By Vicky Burt, Assistant Manager, Majestic Nottingham
I’ll be the first to admit that I thought the life of a Majestic Buyer was a fairly cushy one. Jetting off to foreign countries, sampling new vintages, considering potential new additions to the range – I mean, just how hard could it be? After three days accompanying Chris Hardy around the Languedoc, I was beginning to feel that, despite my ten hour shifts in the shop, I was the one that had it easy…
I was fortunate enough to be awarded a Vintner’s Bursary following my WSET Advanced Certificate examinations last year which provided me with a sum of money to spend on a wine trip of my choice. Shadowing a wine buyer seemed the best way for me to see behind the scenes in as many vineyards and wineries as possible and also observe the more commercial aspects of the wine business at first hand. Chris very kindly agreed to me accompanying him on his autumn trip to the Languedoc, an amazing opportunity given the vast array of wine styles and producers in the region.
Keen to fit as much as possible into our trip, our first day began with strong coffee at 4:30 am, some hours earlier than my usual roll-out-of-bed! By ten o’clock, we had landed at a rain-swept Nîmes airport and were driving away to our first appointment: Domaine les Yeuses, quite a small concern but with a fantastic rustic winery. Tasting through their range, I found it hard to believe that their wines, all with such finesse and fruit concentration, could be crafted in this old farmyard building. After lunch, we made a quick stop in neighbouring Picpoul de Pinet to visit Domaine des Lauriers, the makers of Domaine Cabrol, a wine Chris had introduced to our stores earlier this year that has been, in my experience, remarkably popular with staff and customers alike. Tasting the new vintage and their other wines, I think Chris and myself were left in no doubt that Picpoul could become extremely popular within the UK.
We drove past Domaine Pech Rome at least twice before we spotted it, a tiny terraced house in the middle of Neffiès, with only the Sud de France emblem to distinguish it from the rest of the row. However, despite this humblest of settings, the wines made there are incredible. If you haven’t tasted the Tempranillo in our Majestic range, you really should! It has amazing character, bursting with blackberry and raspberry fruit, hints of chocolate and liquorice on the nose, with its supple tannins and rounded texture making it a perfect wine for winter months. The domaine’s other wines are more typical of southern French red blends crafted under the regulations of the AOC Coteaux du Languedoc but were equally impressive, fantastically powerful and expressive – real food wines. Pech Rome’s owner, Pascal Blondel (a former pharmacist) was proud to show us his winery; no bigger than the French section in most Majestic stores, it still held more than ten modern epoxy-resin vats from which we tasted tank samples of the promising 2010 vintage.
We arrived at our overnight stop, Domaine Haut-Lirou, at least an hour late, which Chris assured me was perfectly usual for such a busy schedule, but were still in time to take an off-road tour of the vineyards before sunset. Rumbling along in a rickety 4×4, it was easy to see (and smell) why so many wines made around the Languedoc have those characteristic notes of “garrigue”. The land was calcareous, dry and stony: soil that obviously challenges the vines, so that they are forced to form deep roots and produce fruit with an amazing concentration of flavours. The air was overflowing with aromas of thyme, lavender, sage and rosemary, notes that somehow manifest themselves in the finished wines, making them the ultimate expression of terroir. A combination of that early start, the beautiful wines and those heady scents presented one final challenge – staying awake until after a dinner of classic French tartiflette.
Our first appointment the next day was with Charles and Ruth Simpson, the owners of Domaine Sainte Rose. A British couple, they left their respective international careers to pursue their shared dream of establishing a boutique vineyard and winery of their own. Their success has been incredible, scooping up awards from Decanter and the International Wine Challenge as well as attracting frequent & favourable press such as Jane MacQuitty’s Top 100 Summer Wines in The Times. However, it was their enthusiasm and dynamism in both the winemaking and creative marketing sides of their business that I found made this couple so inspirational. Championing less usual grapes such as Roussanne and Petit Verdot to expand their impressive range, I have no doubt that the wines from this domaine will keep going from strength to strength.
Our brief sampling of twenty wines at Domaine Paul Mas turned into a full-blown tour of the winery, a tasting of at least forty wines (plus more that kept being fetched from the cellar!), a table groaning with lunch and a video presentation – needless to say, we were running late again! This was my first glimpse of one of the larger and more commercial producers in the Languedoc; I had always thought of Paul Mas as being a significant contributor to Majestic’s Southern French offering but, compared to the forest of bottles presented to us, we actually list quite a humble selection! Tasting through The Arrogant Frog, Domaine Paul Mas, and La Forge ranges definitely took the pacing of a marathon rather than a sprint, but I was glad to see that two of the wines that stood out to me most were part of our range: the Domaine Paul Mas Marsanne (easy-drinking, peachy, floral flavours) and the Mas de Mas Corbieres (huge concentration of blackberries and violets) – both amazing value when on offer.
