My thumb and forefinger are purple, stained into the grooves of my fingerprints. It's the mark of a tasting in this neck of the woods, and in this case a very good tasting. Phillippe Gard, winemaker and owner of Coume del Mas, is vaulting barrels and stacks of wine cases with a wine-thief, drawing samples, occasionally shouting something about the vintage, the cuveé, wine in general or the region in particular. I try to follow the French, to little avail, though it's all said with such quiet conviction that I feel I understand regardless. My friend Andy translates to help out and sometimes Phillippe switches to English.
The cáve is perfect. It's January and all things are happening. Stainless steel fermentation tanks line the walls, stained barrels lie here and there and every gap is filled by stacks of crates, the recently bottled vintage preparing for shipping, empty bottles awaiting the bottling truck, rolls of labels not-yet-afixed, flat-packed crates, more packaging, more cases, more barrels - it is a small winery and nothing shows that better than the clutter I see before me. Phillippe apologises for the mess but I couldn't be happier - it's a rare sight, a genuine behind the scenes look, and the wine geek in me drinks it all in.
All the while the wine thief does its job, and we try some wines.
Coume del Mas Folio 2007
This is always my favourite white of the region. Mouth-filling, waxy white fruit, a touch of clotted cream and a great mineral backbone. Very quaffable. This is barrique aged but then Phillippe takes a sample from one of the stainless steel tanks, telling us it's an experiment. It's tight, with more intense minerality and a more angular structure. I ask if it will be blended with the wine from barrique and Phillippe shrugs. He's constantly experimenting, looking for the best way to express his wines, and he hasn't made his mind up yet.
We then try a rousanne/vermentino blend that's only sold locally - easy drinking table wine, that's a real delight. Fun wine for the porch on a warm summer's day. The effervescence of young white samples excites the palate and readies us for the reds.
Coume del Mas Schistes 2007
Straight from tank, this wine sees no wood, no racking, and as little air or interference as possible. The result is remarkable, especially at this young stage. It is dark purple with vivid edges. The nose is fresh crushed violets, plum and allspice, with wild fresh herbs on the edges. The palate follows through entirely from the nose. The complexity is astounding, as is the depth and darkness - that it is all coming from the fruit (100% very old vine grenache), without any wood, seems daunting. Essence of plums and violets run over stones and pebbles - such brilliant minerality - words like purity and authenticity come to mind. This is a remarkable wine. ***(**)
From then we tried a barrage of barrel samples, compenent batches to be blended into either Quadratur, Abysses, Quintessence or some yet un-named cuvée. Late harvested syrah, old vine carignan, a blend of syrah, mouvedre and carignan. All of them were big, yet that purity of fruit, a total lack of confection, pervaded, as did that backbone minerality, the heart of the region's terroir.
In a loft in the back of the winery sits a selection of barrels of various sizes. Phillippe explains this is where, when the time is right, his attempt at Banyuls Grand Cru will come from. To blend a great Banyuls Grand Cru is an art few still possess. While the law stipulates that it must simply stay in barrel for three years before achieving Grand Cru status, the reality is more complicated. Selection and blending are paramount to achieve the best results, which can be heavenly on the nose and palate. We sample some of these barrels - glorious honeyed red fruits with still gripping tannins. One particularly wonderful mouvedre from an unfeasibly small barrel nearly brings tears to my eyes. With such incredible components I have no doubt that Phillippe's first Grand Cru will be a triumph. I mention this and the shrugged response is reassuringly honest and humble.
Coume del Mas Quadratur 2001
We drank this with a lovely, simple lunch of pasta and fresh truffles at Phillippe Gard's home in the village of Banyuls.
The nose is christmas spice - cinammon and cloves, fresh woodspice. Wonderful and different. This follows through to palate where those spices balance against rich plum and forest fruit. It's a remarkable fine wine, complex and rustic, beautiful to sip, brilliantly structured. A total sensory delight - as good excuse as needed to lay Quadratur down for a good few years.
I left lunch with the sense of excitement one gets knowing that the best is yet to come. Phillippe Gard makes great wines, that much is true, but he's not content to stand still. That can only be a good thing, and I look forward to trying what comes next.