Alain Carrère founded Domaine de Majas with his wife Agnès in 1992. Today, the estate represents 30 hectares, all in the commune of Caudiès-de-Fenouillèdes. The vineyards principally consist of Carignan grown on terroirs of schist, volcanic stone and mountainous limestone. Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Grenache, Syrah, Chenanson, Macabeu, Rolle and Chardonnay are also planted.
To this day, the vast majority of Côtes du Roussillon AOC is being mass produced by cave cooperatives. At some point in the early 80's, the cave's fees became so high that living solely off of viticulture became almost impossible, resulting in approximately 3/4 of the region's vines getting ripped out by their owners. As a way to "start fresh", those who continued growing grapes (like Alain's father) were then pressured by the caves -hoping to capitalize on the increasing demand for "Bordeaux style" wines- to widely replant Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. While this strategy worked in the short term, it eventually backfired and furthered the AOC's bad reputation.
By the time Alain took over the the estate in the early 90's, he knew that selling his family's grapes to the cave was no longer an option. He started a small, independent estate (just 2 hectares), but very quickly inherited over 20 hectares of his father's vines. With a lot more wine to sell all of a sudden, it became increasingly difficult distributing locally.
After struggling to sell his entire stock for many years, a deal too good to be true came his way: a major french supermarket chain offered to buy the entirety of his production as an exclusive for their wine section. A contract was signed, and strict guidelines were set: the rosé had to taste like this, the white like that...
"There was no reflection of terroir, and the wines had zero personality. They were okay, but could have been coming from anywhere."
Even worst, the bulk prices offered by the supermarket weren't paying the bills; in fact, the Carrère were actually losing money every year! Facing bankruptcy, Alain had to find a solution... Converting to organics briefly crossed his mind, but with no outside guidance or pre-existing market, he did not dare attempt it. But as fate would have it, a chance encounter with Tom Lubbe of Domaine Matassa would change everything.
After tasting the wines, Tom told Alain he would be willing to help them rebuild the estate from the ground up. The two verbally agreed on a partnership, and with Tom's guidance they immediately started converting all 30 hectares to organic viticulture, as well as eliminating all commercial yeasts, additives and excessive sulfur in the cellar. Tom also showed Alain the importance of highlighting different terroirs, a lesson that has produced great results. Alain, completely reinvigorated, is grateful to have had this second chance. The wines being produced today are fresh, elegant and fun to drink.
This interview with Alain Carrère took place in his cellar in July, 2012.
Tell us about Domaine de Majas.
I created Domaine de Majas in 1992. We started with 2 hectares, and today -through various purchases but also by reacquiring my parent's land- we find ourselves working 30 hectares. My wife Agnès and I run everything with the help of a part-time employee. Before I started working my father's vines, the grapes all went to the cave cooperative. I had no desire to continue in this path, preferring to see the whole process through. I wanted to master everything.
You grow a lot of different grapes, right?
For whites, we grow Macabeu, Rolle (Vermentino) and Chardonnay. For red, we have a majority of Carignan, produced from vines between 30 and 120 years old. But we also have Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, Syrah and a tiny bit Chenanson.
Many of these grapes are not part of the region's viticultural history. About 20 years ago, everything was being replanted with Bordeaux varieties. It's what was popular at the time, and because my family always worked on a large scale distribution, the mindset was to supply the increasing demand for "Bordeaux Style" wines. Today, almost no one makes 100% Cabernet Sauvignon anymore. Everything is blended.
Speaking to you earlier, it sounds like your whole area is caught in an on-going viticultural crisis... How has this affected you personally?
Up until the early 90's, the vast majority of the wine coming from our area was mass produced by cave cooperatives. Profit margins for the viticulturists were always low, but back then you could manage by bringing in very high yields. But the fees kept getting higher and higher, to the point were you weren't making enough money: if you sold an hectoliter for 40 euros, there would be 25 euros in fees. 15 Euros per hectoliter is just unlivable; as a result, a huge amount of vines were ripped out. About 3/4 of our viticultural potential. Gone! And now, it's almost like we are Astérix's village, the only ones resisting! We are down to 3 independent vignerons working 100 hectares...
Can we talk about your experience with a famous French supermarket?
Yes we can talk about it! When I was just getting started, we focused on selling our wines locally. But as quantities grew, we decided to sell to supermarkets. We did this for 4, 5 years, and every year, we were losing more and more money! It's basically an organized racket.
So of course, we started looking for a solution to dig ourselves out of this hole. That solution came around one bright day with the arrival of Tom Lubbe. He was interested in helping us, and we were interested in restarting from the ground up...
How did you meet Tom?
