How does a New Zealander who grew up in South Africa end up starting an iconoclastic estate in the Roussillon? This isn't exactly an everyday occurrence, but so it goes for Tom Lubbe of Domaine Matassa. In the late 90's, Tom was working at the only estate in South Africa using indigenous yeasts and lower yields. Interested in working with Mediterranean varietals, Tom managed to score a three month internship at the legendary Domaine Gauby in the village of Calce. Gérard Gauby quickly befriended Tom and asked him to come back for three consecutive vintages as cellar helper. During that time, Tom met his wife Nathalie, who just so happens to be Gérard's sister.
The birth of their first child made Tom reconsider moving back to South Africa, opting instead to stay in Calce to start his own estate. Matassa was founded in 2003, with the first vintage entirely produced in the recently married couple's living room. Gérard felt so bad about this that he gave Tom the old Gauby cellar in 2004!
Tom works with many of the traditional Catalan varieties: Carignan, Mourvèdre, Grenache (mostly Lladonner Pelut, the ancient catalan strain of Grenache), Grenache Gris, Muscat d'Alexandrie and Muscat de Petits-Grains. These grapes are often co-planted together, particularly in the very old vines. In total, 20 hectares are cultivated on schist, marl, black slate and black marl soils. While Tom still farms some of the very low yielding old vines around the village of Calce, he has vastly expanded to different areas where yields are more generous, typically in the 25/30 hl/h range (still relatively low for the region.)
The vineyards are worked naturally without any chemical aids. Tom is certified organic by Ecocert. And while he does occasionally use biodynamic techniques to activate and nourish his soils, over the years this has become less of a priority. Instead, an adamant dedication to cover crops has completely transformed his soils and in turn the wines. Tom is convinced that the increased insect life within the soils, particularly worms, has changed the flavors of his wines, specifically in the regards to malic acid. Another shocking effect: a drastic drop in alcohol. Tom has always harvested much early than most, usually starting with the Muscat in early August. In 2005, they would typically reach a potential of 13.5% alcohol. In 2018, they came in to 10.5%.
Much has also changed in the cellar over the years. All the wines have now intentionally been de-classified to Vin de France. As mentioned above, the alcohol is much lower, rarely more than 12%. The white wines are all macerated on their skins, a choice that goes back to Alexandria 2008, the first Matassa wine of its kind. For the reds, whole-cluster infusions take precedent to maceration and extraction, with white grapes often co-fermented. If oak is used, it is not to bring structure to the wine but rather oxygen. Longer élevages have been abandoned to bottle wines much earlier. The wines are bottled without filtration or fining. Sulfur, which Tom had used judiciously in the past, has not been added to any of the production since the 2015 vintage.
This interview with Tom Lubbe stems from a series of emails in September 2010.
Can you give us the "facts" of Matassa?
Most of our vineyards are older ( 60- 120 years) so we work a lot with the traditional Catalan varieties; Carignan, Grenache (mostly Lladonner Pelut, the "catalan" Grenache) Macabeu, Grenache Gris , Muscat d'Alexandrie and Muscat de Petits-Grains. All of these may be included in the same vineyard with a few others as well as in the very old vines. The younger vineyards (25 -35 yrs old ) include Mourvèdre (traditional here but not much replanted after phylloxera until recently), Cabernet Sauvignon (1/2 ha) and Viognier (1/2 ha). We have a total of 14 ha, 12 of which are around the village of Calce on schist and marl soils and 2ha of old Carignan at 500 - 600m altitude on granitic soils in the high Fenouillèdes.
Other than Matassa Blanc and Matassa Rouge the cuvées are named after their lieu-dit; Romanissa (place of rosemary) , El Sarrat, Nougé and L'Estanya; Marguerite is named after my wife's grandmother who was one the last people here to speak Catalan as her first language. Alexandria is named cunningly after its grape, Muscat d'Alexandrie which is though by some to be the ancestor of all noble grapes, harking back to the first days of the craft in ancient Egypt.
How did you end up in the making wine in the Languedoc-Roussillon?
In the interests of geographical and historical specificity I will refer more to the Roussillon, rather than the modern lumping together of Languedoc-Roussillon. They are physically separated by the limestone massif of the Corbières. Also the Roussillon vineyards are largely planted on mother-rock as opposed to the Languedoc's richer top-soils and has barely a quarter of the rainfall enjoyed by our northern neighbours (with correspondingly lower yields). Culturally, whereas the Languedoc is part of the Provencal tradition later looking to France, the Roussillon has mostly been closer to Barcelona than Paris.
