Thu 13 Nov 2014

Domaine Jones: What We Did On Our Holiday, Part One

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Don’t worry, nobody dies but does contain holiday snaps!

Domaine JonesWho in their right mind would choose to take time out from work and pay for the privilege of picking grapes? I’m sure this question was being muttered by the real pickers when we spent a week at Domaine Jones in the Languedoc recently, theoretically to help with the harvest.

Despite having worked in the wine trade for nearly 25 years and having visited wineries around the world, both in a professional capacity and under my own steam, I have never experienced harvest time. A few of us at The Wine Society decided that it was about time we did, while we still could!

Normally pitching up at a winery during the harvest is not a good idea. It’s an incredibly busy time, but because some of our (younger) colleagues have helped Katie Jones with the harvest before, we knew that she was used to dealing with inexperienced, if albeit much fitter, pickers.

Katie Jones in her original Domaine Jones vineyard beneath Queribus

Katie Jones in her original vineyard beneath Queribus

As well as being a supplier to The Society, Katie also happens to be a university friend of Liz Cerroti, head of Member Services at The Society. Taking advantage of this connection, Liz, myself and digital marketing manager, Nicky Glennon decided to take the plunge and head south for the vendage.

One of the first issues we had to face back in February when the decision had been made to descend upon Katie was when to book our flights. Though it is possible to give rough estimates of likely picking dates (100-120 days after flowering), narrowing this down to the exact day when the grapes will be fully ripe that also coincides with Ryanair’s availability and family and work commitments is another matter. Added to this, 2014 has been something of an unpredictable year with Mother Nature throwing just about everything she has at grape growers across Europe.

Pre-picking & packing concerns
As the holiday approached, other concerns started to enter into play. How on earth would we be able to pack for a week including walking boots and gear for all weathers as well as ‘clothes that you would never want to wear again’ and comply with the stringent hand-luggage restrictions? Then there were anxieties over how some of us with dodgy backs and knees would cope physically with the punishing work that picking is…. not to mention scare stories about wasps, hornets, accidents with razor-sharp shears, heat stroke…. and then in the winery…. the dangers of asphyxiation from the CO2, limbs being severed by machinery… trip hazards… it was all starting to sound a bit serious and not at all in-keeping with the joyful bucolic scene we’d somehow conjured up for ourselves!

After psyching ourselves up for the big pick we were then a little disappointed to see the forecast looking less than rosy and to find out that the whites were already in. It was starting to look distinctly unlikely that we’d be doing any picking at all.

Domaine Jones winery‘Never mind’, Katie said, ‘there’s still plenty to do in the winery.’

One of the real benefits of spending time at somewhere like Domaine Jones, apart from the fact that Katie and partner Jean-Marc Astruc are terrific hosts and incredibly patient, is that their operation is small enough for you to see a bit of everything that takes place in the winemaking process. Also, because they too are quite new to this game (Jean-Marc comes from a family of grape growers and used to be president at the local co-op where Katie was responsible for marketing and sales for 16 years), they are still experimenting and learning as they go along too.

In the heart of Cathar country
Domaine Jones is located in the village of Tuchan (toosh-ohn), a small village of around 800 souls (and twice as many dogs, themselves outnumbered by the local wild boar). It is located about 40 minutes’ drive inland from Perpignan in Cathar country, its vineyards nestled around the foothills of the mighty Mont Tauch with its crown of bright white windmills. This is Fitou territory and grape-growing is the main activity of the village, as it has been for generations.

The countryside is spectacularly beautiful with the Cathar castles indistinguishable from the craggy ranges they cling to and deep river gorges cutting through the garrigue – the scrubland perfumed with wild fennel, rosemary and fig trees. There’s plenty to attract the visitor without the draw of the excellent wines.

