Our wine scribe Jim Walker along with his wife and partner in vinous pursuits, Hélène Buisson, had been visiting Provence and enjoying its Southern Rhône nectars for years. But little did he know that lurking just around the corner from their base in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence was a little-known wine region that held a veritable trove of tasty treasures. Read on to learn about this secret source of remarkable wines.
It was early fall, 2010 and we had just arrived in our favourite haunt, Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in southern France. It would be our home for the following three weeks as we travelled near and far in pursuit of fine wines to please the discerning taste buds of our wine club members. It was exhausting work, but it simply had to be done. Our first stop after landing in the essential provisions (cheeses, pâtés, rillettes, baguettes, rémoulade, olives and so on) was at Christian Ezparza’s wine emporium on the edge of town (see My Other Partner in the Wondrous World of Wine for more about Christian). Hélène caught up on all the local gossip as I grazed about admiring all the liquid lovelies tantalizingly on display. Soon corks were popping and some serious tasting began. ‘I want you to try some wines from a new winery discovery of mine,’ he enthused. We obliged, purely for the benefit of our members, mind. Christian continued, they come from Domaine de Poulvarel in the nearby Costières de Nîmes wine region and are very, very attractively priced. I knew virtually nothing about the area but had to agree that the wines, reds, whites and rosés, were wonderful. ‘I have to pick up some stock at the winery tomorrow afternoon. Why don’t you meet me there at 2:30? I will introduce you to the owners and we can do some more tasting,’ Christian suggested. This sounded like a fine plan to us. We got the address, purchased a few bottles and promised to reconvene the next day at Domaine de Poulvarel.
We awoke the next day to a gorgeous Provençal morning and, as is our custom, trotted down to the local boulangerie where we carefully selected our breakfast fare – croissants, of course, along with petits pains au chocolat and choco Suisse. If you don’t happen to know, a petit pain au chocolat is a delightful composition of tender flaky pastry with a stick of dark chocolate in its midst. A choco Suisse is like a petit pain au chocolat, but on steroids. We munched happily on these treats accompanied by fresh oranges from nearby Spain and rich, dark, aromatic coffee from the French press. We had several hours to kill before our rendezvous with Christian at Domaine de Poulvarel, so we decided to revisit one of our favourite spots in Provence, the Pont du Gard, which wasn’t too far from the winery.
The Pont du Gard is a bridge over the Gardon River and part of an aqueduct that the Romans built 2,000 years ago to move water from Ucetia (Uzès) to Nemausus (Nîmes) some 50 kilometres away (both Uzès and Nîmes are stellar places to visit when in Provence). We had first visited the Pont du Gard with our girls 15 years earlier. Back then it was pretty much just a bridge used by cars and trucks, impressive for sure, but that’s all it was. At about the same time, UNESCO added it to its list of World Heritage Sites and everything changed. The bridge was fully restored, all motor vehicle traffic across it was halted and the illegally built tourist shops that cluttered the river bank were eliminated. A new visitor centre including an excellent museum designed by Jean-Paul Viguier was built on the north bank. And, a couple of 1,000-year-old olive trees were transplanted from Spain. About the only negative was the entrance fee charged to enjoy it all. The Pont du Gard is today one of France’s top five tourist attractions.
After poking around for a while we decided it was time to head over to the winery. It was well past noon and the ominous first signs of hunger were in the air. Now I must tell you, one does not mess with Madame when pangs of abject starvation have settled in. We were passing through a dull and dreary little hamlet when she spied an equally dull and dreary little restaurant. ‘Stop,’ she wailed. Oh no, thought I, but resistance was completely out of the question. So in we went. The interior was as dull and dreary as the exterior. There was a long bar down one wall and seven or so rickety wood tables scattered about, two of which were occupied by bemused locals. We settled into the window table to get a little light and ordered our dull and dreary lunch. It was then that I was struck with what the French so accurately describe as une crise. It might have been the choco Suisse, but whatever the cause, I urgently needed a toilet. Fortunately there was one across from our table along the back wall.
