A delicious month spent in Provence tasting wines from the splendid 2015 and 2016 Southern Rhône vintages: talk about being in wine wonderland!
Hélène and I have been visiting Provence at least once a year for the past 30 years in search of all those sensory pleasures that fair region of southern France affords – the clear azure-blue skies; the vibrant open air markets in hilltop villages; the spicy aromas of the garrigue; the bustling seaside ports; the piercing, haunting cries of the cigales; the fields mauve with lavender, yellow with sunflowers and red with poppies; the sweet Cavaillon melons; the fragrant Mediterranean cuisine, the breakfast delicacies from local boulangeries (choco suisse is a creation of the gods) and, of course: the wine. Oh, the wine!
I made two promises when I got into the wondrous world of wine all those many years ago. First, I would never assign numbered ratings to the wines I represented. After all, what distinguishes a 91 from a 90 or an 83 from an 84? As beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so should wine appreciation be in the taste buds of the imbiber. Second, I vowed that whenever possible, I would taste a given wine before recommending it to the Arthur’s Cellar Wine Club membership. The latter, most onerous commitment was the very least I could do for my loyal following.
So there we were once again in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence happily plotting our winery itinerary and drooling at the prospect. By the way, Saint-Rémy is a great delight in its own right and a perfect place from which to launch day excursions to nearby magical destinations like Les Baux-de-Provence, the Pont du Gard, the Luberon, the Palais des Papes in Avignon and so on.
DOMAINE LES LYS
First on the list was Domaine Les Lys. I wanted to try out their 2015 ‘La Soif’ rosé with the intent of importing a whack of it for the dog days of Ontario summer. We found out about Domaine Les Lys entirely by accident. Several years ago we were invited to a raucous Swiss fondue party by the Chabriers (owners of Domaine Chabrier Fils) and were ambushed by Olivier Privat, then one of the owners of the Les Lys winery. He convinced us to try his wines. We enjoyed them very much, particularly the rosé and the chardonnay-based white wine. So, we happily took them on and their wines have been delighting our wine club members ever since.
Marie-Hélène Veyrunes and Thomas Faure had worked at the winery for several years and when Olivier and the other owners decided to sell, they couldn’t pass up the chance to realize their life-long dreams. They pulled together the required resources and bought this excellent vineyard and wine making facility located in the countryside near Uzès. The winery had been producing delightful wines for several years, but based on our recent tasting, I think that Marie-Hélène and Thomas have been able to take them to an even higher level. Here are my tasting notes on the 2015 ‘La Soif’ Rosé:
‘La Soif’ (the thirst) is a strange name for a marvellous rosé whose primary purpose is to slake one’s state of dehydration. Made from old vines (30 years plus) Grenache and Syrah from vineyards converted to organic farming in 2010, it is indeed a most refreshing, satisfying wine that is showing lovely red fruit, peaches, wet stones and light citrus nuances and a nice crisp finish. A fashionably pale salmon colour, this beauty from the very good 2015 vintage will go brilliantly with Asian cuisine, ham and salmon or by itself on a hot summer’s day.
I enjoyed this rosé so much that I imported 80 six-bottle cases of it for sale by LCBO.com. While fewer than half of the order remains, you can still get some for a mere $15.95 the bottle. Click here. Talk about shameless hucksterism!
DOMAINE ROGER SABON
A few days later we were off to visit Domaine Roger Sabon located in the heart of the village of Châteauneuf du Pape. We had arranged for a tasting of their 2015 and 2016 elixirs and could hardly wait.
Domaine Roger Sabon came into being in 1952 when the family vineyards were split into three distinct entities (the other two being Domaine Chante-Cigale and Clos Mont Olivet). Robert M. Parker, Jr., the noted wine writer awarded their 1988 Châteauneuf du Pape a perfect 100 rating, the first Châteauneuf du Pape so honoured (I know I said I dislike numeric scoring systems, but this is a special case). He had this to say about the winery. “This estate has been at the top of its game for many years and any partisan of Rhône Valley wines who has not yet tried a wine from Domaine Roger Sabon should make every effort to do so.”
After exchanging pleasantries with Didier Négron and Delphine Sabon, we were led down to their barrel cellar where the latest vintages rested and patiently awaited their turns to be bottled and sent to market. I had been dying to try their 2016 Côtes du Rhône called ‘Rhône by Roger Sabon’. As you might perhaps glean from the photo, I was not disappointed. While the 2015 vintage was splendid, but at this early stage I think the 2016 is even better – fuller red berry fruit flavours, rounder and more approachable. If you would like to see what I mean, you can find a bottle at the delightful Le Sélect Bistro in downtown Toronto.
We then tried their four Châteauneuf du Pape from the 2015 vintage, ‘Les Olivets’ crafted from the fruit of younger vines (still more than 25 years old), ‘Le Réserve’ from older vines, ‘Le Prestige’ from a select parcel of yet older vines and the vaunted ‘Le Secret des Sabon’ from … well, that’s a secret. But, suffice to note that is costs considerably more than $200 the bottle, if you can find it. While they were all truly delicious, I was particularly enchanted by the ‘Le Prestige’. Incidentally, the good folks at what remains of Mr. Parker’s wine reporting business (he sold out to Chinese interests) rated each of these wine well above 90. Now, doesn’t that make you feel wonderful?
