Postcard from Provence

A Vintage Preview plus a New Rhône Discovery Center
[Producers Hot and Bothered in the South of France]

by Sara d’Amato

Sara d'Amato

Sara d’Amato

By all accounts, 2017 has been a hot and dry growing season in the south of France. This is not uncommon and thus it is shaping up to be a relatively classic vintage with a slightly earlier harvest than the norm. The drought worries some producers more than others, especially those of southern Provence where no rain has fallen in over 3 months. The heat and drought of the south of France seems to have radiated over much of Europe, with Spain and northern Italy facing similar conditions. Bordeaux and Burgundy have also been exposed to the warmth associated with Provence and even much of the UK was basking in the sunshine until earlier this month.

As I write this now from Avignon in the southern Rhône, it is bright and sunny. After more than four weeks of stay there has been only a short “orage”, a tempestuous rainstorm, that lasted a mere five minutes. The gusty Mistral has only now provided cooling effect and its consequential drying action is not an issue in a season of drought. In fact, a Mistral, although can often cool, can also strip the moisture from plants that are struggling due to low water tables. Even the deep routed vines that make the best Châteauneuf-du-Pape struggle to find water in these conditions. Slightly lower yields and good concentration are expected in such a year.

When it is hot, bien sûr, more rosé is consumed. Thus the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins de Provence, the single focal point for winemakers of the southernmost rosé appellations, has reported that sales of the pink persuasion have been on the up-and-up in North American and in the UK this year. The aforementioned sweeping heat wave certainly helps matters. “Yes in the UK we love rosé” says our global correspondent, Jamie Goode, who is finally experiencing some relief from the heat this week in London.

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Veraision in CNDP July 29th, 2017

The annual “Fête de la Véraison” celebration in Châteauneuf-du-Pape from August 4-6th may have been a bit late this year. Veraison is the point at which green grapes turn red on the vines signalling the beginning of ripeness. This eagerly anticipated moment had a jumpstart this year, with veraison nearing completion in the appellation at the end of July.

A visit to Château La Nerthe in Châteauneuf-du-Pape confirmed that they were also feeling the heat with the mention that all was ready for an end of August harvest start. The estate’s south-facing vineyards on the higher plateaux of la Crau brimming with large ‘galet’ stones capture the sunshine most indulgently. This well represented producer in Ontario has been certified organic since 1998 and plants all 13 grape varietals permitted in the appellation. The expansive underground cellars of the Château dating back to the 16th century house cages of maturing wine belonging to many of the top restaurants of France – a recommended visit. Much like their neighbours, the 2016 blends are much anticipated.

Chateau la Nerthe Vines - 1

Chateau la Nerthe Vines

Of course, some disagreement among producers thus far as to an early harvest is to be expected. The southern Rhône’s differences in elevation and aspects leads to variances. For example, Clos des Tourelles in Gigondas, a member of the Perrin Family of wines, is anticipating a slightly early harvest, relates Inter Rhône’s Export Marketing Manager, Sabine Pradella. Although most producers are still expecting slightly lower yields and an early harvest, time will be the judge.

Travelling further south, along the Côtes d’Azur, a mere twenty minutes from the French Riviera outside of Fréjus, lies the beguiling property of Château du Rouët. The estate’s wild gardens, natural source driven fountain and village-esque series of homes was an indubitably sincere choice for Woody Allen to shoot his recent period film, Magic in the Moonlight. Here, the grapes were as red as can be last week and the source-forced fountain was a mere trickle. The family-owned Château of Rouët is one of only 6 wineries that make up the appellation of Côtes de Provence Fréjus. It makes a great effort to showcase local grape varieties such as tibouren and highlights the heat-seeking mourvèdre in its grenache-dominant blends. Rosé reigns here but the Château’s mineral-tinged, dry farmed reds are worth seeking out.

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Rouët trickle from source fountain

Expect a relatively classic vintage from 2017 in the southern Rhône and the rest of Provence on the heels of the more elegant vintage of 2015 and the textbook vintage of 2016 which has producers in the region all a-tingle.

The Rhône Valley Under One Roof

Today I was afforded a peek into the newly opened Le Carré du Palais – AOC Côtes du Rhône et Vallée du Rhône – bar à vins et bistrot. This discovery center for both the appellations of the northern and southern Rhône has been under construction for several years in the majestic, old Banque de France building which faces the Papal Palace in Avignon. If you want a taste of the whole valley, this is the place to go. Financed with Inter Rhône, the region’s AOC association of producers, the municipality and some private funding, this immense project is now up and running in time to greet the 100,000+ tourists in Avignon for the world’s largest theater festival. Inter Rhône is headquartered in Avignon and thus a terrific starting point to discover the wines of this vast and divergent valley.

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Le Carré du Palais AOC Rhone Discovery

The wine program is extensive and aims to offer 800 benchmark wine selections from the north, south, right and left banks. In addition, 50 wines by the glass are on offer at the self-serve enomatic-style wine bar with a rechargeable pass card. Each sub-region is represented from every wine producer member. Head sommelier Michaël Villechenoux has the minor task of fairly representing every Rhône appellation, satisfying all producers and collaborating with two of the regions top chefs.

Above ground, the modern wine tasting bar seats guests at tables shaped like individual Rhône appellations with hand painted maps. If in the mood for a bite, the extensive menu features only locally sourced foods and seasonal cuisine. Down below, in the old vault, is an expansive wine cellar, the “bank” of Rhône wines, if you will. Shipments are still arriving from each sub–region and the amount of selections is no more for large producers than small. Each winery has the opportunity to submit no more than one bottle from each appellation. A team of sommeliers and knowledgeable staff is on hand at all times to help curate your discovery process and help plan your visits to various wineries throughout the valley. As many wineries in the valley are open either by appointment only or keep seasonal hours, a stop at Le Carré du Palais is a terrific way to inform yourself and help plan your visit.

I look forward to sharing more when I return next week.