Over 12 years ago I was working for a wonderful woman -Louise Hofmeyer- in South Africa who had the only estate (Welgemeend which she has since had to sell) there and then using exclusively indigenous yeasts, working with lower yields and little or no new wood. As I wanted to work with Mediterranean varieties, Louise recommended I do a stage at Domaine Gauby in Calce, which I did. Gérard Gauby invited me to come back for three more vintages as cellar helper during which time I met his sister with whom I am now married with two children.
What's your work process with the vines? What do you think of your terroirs and your vines?
Our vineyards are worked naturally without any chemical aids; we are certified organic by Ecocert and I use biodynamic techniques such as Preparation 500 and various plant fermentations to activate and nourish my soil's "life" (microbial activity). Depending on the site our vineyards are plowed by tractor, caterpillar tractor or by mule (about 5ha are worked by hand) in the interests of recreating a sustainable fertility of the soil. I also believe firmly in the old agricultural adage that the best fertilizer is the foot-prints of the owner.
The Roussillon is an ancient wine-making terroir; according to some sources it's the oldest in what is currently France. Unfortunately it has been isolated from major markets over the last century and it's qualitative wine-making efforts have mostly been devoted to vin doux. Cupped between the Mediterranean sea and the Pyrénées mountains, with the physical characteristics noted above, the wines which are produced with care and passion in this region have a powerful expression of minerality beyond anything else in France (I think). The real task of the current generation of wine-makers is how to develop a wine-making style (styles) that will harness the power and the minerality in such a way that the drinker is energized by the wines and not hurt.
Most of my vineyards I bought because they were in beautiful places with great views (and steep = cheap, to buy at least), so I love being there, and mostly the views and general feeling of the place compensates for the sore back, legs, and shoulders, not to mention the wines that I eventually get from them.
What's the winemaking process like?
Simple as possible. Whites are whole-bunch basket-pressed, the first half of which I do with my feet to get a solidly packed press (it's like making espresso, the better-packed the basket the more pure the extraction, with less bitterness and off flavors) No sulphur is used until after malolactic. Aging can be quite lengthy with the Matassa Blanc (old vine Grenache Gris and Maccabeu )spending 18 months in demi-muid, none new since 2007.
Reds are now more whole-bunch ferments with one pigeage (by foot of course) in the beginning to get some juice out and start a conventional (natural) ferment as well. They are usually pressed off half-way through ferment and finish their sugar in old demi-muid where they also go through malo. Aging from 18 - 24 months. Some wines are filtered, others not while no wines are fined.
What do you think of AOC's and the AOC your land is in?
I like the theory and some of the principals of the AOC system as far as safe-guarding the specific nature of each region's produce goes. I dislike the rigid concept of hierarchy that so obsesses some perspectives of the AOC and to think if Romanée-Conti is at the very top then we would be somewhere at the very bottom! A little tough given that 95% of Burgundy made today is fairly poor to disgusting with no foundation in serious viticulture and there being little or no conception of the true nature of their terroir held by most vignerons working there today.
Unfortunately the AOC in our region is about 20 years behind this actuality (at best) and has a poor idea of what real quality can be. Thus I work in Vin de Pays Côtes Catalanes which is in some, but not all, ways simpler.
Have you always worked organically and with the least intervention possible in the wine making process? If yes, why, and if no, what made you change your mind?
I have always preferred gentler wines in terms of alcohols, tannins and oaking and more lively wines in terms of acidity or ideally, deeper, mineral sensations of freshness. I have been sensitized to the stink of cultured yeasts for the last fifteen years or so.
There's a big debate these days about "natural wine". What do you think: the term, the wines, the people making them... Should the process in which a wine is made be as important to a customer as how it tastes, or should the wines speak for themselves through their unique subtleties?
I like the provocative aspect of the term in that it forces people (those capable of analytic thought) to think: "but then what is unnatural wine?", and if they follow that line of inquiry with any rigor they will eventually understand that about 90% of "wine" is very unnatural. Unfortunately this includes some wines being sold under the "natural" banner even though the grapes from which they are made are farmed with chemicals.
These, for me, are problematic because they add to the confusion and general ignorance in the interests of easy profit and the concept of "natural wine" becomes just another marketing gag. The term "natural" should imply a lack of chemicals and benefits from the current positive development of organics globally. If it is just a question of high volatiles and carbonic flavors with cloudy wines then it is ultimately undermining any long-term development of appreciation of truly natural produce. In terms of the importance of process I am more with Marx than with Bismarck, so yes I do think the means justify the ends and not the other way round, however unfashionable that may be with Generation Sarkozy.
