A Rhone eco - tour

  • Friday 23 January 2009

MARY DOWEY goes green on a cycling trip through the Côtes du Rhône,
visiting producers who have adopted biodynamic and organic methods

One of the things I love about the Southern Rhône is that, even though it’s vast (covering two-thirds of Provence), it has a small, pretty core. Linked by narrow ribbons of road, villages which count among the brightest gems of the Côtes du Rhône sit across the valley’s foothills like a necklace. Séguret, Sablet, Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Cairanne, Rasteau, Roaix… they’re in a readymade circuit, just a few kilometres apart.

I'm often here for a few days, dashing around to visit producers – sometimes to taste wines; sometimes to dig out other material for articles or books. In the past year or two it has been interesting to see more and more producers going green – following organic or biodynamic methods or moving in that direction.

This recently set me thinking. Why not fashion a green route through the heart of the Côtes du Rhône, visiting eco-friendly producers; eating in restaurants prized for local produce; staying in hotels or B&Bs surrounded by vines? The mode of transport could be green, too. With key villages between 2km and 12km apart, distances would be short enough to manage by bike.

I eventually settled on the itinerary below, and enjoyed every minute (except for one rainstorm). The super-fit, or those prepared to add on a day or two, could even tackle it on foot.

Day 1 – Around Vaison

There’s a good reason to start and finish in the ancient Roman citadel of Vaisonla- Romaine: a bike rental place. As Cycles Chave lies at the lower end of town, while the medieval Haute Ville with its cobbled squares and tinkling fountains is higher up, a spot of sightseeing here limbers up the legs for longer climbs to come.

Then it’s off north-west to Domaine Roche Audran, beyond the small town of Buisson. Inheriting 30ha (hectares) from his father, who had sold his grapes to the co-op, Vincent Rochette began to work with more rigour, and bottled his own wine in 1998. Passionate about the domaine’s ecosystem, he adopted organic methods in 2000, soon moving towards biodynamics.

He’s as excited by the beehives, wild flowers and trees on his land as by his wealth of 60- to 100-year-old vines – some of whose fruit goes into his pure, well-priced basic cuvée. Estate olive oil and honey are also worth buying. From here it’s only a short spin down to Bastide St-Claude – one of the most delightful B&Bs in the Southern Rhône, facing the craggy outline of the Dentelles de Montmirail across a sea of vines. Then cheat, as I did, and take a taxi back into Vaison for a slap-up dinner and some serious wine sampling.

Day 2 – Séguret,

Gigondas and into the Dentelles To stave off weakness as the pace hots up, buy provisions for the road in Vaison’s legendary cheese shop, Lou Canesteou. Now on to Séguret, a hillside ledge of medieval stone, one of France’s most beautiful villages. Beneath it lies the Domaine de Cabasse, a wine estate, hotel and restaurant run by the Haeni family.

Swiss agricultural adviser Alfred Haeni moved here in 1990, becoming one of

the first growers in the region to use cover crops for moisture retention and pheromone traps for insect control. His son Nicolas, in charge since 2004, shows off the latest Cabasse initiative – a new vineyard, high up the mountain, planted on steep, Priorat-style terraces hewn out of near-solid rock.

‘When work started, people thought we were mad – not for the first time,’ he says wryly. It’s a tough 5km tramp up: you’ll gasp at the boldness of the enterprise as well as for breath. The afternoon belongs to Gigondas, up against the Dentelles – another lovely

village that always seems to bask in the sun. Start your exploration of this famous

cru with the Château de St-Cosme – in the Barruol family since the 1490s, organic since the 1970s and dubbed the Le Pin of Gigondas.

The wines are finetextured and sophisticated – none more so than the glorious old-vine Valbelle and single-vineyard Grenache Le Claux. Enough for one day? Not quite – you

must walk in the Dentelles – especially as St-Cosme is on the road that leads up to these towering limestone peaks ranged like dinosaur’s teeth against the sky. The views across the valley are superb – and on the way back down you can fall gratefully into the hotel-restaurant Les Florets.

Day 3 – Gigondas and Vacqueyras

Down the hill from Gigondas village, look out for Domaine St-Damien. Fifthgeneration grower Joel Saurel had been making wine in bulk for 17 years beforehe took the decision in 1995 to abandon chemicals and herbicides, return to oldfashioned

methods and start bottling himself.

His 23ha estate encompasses three different terroirs. My favourite is La

Louisiane from 80-year-old vines planted mainly on garrigue – floral and silky, almost feminine for Gigondas. Although Vacqueyras – next village and next cru – is nearby, the producers we’re visiting are both a good distance out in the wilds.

Le Clos de Caveau stands at the end of a steep, narrow track like a half-hidden paradise: a dreamy house, surrounded by vines and trees. ‘We got hooked,’ smiles Henri Bungener, a psychologist/psychoanalyst who moved here from London in 2005 with his wife Janet and their children.

They had spent holidays on the estate with Henri’s father Gérard, owner of Le Clos for 30 years. Henri follows the organic approach which Gérard adopted from the start. He

believes in picking the grapes while their level of acidity is still high enough to ensure freshness, relies on wild yeasts and uses almost no oak. Based on Grenache and Syrah, these are seriously sexy wines – suave and hedonistic when Vacqueyras can sometimes be tough.

High above Sarrians, with a superb view of Mont Ventoux, stands Montirius, developed by Eric and Christine Saurel into Vacqueyras’s most noted biodynamic estate. Just as Gérard Bungener turned to organic viticulture when a naturopath cured him of acute arthritis, the Saurels got into it after homeopathy helped their sick daughter. In 1996 they approached biodynamics expert François Boucher.

‘We liked his down-to-earth approach,’ Christine recalls. ‘He taught us everything we know.’ Montirius is not a place to visit casually. Tastings are by appointment, last 90 minutes and cost about €20. The wines are expensive but intriguing (don’t miss the well- namedVacqueyras Garrigues), and you’ll learn a lot.

Day 4 – Cairanne and back to Vaison

Rarely are co-ops exciting, but the smartly refurbished Cairanne model is an exception, housing a sensory wine route in its basement. Start the day here and you’ll have an immediate grasp of this AC’s terroirs besides sniffing at typical aromas, groping at textures and feasting your eyes on some great photography. On to Domaine de L’Oratoire St-

Martin, run by brothers Frédéric and Francois Alary, whose family has been in the wine industry for 300 years. Organic for the past 15 years, this estate has adopted biodynamic principles on half of its 26ha – making for useful comparisons.

‘It’s not a miracle cure but the vines certainly seem healthier and the soil is in better condition,’ says Francois Alary. The red grapes are planted together in the old-fashioned way and then aged in traditional large oak foudres and demimuids. Reflective yet pragmatic, the brothers make wonderfully vibrant wines with an undertow of minerality – the whites as thrilling as the reds.

Leave Cairanne on the Rasteau road and contrast the Alarys’ 10 generations of accumulated wisdom with the clean-slate approach of a winemaker who took up wine out of the blue in 1993. Catherine Le Goeuil’s Cairannes – the finely tuned Cuvée Marie Rouvière especially – suggest that this domaine, with its plenteous parcels of old vines, is one to watch.

The home stretch leads past the villages of Rasteau and Roaix, each spilling down its hill from a church spire. You’re heading for Vaison and celebration. In Le Bonheur Suit Son Cours – a wine bar with a suitably green slant – ask for aglass of Côtes du Rhône-Villages from Domaine Viret. Organic or biodynamic? Neither. Cosmoculture beckons. The excuse, maybe, for another trip…

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