Rediscovering Provence with Sara d’Amato
My yearly pilgrimage to this beloved region of the South of France is always too fleeting, as there is more to discover than one ever has time for. Even after 30 years of traveling to the same destination of the village of Avignon (though admittedly, for a number of those I was a little young for wine appreciation, even by French standards) it amazes me that I am still discovering new regions, sites and villages surrounding the area. (My father – a professor of English and drama – had a research interest in the Marquis de Sade, meaning that I spent most summers, and two full-year sabbaticals, frequenting the Marquis’ homeland with my family). As an adult, I returned to France to complete my winemaking internship and now bring my two toddlers to our homestead as a summer tradition.
During these yearly stays, ambition to explore the region further is sometimes quelled by the relaxing pace of the Southern French and of course, the unrelenting heat that requires afternoon repose; however, despite a desire to stay put at a café, I was determined to revisit some memorable spots and discover new haunts this time around. A casual visit to Tavel, a trek into the mountainous region of the Drôme to see the temple built for wine of Philippe Viret and a memorable tasting at Château Beaucastel with Thomas Perrin were some of the highlights of my month-long stay. With a great deal to pass on, I will here distill what you may not know about Provence.
Before getting to the meat of it, I would like to acknowledge that we have featured heavily the wines of the Southern Rhône here at WineAlign over the past month but this is simply due to the exceptional quality of these wines currently available at the LCBO. This in turn is at least in part due to the remarkable vintages of 2009 and 2010 that showcase the extraordinary power and character of this region but also the surprising elegance that can arise from such vintages. Unfortunately, these vintages are framed by the challenging years of 2008 and 2011. Producers of the south report having to declassify a significant portion of wine from the elevated appellations this past year. We can expect is a great deal of good value Côtes-du-Rhône and a savings in your pocket from this upcoming 2011 vintage release yet to grace our shelves. Without further ado, let’s have a look at the major southern appellations through a tasting with the proprietor of Famille Perrin wines.
An Appellation Education with Thomas Perrin
Although this was not the first time I’ve had the opportunity to visit Château Beaucastel, visits to this prestigious Château always yield new knowledge and insight into the Southern Rhône. It is not a generalization to state that the wines of the Northern Rhône – appellations such as Cote Rotie and Hermitage – have a much greater reverence in our North American minds than the sunny appellations of the south. Many of us are stumped at being able to name more than one appellation and when it comes to telling the differences, most of us are at a loss. We’re in good company; however, as most of the local French I spoke to had a hard time describing the unique properties of their southern appellations. Names such as Cairanne and Rasteau may sound familiar, and so they should, but knowing that they refer to villages along the Rhône that represent unique features of the terroir may not be in your databank (perhaps they are and you are all the better for it). Therefore, ripe for discovery at prices that the north can’t beat, the appellations of the Southern Rhône can thrill, charm and excite.
Thanks to the newly renamed “Famille Perrin” brand, a full collection of Southern Rhône, appellation-specific wines are now all available in Ontario through Vintages. Using these examples, I’ve outlined some of the unique characters of five of the most revered appellation that often fall in the shadow of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Reviews of these wines and availability can be found here.
I was fortunate to have had to opportunity to sit down with proprietor Thomas Perrin who tasted through the complete portfolio of Perrin (all of which are available at LCBO/Vintages). The insight he imparted was tremendous. Out of respect for the limits of the reader’s attention span, I have outlined what I believe will be of greatest use. The following are descriptions of what you can expect sensorially from wines of these red-focused appellations.
Wines from this region grow on higher elevations on the slopes of the valley. This is where syrah thrives in the Southern Rhône due both to the cooler temperature influences and the rocky, gravely soil, which has a greater affinity to the varietal. Wines here tend to be spicy with great depth and intensity, much more akin to the unblended syrah wines of the Northern Rhône. Although grenache is still planted in large quantities on these slopes, a higher percentage of syrah is planted here in the vineyards of Perrin than other of the appellation series wines.
Vacqueyras is rich with sandy soils and is a region favored with excessive heat. Grenache reigns supreme here and makes up 80% of the blend. The wines of Vacqueyras tend to be more muscular and require more substantial food pairings. Although the wines of Vacqueyras lack some of the elegance and prestige of Gigondas, falling in the shadow of the latter’s greatness, terrific value can still be found in them, especially for those who appreciate a more powerful style of red.
After Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas is one of the most distinguished appellations of the Southern Rhône. Prices are generally just slightly less than those of Châteauneuf. Vineyards are located on the slopes of the valley on calcareous and clay-rich terraces and are subject to more significant wind, which temper the wines. Both power and freshness makes this a wine of great depth and finesse.
The vineyards of Cairanne are located on flat, hot ground or low altitude slopes and are made up of a significant amount of clay. Grenache thrives here and the wines are often bold, approachable and chewy. The wines of Cairanne typically have great character, generosity and are widely appealing.
Rasteau is perhaps the most rustic or wild of the southern appellations and often features a touch of volatility along with good levels of natural acidity but also very ripe flavours. Made almost entirely from grenache grown on clay and limestone rich hillsides, this appellation has only recently been elevated from village status to an AOC in its own right.
An Afternoon in Tavel
The region of Tavel, a 20 minute drive northwest of Avignon (that is if you make all the correct turns at the dizzying rond-points), is home to the world’s most famous rosés. And rosés are all you will find. This highly specialized appellation, almost directly across the Rhône from Châteauneuf-du-Pape, turns grenache, cinsault, syrah and mourvèdre into fragrant, dry and often ageworthy styles of rosé. Not only was Tavel preferred by the likes of Louis XIV and Balzac, but it is the beverage of choice for men and women of the region all summer long. Refreshing, revered and versatile with food, it is a tough beverage to compete with. However, don’t expect anything too cutting edge from Tavel. It stands quite heavily on its reputation, and its traditional style reigns supreme. That being said, it is a worthy trip and generally fairly open to tourists without necessitating appointments.
If you would like to try a sampling of Tavels from organic to award-winning as well as distinctive wines of the surrounding region of Lirac, the local cooperative that pools together the resources of 60 growers, produces a range of highly satisfying wines that will give you a great starting point. Also, if you’re travelling with kids who are surely not as passionate about the tasting bar as you, there is an indoor play area that is sure to occupy the little tikes long enough for a thorough dégustation. Unfortunately, we do not see these reasonably-priced example that often in the LCBO, but a couple of noteworthy examples currently available include:
Château D’aquéria Tavel Rosé 2011, Ac, Rhone, France, 319368, $18.95
One of the prettiest estates in the small region, Chateau d’Aqueria resides just on the village outskirts and is fortunately well marked and welcoming to visitors.
Famille Perrin Tavel Rosé 2011, Ac, Rhone, France, 680801, $19.95 In good supply this summer through Vintages, the Famille Perrin Tavel is a terrific and consistent example of this traditional and respected rosé.
The Fascinating Cosmos of Domaine Viret
Fascinated by the complex and seemingly mysterious wines of biodynamic culture? Then get ready for the latest viticultural and winemaking movement, that of ‘Cosmoculture’. A practice created and currently used exclusively by the wines of Domaine Viret, is located in the mountainous upper regions of the Southern Rhône. These wines are unlike anything you’ve ever tasted before.
Intrigued by an earlier report by my colleague, John Szabo, I set up an appointment with owner Philippe Viret (whose father began charting the course of Cosmoculture decades ago) and his export director, Christophe Mingeaud. Admittedly, I thought the guy would be, well, somewhat distracted from reality, but what I discovered was one of the most reasonable people I’d ever met.
The winery is located in what is known as the Drôme, the region surrounding and including the Dentelles de Montmirail mountains (they are the foothills of the highest, picturesque peak of Mont Ventoux), about an hour north of Avignon near the town of Vaison-la-Romaine. Although the vineyards have been in the family for several generations now, the winery was built in the mid-90’s and its location very carefully chosen, directly above a natural water source on the property. Philippe’s father was a water wizard by trade and became fascinated by the knots of energy created by water pressure in the ground. Much of the viticultural practices are based on the counterbalance of these pressure points.
After spending the better part of the day with Viret I was able to comprehend merely the tip of the iceberg of the philosophy and practices of Cosmoculture. I was therefore elated to find that Viret believes it takes about 10 years to develop a full comprehension of Cosmoculture as it relates to a particular site. I will attempt to provide a basic overview of these principles, as described by the winery.
