14th-17th June 2011
With Mark and Liz of Liberty Wines, I joined two Sommeliers, a restaurant manager and a wine buyer for a group of independent pubs on a trip through the Rhône and southern France. It was my first wine trip so I had no idea what to expect but hoped to learn some more and maybe find some new wines for Dunell’s. We visited 10 producers, some I knew of but most not, and the following are my notes and recollections of them and the trip.
David Reynaud (Beaumont-Monteux)
The wines of David Reynaud are organic and biodynamic with emphasis on the wine’s natural fruit expression being created from the care in the vineyard and simple and natural treatment in the cellar. It is a small winery with a high reputation for quality. The new winery, with a very efficient design, was built in 2003. While David himself doesn’t speak any English we were guided around by his colleague Christophe who explained all the various techniques David uses (handed down through generations) to create wine in harmony with nature.
These techniques include:
The use of 501, a small silica type grain, that is spread sparsely on the ground to help reflect light that can burn funguses etc without damaging the vine. Not much of this is needed here, as there is so much sun that too much 501 can be dangerous to the grapes.
The use of complimentary plants and grasses in and around the vineyard.
After tasting the range of wines, what really stood out to me, was the vast difference between his entry level wines (for French locals only) and his top-level wines, especially the Entre Ciel (Between Heaven and Earth) which was absolutely stunning.
Paul Jaboulet (Tain L’Hermitage)
Jaboulet is a very well known and prestigious Rhône winery that has arguably made some of the best wines in the Rhône. This prestige is matched by the very grand cave system where we were met by Jean-Luc Chappelle who spent 10 years developing the system (it used to be a quarry since roman times but has since been used to grow Champignons Paris, and repair engines and weapons by the Nazis in WW2, with some hedonistic raves in the 60’s/70’s also occuring).
Unfortunately for Jean-Luc the impressive site is no longer used for barrel storage, for quality control purposes, so we were asked to help suggest new uses the caves.
Jaboulet have, in recent years made real effort to bring their wines back to top form with emphasis on quality when buying grapes from producers for their Jalets and Paralelle 45 ranges. Also with their own grapes for their top whites they have started to harvest earlier as Marsanne is particularly susceptible to oxidation if picked too late.
All the wines were very good and I was especially impressed by the whites as I had previously told myself that I didn’t care much for Marsanne and Viognier, my favourite wine being the Sterimberg. Of the reds, of course I loved their top level ‘La Chapelle’ but after that I would happily slum it with the Cornas.
After the tasting we were taken across Tain to the hills where the grapes that make it into the finest Jaboulet wines (and Chapoutier among others) are grown. The slopes are varied with many changes in soil type allowing for complexity in the wines that can be created. It was here where we visted ‘La Chapelle’ which is the site of a Hermit’s chapel in times gone by.
We then vistied the world famous Chocolats Valrhona, who trust me, do make very good chocolates. This visit was the reason why we had to have air-con on in our people carrier for the rest of the trip and making sure we always parked in the shade, for fear of meltage of said amazing chocolate.
That night we dined at ‘Le Mange Vins’, a small restaurant with excellent food accompanied by some older (2006) vintages from Jaboulet.
Domaine Richaud (Cairanne)
The wines all had quite high alcohol (16-17% for some last year) due to the use of only natural yeasts and it was during lunch that Marcel explained that older winemakers would have changed the blend using different grapes to reduce the alcohol. They now can’t due to appellation rules dictating what can and can’t be used in wines from the Cairanne appellation.
While I did enjoy the wines I personally found it hard to imagine customers paying the RRP of £18 - £34 for the range we tasted without being hand sold the fact that these are small production, bio-dynamic and artisan wines.
I, again, enjoyed all the wines and thought the La Villasse range (made by Liberty in collaberation with Thierry) were good value for money, and in screwcap, with the Rosé being my favourite (despite having a coughing fit and nearly spraying everyone with it!). The wines of Camille Cayran (made by Thierry) were also great with the Plan de Dieu 2009 being my favourite, tasting of cherries and violettes with smooth fine tannins and an RRP of only £8.99. For lunch Marcel (from Domaine Richaud) and Thierry laid on a typical french buffet in the shade of the trees by the vineyards that make the grapes for top wines, overlooking the southern Rhone.
Château Vaudieu (Châteauneuf-du-Pape)
That night laurent joined us for dinner at the Hotel la Sommelerie where we learnt of some of his other talents as a racing driver (including ice rallys) and that they have races in the grounds of Château Vaudieu between the vineyards. When I asked on his thoughts of screwcap enclosures, he assured me that CNDP will never embrace them and that while they may be ok for other appellations in CNDP tradition is king. One of my favourite stories was of how a tradition has formed between 11 of Châteauneuf’s top producers (including Laurent) where each year, they each donate 20 litres of their top grape juice and each year a different producer makes and blends the wine with 2 cases of the resulting wine going back to each producer. This wine will never be sold for any price he explained and was for the pleasure of Châteauneuf’s top 11 only, fittingly they call it La Sang Melee, which I believe means ‘The Mingled Blood’.
