In 1661 Racine pronounced that, “The wine of Uzès is the best in the realm.” Three hundred and 45 years later Hélène and I found out that Racine knew of which he spoke.
By sheer happenstance Hélène and I found ourselves once again in the InterCaves wine emporium during our visit to Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in the autumn of 2006. Sheer happenstance? No pilgrim ever beat a more purposeful path to the Holy Grail! This is where our mentor Christian Esparza (see My Other Partner in the Wondrous World of Wine) plies his trade and houses his vinous treasures. We were anxious to hear about and taste his most recent discoveries. “Have I got a treat for you and your wine club members,” he enthused. “One of my childhood friends, Patrick Chabrier, along with his brother Christophe, makes a very special white wine that is sure to delight you and your clients. It is called ‘Duché d’Uzès La Garrigue d’Aureillac’ (a bit of a mouthful, but then so is the wine) from the excellent 2005 vintage.” We eagerly tried it and congratulated our mentor once again on his uncanny ability to find us remarkable wines. Racine’s proclamation remained valid after all these years.
Here are my tasting notes about this big, bold, beautiful wine: ‘This truly wonderful white wine is made from 70 per cent Viognier, 20 per cent Grenache Blanc and 10 per cent Marsanne with an average yield of only 35 hectolitres per hectare. Half of the Viognier was fermented in new oak barrels and left on its lees for a year. It is a medium straw colour with an intense nose of almonds, papayas and vanilla with a hint of hyacinths, anise and lavender. In the mouth it is full, buttery and very well balanced with pronounced flavours of stewed apricots and a hint of pineapple. This New World-styled white is elegant, big and long. It would work well as an aperitif, go wonderfully with any shellfish and, as a special treat, be a divine partner with warm goat cheese.’ A few months later we offered it to our wine club members for $21 the bottle.
Christian went on to explain that his pal was no shrinking violet. Each year after the harvest Patrick would reward all the pickers and others who toiled to bring in the grapes by treating them to a dinner at a local restaurant. Naturally, a substantial volume of Chabrier wine flowed during these festivities and it was not uncommon for raucous dancing to break out with Patrick illustrating his finest moves atop one of the dinner tables. “As the result,” noted Christian, “the Chabriers are forever banished from these dining establishments post-harvest. Each successive celebration by necessity is held further and further afield.” I could hardly wait to meet him.
The next day we headed off towards Uzès (pronounced like ‘who says’), a beautiful town situated roughly between Avignon and Nîmes near the majestic Roman aqueduct called the Pont du Gard. We had arranged to meet Patrick Chabrier at his winery located near the village of Bourdic. It wasn’t long till we found Domaine Chabrier Fils just past the local wine co-op, Collines du Bourdic.
Here is a little background: Grandfather Louis Chabrier settled in Bourdic in 1925 and became one of the founders of the local wine co-op in 1928. He left the estate to his sons, Louis and Robert who replanted the vineyards with new grape varieties. Louis’ sons, Patrick and Christophe, took over in 1988 and they built the current modern winery in 1998 when they decided to produce their own wine from the best grapes (about 20 per cent – the remainder still goes to the co-op or is shipped to other producers around the world). They own 60 hectares of vineyards (a mosaic of terroirs) and grow a wide variety of grapes including Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc, Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet-Sauvignon, Grenache Noir, Carignan and Muscat Petits Grains. The Chabriers produce about 4,000 hectolitres of wine each year. While their new winery contains all of the modern winemaking apparatus, the Chabriers meticulously maintain their vineyards the old fashion way with minimal chemical intervention. Their proprietary wines are in high demand and sell out very quickly. There is no need for them to seek export markets. It is only because of Patrick’s friendship with Christian Esparza that we were able to become their agents.
We entered the winery to an ear-piercing cacophony of chaos and mayhem! In time we would learn that this was situation normal for the Chabriers. Patrick soon greeted us with an ear-to-ear grin. He is an affable bear of a man with decidedly purple paws, oops, hands! There is no question: this man totally immerses himself in his work. He soon had us scrambling on top of the fermentation tanks (stretches the imagination, doesn’t it?), taking great glee in showing us the roiling juices in the vats below. This is a man you take an instant liking to and wish everyone could be as happily absorbed in his work as is he.
We then met up with Patrick’s ebullient wife Frédérique and the indispensable Karine Fontanille, who not only looks after administration and guest reception duties but also lends a hand in the winery.
We congregated in the tasting area and began the arduous task of sampling the latest vintages of Chabrier wines. They produce a wide array of delicious reds, rosés and whites, but our favourite was the same that M. Esparza had us sample in Saint-Rémy … the Duché d’Uzès La Garrigue d’Aureillac (henceforth known as ‘the marvellous white with the impossible name’). You can tell from their picture that the Chabrier boys do not make shy and retiring wines. Au contraire, they fashion big, bold expressive wines with gobs of flavour, wines that are very well-made, delicious and represent excellent value. It was indeed a fine first encounter with the Chabriers.
Over the ensuing years we met frequently with the Chabriers to taste their latest vintages and to get together for special occasions. One of the latter was a Valentines lunch with both the Chabriers and Esparzas at a very fine restaurant in the village of Castillon-du-Gard. The Champagne, food and wine were all terrific, but what surprised us was the sheer delight Patrick took in each stage of the proceedings. He produced a small notebook from his jacket and noted absolutely everything about the lunch right down to the last detail. Who wudda thunk?
We had brought along six top wines from the Okanagan and Niagara, three white and three red for critical appraisal by Patrick and Christian. After lunch the six of us repaired to an antechamber that the restaurant had prepared for us. The whites were nicely cooled (but not too much), the reds decanted and sparkling stemware laid out in military order. The swirling, slurping, eyebrow arching, gargling and Gallic grunting began in earnest. Their verdict? Well, the whites showed a little promise, the reds not so much! Strangely, hardly a drop of any of them remained.
A couple of years later the Chabriers invited us to a Swiss fondue party. It seems that they had just purchased a vineyard in Switzerland (incidentally, the Swiss make a number of excellent wines that, sadly, seldom if ever make their way to our shores) and Patrick figured this was a great way to celebrate the acquisition. It was total bedlam per usual when we arrived at the appointed hour and found other guests already installed around the Chabriers’ tasting station engaged in robust, animated conversation. In attendance were a starred Michelin chef, a member of the French national rugby squad, an olive oil merchant, several vintners and a host of other interesting, party-minded revelers. We eventually repaired upstairs to an industrial kitchen where Patrick prepared the fondue in a large vat. Bottle after bottle of his white wine were emptied into the gooey mess until there seemed to be more alcohol than Gruyère cheese. Then we all assembled around a large table and skewered, dunked, twirled and savoured, not to mention drank, till the wee hours of the morning. As we left to return to our apartment in Uzès, Patrick told us not to be worried about the local gendarmerie. “Just tell them you’ve been with Patrick Chabrier,” he grinned.
We last saw the Chabriers this past April. We did our usual thing – Hélène gossiped whilst I tasted (a perfect division of labour). The wines and the conversation were as vigorous as always. I haven’t yet told you that, in addition to his many other talents, Patrick raises award winning asparagus. As we were departing with a load of wine, Frédérique asked us to wait while she got some of it for us as a little parting gift. She was gone for what seemed like ages and finally returned with huge box of the glorious stuff.
The Chabriers are generous in everything they do. Racine said that the wines of Uzès were the best in the realm. But, he could also have been speaking of the people of Uzès – like the Chabriers.
PS: If you would like to enjoy fine wines, like those produced by the Chabriers, why not join our little wine club (no fees or other obligations)? Your taste buds will thank you and so will I.