Archive for the ‘Appellation Controlee’ Category

Happy Birthday Nyons Olives, Happy Birthday to You

Tuesday, February 11th, 2014
A view over Nyons, with an olive tree in the immediate foreground and the silver-green leaves of the tops of further olive trees at the bottom of the picture.

A view over Nyons, with olive trees in the foreground.

Why Happy Birthday? After all, I’d be lying if I said I could pin down the date when the first olive trees were planted in Nyons. Nobody’s quite sure – perhaps it was the Greeks who introduced them over 2,000 years ago? If not the Greeks, then the Romans. But one thing’s for certain, 2014 marks several milestones:

Birthday No. 1: 20 years ago Nyons olives and olive oil were the first in France to be given “appellation d’origine contrôlée” status. Like the system used for French wine, the “AOC” recognises the special qualities of Nyons oil (“Unique in All the World”, as the local signs say) and the tanche variety used to make it.

In the olive groves above Nyons. This photo was taken in late October when this tree held a mixture of unripe green olives and some that had already turned purple and black.

October in the olive groves above Nyons. The olives (some still green) are two months away from being harvested.

Nyons olives sold loose in the market.

Prepared Nyons olives being sold in the market.

The olives are picked when black and fully ripe, after they’ve been softened and wrinkled by the first frosts, usually around New Year. The bigger olives are sold for eating; the late harvest helps to remove any bitterness, making them rich and savoury, with soft flesh underneath a firm skin – perfect as an aperitif. The smaller olives are pressed to make an Extra Virgin oil which is noticeably rounder and mellower than many other premium oils with their more peppery bite.

Oil from one of the many independent producers.

Oil from one of the small independent producers. Nyons oil is soft and buttery with a mild grassiness.

Sadly, as in all things, premium means expensive: you can expect to pay around 17€ per litre if you buy Nyons olive oil directly from a grower, but I’ve seen it advertised at 23$ for a bottle one quarter that size (250 ml, roughly 8½ fl.oz) in America. But then it’s an oil to be brought out for special occasions, not used to fry potatoes (although boy would they be good).

The growing of Nyons olives is dominated by small-scale farmers and local residents, many with just a few trees in their garden, most of whom are members the 1,100-member-strong growers’ co-operative, Vignolis, which takes its members’ crop and brines it whole for eating or crushes it for oil. The rest of the harvest is shared between the numerous private producers.

In the co-operative. The olives are kept in these stacked containers...

In the Vignolis co-operative. The olives are kept in these stacked containers…

...while the oil is kept in these spotless stainless steel tanks.

…while the oil is kept in these spotless stainless steel tanks.

There are 230,000 olive trees within the Nyons appellation. That may sound a lot, but the amount of oil made is still a drop in the ocean compared to some other parts of France, never mind Spain, which produces of 40% of the world’s olive oil.

Birthday No. 2: 30 years ago Nyons held its first annual “Alicoque” festival to celebrate the release of the new season’s olive oil.

Dancing in traditional local costumes.

Dancing at the Alicoque in traditional local costumes.

“Alicoque” comes from the name of  the traditional post-harvest supper taken by the pickers and oil mill workers. The festival, which takes place in late January/early February each year,  is a chance to taste the brand new oil poured onto a garlic-rubbed crouton but, almost as importantly, it’s also a chance to parade around the town in costume. Talking of which…

Birthday No. 3: 50 years ago the Confrérie des Chevaliers de l’Olivier (“Brotherhood of the Knights of the Olive Tree”) was formed.

The French love the chance to dress up. These are the Knights of the Olive Tree,

The French love to dress up – the Knights of the Olive Tree

There’s a certain type of French person (or should that be French man?) that loves an opportunity for a bit of dressing-up, but the Brotherhood was created with a more serious purpose in mind:

Nyons is on the climactic limit for commercially growing olives – any further north and they won’t ripen successfully, consistently. The long growing season this gives is part of what makes Nyons olives and oil so special. But being (relatively) far north has its disadvantages – the devastating winter freezes of 1929 and especially 1956 killed around three quarters of  Nyons’ 1 million olive trees and many growers contemplated pulling up those that had survived in order to plant hardier vines or fruit trees, particularly apricots. The Brotherhood brought together growers and helped to protect the local industry while it got back on its feet.

Selling oil on Alicoque day.

Selling oil on Alicoque day.

Obviously the best way to celebrate these anniversaries is by coming to Nyons and buying your olives and olive oil straight from the producer, perhaps taking the opportunity to sit outside a bar, nibble your delicious olives and sip a glass of chilled Côtes-du-Rhône rosé made in the vineyards that surround the town. But if that’s not possible, here are some stockists who may be a little more local:

You can buy Nyons oil and olives in America. Googling “Nyons olive oil” will do the trick, but you could start with Todaro Bros. in NYC – – who are currently selling 1 lb of olives for a very reasonable $6.98. From what I’ve seen, most of the oil available in the USA comes from the Vignolis co-operative and you can spot it by the “NYONSOLIVE” label. Prices vary significantly, so shop around. A few places sell Domaine Rocheville’s independently made oil.

It’s harder to track down either the oil or the olives in the UK. Neal’s Yard in Borough Market certainly used to sell the olives. The Ham and Cheese & Company, again at Borough market, but also, recently mentioned Nyons olives on their Facebook page. You could also try The Fresh Olive Company –

Wherever you are, happy hunting. And Happy Birthday.



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Sweets for My Sweet

Tuesday, August 13th, 2013

This year the village of Beaumes de Venise has been celebrating 70 years of appellation contrôlée status for its sweet muscat wines. To cap the festivities the roads of the village were closed for the weekend of 10th and 11th August and the winemakers flung open their cellar doors to allcomers. I was there with glass (and notepad, pen and camera) in hand.

A village fête is nothing without an oompah band.

The style of wine – rich, viscous, strong, sweet and headily aromatic – is unique in the Rhône Valley, although similar wines can be found along the French Med. coast in Rivesaltes and Frontignan (and elsewhere), and further afield in places like the Greek island of Samos. In France, they are called Vins Doux Naturels (Naturally Sweet Wines) because all the sweetness comes from sugar that has accumulated naturally in the grapes as they ripen. The alcohol level (15-16º), on the other hand, isn’t so natural. That comes from a splash of grape spirit that gets added to the wine when it is only partially fermented, raising the alcohol level high enough to kill off the yeast that would otherwise convert the remaining sugar into “natural” alcohol. It’s that unconverted sugar that gives the wine its sweetness.

As you might imagine, a lusciously sweet wine of 15.5º alcohol is not to be swigged by the pint. One glass before (if you’re French) or after (anglophones) a meal is probably enough for most people, which means that Muscat de Beaumes de Venise (MBdV) often comes out only when friends or family are visiting. But it’s worth knowing that you can often buy half bottles and that in any case an opened (but re-stoppered) bottle will keep in the fridge for a week or two without losing too much of its freshness.

A vineyard in Beaumes de Venise with the Dentelles in the background.

The French often suggest drinking muscat with melon. I prefer apple and apricot tarts of the French kind, but muscat can very happily be drunk by itself as an alternative to pudding. Lots of producers also recommend pairing muscat with blue cheeses and foie gras (although not together). For me, the style is too obviously fruity and/or floral to work with more savoury food – leave that to the Sauternes. Muscat is hedonistic, yes, but doesn’t (or at least shouldn’t) take itself that seriously.

There is also a far younger, separate appellation for dry red BdV, which was given “Cru” status with effect from the 2004 vintage, theoretically putting it on the same level as Châteauneuf-du-Pape or Hermitage. But with a few honourable exceptions, the wines just don’t justify their promotion from “named” Côtes du Rhône Villages standard. Even at a more local level, it is hard to understand why BdV was promoted ahead of the village of Cairanne, where there any number of good red wines.

Here are my notes on the muscats and (where they warrant it) the reds that I tasted. There are some notable omissions – the BdV growers’ co-operative’s wines haven’t been reviewed despite the fact that it is by far the biggest producer of the muscat and therefore the producer whose wines you are most likely to see outside France. You’ll just have to take my word for it that the co-op is extremely competent and the muscat wines good examples of their type (I still don’t like their reds though). Most of the estates making red BdV but not muscat weren’t at the fête, so haven’t been mentioned. You shouldn’t read anything into their absence.

Domaine Beauvalcinte “Les Trois Amours” BdV Rouge 2010

One of the few “no muscat” estates to turn up. This is a warm, spicy, red fruits and herbs blend of grenache, syrah, mourvedre, counoise and cinsaut.

