Côtes-du-Rhône with a twist

Vines at the beautiful Domaine des Escaravailles.

Think Côtes-du-Rhône, think red wine, that was their advertising slogan for quite a few years and indeed the popular perception would be that the Côtes-du-Rhône is all about red wines. Which is understandable as this region of France produces a lot of wine – 372 million bottles or so a year in fact, but only 6% of that total is white.

A lot of places are like that  – Bordeaux and Rioja for instance – the red wines get all the glory and all the column inches and I can understand it, but it limits people’s appreciation of some wonderful wines from these places too – the whites.

Recently I was travelling around the southern Rhône Valley where I visited some fabulous estates and tasted some brilliant wines. It may have been because of the hot weather, or because we were given quite light food to eat, but very often the wines that caught my imagination the most were the whites.

The white wines of the southern Rhône are usually blends made from Marsanne, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Picpoul Blanc and Bourboulenc although Viognier gets a look in as well. I love these grapes, well except for Viognier, as they are full of character, flavour and interest. Single varietals are permitted, although most white wines here are blends of more than one grape variety. These grapes are also widely used in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of course.

The dramatic southern Rhône landscape.

Grenache Blanc – it is Spanish in origin so should be called Garnacha Blanca (Garnatxa Blanca in Catalan) – has become one of my favourite white grapes in recent years. Which is odd for me because it is relatively low in acidity, but handled correctly can still offer enough freshness to balance the alcohol and the aromas. Historically it was not widely respected, but modern, cold fermentation, techniques keep that freshness and bring out the lovely herbal aromas and flavours and it also has a silky texture that can be very satisfying.

Roussanne is also favourite of mine and is another aromatic and herbal scented grape variety that has a nutty character too. The wonderful thing about Rousaanne is though that it has loads of flavour and aroma but also reasonably high acidity, so the wines feel fresh – even when blended with Grenache Blanc.

Marsanne is a much fleshier and lower acid grape and can make big and flabby wines unless care is taken – which is why it is so seldom seen a a grape variety on its own, although even they can be superb. Like Roussanne – which which it is often blended – Marsanne also originates in the northern Rhône.

Bourboulenc is a grape variety that I have really come to love in recent years. It is widely grown in southern France, being used in Bandol, Cassis, Châteauneuf-du-Pape and La Clape in the Languedoc amongst other places. It has good refreshing acidity and good citrus flavours too and while almost never used on its own can really give some elegance and finesse to a blend of richer grapes.

Clairette is a fascinating grape. It is low in acid and can be flabby unless care is taken. This is another herbal grape with fennel like aromas and rich orange and peach flavours.In the Rhône this is a blending grape but it is used as a single varietal in Clairette du Languedoc with great success – see here.

Viognier of course is by far the most popular and widely seen of these grapes. Generally low in acid and very intense and oily in its home turf of the northern Rhône, where it makes Condrieu. Personally I do not usually like the grape unless it is a lighter fresher example, but a little in blends can work.

Vines at the beautiful Domaine des Escaravailles.

These wines are very food friendly and partner all manner of dishes very well. Perfect with roast chicken, fish dishes, but also brilliant with roast lamb as long as you pile on the herbs and garlic – garlic works very well with Roussanne and Grenache Blanc especially, as does olive oil. They are also perfect with a cheese board and what I usually serve with a selection of cheeses that includes both hard and softer types.

Wine map of the Southern Rhône – click for a larger view.

Here are some of the white wines that impressed me the most on my recent trip to the Rhône:

Vines at the Château de Montfaucon.

2016 Lirac Blanc Comtesse Madeleine
AC / PDO Lirac Blanc
Château de Montfaucon
Rhône Valley
France

One of the absolute highlights of my trip was the Château de Montfaucon who are based near Châteauneuf-du-Pape and mainly produce Côtes-du-Rhône and Lirac wines – Lirac is another Cru of the Rhône like Châteauneuf but less well known. They farm organically, although are not yet certified and the range was thrilling from top to bottom, but it was the whites that especially drew me.

