The following is the report of Linda Piggott-Vijeh on her visit to La Madelene in October for the 2008 WSET wine tutors study tour. Linda is a multi-talented lady whose experience covers professional cooking, hotel inspecting, training in the advertising world as well as wine , cookery and french teaching. She also finds time to serve as a local councillor in her home of Somerset - she was a delight to host on the study tour. Here’s her report:
It was the last wine that did it for me…the 1999 Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape… my tasting notes read yummy, yummy, yummy, a meal in a mouthful, intense fruity nose, deep dark purple hue, tobacco, leather, spice, chocolate, coffee, SO complex, tannins still in evidence but soft, unctuous….. a classic blend of 30% mourvedre, 30% syrah, 30% grenache, with a smattering of…… (too tipsy by then to remember!).
Well it would pass muster wouldn’t it, at over £100 a bottle, and then if the old purse strings could run to it in the current economic climate, hardly available. Oh well, reality sets in eventually, but what a wine to finish with.
I was later to learn that C-de-P do not contribute towards the overall marketing budget for promoting Rhone wines, preferring to remain aloof, not wanting to be seen to mix with the hoi polloi… snobs.
Thank you Philip. He being our host and tour leader, a recently displaced ex-pat from, you’ve guessed it, London. He, together with his amiable wife Jude, their adorable daughter Lily, and milkshake and pumpkin the two resident felines, the latter a late addition the day before our arrival, has quickly made his mark on the local wine scene offering tailor made tours for wine buffs and novices alike. Based at La Madelène, near Malaucène, their beautifully renovated, stylish, light and airy property, complete with wood burner and swimming pool, accommodates groups of up to 14,
On this trip there were just the 3 of us, a cosy and disparate group, some suffering from jet lag and a strong dislike of bovine flesh. Not me, not at all, although Jude was happy to cater to all diets with her fabulous home cooked meals, enough to convert any meat eater to the delights of chick pea and courgette pie.
Our three-day journey took us through the Southern Rhone, and an exposure to the delights of wines made from up to 15 different grape varieties, each one adding their own special character to the final blend. I’ve always been a fan of Rhone wines, the basic Cotes du Rhone Villages wines, readily available for under £4 a bottle, and always reliable, forms the backbone of my standard daily plonk at home. I had however remained largely oblivious to the depth and breadth of these great value wines. Get in while you can. Bargains abound as the wine toffs often shun these wines, overlooking them in favour of flashier Burgundy and Bordeaux.
On being collected from Marseille airport, we began our trip in earnest, in the delightful cru of Beaumes De Venise at Domaine des Bernardins.
This was the first winemaker to gain AOC status in B-de-V, back in 1943. As was soon to be the pattern for our visit, we were hosted by the youngest member to join the family winemaking business, in this case the affable Roman Hall (6th generation). Like many of the 60 wines we sampled during our stay, these are fermented and aged in stainless steel (in many others large cement tanks are also used). B-de-V is of course known for its intensely sweet fortified muscats but of the 7 wines produced here we were able to sample several reds, not often seen in B-de-V.
Over dinner the first night we sampled a modest selection of 8 (!) wines covering the spectrum of what we were to expect in the coming days. These included a grapefuity Viognier (Domaine Brusset, Les Clavelles2007) and another interesting white from Rasteau (Domaine des Coteaux des Travers 2006) with lime and citrus notes. Always a fan of single grape varieties I particularly enjoyed the opportunity to sample the 100% mourvedre (Domaine Rabasse Charavin 1999), like liquorice and cream. However, my pick for this tasting had to be the Muscat de B-de-V (Domaine de Beaumaric 2006), noted as rich, full bodied, like clotted cream on toast with a hint of honey and toffee undertones ‘thunder and lightening’ – did I mention that I’m particularly partial to dessert wines….!?
Back to work the next morning, in the classroom, when Philip introduced to his basement atelier and an excellent presentation introducing us properly to the delights of the region, its characteristics and history. On hand to keep us on our toes was fellow ex-pat Nick Thompson who makes wine at nearby Cairanne (L’Ameillaud), a village heavily pushing forward with plans for attaining AOC status, which could rock the boat a bit.
Next stop, the formidable Christine Saurel at biodynamic vineyard Montirius. She has been here for 22 years, the fifth generation of her family, a theme that ran throughout the week – it seems that once it’s in the blood ……. As practically a vineyard virgin it was a treat to find she had left some grapes on the vine for us to taste, despite the end of the harvest several weeks before. The grapes in this case were Syrah and in our tutored ‘tasting’ of them it was simple to identify the characteristics of each component –
Pulp – apples and almonds
Pips – pepper and hazelnuts
Skin – black cherries and plums
For Christine ‘balance’ is the key to the wines they make here. Montirius has been biodynamic for 12 years and all grapes are hand harvested, which takes around 18 days from their holdings of Grenache (70ha.); Syrah (30ha.) and Mourvedre (20ha.) situated mainly in the AC areas of Gigondas and Vacqueyras, with each plot co-planted. Once picked the grapes are only gently pressed to split the skins (as for the carbonic maceration method used in Beaujolais). Each day’s harvest is fermented separately (unusual), with no added yeast, in cement vats. Montirius produces around 150,000 bottles a year and in general their yield is slightly lower than the legal limit of 33hl./ha. All the red wines here undergo malo-lactic fermentation and are left on their lees for anywhere from 7 days to 3 weeks, before being aged for a minimum of 18 months. Stainless steel is only used for their white Vacqueyras. Like several other vineyards we visited there is a recent move here, for economic reasons, towards employing locals to help with the harvest. Down in the cellar we were able to sample wine from the same tank siphoned off just two days apart - the difference was remarkable. Back in the family tasting room we discovered the origins of the name Montirius – a combination of the names of their 3 children – Manon, Justine and Marius.
