WARNING: Shamelessly embarassing plugs for my wines below.
"My wineries." How cool is that? I giggled several times thinking about that on my way to the Rhone to visit the two domaines who've accepted me as their representative in the US. And then, when we were traipsing through the stone-filled rows, I couldn't stop a huge smile from just crossing my face. These are "my" guys! I've been dreaming of this for so long!
In any case, all immature musings aside, Monday was my first full day of visiting wineries that I'm representing in the US as well as visiting some potential others. Well, let's just say they're going to stay "potential" (and nameless). Yuck. I did say somewhere that I had to taste a lot swill before finding some gems, right? But stopping by to see "my" guys was absolutely necessary, the wine business is a relationship affair and I knew they'd appreciate the effort I made to come down to see them (though 3 hours each way is nothing for me, I've done more for women... but that's another story...). I have to say, they weren't just impressed with the effort, but with the time it took to get there. Hopefully they don't know anyone in the Gendarmerie Nationale...
So I found myself in the Rhone Valley, a long narrow strip of wine-growing land that stretches almost from the Mediterranean at Marseille all the way up to just south of the city of Lyon, the gastronomic capital of France (and frankly most of the world). More Michelin-starred chefs have started in Lyon than anywhere that I know of.
So what's the Rhone like? Well, for starters, it's hot during most of the growing season. Real hot, I mean so hot that in summer that you just can't be outside or you'll feel your brain baking. This summer happens to be cooler than most, but that's the beauty of vintages: each one's different in its own way and leaves that imprint on the wines of that year. The Rhone is also full of small to medium-sized pebbles left over from the last Ice Age, carpeting the area and absorbing all that sunlight. During the day, some of them are event too hot to the touch! But at night, that's when they work their magic: radiating all that heat back to the vines, allowing them to maintain a cradle of warmth through the cool night air. And, lastly, let's not forget the work of the region's wind, the Mistral. A devilish blowtorch of air that howls down the valley for over 300 days a year virtually non-stop, not even to catch its breath. It has been known to drive men mad. Yet this same wind dries the grapes when it's humid or rainy, cleaning them and keeping them safe from mildew, oidium and most other plant diseases.
So, leaving cold and grey Beaune (the summer of 2007 is the summer that wasn't), I drove straight south for 3 hours, averaging probably around 150kph (yes, you read that right, I make that little hamster in the engine work for his food). My first stop was at Chateau Haut-Musiel, which isn't really a fancy-schmancy chateau at all but a renovated building on the side of the road next to an antiques shop. Jean-Marie Popelin makes some fantastic, small-production stuff here, wines that are redolent of their terroir (where they're from) and the grape varieties used. Before doing anything, we tasted a variety of his 2005s and they were absolutely fantastic, making me happy that I'd chosen to add him to my portfolio. Heck, even the 2006 rose wasn't bad. And I'm not a fan of rose!
Jean-Marie is young and energetic, and always ready to try something new to improve the quality of his wines. He isn't byodynamic, which can be limiting as well as inefficient, but instead uses a lutte raisonee (knowledgeable agriculture) approach, taking the best of all the different approaches to grape-growing. The results speak for themselves. His soils are dynamic and full of life, especially in the soils between the stones (see pic).
His philosophy is to ensure that the ground is taken care of, so that all his vintages can show well. So we hopped into his rugged, old little quasi-minivan (Euro style, not the US soccer-Mom thing) and began beating our way over rounded stones and thick scruffy cover. The poor vehicle nearly tipped over a few times as he took some steep turns, but, surprisingly, despite the bouncy ride, managed to hold its own. Who knew?
As it turned out we were driving a spiral around the town of Domazan, near the famous Pont de Gard (the huge Roman viaduc that's still standing). We stopped at various vines, checking their progress in this most miserable summer of 2007. Most were chugging along, some starting the veraison process whereby they turn from light green to purple. The rows were planted parallel to the Mistral, the wind from the North that blows constantly for over 300 days straight. As we stood on top of the plateau, the wind kept up its pressure, a howling, whipping presence that just never stopped, seeming to mock us little mortals. It doesn't surprise me that some people go nuts. It never stops once it starts blowing!
I stopped at a few nondescript other wineries before coming to my other find, a gem called Montfaucon. I had met Rodolphe de Pins and his wife Mari back in February and all of us had been absolutely amazed at the quality, elegance and balance of his wines. When I'd asked to taste older vintages, he didn't bat an eye and opened a 2003, possibly one of the hardest vintages aside 2002 (very rainy) in a while. The wine was lovely, balanced and well-made, shocking everyone present. Most 2003s are burnt and over-extracted due to the high heat and dry weather of that year. Not chez Montfaucon.
Once again, we hopped into the European equivalent of a mini-van and started bouncing over stones and galets, huge rounded pebbles left over from the last Ice Age. Rodolphe took me to some of his favorite plots, and we got out and he began explaining his philosophy of grape-growing to me (funny how that seems to happen a lot with all the winemakers I know - do I just look like a skeptic?).
Rodolphe is passionate about maintaining the land, like Jean-Marie, and keeping it as healthy and as ecologically varied as possible. He knows that's the best way to ensure quality vintages one after another. And while he's not byodynamic, he's an engineer and learns from observations, rarely relying on blind faith (as some byodynamic precepts want you to do). I have to say, in these days of industrial plonk like Two Buck Chuck and Yellow Tail, it was refreshing to see someone who's that passionate about the quality of his vines and wines. Picking ONLY by hand , he ensures that his wines will be up to his standards of quality (which are high, so God knows how drunk he was the day he accepted me as his rep...).
We then hung out in his garden where his kids fed me cherry tomatoes (I am a tomato addict and can't find a good one in the US, despite my friend Drew's attempts to distract me with crappy Jersey tomatoes). These cherry tomatoes were so ripe I can still taste them a day later... Wow.
A lovely couple, Rodolphe and his wife sent me on my 3-hour way with a case of wines, some tomatoes and a bottle of water.
Oh, here are the full galleries of pictures:
Tomorrow, the Jura, in the far East of France.