Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Funny goings on at Domaine des Anges

Some irreverent answers given by Domaine des Anges' owner, Gay McGuinness to questions asked by a South African  publication:

(A) Your full address ?
postal address: Domaine des Anges, 84570 Mormoiron, France; physical address: Domaine des Anges, Quartier ND des Anges, 84570 Mormoiron, France 
(B) History of the winery.
Domaine des Anges is a beautiful, small, hillside estate in the Ventoux in the Southern Rhone region of France. It looks out across a large valley towards Mont Ventoux – the Giant of Provence – with spectacular views on all sides.
The estate covers 40 hectares and is overlooked by the chapel of Notre Dame des Anges and a 12th century Moorish tower, living together happily in the sunshine of timeless, historic, rural France. The total area of the vineyard is 18 ha.
There have been vineyards here since Roman times. We do not know the name of the original owner, but it is believed that he was stabbed to death by a group of Roman politicians jealous of the quality of his Domaine des Anges wines and the beauty of his Egyptian girlfriend. All this was recorded by an English reporter named Shakespeare, so it must be true.
Since that time, Domaine des Anges has seen many owners. It is now in the care of Gay McGuinness from Kilkenny, Ireland who fell in love with the estate in 1989. However, he did not throw caution to the wind: he went to Rome to make sure that the original owner had not passed on the deeds of the land to Silvio Berlusconi, a man who knows all about love.
McGuinness and Dublin man Ciaran Rooney, a Stellenbosch trained winemaker, found each other and probably deserved each other. Together, or more often, separately, they began replanting and rebuilding the vineyard and its reputation, without much caring about their own, as they fought over terroir, labels, tannins, rugby matches and anything else that would encourage a thirst.
Despite all this, the vineyard staggered towards a type of prosperity and its wines have won an international reputation for quality. McGuinness claims that this is because fun and profit should mix. Rooney’s view is prosaic: he thinks winemakers are witch doctors who can work wonders when owners and Masters of Wine (MWs) leave them alone. Despite, or perhaps because of, the insults they hurl at each other, Domaine des Anges is now one of the top producers of quality red, white and rose wines in the Southern Rhone. Given the two involved this is, well, a miracle.
We fully realize how all this may seem to you, even if you are getting Beckett on the nose and Joyce on the palate. Like our fellow Irishmen, we don’t much care. We live for our art and hope you will pay for it. If you want to know more about Domaine des Anges you are going to have to buy the wine and/or visit the vineyard. Make sure it’s a day when both principals are at their charming best. Slainte.

(C) Current owner and information about reason for purchasing, family history...
The owner is a recluse, who only communicates with his winemaker in Urdu or something equally unintelligible, the replies are in Afrikaans with an Irish accent, which makes for interesting conversation. He didn’t purchase the vineyard, he got the deeds when he lost a tipsy poker game. He keeps it, because he can’t find a poker player worse than himself to lose it to.

He really doesn’t want to talk about his family, who spend a great deal of time not talking to him. He is afraid that if they get to know where he is they will kidnap him and force him to finish his treatment.

In person, since you asked the question, he is unkempt, opinionated and spends a great deal of time cataloguing South African ducks which, since they don’t lose very often, gives him time for his other great passion: hula-hoops. He is a graduate of the KGB Charm School and has a tendency to throw hula-hoops at visiting MWs with colourful instructions about what they can do with them.

The winemaker sniggers when McGuinness explains his love of wine and his investment to the odd visitor brave enough to climb the hill. Winemakers are like that: they know everything, run down Parker behind his back and could have done a better job than God in making the world, except for the fact that they are too busy making wine that the world often does not appreciate.

The facts are that McGuinness, being Irish, grasped the opportunity you offered to talk about himself and just couldn’t finish the book in time. It was left to us to provide you with a few carefully chosen words.

(D) Current winemaker, education, philosophy and style. Cellar, vinification...
The current winemaker, Ciaran Rooney, and we stress current, is a contrary, abrasive, vertically challenged individual who hates owners and Masters of Wine, not necessarily in that order.

Although Irish, he grew up in South Africa, but not much. Maybe it was because he was living in the shade of all the big people down there. He graduated from Stellenbosch and his current employer came across him at an auction of winemakers. He looked quite harmless – the leg irons were not immediately obvious. He makes great wine, but his language, he swears in Afrikaans, is appalling, we think. He has never got over being mistaken for the ball in a muddy rugby match in South Africa – it wasn’t pleasant in that scrum. And the put-in was crooked.

He doesn’t have a philosophy. He has attitude. His style is confrontational – the vines shed their leaves when he approaches. The reason he became a winemaker is because he could stand on top of large tanks talking down to big people, spouting nonsense about the importance of terroir, the need for balance, elegance, depth and bottom, whatever that is, in wine and castigating anyone foolish enough to disagree with him. It is a complete mystery to those who know him that he makes great wine that does not have even a hint of venom.