Philippe and his father Alain have developed a theory based on ancient energetic fields existing on their property. While merging organic and biodynamic principles, Cosmoculture allows for the inclusion of bio-energetic principles in an attempt to balance, re-engergize and preserve existing ecosystems. Water is at the heart of these principles as it is the life sustaining force behind all organisms and living cells. The individual, or man, is a fundamental element in the sphere of Cosmoculture. Fields of telluric and cosmic energy link man, vegetation, and animals.
Sounds a little fanciful? If the careful attention to scientific method and the resulting wines of Domaine Viret are any indication, this practice is much more grounded, meticulous, perceptive and reasonable than its lofty description would have you believe.
Very well versed in the practices of biodynamic winemaking, the winery was certified for many years. Although Viret still has tremendous respect for the practice, several issues that were not addressed by biodynamic practices led him away from this strict application of preparations. Specifically, the Virets wanted to engage more rigorously with the scientific method, experimenting and studying to ensure that the preparations made sense for the needs of a particular site. Furthermore, biodynamic practices did not quite take into account the Viret’s particular interest in what they believe are the various fields of energy and internal pressure points of the vineyard. Although the Virets have trademarked the practice of Cosmoculture, it is not their intention to commercialize the practice. They are heavily involved in training local grape growers (as they buy from them for their entry level wines) and hope that those who come to train will benefit in some way from their strategies.
Instead of oak barrels, the mighty and ancient amphora vessel has long been used by Viret to age wine. Inspired by Sicilian tradition, Viret decided that these vessels would be well worth experimenting with in his winery, but was determined to do clay his way. The amphorae are now crafted by a local artisan in the nearby village and incorporate a small amount of local earth to make local, focal. However, due to the fact that the clay in the area doesn’t quite strike the right consistency or degree of porousness, (and much experimentation has been done), a large component of the clay comes from Burgundy. Viret has also played with the shape, enhancing the egg-shaped property of the vessel to adhere to the Golden Mean, a mathematically ‘divine’ proportion found naturally in the egg shape as well as the womb and some seeds. The value of this shape, from a wine-aging perspective anyway, is that the wine cools faster in the narrower top portion than in the wider bottom portion. The clay-cooled, denser wine sinks to the bottom, forcing the warmer liquid to rise through the center, achieving a continual cycle of energy, eliminating stagnation. This ‘golden’ shape is used throughout the winery strategically. These unique vessels are now in high demand throughout Europe, a side-effect of which is that Viret has become an amphora dealer of sorts.
Not all the wines are amphorae aged – some are aged and fermented in large oak containers called foudres, that are lined with cement. Cement tanks are preferred due to the naturally mineral content they impart. Mineral character and freshness are the driving forces behind the strikingly intense verve and energy in these wines and truly sets them apart from traditionally styled wines. Because natural acidity is limited in the grapes of this hot climate, heightened minerality is coaxed out the varietals in order to boost the acid levels and add freshness. The resulting wines have an ethereal electricity about them that is quite surprising and unusual.
The complex practices are too great to outline but have been carefully described by Philippe in a book on the practice that is near completion. But what is most immediately stunning are the visuals of the temple to wine that the Virets have built. I have already mentioned that the location of the winery was specifically chosen, but the materials used and the sheer grandeur of the edifice is quite remarkable. Once again, drawing on ancient tradition from Roman to Egyptian, over a thousand, large 6 tonne stones from the quarry that built the free-standing Roman aqueduct of the Pont du Guard, and cut on premises, make up the walls of this palace. The thick walls make for a naturally cool interior despite the searing heat of the exterior. Chambers for the larger amphora above ground exist already and the chambers for the smaller, buried amphora are currently under construction. A magnificent dining and presentation hall, an ingeniously curved wine cellar for library bottles, a state of the art kitchen, and a stunning terrace with a 360 degree view of the valley are either complete or very shortly on their way to being so.
So, if all you got out of this account is that these wines are, well, different and worth discoveries, then that’s all you need to know. A complete list of reviews of the wines of Viret, imported by Tannin Fine Wines, can be viewed here.
From celebrated, stalwart traditionalists to the innovative and avant-garde, the Southern Rhône is full of personalities and a terrific range of wines. With more to discover than can be imagined, there is never a dull moment when travelling to this aromatic and sunny part of the world. Luckily, these days, this diversity is in great part, available no further than the LCBO.