By coincidence. He had an employee at the time who was from our village. We knew the kid well, and one day we started talking about our interest in organic viticulture, the fear to move forward, etc… So he talked to Tom, who came a first time to taste. After trying the wines, he immediately had ideas on how to could work together. That very first day, we made a oral agreement to be partners, and the next day we we began the conversion to organic viticulture.
Prior to meeting Tom, had you already thought about making changes in your viticultural work?
Working organically had always been in the back of our minds, but with 30 hectares and no outside guidance, we didn't have the courage to give it a shot. Meeting Tom was the push we needed: he encouraged us to do it, and we decided to make it a reality.
Can we talk about the conversion and what's going on today? Tom said he's never seen better results!
It's important to note that while we definitely weren't working organically, we'd always limited pesticides to a minimum, and were already working the soil. So the change came, but it wasn't a complete 180. New techniques have been implemented, like letting grass grow for 6 months through the winter to let the soil rest.
The soil needed to restructure itself, but honestly we are lucky to be in a low rain region, where working organically is relatively easy. But things have changed, and one great example regards some of my very old vines, vines that had been worked conventionally for generations (25 years of herbicides…). They were barely alive -it almost felt like they were on life support. Since we've converted to organics, it's like they've been freed! They are vibrant and productive again.
Why label your wines IGP des Côtes Catalanes instead of AOC Côtes du Roussillon?
You are right that we make a Vin de Pays even though our land is within the AOC. It's a choice we made because working under the AOC meant producing imposed blends with imposed varietals. We had a different vision, and by declassifying the wines, we can blend the way we want to.
What has changed in the cellar?
In the cellar, Tom showed us how to rethink everything, and we make wine almost exactly the way he taught us to. From the very start, Tom said: "If we're going to do this, we're going to do this 100%. No yeasts, no manipulations and no excessive sulfur."
It's completely changed the wines. When we worked with the supermarket, we had strict directives: the rosé had to taste like candy, so we had a yeast for that. We had a Chardonnay yeast to extract that lemon citrus taste, etc.. There was no reflection of terroir, and the wines had zero personality. They were okay, but could have been coming from anywhere.
Fermenting with indigenous yeasts gave our wines a soul they never had before. They now have their OWN characteristics, and don't resemble any wine you'd find in a supermarket. It's also made us understand the merits of making parcel specific cuvées, like the Col de Ségas. The fact that we can make such a quality wine exclusively from the grapes of this very, very old parcel, this brings me huge satisfaction and pride, because these were my great grandparent's vines!
What do you like to drink?
I like wines that talk to me, that want to tell me a story. Wines with character that are easy to drink. It's nice when you can taste a vigneron's hard work. Oh, and not too much wood!
This visit at Domaine de Majas took place in July, 2012.
Words by Jules Dressner, photos by Maya Pedersen.
The three and half hour drive from Dominique Hauvette's to the incredibly named Caudiès-de-Fenouillèdes was beautiful. Long stretches of roads swerving through the Pyrenees, the sun setting in the distance, casting its orange-red glow on the mountain rock... It made me feel like a good old fashioned city slicker.
Well not really, but it was quite breathtaking.
Once in the village, we checked into our chambre d'Hôte. It's run by a Dutch couple, and the guy's name was Jan (pronounced Yan). On top of managing the chambre d'hôte, his main gig involves organizing Harley Davidson tours of the region. Tom Lubbe would later go on to say that he looked like a character from the movie Labyrinth, although I'm pretty sure (because of Jan's long, whitish-blond hair) he meant David Bowie.
We arrived around 10pm, and were worried nothing would be open to eat. Fortunately, the Roussillon functions on pseudo Spanish time, so people were just starting to have dinner. We ate pizzas at the local bar/cafe thing, which was playing 90's rock videos the whole time. Maya "Mayhem" Pedersen and I were very amused hearing the Smashing Pumpkins' Bullet with Butterfly Wings:
I always thought that song was called Rat in a Cage. Bullet With Butterfly Wings? What kind of a stupid, pretentious name is that? P.S: Next time you bump into me, ask me to tell you my friend's story about meeting Billy Corgan and him being a huge asshole.
We then rocked out to the infinitely better Stupid Girl by Garbage.
Returning to our rooms, Maya discovered that there was no soap in the bathrooms. Thinking they had forgotten, I asked Jan if he could bring me some the next morning. What follows is a paraphrased re-telling of the conversation.
-Hey, you forgot to give us soap in the bathrooms.
-Soap? What do you mean? You didn't bring any?
-But everyone brings their own soap to a chambre d'hôte.