Looking down on the Maury vineyard from the top of Queribus

Looking down on the Maury vineyard from the top of Queribus

…a bit of background on Domaine Jones
When Katie decided to leave the co-op she initially intended to set up her own marketing and design consultancy but her Francophile parents had always harboured a romantic notion of owning some vines. So when Katie was offered a 2.5-hectare plot of old vines in nearby Maury (over the ‘col’ in neighbouring Roussillon), she decided to raise the funds to buy it – realising, if vicariously, her parents’ dream.

Katie and Jean-Marc took us to view these vines, high up on the hills beneath spectacular Quéribus castle on black schistous soils; even to the untrained eye they looked pretty special. When Katie bought the vineyard (they came onto the market as the ancient vines – some up to 100 years old – were low-yielding and difficult to farm) she had been told that the vines were grenache noir, but the plot turned out to have grenache gris, carignan and muscat too – quite unusual in such a small vineyard (you can read more about this in our interview with Katie a few years ago).

The beauty of starting out in this way was that Katie was forced to pick and ferment everything separately and learned from the outset how different varieties would behave. It also meant that she had a rich palette of raw materials with which to put together blends. The Domaine Jones Rouge and Blanc were born with the 2009 vintage and met with critical acclaim from the start.

Jumping ahead to 2014 and Katie has continued to buy up small plots of low-yielding vines in and around the village of Tuchan, mainly to produce Fitou, so that there are now a total of around 11 hectares spread out over 25 vinyeards. Like the original Maury vineyard, many of these are small plots of old vines that the locals no longer wish to farm. One such plot is of the extremely rare carignan gris – a mutation of carignan noir. Katie and Jean-Marc only have 500 vines, but apparently theirs are only about two heactares registered in the whole of France. The grape is notoriously difficult to ripen, is low-yielding and is generally lower in potential alcohol but, Katie was very pleased with the first release of this wine which she has labelled under her ‘Perles de Jones’ label and Wine Society buyer Marcel Orford-Williams snapped up the whole production. Fiona Beckett wrote a rave review of the wine which came out while we were at the Domaine; Katie and Jean-Marc were thrilled.

Jean-Marc explaining how parts of the vineyard ripen more than others. Domaine Jones.

Jean-Marc explaining how parts of the vineyard ripen more than others.

Jean-Marc told us how he tried to get hold of more plants from the vine nursery in Montpellier but the pépiniériste only had five roots and was not willing to part with any of them so Katie and Jean-Marc will be taking cuttings from their own vines to increase their plantings of this capricious variety. It was the last grape to be picked in 2014 on 5th October – after we had left and after all the reds were in and it still only came in at 12% potential alcohol.

In the lap of the (weather) gods…
Measuring the potential alcohol of the grapes was to become something we were to be very familiar with over the coming days. Katie told us that Jean-Marc, despite his calm exterior, was becoming quite agitated; pretty much all the neighbours had already picked and the longer you wait, the greater the possibility of the crop being lost to bad weather – as was to be the fate of some unfortunate producers whose crops were washed away in autumnal downpours, particularly in the Gard.

Fortunately the storms passed us by, but the wind coming in from the Mediterranean was bringing damp mild weather; what was wanted was the north wind – the Tramontagne. As Katie says, it’s likes a great big hair dryer, getting rid of any moisture and allowing the grapes to be picked in optimum conditions. As we were to discover, the potential alcohol in the grapes was not the issue – most were already showing good levels, but Katie and Jean-Marc explained that they were waiting for the grapes to show phenolic ripeness. This means that the grape skins, pips and stem are properly ripe and have lost any bitterness and there is a balance between potential alcohol and acidity/PH levels.

