A band of Côtes du Rhône Villages winemakers claiming to be a bit mad have formed a unique club. BEVERLEY BLANNING MW meets the talented Toqués des Dentelles
Think mad, think Côtes du Rhône. Okay, so it’s a step removed from the advertising slogan, but more engaging, and just as appropriate, I would argue. And lest you should think that I have lost all respect for this fine winemaking region, I should point out that it is the winemakers themselves who are happily claiming to be nuts.
In the southern Rhône, there is a group of self-styled lunatic winemakers: Les Toqués des Dentelles. ‘Toqués’ is a play on words between the toque – or chef’s hat, a recognised symbol of quality in French cuisine – and toqué, loosely translated as crazy. (Dentelles refers to the spectacular spikes of the Dentelles de Montmirail rock formations in the east of the appellation, pictured below.)
The group comprises nine winemakers and a cooperative, all of whom have a slightly different view from the norm as to what they do. While each of the nine has their own approach, they all share the same ideals of promoting quality, the value of terroir and moving towards organic or biodynamic agriculture.
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The association is very informal. It has no structure or rules. Any decisions are made unanimously or not at all. The members get together to discuss their problems and successes, to taste wines from their own and other regions, to visit other winemakers and to promote their wines together.
The first madman I met, in the village of Cairanne, was Marcel Richaud, a bright-eyed and extrovert hang-gliding enthusiast. He bombarded me with questions while his poodle gnawed enthusiastically on my fingers. Richaud’s philosophy is all about originality. ‘Typicity means nothing to me’, he proclaims. ‘It’s up to us, each one of us, to create our own typicity. Here, we make wines which are like us’.
By ‘us’, he is referring to his partner in wine, freelance oenologist Yann Rohel, with whom he forms something of a double act (‘What do you call a castrated bull?’ ‘Steak haché’). Together, they take risks in order to pursue their ‘no compromise’ approach to winemaking. No artificial yeasts, no acidification, and no filtration are used. They are as non-interventionist as possible. ‘It’s just grapes,’ says Rohel. Richaud adds: ‘We don’t want make-up to mask our wines. I prefer to have a few small faults which express the truth of the vintage. Why hide it?’ Perhaps to sell the wines? He laughs. ‘We always sell our wines. People follow us; they follow us in our madness.’
The domaine produces red and white wines. The white Cairanne Villages from the excellent 2001 vintage is an attractive, weighty wine, with perfumed, floral aromas and creamy richness. ‘Show that wine to a “real” oenologist and they’d be terrified,’ says Rohel. ‘It’s had no filtration, it has virtually no acidity and hardly any sulphur. But it’s stable.’
Richaud produces a range of wines with names reflective of the terroirs from which they hail, such as Terres d’Aigues and Les Garrigues. His 2002 offerings are simple, attractive and juicy. In contrast, top-of-the-range Cairanne l’Ebrescade 2001 is a deliciously deep, spicy, complex wine, made from a third each of Grenache, Mourvèdre and Syrah.
For all his evident enthusiasm for his own wines, Richaud is generous in his desire to promote fellow winemakers. A 2002 he opened from organic Séguret winemaker Jean David was typically light in this vintage, but very pleasant; a 2001 Les Terres Jaunes from Domaine de la Ferme de St-Martin in Beaumes-de-Venise was meaty, rich and satisfying. These, too, are among the toqués.
Curious to meet this apparently subversive group, I followed them one night to a rendezvous. They were visiting a producer in Montfaucon, just across the river from Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Rather disappointingly, they didn’t seem crazy at all, but listened attentively to their host’s description of his winery and tasted the tank samples offered, while exchanging the odd remark about the progress of their own 2003 wines.
I liked the toqués; I decided to visit some more. At Domaine de l’Oratoire St-Martin in Cairanne, the Alarys have been making wine since the 17th century. Behind Frédéric Alary’s bespectacled seriousness burns a true passion for his work. ‘I’ve wanted to make wine since I was five’, he says. ‘Many people around here have continued the work of their parents and grandparents. But it’s easy to spot the serious ones: we’re the ones in the vineyards cutting grapes in summer while the others lie on the beach.’
Alary’s seriousness is reflected in his work. ‘I try to look at all the details’, he says. ‘It’s like links in a chain; every year we try to strengthen the chain, so that we gain a little more in quality’. The chain is already a pretty sturdy one: crop yields are strictly limited; many of the vines are old and are kept in production even when yields are as low as 18hl/ha (hectolitres per hectare).