While wines can speak for themselves, very few people accurately understand what they are saying and the subtleties are often lost in translation with many tasters wanting to define wines in a single sniff and sip.
My parents told me about the whole relationship between Matassa and Domaine Majas and it sounds like a cool story. Can you tell me a little bit about how you met those guys and were able to play an integral role in shaping what they're doing today?
A guy who worked for me is from their village and mentioned that they were keen to look into changing to organics, would I be happy to chat etc... After the vineyard tour they (Alain and Agnés) asked me to taste their wines and give an honest opinion. I dislike consulting oenologists even more than I dislike Decanter journalists, supermarket wine-buyers, chemical salesmen with their free t-shirts and so on but I could see there wasn't much hope in just changing the vineyards to organics. So I decided to lend a helping hand both in the vines and in the cellar and now the 35 ha are worked organically and naturally in the cellar.
What are your favorite wines to drink besides your own?
Through the vintage I drank quite a lot of stuff from Julien Guillot, the 2008's from Gauby and Jean Foillard and Eric Bordelet's Poiré , with quite a few bottles from Patrick Meyer (Domaine Julien Meyer) rounding things off. My dislike of residual sugar and high sulphur means most German and Alsace rieslings are unpleasant prospects, but Patrick's 2002 2004 Grand Cru Moenchberg is a source of eternal wonder for me. Not so everyday bottles that have touched me include 78 Rayas (white and red), quite a lot of stuff from Clos Rougeard, older vintages from Charles Joguet (pre- 94), old Chave (the father's wines) nearly everything I have drunk from Lalou Bize-Leroy's own estate which seems to be so far ahead of anything else made in Burgundy today. Tempier from the 80's especially Cabassaou or Migoua in magnums. '61 Palmer which is delicious and also serves to high-light how badly Bordeaux has gone wrong since its heyday.
This visit with Tom Lubbe took place in July, 2012.
Words by Jules Dressner, photos by Maya Pedersen.
Every time I see Tom Lubbe, I play a game in my head counting how many times he'll say 'fuck'. My theory is that he spends so much time speaking French in the beautiful little village of Calce that whenever another anglophone -particularly one like myself- comes around, it's open season to let loose a repressed torrent of English expletives. The other thing I do every time I see Tom is laugh my ass off. I think this video -minus the overly dramatic, completely out of place classical music- aptly captures his great sense of humor:
Tom is also the only vigneron we work with who is 100% fluent in English and French: in this we share a bond, a secret hand-shake of sorts involving a very special brand of Franglais/Frenglish that only 'our kind' can really understand. And over the three days and nights we spent in his village this summer, I got the chance to know Tom a lot more. Beyond all the laughs and good times, Tom really is a very intelligent and opinionated man, making conversations with him a genuine pleasure.
A New Zealand native who grew up in South Africa, Tom's first visit to the Roussillon was in the late 90's. As he explains in his Louis/Dressner interview:
"Over 12 years ago I was working for a wonderful woman -Louise Hofmeyer- in South Africa who had the only estate (Welgemeend, which she has since had to sell) there and then using exclusively indigenous yeasts, working with lower yileds and little or no new wood. As I wanted to work with Mediterranean varieties, Louise recommended I do a stage at Domaine Gauby in Calce, which I did. Gerard Gauby invited me to come back for three more vintages as cellar helper during which time I met his sister with whom I am now married with two children."
When Tom and Natalie found out they were going to have their first child (who they called Jules, proving they have excellent taste in names), they decided to get married. Tom, who'd originally planned to take what he'd learned in the Roussillon back to South Africa, decided to stay in France. Still determined to have his own estate, he started Matassa in 2003. The first vintage was actually vinified and aged in Tom's living room!
"The kid, the wine...It was the first year of our marriage, and almost our last!"
Living room wine wasn't exactly sustainable, so the Gauby's donated their old cellar to Tom for 2004...
After our first night in Calce, we set off to visit Tom's vines. The first site we visited was a 1,5 h parcel of 80 year old Macabeau on schist soils.
The parcel is called La Jasse. In this area, Tom recently planted olive groves.
"That's my retirement plan 20 years from now."
As we walked through the vines, the famous Tramontane winds were soft but steady.
"The Tramontane is THE most defining part of this terroir. When it's soft, it's a good thing. But it can be very strong and blow for up to two weeks at a time."
