Samuel Guibert was in Ireland last week for wine tastings in Tipperary and Cork. He’s the head winemaker of  legend of the Languedoc, or the “Grand Cru of the Midi”, Mas de Daumas Gassac. Started by his father and mother in 1971, he has since joined the business with two of his brothers, Roman and Gaël. When he’s not making wine or flying around the globe talking about making wine he’s a busy father of two sons and a daughter.

Just before he headed south of the Pale, I caught up with him for a chat about making his “Grand Cru of the Midi”.

Samuel opens up confidently in saying there are no bad questions, he’s open to anything. Not something you normally hear from winemakers who are usually closely guarded by their local importers and PR people.

Mas de Daumas Gassac has been called the Lafite of the Languedoc, tell me how it started?

Well, it started with luck! My parents purchased an old farm or “Mas” in 1971. They had fallen in love with the area and found an old farm, almost in ruins.

My father, Aimé, was in the leather business and my mother taught in Montpelier. Neither had any real interest in the wine business.

If you wanted to make money, particularly in the Languedoc, wine was not the way to do it. Back then, getting wine into a glass bottle was an achievement.

So, they had all this land and didn’t know what to do with it. They thought about planting asparagus, sage, maizse or something else until a good friend, Henri Enjalbert, paid them a visit. Enjalbert was the Dean of the School of Geography in the University of Bordeaux so he knew a thing or two about soils.  After walking around the property it reminded him of Cote d’Or in Burgundy.

Glacial deposits, very rich in minerals led him to believe that my parents could make a Grand Cru wine here, but he also added it could take them 200 years. But from a terroir perspective, he said there was something exceptional in this valley.

So, they decided to plant some Cabernet Sauvignon and seven years later, with the help of Emile Peynaud, made their first vintage.

Peynaud’s name is synonymous with some of the most revered chateaux in Bordeaux. Why the Languedoc?

While he consulted with some of the top Bordeaux houses, he said he wanted to be present at the birth of a Grand Cru.

And it didn’t take 100 years either, Daumas Gassac very quickly became known as the “Lafite Rothchild of the Languedoc-Roussillon” (French magazine Gault-Milau) and “the only Grand Cru of the Midi” (Hugh Johnson).

“We managed to make something truly unique, not just in Languedoc, but in the whole of France. It became more than just a wine but a powerful idea. It changed people’s mindsets. Languedoc was no longer about cheap, bulk wine.

While all the comparisons, Grand Cru of the south, the Lafite of the Languedoc are always a fantastic tribute and acknowledgement, I prefer “Grand Cru of the Midi” because it’s our own name. And all this stature also comes from being the first to break out but it’s still a nice recognition.

What it means, though, is that people have full belief in making amazing wine in the Languedoc, we’re no longer stuck with a name for bulk wine.

Now, what makes Languedoc exciting is not the negotiants, but the small producers making one or two thousand  cases. They’ve converted their garage into a cellar and they’re also focusing on non-chemical, organic farming. It’s quite a revolution.

So, is Daumas Gassac a good representation of wine from Languedoc?

Actually, Gassac is probably atypical of a Languedoc style because we have very much a Bordeaux influence with the Cabernet Sauvignon. But at the same time we’re definitely not making a Bordeaux wine. Putting us in with other wines from Languedoc would be like putting a New Zealand Pinot Noir in with Australian Shiraz.

When Emile Peynaud worked with us he imparted his philosophy which we have adopted. For us, wine should be about finesse, complexity and balance.

The Mas Daumas gassac Red wine is a blend of about 70% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15 other grape varieties. In terms of the land, the Gassac estate (45 hectares total) is made of over 63 individual vineyard plots in the middle (like little clearings) of 4,000 hectares of Mediterranean forest (“Garrigue”).

Each vineyard/clearing is planted with a different cépage (vine) and since we harvest everything by hand, they are all picked over a three to four week period.

All the non Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are picked in the first week and blended together in the tank, before fermentation. The Cabernet Sauvignon is harvested and fermented separately.

It is only after the fermentation that we will blend the Cabernet wine with the non Cabernet wine and will let it macerate for another few weeks.

We then we use old oak rather than new. It helps with oxygenation, without imparting strong oak flavours.

So, your father started this with a little help from his friends what about you, the next generation?

Well, the challenge was to go from one generation to the next unnoticed and I think we’ve done that successfully. I’ve been at the helm of the winemaking for the last 12 years, though my father is still involved.

Our role is the same but we constantly face new challenges and keep innovating with new methods, new techniques but only as long as it respects our philosophy, nature.

So, you mentioned nature. In making a wine, how much is nature and how much is the winemaker?

Well, that depends on who you ask. Many people would say they make the blend, so they are making the wine. But we’re vignerons, we don’t make wine, nature makes wine. We have 15 different grape varieties in the red and we use all of them every year because it represents the vintage. Perhaps we have less “personal impact” on the wine. We’re not going for a “style”, but that’s okay too, that’s our philosophy. Both ways are right.

Speaking of style, the whole “Parkerization” debate still rages on, what’s your take on it?

A lot of this came to a point with the film, Mondovino, where people realised that behind the romance of wine, there is quite a big business.

Parker did a tremendous amount in opening wine to American society who would have never touched wine if he wasn’t there.

But being too powerful or influential meant that winemakers saw that if they got their wine mentioned, they could sell 20% more wine at 20% higher price. And so, you’ve got people looking for this formula or recipe to make Parker like their wine. But not everyone is at this.

Our wine was crafted on a clear philosophy, starting with Emile Peynaud’s motto of finesse, complexity and balance. I mean in 2009 you had Chateau Pavie at 14.5% who many would consider not real Bordeaux.

Remember Bordeaux 1961, the average was 11.5%, not 14 or 14.5% and people are still raving about the 1961 vintage.

For us 12.5% a magic number because at that alcohol level, you’ve got good fruit, good acidity (a key component for a long ageing wine 20-30 years) and dryness – a red should be dry.Up at 14-15% you get something closer to a spirit.

Speaking of magic numbers 12.5% is also an auspicious one  for the Irish. It’s our corporate tax rate. Apart from that you have strong links to Ireland, tell me about them.

My mother is an ethnologist and one of the world leading experts on the Celts and Irish history and traditions and speaks Gaelic. She studied in Trinity College, Dublin.

My parents bought a house in Bantry in county Cork so we came every year since I was a child and we still come back from holidays, so I know the place very well.

Where can you buy your wines in Ireland?

The Mas de Daumas Gassac are available from Red nose wine inTipperary and Curious wines in Cork. And some exciting news, both Red Nose and Curious are offering the 2010 vintage ‘en primeur’ (where you buy the wine before it arrives). By buying this way you stand to save around €10 per bottle.

The classic range are available from both Red nose, Curious wines and Simply Wines and Cases.