Domaine Beauvalcinte red

Domaine des Bernardins Muscat de BdV 2012

Not the most aromatic at the moment – expect it to get more exotic over the next year – but there’s clean, bright grapefruit on the nose and the palate has weight and richness. The flavour spectrum is gewurztraminer-like, with rose petal and plenty of orange peel/confit. A good, clean, non-cloying finish. Excellent muscat. Available in the UK, USA and Australia – follow this link to to find out your local stockist.

Domaine des Bernardins Muscat

Domaine MathiFlo Muscat de BdV 2012

Very pale. Both the nose and the palate share a simple, slightly syrupy sweetness and not much else. Although again the finish is bright and fresh.

Domaine MathiFlo

Domaine de Durban Muscat de BdV 2010

Exotically perfumed and the palate has great balance between rich sweetness and crisp acidity. Very clean cut. Honey and citrus. Very good. Probably my favourite of the day. Available in the UK and at plenty of  USA merchants.

The red is pretty decent, too, without reaching the heights.

Domaine de Durban – one of the best muscats.

Domaine l’Arche des Garances BdV Rouge 2012

The first red that made me sit up and take notice and it remained the best I tasted all day. For once, it was a red with a spark of life and personality – it felt like living wine. It does have a whiff of the farmyard – I suspect there’s a fair bit of syrah here – although it’s not aggressive and it should fade with a bit of ageing. More importantly, this organic red has richness and concentration, with lots of peppery black fruit. I didn’t know this estate at all, but clearly one to watch.

Claude Pleindoux (“Fullsweet” in English). How appropriate.

Domaine l’Arche des Garances Muscat de BdV 2012

It doesn’t stand out in the same way as the red, but the balance of sweetness and acidity, freshness and weight, is good. Nicely aromatic, too. Overall, a real find so it’s a shame I can’t find the estate’s wines on the export market.

Domaine St Roch Muscat de BdV

No mention of a vintage on this one, but the pale colour and floral aromatics make me think it must be a 2012. At the lighter end of the muscat spectrum. Rose, orange flowerand (especially) quince.

Stéphanie with her Domaine St Roch muscat

Domaine de Fenouillet “Terres Blanches” BdV Rouge 2011

The cheapest of 3 red blends on show and the only one I tasted. Hurrah! It tastes like proper red wine. Dark fruit and a bit gamy/meaty/tarry. I would have guessed at some carignan in the blend, but it seems not – just the usual grenache, syrah, mourvedre. Not exactly happy-go-lucky (despite being described as “easy-drinking”), but it is concentrated and only 8€ or so.

A good range at Fenouillet

Domaine de Fenouillet Muscat de BdV 2011

There’s more than one type of muscat at Fenouillet. And the little girl who can hardly see over the counter was pouring – Rhone producers like to keep it in the family.

Straw gold colour. Apricots and mango on the nose. Just slightly too sweet for my taste – I preferred a 2010 I drank recently, which seemed less so – but this is a real crowd-pleaser.

Both reds and muscat are available in America and the UK.

Chateau Saint Sauveur BdV Rouge 2010

The first signs of maturity on the nose. It smells warm and garrigue-y, with the herbal aromas of southern France. Then there’s a wave of ripe grenache red fruit flavours with soft, round tannins. To drink now with pleasure.

St Sauveur muscat, red and rosé

Chateau Saint Sauveur “Cuvée des Moines” Muscat de BdV 2010

A distinctive nose that mixes lemon meringue and something herbal, verveine or lime flower perhaps. On the palate, too, that citrus side comes through, so that the sweetness is balanced by good acidity. My tasting note said “yum”.

According to wine-searcher, Killer Wine Deals in California sells the 2009. They don’t exactly sound like Berry Brothers.

Domaine La Ligière Muscat de BdV 2011

La Ligière muscat

This has a slightly bitter, pithy edge, like taking the white as well as the zest off an orange. Not my cup of tea, but if it sounds like yours you can pick it up in the USA.

Domaine Pierre Rougon (Font Sante) Muscat de BdV 2012

The muscat tasted was the 2012 in the middle. There is also a rather richer 2010 (right) bottled under the Font Sante label.

A fresh, almost delicate style that recalls flowers and ripe melon. Not as rich or sweet as some, but a nice balance for those who prefer a lighter style. Available in the UK and USA.

Domaine Bouletin Muscat de BdV 2011

Floral and easy to enjoy, but fairly one dimensional. Available at Ross Duke in Melbourne.

A busy stand at Bouletin.

Domaine de la Pierre du Coq Muscat de BdV 2012

Domaine de la Pierre du Coq

Nice acidity, but I smell a touch of nail varnish remover which mars an otherwise fresh, clean style.

Other omissions: most notably the excellent muscats of Domaines Beaumalric, but I know those well as I work with the estate, and the co-ops of Gigondas and Vacqueyras (only because I work with family-owned wineries and so concentrate on those at tastings). Beaumalric’s wines you can buy in Australia, UK and USA. I also skipped Domaine Rosemarry’s muscat after not liking their red at all; Domaine Alain Ignace I somehow managed to miss, although others like it; Domaine Richard, simply because it was out of the way and I was fagged out after 3 hours in the hot sun. Not professional, I know, but honest.



Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours and one of the longer ones at that. There are plenty of other things to read here and lots of much shorter pieces on our Facebook page. There’s also the website itself, where there are winemaker profiles and suggestions for things to do in the region. Please have a look around.








There’s Wine In Them Thar Hills

Friday, August 9th, 2013

I recently (foolishly?) found myself hosting a bilingual wine tasting for 30+ people in my home town of Nyons. It was July 14, Bastille Day, and the day the Tour de France came through town on the way to that day’s finish line on top of Mont Ventoux. As this year also happens to be the 100th anniversary of the Tour, it was all quite a big event (I’m talking about the Tour here, but I believe the tasting almost overshadowed it).

The second biggest event in Nyons on 14 July

The theme for the tasting was the route of that day’s stage of the Tour, which started in the town of Givors before crossing the Rhône and heading south past the town of Crest and on to Ventoux. The idea was that, as far as possible, the wines would come from the towns and villages along the route. Well that caused a bit of a problem from the start: as far as I knew there was no wine made in Givors itself, but happily Condrieu is just a few miles down the road and that gave us an excuse to start with Philippe Verzier’s lovely Viognier 2012.

Philippe Verzier in his cellar. It was his 2012 Viognier that I used for the Big Event.

But if only I’d looked a little harder I would have found a Givors wine right under my nose: Xavier Gérard, Rhône Wine Tours other Condrieu producer, makes wine from the last parcel of vines growing in the town. Or, to be more precise, on the hillside overlooking the town – Montée des Autrichiens. There on the steep, south-facing slope he grows 0.3ha (about three quarters of an acre) of gamay which was passed to him by his grandfather.

In the vineyards with Xavier

As the vineyard isn’t within any existing appellation it is sold as a simple Vin de France, but it could certainly teach many Beaujolais producers, responsible for most of France’s gamay, a lesson or two. Vinified in the northern Rhône style – traditional fermentation and barrel ageing – it is a deeper, more structured wine than almost all Beaujolais (grown on just the other side of Lyon) but it keeps plenty of juicy fruit. The current 2010 vintage is on fine form. It costs 7,80€, but that’s of dubious interest unless you happen to visit Xavier’s estate as all sales are at the cellar door (which, of course, you can visit through Rhône Wine Tours!).

The wine itself – from the last remaining vines in Givors.

You might ask why I hadn’t realised this before. Well, I can only explain that the first time I tasted the wine was a week after the Nyons tasting – production is tiny and Xavier has never been able to show me the wine before. I knew of the theoretical existence of his gamay, but didn’t actually know that the vines were in Givors.

As it happens, it wouldn’t have been the right wine with which to start a tasting – on a hot evening a cool white was much appreciated – but it does show that in France there are little, forgotten islands of winemaking (and often skilled winemaking at that) which keep alive an old heritage that has almost disappeared. If you’re travelling to France and you’re interested in wine, I urge you to seek them out. A bit of internet searching and a willingness to get off the beaten track are often all that’s required.



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Vines and Wine in Paris

Saturday, April 20th, 2013

Paris has a host of fantastic wine shops, and it’s no surprise that there’s a bunch of great wine bars (see below), but did you know that in and around Paris, in the Île de France region, there are 130+ vineyards? Ok, so some of them are on the small side – 150 vines here, 300 there – and as far as I know only one produces wine commercially, but at least it’s a step on the road to reclaiming at least a little of Paris’s long winemaking history.

