Wine

ANOTHER CASTLE IN THE LUBERON

Our wine scribe Jim Walker introduced Laure Pinatel-Gilles and her family’s Château de l’Isolette in his third contribution to Gentleman’s Portion. Here he continues Laure’s story and that of her storied vineyard.

The imposing Château de l’Isolette

We first met Laure Pinatel-Gilles and her husband Denis Gilles in the spring of 2006 at a wine exposition held at the Carleton Hotel in Cannes (see A Spiffy Gig for all the thirst quenching details). Laure and Denis were the proprietors (along with Laure’s parents, Micheline and Luc Pinatel) of Château de l’Isolette, found in the heart of the Provence in southern France. We were immediately taken by their warm, enthusiastic personalities and by their delicious wines.

We weren’t the only ones enchanted by their elixirs. Pierre Cardin, whose father was a vintner, liked their wines so much that they became featured at his famous Maxim’s restaurants. Pierre was familiar with the countryside surrounding Château de l’Isolette for he had purchased a sizable portion of the nearby hillside village of Lacoste including the ruins of what had been the Marquis de Sade’s castle! And, our neighbours in Quebec were also big fans of their wines – the Société des alcools du Québec was ordering 12,000 bottles per year at the time (but, no matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t get the LCBO to order a single bottle).

Laure sandwiched between Denis and moi

Château de l’Isolette is found in the rugged Luberon foothills between the picturesque hilltop village of Bonnieux and the bustling city of Apt. The large 540 acre property, which had been in the family since 1635, is comprised of chalky clay soil, ideal for growing Grenache, Syrah, Carignan and other wine grapes for which the A.O.C. Côtes du Luberon is renowned. This appellation encompasses 8,600 acres between Cavaillon and Apt. Co-ops account for about 80 per cent of the wine production. The area produces approximately 75 per cent reds and the remainder rosés and whites depending on the year. The Côtes du Luberon wines are noted for their delicate bouquet and excellent value. The reds are well-balanced and pleasing, the rosés fresh and crisp and the whites are fruity and well-rounded. Generally speaking, it is best to drink the Côtes du Luberon wines when they are young. The wine critic Robert M. Parker, Jr. declared that Château de l’Isolette was one of the top two producers in the area.

We met up again with Laure and Denis at their estate six months after our Cannes encounter. We had already introduced their wines to our wine club members and they were a big hit. Laure and Denis welcomed us as we got out of our rental car and began our visit with a tour of their imposing château. Part of it, built on a large rock outcropping, was constructed in the 12th century as the summer home of Pope Clément V. The newer parts were built over ensuing centuries and seemed to stretch out forever.     

We then we toured the vineyards and winemaking facilities. The vines at Château de l’Isolette are very old and meticulously maintained. Constant attention is lavished on the 250 acres of vines where only organic fertilizers are used and chemical intervention is kept to an absolute minimum.

Carved out of rock

The wine making facilities were located in the heart of the vineyard. Incidentally, wine has been made here since the Middle Ages and the ancient wine press and medieval vats carved out of rock are there to prove it. Newly harvested grapes are delivered to the upper level which makes it possible to transfer the barely crushed fruit directly to the fermentation tanks below. This traditional method avoids the use of mechanical pumps which can damage the delicate grapes. The very cool aging cellar contains about 50 large oak casks where the wine develops until bottling, in some cases for up to five years.          

Following the arduous business part of the visit, which included some serious wine-tasting (work, work, work) we joined Laure and Denis for lunch on their back patio that overlooked the vines nestled amid the Luberon wilderness. We started with a tasty sanglier (wild boar from the property) pâté, fresh baguette and a bottle of Château de l’Isolette red. There were worse ways to eke out a living.