This wine is a blend of Marsanne, Clairette, Grenache Blanc, Viognier and Picpoul Blanc and the proportions vary quite widely each year. The greater part was the Marsanne and Grenache Blanc and these components were barrel fermented and aged on the lees, but with no lees stirring as the wine is textured enough naturally. It is all spontaneous fermentation with no added yeast, which also adds to the texture of the wine.

For me this is a beautifully complex and pleasurable wine with, smoke, toast, grapefruit, apricot, just a touch of oiliness and that tangy acidity in the background.
The palate is beautifully textured, almost mealy, with fresh pear and nectarine fruit and beautiful balance. The finish is surprisingly savoury and saline and has great length – 91/100 points.

The equally fabulous 2015 is available in the UK for £13.50 per bottle from the Wine Society.

Winemaker Julien Thorn in the magnificent cellar at Château de Montfaucon.

2015 Vin de Madame la Comtesse de Montfaucon
AC / PDO Lirac Blanc
Château de Montfaucon
Rhône Valley
France

Basically this is made from a single plot of ancient Clairette vines planted in 1870 in very stony and sandy soils on Mount Peguierol, overlooking the river Rhône near Montfaucon. They only make 7 or 8 barrels and it is fermented in oak barrels and aged in them for a few months afterwards with no lees stirring.

The label is a rather wonderful old one that was created for the estate back in 1829 and they claim it is the oldest Rhône label of all as very few wines from this region were bottled until well into the twentieth century.

Complex aromas of pastry, apricot, fennel, annis, apricot strudel, truffles and buttery grilled almonds. The aroma is heavenly and oozes style.
The palate is luscious and rich with just enough acidity and freshness to balance the full and succulent mouthfeel. There is a touch of bitterness and a touch of struck match too, while the finish is lightly oily and creamy with something mineral and saline and a long lingering flavour of orange, apricot and a little peach. Quite a wine – 93/100 points.

I cannot find any stockists for this, but it is well worth seeking out.

Christine Saurel at Domaine Montirius.

Vines at Montirius.

2016 Vacqueyras Minéral
AC / PDO Vacqueyras Blanc
Domaine Montirius
Rhône Valley
Franc

Only 3% of Vacqueyras, yet another Cru of the southern Rhône, is white. This great estate is run with passion and precision by Christine and Eric Saurel. Originally members of the local cooperative they went biodynamic in 1996 – their families thought they had joined a sect – left the cooperative once they had failed to persuade them to convert too, and never looked back.

Christine was our host as Eric was busy in the cellar but wow she feels passionately about how the estate is run, telling us that with biodynamics that if something has to be done it has to be done right then in the moment otherwise it can go wrong.

They have used no oak at all since 1999 and aim for wines that are authentic and minimalist, just as I like them. I was hugely impressed with the whole range here, especially the Vacqueyras Minéral Blanc, which is a blend of 50% Bourboulenc with 25% each of Grenache Blanc and Rousanne fermented in stainless steel with a spontaneous fermentation. Really the only thing they do is to introduce oxygen into the fermentation to stop reduction spoiling the pleasure of their wines.

Rather intriguingly the Grenache Blanc and Roussanne were co-fermented – picked together and fermented together and then blended with the Bourboulenc.

This has a great nose, floral, citrus, nutty and honeyed with deep citrus, orange and lemon peel notes.
The palate has tangy grapefruit acidity and a lively texture too. Very complex with vanilla, floral, citrus, wax, lemon curd, great fruit concentration and a taut mineral quality.
The finish lasts a good 2 or 3 minutes. This is a fine and beautiful wine – 93/100 points.

Available En Primeur for £195.00 per dozen bottles plus duty, shipping and VAT from Laithwaite’s.

The beautiful Château Beauchêne.

2017 Château Beauchêne Grande Réserve
AC / PDO Côtes-du-Rhône Blanc
Château Beauchêne
Rhône Valley
Franc

This pristine estate is the focal point for the Bernard family who have been making wine in these parts since 1794. They only bought this perfect picture postcard Château in the 1990s but it is the family home and main winery for the company that makes Côtes-du-Rhône and Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines.

Their range is solid and well made, but the high point was this relatively humble white Côtes-du-Rhône made from 25% Clairette, 25% Grenache Blanc 25% Roussanne, 20% Marsanne and 5% Bourboulenc. It is fermented in stainless steel and completely unoaked and has no malolactic fermentation either.

