It takes something special for a legendary winemaker to decide you’re 'The One' to take on their vineyards when they retire.
Alain Castez & Ghislaine Magnier could sense that young Jordi Perez had that something special, and entrusted their beloved Le Casot des Mailloles to him.
Legends don't continue without those who perpetuate the legacy.
Under his watch and hard graft, the domaine has gone from strength to strength, and he has introduced a new vineyard to the stable in (almost) unchartered territories.
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Jordi grew up in southwest France, and studied winemaking in Bordeaux. While at school, he decided that he would work organically in his future; he just didn't know how or where yet.
While working as a viticulture consultant at the cooperative of Fitou, he heard that a grower in Banyuls was retiring, and that there would be an opportunity for someone to take over.
“It was by chance. I’ve always wanted to work organically, and I’d tasted a few natural wines, but I wasn’t deep into that world yet. I came here without knowing Alain to work with him, and well, it went pretty well.”
He smiles with a boyish grin, and we have a feeling he’s being modest. We’re certain that it went more than just ‘pretty well.’
Bit by bit, Jordi learnt how to craft the natural wines that had become so iconic, and in 2015, his own interpretation of those wines splashed onto the scene for the first time.
The domaine is named after the casots (little shed-like huts) that are found across all the parcels in this region, built for the vineyard workers who needed somewhere to shelter when the storms appeared with their rapid gusto.
The original vineyard might be one of the smallest in the area, but it’s also a contender for one of the most scenic. It sits high at 600m elevation, directly overlooking the sea, and the slopes are so steep that any mechanisation is impossible. It’s not for the faint hearted or those likely to suffer from vertigo. It’s laid out across terraces created from the black schist soils to ensure that landslides don’t occur with rainfall.
There are two plots, co-planted to the traditional varieties of the region; Carignan (as well as a small amount of the rare Carignan Gris and Blanc), Grenache, Grenache Gris, Grenache Blanc and Mourvèdre (some vines are 80 years old!), as well as Syrah, Viognier, Marsanne and Vermentino (the latter two of which are also found on another plot nearby). For Jordi, Vermentino has a particularly promising future, as it always retains its acidity, even in the boiling hot summers they’ve had recently.
“Vermentino is amazing. It keeps its acidity despite global warming, which is awesome, and it resists drought, too.”
The vines are planted in the traditional way, as échelas, meaning they are bush vines that have a stick for support. He then ties the branches together at the top, instead of ‘hedging’ (cutting) them (the latter is how most modern vineyards are managed). He explains that this helps the vine to better self regulate:
“We never cut the apex (the tip). The vine is already going to suffer from stress, so it’s important to not traumatise it any further. Plus, it looks pretty.”
He smiles. This isn’t just a vineyard for the purpose of wine; it’s a living, breathing ecosystem. He points to the various trees that surround the vineyard; almonds, olives and sorb trees. He says,
“It’s cool. All of the parcels are isolated; there’s no direct neighbour, which means it’s possible to work truly organically.”
To ensure that baby vines suffer as little as possible, he plants rootstock directly in the soil, after which he grafts onto the top of them. It’s time consuming (a three to four year waiting game); but he’s in it for the long run. He experiments with some cover crops, and also lays down hay to ensure there’s not too much competition from weeds. He explains that timing is crucial to ensure this competition isn't too fierce for the vines in an environment which is already very stressful.
The vineyards in Banyuls cover five hectares and sit on schist soils. As Alain has kept one parcel for himself, which he continues to tend and make wine from in his retirement, Jordi decided to look for another parcel to be able to make a bit more wine. He came across a village called Tarerach, a wild, relatively untapped area which sits further inland, on granite, and at high elevation (600m). Therefore, he can grow Syrah, Marsanne and Vermentino comfortably here, as the air is much cooler (sometimes 2-3 degrees cooler than down in Banyuls).
“I thought it would be interesting to travel a little bit; to see what else is out there. The terroir is granite, whereas in Banyuls it’s schist, so it will be exciting to see the different expressions.”
The winemaking is simple; old fashioned artisanal style; and no sulphites are ever added to any of the wines.
The white wine made from the new plot of Vermentino and Marsanne is direct pressed slowly in a basket press, after which the juice is left to ferment naturally in stainless steel, then bottled in December.
Perhaps more than any other wine, it’s Le Blanc du Casot which is the treasure of the domaine. It is a blend of Grenache Blanc, Vermentino and Roussanne, which macerates together with some Grenache Gris free-run juice for five days. It then continues its fermentation in old 500L barrels, where it is aged on the lees for six months.
With its ever-lasting saline nuttiness, it somehow manages to combine richness and freshness in a way that no other white wine can, and it’s been heralded all around the world as a result. However, it’s not been an easy ride.
In France, appellation laws and systems require that wines have to be tasted by a regulation panel before they can be sold with their appellation (the name of their region) on the label. If a wine is deemed ‘atypical,’ then the panel can reject it, so it has to be labelled under the generic Vin de France terminology. Many iconic natural producers around the world have decided to leave their appellations and simply bottle under Vin de France. This, however, is a shame, because it means dropping an homage to the place in which the wine was made, but sometimes growers feel they no longer have a choice. Jordi laments,
“My wines are sold in Michelin starred restaurants around the world, but still they’re “oxidised” apparently.”
He also explains that the appellation of Collioure blanc is a new one, formed in just 2002, without centuries of specific wine styles to predetermine what the wines should be:
“It’s theoretical. Who knows what Collioure blanc is?! It’s a new appellation, so it should be free spirited. It’s not like it’s Corton Charlemagne where there’s an established idea.”
Despite his struggles, he still hasn’t given up hope, and continues to speak with the board and to taste with other growers in the region.
The reds have also gained their place on the stage of Natural Wine World Classics. El Niño is a Syrah with the addition of the pressed Grenache Gris grapes. They macerate together for five days, after which the grapes are pressed and finish fermenting in stainless steel. Then, the later-ripening Carignan and Mouvèdre grapes are macerated separately together for seven days, after which they are pressed and both wines are combined to age together in steel for eight months. It's an example of vinous creativity at its finest.
They are phenomenal wines year on year, but it's Jordi’s new wine, Le Comax Bucolix 2019, which blows our socks off. We've never had anything from southern France like this before. It is from his new plot in the mountains; a blend of Syrah and some Marsanne (Northern Rhône style). The Marsanne is pressed directly and put together with the Syrah (half of which is whole bunch, half destemmed), and macerated for just five days, after which it’s aged in stainless steel. The result is something astonishingly similar to St Joseph; iron-like with its meatiness, but lifted and fragrant.
“It’s southern Syrah, so I want to be as gentle with it as possible, so it doesn’t become a beast."
We’re left with our jaw hanging slightly ajar when we taste it, and when we tell Jordi how much we like it, he beams from ear to ear. With Jordi, you can tell that winemaking isn’t just a job; this is his life’s work. He may only be in his mid 30s, but the future is already particularly bright for this humble young man.