(Yes! There’s more… I am a slacker, so this and the next are a continuation of my travels last week!)…
Making our way from Montpellier to the Rhone was a simple, scenic trip by car. The clouds were hanging low, and the sun was fighting to make its point. Stubby, pensive winter-pruned Grenache vines stood modestly on the rocky soils. The effect was poetic in a way and created a pronounced impression on my senses. Never will I get over the strange sense of calm and nostalgia I feel when I return to this piece of the planet.
Our first stop was at Moulin de la Gardette in Gigondas to visit with the current winemaker Jean Baptiste Meunier. A gentle, conscientious man, Jean Baptise’s energy and enthusiasm was very clear in the way he introduced us to his cellar. Here, he dipped his thief in various barrel, explaining the differences of plots, vine ages and blends in order to communicate how he assembles each vintage cuvee (blend). It is different every year and as a good winemaker, he tastes again and again in the cellar but especially the vineyard to really understand the personality of that year’s grapes– what it is they really want to say in their time. This kind of translation he produces in the bottle is the reason I enjoy these wines so much. The rather difficult, higher alcohol lower acid coulure-prone Grenache can be a devil to work with if you seek elegant, refreshing (dare I say Burgundian?) styles. But Jean Baptiste lures this expression from his vines.
This 5th generation winery has wavered very little in their quest for pure, terroir driven wines that are stripped of any excess. Even in times when it was trendy to give vines a chemical christening in the 70’s and 80’s, they knew it didn’t feel right and returned to their traditional ways. Through lighter extractions, neutral barrel and concrete ageing as well as wild yeast fermentations, these wines are able to tell their story–their vintage and the work that went into it– in a very transparent way. For this reason, we learned that the 2013 vintage wrought with coulure and very low yields of Grenache saw more Syrah than they typically use in the blends as well as less bottles overall. But because of their style and philosophy, the character of this state remained constant in the expression of the wines we tasted.
We dined at Restaurant Le Mesclun in Seguret nearby Gigondas for lunch. Its portions we perfect and flavors divine. We began with a kind of bisque with shrimp that carried with it a back heat not uncommon from Cayenne– a flavor I never expected from this region. Next, we had a vegetable stuffed squid upon a bed of paella like risotto– there was a slightly burnt crust I just cannot get over turning in my head. It was incredible. I recommend you go to this place if you are ever here, order a local wine (we enjoyed the 2013 Domaine de l’Amauve ‘La Daurele’ Blanc– a really appropriate choice as well as a very good friend of Jean Baptiste’s).
Next stop was Roucas Toumba in Vacqueyras to visit with Eric Bouletin. It was, in short, one of the most memorable winery visits I have had. He was a real intellectual, a reflective kind of man. He was quiet, humble and intensely focused on his vines. We discovered that he knows at least 4 languages, reads Jim Harrison, he is an artist (and has sketched all his wine labels), enjoys speaking a rather ancient dialect of Provencal with his neighbor friend over dinner, and enjoys the labor and connection he has to his property and vines– I got the sense that he recognizes he is just one piece of the puzzle but that he can learn so much from the land if he listens closely. He didn’t say this. But he emanated it.
Because of this strong connection to his art– his wine– I could tell he contemplated greatly how he could improve it little by little each year. Whether it is time for larger barrels to promote the Mourvedre to expand itself and work out some kinks or putting wines on two different corks to record which are consistently more successful, the man is fastidious and precise. This thoughtfulness more than reflects in his wines. They carry with them a very singular form on the palate– a bittersweet duet of nostalgia and forward thinking… density as well as the whimsical aromatics that come from being born in the South of France.
Eric Bouletin is so talented. The wines so riveting and layered. From his entry level Pichot and tiny production of rose to his ageworthy whites and unparalleled reds, he is a producer to get acquainted with if you can be so fortunate to snag a few bottles from his 3 ha production.
To round out our travels to (arguably) the ‘three great regions’ on the left bank of the Rhone, we finished our day at Domaine Royer in Chateauneuf du Pape. Just on the outskirts of town, this small domaine of 6 ha also makes a more atypical expression of Grenache for the warm southern Rhone region. Jean-Marie Royer’s love is Burgundy (not unlike Bouletin who professed his great love for Puligny), and so, his focus is to put forward a wine of precision– force without weight.
He had such a jovial disposition. Back in the day, he was a rugby player–a culture I am pretty familiar with, as my sister was a rugger herself. He was a wise man with much to discuss on the market of Chateauneuf and its positioning in U.S. markets. He has been doing quite well selling what he makes for he hits a great balance between quality and price. His wines over-deliver, simply put. It was evident in the barrels we previewed of 2014. And it was clear in the 2013s just bottled that he and his consultant understand good winemaking in a very challenging vintage. We tasted through the Petite Roy– a phenomenal sub-$20 value if you are seeking a Pinot-like, exuberant Grenache, perfect alongside terrine, cheeses and meats. If you desire another step up, the Tradition is the place to be, as you are officially getting into Chateauneuf. This wine consistently boasts delicate, exotic spices, lifted dried floral notes and red berry. The Prestige is the next cuvee– a deeper wine of older vines and opulence on the palate. Finally the Sables de Crau which comes from a specific location with very old vines and deep sand which kicks up even more aromatics and complexity for aging.
The night ended on the recommendation of Mr. Royer’s to try Le Table de Sorgues. I was thrilled that he did. Not 15 minutes drives was a regional restaurant that had top notch service, memorable dishes and a list of really interesting wines both young and old, near and far. We began with a glass of 2010 Chateau des Tours Blanc followed by a bottle of 2010 Domaine Romaneaux-Destezet blanc. Both sides of the Rhone, south and north, were interesting to try side by side in the same vintage. The south held the heat naturally a bit more, mirroring the sun and ripe fruit in its expression. The north while more reserved was grateful for the excuse to relax a bit and let loose in conversation. I fell in love with this second wine a bit. And possibly reserved a magnum back home to celebrate something someday and fall in love again for a bit.