially if you want to keep the syrup for a few days.
Mulling the wine
– Depending on how many guests you have, use 1 part syrup to 4 parts wine. (So 3 bottles of syrup + 12 bottles of wine will give you enough wine to serve 30-36 people)
– heat the wine (see method 1) and syrup together in a saucepan. (Don’t use all of the wine and syrup at the beginning, but brew it in batches as needed).
– float some freshly cut orange slices in the warming wine
– stud a couple of small oranges with 12-20 cloves and float in the wine
– add port of brandy to taste (no more than half a bottle for 4-5 bottles of mulled wine)
– Counterbalance the extra alcohol of the brandy by adding some good quality apple juice (I find this works better than orange juice)
– balance the alcohol and fruit juice to suit your palate, and whether or not you want raucous singing and dancing on the tables
– ladle into jugs so that you can top up your guests glasses without needing to have them them cluster around the mulling pot
– when you need to brew up some more, just add some more syrup and some more wine, and start again.
– if you have syrup left over, you can use it on another occasion, or even keep it for another year.
Have a wonderful time – mince pies and Christmas carols optional…..
STOP PRESS – we’ll be serving some mulled wine and mince pies on Saturday 15th December at 44 Hertford Avenue if you stop by to buy some last minute Christmas presents, between 4-7pm.
The day before I left Maury to come back to London, I went to visit our Carignan vineyard at La Roque, with some kind of idea in my head of saying thank you to the vines.
They had produced so much fruit this year, and they are over 80 years old, yet they produced almost as many grapes as a 20 year old vine. And such delicious grapes!
In the car, I had a box of sample bottles with the dregs of the previous year’s wine that I had been tasting to decide on the 2016 Domaine of the Bee blend. I had planned to put what remained back in the barrels I had taken them from, but I decided, on the spur of the moment, to offer a libation to our vines. To return to their soil a small amount of the wine that these old fellows had produced.
As I stood there at the top of the vineyard surveying this hectare of maybe 4,000 wonderful old Carignan vines, it occurred to me that we have many more vines than customers. In any one year, we might sell 5,000 bottles of wine to around 500 people, but we have around 15,000 vines – that’s about 30 vines for each of you.
So, as I poured a few dribbles from each bottle, each on a different vine, I said ‘Thank You’ from you, as well as from me.
I felt that you and our vines are connected somehow. And that you might think of your 30 vines, the next time you drink a mouthful of Bee.