Domaine of the Bee: The Buzz

POSTED ON 13/09/2010

Friday the 13th may not be unlucky for the French but the English knew that something had to give. What gave was an inoffensive carignan vine that received the sharp end of my Ibiza as I was attempting (Avis, look away now please) a reverse out of the narrow off-piste track in the hills leading to the vineyard alongside Justin and Amanda Howard-Sneyd's vineyard La Roque. In the black schists and clayey / limestone soils of the Roussillon hills, the old vines of carignan are thin on the ground here and low-yielding.

Justin and AmandaJustin and Amanda

We were visiting one of their three small vineyards of very old vines, which just became even more low-yielding by a factor of one as I took the poor thing out. Justin smiled indulgently and said not to worry as the vine was pretty much dead anyway. Ah well, farewell then another ancient carignan vine; your time was pretty much up, face it.

An hour later on a sunny August Friday, we were sitting at an outside table at Le Pichenouille, a bar-bistrot in Maury. We were joined by Marcel Buhler, a Swiss ex-banker who was being taught to plough using a horse called Nina at his estate, Domaine Les Enfants. Jean Pla, the owner and local fixer wandered over with a bottle of 2006 Tautavel which he poured. There were substantial quantities of this wine for sale and Jean knew that, in terms of Justin's new job as grand fromage at Laithwaites, a few thousand cases could be absorbed like a drop of ink on blotting paper.


Justin was on holiday with his wife Amanda, their son Sam and Otto the black Labrador. More of a busman's holiday as the car was weighed down with cases of Domaine of the Bee, awaiting delivery to various English friends on holiday in different parts of the South of France. You might think that since he’s at the helm of one of the biggest wine delivery companies in the world, Justin would have this sorted. But no. The Howard-Sneyd’s were doing it their way rather than through the more obvious channels of Laithwaites' distribution network. Ironic when you consider that Tony Laithwaite was a one man and his van operation before making his fortune.

The Tautavel was pretty decent and Justin thought it might sell for £7.99, discounted down to £4.99. But although he's now in charge of the winemaking and merchandising teams at Laithwaites, to his credit, he agreed to take a bottle back, but for the French buyer at Laithwaites to taste and make up their own mind. No pressure. In any event his own mind was on other things, mainly his four hectare estate, consisting of three vineyards in Maury with the ancient Cathar castle of Quéribus visible in the distance.

Justin and OttoJustin and Otto
Otto and JustinOtto and Justin

The Howard-Sneyds fell for the charms of Maury after Amanda's boss had invited her to use his house in Corbières for a holiday. It turned out that they couldn't because he was going to be there himself. They hired a car, drove around the area and arrived in Maury where they saw Jean's place. Jean told them that there were a couple of English blokes Richard Case and Mark Hoddy, making wine. It was the 2003 vintage, it had just hailed and they were pretty depressed. The Howard-Sneyds asked them to keep an eye out for a vineyard for them to buy. They found three blocks, one sold by Chapoutier's winemaker and the other two by co-operative growers.

The four hectares cost £14,000, which they initially thought of as an investment. Three years later they decided to make their own wine. So they took on Richard Case, who makes his own wine under the Domaine de Pertuisane label. The 2007 and 2008 were made in a building used by local artisans, but for the 2009 vintage, they bought a stainless steel tank and installed it in a new winery built by Dave Phinney of Napa's Orin Swift (The Prisoner) fame, where Richard Case was winery manager. It seemed natural to call their wine Domaine de l'Abeille as one of the vineyards is in the shadow of the rock of l'Abeille, but the owner of Chateau Mont-Redon objected, so they decided on the anglicised version, which has grown on them.

La RoqueLa Roque

Justin explained the economics: first of all the low yields, 14 hectolitres per hectares in 2009, 20 hectolitres in 2008, and hoping for 20 hectolitres per hectare this year, still low but just about economical at the selling price. The wine costs €10 – 13 to make, he said, that’s €3,500 per hectare to farm (that would rise to €7,000 if it were completely organic), plus €1.75 a bottle winery fee, €1.75 a bottle bottling costs, plus the consultancy fee paid to Richard Case for viticulture, winemaking and admin.

Using the Screaming Eagle model as their sales pitch, they wrote to 400 people telling them about the domaine. The upshot was 200 customers, mostly British. 'We're not in profit yet', says Justin, 'but if everything goes to plan, we should be able to make €10,000 a year out of the project'. Not bad for a hobby.


And the wine? With its pretty, embossed label, the 2008 Domaine of the Bee is a vivid, youthful ruby in colour, with sweet, smoky aromas of oak and mulberry, the fruit rich, ripe and fleshy, blackberryish with a spicy and almost chocolatey richness. It’s powerful stuff, New World in style, fleshy and fruit-laden with firm tannins and the saving grace of really good, savoury acidity. In contrast the 2007, is softer and more approachable now, with some sweet chocolatey fruit but not so dense and more damsony-savoury, the wine to drink now while the 2008 goes through its paces in bottle. The 2007 is £16 a bottle if you buy by the case, or £18 a bottle, the 2008 £16.50 and £20 respectively, £18 if you buy six.

For more info and how to buy, check out

And a note from Mr.Howard-Sneyd:

One small thing - you gave our yields as 14 hl/ha and 20 hl/ha - that was accurate for the La Roque vineyard (our highest yielding block!), but the average yield for the first 2 years was 6 hl/ha and 10 hl/ha!

All the best


Domaine of the Bee ©Domaine of the Bee ©

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