-I've never stayed anywhere I had to pay for where I wasn't provided at least a little bar of soap.
-Normally, people bring their own soap.
-Can you get me some or not?
- Um, okay, wait a second...
He then went to his house and brought back some liquid hand soap. Not the best shower I've ever taken... Anyway, fast forward to breakfast, where weird and inappropriately loud electronic-ambient-nordic-chant-Enya ripoff music was playing, and Jan decided to show us a picture DVD of him on various Harley Davidson tours. The whole experience was completely surreal.
After breakfast, Tom Lubbe came to pick us up and it was time to finally meet Agnės and Alain Carrėre! After importing their last three vintages, it was about time! Alain is a very tall, dark skinned man of Spanish origin, born and raised in Caudiès. Agnès is originally from Paris, and unfortunately we barely got to see her since her sister -who she only sees twice a year- was visiting. They both are very kind, grateful people, which is humbling considering all the tough times the estate has been through.
The first parcel we visited consists mostly of Carignan on schist.
Caudiès-de-Fenouillèdes (man I love that name) is the limit of grape growing in this part of the Roussillon. After that, you have to travel 50km to Limoux. It's also the only vineyard site in the Roussillon classed as "mountainous." The highest site is the Clos Ségas at 420m, which produces a field blend that's "always a surprise". The vines are spread over 5 hectares and were planted by Alain's great-grandparents. They are between 120 and 130 years old!!!!
Looking around, I spotted a lot of abandoned vineyard sites on nearby slopes and hills. But here and there, you notice little patches of vines, and Alain says these have all been replanted in the last 15 years:
"Vines used to be on the hills, but people ripped them out to replant in the plains. Now they're back in the hills again!"
Next up, a 5 hectare parcel of 80-90 year old vines. Many grapes are grown in this area, mostly of Carignan, Grenache and Syrah.
Alain has no problems with his neighbors: either the vines are in isolated clos, or -seeing how well Alain's vines were doing- they started working organically themselves.
"It's incredible how much it's changed local viticulture in just a few years." pointed out Tom. Since Alain started working organically, over 70 neighboring hectares have been converted!
After our visit of the vines, it was cellar time. The highlight is this half circle of large concrete tanks in the far corner.
"The last owner basically gave me the cellar. Wine hadn't been made here since 1953."
We then tasted the 2011's out in the sun. The 11 Grappe Entiere -a 100% Rolle cuvée that stays on the skins for a month- really stood out, as did the Rouge 11 and the Clos Ségas 10 (11 is being bottled soon). The Ravin des Sieurs Syrah was also quite pleasant. These wines are all extremely affordable and currently available stateside. Conveniently, the tasting ended right around...LUNCH TIME!
Over a bottle of Majas rosé, Alain and Tom continued talking about the region's ongoing struggle. In a very quotable moment, Tom exclaimed:
-"It's not agriculture, it's agribusiness. Agriculture is the first word in the latin language, it's something sustainable we can pass from generation to generation. This is not what we have anymore."
-"Only three of us made wine independently in the village. Now we are two, and he's also (unsuccessfully) trying to sell his estate. It looks like I'm going to be the only independent here…"
"A monopole!" chimed Tom positively. They were making light of the situation, but it was obvious that Alain feels a bit like the odd man out, wishing there was more camaraderie in the village. Still, he is grateful to have turned things around and still be here.
"If we hadn't met Tom, we would probably have called it quits as well. Working organically saved the vines. It saved us."
Soil: Clay and limestone
Grapes: 45% Macabeu, 45% Rolle, 10% Carignan blanc
Age of Vines: 35
Yields: 38 hl/h
Vinification: fermented and aged in concrete on its lees.
Soil: Clay and limestone
Age of Vines: 35
Vinification: fermentation and aging in concrete with brief skin maceration, then aged on its lees.
Soil: Clay and limestone
Grapes: 50% Carignan, 50% Grenache Noir
Age of Vines: 20 to 120
Yields: 40 hl/h
Vinification: Destemmed, fermented and aged in concrete.
Soil: Clay and limestone, schist
Age of Vines: 35
Yields: 30 hl/h
Vinification: Destemmed, fermented and aged in concrete
Soil: Clay and limestone
Grapes: 75% Carignan, 25% Grenache Noir
Age of Vines: Planted around 1880 (135-140 years old)
Yields: 25 hl/h
Vinification: Single vineyard bottling. Destemmed, fermented in concrete and aged 4 months in demi-muit.
Soil: Clay and limestone
Grapes: 50% Merlot, 50% Syrah
Age of Vines: 25
Yields: 40 hl/h
Vinification: Direct press, fermented and aged in concrete.