Chris Wilson visits Domaine Paul Mas in Occitanie and finds winemaker Jean-Claude Mas a driven man, competitive in everything and eager to prove himself in the kitchen as well as the vineyard. After sampling over 80 Paul Mas wines, Chris picks five that stood out to recommend.
It is the sheer scale of this 600 hectare enterprise that allows Paul Mas to have such creativity in matching consumer needs with individual styles of wine
When you visit a winery it’s pretty standard practice for the winemaker to show you around the cellar and vineyards, and lead a tasting of his or her wines. That’s what you expect; the knowledge and insight on the wines are best expressed by the person who made them.
What you don’t expect is the winemaker to cook you dinner, and trust me it wasn’t beans on toast.
The winemaker in question is Languedoc legend Jean-Claude Mas, and it was during a two-day trip to the Domaines Paul Mas estates in this beautiful pocket of southern France that I got an up-close insight into what makes this incredibly driven winemaker tick.
How Domaine Paul Mas helped put Languedoc on the map
Jean-Claude was born into wine, with his grandfather and father (who the Domain is named after) both growing grapes in the Languedoc. In 2000 he took the helm of the Mas family business and has steadily grown the original 35-hectare estate to a 600-hectare enterprise that’s one of the Languedoc’s most well-known and influential producers.
Making wines across IGP and AOC categories, the breath and scale of the operation is impressive. With 12 estates stretching from the Pyrenees in the west to Redessan in the east, Domaines Paul Mas has a number of well-known brands under its belt (such as Arrogant Frog, very big in the States), and produces wines in all the region’s key appellations, including Blanquette de Limoux, Picpoul de Pinet, Corbières and Minervois.
Alongside a handful of other players Jean-Claude has really put the region on the map, not least through his assiduous rampage on the UK multiples and convenience sectors. There are currently around 30 different Paul Mas products across the sector, with Sainsbury’s, Aldi, Co-Op, Morrisons, Lidl, Waitrose and M&S all getting in on the act.
Many of these are bespoke wines created in partnership with the grocer, offering each customer something different and unique. The ability to create new wines, labels and stories for each customer is key to Paul Mas’ success – the fact that the domain has access to so many different grape varieties, appellation vineyards and wineries/estates is crucial to working with so many of the big players at the same time.
“We are successful in this sector because we offer better value than the competition and styles of wine that please UK consumers,” says Jean-Claude. “Good presentations and strong partnerships with the UK supermarkets have been built upon fruitful relationships, thanks to understanding each other’s constraints.”
He’s in such a strong position that when I suggest that being in bed with everyone at the same time must cause a few headaches, he quickly shrugs this off. “We are lucky enough that what we propose is generally what our customers expect.”
Domaines Paul Mas operates in the UK on-trade sector too and is keen to further its position in restaurants and bars.
Jean-Claude has a clear strategy for this which sees him offering the Château Wines (Les Domaines Paul Mas) to the on-trade and indie sectors while the branded wines (Jean-Claude Mas) go down the multiples channel.
Working without a UK agent, his commercial and marketing teams work hard on the ground in the UK (from a small London office) to position the portfolio correctly and open doors across the all sectors. “Agents in the UK tend to be too costly and make our wines unnecessarily expensive,” he says.
This clear focus and positioning is impressive but I get the sense that it’s hard work (and a little bit of luck, being in the right place at the right time to acquire certain estates and vineyards) has been just as important. A competitive streak and desire to always be at the top of his game will certainly have played a part too, and it’s this competitive edge which results in Jean-Claude turning into the steak chef for the night.
Let the fun and games commence
Following a long day visiting a number of the Paul Mas properties – mostly functional, unremarkable wineries where substance is clearly way higher in the pecking order than style – we arrive at the flagship Côté Mas estate near Montagnac. Here the estate is open to the public and welcomes cellar-door visitors attracted by the picturesque property itself and the two restaurants on site.
It’s at the fancy Côté Mas restaurant that Jean-Claude shows off his culinary skills and plays host during a remarkable dinner where he offers a glimpse into why he’s such a successful winemaker and businessman.
Everything was a competition, but in the most gentle, fun way possible. Someone mentioned sparkling wine and key organoleptic differences between Cremant de Limoux, Prosecco and Champagne. Before we knew it the dinner plates were pushed aside and we were we a series doing blind triangular tastings on a variety of sparkling wines. Then the chef asked us whether we’d like a meat course or not (er, yes please), and Jean-Claude disappeared to the kitchen to take care of it himself. When he returned we had to guess what spices he’d used in the sauce. Then the eau-de-vie came out, but thankfully by then the competition was over.
What this dinner – and two days spent in the company of Jean-Claude – showed was that as well as great wines (and the wines across the board were excellent) you need a bit of pep, a bit of passion and drive to really get things done in the fiercely competitive business of wine exporting.
It’s clearly working for Domianes Paul Mas in the UK and Jean-Claude is adamant that there’s plenty more to come. I don’t doubt that for a second.
Five Highlights from a Tasting of 80+ Paul Mas Wines
Paul Mas Estate ‘La Forge’ Marsanne 2016
“A pure expression of the Med style,” says Jean-Claude. Crisp and full with finesse and a creamy finish. 100% Marsanne grapes, some barrel age. Delicious passion fruit and peach flavours and great balance.
‘M’ Organic Blanc
Tremendous value organic blend of Colombard, Chardonnay, Grenache Blanc and Muscat. Punchy with a sweet-shop ripeness to the fruit and a fresh, mineral finish.
Sainsbury’s ‘Taste The Difference’ Limoux Chardonnay 2016
Classic Chardonnay – limes, passion fruit and a mouth-coating oiliness. A richness and toasty finish come from 60% barrel fermentation, but there’s a nervy acidity to redress the balance.
Grippy tannins and a smash of ripe black fruit. There’s something floral here too, and a chewy, jammy edge. Lovely and intense – will really come to life with food.
Old vines. Full and fruit-forward with lovely integration of oak and tremendous length. Raspberry acidity and lingering minty/herby edge. Tremendous label too.