January in Paris. Looking through the vines to the Eiffel Tower

A Brief History

For 2,000 years, until the early 1800s, Paris was surrounded by vineyards. But the advent of the train in the middle of the 19th century dealt them a series of blows. First, the tracks cut their way through the vines, then the subsequent urbanisation of the outer arrondissements and surrounding countryside covered much of the remaining vineyard land. Finally, to rub salt into the wound, the trains gave access to cheaper (and more alcoholic) wines from southern France.

Rue des Morillons in the 15th arrondissement in Paris, named after the Clos des Morillons vineyard which once existed in the Vaugirard district. Morillon is an old grape name.

Until the trains came, Paris, like everywhere else, drank what was made locally. And such was Paris’s thirst, Île de France was one of the largest wine producing regions in France. In 1808 there were around 42,000ha  (roughly 100,000 acres) of vineyard land. Argenteuil, just to the west of the city, was considered a “premier cru” and also the “première vignoble de France”, with 60% of the commune’s 1,700ha given over to grape growing. But once wine could be shipped easily from the hot Midi, where huge harvests of grapes would ripen reliably and cheaply year in year out, there was little need for Parisian wine, especially not the thin, acidic plonk produced for the guingette taverns outside the city limits. By 1900, Île de France’s vineyard area had shrunk to 12,000ha, or roughly ¼ of the figure of a century earlier. Even more dramatically, the commune of Issy-les-Moulineaux, just beyond the city walls, had produced 650,000 litres of wine in 1840, equivalent to 860,000 bottles, but in 1884 it could produce only 5,300 bottles worth.

Come the 1930s there were only 350ha of productive vineyards in the Île de France, less than 1% of the 1808 figure. With the exception of a few hectares at the extreme east of the region entitled to the Champagne appellation, proper commercial production petered out shortly after the second world war – the Paris suburb of Clamart hung on to a vestige of its old vineyards until the early 1960s, but that, finally, was it.


Some people felt the loss of Paris’s “patrimoine” keenly and decided to do something about it. The first, and most famous, of Paris’s “new” vineyards was established in Montmartre in 1933 at the instigation of  local artist Francisque Poulbot. Unlike the once-celebrated “Goutte d’Or” vineyard which was planted to the east of Montmartre, the new vineyard is on the north-facing slope of the hill, looking away from the sun, so its grapes struggle to ripen in Paris’s northerly climate. But that doesn’t stop the harvest festivities being celebrated each year.

The vineyard in Suresnes, to the west of the city centre.

On the other hand, the largest new Paris vineyard – 1½ ha (roughly 4 acres) at Suresnes – faces south-east on the slope of Mont Valerien, overlooking the Bois de Boulogne and the Eiffel Tower. The mixture of chardonnay and sauvignon blanc gives a wine that could be generously described as Chablis-like. You can even buy Suresnes wine at the local tourist office.

I bought a bottle

If you’re staying in Paris and would like to visit a vineyard here’s a list of easy-to-reach sites:

Montmartre (18e) – mostly gamay and  pinot noir but many other varieties planted at the junction of Rue St-Vincent and Rue des Saules.

Clignancourt (18e) – surely the oddest of Paris’s “vineyards”: 32 mansois and négrette vines planted on the embankment of a former railway line near Porte de Clignancourt, not far from the Montmartre plot.

Belleville (20e) – The Vigne du Parc in trendy Belleville is made up of just 140 chardonnay and pinot meunier vines, but is planted on the site of a monks’ vineyard that covered 15ha in the 13th century. The vines are at the Rue Piat side of the park.

The vines on a wintry day in Parc George Brassens

Vaugirard (15e) – Vigne du Parc George Brassens – 720 pinot noir, pinot meunier and perlette vines, plus some chasselas for table grapes. At one time Vaugirard had extensive vineyards with names like Clos des Morillons and Clos des Périchots, both of which have given their names to local roads. The plot is at the southern end of the park.

Bercy (13e) – The quai at Bercy was Paris’s wine warehouse. Now the park has a small chardonnay/sauvignon blanc vineyard and a large trellis for table grapes.

And skirting round the western fringes of the city there’s a chain of further vineyards:

The vineyard at Suresnes

Suresnes  – chardonnay and sauvignon blanc at Rue du Pas St-Maurice, Suresnes, just to the west of the city (see above for more information).

Rueil-Malmaison – two plots not far from the Suresnes vineyard.  The first consists of  750 sauvignon blanc vines in Rue Cuvier, the second another 150 sauvignon in Rue du 19 janvier. Local street names such as Rue des Bons-Raisins and Chemin des Vignes attest to the area’s wine history.

Clamart – there are two Clamart wines: Clos Franquet comes from a small vineyard planted with semillon in Rue Pierre Franquet and Clos de Clamart is made from a mix of pinot noir, gamay, chasselas, muscat and baco planted in small plots, or even as single vines, around Clamart.

Courbevoie – 500 semillon vines planted in the Parc de Bécon, close to La Défence. And at La Défense itself, a further 700 chardonnay and pinot noir vines in the Clos de Chantecoq overlooking the A14 road tunnel. Romantic it isn’t.

Issy-les-Moulineaux – Chemin des Vignes, 113bis Avenue de Verdun. Chardonnay and pinot gris, or as they call it pinot beurot. Local schoolchildren help with the harvest.

Bagneux – 760 sauvignon and semillon vines planted on Rue de la Lisette.

And if you prefer to trawl the shelves rather than tramp the streets, here are a few of my favourite wine shops:

La Cave de l’Insolite – 30 Rue de la Folie-Mericourt (11e). A haven for “natural”, organic and biodynamic wines. But more importantly, the wines are interesting and well-chosen. One word of warning: since I last went the shop has become a shop and wine bar, and it appears that tables have taken over some of the room used for displaying wine. On the other hand, it looks a very nice bar à vin.

Specialising in organic, biodynamic and “natural” wines

Bacchus et Ariane – 4 Rue Lobineau (6e). A small shop in the covered market at St. Germain. Last time I went they had a nice selection of grower champagnes including Cédric Bouchard, Jacques Lassaigne and Larmandier-Bernier.

Lavinia – 3 Boulevard de la Madeleine (1e). Apparently the largest wine shop in Europe with 3 floors and several thousand wines and sprits. It’s not homely, but just about everything you could want is here.

And if you just want to grab a glass, here are a couple of suggestions:

Le Verre Volé – 67 Rue de Lancry (10e). Like “Insolite” above, another natural wine specialist. Make sure you go to Rue de Lancry if you want to sit down – the branch on Oberkampf is a wine shop only.

Le Baron Rouge – 1 Rue Theophile Roussel (12e). An institution. Bustling, lively, wines served from barrels, customers tucking into cheeses and oysters.

I hope you’re inspired. If not to go to a Parisien vineyard, then at least to visit Paris.

Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours. While we don’t offer tours of Paris (although I could always be tempted if the price was right) we do have a rather fine selection of private tours and tastings in the Rhône. Go to our website if you want to know more. And we dabble in the social media too: bits and pieces are posted on Facebook and Twitter now and again should you fancy following us.






Brézème – The Wine that Time (Almost) Forgot

Tuesday, February 12th, 2013

This is the story of a small wine region with a long history, a rocky past and a bright future.

I first drank a wine from Brézème maybe 7 or 8 years ago. It was made by a winemaker called Jean-Marie Lombard and I bought it because I’d been intrigued by the story of how he’d almost single-handedly saved this small wine region at the bottom of the northern Rhône. The wine, I think it may have been Jean-Marie’s Vin de Pays syrah, was pretty good.

Jean-Marie Lombard. Admittedly not the most flattering of shots.

In 2007, I went looking for Jean-Marie’s estate. The address seemed a bit vague, but I knew the domaine was near the small town of Livron and I assumed I’d easily spot it  – after all, I was used to visiting Rhône vineyards and seeing large signs on the side of the road advertising the vineyard owner’s wares. The only problem was that once I got to Livron I couldn’t find any vineyards, never mind Jean-Marie’s. I drove up the hill into the old town, I got blank stares when I asked for directions in the railway station, I couldn’t even find any Brézème wine in a local convenience store.

A Brézème vineyard on the slope of the ridge overlooking the Drôme river. It took some tracking down.

I finally found a vineyard or two when I took a small country road towards Allex, the next village along the Drôme valley. That didn’t really help, however, as there were no indications of who owned the vines or where I might be able to taste the wine. By this stage I’d given up hope of finding the Lombard estate, but I knew that a certain Château La Rolière also made Brézème wine. And as there seemed to be a large house with grounds in the distance, I set of in that direction. Men working near the house didn’t know anything about Brézème, but after coming this far that wasn’t going to be enough to stop me. On the other hand, the large “Private Property – Keep Out” signs weren’t the invitation I’d been looking for. I accepted defeat.

