Aubai Mema: The Unconventional Tango Man

Mark Haynes is many things: entrepreneur, winemaker, and tango dancer, but there is one thing that he is not and that's conventional. After meeting Mark at a wine fair in New York, I was immediately taken with his wines. I first noticed them at a round table dinner where bottles moved freely around the restaurant without context, but I liked what I tasted and remarked to myself that I wanted to visit his table at the more formal tasting. The next day, I stood in front of Mark and I began peppering him with questions about farming practices, age of the fruit, where in the world is Gard (south of France to the west of Nimes) and so forth. He told me a story about the village of Aubais (in the Gard region) being his summer home in the south of France and his inventive organic and biodynamic practices. He even mentioned some super crazy winemaking practices that almost sounded like magic crystals or maybe it was magnets somehow being involved. I got a little lost on that one, but the resulting quality of the wines spoke for themselves.

Mark is a spirited man and he came to winemaking late in life when he realized that so many producers in the Gard region were turning their backs on winemaking and farming. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect because Mark was looking for a new challenge in his life and fled to the south of France to the village of Aubais and began investigating. After a few years of research, against his better judgment (as he jokes), Mark began purchasing vineyard land in what is known as the Liverna Valley. Aside from our mutual admiration for good food and drink, Mark and I became quick friends when we found out that we had another shared interest in Argentine Tango.  I personally danced for several years but I must confess that I am terribly rusty.  I am still utterly fascinated by the style and beauty of the dance and Mark is absolutely obsessed.   

So my New York trip yielded a visit to the Aubais Mema winery and Mark and I planned for a tasting and visit at his winery while I was on the Languedoc leg of my tour through the south of France.  The added plus, there was going to be a Tango Milonga (tango dance party) that evening at the winery.  I arrived in the afternoon and we sat down in his kitchen/dining room for a late lunch and tasting.  While, Mark jumped back and forth between telling me more of his personal story, preparing a lovely stew for the night’s festivities and rescuing me from a six-week old kitten bent on clawing my pants to pieces, we whiled away the afternoon tasting through his exceptional line-up of wines.  

Some pertinent details about Mark’s winery and winemaking: Aubai Mema is the original name of the village of Aubais where the winery is located. Mark began organic farming when he purchased his first vineyards in 2002. The winery is housed in the defunct cooperative facility which Mark purchased in 2006 and began renovating. Aubai Mema has ten hectares of vineyards and produces about 4000+ cases of wine annually, but the cooperative actually had the capacity to make upwards of 5,000,000 bottles annually before it closed. Many of the old concrete tanks of the cooperative were so large that Mark cut them open and converted them into barrel and bottle storage for top cuvees.  A large chunk of the building was turned into a dance studio where Mark hosts his weekly milongas or “Argentine Tango dances.”  The next phase of the renovation will be to convert another chunk of the winery into a bed and breakfast.      

The line-up of wines began with the Doux Charmes, a blanc de noir made from 100% grenache noir that is directly pressed before any skin contact can color the wine. It is a delightful white with white cherry and overtly fruity notes; kind of the porch pounder style. Next came the 2014 Albion, which is a blend of 50% chardonnay and 50% viognier.  A small portion of the chardonnay is aged in new oak barrels. This was a rocking concentrated white with apple, roasted pear and citrus notes; a bit of orange peel and stony finish rounded it out. The beauty of this wine is the harmonious marriage of these two distinct varieties where neither dominates the other. They become almost something new unto themselves. The workhorse red is the Liverna, which in most vintages is a blend of grenache and cabernet sauvignon; a seemingly unusual blend, but in the Gard you can kind of do whatever you want. It really works well here with currant and pipe tobacco notes. The grenache adds an element of juicy red fruit which rounds out the flavors of the wine. This makes for great everyday drinking.  

One of my favorite cuvees from the winery has to be the 100% old vine carignan which he calls “l’Insoumise.”  The word translates to “rebel” or “indomitable one” and when one “knows” carignan as a grape variety it all begins to make sense. This is a tricky grape often changing its yields dramatically from year to year. The vines don’t even really start producing great fruit until they turn 50 years of age. It’s a love-hate relationship for many winemakers but when it’s great, it can be really great. Full of deep purple fruit, supple tannins and light floral tones it is pure pleasure in a glass.  

We finished our tasting with the “tete de cuvees.” The “La Douzieme” is predominately syrah with a splash of viognier, modeled after a Côte Rotie.  A touch fleshier and fruitier than a wine from that region, it still offers great complexity and comparatively priced is an absolute steal. And the flagship wine: “Lunatico.”  It is a lush and velvety grenache made from old vine fruit from a north-facing vineyard that Mark farms biodynamically. Lunatico in French is a person who is changeable or ruled by the phases of the moon. In Spanish and English we think of someone who is lunatico as crazy.  It’s almost too on point when you think of Mark’s story and his journey into wine. He will admit you have to be lunatico to be in the wine business, both changeable and a little crazy. We finished our tasting and I left to get cleaned up and prepared for the tango dance party later that evening. When I returned, the winery was transformed with nearly a hundred people already dancing, eating and drinking. It was a remarkable evening meeting everyone from the surrounding villages coming together in a way I had not expected. I got out my oil can, shook off some of the rust and danced a little tango myself. We ate, drank and danced. It was a remarkable evening.

A great take away from my experience with Mark and his exceptional winery is that you may have to be a little crazy to immerse yourself this deeply in the life experience.  But with all the joy and pleasure that his hard work brings from winemaking, to dancing, to living life to its fullest, you have to be a little lunatico not too.

-Keith Mabry

Keith Mabry