Dominating the sea of vines, on the left hand side of the D612, between Mas Sabole and Trouillas are the imposing 18th Century stone and brick outbuildings of Château du Mas Deu.
Just in front and a bit to the side is a thick grove of dark trees through which can be seen a tower, an old chapel and some ruined walls. This is all that remains of the 12th Century Comanderie of the Knights Templar. These soldier knights, returning to France from the Holy Land, made Mas Deu their administrative and religious headquarters in Roussillon.
The walls were fortified, the house was grand, the church was built and dedicated, as were all Templar churches, to Sainte Marie the Virgin.
At the height of their power they controlled over 800 hectares and the largest vineyards in Europe. They drained lagoons, ordered the salt trade, farmed cattle, branched out into property development and mortgages. They monopolised Perpignan’s bakeries, possessed mills, olive groves, tanneries and became successful bankers. They controlled the import of exotic spices and foreign fancy goods from their base in Collioure. They became extremely powerful. In the early 1300s Philippe Le Bel decided enough was enough. On the 13th of October 1307, acting in the name of the Pope, the King and the Church, all the Knights Templar in France were arrested and thrown into prison.
At the start of the 14th Century, Arnaud de Villeneuve, Physician to the Kings of Aragon, and professor of medicine at the University of Montpellier, created the first ever Vin Doux in the cellars of Mas Deu. His method of stopping the fermetation of the naturally sweet wine with a small amount of eau de vie is still used to this day.
Mas Deu also continued to have military connections as the land was fought over by French and Spanish. Through all the skirmishes and battles the vineyards kept producing. By 1852, Mas Deu wines were dominating the local market as well as being exported all over the world.
Between the wars the property was split up and sold to a number of the vineyard workers who formed the Cave Coperative of Trouillas. To this day it is always a pleasure to enter the bottle- shaped door leading to an Aladin’s cave of local wines to be tasted and carried away, whilst charismatic Claude Oliver regales you with stories of the past.
The château and church were used for marriages and christenings by illustrious families connected to Mas Deu’s past.
Albert Astor and Rose Oliver bought the buildings and 25 hectares in 1935, but, during the 2nd World War Mas Deu once again became a headquarters. This time of the Occupying German Army. On 17th of August 1944, before retreating, an explosion blew up most of the beautiful old buildings which had been used as an ammunition depot. All that remains now in the dark grove of tall trees is the north tower, some of the fortified wall and the chapel.
And the vineyards and the 18th century out-buildings. There Claude Oliver continues six generations of family wine making tradition with flair and enthusiasm. Some of his 25 hectares still support 60 year-old vines of Grenache and Maccebeu.
He is constantly working to replant and improve his vines, believing in quality over quantity.
«Wine is like love,» claims his father, a charming artist and poet, «without passion, it cannot exist.»
Claude makes sure his wine not only exists but is amongst the best of the region. He wins medals and prizes. He favours organic production. As he says, his forefathers had no chemicals to work with with.
His mother was one of the first female oenologues in France.
The yields, limited to a low 27 hl/ha, ensure maximum aromatic potential of each grape variety.
His wine bottle labels bear witness to his property’s Templar past, some wines are named after his illustrious predecessors, and others after his children.
A tasting with Claude Oliver is an education, a pleasure and a delight. He will talk you through his crisp, well balanced whites, onto the rich reds, explaining the vinification, the grape varieties, how and when they should be drunk and enjoyed.
In English, French or Catalan, his enthusiasm is infectious and his wines reflect the care and skill that goes into their making. He finishes with his sweet natural wines, and the tale of Arnaud de Villneuve; differing vintages, colours and styles, as irresistible as they are varied. It is difficult to leave without a case or two and a promise to return.
Ring 04 68 53 11 66 for information, or drop in as you speed across that long straight road towards Trouillas. You will receive a warm welcome.