News from the Rhone Valley - September 2023

We departed late evening from Manchester heading to Marseilles airport albeit the delightful Ryan Air flight attendant pronounced it as MAR SNAILS so much so we had a moment of slight panic we were on the wrong flight!

After the 5 of us squeezed into our hire car we finally departed Marseilles airport at just after midnight heading into the night with the village of Cairanne as our destination some 1 Hr 20 minutes northwest.

Upon waking up the following morning we were greeted by a gorgeous warm sunrise at Domaine Boutinot looking down on the beautiful village of Cairanne being sunkissed by the morning sun and the expanse of the Rhone valley and Plan de Dieu in the distance.

After a glorious traditional French breakfast of more carbs than you can eat, croissant, pan au chocolate and baguette, washed down with coffee to keep us going we jumped into the cars and headed south again, this time in the direction of more familiar territory for me (Nimes) and ironically right past the airport and into the Camargues region and direction of St. Gilles for a RV with Jerome of Chateau L’Ermite Auzan.

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Jerome is a delight and whilst he has always been engaging and generous at trade tastings, it is (always) somewhat of a 30 second lift ride before having to move on, but here in his Domaine we were able to survey all his kingdom with great enthusiasm and bon vivant, from the vineyard tour in their open top Landie to the in depth discussion of the benefits of organic and biodynamic viticulture (in his words they adopt a more scientific than cosmic approach).

The estate was founded in 11th century by the hermits of Sainte Cecile d’Estagel Abbayé and it made wine for the pilgrims on route to Santiago de Compostella. Their neighbour of a few vineyards away happened to be Chateau Mas Neuf, from whom we first shipped wines from this appellation of Costieres de Nimes some 15 years ago but sadly has since sold up. They used to make a stunning red called Compostelle, also in homage to the pilgrimage route. This estate though, get its name after the village of his birth, Auzan in cognac territory and a nod to the hermits of the Abbeyé.

The estate now covers 100 hectares of land with 80ha planted to vines; for the whites, Roussanne, Grenache and Viognier and they have recently planted some Vermentino (Rolle) and have high hopes of this working well for them. I personally can see no reason why not, based on the white wines we tasted thus far. The red grapes are Grenache led, with Syrah and Mourvedre and some Cinsault. However, here the style of his red wines are very different to those of Cairanne from wence we came that morning, yet the blends are more or less the same.

Here the cooling afternoon winds blowing in from the Camargue and the sea helps to mitigate the warm days and ensure both their white and red grapes maintain wonderful freshness – but most importantly with almost ‘Saline’ acidity. Aided by all their efforts in the vineyards being farmed biodynamically and the result is happy soils, (iron) healthy grapes and great results.

We now list Chateau L’Ermite Auzan Blanc BIO 2022 £12.95 a blend of 60% Roussanne, 20% Viognier and 20% Grenache Blanc. Lovely aromatics, white floral notes, white peaches, minerality/salinity which provides depth and structure to the wine. Aged on its lees in concrete vats and stirred using an old robotic swimming pool cleaner!

We sadly had to leave Jerome and head back to Chateauneuf du Pape for an important lunch date!

Afterwards we slowly meandered down to meet Jimmy at Chante Cigale based in the centre of Chateauneuf du Pape. The estate has been owned by the Favier family for several generations and whilst Alexandre is at the helm, he lets Jimmy take care of the cellar door sales, marketing and export marketing…to name but a few of his roles.

The Rhone Valley spans 250km north to south encompassing 250 different communes. It covers 66,042 hectares (or 66, 000 rugby pitches), 31 appellations and 34 different grape varieties.

CNP is the largest appellation, covering more than 3200 hectares with yields restricted to 35 hl/ha.

Châteauneuf produces as much wine as the whole of the northern Rhône put together. A third is very good, a third acceptable and the last third, mediocre. Famed for the red ‘galets’, stones and ‘caillou’, pebbles left behind from the glacial moraine from several million years ago.          

All parcels are fermented and vinified separately (43 in total) in a combination of egg concrete vats, oak barriques 225 litre and larger 600 litre oak barrels.

This has been one of the longest harvests in the last 20 years lasting more than 6 weeks. Thankfully the weather has been kind and the grapes looked amazing, with no table sorting required at the winery. We were lucky enough to taste through their entire range of wines as well as some library cellar stock of an older vintage of their vielles vignes CNP rouge.

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From this tasting we have relisted their Cicada red £12.95, here they supplement some of the fruit from their neighbours and make a light easy drinking lunchtime red, the antithesis really to their main dish, the Chateauneuf du Pape, hence they are labelled only as Vaucluse appellation vin de France. Despite that the wine really does offer lovely texture and balance having only a short maceration (contact with the skins). It spends 7 months ageing in concrete egg vats (as the vortex is softer),the wine being made from 80% Greanche noir and 20% Carignan.

We have always listed their CNP Traditon rouge 2021 made from 65% Grenache, 25% Syrah, 10% Mourvedre. It displays ripe black fruit aromas balanced by lightly herbal, oaky notes. The palate is generous with dark plum and black berry characters, and plump textured tannins, full-bodied but expertly balanced. We will also relist their Vielles Vignes CNP rouge 2020 circa £50 a bottle but for me the stand out wine was their CNP Rouge 2020Pi£55.00 (named after the 2nd Pope in Avignon) this wine is made from 100% Grenache Noir, 40 year old vine grapes from a single site called Pignan, a vineyard north and east of the town by a few kilometres. It displays a wonderful perfumed enticing nose of red fruits and spices, full bodied yet perfectly weighted and balanced despite 15.5% alcohol vol. (Note: this is not a red for lunch, unless it’s a Sunday!).

After a leisurely return to Domaine Boutinot via the stunning views from the church at the top of Cairanne village, we settled in for a glorious evening of BBQ, laughter and fine wines before heading off to bed after a hard days work!

The following day we had all of 25 paces to walk from the Gite to the winery and still managed to be a bit late, but Julian was somewhat grateful as in the final throws of the harvest with grapes still arriving at the winery that needed attending (you may have seen our Instagram post, James even helped out with some pigeage, ‘punching down the cap’ of the grapes to extract the colour and tannins.

The Cairanne appellation only gained cru status in 2016 and rightly so as the appellation produces very distinct and superior wines to some of the other neighbouring villages further down. The yields are again low and set at 38 hl/ ha and the wines have to be made from Grenache primarily 50%.

Since COVID and national lockdowns the rules to harvest have been relaxed and you can now use mechanised harvesters as well. At Domaine Boutinot they continue to harvest by hand where and when possible as its preferrable but financially 4 times more expensive, so they continue to supplement with machine harvesting when the weather is less favourable, as it is a lot quicker.

We tasted through the entire range of their wines and has those of you who have visited our shop will know we have been championing these wines for many years now and growing our portfolio of their wines year on year. We currently have in stock and online, their Cotes du Rhone Blanc Fleur Solitaire 2022 £12.95, the excellent Les Coteaux Cotes du Rhone-villages 2021 £12.95, the Les Schisteaux Seguret Cotes de Rhone-villages 2020 £16.95, La Cote Sauvage, Cairanne, £16.95.

Whilst currently in the shop, their latest release of a new wine Argiles Blanches, Cairanne White 2021 £18.50, and for those lucky few some of their Deux Barriques Cairanne 2016 (only 2 barrels made from selected parcel) in wooden boxes £30.00.