With the vineyard and tasting room in the hands of our trusty staff, Mark and I headed to southern France to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary and re-acquaint ourselves with Rhône wines! It has been over 12 years since we last visited the region and this time, we decided to take our time and visit as many wineries as we could! We made plans to spend four days in the southern Rhône city of Avignon close to the famous appellations of Chateauneuf Du Pape, Gigondas, and Vacqueryas. Then travel north and spend another four days in Tain Hermitage adjacent to the famous appellations of St. Joseph, Hermitage, Côte Rotie and Condrieu. We capped our trip off by venturing to Beaune, Burgundy to visit one of Mark’s former students, Jonathan Purcell, who is both a vigneron and winemaker!
Chateauneuf Du Pape
In Chateauneuf Du Pape, famous for its red blends that highlight Grenache Noir, Syrah and Mourvèdre, we visited Roger Sabon, Domaine Janasse, Chateau du Caillou, Chateau Le Nerthe, Chateau Beaucastel and Chateau Mont-Redon. Roger Sabon and Chateau du Caillou were two of our “stand out” favorites. Stylistically, the red wines we tasted from these two houses were well balanced, integrated and fruit forward. The white wines of this region are also blends and feature Grenache Blanc, Clairette Blanche, Roussanne, Bourbelenc and Picpoul Blanc (we grow the first three!). Domaine Janasse reminded us of Domaine Artefact- the owner/family were all onsite and there were children playing in the tasting room. It was a heartfelt experience and we had a memorable discussion with Aime Sabon, the owner/winemaker.
A few observations: many of the wines are fermented in concrete tanks, we were surprised to learn that the white wines are often aged in neutral oak and many of the winemakers are leaning towards wines that are more fruit forward with lower alcohol. The result is more “new world” style wines. The addition of oak on the white wines contributed to a textured mouth feel and complexity. It was more challenging to identify specific varietals.
We enjoyed anniversary dinner at La Mirande with fellow wine club members Sara and Doug Zimmers and their son Drew. It was a five-course affair in the hotel’s candlelit garden. The cuisine was amazing, and we were blown away by the extraordinary presentation (special shout out on the beets, lamb and monkfish). See the photo of the monkfish atop three roasted tomatoes that were each infused with a different herb and when popped in your mouth was a flavor explosion!. In famous haute cuisine fashion, each entrée was prepared in multiple ways: smoked, seared, grilled, poached/sous vide, etc.
The following day we met up with family Zimmers for more wine tasting and Le Tour de France. For any cyclist, it was an epic experience: Le Tour is not only the riders, but a two-hour pre-cyclist retinue of team cars, motorcycles, sponsors- replete with LTDF swag items, helicopters, VIP’s and gendarmes. It was blazing hot and after the 15 second cyclist whirlwind, we walked into the quaint town of Uzès for an après-Tour lunch on the town square.
We visited the walled city of Carpentras (the Saturday market was spectacular, and we discovered one of the best OMG experiences/patisseries in France- Maison Jouvaud (by noted chef Frédéric Jouvaud). We also visited wineries in Vacqueryas and Gigondas (home to amazing Grenache Noir vineyards terraced below the famous Dentelles de Montmirail). We enjoyed dinner at L’Oustalet in Gigondas, a tiny acclaimed restaurant owned by the Perrin family of Chateau Beaucastel fame. Our takeaway – we were served a very simple, yet elegant appetizer of the freshest sheep’s milk cheese with a ricotta like texture, drizzled with olive oil, garnished with a sprig of rosemary and fresh lemon wedges. We enjoyed squeezing lemon over the cheese then slathering it onto a piece of rustic French bread with a glass of Domaine Cristia Grenache Blanc! Perfection!
Côtes du Rhône
With a basket of fresh pastries, bread, cheese and saucisson we headed north to Tain Hermitage. We made a slight detour up the summit of Mont Ventoux (a must for us after viewing so many legendary cycling battles waged on its barren limestone summit). We were greeted by a flock of sheep, bells jingling and a panoramic view of the distant Alps.