This is a lovely, joyous wine, full of freshness that makes it feel lively and pure. The palate is concentrated and rich but that purity keeps it refreshing too. The herbal characters and orchard fruit of the grapes together with some lemon curd notes make it delicious and moreish – 89/100 points.

The equally fabulous 2016 is available in the UK for £13.50 per bottle from the Huntsworth Wine Company, London Wine Shippers and D’Arcy Wine Merchants.

2017 Château Beauchêne Viognier
AC / PDO Côtes-du-Rhône Blanc
Château Beauchêne
Rhône Valley
Franc

Pure Viognier from 20 year old plus vines, farmed organically but not certified as such. The grapes were pressed and juice put straight into oak barrels, second and third use. The wine was fermented and then aged in the barrels for another 6 months on the lees.

Now I am not really a fan of Viognier, but this is an attractive wine, delicately creamy and smoky with some nice peach, floral, herb and peach stone characters. It has a lightness of touch enough to keep it fresh and lively and drinkable – very well made wine – 87/100 points.

The equally fabulous 2016 is available in the UK for £14.75 per bottle from  Private Cellar.

The beautiful and peaceful Domaine des Escaravailles.

Gilles Férran of Domaine des Escaravailles, he is as charming and funny as he looks!

2017 Domaine des Escaravailles La Galopine
AC / PDO Côtes-du-Rhône Blanc
Domaine des Escaravailles
Rhône Valley
Franc

Domaine des Escaravailles is an amazing place. It is a beautiful spot up steep and bumpy country lane. It seems very cut off and the peace somehow prepares you for the wines to come. The story began in 1953 when Jean-Louis Férran bought several parcels of vines in the Rasteau, Cairanne and Roaix areas of Côtes-du-Rhône. In 1999 his grandson Gilles took over and made the estate what it is today. They farm using sustainable techniques and most of their vineyard sites – at around 250 metres above sea level – are relatively high and cool. As a consequence they seem to make lovely silky and refined wines that are elegant and balanced and never too powerful despite their generous fruit.

Escaravailles by the way is the local Occitan name for the scarab beetle as well as a nickname for the local black robed monks who inhabited a swathe of local monasteries before the revolution.

This is a blend of 40% Roussane, 40% Marsanne and 20% Viognier, barrel fermented and aged in the same barrels for some 6 more months, with lees stirring to help develop complexity and texture. 26 barrels were made and 4 of those were new oak, so once the wine was blended only a little new oak was used in the whole wine as they do not want the oak to dominate, merely to add some spice and structure. The vineyard this wine comes from is actually within the Cru of Rasteau, but for some odd reason only red wines and rosés can be made in Rasteau, so it has to be labelled as Côtes-du-Rhône instead.

Great aromas of herbs together with peach, blossom and sea salt.
In the mouth it has a beautiful palate with great, lush, texture, dense fruit, cooked and fresh peach, apricot, pear and apple together with some lovely herbs and spices and a feel of some wild honey . The finish is long and rich but also fresh and lively, giving it tension as well as making it delicious and sinfully drinkable – 92/100 points.

The equally fabulous 2015 is available in the UK for £22 per bottle from the Wines With AttitudeButlers Wine Cellar and Bowland Forest Vintners.

So you see, the Côtes-du-Rhône is not only red. There is a wealth of fine white wines from the southern Rhône and they are well worth exploring as they are often very good indeed.

Serious Rosé can still be fun

I enjoy drinking a good rosé and enjoy its versatility – a nice rosé is fun on its own and can often be an inspired choice with food, especially the sort of things that I eat in the Summer.

What’s more I get a little tired of people claiming not to like rosé – what’s not to like exactly? I also find it a trifle annoying that quite a few people are somewhat disparaging about rosés, ‘they’re neither one thing, or the other’ is a refrain that I often hear. That is right, they are not white wines, they are not red wines, but something different – that is the point!

However, much as I enjoy them, I hardly ever think of them as being complex or great wines. Every month in London I present tastings to a group of tasters who are really interested in wines and I love showing them different things that I find on my travels. Well recently, just to see what people thought, I put on a tasting of rosés that were a bit more serious, and potentially more complex than the normal examples that people buy.