Here are my tasting notes for the 2004 Prestige red:

This marvellous, quaffable red wine is composed of 60 per cent Syrah, 30 per cent Grenache and 10 per cent Mourvèdre from vines 50 years and older. It was traditionally fermented at a regulated temperature, aged for one year in old oak barrels and then racked and kept in stainless steel tanks before bottling. The late bottling ensures that the wine will be fresh and the corks in perfect condition for long aging. While drinking quite nicely now, this wine will age for seven or more years. It is a deep garnet and has the aroma and taste of blackberries and raspberries combined with new leather and a hint of vanilla. It is silky, well-balanced and warming in the mouth with a prolonged aftertaste.

We sold it for $17.25 the bottle – a steal.

Between courses, Denis and I, wine glasses in hand, strolled over to the edge of the patio. There the land dropped off steeply to a sea of vines below. I asked him if they were his vines. “Oh yes,” he replied. “And those over there,” I enquired? “See those far away mountains,” he said “and that highway in the distance over there? They are the boundaries of our property.” The extent of it all was staggering.

Skeptically eyeing the icewine

We settled back down at the table now laden with salads and charcuterie. Through the open doors we could see Clovis (named for Clovis I, the first king of the Franks) their five-year-old son and his nanny. We had brought a tiny maple leaf sweatshirt from Roots for him and a bottle of Henry of Pelham ice wine for his parents as thank you gifts. Laure and Denis were delighted with the former and unsure of the latter.

After lunch Laure loaded us into her old, somewhat decrepit, topless Toyota Land Cruiser and tore off into the vineyards with us holding on for dear life. Down we plummeted over jagged rocks and through a pine forest till mercifully we stopped at a huge iron gate. Laure leapt from the vehicle, unlocked and opened the gate and then resumed our bone-jarring ride.

Presently we arrived at our destination – a cluster of little stone buildings. What in the 18th century had been a shepherds’ hut and wool washing pond carved out of the solid rock had been converted into an isolated guest complex called La Bergerie. The hut had been updated and expanded, air-conditioned and loaded with all the modern conveniences. The pond was enclosed and converted into a climate-controlled swimming pool.

A very secluded swimming hole

The one thing it didn’t have was a communication device of any kind. It was designed for guests who demanded total, uninterrupted privacy. Laure told us that neurosurgeons were typical tenants. I fantasized that it would also serve as an ideal location for a tryst!

The ride back to the winery was a tad less traumatic – just a tad, mind. There Laure took us on a tour of their museum featuring all kinds of ancient winemaking apparatus and even an old delivery truck festooned in the winery’s livery. Sadly, it was then time to leave. So we bade our fond adieus and vowed to soon return.

And we did, about two years later. This time no one greeted us as we got out of our car, so we went over to the main office to see where Laure or Denis might be. Unlike our first visit when the office staff had been a joyous, somewhat raucous group, this time we encountered a glum and dejected looking bunch. We soon found why there was such a shift in their comportment. Laure had recently taken up with her cellar master and had booted poor Denis out. The staff, who adored Denis, was plotting a mutiny.

Laure and Hélène in the winery shop cum museum

Laure eventually appeared on the scene and confirmed the sad news. She went on to say that Denis refused to leave and how uncomfortable that made everything. It wasn’t hard to understand why. Our visit was short and perfunctory – basically just business.   

Later on, when back in Canada, we emailed Laure, when it was time to place our next Château de l’Isolette order, to confirm prices and available quantities. There was no reply. Several more messages went unanswered – received but unanswered. And that, sadly, was the end of our relationship with Laure and Château de l’Isolette.

We did bump into a bottle of Château de l’Isolette rosé a couple of years later at one of our favourite restaurants, Auberge de la Loube in Buoux. Then, in the course of doing research for this article, I discovered that the winery had changed hands (after some 380 years!) and had its name adjusted to Château Isolette. I am dying to find out what happened. Guess we’d better book another trip to Provence.

In closing, we send our wishes for a wonderful New Year filled with many a fine bottle, or two.

Cheers!  Jim

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.

Featured image: Evening in the Luberon valley

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