A trained news journalist, Richard Woodard moved into wine writing with a weekly column in a UK regional daily newspaper. He then spent five years as editor of leading trade magazine Wine & Spirit International, before becoming a freelance drinks writer. He has also been editor of e-newsletter Drinks Bulletin and is a regular contributor to a number of magazines, including Imbibe, Harpers, The Drinks Business and Drinks International. He also writes occasionally for The Mail on Sunday’s Live magazine.
Mas Belles Eaux
Text and photographs by Richard Woodard.
To many, the vast, sprawling region of the Languedoc remains predominantly the source of cheap plonk, where grape growers struggle to scratch a living, periodically venting their anger at a changing world through demonstrations and riots. But it’s also an area capable, in a few select places, of producing world-class wines. And Mas Belles Eaux, situated between Pézenas and Caux in the Coteaux du Languedoc, is now emerging as one of those places. The traditional ethos of owner AXA Millésimes has been to reinvigorate neglected but previously great wine estates – such as Quinta do Noval, Châteaux Pichon-Baron and Petit-Village, plus Dizsnókö Tokaji.
But Mas Belles Eaux didn’t even exist as a single entity until AXA bought and unified the neighbouring Belles-Eaux and Sainte-Hélène vineyards in 2002 – the first new venture undertaken by managing director Christian Seely (right). So what led him here? “I’d drunk quite a lot of very good wines from the Languedoc, and it’s a great, wild area, with the kind of places that have got something special,” he says, citing Pic St-Loup and Faugères as particular inspirations. It took time to find what he wanted, but in the end, it was a bolt from the blue. “I walked around Sainte-Hélène and knew it was what I’d been looking for in terms of terroir. “It was more of a gut feeling than anything else – we didn’t do it on a very scientific basis I suppose. Anyway, when I told Michel Chapoutier I’d bought the vineyard and where it was, he said it’s the greatest terroir in France!”
Seely’s gut may have secured some fine terroir, but it also landed him with a lot of work, not least in rebuilding the Belles Eaux winery. The unified vineyard totals about 60 hectares (ha), of which 25-30ha has since been dug up, with 18ha replanted to date. This programme has focused on, in Seely’s words, ‘serious’ varieties like Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre. “We got rid of all the Cinsault,” he says with evident glee. “We tried one year to do something with very low yields, but we just couldn’t get enthusiastic about it.” Much is now being grafted over to Syrah. The other major effort in the vineyard has involved reducing yields, typically about 80 hectolitres per hectare (hl/ha) in the past.
“Our initial assumptions were that we were going to bring it down to 40-45hl/ha,” says Seely. “But we discovered after time that to get the quality we wanted, they had to be lower still. So we’ve averaged at 35hl/ha (25hl/ha for Vieux Carignan).” Even now, the make-up of the vineyards is not set in stone. Seely has recently swapped 6ha of Vin de Pays Cabernet for a 7ha hotch-potch of bush-vine Carignan, Grenache, Cinsault and Terret. The key here is the soil, which echoes Sainte-Hélène’s high-quality mix of red clay and gravel. It looks like a bargain – although the vineyard needs some replanting and TLC – and Seely is keen to snap up more parcels of promising vineyard, particularly of Grenache, Mourvèdre and old vine Carignan.
The wines reflect the pace of the estate’s development over the past few years. There’s a Chardonnay and a Syrah, a Syrah/Cabernet blend, a rosé and a promising Vieux Carignan. All are creditable, but the real interest lies in charting the progress of the top two wines, Sainte-Hélène and Les Coteaux. From the tired Sainte-Hélène 2002 (where AXA had little input), there’s a quantum leap in quality to the structure and balance of the 2006; it’s early days, but the 2007 could be even better still. “My idea has always been that it’s possible to make a great wine here,” says Seely. “I believe there are properties here with the potential to be the Grands Crus of the future, but it will take time to get there. I think the 07 has a feeling of that.”
But Mas Belles Eaux is not the finished article – and Seely believes that if the property is to become a true standard-bearer for the region, it has to forge its own distinct identity. “The thing that would make me most excited would be if there were even more of a feeling of something that could only be made here. It’s still at quite a pioneering stage. But with time, if we can produce wines that people who like great wine recognise as a great Languedoc, then we’ll have done something.”