Heartbreak in the south as well. Just as I was settling into the car this morning, anxious to meet another producer–Helene Thebon of Mas de Libian–I called her son Aurelian to confirm the address. This polite but flustered young man explained that perhaps it wasn’t the best day to visit. The hard rain I felt the day before, as I stood worried in Montfaucon’s vineyards became the dreaded hail in the Ardeche, where Mas de Libian was located. Just like that… 80% gone. They have much work to do today, as they pick up the pieces of the vintage so tragically ripped apart before harvest.
Witnessing the aftermath in Burgundy last week is a powerful thing. It sheds light on the reality of this unpreventable natural disaster. Standing in a vineyard, however, as I did yesterday, and feeling the wind pick up, blow its icy breath on the wonderfully in tact leaves… to feel the raindrops fall faster and faster, threatening to transform into a solid… to truly feel even a fraction of the anxiety the farmers have for even a moment was an emotion I have trouble describing. From what I understand, leaving that day, Montfaucon was fine. Clearly, some were not so fortunate.
This is one of the many challenges of the Southern Rhone. As one might say generally in life, that which does not kill you makes you stronger. In the same way, it is thought that these wines wear the mark of struggle and experience for better. Drought forces the vines deep to find and reserve water. The sometimes violent Mistral winds funnel down from the Alps through the Rhone at speeds as high as 140k in the winter, sometimes stronger, threatening to take all that gets in its way. This area, however, offers up some of the most friendly, accessible wines in all of France when done right. They are powerful, fruit forward and reflective of place– the sun, spice, herbs and fruits of this region (raspberries, blackberries, and orchard fruits of the north) resound in these wines.
My visit with Rudi (Rodolphe) de Pins was among the best I have ever had. As we wound up the drive, Jonathan remarked, ‘Whoa. Does he live in a castle or something?” I could hardly see it past the dense trees, but I replied that I was under that impression from all his stories of his estate he told when he came to visit Denver a couple months ago. We finally climbed to the top of the drive, past gargoyles and grand, ancient gates to the entrance next to an old tower. He was waving his arms and chasing a toddler. He has two kids (about 13 months apart), and we were enchanted to get to know them a bit better that day.
As expected, Rudi had a full day (maybe week) planned for the few hours we could visit. So we got to it. He explained a bit about the castle itself. The first tower was built in the 11th century. Its situation near the Rhone river made it a critical and valuable fortress, as it served to protect the border between the French kingdom and the Holy Roman German Empire. It was also quite involved with trading (and taxing) over the years. It was designed for protection and battle should any intruders dare challenge them. The 1400’s brought them a little more royal prestige as the head of the family Laudun was made Baron of Montfaucon. By the 1800s, they tinkered with winemaking. The late 1800s and all the way until Rudi came along, the winery went dormant, as the leased vines to interested parties for a small income. Thankfully, though, Rudi had the bug, studied in California, interned down in Australia (Henschke) as well as back home across the river in Chateauneuf under a little know place called Vieux Telegraph, when he finally reclaimed his own estate and has since then added acquired many more parcels, making it about a 60 ha production.
Never may I meet a more enthusiastic winemaker as Rudi. In many ways, he is like a child, so full of wonder and excitement. Tasting his wines in the deep old 19th century cellar, he cannot help but open various vintages only to pause and show us the old presses and pieces of amphora from ancient trading times. He was out buying bread one second while we sipped in the cellar to picking tomatoes in his garden for lunch. I hardly kept pace with this guy. His mind was so full of life and joy– he would be patting his little baby one moment then taking us on a tour of the roof of the castle next. It was a whirlwind, to say the least. But in an attempt to provide linear quality to the visit, I will do my best…
We tasted through his current line of wines to start. His wines never cease to amaze me price per pound of quality and craft. These are wines weighted with thought but moreso the mark of a fine palate– a palate that necessarily needs balance. In the Rhone, that can be tricky. It is all too easy to make over the top, flashy, alcoholic monsters, which smell dense and taste like dessert. These heady representations have their place and appeal to many. But for those who seek pleasure in a kind of tension, a coming together of many complex ingredients on the tongue, well then, Rudi is the artist for you. Each wine embraces the generosity of fruit and bold character to be enjoyed from this part of the world, but he ties it up with strings of refreshing acid, structure and personality. He is meticulous about when he picks his grapes, ensuring that they do not compromise freshness in the quest for a more powerful composition.