I nonchalantly exercised a perfect green apple quick step over to it and opened the door which, interestingly, also caused the lights to come on. Things progressed favourably until all of a sudden the lights went off! They had been on a timer. More alarmingly, I discovered as I groped around in the total darkness, that there was no toilet paper! I suppressed a primal scream, then pondered my situation. It was not good. There was but one option. I stretched out as best I could, found the handle and pushed the door open. The wretched lights came back on! I had to holler pretty much at the top of my lungs to wrench Hélène’s attention away from her food. It took her what seemed like ages to appreciate my plight. The other patrons caught on right away and broke out in unrestrained peals of laughter. At last she became conscious of the maelstrom at play around her and managed to obtain a fresh, life-giving roll from the giggling employee behind the counter. I soon after exited the torture chamber and sashayed back to our table with every ounce of aplomb I could muster. We settled up in record time and were out of there, serene in the knowledge that we had, for a brief moment, caused the denizens of the hamlet to escape their dullness and dreariness.
We were back on the road again in Costières de Nîmes country. The Costières de Nîmes was recently established in 1989 and is, to quote Jancis Robinson (8) in The Oxford Companion to Wine … the generally reliable and well-priced southernmost appellation of the Rhône. In French wine politics, it used to be considered part of the eastern Languedoc but the climate, soil, topography – and wines – are closer to those just over the river in the southern Côtes du Rhône vineyards. This is an important zone for the production of Vin de Pays. As in the nearby southern Rhône, Grenache is an important vine variety here, and must represent at least 25 per cent of any red (to qualify as AOC Costières de Nîmes). Syrah and Mourvèdre are becoming increasingly popular in many of the best wines and must each total at least 20 per cent of the blend. This is an appellation in transition, not just geographically between the Languedoc and the Rhône, but temporarily between a bulk wine producer and a source of genuinely characterful, well-made wines. You might have come across excellent examples of wines from this region from the very good ones made by Mas des Bressades.
We soon reached our destination to find Christian already at work loading up his wine wagon. He introduced us to Domaine de Poulvarel’s owners, Pascal and Elisabeth Glas (a very charming couple) and amiable conversation soon flowed. Pascal told us that he had worked for 25 years supplying grapes from his family’s generations-old vineyards to various wine local producers. Then in 2004 he convinced Elisabeth that it was time to take the big plunge and create a winery of their own.
Their property is located just outside Sernhac, an old Saracen village. The vines are old (their lovely les Agapans red is made entirely from 100 year-old Grenache), yields are kept low, the grapes hand-picked and sorted and the wines impeccably made in their new state-of-the art winery. They produce both AOP Costières de Nimes and IGP Côteaux du Pont du Gard from Grenache, Syrah and Merlot for the reds and Sauvignon Blanc, Grenache Blanc, Roussanne and Viognier for the whites. Pascal and Elisabeth make very, very good wines that are attracting the attention of the wine press and foreign buyers.
Elisabeth and Pascal took us on a tour of their modern, spotlessly clean winery (something I always look for). We then returned to the showroom where the serious business of tasting began. I won’t bore you or make you drool by describing all of the Glas’ excellent elixirs, but there was one I just have to tell you about. It was the 2008 Merlot Vin de Pays d’Oc (you’re going to hate me for this, but whenever I hear that term I think of ‘What’s up Doc?’).
Here are my tasting notes:
Hyperbole alert, hyperbole alert! I was told by usually reliable sources that the Domaine de Poulvarel Merlot is referred to locally as the Pétrus du Gard, with inference that somehow an unknown, inexpensive Vin de Pays d’Oc Merlot could rival the exalted Château Pétrus from Pomerol costing 50 times as much. Can it be true? Sadly, precious little Pétrus finds its way past my lips, but I will say that this is truly astonishing stuff! Made entirely from Merlot with vines averaging 30 plus years of age, a yield of less than 27 hl./ha. and 14.0 per cent alcohol by volume, it is a dark ruby/purple. The pronounced nose is chock-full of raspberries, blackberries, smoke, exotic spices, cocoa and a trace of new leather. All of this carries through in the mouth to be joined by silky smooth, soft tannins, excellent depth and surprising length. I loved it and no wonder it is the top selling wine at Christian’s shop. It will go smashingly with grilled or roasted meats, pasta dishes and medium cheeses.
When we imported it a few months later, it sold for just $17 the bottle.
We thoroughly enjoyed our seven-year relationship with Elisabeth, Pascal and Domaine de Poulvarel. But all good things must come to an end. We passed our agency rights on to our friend and wine club member Brian Jutzi (Salvation Wines) when we decided to scale back operations.
That’s it for this month. If you are on the lookout for a truly special Côtes du Rhône and reside in Ontario, I highly recommend the 2018 Rhône By Roger Sabon that is currently available on LCBO.com for only $19.05.
This is Jim’s 48th 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.