Prélevement – the testing of the grapes for ripeness
We were dispatched into the vines, plastic bags in hand, and given a couple of rows of vines each to get a random sample of grapes to ascertain each vineyard’s readiness for picking. We were told to pass through the vines taking a berry from the top of the bunch, the middle and underneath, then to crush the berries in the bag to get some juice. It was also pointed out to us that tasting the berries and crunching the pips was just as important as any analytical tests. Juice from each bag was poured onto a refractometer to measure the potential alcohol. Next we placed the probe of a PH meter into the juice to measure acidity levels – the higher the reading, the lower the acidity and for Jean-Marc and Katie’s liking, the grapes were still not quite ripe enough. We must wait…

View over the Maury valley

View over the Maury valley

A multi-coloured patchwork of vineyards
Travelling through the vineyards it was remarkable just how different the soils were from one plot to the next, even those in close proximity. Jean-Marc told us later that various studies had confirmed that the geology of the region is particularly interesting in that there is a greater variety of different rocks and soils in a relatively small area than anywhere else in France. The plot of grenache vines we tested first was on lovely red sandy clay soil, yet just a short ride in the truck to look at a plot of carignan, took us to grey-white stony soils.

Most of the vineyards were tiny but there were vines almost as far as the eye could see. We wondered whether it was hard to tell where your grapes ended and another’s started. Katie said that it wasn’t that unusual for vineyard workers to have spent a morning labouring away on a neighbour’s vines by mistake! Telling one variety from another was also a necessary skill and we were given a lesson in identifying grenache and carignan grapes and the curious local clone lladoner pelud, or hairy grenache (because of its spiky leaves) was pointed out to us –a variety much favoured for its small berries and potential for high-quality wine.

The interplay of ‘la chasse’ & ‘la vigne’
Katie also pointed out the unmistakable signs of foraging wild boar – the ground between the vines was completely churned up and there was the odd bunch knocked onto the ground. Katie said that the boar were a real nuisance, destroying a vineyard in no time at all. Perhaps the fact that they hadn’t hoovered up these grapes was another sign that they hadn’t reached optimum ripeness!

A lot of the vineyards we were to visit had electric fences around them to protect them from the boar; they are particularly fond of the sweeter muscat grapes apparently. The countryside is dotted with tall wooden towers from which the hunters take their aim and back in Tuchan the hunting lodge is one of the more imposing buildings at the centre of town. We were there in hunting season when ‘la chasse’ is permitted on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays.

Jean-Marc told us that growing up in Tuchan there were only two pastimes – ‘la chasse’ or rugby. He chose the latter and apparently was rather good in his youth. Luckily for us his father was still actively involved in the former, the spoils of which we were to enjoy on several occasions and in several guises, including the local speciality civet de sanglier, cooked by Jean-Marc’s mother. A sort of boeuf bourguignon of the south which involves marinating the meat overnight in Fitou and cooking it slowly with onions, garlic, carrots and local herbs. Lovely with boiled potatoes or pasta – even in 30°C!

Domaine Jones

‘Project 2015’ – the old train shed

Project 2015
Before heading back to the winery Katie took us to see Domaine Jones’ latest acquisition. Having grown out of The Vatican (the 200 year-old stone building Katie bought in the Rue de Vatican), Katie and Jean-Marc have been making wine in the hangar adjoining their house and now just use The Vatican for storage. But Katie has had her eye on the old train shed in the village for some time, so when an opportunity came to buy it they put in a bid. The stone building dates back to 1905 and was part of the Tuchan terminus building and now represents a huge renovation job for Katie and Jean-Marc if they’re to have it up and running for next year’s vintage. It comes complete with its own well (presumably for the steam trains which used to carry the grapes down to Perpignan before decent roads were built) and has a bit of land for potential accommodation. Katie says you really need to live above the shop when you’re making wine and we were soon to appreciate why.

More tomorrow!

Joanna Goodman
News Editor

You can find wines currently listed by Domaine Jones here

Categories : France, South of France

Comments

  1. Sean G Harden says:

    How much of the wine bought by the Society comes from Ms Jones’s original vineyards, and how much from the masses of ex Mont Tauch Co-op vines, that her partner owns?

    • Hi Sean – the wine The Society buys come from Katie’s vineyards. The Domaine Jones Blanc and Rouge from the original Maury vines, the Fitou from the small parcels of vines that Katie has bought up around the village of Tuchan.

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