Four years later, I finally made it to Domaine Lombard. (It’s probably worth mentioning, in case you think I’m a bit dim, that out in the wilds of France addresses frequently don’t use road names or house numbers. Postcodes, which in the UK can pin your address down to within a few homes, often cover whole towns.) Jean-Marie poured the wine and explained a bit of the history of Brézème. It seems that up until the 1800s, the region had extensive vineyards and that merchants could sell the wine at a higher price than that of Crozes-Hermitage or St. Joseph. In fact, of all the local wines, prices were second only to Hermitage itself. But then in the late 1800s/early 1900s a series of disasters struck – mildew arrived; the phylloxera louse killed 95% of the vines; and finally the first world war took the men and animals that tended the vineyards off to the battlefields. Many never came back.

The main wine regions of the Rhône valley. Brézème is in the middle where the Drôme river meets the Rhône.

The Drôme valley had always been an extensive fruit-growing area – cherries and apricots in particular – and many farmers found it easier to give up grape growing for the easier returns of stone fruit. Viticulture continued – Brézème was granted its own, unique appellation contrôlée, “Côtes du Rhône Brézème”, in 1943 – but by the early 1970s, when Jean-Marie took over the running of the family estate from his father, there was around 1ha (2½ acres) of vineyard shared between the Lombards, who owned ¼ha, and one other grower.

Jean-Marie didn’t let that put him off. He planted more vines and slowly the estate grew. In the late 1970s the world-famous Hermitage winemaker Gérard Chave tasted Jean-Marie’s wine and pronounced it good. From then on Jean-Marie didn’t look back. In French wine circles he became “Mr Brézème”, raising the profile of the region as a whole and so encouraging other hardy growers to set up. By 2012 Brézème’s vineyards covered around 33ha (including some vin de pays vineyards) of which roughly a quarter belonged to the Lombard estate. A massive growth, undoubtedly, but still there are a few English wine estates which on their own are larger than the combined Brézème vineyards.

Emmanuelle and Julien Montagnon, the new owners of Domaine Lombard

And now for a new chapter begins. Jean-Marie retired in September 2012, but the estate (still called Domaine Lombard) is now in the expert hands of Julien and Emmanuelle Montagnon, who previously had their own estate in Roussillon and are great winemakers in their own right (I know, I’ve tasted their wine). Julien was originally from around Livron and wanted to return to his home region, so the fit was perfect.

Julien made the 2011 vintage alongside Jean-Marie so knows the house style inside out. He reckons that any changes he and Emmanuelle make now they’re in sole charge will be gradual and subtle – maybe a move to organic farming, which they practiced in Roussillon, and a slight lowering of yields. I think they’re worthy guardians.

Here are some brief tasting notes from a recent visit:

Viognier 2011, Vin de Pays de la Drôme

Lombard Viognier 2011

A more understated style than some, but true viognier flavour. Juicy, ripe pear fruit.

Brézème blanc 2011

Marsanne, viognier and a little roussanne. Cream and orchard fruits. Yellow plum. Richness on the palate. Delicious.

Brézème “Castrum Liberonis” blanc 2009

100% marsanne. Honeyed nose. Palate is dry, rich, ripe but mineral underneath. Spent 2 years in barrel. Powerful and full.

Brézème “Castrum Liberonis” blanc 2010

Tasted from tank. This had spent one year in barrel, one in tank. The overall style and concentration were similar to the ’09, but cutting back the oak ageing had given this the edge on freshness and purity.

Brézème “Grand Chêne” rouge 2010

100% syrah and definitely northern Rhône in style. Around 10 months in older oak barrels. Quite farmyardy but lovely red fruit too.

Brézème “Eugène de Monicault” rouge 2010

Lombard “Eugène de Monicault”

This spends two months longer in barrel than the regular bottling. Not a hint of farmyard on this one. My notes say “Delicious! Bright, ripe but delineated and pure”.

Brézème “Castrum Liberonis” rouge 2009

More muscle, more sinew, more mineral but less fruit showing. Concentrated and structured. Iron fist in a velvet glove.

If you would like to taste wine with Julien at the estate contact Rhône Wine Tours.

Other producers

Apart from Domaine Lombard, there’s a handful of independent producers, one negociant and a co-operative. Of those, I’ve tasted the wine of one other independent and the co-operative:

Luc Pouchoulin Brézème Blanc 2009

Last tasted September 2011. 90% roussanne, 10% viognier. Talc-like aromas that make the wine seem slightly confected. My notes said “tart’s boudoir”, which isn’t a huge compliment.

Luc Pouchoulin “Cuvée Tradition” Brézème Rouge 2009

Last tasted September 2011. A high-acid, peppery syrah that, for me, shows too much herbaceous character. Which was a bit of a surprise given the vintage.

Cave de la Valdaine Brézème Rouge 2010

Cave de la Valdaine’s “regular” Brézème. There’s an oak aged cuvée too.

If I had to make comparisons with other northern Rhône districts, I’d say that the Lombard wines resemble Cornas and St.Péray, whereas the Valdaine wine is similar to a simple, easy-going Crozes-Hermitage cuvée. Aromas of blueberry, bramble and white pepper with flavours of cherry, cola-cubes (does that age me?) and more pepper. Supple and juicy, rather than concentrated. Nothing complicated, but enjoyable enough.

Éric Texier is the negociant. I’ve not tasted his wine, but there’s a very good piece by Jamie Goode (Wine Anorak) which rates them very highly. It also says that although Texier is a negociant, buying grapes from growers as far apart as Macon and Châteauneuf-du-Pape to make wine under his own name, his Brézème actually comes from vineyards he owns, including a plot 60+ years old.


If you want to taste the Lombard wine in the UK – and you should – you will need to get in touch with Yapp Brothers, which has some of the best northern Rhône producers in its line-up – Chave, Vernay, Clape, to name but a few – as well as more affordable bottles.

As far as I can tell, you won’t find the Lombard wines in  the USA. But Éric Texier’s wines are available at numerous specialist wine merchants. My advise is to go to wine searcher, type in Brezeme (you don’t need the accents), pop in your state name and see who comes up. But special mention must go to Astor Wines & Spirits in New York City which sells not only Texier’s wines but also the Brézème of Charles Helfenbein, one of the other independents. Two Brézèmes is surely a sign of either deep passion or madness.

Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours, where every fortnight or so we come out with a new piece and try to see just how obscure a subject we can come up with. Your comments are welcomed, as are suggestions for future blogs. And while you’re at it, why not follow us on Twitter and/or Facebook. And if you really want to push the boat out, go to the website – – where you will find some of the finest, best value tours and tastings around.






The Other Rhône – Vins Genevois

Wednesday, February 6th, 2013

Not all the wine regions on the banks of the Rhône are French. The river actually starts in the Valais region of Switzerland (where Mike and John Favre produce their superb “St Pierre” petite arvine) before flowing into Lac Leman and then popping out the other side in Geneva. From there it flows for a few short kilometres through the vineyards of the city’s suburbs before crossing the Swiss/French border into Savoie.

I’ve been drinking a lot of Genevan wine lately, which is surprising when you consider that I’m surrounded by vineyards where I live in the Côtes du Rhône. It’s true that Genevan wines have something different about them, not least a handful of unusual grape varieties, but that in itself wouldn’t be enough. My biggest discovery has been their overall quality.

The Vineyards of Geneva

Travelling north west from Geneva’s city centre (marked in yellow above) you hit the airport, literally right on the border, but go in any other direction and you’ll find vineyards. Some of the main wine producing communes/villages (red dots) are shown , but there are plenty of others and all within a few minutes drive.

The vineyards at Landecy. The point at which the slope of vines stops and the field begins is the Switzerland/ France border.

White wine

As far as white grapes are concerned, Chasselas is quantitive king. It’s importance has shrunk over the last 15 years, but it still makes up around 30% of the total grape harvest, black grapes included. If only its quality merited such large scale planting. I’m sure there is great Genevan chasselas, I just haven’t tasted it yet. All of  them have been perfectly drinkable – I’ve never had one that was actively unpleasant – but, being kind, you’d have to say that a forceful personality was not their strong point.  Being less kind, you could say they tend towards the bland end of the spectrum, like a Swiss version of cheap pinot grigio.

Domaine de Paradis Chasselas from Satigny. Believe me, I’m not picking on this one in particular…


…or this one. Le Clos de Céligny Chasselas.

