Balancing tradition and modern winemaking practices can make for great wines. Roger Voss visits some outward-looking domaines treading this fine line successfully
Revolution would be the wrong word to use to describe the changes which have taken place in viticulture and winemaking practices in the last 20 years. There has definitely been change, and considerable change at that, but it has been an evolution which has taken the best of long traditions, and welded those traditions on to modern winemaking practice. The rising stars in these profiles are only a handful among many in the Côtes du Rhône. It is obvious that the ignition is youth. But it is not youth that makes their wines stand out among the thousands produced in the region. It is the fact that, whether they are running a cooperative or making and bottling their own wine, they all care passionately about quality.These producers are prepared to keep yields low in their vineyards, and they ensure that only the healthy grapes reach the fermentation tanks or cuves. More and more often they will use wood as a component in the final taste of the wine. They are searching for fruit quality as well as complexity, for the taste of the southern sun combined with an elegance and power that make the wines of the Côtes du Rhône serious competitors to New World wines. The end result is that they are bringing out the huge potential of the region, setting an example for others, as well as providing drinking pleasure for us.
Vineyards here, as everywhere, are constantly renewing themselves, and the current generation of rising stars will be replaced by another. The difference though, between this generation and the last, is their willingness to learn from outside, to study the science of wine as well as the tradition. It brings them into modern wine thinking, while at the same time keeping them close to the history of the land.
Cave de Beaumes-de-Venise, Beaumes-de-Venise.
The cooperative of Beaumes-de-Venise is big, producing 80% of the wine in this village at the end of the mountain range of the Dentelles de Montmirail. Fourteen thousand hectolitres – that’s the equivalent of 1.9 million bottles – are under the control of Pierre Rougon, the cooperative’s director. Rougon has one advantage not given to every cooperative in the Rhône – a unique product. Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise was a big hit in the UK in the 1980s when Sainsbury’s introduced drinkers to this honeyed sweet wine. And Muscat still forms a substantial part of the coop’s production. But he is more keen to emphasise the red wines produced at this massive cooperative. He’s keen because these are the wines at the forefront of the viticultural and technical changes that have made the Beaumes-de-Venise cooperative one of the most advanced in the Rhône. The work, as it should, started in the vineyard. With 200 members and 120 hectares (ha) of land, it’s been steady, lengthy work, ‘at least 15 years’, according to Rougon. But now that culture raisonée has reduced emphasis on chemicals in the vineyards, and he has brought about a reduction in yields, he believes he is getting in the grapes that can make good wine. In the cellar, the latest stainless steel tanks were only installed last year, and the pride and joy is a barrel-ageing facility.
‘The quality of our wines has improved considerably over the last few years. While we once sold most of our red wine in bulk, now 97% is sold in bottle,’ says Rougon, pointing around the tasting room, where the range of wines is on display, and where there is a brisk trade from visitors and locals. Only in one corner is there a reminder of the past, as two pumps dispense wine into plastic containers proffered by two elderly locals.
There are some simple wines, such as the Côtes du Rhône Cuvée des Toques and the Côtes du Rhône-Beaumes-de-Venise Cuvée La Chapelle Notre Dame d’Aubune, named after a small chapel just on the edge of the village. But there are also more serious wines. A recent departure is a Côtes du Rhône cuvée called Terroir du Trias, from vines growing on red soil found locally only at Beaumes-de-Venise and at Bandol on the Mediterranean coast. This is a tannic, mineral style of wine designed for ageing. A special version of this wine is wood-aged, giving a generous but firm wine, with fine wood perfumes. Considering the quantities produced by this cooperative, the wines are impressive. ‘The majority of vignerons are now following us, which means we can rely on quality grapes,’ says Rougon. ‘It has been long and hard work, but now it’s paying off.’
Domaine de Trapadis, Rasteau
When I saw I had an appointment with Helen Durand, I assumed that I was to meet a woman. But no. Durand is a young man who runs a family domaine that dates back to the 18th century. Wine has been vinified here since 1950, but only bottled since 1991.
Durand is like so many of this new generation, educated at oenology school (in his case in Orange). He worked at Château de Beaucastel for a short time, before taking over from his parents at their 18ha domaine in Rasteau. The cellar at Domaine de Trapadis is no space-age marvel. Cement tanks dominate, reached by way of old wooden stairs which are hardly designed to bear any weight. The low ceilings make work difficult. It’s certainly not a place where you would expect to taste extraordinary wines.
