As many of you know, our wine scribe Jim Walker operates Arthur’s Cellar Wine Club and imports wine from France’s southern Rhône region into Ontario. He, along with his wife and vinous partner Hélène, journey regularly to southern France to assess recent vintages and maintain relationships with their vintners. Here Jim chronicles the latest visit to their beloved Provence.
It was late September when we boarded Air Canada’s overnight flight to Paris. We rummaged about for overhead bin space and settled in to our cross aisle seats, me on the right. Unfairly, over the years as I’ve become wider and wider, the Air Canada seats have become narrower and narrower. My seatmate to the right loomed large (and I do mean large) shortly before takeoff. To make matters worse, he was left-handed and bound and determined to prattle on all night long. He seemed to occupy fully a third of my allotted sliver of space. If I tried to compensate by edging into the aisle, I was bludgeoned by the beverage cart. I somehow managed to doze off at the very moment my roomie made the first of many trips to the loo. When he returned, instead of gently sitting, he plumped down from a great height … directly on to my right arm that had unconsciously strayed on to our shared armrest. And so the torture, er, flight went.
We landed early morning and collected our bags–why does it take the baggage handlers at Charles de Gaulle airport only a third the time to off-load luggage than those at Toronto Pearson? We then rolled our way through the maddening crowd to the distant in-airport TGV station. We had plenty of time before our train to Avignon, so we ensconced ourselves at the Sheraton’s patio restaurant for a petit dejeuner of fresh orange juice, croissants and espresso. Ahhh, those first savoury moments in France! As we departed, something truly horrid occurred. I have been warned that if I tell anyone what happened, my life won’t be worth a plug nickel. Suffice it to say there are indubitably wanted posters plastered all over the airport.
Boarding a TGV train is surely one of life’s most harrowing experiences. There are but mere nanoseconds to haul yourself and luggage from the platform up two giant steps onto the train. But first, the seasoned local pros position themselves precisely where the doors open and they board first. By the time you get on, with last call warnings ringing in your ears, every single solitary bit of luggage storage space has been staked. You then have to manage a heavy sliding door that separates the entrance platform from the coach. The wretched thing then snaps shut just as you struggle through with your bags.
We thought we were going to have to wear our suitcases all the way south when a sympathetic soul pointed out that there might be space further along. Sure enough, there between two rows of seats was three feet of room stacked almost to the top of the coach with all manner of impedimenta. I managed to heave our bags to the top of the pile where they precariously balanced for the remainder of our ride.
Getting off the TGV brings with it all the joys of getting on. But, when you exit the Avignon station to the shimmering light of a warm Provençal day, the ordeals of travel suddenly evaporate.
We collected our rental car, making sure that a proper child’s seat had been installed. Our daughter Kate and four-year old granddaughter Romy were going to join us later on. We then motored the short distance to Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, checked into our rental apartment, went shopping for the basic necessities–rillettes, pâté, remoulade, various cheeses, Dijon mustard, salad fixings and baguette–and dropped by Christian Esparza’s wine emporium to pick up a few bottles and to make lunch arrangements for later during our stay.
The next day we headed up to southern Rhône wine country to visit Château Malijay. We were looking forward to meeting the folks who had acquired our long-time partner Domaine Palon (see our Gentleman’s Portion wine post Eulogy for a Winery) and to sample their wines. Château Malijay is a large estate of some 320 acres located in Jonquières between Châteauneuf du Pape and Gigondas. Wine produced there (records show since 1562) is classified as humble Côtes du Rhône. In the late 18th century the estate was owned by a nobleman named André Légier de Montfort. He demolished the then existing chateau, leaving only a tower which dated to the 11th century, and built the stately manor house one sees there today. Subsequent owners came and went, most not particularly interested in making wine. Their grapes were sold to the négociants. Then in 2007, Pierre Deltin, a successful owner of pharmacies and medical laboratories from Marseille, acquired the estate. Everything vinous changed for the better from that point on. Pierre’s daughter Aude, who was educated as a journalist and plied her trade in television in Paris, decided to switch vocations by taking on management of the estate.
Aude, who turned out to be a vivacious and gracious host, met us in the courtyard and took us on a tour of her wine-making and cellaring facilities including a look at that 11th century tower. This is a very, very impressive estate. Then came the best part … tasting! Château Malijay offers three ranges of wine: Notre grain de folie, Notre cœur de gamme and Notre savoir-faire. We began with the grain de folie line. First came the 2018 Le Fou de Malijay (Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre) which is a completely charming rosé, pale pink, crisp and loaded with peach and pear aromas. Splendid stuff! Next was the 2018 La Princesse, a very pleasant white (Viognier, Grenache Blanc and Roussanne) loaded with aromas of apricots, peaches and a hint of citrus with a nice crisp finish. A lovely sipper! And then came the 2017 Le Petit Prince, a lively red (Syrah, Grenache and Carignan) that was beautifully balanced, showing aromas of red fruit, spices and a hint of new leather. Very quaffable indeed! I estimate that we will be able to import this terrific triad for about $15 the bottle.
We sampled several more of Aude’s wines, all of them delicious. Two stand outs were the 2015 La Part des Anges (Syrah with a bit of Grenache) that reminded me of a good Cote Rôtie and the 2016 Opus de Malijay (equal parts Syrah and Grenache) that was simply marvelous. Aude’s wines were first rate. We can hardly wait to bring them to Ontario.