Like a natural-born chef, Rudi follows no recipe from year to year for his cuvees. Depending if the year was favorable to vines on sand versus those of more clay, he will allow a wine to show its best side, featuring that vintage’s best sites per soil in a given blend. As he is co-fermenting the blend (a technique he is famous for, allowing the yeasts and characters of the grapes to fuse together in fermentation vs vinifying them each separate to combine later), he will add certain varieties along the way if the wine is expressing that it needs more color, acidity or structure. He will macerate the grapes different, depending on the needs of the vintage. He will press more over pumping if the cuvee calls for more strength. There is no right or wrong– just balance. In this way, his work can never be replicated, as it is according to his knowledge and feel of the wine by flavor.
We enjoyed a lunch of fresh tomatoes from his garden along with homemade basil leaves, shallots and even olive oil he makes from the grove outside his winery– a new passion he has come to develop. He and his wife also roasted a chicken, so we might enjoy some of the backvintages he pulled appropriately. We had a 2005 and 1999 Cotes du Rhone. The younger of the two still wore the heat of the vintage in its expression. Interesting, teh nose was very much reminiscent of Bordeaux, while the ’99 harkened Bourgogne. While the ’05 had considerable character, fruit and liveliness, it was working through some alcohol at the moment, promising to come out on top–much like the 1999. This one– the ’99– was just stunning. That this bottle– a mere 2 or 3 euros when he sold it at the winery upon release– was demonstrating such finesse and depth of personality was astounding to me. Fifteen years later, that is the mark of a real winemaker– that such integrity is imbued upon even the ‘simplest’ in the line.
We also were able to try the 2005 Baron Lirac, a fabulous red that was only just starting to show its crow’s feet (though barely) through notes of leather, earth and dried fruit. This wines was pining for autumn’s table of grouse, goose, pheasant and stuffed guinea hen. The star of the show, though, really was the 1995 Baron Louis Lirac. This was Rudi’s first wine ever. He was quite wistful and emotional about this fact. We could feel how special it was for him to share, and we were only too honored to partake. Low yields and old vines work to make this blend one of his finest to age. At this phase, it was the scent of youthful tomato leaves and a hint of fresh tobacco. There was a minty quality I couldn’t get enough of! Dried roses and strawberries lingered on the palate. It really was just such a kind gesture to allow us to be a part of this history– to drink the very first from the Chateau.
As if that wasn’t powerful enough, we then went to the rooftop just as the winds were picking up. Here, you could see for miles on end-, including a panoramic of the Mount Ventoux… and the dark, foreboding clouds rolling in our direction. Rudi was off climbing an electric pole, pointing in the distance to the lighting. I started to back away slowly, suggesting that maybe we work our way down the castle heights… He then excitedly suggested a quick vineyard walk before it poured. He was itching to introduce us to his vines. And truly, I mean that. He seems to know them each individually. He is fascinated by each of them for their unique qualities and aesthetic beauty. As the wind push me from the side, and I struggled with a cupped ear to hear him explain terroir and vine age, he kept marching deeper into the vines. I was in awe of his relentless love for these vineyards. We were among his latest crush– really a full on love affair– with a vineyard he had been watching for years to come up for sale. Over 140 year old Clairette vines that never felt the harsh bite of phylloxera sat rather under appreciated for over decade. Once it came on the market, he took the small plot, never caring even to ask the price. He was smitten he said– fallen deep into its spell. He noted the shape and art that each vine presented, and as the rain came pouring down, the wind cutting into our conversation, I just had to stop and absorb the quality of these few minutes. How cool was this?
The thunder snapped me out of it pretty quickly, and we made our way back to the car. At that point the cold rain really began to fall, and I prayed it would not turn to hail. That prayer was only granted in the area from which it was spoken. Not too far from away, in the Ardeche, another heart was being broken, along with many grapes and precious leaves as well.