Brézème – The Wine that Time (Almost) Forgot

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.

Stockists

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.

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