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New Old World

If you’re looking for the face of the New Languedoc, you might want to consider Jean-Claude Mas.  He started his Domaines Paul Mas in 2000, and in only about a dozen years has taken a leadership role in both quality and volume wine production in the Languedoc in a way that would not have been possible anywhere else in France.

Languedoc, which spreads languorously across France’s fat Mediterranean belly, has been making wines for centuries, but until recently the region was always somewhat uncharted territory.  Its reputation was in making plonk, although often tasty plonk, that sold for a few sous under its own name and for considerably more sous when someone illegally blended it into an anemic Bordeaux or Burgundy vintage.

I had lunch recently with Mas at New York’s Vin sur Vingt restaurant, and he brought along a dozen of his own wines, a small portion of his portfolio, which he estimates to be around 100 different brands or SKU’s with a total annual production of around 1.4 million cases.  We tasted varietals from Sauvignon to Carianne, everyday blends from the usual Côteaux du Languedoc suspects – Syrah, Grenache Noir, Mourvedre, and crus from AOC Terrasses du Larzac, “a new appellation,” Mas noted, “that was just approved last month.” Mostly, his wines in the U.S. sell for under $25.

For some time, I have thought of the Languedoc as France’s “New World,” a California-like territory where a grower can plant whatever she wants and make whatever style of wine she wants – very un-French, with their penchant for tight appellation rules.  Mas laughed in agreement.  “Our motto is, ‘Old World Wines with a New World Attitude,’” he said.

Mas, who is native to the region and whose family grew grapes, is like other major growers in the area in making very good regional wines at low prices plus great single-vineyard and cru wines that often have hefty price tags.  That’s the beauty of Languedoc – enough flat territory at moderate land prices to make high-volume, good-quality, everyday wines like Mas’ re-branded “Arrogant Frog” line, but also great micro-climates capable of producing wines, reds especially, that can challenge those of Bordeaux and the Rhone.  And new producers are everywhere, some “indigenous” like Mas and some “international” from the Rhone (Chapoutier) and Bordeaux (Cazes), again reflecting the spirit of the region.

Mas is not sure about the direction of the New Languedoc and seems to have mixed feelings.  Will the free-to-be, unfettered Languedoc of the 1990's continue to be the spirit of the region, or will it gradually be carved up into a jigsaw of highly regulated vinous sub-divisions, such as Terrasses du Larzac, that will one day make it look like another Loire Valley? In some ways, it’s the perpetual dilemma of the French wine soul.  Either way, Mas will continue to grow Domaines Paul Mas, ideally, he says, at about 12 percent annually. 

Jean-Claude is a great companion at the table – highly intelligent and successful, but gregarious and totally un-stuffy at the same time.  Medium in stature, he has facial expressions that for some reason remind me of the Spanish actor, Antonio Banderas, and he opens bottles of wine as unpretentiously as a host at the kitchen table at an impromptu Friday-night party.  Before establishing his own firm, Mas worked for another high-octane wine entrepreneur, Bernard Magrez.

Although he oversees all winemaking, Mas has eight wineries and eight enologists.  “Each estate has its own DNA, but each obeys the overall style,” he says, adding, “I want to be the highest-volume producer who is not a négociant, controlling everything from the growing of the grapes to making the wine. But I want to have my own style.” 

Like most thoughtful winemakers, he has words for his style – “fruit, noble aromatics, tannins, elegance, complexity” – but basically he knows his style when he tastes it.  At present, Mas expresses no interest in making wines outside of Languedoc.  But, like a new convert to running who vows never to enter a 10K and then never to run a marathon but ends up running both, the hugeness of the Languedoc may one day seem abruptly small and confining to him.

“I go by intuition,” Mas confesses.  “I hate the idea of not growing.”

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