On to Domaine les Goubert in Gigondas, where young Florence Cartier, a recent wine school graduate, was our hostess, under the watchful eye of her parents. Here their 22ha. of vines, a full combination of the ubiquitous Rhone grapes, produce mostly red wines, approx. 60 -70% of their total production. All their wines undergo malo-lactic fermentation and their Gigondas is mainly aged in new French oak barrels for 9 -24 months, the oak coming from 3 different forests. Whilst wines have always been aged n oak here Florence’s father was the first to use new oak. White wines are aged in barrels that are 3-4 years old to give a softer character. Florence’s family have been making wine here for at least 300 years. They prefer not to filter their wines too much and all their wines are fermented separately prior to the assemblage. No chemicals are used in the vineyard and yield is between 25-30hl./ha., giving a total annual production of 80,000 bottles, 49% of which is Gigondas.
After a short break (we never seemed to get back as early as we’d planned, in large part due to the generosity of our hosts) we returned to restaurant L’Oustalet in Gigondas for a splendid fine dining experience in a village restaurant owned by the local mayor, who along with his relatives, seems to take a keen interest in all the activities hereabouts. One interesting feature of the meal was a ‘combination’ dessert with four different elements all made from olives.
The following day, intended as the highlight of the trip, we spent in Chateauneuf-du-Pape ,where the symbol of crossed keys is a prominent feature on every bottle produced. First stop was at Cuvee du Vatican where Karine Diffonty’s father-in-law was the mayor for 30years and one of the original members of the local Syndicat d’Initiative. A memorable ride in Karine Diffonty’s trusty (and very muddy) old camion took us up to their vines planted at ‘La Crau’, the very special location and site of the famous galets – round pebbles that are notable for their heat retention.
Here the Diffonty’s have 2.5ha. of gobelet trained Mourvedre and Grenache. This year the yield was very low, only 20hl./ha. By law only Syrah and Cinsault can be wire trained, all other grape varieties here are bush trained, hence their low stumpy knarled appearance. On ‘La Crau’ there are 300ha. the best vines C-d-P can offer, owned mainly by the top producers. This comprises 10% of total area under vine in C-d-P. Cuvee du Vatican produces around 100,000 bottles p.a. of which only a tiny proportion, 5%, is white. Fermentation takes around 3 weeks and natural yeast is used, although not exclusively. Karine was keen that we should taste their award winning cuvee (4th in Decanter tasting in 2005) and has few fears about the impending economic recession, maintaining that with the luxury end of the market, where demand always exceeds supply, the effect will not be drastic. Karine, along with other producers we spoke to was well aware of the changing face of the wine industry ‘We are not just farmers any more, we need to be involved in marketing, distribution and other commercial aspects’. Karine is also aware of other factors affecting their future, and with global warming in mind they plan to plant 1ha. of Counoise this coming year with a view to developing their future blends.
Domaine de la Solitude was next on the itinerary, where Florent Lancon, with his handsome Italianate looks, entertained us in style. The property has been in his family’s hands for 400 years when his ancestors came over with the Pope. Direct descendants of the Barbarini family whose, motto is ‘All that the Barbarians haven’t done, the Barbarini’s will do’.
This is not a family to be messed with, evidenced by the many antiques that were plundered locally. Yields from their 33ha. of C-d-P and 40ha. of Cotes du Rhone, were again very low this year at around 20hl./ha., in line with others in the region. This was This comprises 10% of total area under vine in C-d-Planted by the very cold winter in 2007/8 , lots of rain preventing pollination of the flowers and the fact that due to the high rain levels many of the vines were affected by oidium. Florent was very excited by their new label the 100%Ggrenache ‘Cornelia Constanza’ his very first wine since graduating from college. The family also own 1ha. of precious pre-phylloxera Grenache vines, discovered when Florent was digging up old vines planted in a sandy area close to the house. The ‘Cornelia Constanza’ is aged in oak barrels from the Caucasus mountains, the reason for doing this explained by barrel maker Moreau offering a free trial.
Lunch followed at a hillside restaurant in C-d-P, Le Verger des Papes, which in fine weather would afford splendid views of the surrounding countryside. Although not as elegant as our dinner venue the night before I much preferred the honesty of the cuisine here.
Last stop of this memorable visit was to Domaine Maby in Lirac, where once again the latest generation of the family was beginning to exert their more modern approach towards wine making in the area. Richard’s grandfather, who is now 87, first started this vineyard and most grapes continue to be harvested by hand.
Richard Maby, whose harvest had only finished 10 days ago, told us that production this year was down by 25%. To make their fine award winning rose (La Fermade) the grapes are de-stemmed and macerated on their skins for 24-48 hours before being pressed pneumatically. All 13 approved Rhone grape varieties are grown on the 60ha. under vine here, although the bulk of their wines are made from Grenache or Grenache Blanc grapes. Six or more grape varieties are used in their rose blends, whilst for their white wines 5 varieties, including ugni blanc, are used. The grapes are macerated, and fermented in stainless steel, making it easier to control the temperature, allowing for a slow fermentation over 20 – 30 days. Additional yeast is not usually added, and with 300,000 bottles a year production, Domaine Maby is the 3rd largest producer in Tavel. The new bottling plant here also allows the wine to be bottled without any exposure to air and the traditional ageing in oak has been surpassed by the use of cement tanks, stainless steel and a small number of oak barriques.
The AC of Lirac has the only independent wine producer (Beaumont), whereas Tavel has 30, although Tavel is the only appellation in France with AOC for rose only.
All in all a great whirlwind trip covering the Southern Rhone, and all the more so because of our ‘selective’ group and the attentions of our hosts.