We’ve often wondered how our wine scribe Jim walker selects the wines he imports and presents to his Arthur’s Cellar wine club. No doubt he spends countless hours scouring trade magazines, studying vintage reports and endlessly sampling likely candidates, all the while working tirelessly and selflessly on behalf of his thirsty clients. Here’s how he decided on the wines from Domaine de La Gramière.
It was February 2010. We were scheduled to attend a giant wine fair in Montpellier, France and decided to first spend a few days in Uzès so that Hélène could scout out locations for the tours she ran at the time. The day was dark, bitterly cold and wretchedly damp and we were hungry. It was the kind of a day that called for a good lunch. The only restaurant open was the cozy Envie de Terroirs in La Place-aux-Herbes in the center of town. Tucked in the back amid bottled salad dressings and preserves, we ordered the luncheon special along with a bottle of something called La Gramière. It was a 2005 vintage. As you can tell from this photo of Hélène, it was thoroughly enjoyed.
Here’s how I subsequently described it:
This absolute charmer is made from 80% Grenache and 20% Syrah. The vines are from thirty to fifty years of age and the yield is a most miserly 22 hl/ha! This wine sees no oak, is unfined and unfiltered. It is pure, crisp, pleasingly complex and ready to drink, although it will keep nicely for at least ten years or more. It is a deep ruby red and proffers up aromas of plums, raspberries, blackberries, Provençal spices, tobacco, pepper and a trace of mocha. It is elegant, full and juicy in the mouth with terrific depth and balance followed by a very pleasant, lingering aftertaste. It would go wonderfully with roast leg of lamb and all manner of game.
That first encounter with a bottle of La Gramière transformed a nasty day into a true delight. A bottle of fine wine, good food and great company can do that. In fact we enjoyed it so much that we were determined to find the source. As luck would have it, we found it the following week at the Vinisud wine exhibition (see my early blogs A (Mediterranean) Sea of Wine and The Wondrous World of Wine for all the delicious details about this marvellous biennial event). The owners of La Gramière, Amy Lillard and Matt Kling had taken a booth at the exhibition and were proudly displaying their wares. We tracked them down in one of the seven huge halls and quickly settled into what we both do best – Hélène socializing and me sampling their lovely wines.
Here’s what Hélène managed to glean from their conversation. Several years previously, Amy, who originally hailed from Colorado, encountered Minnesotan Matt as he was browsing through the racks of Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon in Kermit Lynch’s wine shop in Berkley, California where she worked. A few days later when a case of wine was to be delivered to Matt’s house, the opportunistic Amy volunteered. This was repeated a few times more. Things developed splendidly from those delivery missions and in due course they married. But for Amy and Matt drinking good wine wasn’t enough – they wanted to make their own. So, they moved to Paris and then in early 2005 found the vineyards of their dreams near the quaint village of St Quentin la Poterie not too far from Uzès. They decided to purchase them and named their bit of paradise Domaine de la Gramière. Here’s how Amy described it all:
“Created in 2005 with the purchase of 4.5 hectares of vineyards in the southern Rhône Valley, La Gramière is our dream come true. Our vineyards have been farmed organically since we purchased them in 2005 (organic certification took effect with the harvest of 2011). All the labeling we do is eco-friendly too (we’ve just employed an eco printer). So we’re a green bunch. Matthew works at Cisco Systems during the day – but his heart and evenings are spent in the vineyard, working his socks off. We’re not rigid in our winemaking. We work with what each vintage and nature brings. We create blends as well as single varietal wines. It is a truly “hands-on” business – we have no employees, and we do all vineyard work and vinification ourselves. Our wines are made naturally with very little manipulation (no oak, no micro-oxygenation, no additives), just grapes (very good ones), a little SO2 and a lot of work. Every September our friends and family arrive from all over the world to help us pick our grapes. It’s a true harvest festival with wonderful lunches in the shade of the olive trees and a big party to celebrate the end of harvest each year. We feel our wines are the true expression of not only our terroir, but also ourselves, they are honest and true, and reflect what we both love in the wines of this beautiful region.”
