Saturday, 28 March 2015
In Vino Valréas
There was a time when I was still teaching, without a thought that I might one day write about wine, that we would spend most of our six week summer holiday in a campsite in a pine forest at Faucon just to the north of Vaison la Romaine.
We fell in love with the area - the villages, the smell of lavender and thyme, the countryside around the Ventoux and Les Dentelles de Montmiral and, of course, the wines. Our stay in the campsite was bien arrosée mais avec modération bien entendu ! Our everyday wine, red Côtes du Rhône came in a cubi from the nearby Cave Co-opérative de Puymeras. In addition we visited and bought from producers in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas and Côtes du Rhône.
Indeed before we bought our shared house in Touraine we considered buying a place in the Vaucluse. However, houses in the area was already expensive to buy and in those days there were no low cost airlines or TGV to Avignon, so the Vaucluse was neither affordable nor practical being too far from London.
Sadly since 1987 my visits to the area have been rare - just a few press trips including a memorable Rasteau and truffle weekend. Kindly invited by Valréas to participate in their In Vino Valréas, my recent three-night stay in Valréas has brought back memories. It would be good to return to the area and spend more time.
In Vino Valréas is part of the Valréas 2021 programme.
Valréas 2021 is an operation to both persuade the vignerons of this Côtes du Rhône Villages to work more closely together as well as promoting the wines so that they become better known. Initially it was intended that Valréas 2021 would see the wines of Valréas promoted to a Rhône cru like Gigondas or Vacqueyras but as only 10% of the production here is sold under the appellation Côtes du Rhône Villages Valréas there wasn't huge enthusiasm for trying to become a cru. Instead the vignerons have commissioned a report on the village's terroir and one on looking at the words professional tasters use to describe the wines of Valréas.
The tasting sheet with a series of scales
Friday (13th) saw the third activity trying a find ways of describing these wines avoiding the traditional terms used in tasting. It was also the opportunity to report on the studies on the terroir and tasting words.
During the morning we tasted blind some twenty or so wines. The novel idea was to try to find a new vocabulary to describe the wines using a number of scales.
For example: ‘Echelle d’élégance: de la bure de moine à la Christian Dior’, ‘Echelle de persistence du culcul printanier à une symphonie de Beethoven’ or ‘de la cabane en bois au Château de Chambord’.
This was an interesting and challenging idea and took longer than the organisers estimated as it took a while for us tasters to get our heads around the idea. As this was not a competition or an attempt to select the best wines it was good to be able to discuss the wines in some depth as we struggled to find an appropriate building, animal, piece of music, etc. that fitted each wine.
There may have been too many scales. It will be interesting to see the results but whether consumers will find it useful to liken wines to Dior's little black dress, a sheep or a rhino, structured like an Hotel de Ville or with the persistence of a Jimi Hendrix solo is quite another matter. I fancy this exercise may have more resonance in France than outside its borders.
We tasted seven whites and around ten reds. Although both the whites and the reds varied considerably in style, they all had a consistent freshness even if sometimes the alcohol levels were high. The wines had a persistent fresh nature that stopped the wines from being heavy and encouraged you to take another sip.
The afternoon was devoted to a presentation of the two reports commissioned as part of Valréas 2021 – the first into the terroir (five different terroirs were identified) and the second on trying to identify the traditional tasting terms that best describe the wines of this Rhône-Village.
Unfortunately the organisers of the event hadn’t realised the importance these days of providing good internet access, so that those attending can quickly share news and impressions of the event. I spent a frustrating and wasteful time attempting to connect.
In the early evening we were received by the Maire of Valréas – Patrick Adrien – in their fine Château de Simiane in the centre of the old part of the town. Part of the château dates from the mid-15th century and some of the wood-paneled rooms are similar to those in the Château de Blois in the Loire Valley.
Saturday morning we went to the last truffle market of the 2014-2015 season at Richerenches. I have been to this market once before back in mid-January 2006 when I was on a memorably indulgent Rasteau et truffes press trip.
Adrienne the young truffle farmer
It was fascinating to learn from a young truffle farmer the amount of work involved in their cultivation as well as an explanation of the different types of truffle. This completely dispelled the idea that all you need to do is plant or inherit some truffle oaks, sit around local cafés drinking wine and coffee until it is time to take your dog out to sniff out your truffles, which you will then sell for a large profit in markets like this one in Richerenches.
No – there is a lot of work involved and, like wine, the quality and volume of the truffles produced depends much on the weather in any particular year. Our guide told us that the older generation was very secretive and reluctant to pass on the secrets of truffle farming so there was a danger that some of their expertise would be lost if they don't divulge their secrets.
The afternoon was spent visiting three domaines in the commune of Valréas – Grand Devers, Mas de Sainte Croix and Domaine Mireille et Vincent, which was founded by Bernard Bizard in 1985. I was particularly impressed by the range of wines, both white and red, from Sainte-Croix along with the 2005 from the Bizard family.
Since 1999 Domaine des Grands Devers has been in the hands of Burgundians Paul-Henri Bouchard and his three brothers. They have 24 hectares in production. I was impressed by their 2012 white from the neighbouring village of Visan. A blend of Viognier (majority), Marsanne and Roussanne, it is attractively mid-weight with floral and apricot flavours and with a good fresh finish despite going through malo. Good value at 9.50€. Paul-Henri explained that the malo allows the wine to age better. He is looking for a fourth grape variety to add further complexity and increased freshness.
We tried three Valréas reds – mainly Grenache with around 20% Syrah. The 2012 had good fresh, red fruit character with some spice in the finish. The 2007 was more concentrated, more herbal with a silky texture. The 2004, however, was on its last legs.
Jacques Coipel runs the 25 hectare Mas de Sainte Croix. Their 2014 Friandise Rosé, a blend of Grenache and Cinsault, is delicate. We tasted four reds and I was impressed by the 2012 and 2011 Tendresse d’un climat – Syrah and Grenache. The 2011 was remarkably well balanced despite being 15.49%. Jacques likened this more to a Rasteau than the generally more delicate wines from Valréas. 2012 Passion d’une terre, Grenache and Mourvèdre, is concentrated with notes of torréfaction but needs a little more time in bottle.
Unfortunately I missed most of the tasting at Domaine Mireille et Vincent run by Bernard Bizard and his son as I went to the Tourist Office where I could finally connect to the net.
I spent three very enjoyable nights at the Maison d'Anvers (Antwerpen) run by Sigi and Vanessa, who have made a very similar journey as Vincent 'Le Cuisinier de Campagne' and Olivia Simon in Bourgueil. Both Sigi and Vincent had successful restaurants in Belgium before deciding that it was time for a change of scene. Both chefs place a real accent on fresh food and both are passionate about wine. Vincent has vines on his property, while Sigi has vines right to the entrance to La Maison d'Anvers.
Sigi with that côte de boeuf
I had two excellent meals cooked by Sigi and Vanessa. Sigi is mainly responsible for the first and main course, while Vanessa takes charge of the desserts. On Thursday night I started with a lovely dish of Coquilles Saint Jacques very tasty and perfectly cooked. An equally delicious supreme of pintade with mushrooms followed. The meal finished with a delicate lemon cream.
The highlight of Saturday night was the magnificent Côte de Boeuf grilled to perfection over sarments de vignes by Sigi. He has ordered a Josper grill/oven, the Rolls Royce of its kind, and is waiting impatiently for it to be installed in May.
The weekend whetted my appetite to return and rediscover Vaucluse.