(E) General technical details : Terroir, Soil, Grape varities...
Do we have to get technical? It bores people. Terroir, that great vague French word which embraces atmosphere, weather, soil and munificent nature doesn’t quite capture a flat tractor tyre on a wet day, a back-breaking crawl through the vines or sunburn. But it does seem profound and philosophical. It’ll have to do. It is a lovely word. And it is us, because we were raised on Blarney.

Our soil is principally chalk (no, not “and cheese”). In some places, it’s less chalky with ferrous clays splashed with lots of rocks, which the winemaker and owner throw at each other. We are thinking of making a wine called “Wait Until I Get my Hands on You”.

Each year we pray that our Grenache, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Clairette and Bourboulenc will grow and prosper through divine intervention. It never happens. We have to work. We do that reluctantly, but we take great care, respecting nature and tradition, which seldom respects us, when we prune and later tie the vines, cover their feet in sheep droppings, using specially trained sheep, and strip them of cover when the sun is at its hottest. Revenge is sweet.

Bottom line? 80% of winemaking happens in the vineyards. If you don’t look after your vines, your bank manager will quickly disperse the seductive fog called terroir and cut straight to the chase. Of you.

The cellar is the preserve of the Contrary One, who reminds everyone that there is magic in his hands, which is a great relief, as nobody is sure about what’s in his head.

Peering through the veil of mystery and suspicion created by the genius (which we are encouraged to believe lurks behind the Contrary One’s grim exterior) is not easy. But we will try.

After sundry fowl have been offered in sacrifice, if an MW can’t be found, the fruit, hand-picked, luscious and panting for tender loving care, is rammed through a de-stemmer and, if it is the reds, brutally beaten to subjugation in the tank, by the Contrary One while he mutters incantations learned at Stellenbosch. It is horrifying on first sight, but it seems to work.

In the tanks, the grapes are never allowed a moment’s peace, with regular pump-overs to extract gently their luscious tannins and deep colour. But their torture is not over. Finally, they are squeezed, kicking and screaming, through the press before, at last, finding refuge in either tanks or French oak barrels where they can quietly lie, temperature controlled for 12 months, before bottling and, finally they are released to screams of approval from our hordes of supporters throughout the world.

The whites, the ladies, are treated as gently as the Contrary One can manage, going straight into the press before the blessed relief of clarification – more than you are getting here - and cold fermentation in stainless steel at 12 degrees, or in barrel. After fermentation they are left on the lees until filtration. Bottling takes place in spring and shortly afterwards the wine begins crossing the palates of our adoring fans: the winemaker’s father and mother.

(F) Where are you situated. Surroundings. Tourist attractions...
We are at the centre of our world! Provence and the south of France, which is itself one large tourist attraction, lies at our unstable feet. Domaine des Anges sits on the side of a hill with spectacular views in all directions. It is about an hour’s drive from Avignon, Gordes and the Abbaye de Senanque, and a universe away from reality. The road up to the vineyard is usually crowded with wine buyers.

No one is permitted to look at the views or leave the vineyards before they buy, we give them glasses made of bottle ends. We are currently holding two Americans, an irate Australian, a Tibetan monk with a llama, a Mongolian wrestler, who doesn’t want to leave and we aren’t going to force him, four very annoyed MWs and ten lost Munster rugby fans demanding Guinness. Come and join them.

(G) Size of the estate
We can’t really tell you that. If we go public, everyone will know we have 18 ha of vines and we will no longer be able to tell our clients that we only produce 15 cases of each variety and they can have two.

(H) Details of harvest
Each year, the Contrary One crushes 100 tonnes of grapes with relish, intoning the names of all those that ever played rugby against him, and with him for that matter, mainly huge South Africans. Fortunately, they are thousands of miles away. It is mayhem in there – we can’t believe there isn't a law against it. 

(I) Biodynamic/Organic ?
Biodynamic/organic? We have trouble with this question. We are dynamic but we do only the bio we think necessary maybe two tubs of yogurt a day. However, if we catch the wild boar that regularly eats our grapes we will bury him and his horns, with or without a full moon. 

Our big problem is that during full moons, one has to watch out for the owner, who turns into a Yeti, which is a considerable improvement. As for organic: we’ve only got a piano at the moment, but we play it as we move through the vineyard. We are green, but we are not pure. Sometime dear Lord, but not just yet, because we want to see just what purity gives and takes away from our competitors, may their grapes go square and rot at the corners. We didn’t mean that, ha, ha.

(J) Icon Wines and quantities
Archange and Seraphin. We wanted to call it Lucifer after the winemaker, but the owner, Gabriel, got stroppy about the competition. You could say it was a dispute made in heaven.
We produce 150 cases of glorious white: 90% Roussanne and 800 cases of oaked Syrah/Grenache under the Archange label. In exceptional years we make a great pure Grenache called Seraphin (“the N” is French – don’t argue). A seraphin is a better class of angel, because we were getting tired of all the regular archangels flying around us. Actually, these wines do fly out of the winery, which is what really counts.

(K) Best restaurant stocking your wine, worldwide ?
We never reveal this information for fear that it will stop its current two bottles a year. Actually, we don’t like to boast.

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