I had put the tasting together over several months, based on wines that I found in all sorts of different places. They were all made using the skin contact method – meaning the colour comes from the skins of black grapes as with a red wine. I wondered about putting in something like a Sauvignon Blanc Rosé from South Africa or New Zealand as those are made from blending a little red wine into white to give the colour, but I couldn’t show everything.

The tasting went well and surprised a lot of the tasters, so I decided to share the best wines with you.

The wines

txomin-etxaniz-rosado.jpg2014 Txakolin Gorria
Txomín Etxaníz
PDO / DO Getariako Txakolina
País Vasco
Spain

Oh I do like Txakoli (or Txakolin they are not consistent with the naming). It is pronounced Chakoli and hails from the far north of Spain – you can read all about it in an article I wrote for Catavino. There are actually three Txakoli DOs and this wine comes from DO Getariako Txakolina, which is around the lovely fishing village of Getaria just 30km west of San Sebastian – which currently is my favourite place on earth! Txomín Etxaníz is widely considered to be the best producer of this beguiling wine. Formally established as a company in 1930, the family have been farming these hillsides and making wine since at least 1649.

Wine map of Spain – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement

Wine map of Spain showing DO Getariako Txakolina to the East of Bilbao – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement

The beautiful bustling fishing village of Getaria, Txomín a just a couple of kilometres away on a hillside overlooking the village.

The beautiful bustling fishing village of Getaria. The streets are full of bars and fish restaurants, while Txomín are just a couple of kilometres away on a hillside overlooking the village.

This rosé – the Gorria on the label strangely means red in Basque – is a blend of the two most important grapes, 60% Hondarrabi Beltza – a black grape – and 40% Hondarrabi Zuri – a white grape.

This was the lightest of the rosés, but a firm favourite with some tasters. The colour was pale, with a light cherry, strawberry, rose petal hue. The nose was delicate and restrained with that pure, seashore, salty and mineral Txakoli thing. It is bright, fresh and thrilling with lots of ripe cherry acidity, the merest sprinkle of pepper and some softer riper strawberry fruit too. It is light as sea air, but the flavour is deep and wonderful, so the wine feels elegant and satisfying. Perfect sun drenched terrace drinking, with the merest hint of something not quite bone dry – 91/100 points.

Also remember the Txomín white Txakoli is just about the best example of the type that you can try, it is available from The Oxford Wine Company for £15 a bottle.

For UK stockist information contact Moreno wines.
For US stockist information click here.

IMG_6386s_-_2013_Bastardo_Rose_-_cropped_1024x10242013 Mazza Bastardo Rosé
Mazza Wine
GI Geographe
Western Australia

Bastardo is a little used and somewhat unloved grape variety from Portugal, but David Mazza has found a way to make a lovely wine from it, by making a rosé. David is one of my most exciting discoveries of the last year or so. He is a lovely guy who farms a tiny estate in Western Australia, only grows Iberian grape varieties and makes superb wines – you can read more about him here.

Wine map of Western Australia – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement

Wine map of Western Australia, Mazza are to the south and east of Bunbury, roughly where the G, in Geographe, is – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement

David Mazza showing me his wines at Berry Bros. & Rudd, London.

David Mazza showing me his wines at Berry Bros. & Rudd, London.

The nose offers rose petal aromas, some strawberries and cream notes, mineral earthy notes, some herbs and some pomegranate too.

The palate has lovely weight and a creamily ripe texture that caresses the palate with soft red fruit with an underlying orange acidity with red fruit highlights. There are some light spices and Mediterranean herbs too. The acidity is perfectly judged, making the wine fresh, lively and clean without being in the least bit tart.

There is a fair bite of tannin for a rosé, just enough to give some elegance and structure, and a long finish that delights with redcurrant and cranberry fruit. This is a really satisfying and fine rosé of exceptional quality, it is not exactly light weight, but neither it is it heavy, but it is refreshing and lively. A fine and complex rosé – 92/100.

