You can rest assured that no matter where his travels take him, our wine scribe Jim Walker will make plenty of time to visit the top wineries in the area (assuming there are any). But perhaps the most unique of them all was the one that he and his young family called on many years ago. That winery’s claim to fame? At the time their red wine was the most expensive vin du table in the world!
It was the fall of 1994. Hélène and I along with our daughters Kate aged ten and Magee, seven were staying at our cousin’s little pied-à-terre in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. We had negotiated a daily activities routine with our daughters – on even days we did whatever the girls wished to do and on odd days we visited wineries. It was a winery day and our destination had been selected based on the following prose by Robert M. Parker, Jr. in his book The Wines of the Rhône Valley and Provence (Simon and Schuster 1987):
“One of the greatest discoveries of my life has been the wine made at the Domaine de Trévallon. Only an exciting red is made here, though there are plans to eventually produce a white wine. Virtually everything about this compelling wine is unique. Eloi Durrbach, a ruggedly handsome man in his early forties, gave up a promising career in architecture in Paris to create a vineyard out of the lunarlike landscape near the medieval ghost town of Les Baux and the phantomlike, weird Val d’Enfer, or Valley of Hell. These vineyards, planted with 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Syrah, have performed magically since Durrbach produced his first wine in 1978. Durrbach apprenticed under Georges Brunet of Château Vignelaure prior to starting his vineyard, to get, as he says, “some confidence”; he now has 37 acres of vines that seem to grow from the bauxite rock crags of this forbidding desolate, windswept, surreal area of France. And he intends to expand onto the 101 acres of unplanted land he owns.
To taste Durrbach’s staggering wines is to see a progression from very good wines in 1978 (his first vintage), made from four-year-old vines, to something sublime in 1985, produced from 11-year-old vines. They seem to show greater depth and dimension with each passing year, and the prospects here look to be exhilarating. This is a very special wine worth every effort to find since it belongs in any serious collector’s cellar.”
So, Domaine de Trévallon was our destination. Although hidden away in the countryside near the small picturesque village of Saint-Etienne-du-Grès, the four of us had no trouble finding the winery with its large, blue shuttered Provençal farmhouse and rocky vineyards. But there was no sign of life except for a rambunctious, welcoming black Lab that we found out was named Gypsy. Before too long a pleasant gentleman emerged from the house and asked us, with a trace of surprise in his voice, what we were doing there? “We’ve come to try some Domaine de Trévallon wine and to meet the owner,” I said. “Well, I am Eloi Dürrbach and I would be pleased to have you to sample some of my wines.” He was a gracious host and we thoroughly enjoyed several different vintages of his splendid creation. We purchased a few bottles, said our farewells and marvelled at our good fortune.
Several years later, in May of 2005, we spent a few days with our good friends Cheryl and Philippe Gadbois in St.-Rémy. We stayed in a rather funky hotel and enjoyed many fine meals, which is easy to do in this gastronomic haven. One day while the ladies went shopping, Philippe and I set out in search of what else – wine. We had already spent a considerable amount of time and money at Christian Esparza’s wine emporium, so were looking for something different. In the labyrinths of village laneways we stumbled (this could be interpreted literally) onto a nifty looking shop called something like Entre Terre et Verre. Inside we found a treasure chest of some of the world’s finest wines all beautifully displayed and reasonably priced. We met the owner and engaged in a most interesting conversation with this entrepreneurial and imaginative chap.
Philippe and I returned to the wine store the next day. Philippe wanted to buy a bottle of the 2000 Domaine de Trévallon! The owner was away but his very attractive wife was a fine substitute. It turned out that she was from Oakville, Ontario, like the four of us, and used to work at Marc and John Nadeau’s marvellous wine shop, The Wine Establishment located on The Esplanade in Toronto (small world). She said that her husband was meeting with Monsieur Dürrbach the next day and would pick up the treasured bottle then. We returned a couple of days later and sure enough, the bottle was ready for Philippe. While in the process of exchanging contact information I inadvertently purloined a black Mont Blanc ballpoint pen (which was identical to one I had). Realizing my gaff, I returned it the next day. That was the last time I visited that nifty wine shop and the delightful folks who ran it; but they will figure again later in this yarn.
Here’s why Philippe was so determined to acquire a bottle of the 2000 Domaine de Trévallon:
Notes from the Estate
June 2010 – A mixture of finesse and power, fine and deep, still so young with red fruits on the nose, a refined and elegant charmer of a wine.
November 2007 – Fine, deep, still youthful. Nose shows more red than black fruit. Very elegant palate aromas, delicate, great finesse. An attractive wine now starting to show its depth and elegance. Needs several years to refine and evolve.
