You can’t miss it as you motor along D17 towards the storied town of Châteauneuf-du-Pape — the neo-gothic castle looming high on the hill to the right, standing guard over countless rows of impeccably tended vines. That the imposing structure and the family that owned it would figure prominently in our wine scribe Jim Walker’s vinous adventures is just one of those serendipitous occurrences.
It all started a number of years ago when Hélène invited several good friends to help us celebrate a signature birthday in Provence. She had found a wonderful country home (bastide) between Avignon and Châteauneuf-du-Pape that could accommodate our fellow revellers in style. The owner, Béatrice Navarre, turned out to be a most gracious host and ultimately a good friend. In the ensuing years Hélène would use her home as the base for several of her Tours to Provence. When Béatrice learned that we were wine importers and were going to a big wine exhibition in Montpellier (3), she suggested we look up Amélie Barrot, the daughter of her close childhood friend, Catherine Mousset. And, what do you know? It turned out that Catherine’s family owned that landmark castle and that she had grown up there.
We met up with Amélie in Montpellier. As she and Hélène chatted animatedly, I attended to the task at hand–gleefully sampling Amélie’s wines. There were a Côtes-du Rhône, a Côtes-du-Rhône Village and three Châteauneuf-du-Pape including a white. Here are my notes for the 2001 Château des Fines Roches Châteauneuf-du-Pape: “This is the workhorse of the Vignobles Mousset-Barrot (VMB) stable with 200,000 bottles produced annually. The vines average more than 40 years of age and it is comprised of 70 per cent Grenache, 15 per cent Syrah, 8 per cent Mourvèdre, 5 per cent Cinsault, and 2 per cent Muscardin and Counoise (Châteauneuf-du-Pape regulations, the strictest in all of France, allow for up to 13 prescribed grape varieties in the final blend). The wine received traditional vinification in stainless steel tanks –21 days in vats and about 12 months aging in oak. It is a deep ruby colour with prevailing aromas of Provençal spices and red berries combined with a trace of new leather, a bit of pepper and a hint of stone and flint. In the mouth it exhibits splendid finesse and elegance, smooth and very well balanced. This wine is drinking wonderfully now and will keep nicely for years. It would be a perfect companion for meats in wine sauces, in particular game (wild hare or boar stew).” We would later sell this splendid wine in Ontario for $36.00.
So what is Vignobles Mousset-Barrot and how did it come to be? Vignobles simply means vineyards and the Mousset-Barrots are the folks who own them, tend the vines and produce the delicious wines from the Southern Rhône. It was Louis Mousset, son of Claude and Claudia Mousset, who masterminded the entire enterprise and constructed the castle on the hill. Louis acquired Château Fines Roches situated in the heart of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation along with Château du Bois de la Garde a couple of kilometres away (just outside the Châteauneuf du-Pape boundaries) in 1936 from Societé des Grands Vins de Lyon.
Take a look at the picture of Louis. Does he not look like a genuine bon vivant — exactly the kind of man who would create a family-run wine business in the heart of Châteauneuf-du-Pape? He and his wife Louise raised Catherine and her two older brothers, Guy and Jacques in the castle which was really a large warehouse in disguise. The Moussets lived on the second floor which was accessed via a tiny staircase in one of the turrets. Louis, never a man of moderation, became too large for the stairway and had to make a bedroom for himself on the main floor.
Business was booming and Louis was prospering. But then tragedy struck. Returning late at night from a local party on the tricky, dark backroads surrounding Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Louis and Louise were killed in a car accident. Catherine, then 12 went to live with her oldest brother and his wife.
Catherine and her brothers inherited the vineyards, winery and château. In due course Catherine married Robert Barrot who took over control of the family’s wine operations. Their early production was mostly sold to and through their negociant business prior to 1976. But from thereon they crafted and successfully marketed their own wines. Over time their daughters Amélie and Gaëlle became fully immersed in the business and now, along with Gaëlle’s oenologist husband Fred, pretty much run things (under the watchful eyes of Papa). Amélie’s sons Gabriel and Raphaël and Gaëlle’s sons Arthur and Paul wait in the wings.
In 2003 the family purchased a neighbouring property (with vines averaging over 70 years of age) from the Trintignant family and named it Château Jas de Bressy (a jas is a shepherd’s hut made of stone) where elegant, stylish red and white Châteauneuf-du-Pape is produced. This property is also the location of their tasting and sales rooms. Combined, the vineyard holdings of VMB are one of the largest in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. These are very, very good wines from the Southern Rhône made in the traditional style. In recent vintages, these wines routinely received 90+ ratings from Robert Parker in the Wine Advocate.
We already had a Châteauneuf-du-Pape producer, Domaine Roger Sabon, (see my Gentleman’s Portion post: Striking Gold in Châteauneuf-du-Pape) when we agreed to take on Vignobles Mousset-Barrot. Little did we know that there were two feuding factions among Châteauneuf producers–the traditionalists and the modernists. And, wouldn’t you know it! As we learned later on, Vignobles Mousset-Barrot headed up the former, Domaine Roger Sabon the latter.
Every second year the vignerons of Châteauneuf-du-Pape host a fabulous marketing event called Découverte en Vallée du Rhône and the highlight is the dinners that the vintners host for their clients. Robert and Catherine invited us and we gratefully accepted. A few days later we received a similar invitation from Domaine Roger Sabon patriarch Jean-Jacques Sabon. We had to explain that we had already agreed to attend with the Mousset-Barrots. Jean-Jacques Sabon good naturedly chided us about this for years to come.
We enjoyed a fine business relationship with the Mousset-Barrots that sadly ended a little over a year ago when we decided to reduce the number of wineries we represented. But, there is good news for fanciers of their wines. Our good friend and wine club member Brian Jutzi has taken over as their Ontario agent and you can now find their wines at LCBO.com.
Before I leave I must tell you what has happened to the castle on the hill. The Mousset-Barrot family entered into a long-term arrangement with a hospitality company that in turn has converted it into Le Château des Fines Roches, a four-star hotel with a gourmet restaurant they call La Table des Fines Roches. And now you know several of the Château des Fines Roches secrets.
Happy New Year to all, Jim.