Available in the UK from Berry Bros and Rudd for £17.50 per bottle.

majoli_coste_sesia_rosato_20132015 Majioli Rosato
Tenute Sella
PDO / DOC Coste della Sesia
Piemonte
Italy

Tenute Sella from northern Piemonte – Alpine Piemonte if you will – is still run by the family who founded it in 1671. They farm in the DOCs of Lessona, Bramaterra and Coste della Sesia and their buildings, cellars and vineyards are spectacular as you might imagine. They have a beautiful palazzo style building, while the Alps provide a stunning backdrop to the vines. Their main grape is Nebbiolo, but they have Vespolina, Croatina and Erbaluce too and make brilliant wines, including the best Nebbiolo rosé I have ever tried, so I put it in the tasting.

Wine map of Piemonte - click for a larger view. Non watermarked, high resolution versions are available for a fee.

Wine map of Piemonte in my new cleaner style – click for a larger view. Non watermarked, high resolution versions are available for a fee.

P1160908

Tenute Sella.

This rosé is pure Nebbiolo and from 45 year old vines, old vines helps give depth and concentration to the wine. The vineyards are in the two ‘Cru’ appellations, Lessona (95%) and Bramaterra (5%), which is why the wine is labelled Coste della Sesia, as that is the wider area. The Bramaterra component is made by bleeding some juice off their red wine while it is fermenting. The Lessona component gets 36 hours cold soak pre fermentation to help extract flavours and complexity. The wine has malolactic fermentation and has a 6 month ageing on the lees in tank.

This has real Nebbiolo character on the nose, with earthy and rose petal notes, blood orange, cranberry and spice too. The palate is quite full, with some weight and intensity and texture – those lees? It is also very tasty with lots of rich red fruit, that twist of bitter orange, some spice and a good fresh acidity and minerality making it lively. This is a fine rosé – possibly my favourite on the night – and it would go with all manner of dishes from salads and fish to veal and pasta dishes – 92/100 points.

I would also point out that everything I have tasted from Tenute Sella is of very high quality.

Sadly right now there is no UK representation for Tenute Sella – come on wine trade, snap them up!
They are represented in the US by Rosenthal Wine Merchant / Mad Rose Group in New York.

chene-bleu-rose-1000x10002014 Chêne Bleu Rosé
Chêne Bleu, Domaine de la Verrière
PGI / Vin de Pays de Vaucluse
Rhône
France

I love showing wines from Chêne Bleu, because they are always so very good. It’s a beautiful estate in the rugged and isolated Mont Ventoux area just a few kilometres north of Gigondas and east of Séguret on the borders between the Côtes du Rhône and Ventoux. The whole project has been a labour of love for the owners Nicole and Xavier Rolet and I would recommend that you read the story in my post here. The estate is farmed organically and in conversion to biodynamic. The secret is the height, the vineyards – there are only 30 hectares of them, sit at between 550 and 630 metres above seal level – very high for Europe – where the hot Mediterranean air is cooler and the nights are distinctly cool, which makes the wines fresher than you would expect – so finer. On top of all that they hand harvest and sort the grapes meticulously – their attention to detail shows.

Wine map of the Southern Rhône - click for a larger view.

Wine map of the Southern Rhône – click for a larger view.

004

Nicole Rolet.

Their rosé is a classic southern Rhône blend of 65% Grenache, 30% Syrah and 5% Cinsault and it spent a very short time in oak barrels to add complexity.

The colour is lovely, not deep, not place, but bright and appealing. The nose offers some delicate spice, rich citrus and pungent red fruit, while the palate is pretty full, with rich soft red fruit, refreshing acidity, concentrated fruit, a light spicy oak character and a silky, textured mouthfeel. Again perfect as n aperitif or with any Mediterranean style meal – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £19 a bottle from Waitrose Cellar (online)
For US stockist information click here.

CB2013 Château Brown Rosé
Château Brown
Graves / Pessac-Léognan 
PDO / AOC Bordeaux
France

I visited Château Brown once, it is a star estate in the Graves region and always delivers great wines and value for money. It has a checkered history though and was going through a bad patch in the 1950s – in fact there were no vines then – which is why it is not a Grand Cru Classé de Graves. Since 2004 the estate has been run by Jean-Christophe Mau and the quality of the wines has improved dramatically. There are 29 hectares of vines on the famous gravel – Graves – soils and nowadays they use sustainable viticulture to ensure balance and biodiversity in the vineyard – so much so they even keep a colony of bees.

