Domaine de Tara is magnificently situated at the foot of the picturesque ochre hillside village of Roussillon-en-Provence in the heart of the Lubéron Regional Natural Reserve in Provence, France. It faces the Monts de Vaucluse, Mont Ventoux and the precariously perched hilltop village of Gordes. This is truly spectacular countryside. But our wine scribe Jim Walker didn’t select this winery because of the views. It was for its wine, of course.
It seems so long ago. As I recounted in my first post on Gentleman’s Portion, A Long and Winey Road we (Hélène and I) had bravely (or foolishly) decided to get into the wine importing game. A more naïve couple never existed. It was a good thing indeed that we couldn’t foresee the obstacles strewn along our intended vinous path. The first problem was that we didn’t have any wineries to represent. Christian Esparza, a wine shop owner in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, whom we had befriended over the years, offered to find some for us. And, he did. In fact he found three – Champagne Forget-Brimont, Château Beauferan and Domaine de Tara. In each instance a woman was in charge, hardly surprising to those who know Christian.
Thus it was, in the early spring of 2005, that we paid our first visit to Domaine de Tara and met the mother and daughter team of Françoise and Frédérique Droux who owned it. Actually, the first creature we encountered as we drove up the rough path that led to the winery was a Black Lab that had this disquieting habit of picking up stones and chewing on them. I still get shivers at the thought of it.
Here’s a little background about Françoise and Frédérique Droux, Domaine de Tara and the Côtes du Ventoux AOC (appellation d’origine contrôlée, not Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) wine area. The Côtes du Ventoux AOC (shortened to Ventoux AOC in 2009) is located in the south-eastern section of the vast belt of Rhône Valley plantations that stretch from Vienne in the north to Avignon. The vineyards are some of the oldest in France. Recent archaeological finds trace winemaking there back to around 30 BC. The climate is Mediterranean – dry in summer and very sunny all year round. The Mistral, the prevailing (and often maddening) northerly wind, provides the vines with natural ventilation, making it easier to farm organically or with gentle, common-sense methods. Eleven varieties of grapes are authorized for the blended wines of the Côtes du Ventoux AOC.
Françoise Droux and her daughter Frédérique, natives of the South-West of France, purchased Domaine de Tara in May 1999.
The previous owners were based in the Champagne region and considered the estate to be a magnificent summer residence rather than a place to create fine wines. They were inspired by the 1936 novel by Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind where Rhett says: “You get your strength from this red earth of Tara, Scarlett.” Hence the name.
The 25 acres of vines, entirely within the Côtes du Ventoux AOC, and the wine production facilities required a huge amount of work and investment before the acclaimed wines of Domaine de Tara began to emerge. Frédérique was the winemaker, having trained with one of the best producers in Mercurey in Burgundy’s Côte Chalonnaise. Françoise looked after marketing and the general management of the estate.
Françoise and Frédérique produced two ranges of red and white wines – the regular line called the Cuvée Terre d’Ocre (land of ochre) and the premium Cuvée Hautes Pierres (high stones). At the time I did not much care for the Domaine de Tara red wines so we imported just the whites. Harvests were done entirely by hand and yields averaged a low 30 hectolitres per hectare. The Cuvée Terre d’Ocre whites were fresh, elegant, richly textured wines where the grapes were quickly pressed and the juice fermented in temperature-controlled vats. The Cuvée Hautes Pierres whites were powerful, aromatic wines that received up to a year in oak casks and could be cellared for several years. The wines were made from Roussanne, Clairette and Grenache Blanc grapes. We tasted these wines at the estate and were blown away. Here’s how I described each wine when we first offered them to our wine club members:
The 2003 Cuvée Terre d’Ocre Blanc is honey coloured with lively aromas of peaches, bananas, pineapple and almonds. It is round and buttery in the mouth with fine acidity. It is drinking beautifully now and will continue to do so for at least another two years. It will be a wonderful match for fish and other seafood. This lovely little wine sold for $16.95.
The 2003 Cuvée Hautes Pierres is a very big, serious white wine. It really should be decanted an hour or so before serving! It is a deep golden-yellow with an intense and elegant nose of honey, toasted almonds, ripe peaches, stone and a hint of old leather. In the mouth it is full, balanced and extremely pleasing with a lingering after taste that contains a hint of grapefruit. Serve at about 11°C. It will go marvellously with sole meunière or fresh trout amandine. As the Guide Dussert-Gerber des Vins de France said: “Why resist?” We sold it for $23.95 the bottle.