April 2005 – The most balanced and elegant of all the Trévallon reds, it boasts a blend of finesse and strength. A great deal of acidity, Will be at its peak in 10 to 15 years.
Entering its second phase of excellence, the 2000 Trévallon, one of the top three wines in Provence (as adjudicated by the Revue Des Vins de France in May 2009, although pretty obvious to everyone in any case) is a real treat. The 2000 is a fantastic Trévallon, fruits of the labours of a warm and generous year. Notes of truffle, violets and hints of tobacco with, waiting to emerge, sousbois and liqueur – so far so good. Then the palate with its disarming freshness, its intimations of youth, its fine balance and sense of harmony. (Simon Field MW, Berry Bros. & Rudd Buyer)
You no doubt noticed the rather unusual label. It and many others were designed by Eloi’s father, René who died in 1999, aged 89. René, who purchased the Trévallon (three small valleys) estate in 1955 as a holiday home, was a painter and sculptor who counted Fernand Léger, Robert Delaunay and Pablo Picasso among his friends (Eloi is Picasso’s godson).
We now leap forward to 2010 and another idyllic sojourn in St-Rémy. Of course, per usual, our first stop was the wine shoppe of our good friend and mentor, Christian Esparza. As we were catching up on the local gossip and sampling his latest finds, he casually asked if we would like to represent Domaine de Trévallon in Ontario? You bet! We told Christian about our visit to the winery 16 years before and the warm greeting we had received from M. Dürrbach. “I find that hard to believe,” Christian said with a note of surprise in his voice. “Eloi has a reputation for being quite unfriendly and intolerant of strangers.” Fortunately, we had photos to prove otherwise.
So, improbably, the next day we found ourselves back at the domaine sampling new vintages of Eloi’s red elixir as well as a wonderful new white. The white wine wasn’t the only change. The vines were much older giving the reds even more flavour and complexity. Eloi and his wife Floriane had been joined by their son Antoine and daughter Ostiane in the management and operation of the estate. And Tulip had succeeded Gypsy as queen of the domaine.
The Trévallon vineyard had been expanded to 42 acres, 37 of which were dedicated equally to the red wine grapes of Cabernet Sauvignon (originally from Château Vignelaure clippings) and Syrah (originally from Château Rayas). The remaining three acres were planted with the white wine grapes of Marsanne, Roussanne and a bit of Chardonnay.
As we were shaking hands on our new collaboration, I casually asked Eloi if he knew what had happened to the Entre Terre et Verre shop? We had found it closed and boarded up the day before. “That is a very sad tale,” he began. “The owner of the wine store, who had befriended all the vintners of the best local wineries, suddenly skipped town owing each of us tens of thousands of Euros. We were all played like fiddles. He beguiled us, ordered large amounts of wine on credit and, poof, he was gone along with all of our wine. We are all just simple farmers and were very naïve.”
Shortly after our meeting, Hélène looked up the Entre Terre et Verre owner on Google. What do you know? He was wanted by the authorities for fraud and embezzlement in Switzerland and had a long track record of such malfeasance. If only Eloi and his fellow vintners had done a little investigation of their own.
Later, after we had returned to Canada, we presented six vintages of Domaine de Trévallon to our wine club members, the 2000 and 2003 through 2007. They all sported relatively low alcohol contents ranging from 12.5% to 13.7%. The LCBO mandated that we had to sell our wines by the case. Fortunately, Eloi used six-bottle cases, lovely wooden ones at that. Also, the wines were expensive ranging from $70 to $80 the bottle (Eloi demonstrated more than a tad of chutzpah when it came to pricing his vin de tables). We did convince him to create a sampler case for us, one bottle of each vintage for $450. A mere bag of shells you might say. We were aided somewhat by what Clive Coates, the highly respected English wine writer who had this to say about Trévallon in ‘The Great Wines of France, 2005’:
“Trevallon is not just the greatest wine of Provence but the finest example of a Syrah/Cabernet Sauvignon blend. The wines are getting more and more noble as the vineyard ages. It is a wine of the garrigues, it is a wine of uncompromising personality and like its origins, it is a wine of no half measures. There is danger here. There is excitement. There is passion.”
But Clive’s generous comments weren’t enough. We sold but two samplers and a case of the 2007 vintage. After we had placed the skimpy order through the LCBO, their French shipper refused to pick it up. The winery would have to deliver the measly three cases to the shipper’s collection point in Marseille some 100 kilometres away. But the Dürrbachs didn’t want to go to the trouble, so that was that. It was fun while it lasted.
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