The other main white grapes are a more interesting mix largely influenced by neighbouring eastern France – chardonnay, pinots blanc and gris, aligoté, sauvignon blanc, gewürztraminer and viognier are all grown. At one time, the vineyard area given over to (German) müller-thurgau was second only to chasselas, but thankfully (it’s not much better) it has slipped back to around 5th place.

Red wine

Gamay dominates Genevan red wine with 60% of the total production. Pinot noir is second and the traditional Bordeaux grapes – cabernet sauvignon, cab franc and merlot – are all in the top ten. But third and fourth spots are taken by Swiss-only grapes, Gamaret and Garanoir, both crossings of gamay (there it is again) and reichensteiner developed specially for the Swiss climate.

Gamay, gamaret and garanoir, aged at least partly in barrel, make up main constituent parts of a style of red called “Esprit de Genève”, which is intended to be a standard bearer for the canton’s wines. No matter who makes an “Esprit” wine, and there were 15 producers who made a 2010 vintage, they all use a similar front label so that there’s consistent branding.

The Esprit de Genève 2010 of Cave de Sézenove. With my nice Ikea rug as the background.

One of the things I’ve found interesting is that many of the reds have a distinct family relationship, at least in terms of structure and texture if not flavour, with certain syrahs from the northern Rhône, despite the cooler climate, the different “terroir” – mostly glacial deposits compared to largely granite – and, obviously, the different grapes. I’m not saying that there are Swiss Côte-Rôties, but you can draw comparisons with some of the softer, less weighty St Josephs and Croze-Hermitages.

Here are some selected tasting notes, hopefully representative but by no means exhaustive.

Domaine des Curiades, Lully

Curiades is run by brothers Jacques and Christophe Dupraz and  is the most consistently good of the producers I have tasted. My one slight issue would be their love of oak, but that’s my prejudice. The wines aren’t unbalanced by too much oak, but I think they’d be just as good, and maybe a bit less “international”, with a bit less. The Coteau de Lully vineyards dominate an impressive hillside position.

Two of Curiade’s wines – the Viognier 2010 and the Marquis de Coudrée 2011

Esprit de Genève 2010

60% gamay, 40% gamaret, all oak aged. Still a young, rich purple colour. It mixes flavours of black forest gateau and black cherry compote with something more medicinal (Germolone to be exact). Soft, ripe and mid-weight.

Marquis de Coudrée 2011

Smelling this immediately made me think of cabernet franc, which in fact only makes up around 15% of the blend. There’s 80% merlot and the balance is cabernet sauvignon. There’s germolene (again) but with juicy raspberries and kirsch.

Viognier 2010

An extremely classy viognier that plays to the floral – parma violet and lavender – side of the grape. Richness without heaviness. It hasn’t got the opulence of the 2009, but I’ve had Condrieu that isn’t as good.

Cave de Sézenove, Sézenove

Claude and Jacques Bocquet-Thonnay’s winery is in Sézenove. But like Domaine des Curiades, their 6.5ha of vineyards are on Lully’s south east-facing slopes, great for exposure to the sun and protection from cold winds.

Esprit de Genève 2010

50% gamay, 20% merlot, plus 20% gamaret and 10% garanoir, both oak aged. This isn’t as dense as the Curiades’ “Esprit”, more cru Beaujolais than Rhône syrah, and the oak is less pronounced. It mixes brambles, blueberry and a slight leafiness with plenty of white pepper spice. Juicy and refreshing. Perfect with a plate of charcuterie.

Cave de Genève, Satigny

Although the Cave is in Satigny, the forty plus members of this co-operative are spread over more than twenty villages, between them growing 27 different grape varieties.

Infini and Rue des Belles-Filles by Cave de Geneve

Rue des Belles-Filles Cabernet Franc 2011

Feels a bit like a sulky teenager. Leave it another six months to a year, by which time is should have become softer and a bit more outgoing. For what it’s worth, at the moment there are aromas of black friuts – cherry, blackcurrant – cinammon and wet clay. It’s structure is more Friuli cab franc than Loire. There’s also some bitterness on the finish, an almost saline/campari/charcoal element, which I suspect some people will like more than me.

Infini 2010

Also on the young side – a deep purple blend of oak aged cabernet sauvignon and garanoir. The nose recalls black fruits, smoke, firesides, licorice, leaf tea (lapsang?), dark cellars. That and the somewhat stern palate (another year should help) make the wine seem closer to Piemonte than anything from Bordeaux or Napa.

Christian Guyot, Bernex

Christian’s vines are spread across Lully, Laconnex and Soral. He makes the Genevan red wine I have enjoyed more than any other – Trois Helvètes 2009 – but I’ll tell you now it wasn’t the most consistent wine. Of the six bottles I’ve drunk over as many months, a couple were massively “reduced” and stinky. The smell largely disappeared with a bit of breathing or a copper coin, but never went completely. As a lover of northern Rhône syrah, Burgundy pinot noir and Bandol, I don’t have a problem with a bit of animal funkiness but others who drank it with me were more concerned. The other four bottles were full of personality and juicy fruit. Trois Helvètes is a diolinoir, garanoir, galotta blend. But if I tell you that diolinoir was created by crossing pinot noir and rouge de diolly and that galotta is a gamay/ancelotta cross, I suspect you won’t be greatly enlightened.

The current vintage is the 2010, which I haven’t tasted. But Christian’s was voted the best 2010 Esprit de Genève, so that should promise well for the TH. He also grows tempranillo, the Rioja grape. You’ve got to admire his climactic optimism.

Domaine du Centaure, Dardagny

Claude Ramu’s estate covers 18ha on a gentle slope in Dardagny. In addition to the usual suspects, he grows Cabernet Dorsa (a cab sauv/dornfelder cross), Findling, Kerner and Scheurebe, so leans more towards German varieties than some of his collegues.

Les Eliades Scheurebe 2010

Les Eliades Scheurebe 2010

A bright, zesty, intensely grapefruity, off-dry scheurebe; its crisp acidity would make it ideal as an aperitif. I drank it in Geneva with a (very good) selection of sushi and it was just the ticket.


Now here’s the problem, or actually two. First, not a single wine I’ve mentioned in this blog appears to be sold in America and only the (Valais) petite arvine of the Favre brothers and the chasselas of Domaine du Paradis (pictured but not really reviewed) can be bought in the UK. Second, the pricing can sometimes be a bit “ambitious”, to say the least. Genevan producers have a captive, wealthy market on their doorstep that will drink all they produce at almost any price. Unless you’re a particularly farsighted winemaker, there’s not much incentive to lower your prices to be able to compete on foreign markets. But here are some people who can maybe help:


Online UK wine merchant Nick Dobson sells the wines of Abeilles d’Or and Domaine du Paradis, both based in Geneva. So if you fancy something specifically Genevois, he’s your man. Theatre of Wine and Bottle Apostle both sell that lovely petite arvine in London. And the Favres’ UK agent, For the Love of Wine, will undoubtedly be willing to tell you wherelse you can buy that and any other wines on their extensive Swiss list. Click on their names to go to their websites.


Swiss Cellars in Wisconsin has one Genevan wine (hurrah!) as well as numerous wines from the Favres (but not that wine) and from other regions. Their wines are available in selected states. Weimax Wines and Spirits in California has a decent range of (non-Genevan) Swiss wines.

Despite the difficulty in getting hold of Swiss wine, and despite their “high end” prices, I urge you to give them a go. They have more than curiosity value on their side.



Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours where I discuss wine, food and the Rhône Valley. But rarely all at once, and sometimes not at all if something else takes my fancy. There is plenty of Rhône wine related stuff on our website – – and you don’t even have to book a tour or wine tasting to read it. But we won’t say no if you do.

The Other Rhône

Monday, January 28th, 2013

Think of the Rhône’s vineyards and you think of Côtes du Rhône, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Hermitage, maybe Ventoux or Nîmes. But there are other wine regions bordering the river that are less well known, and not all of them are even in France.

Coteaux des Baronnies

The village of Sainte Jalle. Home of Domaine du Rieu Frais.

The Rieu Frais vineyards at the end of August

Almost in my back yard (if I had one), there are the vineyards of the Baronnies hills. The hills form the north eastern boundary of the Côtes du Rhône region and, unsurprisingly, the vineyards are at a higher altitude than their CdR neighbours. Heat-loving varieties like grenache and mourvedre can struggle for ripeness with the slightly cooler temperatures, but white grapes and “Bordeaux” reds thrive, allowing winemakers like Jean-Yves and Alexandre Liotaud at Domaine du Rieu Frais to produce great chardonnay and, especially, viognier and brilliant reds from cabernet sauvignon (the 2007 is delicious right now) and merlot. And the scenery around their home village of Ste. Jalle is stunning.

