We met Jean-François Deu walking down the rustic cobblestone in Collioure. The head of Domaine du Traginer had invited us to visit his nine hectares of vineyards in Banyuls-sur-Mer, and he warmly greeted us in front of one of the quaint Catalan eateries overlooking the Mediterranean.
Collioure is a picturesque fishing town with a rich surrounding landscape, which has attracted many renowned artists, notably Mâtisse. The day’s cold wind had little effect on the beauty of the luminous, sun-drenched port and the multi-hued shops and cafés that face the sea.
But our adventures lay elsewhere. Jean-François led us to his mammoth Toyota truck, and quickly, we were off to his vineyards in Banyuls.
Domaine du Traginer, a grower of utmost talent and steadfast tradition, has been biodynamic since 1988, and makes the sweet, rich AOC Grand Cru Banyuls Blanc and Rouge, along with dry AOC Collioure Blanc and Rouge.
“Traginer” in Catalan means “mule,” a reference to the ancient method of farming that employs these animals to plow the land – no mean feat when you consider that these vineyards plunge steeply to the Mediterranean at the foot of the Pyrénées mountains. The name also pays tribute to Jean-François’ Catalan 80+ year-old uncle, who is a mule driver and still instrumental in the farming of the vineyards.
Jean-François told us that the area had been suffering from drought in recent years, further reducing his already low grape yields. Quieted by the severity of the approaching view, we came upon the locked entrance to the “road” that steeply led up to his vineyard. Accelerating through the turns, Jean-François navigated the brutal climb, which jolted me violently from my seatbelt-less position in the back cab. I prayed the truck wouldn’t flip over.
Emerging from the truck and shaking off a combination of car-sickness and jet lag, I realized that I was about to view one of the most dramatic terrains in the winemaking world. As I surveyed the terraced rows of Grenache Noir, Syrah, Carignane and Mourvèdre vines that led sharply down to the blue backdrop of the Mediterranean, it was clear that a different set of laws applied to this place.
The plunging land required a narrow vertical canal, called a “Peus de Gall,” to assist in drainage when torrential rains come in the spring. The panorama seemed almost sacred in its extremity and distance from the modern world.
I imagined the exhausting organic farming and back-breaking harvests, and I realized that the difficulty of making wine from this fruit makes any market price of the finished wine seem too modest. Indeed, Jean-François explained that most of the grapes from the area were sold to a cooperative because brutal manual vineyard work like his is considered too laborious and costly.
Battered by the steady wind that Jean-François calls more powerful than the mistrals of Provence, we descended to the coastal road that led us to the shuttered beachfront of Banyuls-sur-Mer. Beyond the glitzy tourist façade we came upon a town center where we met Jean-François’ uncle and Nanu, the mule that plows Domaine du Traginer’s vineyards. Jean-François’ uncle, who speaks only Catalan, trained Nanu to pull a plow through the vineyards to turn over the soil and kill weeds.
I looked at Nanu and considered in amazement the schist-laden soils of the mountain that he expertly worked. It was impressive to see that careful, traditional practices could still be applied to such uncompromising terrain.