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the Dentelles de Montmirail

by Nick Sweet, 2008

The third Thursday in November was a bitterly cold day in Cairanne (right). With the mistral blowing hard, one understands the meaning of "wind chill factor." It seems to be snowing, but the locals tell me it's just the mistral, blowing down snow flakes from the Vercors mountains. I find solace in the tasting room of Marcel Richaud and its blazing log fire. The sun streaming through the window even gives the impression that it's a hot summers day.
  

I am tempted to taste my wines on the table outside, but then the sight of the workers picking , wrapped up against the cold, remind me that it's November, even in Provence. In the distance are the Dentelles de Montmirail, that first outpost of the Alps, with their spiky peaks, chiseled by time in the limestone. They seem to dominate not only the landscape, but the inhabitants as well.

I am given Richaud's 'primeur' which has been refused acceptance as a Côtes du Rhône, as 'atypical', and is de-classified as a vin de pays (the decision being given only two days before). His wine is fruity with a slight fizz to balance it's low sulphur level, and makes easy drinking - although I find a high level of acidity. It is nevertheless a lot better than many wines sold under Beaujolais nouveau ticket.

When I tasted his white wine, a mix of various grape varieties, I found it, as is often the case, overly dominated by Viognier. His red Cairanne 2006 had recently been bottled, but showed the richness of the vintage and the easy drinking nature that is typical of good Cairanne.


   My thoughts wandered to the influence of the Dentelles on the surrounding villages. The day before Helen Durand (pictured left, now only 33 but made his first wine at the age of 16) at Domaine du Trapadis at Rasteau, had told me that it was only when he began to travel widely in France and abroad that he began to recognise how lucky he was to live within sight of the Dentelles and Mont Ventoux.

After visiting Helen's vineyards we had tasted his last two vintages, still in cuve, and he explained that Rasteau is a terroir that produces mineral wines. Although powerful, they have a strong acidity and need time, say 3-4 years, to lose that dryness on the palate that can disconcert those not used to it. I am always struck by the difference of the wines of Rasteau and Cairanne, despite the fact that the two appellations adjoin each other. We first tried Helen's white, from Grenache blanc and Clairette, from barrel: a splendid nose of flowers, with amazing length. His 2007 Rasteau villages and Rasteau 'Les Adres' have the same mix of grape varieties (70% Grenache 10% Mourvedre 10% Carignan 10% Syrah) but come from different terroirs, and different ages of vines.

We also tasted the wines before the addition of the Syrah, which is the way that Helen would ideally make them, though he adds Syrah partly for commercial reasons, and partly to make them more approachable.

I loved the two wines, the Rasteau full of blackberry fruit, and the Adres strongly marked by it's terroir. I found a marked taste of Clay behind the fruit, with an amazing length. I looked forward to tasting it in ten years!

We then tasted the same wines, still in cuve, from 2006. The Rasteau was an explosion of fruit which completely filled my mouth; the Adres was very long, almost vertical, but less marked by its terroir than 2007. We followed with the 2005's which had not long been bottled, and were generally closed, but the 100% Syrah (called Harys- the nearest to a northern Rhône Syrah I have tasted in the south, except for that of Fonsalette) was a good mouthful of ripe, slightly smoky fruit, with a touch of violet that I find in certain Crozes Hermitage.

I also visited Elodie Balme (right), just a few hundred yards away from Helen. She is a charming 25 year old who has just made her second vintage. Her grandfather used to make his own wine (indeed Marcel Richaud with whom Elodie learnt her trade during two years, made his first vintage in his cellars.)

Elodie's father had taken his grapes to the cooperative, but Elodie has recovered a few hectares of his vines. She is the first to admit that it will take a few years to get the vineyards to the condition she wants, but she is already showing talent as a wine maker. We tried her Côtes du Rhône 2006, which had a good fruit and a firm finish, with a touch of sulphur on the nose. She follows the trend to use as little as possible, and but is obviously still feeling her way. Definitely a domaine to follow.

I walked the few hundred yards to Domaine Oratoire Saint Martin, where the same principles of natural wine making are followed, with low yields and non interventionist raising. One big difference is that they use a high proportion of Mourvèdre, and have very little Syrah.

  

I find their wines well made, with lots of ripe fruit, good grip and length, though tasting Mourvèdre young is not easy as I find there is a similarity in young Mourvèdre wines that makes them difficult to differentiate. The Côtes du Rhône 2006 is more approachable with lots of red fruits and good depth.


   On the other side of the Dentelles, the difference of climate is astonishing: it is fresher, and as you climb up towards Suzette, the vineyards are spectacular. If you take the road towards the Ferme Saint Martin, you could be in Tuscany. The wines here have a pure fruit, in part due partly to the altitude of the vineyards, and part to the owner Guy Julien, who has the intention of letting them speak for themselves. He has a very good range of wines, but two that particularly took my notice were Les Terres Jaunes 2006 Beaumes de Venise Rouge (75% Grenache 25% Syrah) with clear fruit and a touch of spice, the white Côtes du Rhône, "Fleur du terroir" which is a blend of Roussanne and Clairette.

The 2006 has a rich golden colour, a splendid floral nose, lots of rich ripe fruit, and the typical stickiness of the Roussanne. This was delicious with scallops in a cream sauce, once we had brought it back to the north!

If you're in the area, and are thirsty and or hungry, I thoroughly recommend 'La Tourne au Verre' a wine bar and restaurant in the centre of Cairanne, which has a splendid range of wines. The set menu at lunchtime is 13 euros, and in the evening a menu at 22 euros is more gastronomic. There are a number of wines by the glass, from local vineyards as well as Sancerre, Condrieu, Burgundy and Alsace. We had a glass of white Cairanne from Domaine Galuval along with a bowl of fresh local crudities, followed by loin of pork in a cream sauce with home made mashed potatoes, which was simple but of excellent quality. Dessert was a delicious pear poached in wine (Cairanne of course!) and followed by excellent coffee included in the price.

There is so much to write about in the villages, that these have been some of the highlights, without touching on Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Sablet or Séguret!


   Nick Sweet has lived in France since 1995, where he specialise in wine tastings, workshops, and seminars. He also run vineyard visits, which he organises and accompanes, and advises private clients and restaurants on setting up cellars and wine lists. After working for Oddbins in the UK, Nick ran the shop Mille Vignes in Wimereux, where he says he "discovered a taste for natural wines, made in harmony with the environment." Nick can be contacted through www.nicksweet.co.uk.



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