The next day, a Saturday, we headed joyfully off to Châteauneuf du Pape for afternoon visits with Domaine Roger Sabon and Domaine Giuliani. But the first item on the agenda was lunch, so we settled in on the terrace at La Part des Anges (strangely, the same name as Aude’s wine) in the heart of the village. A gentleman sat over in the corner with a little bulldog elegantly perched on the chair across from him. What great fun it was to watch the hustle and bustle of late harvest time with all the tractors and other mobile equipment trundling by.
After lunch we moseyed over to nearby Domaine Roger Sabon. Visiting with the Sabon family and tasting their latest vintages is always a highlight of our Provençal excursions. You can read all about this top tier Châteauneuf du Pape producer and the remarkable Jean-Jacques Sabon in our Gentleman’s Portion post Striking Vinous Gold in Châteauneuf du Pape. We found Delphine Sabon and Didier Négron conveniently in their tasting room where we exchanged pleasantries and proceeded to taste the 2018 Rhône and Lirac by Roger Sabon from the bottle. They were as delightful as always. Then Didier led us down into the barrel cellar (one of my very favourite places) where the serious elixirs lay somnambulant, awaiting their turn on the world’s stages.
The Sabons concoct four different Châteauneuf du Pape: Les Olivets, Réserve, Prestige and Le Secret des Sabon. They are differentiated by the age of the vines, the particular plots of origin and the type of grapes used (they are permitted up to nine varieties by regulation). I tried the 2018 versions of each of the four while Hélène caught up on all the local gossip. This is what I call an ideal division of labour. The Les Olivets was round, fresh, and filled with red fruit, spices and garrigue. The Réserve was more complex and quite tannic, exuding aromas of black cherries, plums, spice and more garrigue. I always adore the Prestige and this was no exception. It was almost sweet and filled with aromas of black cherries, old leather, lead pencil and perhaps a bit of red meat. Les Secret des Sabon was completely closed, offering up little of its charms that I knew lurked inside. Then back up in the tasting room Didier opened up the 2016 edition and it was much more approachable, quite delicious really. But I still preferred the Prestige. I remarked to Didier that the wines of the south seemed to be becoming more and more alcoholic. It seemed that only yesterday they were in the 12 to 13 range and now routinely exceeded 15 per cent. He explained that this was due to a combination of hotter growing seasons and the fact that today’s vignerons are much more adept at picking the grapes at peak ripeness.
Last, but certainly not least, we traipsed over to Domaine Giuliani where we met up with Aline and Bernard Giuliani, their son Florian and the vineyard dogs. Florian is the fourth generation Giuliani to grow grapes, mostly gorgeous Grenache, on the family land. In 2016 his parents decided to make their own wine rather than sending their special grapes off to the coop. A very fine decision indeed.
Ably assisted by their golden retriever, I worked my way through recent vintages of the Giuliani’s Châteauneuf du Pape, both white and red. You can appreciate how hard I toil on behalf of our wine club members. I remarked to Bernard that their 2017 Les Notes de Louis Côtes du Rhône had been a big hit and asked if by chance he had any left? He and Aline conversed a moment and then said that someone had reserved 20 cases, but were late confirming the order. I said we would confirm on the spot and I am pleased to report that all 20 cases are about to arrive at the LCBO.
A few days passed. Kate and Romy had joined us in St-Rémy and it was time to have lunch with the Esparzas. Please see my Gentleman’s Portion post My Other Partner in the Wondrous World of Wine for background. We met at the restaurant L’Estagnol and quickly fell into familiar conversation. We covered all manner of topics before settling in to an assessment of the recent Southern Rhône vintages. 2015 and 2016 had been terrific. If you can find any Côtes du Rhône from these years languishing on your favourite liquor store’s shelves, I recommend you give them a try.
The year 2017 began quite nicely. It was a warm spring and flowering occurred earlier than usual. But a sudden drop in temperature in late April led to what they call poor fruit-set or coulure. As a result, a great deal of fertilization failed to occur which severely impacted the size of the crop. It was particularly rough on the early budding Grenache and Viognier. Many wineries saw their production fall by 40 and even 50 per cent. The remainder of the growing season progressed quite well, if a tad on the hot and dry side, and there was an early harvest. Overall, the quality of wine was very high.
Then 2018 started with a very damp June which caused an outbreak of downy mildew throughout the region. It was particularly hard on the Grenache. Those vintners who treated their vines and otherwise combated the parasitical plant managed to preserve much of their crops. From there on in, everything was pretty much ideal, if a little on the warm side. As a result, the 2018 vintage was generally very successful, to the point that the Rhône Valley vignerons declared it a ‘great vintage.’ It reminds me of the 2015 and 2009 vintages.
Finally, 2019 began with a mild winter which gave the grapes an early boost. But, this was followed by a cool April and May which really slowed growth down. A very hot, dry summer ensued, damaging many grapes and reducing yields by 20 per cent or more. The juice in the grapes was concentrated and older vines with deeper root systems did very well. It looks like another very successful, if smallish vintage, perhaps reminiscent of 2003.
That’s it for this year. Hélène and I want to wish you and yours a most merry Christmas and astonishing luck in 2020. By the way, if you live in Ontario and are interested in the latest Domaine Sabon wines or the return of the Giulianis’ 2017 Les Notes de Louis, keep an eye on our Arthur’s Cellar Wine Club homepage.
This is Jim’s 46th wine post on Gentleman’s Portion. Please “like” our blogs, if you have enjoyed our musings, or add a “comment” — clickable at the top or bottom of each story. The search function works really well if you want to look back and see some of our previous articles.