We were thrilled to introduce Matt and Amy’s wines to our wine club, first the La Gramière with its green label along with the Old Vines Grenache festooned in a grey label. Here’s Amy’s description of the latter:
“The fruit from our oldest vines was vinified separately and we liked it so much we decided to bottle it as is, 100%, unadulterated, pure Grenache. Aged for 24 months in unlined concrete tanks, this wine needs decanting, but once it opens up in your glass, you’ll have a hard time putting it down. Complex yet elegant, it has everything the 2010 vintage has to offer! This is a big wine with lots of chewy, rich tannins and ripe fruit. It will go nicely with confit de carnard, rich stews and medium cheese.”
By the way, we had a bottle of it the other night – it was absolutely splendid. In time these two wines were joined by ‘Peter’s Vineyard’ decked out in red. Again, Amy’s description:
“This special bottling of 90% Syrah and 10% Grenache comes from our good friend Peter Till’s vineyard, without whose help much of this adventure wouldn’t have been possible! The grapes were picked by hand to express the characteristics of the terroir from which it came, the year in which the grapes were grown and our desire to make a unique and unmanipulated wine. We believe that in this way, we have created a wine that is true to its place of origin, authentic and full of character. This special bottling of Syrah was aged for 18 months in tank. From the excellent 2009 vintage, this wine is still quite young and tightly wound. It is deep and rich with ripe red fruit and spice – the tannins will enable it to age for another 5-10 years.”
A few years later we visited Amy and Matt at their home in the vineyards just outside of St Quentin la Poterie. Amy mentioned to us that she was getting a little tired of living in France, never really fitting in. They had assuaged their sense of alienation by acquiring what I thought was an enormous Golden Retriever puppy, but Amy set me straight. It was a Hovawart. They called him ‘Squeaky.’
A little while after they acquired and reconditioned the 1979 Citroën Type H truck pictured in the featured photo of this article. The magnificent beast began life as a horse hauler. In fact, hay and manure were still much in evidence when they acquired it. The ‘camion blanc et vert’ could be found at local markets and fairs around Uzès and the Pont du Gard in the summer months from which Matt and Amy dispensed their enchanting elixirs to the thirsty Provençal.
Sometime later Amy informed us that they had sold their house amid the vines and moved to the nearby little village of Vers-Pont-du-Gard. They also relocated their wine production and storage facilities to an old stone barn (grange) located in the middle of town.
At about that time our friends at the LCBO decided to make our administrative work load unbearable. We had to reduce the number of vineyards we represented from around 30 to a handful. We had offered the La Gramière wines for about $24 for the La Gramière, $32 for the Old Vines Grenache and $28 for the Peter’s Vineyard which was quite expensive for wines with no official appellation, no matter how good they were. The wines were labelled ‘Vins de Table’ because the fiercely independent Matt and Amy wanted nothing to do with the rules and regulations that AOC status would impose on them. To make matters even more gleeful, the LCBO insisted that we sell all our wines by the full case which, for La Gramière, meant a minimum of six-bottles per order. Sales were predictably sluggish. Thus it was with great regret that we were compelled to end our pleasant business relationship with Amy and Matt.
We lost track of them over the ensuing years. It was while digging out background material for this article that I learned that a great deal has apparently changed. First, Domaine de La Gramière is no more. Apparently, Amy and Matt sold their little bit of paradise. Second, it would seem that Amy and some friends have opened up a restaurant in Vers-Pont-du-Gard called La Grange de Vers. Third, it seems that Matt might no longer in the picture. And, Squeaky may have been succeeded by a real Golden Retriever. The next time we are in Provence we will be sure to drop into La Grange de Vers for a bite and to learn the whole story.
It was a grand experience getting to know Matt and Amy and their wonderful wines. They truly lived up to the 17th century French dramatist Jean Racine’s declaration that “The wine of Uzès is the best in the realm.”
PS: If you are interested in some really great wines from the Southern Rhône such as Côtes du Rhône, Vacqueyras, Gigondas and Châteauneuf du Pape, you might consider joining my Arthur’s Cellar Wine Club – no fees or other obligations, just marvellous wine.
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This is Jim’s 62nd blog on Gentleman’s Portion. The SEARCH function at the top works really well, if you want to look back and see some of his previous stories.