Questions to Jean-Marc Lafage
I / Jean Marc, why did you become a winemaker?
Back in the 1970’s boys brought up in the country were expected to work on the land. My father was a winemaker, and so I followed him into the vineyard. Back then we were in Maury and we had a plot of very old vines situated on a magnificent terroir which was extremely steep. No mechanization was possible. Everything was done by hand and the magnificent grapes that the plot produced were the first that I had permission to vinify alone.
This plot still exists but the vines have disappeared. I made a promise, I will replant it and it is perhaps in this spot that my daughter and my son will feel the family history calling to them across seven generations….
II / In the early years of your working life, you have made wine all over the world; why have you returned to Roussillon?
Winemakers around the world can do nothing without great tasting grapes, and great grapes need fantastic terroir. After seeing some of the world’s best, we realised that our own land, The Roussillon, had the potential to be considered among the finest terroirs of the world.
There is a mosaic of different soils in The Roussillon. Among these, we chose three major soil types in order to create a range of different expressions which seemed to us the best suited to the profile of the wines that we wanted to create:
- The Agly Valley, deep in the heart of the ancient Cathar lands ... Following the river upstream into the mountains, the vineyards climb from 150 to 400 metres, rooted on black schist and shale laminates, and swept by strong north-westerly winds. This is where we find the power and concentration of traditional authentic Catalan reds.
- Perpignan-Mediterranean grapes, from vines, some of them over a hundred years old, planted here, close to the sea, in the rolled pebbles of the ancient Quaternary period. As well as the cooling sea breezes, at the end of the afternoon, a sea mist hangs over the vines close to the coast, bringing a salty note, and shading the vines against the baking heat of the sun.
- Les Aspres, This vineyard is the home of Le Vignon. Planted in terraces that follow the contour lines, that mirror the bas-relief of the Pyrenees behind them, this vineyard is partially planted to bush vines. At 400 metres above sea level, it is exposed to the full force of the Tramontane wind.
III / Is 160 hectares considered a big vineyard?
Yes …..and no!
There can’t be many vineyards in the world where yields are as low as 20 hectolitres per hectare, which is all we achieve here in the Roussillon – that’s less than one bottle per vine. But our land is rugged and dry, and every grape has to be fought against tough natural obstacles – but the results are worth it, with enormous concentration and expressive depth of flavor.
IV / How many cuvées do you produce?
Many…. Some people say too many…. But we think that it is important not only to pay respects to tradition, but also to have a vision of the future, and that means experimenting with new and different wines. We try to strike a good balance between the two, and to do everything well. It is easy to make an exciting single barrel in a corner, but we’d rather be judged on the entirety of our production. My focus is on the vineyards, and Eliane is queen of the cellar, but we decide on the blends together
V / You win a lot of awards: Bacchus, Gold Medals at the Concours General Agricole in Paris, regular presence in the Guide Hachette etc ... Is this important to you?
There’s no doubt that it feels good to win an award, but in the 15 years since Eliane and I have been running Domaine Lafage, the most important thing has been to have the recognition of our peers. We were delighted in 2011, after 10 years of hard work to be awarded no less than 10 Gold Medals from the Concours Général Agricole. And in 2012, we won 9 Gold Medals.
But winning prizes is the outcome of what we are trying to do, and not the goal. We experiment restlessly, to keep finding new ways of making great wine, and never to forget that it is our customers who we are trying to please. When they buy a bottle of wine from Lafage, they are buying a promise, and we want to make sure that we live up to it every time.
VI / You very often say that the Domaine Lafage is a family property, how does that work in practice?
My mother and father are still actively involved in greeting our customers, and in running the cellar door, and while Eliane and I take the most important decisions, it is really important to emphasise that we have a fantastic team who work with us, rooted in the culture of the Roussillon, and are devoted our success. Our children Léa and Nicolas, even though they are still very young, have already started to show some interest in the life of the property ...
VII / While you have been very oriented to export markets, it is the traditional French market that you are focused on today. Why is this?
When we started out, we were attracted to export markets because of the possibility of fast growth, which was what our young business needed. They say that a prophet is not recognized in his own country, and it became a little frustrating for us to do so well in export markets, yet not make much impact at home. But since 2014, we have been cultivating our network of sales agents, and the results are extremely encouraging – and we are looking forward to see how the wines from this latest vintage go down with our consumers.