After our morning sipping fine Châteauneuf du Pape (what we won’t do for our Members), Delphine and Didier invited us to join them for lunch at Le Verger des Papes. This is a wonderful restaurant located just below the ruins of the Popes’ summer palace that looms hauntingly above the town. We dined sumptuously as we discussed all matters politic (it was mere days before the first round of the French presidential elections). Everything was washed down with a 2015 ‘Le Renaissance’ (their gorgeous white Châteauneuf du Pape) and a 2014 ‘Le Secret des Sabon.’ You know, this wine gig ain’t so bad after all.
Next on our vinous agenda was Domaine Giuliani, another first rate Châteauneuf du Pape house. We first bumped into a bottle of Domaine Giuliani Châteauneuf du Pape several years ago at our old friend Christian Esparza’s wine emporium in Saint-Rémy de Provence. It was the 2007 vintage. It was love at first slurp!
The Giuliani vineyards that are located just outside the little village of Bédarrides were established in 1930 and succeeding generations laboured to produce the best grapes (they grow magnificent Grenache) possible for the co-operative in Courthézon. But Bernard, the latest Giuliani to take the helm had grown tired of seeing others reduce the fruits of his labour to mediocrity. So, in the early 2000’s he and his wife Aline decided that it was time to produce their own wines. Their new cellars were completed in 2005 and the inaugural vintage of Domaine Giuliani Châteauneuf du Pape debuted the following year. Their son Florian recently joined them after completing his studies in oenology. Because the Giulianis are just starting out, their superb Châteauneuf du Pape and Côtes du Rhône are wonderfully well priced.
So, once again your indefatigable sipper went hard to work sampling the Giuliani’s 2015 and 2016 Elixirs. Their 2016 white Châteauneuf du Pape ‘Flora’ was fresh and lively with glorious notes of peaches, pineapple and exotic spices. I tried both the 2015 and 2016 Côtes du Rhône ‘Les Notes de Louis’ and once again slightly preferred the 2016, although both were terrific. Next was their signature red Châteauneuf du Pape, the 2015 ‘Château Giuliani’ … Grenache heaven in a bottle. Finally, their very special Châteauneuf, the 2015 ‘Galets Jeanne’ was in the tasting spotlight. This brooding beauty had been resting contentedly in small new oak barrels for many months. Its flavours of black cherries, raspberries, tobacco and vanilla were enchanting.
Thank goodness the Giulianis decided to make their own wines instead of sending their precious grapes off to the co-op each fall.
A few days later we were off to visit Sébastien and Marie Line Palon at Domain Palon. Their properties are located just below the fairy tale village of Gigondas between Orange and Vaison-la-Romaine in the heart of Provence. The Palon vineyards cover 15 hectares: seven devoted to Gigondas; five to Vacqueyras; two to Côtes du Rhône, and; one to table wine. The Palons produce a very limited quantity of superb wine each year.
Domaine Palon is a real family affair with a century-long grape growing tradition. Back in 1915, Valérie and Léopold Palon were wine makers in Gigondas and their son Jean founded the Cave Coopérative de Gigondas and served as its administrator from 1956 to 1978. His son, Jean-Pierre took over the reins of the co-op in 1978 (Jean-Pierre’s wife Annie was the financial director) and ran it until 2001, all the while selling his grapes to the same co-op. When Jean-Pierre’s son Sébastien graduated from oenology school, the family decided to leave the co-op and start making their own wines. 2003 was their first vintage.
Sébastien has turned out to be a wine-making magician, crafting elegant, exquisite potions from vines averaging over 50 years of age. Sébastien’s wife Marie Line looks after the winery’s administrative duties and manages the gift shop while the latest addition to the vinous dynasty, their son Noé makes regular guest appearances around the property.
The tasting was pure pleasure. We started with Sébastien’s 2016 Vacqueyras Blanc. It had been in the bottle for only a month but it was terrific. White fruit and flowers veritably leapt from the glass. Next came the 2016 Vacqueyras Rouge, always one of my favourites. It too had been recently bottled. It was plum coloured and loaded with flavours of raspberries, cedar, cherries and spice nicely knitted together. This is going to be a superb wine. The zenith of the Palon’s range of fine wines, their Gigondas had yet to be bottled. So Marie Line and Sébastien took us into their barrel chais and had us taste each of the component varietals, Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre, from their respective tanks and barrels. At the end, Sébastien mixed them together in the approximate proportions of the 2016 Gigondas when it is finally bottled in a couple of months. Sheer ambrosia!
So, there you have it, the trials and tribulations of the valiant, selfless wine agent as he spent an arduous month roaming around Provence sampling the latest vintages with his long-suffering partner in crime. I can almost hear your laments of sympathy from here. I do hope I have impressed upon you how truly terrific are the 2015s and 2016s from the Southern Rhône. From vaunted Châteauneuf du Pape to lowly Côtes du Rhône, the vast majority are simply delightful.
If you would like to try some of the Rhône wines mentioned, I’ll be bringing them to the LCBO this fall. Just sign up here for our email notices (more shameless hucksterism). Your taste buds will thank you.