Since it was created in 2018, Domaine Belargus has become a name to watch. Sophie Thorpe sat down with Ivan Massonnat, the man behind the project, to find out more about the Anjou estate and his vision for the region
I was hesitant about meeting Ivan Massonnat. The man who created Domaine Belargus seemed to fill easy stereotypes. A background in private equity. Lived in Paris. A passion for wine – and a dream to make it himself. Big scores and some pretty punchy prices for a brand-new estate from the Loire. Reading between the lines, I feared there was a lot of cash and possibly too much polish. Thankfully, I was wrong.
Created in 2018 and based in Anjou, Domaine Belargus has rapidly become one of fine wine’s hottest new names. The first wines were released in 2021, in the midst of the global pandemic, but had already earned serious acclaim. Yohan Castaing wrote in Decanter, “Remember this name, as its production should meet with resounding critical success in the coming years.” The wines received glowing reviews in Wine Spectator and the Wine Advocate – where Stephan Reinhardt declared it “one of the most spectacular new entries in the history of [the publication]”, granting a coveted 100-point score for its 2018 Quarts de Chaume Ultra. But that was just the beginning. Ivan Massonnat is a man with big plans – both for his own wines, and the region as a whole.
Wine was a part of life for Massonnat from a young age – with his grandfather farming a small vineyard in their village in the Savoie. But, despite helping at harvest time each year, he didn’t end up drinking wine until he was 20, when he was “instantly hooked”, he says. He fell in love with Burgundy and the concept of “vin de lieu” – wine of place.
Massonnat made his money in private equity, based in Paris but travelling the world, where fine dining – and fine wine lists – only fed his terroir obsession. Two decades ago he was looking for a country house for his family, and – not having a car – settled on the Loire. “The more I was spending time there, the more I realized that the region was totally misunderstood,” he says. Prior to the upheaval of the French Revolution and the subsequent arrival of mildew and phylloxera, the Loire was one of France’s most prestigious wine regions – home to the nation’s kings, the fruit of its vines were the royal court’s natural choice. Post-phylloxera, however, quality was scrapped in favor of quantity. “Its image started to blur,” says Massonnat.
Combine the region’s history with its two great, native varieties – Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc – and Massonnat saw “an incredible diamond in the rough”. Wine had become an increasingly large part of his life – tasting widely and visiting producers as much as possible, especially in Burgundy where vignerons such as Philippe Pacalet and Thibault Liger-Belair friends and mentors. But it wasn’t just a hobby – Massonnat was starting to think this could be more, the adventure that lay beyond the world of finance.
As the adage goes, the world of wine is a brilliant way to make a small fortune – provided you start out with a large one. Massonnat, however, didn’t underestimate the challenges and set about getting to grips with the mechanics of the business. “It started really to become a project 10 years ago,” he says – talking to importers, consultants, journalists and merchants. And, perhaps unsurprisingly given his successful career, Massonnat wasn’t looking to make any wine – he was determined to create something exceptional.
After a failed attempt to buy a Chinon estate in 2015, he turned his attention to great Chenin Blanc sites in Anjou Noir, between the Layon and Loire rivers – low-yielding hillsides where producers were struggling to make money and consequently there was land to buy. More than just availability, it was here that Massonnat saw great potential. The area’s dark, schist soils (cause for the “noir” in the region’s name) were littered with tiny appellations, echoing those of Burgundy, with a much hillier landscape, and the only Premier and Grand Cru vineyards in the region.
Between 2016 and 2018, Massonnat started visiting every vineyard he could find – looking for the exceptional. Then the local winemaker Patrick Baudouin introduced him to Jo Pithon – a legend of the Loire. Pithon had been making wine since 1978, a pioneer of organic farming, crafting fine dry and sweet wines – but the talented vigneron was by no means a businessman. By the early 2000s, his lack of commercial knowhow lost him the rights to his name, along with the majority of his vineyards – all but one plot, the Coteau des Treilles.