But these wines are extraordinary. You can tell when Durand talks of the different terroirs his family possesses; some on the slopes above the cellar, some on the plain in front. The wines from the plain, although classified as Côtes du Rhône, are sold as simple Vin de Pays. ‘I wanted to make this wine simple and fruity, and that is not the style I would want as a Côtes du Rhône.’ So the Côtes du Rhône wines of Domaine de Trapadis are much more serious. Like all good wines, they start in the vineyard, with green harvesting, de-leafing, and organic principles of viticulture. ‘If you have active soil, you have good grapes,’ says Durand. Vinification is cépage by cépage and terroir by terroir. Only natural yeasts are used. Low temperatures for maceration bring out the flavours and perfumes, he believes.These may be all the trappings of post-modernist winemaking. But in the hands of Durand, they become powerful tools to make hugely concentrated, deeply coloured wines. His 1999 Côtes du Rhône-Rasteau is solid, with dusty tannins and ripe, perfumed fruit. Cuvée des Abrès, named after a parcel of land, is chunky and concentrated. His top Côtes du Rhône cuvée, Harys (Syrah spelt backwards), is a blend of 80% Syrah and 20% Clairette (reminiscent in its blend at least of Côte Rôtie). The wine is the result of the mistaken delivery to Durand’s grandfather of Clairette vines. Now the white grapes give a lift to the intensity and ripeness of the Syrah without detracting from the strong tannins and juicy fruits. The power of the northern Rhône with the sun of the south – a winning combination indeed.
Domaine Viret, Saint Maurice-sur-Eygues
Up at the Clos du Paradis, on the edge of Saint Maurice-sur-Eygues, something very big has happened. The most enormous cellar has been constructed by the Viret family. There are huge blocks of stone and concrete, a dominating position on the hillside.
Signs of hubris, perhaps? Or just huge ambition? Philippe Viret is the young oenologist behind this edifice and behind the wines. His family still lives in the more modest farmhouse just down the hill from the cellar. Until two years ago, all the grapes went to the local cooperative, then Viret decided that the time had come for his family to make and sell wine. You can sense immediately the palpable excitement in the air as the family open the huge doors to the cellar. Inside, pillars march down the nave of what is a small cathedral. Vats peer down from the upper level, barrels are stored in the side aisles. We taste at a small table on one side, like a side altar. From their 20ha of vines, the Virets make a bewildering array of wines, as if Philippe Viret hasn’t yet decided in which direction to go. But he has definite ideas of winemaking, with slow alcoholic fermentations and malolactic fermentation that is allowed to go right through the winter. Wood flavours are used generously in many of the wines. In the white, called La Coudée d’Or, for example, and in the three special cuvées of red Côtes du Rhône Saint-Maurice that the Virets are making. There is Cuvée Maréotis, named after an Egyptian deity, blending 60% Grenache and 40% Syrah – this is perfumed, serious and concentrated. There is Cuvée les Colonnades, more generous and ripe, a blend of Grenache and Mourvèdre; and there is the Cuvée Emergence, heady and almost wild in its aromas, a blend of Grenache, Carignan and Syrah. There’s even a new, as yet nameless, super-cuvée, being aged in barrels bought from Château Margaux. This blend of Mourvèdre and Syrah is immense – a hugely powerful wine. With only two vintages in the cellar, the Virets are still making their way in the wine world. But their start is impressive, setting an example to the village of Saint Maurice. If the pioneering Virets can succeed, then others will surely follow.
Domaine Jaume, Vinsobres
There are some very unusual fermentation tanks in the cellars of Domaine Jaume. Shaped like a tricorn hat, these tanks were installed for the 2000 harvest. They are, says Richard Jaume, a perfect design because they allow greater contact between juice and the grape skins. They also make it much easier to drain the tanks, separating the skins and dead yeast cells from the wine. Already, Jaume has noticed better extraction from the new tanks, compared with the traditional round tanks. The Jaume family is one of an increasing number of producers in Vinsobres (15 at the last count) not to take its grapes to the cooperative or sell the wine in bulk. Instead, the Jaumes vinify fruit from their large 48ha
vineyard in modern cellars carved into the hillside beneath their home. While father still keeps a paternal eye on proceedings, the cellar is son Richard’s domaine, and his brother Pascal works in the vineyards. Malolactic fermentation for reds like the Côtes du Rhône-Vinsobres is done in barrel. Syrah goes into new wood, Grenache into older barrels, and the ageing is also done in barrels. These are in their own temperature-controlled cellar, meticulously clean – wine writers notice these things. Before bottling, the wines are fined with egg whites. ‘It’s important not to use powdered egg,’ says Richard Jaume.Not that these are technical wines. The Jaumes practise culture raisonée, the minimum use of chemicals in the vineyard. And Richard Jaume believes that minimum intervention in the cellar is the secret behind great winemaking. And these are extremely good wines. The simpler wines, such as the Côtes du Rhône Friande, emphasise fruit and juiciness. But the village wines, the Côtes du Rhône- Vinsobres, are more serious. The 1999 is a finely concentrated wine, a blend of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre. The perfumes are from the Syrah, the structure from the Mourvèdre and the ripe fruit from the Grenache. These are modern, fruit-driven wines but the wood is well integrated and the dusty tannins are typical of the Rhône.