Alexandre Liotaud

Domaine du Rieu Frais Viognier 2010, IGP Coteaux des Baronnies

Rich and powerful, with the full range of viognier apricot/peach fruit. There’s still a welcome thread of acidity that comes from having vineyards at around 600m (a little under 2000 ft). I don’t know a viognier that gives you more for your money – around 7,60€ locally.

The barrel cellar at Rieu Frais

I can’t find anything available in the USA from the Baronnies hills. In the UK, Waitrose sells a grenache-based Coteaux des Baronnies red for £6.29, but that appears to be it in terms of what’s available. I can’t speak for the UK wine, but I know the maker, Cellier des Dauphins, and the Baronnies red they sell under their own name here in France is fairly dull stuff. Any feedback from UK readers would be welcome.

I seem to remember that The Winery in London’s Maida Vale used to sell the wines from Domaine La Rosière, run by a different branch of the Liotaud family. And I recently saw the Winery’s van parked outside the Baronnies-producing Roche Buissiere estate in the village of Faucon (they make a superb, 90% syrah CdR called Gaïa too). I can’t see any mention of either on The Winery’s website, but if you’re in the area it’s a nice shop to visit in any case with a great German wine range.


The tower that dominates the town of Crest in the Drôme valley.

Further north, in the Drôme valley, are the Clairette-de-Die vineyards. Producers there grow muscat and clairette grapes to make a light, 7-8% alcohol, frothy, aromatic sweet wine. (Despite the wine’s name, the clairette grape, if it is included at all, only makes up a minor part of the finished blend) . I think, and lots agree, ex-Bollinger man Frédéric Raspail at Domaine J-C Raspail is the best winemaker.

Around here, you can pick up a bottle of decent supermarket own-label Clairette for around 5€. But Fred’s wine isn’t much more expensive and it’s worth spending the extra.

Domaine Jean-Claude Raspail Clairette-de-Die Tradition n.v.

I don’t care what you think you think about sweet wines, good Clairette-de-Die is a revelation. It smells like elderflowers and makes a refreshing restorative at any time of day. However, it’s the intensity and balance of Fred’s wines that set them apart. Is it connected to the fact that he is one of the last producers to turn the maturing wine by hand? The best thing with cake. And tarts. And puddings. Around 8€ locally.

The "pupitres" or racks used for riddling the Raspail Clairette-de-Die by hand

And as if to prove a point - Frédéric Raspail turning bottles. Sorry the quality isn't great - it was pretty dark down in the cellars.

Lucky Californians can buy Fred’s Clairette-de-Die at Woodland Hills Wine in Los Angeles ($15.99 exc. tax) and Blackwell’s Wines and Spirits in SF ($18 exc. tax). Elsewhere in America it tends to be the Clairette made by the more-than-competent Jaillance co-operative that you come across when you can find any at all, although K&L and Solano Cellars (both CA) and Yapp in the UK sell Achard-Vincent‘s very good wine (the English translation on Achard-Vincent’s website isn’t quite so tip-top). And talking of more obscure Rhône wines, Yapp also sells rather delicious Brézemes of Domaine Lombard. More on those soon…

You can visit both the Liotauds and Frédéric Raspail through Rhône Wine Toursclick for the link. Both are certified organic, by the way.

Coteaux du Lyonnais

Skipping past the Vivarais region in the Ardèche (basically CdR in a lighter style), its equally easy to miss Lyon’s own vineyards, the Coteaux du Lyonnais. Driving north along the A7 to Lyon, you might think that the vines stop at the steep slopes of Ampuis (Côte-Rôtie). But further back from the river and the autoroute, starting in the gently rolling hills around Givors and sweeping around the western flank of Lyon, there are growers nuturing black grapes, except here it’s gamay not syrah. A lot of the wine is, frankly, pretty mediocre sub-Beaujolais, but there are some good producers and I want to mention one in particular.

Guillaume Clusel's Cuvée Galet

When I visited Domaine Clusel-Roch last autumn I tasted (and bought – ye gods, the price!) the supremely stylish Côte-Rôties of Brigitte Roch and Gilbert Clusel. But Brigitte also poured two cuvées of red Coteaux du Lyonnais made by her son, Guillaume. These are gamays made from low, concentrated yields (as little as 20hl/ha – or about half that of a serious claret) with plenty of skin maceration and traditional long fermentations. In other words, proper wine. Not big, not brawny, but taut, sinewy, mineral and, more to the point, delicious.

Guillaume Clusel “Traboules” 2010, Coteaux du Lyonnais

Traboules comes from two specific vineyards – Rochipel and Coutois – in the village of Millery, where the soils are formed of glacial debris. It is 100% gamay, but you’d be forgiven for thinking Rhône syrah rather than northern neighbour Beaujolais. Red fruits (cherry) and a slight floral touch. At around 7,50€ it’s a steal.

Guillaume Clusel “Galet” 2010, Coteaux du Lyonnais

Galet comes from older vines in the La Petite Gallée vineyard, also in Millery, and spends a year in previously used oak barrels. Côte-Rôtie methods are used with a month-long maceration/fermentation, “remontage” and “pigeage” (ways of mixing the grape skins with the fermenting juice to extract more colour, weight, tannins etc). All this shows in extra flesh and richness (it’s still sinewy though) and black, not red, fruit flavours. It’s just 12€ locally, but less than 2,000 bottles were made so stocks are tight.

"Remontage" - taking the fermeneting wine from under the cap of grape skins and pumping it over the top. This photo, by the way, was taken at Domaine Beau Mistral in Rasteau.

US readers are relatively fortunate: The Wine Exchange in Orange, CA and Blackwell’s in San Francisco are currently selling Traboules, Slope Cellars in Brooklyn has Galet.

You can buy Clusel-Roch’s Côte-Rôties and Condrieu at various upmarket London wine merchants but not, as far as I can tell, the Lyonnais.

Onwards and upwards (at least topographically)

But the Rhône doesn’t end in Lyon either. From there,  the river flows through the sub-alpine vineyards of Savoie. (They really need a blog of their own, but in passing I’d suggest you look out for the Chignin-Bergeron made by André & Michel Quenard as its one of the loveliest expressions of roussanne that I know.) Finally, the Rhône crosses the Swiss border in the suburbs of Geneva.

Having recently come back from Geneva and having drunk probably more Genevois (Genevan?) wine than anybody who doesn’t live there (and quite a few who do) I hope I’m qualified enough to pass on my thoughts. I wouldn’t call myself an expert, but until one comes along I suppose I’ll do. That, however, is for Part 2.



Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours, where I write far too much about food and wine subjects that frequently interest only me (chatus grape anyone?). If that hasn’t put you off already, you can read more by going to our website, If you have any suggestions for future blogs, please get in touch.

Pick of the Bunch

Thursday, October 25th, 2012

The popular (my?), romantic image of the grape harvest involves happy groups of pickers in the vines, singing and joking, and much stamping of the newly picked grapes. Well, after four days of picking biodynamically-grown grenache and syrah grapes at one of  “my” producers, Cédric Guillaume-Corbin’s Domaine La Péquélette in Vinsobres, I can tell you from first hand experience that it’s tough. Yes, there’s lots of laughing and banter, but you try spending 10 hours bent at a 45 degree angle and you’ll see what I mean.

Cédric Guillaume-Corbin

I got sunburnt (it was 30ºC in the vineyard on a couple of days); cut by my own secateurs (twice!); scraped by who knows what sort of devil plant that attaches tiny little prickly buds to everything, including the hairs on the your arms and legs, which you then have to cut off so entangled do they get (the buds not your legs); I thought I would never be able to stand straight again or, once I was straight, that I may never bend; and I was shattered. As wine lovers, we should give thanks every day to the grape pickers who make our favourite wines possible.

The picking team. Cédric in the white T-shirt.

So why did I go back day after day? Well not for the money – stupidly I did it for free to help a lovely winemaker I admire very much and to “experience” the harvest (how very dilettante of me). And I maybe should have thought again after day one when I was told that picking syrah is easy compared to day two’s lower-growing grenache. But you know what, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world – the team spirit is infectious and as a wine lover it’s exciting to think you have directly contributed to a vintage.

Loading the trailer. The plastic cages hold about 10kg of grapes and ensure that the grapes don't get crushed before they reach the winery, as their liable to do if just thrown straight into the trailer.

A full load.