Massonnat met Pithon at the Angers wine fair in 2018; they got on well enough and he arranged to see Pithon’s vineyards the following day. The next morning, it was snowing and he regretted his decision. But then, at 8.32am on February 6th, 2018, “It’s as if I was struck by lightning,” Massonnat says. Pithon had brought him to Coteau des Treilles. Long farmed organically, it has slopes at a gradient of 70%, embedded in a natural reserve, with a Mediterranean microclimate – and Massonnat knew instantly it was what he had been looking for. He bought the Pithon-Paillé operation that Jo Pithon had created a decade earlier.
Luck continued to be on Massonnat’s side – and he bought two other vineyards over the next six months, adding to his collection of prime sites. He managed to buy a quarter of the Quarts de Chaume appellation – the only Grand Cru vineyards in the region – which amazingly had been on the market for 10 years. “Nobody wanted to buy it… They were looking at it as a sweet wine terroir. But actually, a great terroir is a great terroir… you will do dry wines that are quite exceptional,” Massonnat explains. Then he snapped up a parcel in Savennières – the only plot to have been sold in the last seven years.
He hired a young team and Pithon stayed on to consult – and the real work began. “Belargus is a 100-year project. Everything we do, we have that horizon,” Massonnat says. The vines are all organically certified, but they’re now working towards biodynamic accreditation. Yields are low, and they’re trying gradually to increase them to around 35hl/ha in a good vintage (currently the highest they’ve managed is 29hl/ha). “Our obsession is to have the right maturity,” Massonnat explains. To battle Chenin Blanc’s natural heterogeneity, they pick in multiple passes, minimum two or three but up to six, depending on the year – and that is just for the dry wines. The general approach is minimalist – with stainless steel and mainly larger, old oak, indigenous yeast, letting malolactic fermentation happen (or not), keeping wines on the lees and using only essential levels of sulfur. A new winery is being planned to take things to the next level, with, for example, a Coquard press (allowing especially gentle pressing, commonly used in Champagne).
The project is about expressing the different terroirs of this corner of Anjou Noir. The first release (which sold almost instantly given the hype from the critics, with 80% exported) consisted of 14 cuvées – nine dry wines and five sweet, focusing on nine specific plots across the estate’s vineyards. The dry wines are powerful, tightly wound and intense – as Massonnat says, “It’s not wine for every day,” comparing them to white Hermitage or Corton-Charlemagne, wines that need food and time. Although 90% of production is dry, Massonnat confesses, “We are obsessed with sweet wines.” These, he feels, are what will really set Anjou Noir on the world stage – if, perhaps, what he calls “the sugar pandemic” ever stops.
With Massonnat’s finance background comes a flexibility that few others have. He hopes to hold all the wines back four years eventually, but for now it is between three and four – and he was able to release the 2020s before the exceptional 2019s. It also allowed him to set prices unusually high compared to his neighbors. “I had the luxury to make that choice for the region,” he explains. “I wanted to break the glass ceiling.” And although he thought it would take time – his first release proved that there were plenty of people ready to snap up the value that these wines offered, including many of those now priced out of Burgundy.
And this is his real dream – for the Loire to be recognized as Burgundy is, as “a tier-one region which any collector needs to have in its cellar, that needs to be understood”. It’s easy to imagine other producers might have bristled at an outsider’s arrival, pitching their very first wines at unheard-of prices; but Massonnat is intent on leading the crusade for the entire region, not just Domaine Belargus. He volunteered to run the Paulée d’Anjou – a celebration of the region’s wines – in 2019, and made it bigger and better. In 2021, he became co-president of the Quarts de Chaume appellation, alongside Marie Guégniard from Domaine de la Bergerie. Together they are fighting for the appellation to permit both dry and sweet wines, as Savennières technically can, and Quarts de Chaume could until 1996. “Anjou was a dirty word. And look at the revolution now,” he says.
Like the precious blue butterfly that gives its name to the Belargus estate, Massonnat isn’t happy sitting still – and he’s already got another project – having had the chance to buy the Chinon estate he’d originally had his eye on in 2015. The best wine he ever tasted was a Chinon, a 1989 from Charles Joguet. “There was a whole civilization in this wine,” he told me, trying to explain how moving the experience had been. There’s no doubt that Massonnat is a canny businessman, but his vision is extraordinary – and one that he seems set to realize.