Clos de la Mure
Set on steep hills on the edge of the garrigue land between Uchaux and Mondragon, Georges and Eric Michel run the family’s 12ha domaine. While there is one hectare in Gigondas, the rest is in Côtes du Rhône Villages. Eric Michel is a young vigneron who, like many of his generation, has firm ideas about winemaking and can articulate what he believes. He is happy to retain much that is traditional at Clos de la Mure. He doesn’t, for example, believe in the fashion for long macerations, believing it gives a bitterness to the wine. ‘For me, Côtes du Rhône is a wine with fruit, a wine of pleasure,’ he told me when I visited three years ago. ‘It should be tantalising and enjoyable to drink.’It goes without saying that Michel doesn’t like the craze for hugely extracted wines, what he calls: ‘Americanised or standardised wines. You should reflect the land and the year.’His Côtes du Rhône Villages blends Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre. The wine is in a style that gives immediate pleasure. The 1999 is already very seductive and ripe, without excessive tannins, yet the wine is not lightweight. On the contrary, it veers towards dense fruit and has a ripe, southern feel – a reflection of the warm land from which it comes.Mas de Libian The Mas de Libian is beautifully situated on the slopes of the western hills of the Rhône Valley. Facing east on clear days the Alps can be seen across the valley floor, beyond the hills of the eastern Côtes du Rhône. For here, in Saint-Marcel d’Ardèche, we are in the far western reaches of the Côtes du Rhône. Saint-Marcel itself, while included in the villages of the Côtes du Rhône, cannot yet use its own name in the appellation. Here it is just plain Côtes du Rhône Villages. This situation is something that Hélène Thibon wants to change. The Thibon family bought the domaine in 1670, but it took them 300 years to build a cellar to make wine commercially. Her grandfather was a philosopher and the land was farmed by tenants. It was her father, Jean-Pierre, who started the cellar and now it is Thibon, her father and her husband, Alain, who run the 18ha property. Hélène is the winemaker,having trained at Orange. This is serious, committed winemaking. There are no sophisticated techniques, just good grapes and dedication. The vineyard is maintained without chemicals, and yields are low. The cellar, set into a hillside with the vines above, is gravity-fed. Grapes come in at the top and wine is stored and despatched at the lowest level. Thibon picks the grapes together and vinifies them as a blend rather than vinifying the cépages separately.The wines speak of the purity that comes from simple handling. The fruit is not over-ripe: ‘We’re not looking for super maturity or jammy aromas,’ says Thibon. The Côtes du Rhône Villages 1999 is an exceptional wine, with sweet, ripe, concentrated fruit, balanced by fine acidity. The 1998 vintage of the same wine has a perfume of violets and wild flowers, again with the concentration and ripe black fruits. And the wines age. I tasted a 1995 that still seemed young – more black fruits, more young tannins and more ripe fruit. Thibon talks of her belief that her side of the Rhône valley, on the edges of the Ardèche, has its own special microclimate. She is convinced that it ought to have its own separate village appellation, probably Bourg Saint Andéol, which is the nearest town. Certainly if other vignerons can produce the same quality of wine as Mas de Libian, then she certainly has a point.
Les Domaines Bernard
‘We’re not so much flying winemakers as driving winemakers,’ says François Dauvergne, general manager of Les Domaines Bernard. As his remark suggests, this négociant, part of the Burgundian Boisset group, doesn’t work like other négociants. They don’t buy grapes, and they don’t buy wine to blend and age it. They buy wine that’s been made to their specifications in the cellars of their growers. And they send round their oenologists, by car, to make sure everything is going to plan.In fact, they don’t have growers, they have what they call partners. They design the style of wine they want a partner to make, and they also, unusually for a négociant, guarantee to buy what he makes, providing he has followed the agreed guidelines. In addition the company provides incentives for improvements. And in case this sounds more like soundbite winemaking than reality, the results are in the wines. There are very few négociant wines from the southern Rhône that are made in the southern Rhône itself. Most négociants who deal in the region come from either the northern Rhône or Burgundy. For Domaines Bernard, Dauvergne believes their closeness to the growers is their advantage. Their wines are typically fruity for the region. Both Côtes du Rhône and Côtes du Rhône Villages are ripe and lush, soft and immediately attractive. That may not make them great, long-lived wines, but they would certainly appeal to drinkers whose normal tipple is from Australia.