Day three was up on the heights of Vinsobres, in a rock-covered, mountain-goat steep vineyard given over to old vine grenache and syrah. To my untrained eyes the grapes looked fabulous. Cédric, too, was very happy, especially when his œnologist’s technical analysis of the juice confirmed my opinion (I must be born to it).

Day 3 - the high vineyards of Vinsobres. Note the stony terraces.

Cédric clearly loves this vineyard and thinks that in years to come it may supply the grapes for a separate super-cuvée. Having tasted the 2005 vintage of his two existing cuvées, “Emile” and “Les Muses”, at a Saturday night pickers’ dinner, I wonder where he can go to top them.

Me in the vineyard

My final day’s picking made me wonder whether there is something in biodynamics. I’ve always been a sceptic, happy to acknowledge that there are great biodynamic producers around the world making fantastic wines, but not convinced that the reason for their greatness lies in working with the phases of the moon or applying homeopathic quantities of self-produced plant treatments. And at the same time I can think of plenty of stupendous wines made “conventionally”. The reason for my new doubts?  The morning was spent in La Péquélette’s bio vineyards, the afternoon in a conventional vineyard – I won’t say whose, just that they’re not part of the Rhone Wine Tours line up. There had been some rain the day before and at 8 in the morning, La Pequélétte’s grenache was damp from dew but the grapes were healthy and the soil was dry.

Me on the tractor.

In the afternoon we had to abandon picking a “conventional” plot on the plateau of Valreas. As a picker, it is your job to ensure that only healthy grapes go to the winery. But so many rotten bunches were having to be dumped on the ground, giving off clouds of mould spores in the process, in the end it wasn’t worth the effort of picking. Those that had been kept were distinctly pinkish – under-ripe in other words. Despite the strong sun, the soil was still damp and slippery, clay clinging to my boots. The contrast couldn’t have been clearer. And it wasn’t the first time I’d seen a difference between Cédric’s biodynamic vines and conventional plots right next door that showed the same crumbly, dry/slimy, wet difference. Is this a demonstration of one of the foundations of biodynamic winemaking – healthy soils lead to healthy vines and so to good wines? Or could it be subtle changes of “terroir”, or even farming methods such as ploughing between vines or using cover crops to break up the topsoil and thereby avoid standing water? I honestly don’t know, all I can say is that I love Cédric’s wines. Which is good, as my reward at the end of the vendange was a case of the delicious “Les Muses” 2007. It won’t pay the bills, but it certainly lessens their pain.

I will always think of La Péquélette 2012 as “my” wine and thankfully the omens are good for a great vintage. Obviously, that’s all down to me.

Footnote: This is the blog of There’s more of this sort of stuff there and, what’s more, you can book yourself a wine tour or a private wine tasting. Doesn’t that sound good? Just click on the highlighted link. Rhone Wine Tours can also be followed on Facebook and Twitter, although I can’t say I post much. Maybe that’s a good thing? Quality not quantity, eh?


Do you know the way to Saint Peray?

Saturday, September 15th, 2012

The sleepy village of St Péray, facing the town of Valence on the opposite bank of the Rhône, wakes up for two things – the grape harvest and its annual wine fair. The marsanne and roussanne grapes are picked around mid-September and are used to make the village’s still and sparkling white wines (there’s no such thing as red St. Péray); the fair is squeezed in at the start of the month, before the rush starts.

One good thing about the fair is that just about all the village’s growers turn up, plus a fair few others from neighbouring Cornas, Crozes-Hermitage and St Joseph, so you can taste just about everyone’s wines in one go. Even better is that it’s far less crowded than the similar fair at Ampuis where the hoards turn out to taste Côte-Rôtie (see previous blogs for my thoughts on that particular nightmare. Or maybe you’ve guessed already?).

With so many wines tasted, I’ll just give you a snapshot. And talking of snapshots, sorry in advance for the photos. The light was horrible and most of them turned out a jaundiced yellow colour.

Domaine Chaboud, St. Péray Cuvée Marsanne 2011 – Lime flower (tilleul) and green plum fruit (slightly sulphurous too). Fresh and relatively light, although there is some cream on the palate and a hint of bitter almond. Not long, but ok. The Cuvée Roussanne is slightly more aromatic, but not much more interesting.

Vignobles Verzier

Vignobles Verzier, Chante Perdrix, St. Joseph Blanc 2011 – Nose is honeyed (marsanne influence?). Palate is mineral and dry. Bright and fresh with some grapefruit. Decent length.

The same producer’s Condrieu “Authentic” 2011 is still a little closed on the nose. Typical viognier fruit, but discreet. Palate is a bit more giving – there’s ripe pear. For now, fairly simple but tasty. True to its grape.

Verzier St. Joseph Rouge “Empreinte” 2010 has a whiff of Elastoplast about it, something slightly medicinal that reminds me of cabernet franc. The palate has lightly grassy red fruits. Fresh, bright, no heaviness. Pleasant drinking.

And Côte-Rôtie “Indiscrète” 2010 has obvious oak and raspberry fruit. Almost Burgundy-like in texture.

Jacques Breyton

Jacques Breyton

Domaine Breyton is an organic producer based in Beaumont-Monteaux, within the Crozes-Hermitage appellation. The Blanc 2011 (70% Marsanne, 30% Roussanne) has a clean, bright, clear nose, but the palate has a touch of bitterness. The Tradition Rouge 2011 is slightly briary, slightly sweaty. Not massive, it goes for fruit on the palate. The “Fût” 2011 got 8 months in oak, 30% new. It is more structured, more closed. The fruit is darker – more brambly. Tradition Rouge 2010 is a bit coarse, but hearty and authentic. The 2009 is fuller again and richer on the palate. But the tannins are high and it feels like the fruit is only just managing to cover them.

Alain Voge’s St. Péray “Harmonie” 2010 is 100% marsanne. There’s a fairly typical marsanne nuttiness and a dash of butterscotch, all mixed with orchard fruit. Decent acidity, too.

Domaine Pierre Finon

Domaine Pierre Finon is in Charnas. His St. Joseph Blanc “Les Jouvencelles” 2011 is a 50:50 marsanne/roussanne blend. It’s still subdued on the nose, but the fruit on the palate is good and there is a chalky, mineral undertow giving the wine a bit of tension. This should be more expressive in 6 months or a year.

The Vin de Pays Viognier 2011 from Finon has strong (if slightly blowsy) aromatics – think old lady’s boudoir, with lots of lavender and violet on the nose and apricot fruit. This is better than I’ve perhaps made it sound. The Condrieu 2010 is (naturally) also 100% viognier. It is made in a more serious style, more steely but less aromatic.

The St. Joseph Rouge “Les Rocailles” 2010 is still a young bright purple. Well structured with blackcurrant and bramble on the palate. This is good. With the St. Joseph “Caprice d’ Héloïse” 2009, the domaine was looking for more extraction, more stuffing. Well, they certainly succeeded in that. Big, rich and powerful.

Domaine Delubac had come all the way from my neck of the woods, Cairanne to be exact. The Cairanne “Les Bruneau” 2010 (I think!) was just showing the first signs of age in its colour. The blend of 50% grenache, 25% syrah, 15% mourvedre and 10% old vine carignan is warm, hearty, delicious. There are fruits of the forest flavours and a full, ripe texture. the “L’Authentique” 2007 was ageing gracefully. The 50:50 blend of grenache and syrah is rich and round, but there is a mineral side. Really well put together.

Alain Verset

Alain Verset had a lovely line up of Cornas. He only makes 6-7,000 bottles a year, so not much to go around. The Cornas 2009 is still dark in colour and tight. There is dense fruit here. Rich and ripe. Impressive, it just needs time. The Cornas 2008 was always going to be overshadowed in the power stakes, but it is better for drinking now. Yes, it was a “difficult” vintage (for which, read horrible) and the wine has some acidity, but it is still lovely. But the star of the show was the Cornas 2006, which came in at only 12.7% alc. There’s a fantastic nose of raspberry liqueur and farmyards (oh, ok – shit). The palate is silky and refined and totally denies Cornas’s reputation for rusticity. On the back of this, my advice would be to buy whatever vintage one can find.