In Tain Hermitage we stayed at a boutique hotel by the name of Hotel Villeron. It was charming and offered proximate to the pedestrian bridge across the Rhone to the “centre ville”. We visited the famous biodynamic vineyard of M. Chapoutier and his tasting room which includes many wines from his broad range of vineyards throughout southern France. We visited le Caves de Tain, a cooperative of smaller wine makers from the region (similar to the Hospice de Beaune), and the adjacent Valhrona chocolate fatory. One of our more memorable experiences was Delas Freres (owned by Roederer Champagne). We toured their vineyards and witnessed firsthand the challenges of cultivating vines on steep slopes. Equipment must be hauled up and down the slopes with small diesel-powered engines and workers harvesting must use baskets on their backs (akin to a grape backpacks).
In Côte Rotie, we took the liberty to drive through the vineyards and were able to observe the terraces and unique trellising style- a teepee of two poles crisscrossed at the top with grapes being trained upwards firsthand. One of our favorite Domaines in Cote Rotie was Michel and Stephane Ogier. Stephane is a rising winemaker and is gaining a reputation for being influenced by new world techniques. His family boasts five generations of wine making and he is their “break out” wine maker. Seek out this wine, it will not disappoint! We purchased several stellar “mono varietals” of Syrah, Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne.
Key takeaways from Hermitage & Côte Rotie
The Hermitage region is where Syrah and Marsanne shine! Hermitage Blanc is comprised largely of Marsanne with only a slight addition of Roussanne. Hermitage Blanc is generally aged two years before release, is fermented in oak and some percentage of the wine undergoes some percentage of malolactic fermentation. The famed Hermitage/Côte Rotie region is largely comprised of Syrah, and in some vineyards, Viognier is interplanted. In these mixed vineyards, both varietals are harvested at the same time and co-fermented (Hermitage can include up to 10% Viognier). The different terroirs of the region are clearly expressed – when tasting the same varietal from different soil types, you can taste the difference between a wine that grows in schist versus the one that is grown in granite. There is a noted minerality of the wines that are grown in the schist and a richness of wines that are grown in granite. After tasting the wines of the famous Hermitage/Côte Rotie that are grown in granite, we are excited to see how our own granite and clay terroirs express (our vines only need another 40 years or more to catch up!)
As we drove north to the medieval city of Beaune, we ventured off A-7 and drove through the famous Burgundian towns of Meursault, Puligny, Pommard. Everywhere you look there is a vineyard – a rolling green carpet of vines. The vineyards are set up to be largely cultivated by machines: the rows are narrow, the vine spacing appeared to be about three feet and similarly, this was about the height of the vines as well. The weather was notably cooler, and the skies were dotted with white clouds and the rows of plane trees and church steeples formalized the landscape.
Mark met up with former student Jonathan Purcell for a day of epic wine tasting. Between Jonathan and his friend Chris, over 20 bottles of wine were opened in one afternoon only to be followed by another four wines with dinner. Jonathan is all passionate about natural wine and native fermentation. Chris and Jonathan looked to Mark for his thoughts on their wines which was fun (and intoxicating) for him. The afternoon of tasting prompted a great dialogue on the stylistic nuances of making wine. There were some takeaways that were crazy- a carbonic macerated Viognier (it took us some time to nail down this varietal and a Gamay Beaujolais that was exposed to new oak (it blows the preconception that a Gamay Beaujolais is always light and fruity- think Beaujolais Nouveau). While in Beaune, we sampled unremarkable wines from the Hospice de Beaune, enjoyed more approachable wines from Domaine Drouhin (they also own vineyards in Oregon’s Willamette Valley) and attended a cooking class at “Cook’s Atelier”. This was a terrific opportunity to shop the local market in preparation for our meal. Six Americans tackled classic “gourgeres”, Côte de Boeuf, fresh tomato salad and herb roasted potatoes. We sipped Champagne, and each course was accompanied by a local wine.
Burgundian takeaways: fell in love with Mersault and reaffirmed my love for French Pinots and Chardonnays! The cooking class at Cooks Atelier energized me to offer this experience at Domaine Artefact!! Mark is similarly intrigued with carbonic maceration (you will be able to experience our first wine made in this style this fall with the release of the 2017 Cat Canyon Syrah) an may experiment with a small batch of Viognier this year.