This often leads to vines being broken. On average, 30% of the crop is lost to the Tramontane each year! Next up was a 120 year old parcel of Macabeau called Poux d'en Nougé.
After that, we drove to the parcel the Marguerite cuvée comes from.
This lieu-dit - Muscat de Max- is a monastery parcel, which means it was originally planted by monks over a thousand years ago. It's an old field blend of Muscat D'Alexendrie, Malvasia and Muscat Petit Grain, all on limestone soils. The vines are at least 90 years old. Also planted here, a kooky grape called Datier de Baruch:
"They look like little bananas or chili peppers. I have no idea where they originally come from, and my best explanation is that they were planted as a joke."
Moving along, we then drove to a 2,5 h parcel of Grenache Gris, Coum des Lloups (Valley of the wolves).
"But if that is a little too Costnerish, the vineyard itself is known as Tattaouine after the town in Marocco, not the planet in Star Wars."
P.S: I made the Star Wars reference, not Tom.
P.P.S: This is the second time a Kevin Costner Dances With Wolves joke was made by a vigneron and featured on this blog.
This is biggest parcel Tom owns. It's a field blend of mostly white grapes, but everything is co-fermented and vinified in white. 3/4 of the Matassa Blanc come from this site. The soils are schist with limestone subsoil.
The last parcel we visited, Romanissa, was the most visually stunning:
These 130 year old vines are on a super steep coteau, and barely produce 15 hl yields. Mechanical work is impossible, and the prior owner sold it to Tom for next to nothing. The Romanissa cuvée comes from here (DUHHH!), and is made with the Lledoner Pelut grape. This varietal is an old school Catalan strain of Grenache. People told Tom it was useless, but he knew better; the skins are very thick, so they are incredibly resilient against illness.
The visit ended with a trip to the cellar to taste some 2010's and 2011's.
After the grapes are brought into the cellar, Tom foot-trods them into the press. This way, he can pack it to maximum capacity and perform a very slow press. The cellar is not temperature controlled. Sulfur use varies vintage to vintage, but typically 10mg are added at press, with a possible additional 10 mg after malolactic fermentation. Tom rarely sulfurs at bottling.
My personal highlight was the "Blanc" (70% Grenache Gris, 30% Macabeu) which I found stunning: a crazy poppy seed nose and unique taste. Alexanria, a 100% Muscat Petit Grain cuvée was one of the craziest things I tasted the entire trip (that's a good thing), and the Rouge was excellent as well. As Maya "Mayhem" Pedersen aptly pointed out, the wines -due to Tom's intentionally low yields (15hl/h on average!)- have this incredible concentration that I've rarely experienced elsewhere. To me, these are some of the most iconoclastic wines in the portfolio.
IGT des Côtes Catalanes "Matassa Blanc":
Soil: Schist or slate slopes surrounded by garrigue
Grapes: Grenache Gris 70% & Maccabeu 30%.
Yields: 18 hl/ha
Vinification: Whole bunch pressed in wooden basket-press.Fermented with indigenous yeasts in barrel (228l and 500l)and age d on lees for 18 months. No battonage. Wine is filtered lightly but not fined.
Soil: Marne and granite slopes surrounded by garrigue.
Yields: 15 hl/ha
Vinification: Fermented with indigenous yeasts in 500l barrels. Light foot treadi ng, pigéage of grapes, 8 days on skins. Wine is filtered lightly but not fined, after 20 months elevage.
Soil: Schist or slate slopes surrounded by garrigue
Grapes: Syrah 50%, and Mourvedre 50%
Vinification: After triage the grapes are de-stemmed and then transferred by hand into tank. Fermented with indigenous yeasts, with only gentle foot-treading of grapes. Malolactic fermentation completed in French oak, 228 and 500 litre vessels. 14 months aging in barrel with light filtration and no fining
Soil: Vertical marne and slate sheets surrounded by garrigue.
Grapes: 110 year old Carignan, 30 year old Mourvèdre
Yields: 15 hl/ha
Vinification: 50% whole-bunch. One gentle food treading, minimal extraction. Basket pressed. Unfiltered and unfined.
Soil: Schist or slate slopes surrounded by garrigue
Grapes: Grenache Noir 70%, Carignan 20%, Mourvedre 10%
Age of vines: 30 to 112 years old.
Yields: 15 hl/ha
Vinification: After triage the grapes are de-stemmed and then transferred by hand into tank. Fermented with indigenous yeasts, with only gentle foot-treading of grapes. Malolactic completed in French oak, 228 and 500 litre vessels. 24 months aging with light filtration, no fining.