Mickaël Bourg

Mickaël Bourg has just over 1ha (about 2½ acres) of vineyards, so this is small-scale stuff. His St. Péray 2011 is 100% marsanne. The nose shows marsanne’s honeyed side but the palate is bright and clean, mixing lemon curd, cream and greengage fruit with a lively finish. His Vin de Table is a gamay/syrah blend from vines planted in St. Péray. It shows very juicy fruit, more syrah than gamay, and would make excellent autumn drinking on days when the sun is shining and an al fresco lunch is possible (so that’ll be almost every day here). The Cornas 2010 has a dark, brambly fruit nose and high tannins. It needs a bit of time certainly, and it’s not the most refined Cornas, but it’s well constructed and enjoyable. And at 20€, the price is right. The Cornas 2009 is no more open than the ’10. Very concentrated, its big, opaque, dense. Wait 2 or 3 years (at least). A young producer to watch out for.

Catherine Le Goeuil

Catherine Le Goeuil had also made the trip from Cairanne (with her young son, who was keen to practice his English and his selling skills). She farms organically, growing grenache, syrah, mourvedre and carignan. The wines were new to me but have been picked up by the famous US merchant Kermit Lynch. The Cairanne 2010 has lovely round fruit, red berries and cassis. Ripe and full, but soft and gentle, it has a natural sense of balance. Delicious. The generic Côtes du Rhône can’t quite compete with that but it’s well made and very tasty.

Domaine de la Favière showed their Vin de Pays Viognier 2010 (a bit stinky, but decent fruit underneath) and their Condrieu 2010 (which felt like there was some residual sugar, even if none actually existed) but, to me, more interesting was the St. Joseph Blanc 2011. Ripe and aromatic, the one third roussanne, two thirds marsanne blend has a rich yellow plum palate but great freshness. It’s half the price of the Condrieu but, dare I say it, twice the wine.

Patrick Jasmin

Domaine Jasmin showed its Côte-Rôtie 2010. Patrick Jasmin said that the blend of 95% syrah/5% viognier was raised “traditionally” with a 25-28 day fermentation/maceration.  He didn’t seemed the cheeriest of chappies, but the wine was delicious. Refined, elegant but concentrated on the nose, the palate is silky but rather darker than I expected – black fruits, even a touch of mulch and black olive. This feels like living wine with real personality.

And that’s it. I visited more, including “my” producers Christelle Betton and Johann Michel. But their latest releases are covered in the recent blog “Up North – Part 2“, so feel free to click on the link and go there if you want to read about them.

Happy hunting, happier drinking and santé,


Note: This is one of the more wine heavy blogs of Rhône Wine Tours. If you’d like to read more about the wines and winemakers of the region, you can click on the link and go to our website. Heaven forbid, you may even decide you’d like a guided tour or a delicious tasting of some of the wines I’ve been warbling on about.

Up North – Part 2

Sunday, September 2nd, 2012

Previously on Up North: when we last met our intrepid travelers – click here if you missed Part 1 – they had enjoyed lunch in Tournon and were heading south, which is where we join them…

Johann Michel outside his cave

(Note: like most of the photos, this was taken in winter. Nobody would be mad enough to wear a scarf and jacket in a Rhône summer.)

The first stop of the afternoon was at Johann Michel’s estate outside the large village/small town of St. Péray. Johann has recently got himself a UK importer – Flint Wines – although he doesn’t seem to appear on their website yet, and has been available in America for a while through Kysela.

Johann only makes four wines, and even then not all of them are available year round. Only 2,000 bottles of the white St. Péray are made each year and it’s so rare we’ve never before managed to be in the same place at the same time. The blend is 50:50 marsanne and roussanne and, at 11€ at the estate door, it’s an absolute steal. The aromas of white flowers and honey lead onto a dry palate with lemon curd and brioche flavours.

We then went onto the red wines from his Cornas vineyards (Cornas and St. Péray are a matter of minutes apart), but not just tasting from the bottle. First Johann wanted us to taste from the barrels that contain the constituent parts that will eventually be blended to form the “Tradition” 2011, and then the same with the flagship Cuvée Jana. It was fascinating to taste and compare the wines at this stage in their development.

In the cave at Domaine Johann Michel

The first barrel sample was “Pied des Coteaux”. This wine was made with grapes harvested from flatter vineyards at the bottom of the slopes. It felt closed up, a bit compressed, but was relatively supple with fruits of the forest flavours.

Cornas vineyards on a grey September day - a gentle incline followed by full slopes

The 2011 Coteaux (hillside) wine that was resting in a 2 year old barrel was more deeply coloured, denser, with higher (but ripe) tannins. The same Coteaux wine that had been stored in a 5 year old barrel was, my notes tell me, simply “lovely”. Both were more than good, but there was a noticeable difference and that came solely from the age of the barrel.

At that, my ability to keep up with Johann disappeared. I know we tasted the flagship “Cuvée Jana” 2011 from barrel, and I seem to remember thinking it was a bit stricter than the Tradition, but I have no notes to confirm that.

Then onto the bottles – the 2010 Tradition is made from 100% syrah,  60% of the blend came from the hillside “coteaux” vineyards, the remaining 40% from “pied des coteaux”. Powerful and full, with a strong black fruit element and a tight core. Give it a few years.

The Cuvée Jana is 100% hillside fruit using whole bunches, so stems and all go into the fermentation tanks. The fruit is even richer but there is a more tannic backbone. This needs even more time. At the moment, there is the same dark fruit as the Tradition but with added flavours of macerated cherry, dark chocolate, a bit of black olive. What’s nice about it (among many other things) is that it still has a lick of cleansing acidity to lift the flavours.

Finally, when we thought there could be no more to taste, onto the Tradition 2007 which is coming into its own now, mellowing and softening, with cherry-like fruit.

What a great tasting with a warm, welcoming man who was as generous with his time as his wine.

The hill of Hermitage as seen from Tournon. The town of Tain sits at the foot of the hill.

Finally, across the river to La Roche de Glun, just south of Tain and the hill of Hermitage, at the southern end of the Crozes-Hermitage appellation. Christelle Betton was up to her eyes (almost literally) sorting Domaine Betton’s apricot harvest when we arrived so it was good of her to be so generous with her time – the “good half hour” she said she could spare became nearer 1½ hours.

Betton Père et Fille

Christelle filled us in on the estate’s history (they have been bottling independently for less than ten years) and poured the white “Cristel” Crozes-Hermitage 2011. This is essentially pure marsanne, although as unproductive vines are replaced roussanne is being planted, which will add another aromatic dimension to an already very tasty wine. Freshly opened its flavours revolve around ripe orchard fruit, but with a bit of air it becomes more exotic: a bottle opened at home developed subtle aromas of rose petals and dried orange.

Only two barrels (600 bottles) are made each year from the estate’s tiny holding on the hill at Hermitage (L’Homme vineyard). The 2010 white is dense and powerful, the firmest white of the day, with a sneaking feeling of tannins lurking in the background. This is not an opulent wine in the manner of a Condrieu viognier from a little further north, but it is intense, feeling like there is a solid core of muscle. The flavours lean towards stone fruit with a touch of tilleul, citrus and honey, although the wine is bone dry. Not a wine to be sipped as an aperitif, but to be enjoyed with food – think white meats, seafood possibly, in creamy sauces. At 30ish€ it isn’t cheap, but it is a bargain. You taste this and realise that so many wines are hollow and vapid in comparison. Christelle admitted that she spent the first few vintages changing the working methods each year to discover what worked best with the particular terroir – nice to see an enquiring mind – but it seems to me that with the 2010 she has hit on the right recipe.

Espiègle. Thanks to the Bettons for this photo.

Then the two cuvées of red, Espiègle and Caprice. Espiègle 2010 Crozes-Hermitage is from younger vines and is unashamedly about the fruit. It is uncomplicated and delicious. It put a smile on my face just tasting it. Drink it cool.

Caprice is the fuller-bodied, richer product of older vines. The fruit flavours are darker (more cassis) but the wine still has a certain freshness and digestibility. It isn’t, thankfully, another one of those soft, vaguely soupy Crozes. It is undoubtedly the more “impressive” of the reds and naturally a little more expensive (still only 13€) and I can fully understand why anyone might go for it in preference. I bought the Espiègle, because a wine that can make you smile has to be a good thing.

For reasons I can’t explain, Christelle hasn’t got an importer in either the UK or America. If you’d like to taste the wines, therefore, you will have to come to the Rhône or pester your local wine merchant/shipper to buy some of Domaine Betton’s wine.

With the tasting finished we left Christelle to her apricots and headed back to Lyon. With a car full of wine, naturally.

Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours, where we ramble on about food and wine and the food and wine of the Rhône in particular. If you would like to read more about both, there’s plenty more information on our website – You can even book tours and wine tastings there, and maybe help us make a bit of money. If you have any comments, or any suggestions for future blogs, please get in touch. I read everything that gets sent, even if only to laugh at how bad the spam is.