A look at the pioneers of Languedoc’s first-growth wines
Aimé Guibert, the patriarch of Mas de Daumas Gassac estate, died last year, leaving behind a legacy of great winemaking at his family-run business
How do you follow a winemaking legend?
Aimé Guibert, who died in May 2016, was the patriarch of Mas de Daumas Gassac, an estate known as the first growth of Languedoc. He was also a symbol of the fight for tradition in French winemaking – from his successful public challenge of the American winemaking giant Robert Mondavi’s land purchase in Languedoc in 2001, to his starring role in Jonathan Nossiter’s 2003 documentary Mondovino, in which he railed against the globalisation of the wine business.
Guibert has 10 children – four of whom work full time at the beautiful Gassac Valley property, continuing his legacy, and figuring things out for themselves. Guibert Snr planted the vines on arrival in 1974, with the first vintage in 1978. His son Samuel joined in 2000, shortly followed by brothers Romain, Gaël and Basile. The cellar master Philippe Michel is almost family – best friends with Samuel since childhood, and best man at his wedding.
“My father was a man of vision and passion,” says head winemaker Samuel, who learned the art from his dad and worked alongside him from 2000 to his retirement in 2009. “He wasn’t always the best teacher, to be honest, because he rarely gave a straight answer. He did things because he felt them in his skin, not because they were necessarily rational. It can be hard to transmit those lessons to someone else, because your motivation is artistic rather than scientific.”
Samuel learned instead by example, and has long proved that he can uphold the legacy of producing wines that are, at times, difficult to understand and yet richly rewarding. I say this because these are Languedoc wines made with about 70 per cent cabernet sauvignon – a grape that is more usually associated with Bordeaux. The remainder is a blend of different varieties, some traditionally Bordeaux such as merlot and cabernet franc, but also syrah, malbec, barbera and others. They receive a much more low-key ageing than is typical for big-name Languedoc wines (or indeed many modern Bordeaux), which means barely any new oak for the ageing, restrained alcohol levels and a focus on understated flavours that need time to develop. The whites are equally unusual, a blend of viognier, petit manseng, chenin blanc and chardonnay, that also take time to settle in bottle and give up their secrets.
The key to understanding Mas de Daumas Gassac is to give it the time that it demands. I recently tasted a vertical of several wines heading back from 2015 to 1985. I particularly loved the 10-year stepping stone – 2015, 2005, 1995, 1985 – clocking in the fascinating way this wine unfurls and builds in both power and complexity as it ages. The whites were the same – just crazy amounts of fresh white flowers alongside candied citrus in the 1985 bottle.
The height for me was the 1995 red, still rich and deep in colour, still displaying fully vibrant dark brambly fruits, full of vigour and yet with the beginnings of the blue cheese and black truffle flavours of old cabernet sauvignon. If you had to pick a Bordeaux first growth to compare it to (as people frequently do), I would go with Lafite rather than the more commonly cited Latour, as it is all about understated elegance.
“Of all the lessons I learnt from my father,” says Samuel Guibert, “the best are to look at every harvest as a blank piece of paper, to be humble in front of what nature deals out to you, and to be ready for everything.”