Next stop, Chateau la Dournie, founded in the 1870s by the Etienne family and handed down through the generations from mother to daughter to the current head winemaker, Véronique. Her Saint Chinian AOC wine, with Syrah dominant, is crafted from just 10 hectares of vines grown on flaky, schist soils. Véronique is adamant that you can taste that the wine has been made by females. Although I’m not quite sure my palate is experienced enough yet to identify the gender of the winemaker, the wine’s black cherry fruit, with mocha and menthol notes certainly make it a pleasure to drink!
We spent the evening with ex-international rugby player, Gérard Bertrand at his domaine, Château L’Hospitalet at La Clape, Narbonne (making some of my male co-workers very jealous!). Owning 325 hectares of vines spread over 5 different locations, Gérard has an amazing capacity to produce a wide range of high-quality wines, experienced first hand that evening with the finest of dishes in the domaine’s restaurant. I felt most privileged to be able to try his premium blends, including the renowned Château L’Hospitalet Grand Vin, Coteaux du Languedoc La Clape that won a Gold Medal and a Trophy in this year’s International Wine Challenge – look out for this in our Fine Wine stores from next Spring. There is an impressive concentration of fruit on the nose, perhaps with a hint of cloves, and the palate is brimming with black hedgerow berries. Making food-friendly drinking at the moment, it has the structure and full-body to develop further and I’m looking forward to trying this again after a few years cellaring.
Our third and final day was no less action packed. After a brisk early morning stroll to get a better view of Gérard’s extensive vineyards we set off towards Faugères to visit chief winemaker Laurent Miquel and his wife Neasa at their family-owned estate, Château Cazal Viel. The domaine specialises in high quality Syrah and Viognier, as Laurent believes that the vineyards’ terroir is perfect for them, and tasting their premium Syrahs was indeed a treat. However, perhaps the highlight for me was taking part in the blending of a new Chardonnay from oaked and un-oaked samples to reach a wine that we thought would fill a niche in our Southern French range while appealing to customers’ palates. It will be launched into our stores in the Spring under the Laurent Miquel L’Artisan label, and I look forward to tasting and selling the finished article.
Domaine Begude was our next point of call; again, an estate developed by a British couple, James and Catherine Kinglake. Their chief wine maker, Laurent Girault, led us through a tasting of different barrel samples of their well renowned Chardonnays. In studying for the WSET Diploma, this gave me an invaluable insight into the massive influence of different types of oak, the age of the barrel, the length of maturation and above all, the importance of blending to achieve a consistent house style. The generous gift of a bottle of the estate’s luscious premium chardonnay, L’Etoile de Begude, was plus point!
By mid-afternoon we had reached the Lorgeril estate, home to several old favourites in our range including Marques de Pennautier, Les Combe des Oliviers, and La Galine to name but a few. Hopefully, we will be expanding this range in the Spring with a new IGP Cité de Carcassonne rose, a red Côtes du Roussillon, and a Cabardès red in the Terroirs d’Altitude range, all of which much impressed Chris and myself. Miren, the Président of Lorgeril, was keen to tell us about the success of a recent Majestic staff visit to the estate, and taking a tour of the newly restored Château de Pennautier, our lucky employees must have been treated like royalty. Four-poster beds, ornate furniture, original artwork…in England, this would have been kept sternly behind National Trust style railings, however, they were allowed to make themselves at home in these lavish surroundings, and even sample the expensive cognac selection found in one of the reception rooms!
As night drew in we arrived at Château Guiot, near our starting point in Costières de Nîmes where our hosts Francois and Sylvia Cornut and one of their twin sons Alexis were amazingly hospitable to two weary travellers! A relaxed BBQ of Magret de Canard cooked over vine stumps and accompanied by the domaine’s wines seemed like the perfect way to round off what had been such an inspiring yet exhausting trip.
What an incredible privilege to have been able to taken this trip and experience the work of a wine buyer. Not only did accompanying Chris allow me to access a greater range of wine estates than I could otherwise hope, but it also provided an incredible insight into the decision-making processes and negotiations that take place before a particular brand of wine hits our shelves. I have also had the chance to be one of the first to taste newly bottled vintages, try vat samples, blend a new wine, and of course meet some truly inspiring wine producers; experiences that I previously could only read about in textbooks but now are brought to life.
So, is the life of a wine buyer a cushy one? Emphatically, no! I was shattered after day one, without doing any driving or having to reply to the 50 emails that Chris seems to attract every day! But I can’t feel too sorry for wine buyers, as those three days of work for Chris were probably the best three days of holiday I’ve ever taken! A truly unforgettable trip!