Sales of the Domaine de Tara whites were quite brisk over the ensuing few years. But storm clouds were brewing. M. Esparza (we had yet to graduate to first names) told us that Domaine de Tara was in financial difficulty and was on the market. Sure enough. In early 2006 Patrick and Michèle Folléa purchased the winery. The Folléas had wine in their blood and longed to have their own little piece of paradise. Michèle’s grandfather was a bouilleur de cru (legal distiller of wine dregs) and during his teens Patrick joined in the vendanges (harvests) at several top-ranked Pomerol estates. In Domaine de Tara they found the vineyard of their dreams.
When we met Patrick and Michèle, he was an executive with a leading French financial institution and they were living in Milan Italy. They commuted to their newly acquired property on the weekends. In addition to their careers, they had three children to raise. They needed someone to manage Domaine de Tara. As luck would have it, Mathieu Griveaux, an oenologist spied the Folléa’s help wanted ad and promptly applied. By coincidence Mathieu’s first job after graduation was at Tara. He fell in love with the property and its surroundings but moved on to Burgundy to broaden his wine-making experience. But he wanted to settle back in Provence (who can blame him).
Matthieu made a great impression during his hour and a half long interview. At the end, Patrick asked his new régisseur if he knew anyone who could look after the commercial aspects of the business. By amazing coincidence he did! His wife Pascale, who also adored Domaine de Tara and the glorious Lubéron countryside, had been waiting all the time in their car out in the parking lot. She fit the bill perfectly and soon the Griveaux took control of the estate.
The Folléas and the Griveaux made a superb team. The quality of the Domaine de Tara wines improved markedly from year to year, particularly the reds. It wasn’t long until we expanded our wine club offerings to include not only the reds but two lovely bubblies, a white and a Rosé. All the wines remained popular with our wine club members.
Here’s how I described the 2009 Hautes Pierres Rouge which sold for $24 the bottle:
This is a stellar wine from a fine year. Made from 80% Syrah, 10% Carignan and 10% Grenache, it was hand-harvested to yield but 30 hl/ha. It matured happily in French oak (one quarter new) for a year. A deep purple with ruby highlights on the rim, it has an intense, rich bouquet of black currants, black cherries, plums, garrigue, spices and caramel. In the mouth it is full, elegant and very well-balanced with silky tannins and a delicious, lingering aftertaste of blackberries and spice. This medium-bodied wine will go wonderfully with game, roasts and richly flavoured dishes. It will keep nicely for at least ten years and probably longer. This beauty would be much more expensive if it came from a better recognized appellation. It took a gold medal at the Avignon Wine Challenge (2012) and earned recommendations from both the Guide Gilbert et Gaillard (2013) and the Guide Dussert & Gerbert (2013).
In addition to overseeing the production of fine wines and possessing many other talents, Patrick was an abstract painter of considerable ability. The Domaine de Tara barrel cellar was festooned with his creations and his work was frequently featured in vernissages throughout the region. Speaking of the region, the estate lies in the shadows of the hilltop village of Roussillon-en-Provence. Once known for its ochre quarries and then silkworm farming, the charming village is now an artists’ haven with many fine galleries, jewelry shops and fashion boutiques. If you ever visit Provence, I highly recommend a visit there and a hike through its quarries. By the way, there is a delightful book about the village as it existed in the early 50s called Village in the Vaucluse by Lawrence Wylie and published by the Harvard University Press.
Hélène used the Château de Goult as the base for her Tours de Provence. As luck would have it, this splendidly restored renaissance chateau was situated on the other side of a hill opposite Domaine de Tara. Whenever vital supplies of wine ran low, we would nip over, often with a guest in tow. Here you see our good friend Gord McFaull along with Pascale Griveaux watching on as Hélène listens to the gurgling of the fermenting wine.
All the Domaine de Tara wines remained popular with our wine club members throughout the years. However, when the LCBO made it virtually impossible to carry on, we had to reduce the number of wineries we represented to a bare minimum. Domaine de Tara was one of the many vinous partners with which we had to part company. But all was not lost. Brian Jutzi, a very good customer of Arthur’s Cellar Wine Club had visited Domaine de Tara, loved their wines and learned about our club via Pascale. Brian asked if we would mind if he took on Tara as well as a few of our other wineries. We were pleased to arrange for him to do so and he now makes them available in Ontario through the aptly named Salvation Wines.
Yes Scarlett, we did and still do give a damn
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