As scenic as the emerald green ocean of vines is in the wild terrain of the Languedoc hinterland, it can all too easily become a wine grower's graveyard. At a time when southern France's growers are up against the economies of scale that make New World wines so competitive, owning a vineyard is by no means a guarantee of a living. Take the area around Fitou; when the southern French co-operatives of Paziols, Villeneuve and Durban lost their competitive edge, they were absorbed into the more go-ahead Mont Tauch co-op.
Mont Tauch has survived – and prospered – by adapting to modern demands. After 16 years loyal service, its English sales and marketing director, Katie Jones, saw the potential and hung up her Roger Vivier heels in favour of a pair of sensible winemaking boots. Looking for a vineyard with a workman's hut to while away the hours in, she stumbled on the Maury Valley and a breathtaking eight-hectare vineyard beneath Quéribus, the remarkable 10th-century Cathar castle that clings precariously to the mountaintop. "It just felt right," she says. She found a willing producer to split it with and a "toy winery" in the village of Tuchan's Rue du Vatican, hence its nickname, "The Vatican".
The seller, an M. Baurrel, had told her the vineyard was mostly planted to grenache, but failed to mention half of it was white – grenache gris, that is. She was disappointed at first but it turned out to be a godsend. Grenache gris is a quality variety with great potential for fresh acidity and minerality. Last year, with help from an Australian consultant winemaker, David Morrison, she made her first wines from the vineyard's 70-year old vines.
The results are a 2009 Domaine Jones Blanc, £14.99, a full-bodied, richly textured dry white with ripe, stonefruit flavours and a stony, mineral core; and a 2009 Jones Muscat, £9.99, in half-litre bottles, a correspondingly fragrant, medium sweet white with lusciously exotic, lychee and grapey flavours. Both are available from Stevens Garnier, Oxford (01865 263303), which will shortly be stocking the succulently juicy red. For more details, see domainejones.com.
The scenic beauty and gnarled vines of the Maury Valley appealed equally to ex-Waitrose wine buyer Justin Howard-Sneyd, and his wife Amanda, when they chanced on the region during a holiday the in 2003.
"Having just lost money on a few ISAs, we thought we'd be better off losing money on a vineyard instead," says Howard-Sneyd, who found three small blocks of old, low-yielding vines that now make up the Domaine of the Bee's four hectares. He's not making a profit yet, but is hoping if all goes well to net a modest €10,000 a year from the project.
Having just become global director of Laithwaites, he admits that the wine is "a hobby", entrusting vineyard and winemaking to Richard Case, an English winemaker ensconced in the region. Starting in 2007, the Howard-Sneyds now sell the 2008 Domaine of the Bee via their website, domaineofthebee.com. A blend of mainly grenache, with some carignan, the 2008 Domaine of the Bee, £20, £16.50 by the case, displays sweet, smoky aromas and blackberryish fruit with a spicy, chocolatey richness and savoury acidity. Like Katie Jones's red, it's the product of an English background and a French vineyard. Unlike Jones, Howard-Sneyd is not planning on giving up the day job just yet.Reuse content