After visting the village of CNDP we headed south to the Costiere de Nimes in search of Château La Tour Beraud, which in the end really was a search as the winery we were looking for was actually, and not at all helpfully, sign posted as Morgues de Gras... Because of this we only had an hour here.
Château La Tour de Beraud
The name refers to the fire tower (La Tour) that sits within the vinyards of Beraud, this was used in ancient times as a warning system in case of invasion from the people of the Languedoc (just like in Lord of the Rings!). The terroir here consists of the same glacial and alluvial soils as that of the southern Rhone but much deeper – 15 meters and a hotter and more mediteranean climate. I enjoyed all three of the wines we tried here (red/white and rose) which I thought actually over delivered for their price point (RRP £8.99/£9.99). They all had bags of fruit and were clean, fresh and rounded in the mouth. Samples will be requested for Neil and Liz.
La Croix Gratiot (Picpoul de Pinet)
I thought the wines were excellent, pure clean fruit that tasted young and fresh, and i am not alone as their Rousanne 2010 won the award for overall best Vin de Pays in France! They all showed real quality which was matched by the cool and stylish design of the wine labels and names.
Mas la Chevaliere (Beziers)
We tasted the wines of La Roche and Mas la Chevaliere before dinner, outside the converted farm building we were staying in overlooking the winery. The Chablis’ of La Roche were all pleasant (Chablis not really being my thing) and were typical of Chablis’ steely mineral style. I did prefer the wines of Mas la Chevaliere because I thought they gave so much more when considering their price point of £8.99.
The Chablis mindset when making these wines was evident, they were so crisp and clean and most importantly very enjoyable.For dinner a feast had been prepared (by a michelin star chef no less), Oysters, Scallops in herb jous, Smoked Salmon and Langoustines, Artichoke hearts with truffles followed Cote du Boeuf (cooked on an open fire of old vines) and then strawberries in steeped in orange liqueur. A very enjoyable night – I noted that the decanter never seemed to empty.
Château St Roch (Maury)
This winery, owned by Jean-Marc Lafage is named after a Cathar castle that sits atop one of the nearby mountains. We toured the vineyards that were mostly made up of Schist like rock with vines that were up to 100 years old. The last couple of years had suffered from very low production of around 15 hectolitres per hectare so this year’s expected 25-30 hectoliters is encoraging for all in the area.
The whole area has become more trendy in recent years with big investments by some some ‘major players’. Unfortunately as much as St Roch follows organic principles they cannot be certified due to the close proximity of lots of other parcels of vines whose owners sell to the local cooperative and use pesticides.
After following the wine making process from vineyard to carbon fibre vat, including the cold soaking technique used to avoid a burning high alcohol taste, we sat down to taste the range.My favourites were the Chimeres with its liquorice and red fruit flavours (Dunell’s currently sells this wine already) the Kerbuccio (named after the Cathar Castle) – I noted that I wanted to keep the rest of the bottle, and the two Maury’s - one red and one white. The first time I have had a white (Macabeo) Maury and I’ll be sure that Neil and Liz would like to try it too. I noted burnt toffee on the nose and on the palate - caramel/nuts/blossom/saline/nougat. Yum.
Cazes is, I was told, a very well known winery in France and a benchmark of Rousillon wines. Lionel was happy to point out that more needed to be done to develop this outside of France.Their top level wines, the Collioure and the Credo really shone, they both showed power on the nose and I was expecting really hot, maybe burnt tasting wines but both were pleasantly elegant and fresh.
Cazes are very well known for their Vin Doux Naturels – they fortify them using grape spirit to stop the fermentation leaving the wines sweet and relatively low in alcohol at only 15%. They hold large amounts of each vintage back to age for at least 10 years with over a million bottles currently in their stock. We tried several of these and compared their Rivesaltes Ambre 1998 to the 1978, both tasted incredibly fresh and were light in the mouth but with powerful fruit with the ’78 showing real toffee and cream flavours followed by a clean finish.
We finished our trip with lunch (all organic and freshly caught/picked that day) in the Cazes restaurant before making our way back to the airport to head home. Overall every producer we visited so far thinks that 2011 will be a very good vintage. Most were so far expecting to harvest at least 2 weeks earlier than normal due to amount of sun and little rainfall so far this year.
It was a long journey back to Jersey with plenty of time to let everything I had tasted, eaten, seen and learnt on the trip settle in my mind and body. I had a great time and am now working on where and when I can go next...