Bordeaux map QS 2011 watermark

Wine map of Bordeaux – Pessac-Léognan is just south of the city itself – click for a larger view.

P1050484

Jean-Christophe Mau at Château Brown.

They make lovely reds and a lot of their reputation has been built on their fine, rich, barrel aged white wines – both of these are AOC Pessac-Léognan. The rules of the appellation do not allow for rosés though, so this has to be labelled simply as AOC Bordeaux, but the quality is far higher than this relatively humble provenance would lead you to expect.

This rosé is a 50/50 Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blend, hand harvested, de-stemmed and macerated on the skins for 4 hours, which gives the subtle and pale colour. After a cold fermentation the wine was aged for 4 months in second use oak barrels with some lees stirring for extra texture and complexity.

The colour is more peach than pink with redcurrant fruit notes and something nutty and mineral too. The palate is seductively textured and promises a great deal, but the wine has to be treated more seriously than rosé normal are, serve it lightly chilled rather than cold and open it in advance – perhaps even decant it, all things I found out by mistake as the wine really only started to show its form after everyone had gone home!

Available in the UK for around £33 a bottle from Hedonism Wines.

Chivite Colección 125 Rosado-sv-gl2011 Chivite Colección 125 Rosado
J. Chivite Family Estates
PDO / DO Navarra
Spain

All  my working life I have been fond of the wines of Navarra, there is great quality there and great value too. I never really understand why they are not more widely available in the UK. It is a beautiful place, full of passionate wine producers. Production is nothing like the scale of neighbouring Rioja, so it remains attractively rural and the producers are essentially farmers – read my piece here for an overview and here, here, here, here and here about specific producers.

Map of Navarra – click for a larger view. High-res non-watermarked versions of my maps are available by agreement.

Map of Navarra – click for a larger view. High-res non-watermarked versions of my maps are available by agreement.

D. Julián Chivite López, the 11 th generation of his family to produce wine in Navarra.

D. Julián Chivite López, the 11 th generation of his family to produce wine in Navarra.

The Chivite family have been growing grapes and producing wine in Navarra since 1647 – which as I often joke to my students, is just before lunch in Spain! They are without doubt the most famous and leading estate in the region and are still owned by the founding family – indeed the current Julian Chivite is the 11th generation of the family to run it. They produce several ranges of wines, all good, even their more entry level Gran Fuedo wines from the warm deep south of Navarra. In recent years though they moved production of their top wines to their Finca Granja de Legardeta in the cooler Navarra Tierra Estella sub-zone – just a little bit south of Estella on the map. This area is influenced by the Atlantic and is pretty high too, so is cooler than further south, which gives a nice long ripening season to allow the grapes to develop complexity, while maintaining freshness.

The Coleccion 125 range – which are all superb – was originally created to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the original Chivite winery in Cintruénigo in the south of Navarra, but is now a separate range from their own family vineyards. This rosé is made from 100% Tempranillo grapes, aged for 12 months in French oak barrels with occasional lees stirring.

The colour is amazing, like wild salmon, while the nose is quite lifted with red fruit, smoke and spice. The palate is quite textured and rich with lots of ripe cherry, strawberry and spice and light tobacco, together with some rich orange character. The acidity keeps it all fresh and juicy, while there is a touch of tannin. A fine, rich, dry rosé that needs food – I would love to try it with suckling pig, but can assure you that it’s marvellous with paella – 92/100 points.

So you see, rosé wines can be fine, they can be complex and they can be serious and when they are they can be delightful and great fun to drink too. All of these were dry, although the Txakoli had a tiny touch of fruit sweetness which made it rather gorgeous actually, and on the whole would be better with food than without. The next time you cook Mediterranean style food, be it paella, tapas, meze, slow cooked lamb or some grilled fish – try one of these wines, or something similar, with it. I think you will enjoy the combination.

Wine of the Week 23 – an inspiring tale & a treat from the Rhône

My new Wine of the Week is something I have been meaning to write about for quite a while. It is made by the guys at Chêne Bleu who craft some superb wines at their Domaine de la Verrière. This beautiful estate is in the rugged and isolated Mont Ventoux area just a few kilometres north of Gigondas and east of Séguret on the borders between the Côtes du Rhône and Ventoux.

la_verriere182

Domaine de la Verrière complete with the blue oak. Photo courtesy of the winery.