One fifth of the domaine’s 25ha is devoted to white grapes – unusually high for the area. The barrel-fermented 2001 white Haut-Coustias Cairanne is lovely, a blend of Marsanne, Roussanne, Clairette and Grenache Blanc. Still young, it is just starting to open up. Although low in acidity, the wine still tastes fresh and has a wonderfully rich persistence. In his reds, Alary aims for elegance. As well as the traditional Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre mix, he has also planted some of the old varietals originating from Châteauneuf-du-Pape. ‘Counoise, Vaccarèze, Muscardin and Terret Noir were largely abandoned due to their low alcohol levels’, he explains. ‘By adding these to our Grenache, we can achieve more balanced alcohol in the wines, while at the same time increasing acidity and complexity.’
I tasted the Cairanne Réserve des Seigneurs 2002, the only red made in this vintage (he usually makes two higher-quality cuvées: Prestige and Haut-Coustias). Considering the appalling conditions of the year – rain, rot and underripe grapes – the Réserve des Seigneurs is an extremely pleasing wine, with blackcurrant and smoky fruit; easy, fresh and ripe, with complexity and length. The 2001 Cairanne Cuvée Prestige is from a 10ha parcel of Grenache and Mourvèdre vines planted in 1905. Elegant and powerful, the wine has lovely, meaty Mourvèdre fruit character. It is perfumed, warming and quite delicious. The 2001 Cairanne Haut-Coustias red has a spicy, blackcurrant character from the addition of Syrah to the blend. It is still very youthful, with plenty of tannin, but lovely depth of fruit. It needs at least two or three years before it can be approached, and Alary reckons a good vintage will last a dozen years or more.
Prior to 2002, high-quality vintages in the southern Rhône had been plentiful: 1998 to 2001 were consistently good. Most feel that 2001 is probably superior to the hyped 2000, with more structure and ageing potential. But nobody argues when it comes to 2002.
At Domaine la Réméjeanne in Sabran, winemaker Rémy Klein expresses the general dismay when he describes the experience as ‘horrifying – the worst year in living memory’. In his own vineyards, in the forested hills in the west of the Côtes du Rhône appellation, a deluge of 500mm of rain fell in 24 hours over 8–9 September. ‘We had to pick the grapes, but they just weren’t ripe,’ he says.
2003, by contrast, promises to be a very good, if highly atypical, vintage in the Côtes du Rhône. The extreme heat of the summer resulted in low yields of highly concentrated, ripe grapes with high alcohol levels and low acidity.
Rémy Klein is another toqué, and the only thing he is sure about is that he changes his mind a lot. Until the age of 26, he was happily pursuing an engineering career, determined never to take over his father’s wine business. He changed his mind in 1984 during a two-hour meeting with a neighbouring winemaker who, he says, gave him ‘la passion de la vigne’. He immediately quit his job to return to the family domaine. The passion clearly remains, but his ideas about winemaking change, depending on, ‘how I feel at any given moment’. So, how does he feel about his 2003 wines? ‘I don’t know. Ask me in a couple of years, and when I taste them I’ll be able to tell you how I was feeling.’
Even if he can’t be sure, to my palate he was feeling pretty good when he made his 2003s. A tank sample of Côtes du Rhône Les Chevrefeuilles had fruity intensity of flavour and was structured, without being hard. Les Arbousiers showed vibrant, sweet fruit. In the early years Klein aimed for ‘explosive fruit and colour’, later aspiring to ‘a more serious image’; now he is returning to a fruit-driven, smoother style of wine.
Klein laughingly dismisses the suggestion that he adheres to a winemaking philosophy. It occurs to me that this makes him, perhaps, the best kind of winemaker: committed, yet completely open-minded. We taste his 2001 Les Genevrières, a powerful, concentrated, tannic wine. ‘You see’, he says, ‘when I taste this I can see I was trying too hard and doing too much. I remember at this time going to one of the Toqués des Dentelles meetings, when I was in the cellars until 1am every night, fussing over my wines. Marcel Richaud
stood up in front of us and said, “My wines are the wines of an idler. I do as little as I can get away with.” That really made an impression on me.’
The toqués – crazy, idle, or just plain mad about their wines – certainly made an impression on me.
Beverley Blanning MW is a freelance wine writer, specialising in France.
Written by BEVERLEY BLANNING