Arrogant Frog

It is possible Jean-Claude Mas has the greatest range of value-for-money wines in the world. I certainly scratch my head trying to think of someone who might beat him. They’re French wines, but inspired by the New World.

Arrogant Frog (tastings) is his best-known brand. You know the label: an insect-gobbling amphibian impersonating a biped, with a jaunty beret, cravat, walking-stick and a glass of wine in one flipper.

What cheek! A Frenchman with the gall (no pun intended) to make fun of himself – or at least his countrymen.

The label has been augmented in many ways. Ribet Red is the basic cheap red, a cabernet merlot. A dearer one is called Elegant Frog. During the soccer World Cup, the frog was kicking a soccer ball. The organic wines have a frog chasing butterflies with a net. Others have frogs surfing, golfing, fishing, partying. The latest is a syrah viognier blend called Croak Rotie. For those who don’t get it, this is poking fun at the most famous French shiraz viognier, Cote Rotie.

(The South Africans were there first, though: there’s a wine and goat farm on the Cape which fields a Goat Rotie and a Goats-do-Roam.)

Jean-Claude Mas is anticipating a cranky letter from the lawyers for the French appellation control system.

The Arrogant Frog label has spawned (sorry, again) a whole family – there’s now a Ribet White sauvignon blanc (tastings), a Lily Pad viognier (tastings), a Sticky White (tastings), a cabernet merlot, rose, and a sparkling pink. Six Arrogant Frog wines, all $8.99 at Dan Murphy’s. And another eleven wines under the Paul Mas (tastings), Domaine Paul Mas and Domaines Astruc (tastings) labels. All emanate from Jean-Claude Mas’ winery at Montagnac, near Montpellier. Most of the wines carry the Languedoc appellation, Pays d’Oc.

Mas inherited the original property, near Pezenas (famous as the home of writer Moliere) from his father, Paul Mas, after he’d worked in marketing and car racing. He built a winery, expanded the vineyards and bought new ones right across the Languedoc. It’s now a big business, producing almost a million cases of wine a year, from its own 250 hectares of vines and another 800 under its management. It’s a successful business and while Mas’ various wines seem incredibly cheap at the various Woolworths Liquor outlets, he is very happy with his relationship with Woolies and happy to explain how the economics add up, enabling him to have $8 French wines on the shop shelf in Sydney and still be viable.

But what about that catchy name? It has to be the best reverse psychology ever used in wine marketing. Mas explains.

“I was on a plane to visit my agent in the US, and sketching some ideas for a label, I came up with a story about a frog and a bird – a heron, which is the symbol of Domaine Paul Mas. But birds eat frogs, so my agent didn’t like the idea.” It was at the time of the Iraq invasion, with Chirac refusing to join the ‘coalition of the willing’, and Americans though all French were arrogant. Voila! The arrogant frog was born, or should that be hatched.

Did this parody of the stereotype upset the French? Mas says the small-minded were upset, but more worldly people didn’t care.

The Mas family have been vignerons from father to son since 1892, but Jean-Claude’s father, Paul, did not make wine, other than for his own use. Jean-Claude took it to a new level. “I studied and lived in the US and England – studied marketing, finance and business. I worked in car racing, supplying high-performance oils to racing teams, and meeting people like Mick Doohan and Wayne Grady. Brady. I did my national service in Florida, as a trade attache in Miami. Then back in France I worked as marketing manager for Bernard Magret, who owned Chateau Pape Clement in Bordeaux. There, I met an Italian, Giorgio Grai of Gancia, who taught me a great deal about wine. Then at the end of 1995 I returned to the region (the Languedoc) and decided to make my first wine. My father stayed on until 2000, but my way of making wine was different from anything that he knew.”

He’d made old-fashioned ‘rough red’ from the local workhorse grapes aramon, carignan and cinsault. The estate was not very profitable. Jean-Claude made his first wine in 1998 at the nearby winery Domaine Virginie, but this was sold in ’99. So he decided to start Domaine Paul Mas.

His first wines were a ’98 cabernet syrah and ’99 chardonnay viognier. He concentrated on brand-building at first, then began buying other properties. Domaines Astruc (tastings) at Limoux was already a 250,000-case winery. Its ’09 chardonnay is available in Australia. He bought more vineyards locally and another estate, Mas des Tannes – which is certified organic.

At his home-base, Domaine Nicole, he now has a modern winery, cellar door sales and is soon to open a brasserie.

“My latest purchase is a vineyard near Carcassonne in a terroir voted Terroir of the Year by the Bettane Desseauve wine guide. The area is called Terrasse du Larzac. The wine is a red, coming from 27 hectares of syrah, grenache, mourvedre and carignan.”

The biggest variety for Mas, however, is chardonnay, and he is convinced chardonnay will always be in demand despite the ups and downs created by fashions such as the present one for New Zealand sauvignon blanc. “It’s the biggest production I do. I make it at three levels. Chardonnay is so varied: it can be big and buttery or fine and delicate. There are many possible styles.” Mas is surprised Australian wineries have largely abandoned the traditional rich, full-flavoured style of chardonnay – such as he produces at Domaines Astruc. “A lot of people here ask me for a rich chardonnay.”

An impressive feature of Mas’ wines is their lack of residual sugar – excessive sweetness being an insidious development in modern, low-priced Australian wines.

Even his $7.99 Paul Mas whites are no more than 2 grams per litre of sweetness – dry to most people’s palates. (Some New Zealand sauvignon blancs and cheap Australian reds have 15 grams per litre sugar.)

“Sugar is like make-up: it’s a trick. It shouldn’t be done. People eventually tire of it.”

Mas is quick to pay tribute to the influence Australians had in his region – especially Bill Hardy, who managed Domaine de la Baume (tastings) near Beziers during the 1990s when it was owned by the Hardy family.

“Without Bill Hardy I would not exist. He was an important guy in the Languedoc. I use the same (business) model he used.” That is, you grow your own grapes, you buy other grapes from selected growers, whom you help to improve their quality, and you make the wine in your own winery. The alternative? A co-operative – which is legally obliged to accept all the grapes of its members, much of which is rubbish, and their wine quality (at least in the Languedoc) is among France’s poorest.

The contrast with Arrogant Frog and Jean-Claude’s approach couldn’t be more stark.

First published in Sydney Morning Herald, Good Living – 22 March 2011. 


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