I have managed to taste most of the Chêne Bleu wines and they are hugely impressive and like all the best wineries it has a great story to tell. Once an early medieval priory that was known for its wines, it also later became famous for making glass, hence the la Verrière name, but by the 1960s the place was rundown and derelict. It stayed that way too, until Nicole and Xavier Rolet bought the property in the mid 1990s. At first they brought the house up to standard, but soon turned their attention to the vineyards. As the estate is hardly in a famous location for great wine they assumed a modest future of growing grapes for the local cooperative was all that was possible. However, as they were totally new to wine they called in soil experts who explained to them that this site actually had potential for great wine.

Fundamentally it was the altitude – between 550 and 630 metres above sea level – the complex soils, the powerful sun and the strong winds that made the place so promising. The estate can ripen the fruit, the altitude ensures finesse and acidity, while the other factors force the vines to spend so much effort surviving that they produce tiny crops of concentrated grapes.

Vineyards at Chêne Bleue. Photo courtesy of the winery.

Vineyards at Chêne Bleu. Photo courtesy of the winery.

Apparently it took twelve years of back breaking effort to coax life back into the land. Right from the start they aimed high to produce wines that spoke of this place, which is why some of their wines are blended across their land. Because the estate straddles 4 appellations – Côtes du Rhône, Gigondas, Séguret and Ventoux – some of their wines are made from grapes that belong to more than one appellation and so are simply labelled as Vin de Pays / IGP rather than appellation contrôlée. To restore balance to the vineyard, everything is done manually and naturally with no fertilisers or pesticides. In fact they are on their way to biodynamic and organic certification.

Wine map of the southern Rhône. Click for a larger view. High resolution non watermarked versions are available by agreement.

Wine map of the southern Rhône. Click for a larger view. High resolution non watermarked versions are available by agreement.

It may seem a little shallow of me, but part of the pleasure that I take in their wines is looking at their beautiful labels which look like intricate medieval wood-cuts. I have always loved David Gentleman‘s mural at Charring Cross tube station and I can take the same sort of delight in Chêne Bleu’s labels as I can in examining that. You can spend hours taking in all the details and finding the animals hidden in the patterns – apparently people try to count the rabbits – and at the heart is a drawing of the Chêne Bleu itself. As you can see in the photographs, there really is a blue oak at the estate. It is so old that they have had to treat it in order to preserve it and it was this that made it blue.

Chêne Bleu is an inspiring project and the positive way their wines have been received must give them immense gratification after so much hard work. The wines are very, very good though and they deserve their plaudits, but most of them are also far from cheap, although well worth trying if you want a treat.

However, luckily for us they have just launched a more affordable wine and that is my Wine of the Week:

CB- Mktg- A5 Brochures- UK- Astralabe 2009-  24.7.132009 Chêne Bleu Astralabe
A.C. Ventoux
Rhône Valley, France
This is a blend of 70% old vine Grenache and Syrah, the vines are between 30 and 40 years old and are grown at around 540 metres above sea level on a mixture of north and south-west facing slopes. The wine spends 7-8 months in barrel. It is named Astralabe in honour of the little known son of Abélard and Héloïse, which are the names of Chêne Bleu’s two top wines.
The nose is lifted, attractive and smoky with mineral, earthy and herbal notes. The fruit is dominated by plums, cooked strawberries and black cherry together with and a touch of prune in the background.
The palate is quite full-bodied and delivers delicious bright red fruit, as wells some deeper notes. There is a delicately peppery spice, gently firm tannins and some fresh acidity giving it a distinctive purity.
This is an elegant, balanced and joyous wine with concentrated fruit and a lovely mineral quality too – 89/100 points.

Available in the UK at £15.99 a bottle from Waitrose Cellar – £11.99 if you grab it before 28/10/2014

This is utterly perfect with a slow cooked shoulder of lamb cooked on a bed of garlic, thyme, rosemary and lemon peel. If you like Grenache and Syrah blends, wines from the Rhône, spicy or elegant wines, then you really should try this.