After working for over a week in the Southern Rhône's two leading appellations—Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas—it was time to head out into the hinterlands. Here, plateaus and rolling hills make up the Côtes du Rhône-Villages area, where good vignerons don't have the benefit of a well-marketed and recognizable appellation. It brings both benefits and hardships.
As a consumer, you can find excellent values in these areas—outstanding quality that can't command the price of a Châteauneuf-du-Pape or Gigondas. But the vignerons have to work twice as hard to pull quality from these terroirs, which aren't as naturally blessed. In addition, they have to ward off the temptations of taking the easy way out, producing higher yields and simply selling the fruit off to co-ops that often blend the wines indiscriminately (there are exceptions of course, including Vignerons de Caractère in Vacqueyras). Or worse, they have to fight off the temptation to pull up vines and to take a government subsidy to quit altogether. It is not easy to both make excellent wine out here and be successful at the same time.
Enter Daniel Boulle …
In the fine sandy, red clay and gravel soils around the hamlet of Travaillan, Daniel Boulle's parcels stand out. They're healthy, proud vines—old too—and standing tall in a sea of otherwise forgotten vineyards, some even abandoned and dying. If you're a vigneron out here, you've got a choice: Be part of a co-op or struggle to survive on your own.
Yet Boulle is doing more than surviving. He's flourishing with his own Domaine Les Aphillanthes, which he farms biodynamically. He's even added nearly 10 hectares of Rasteau AOC vines recently, to replace the Cairanne vines that he lost when the rental agreement he had ended.
Boulle, 45, has worked with Philippe Cambie since 2005 (all of my visits today were with clients of Cambie). Boulle is the fourth generation of his family to work their vineyards, which were in the local co-op before he started bottling his own prduction in the '99 vintage. As we walked the rows of Boulle's old-vine Mourvèdre, the fine soils gave way easily under out feet.
"No chemicals," said Boulle as he sees me look at my deep footprints. "The soil isn't compact. It breathes."
Whew. I was worried it was too much bread and cheese.
Boulle now has 47 hectares of vines. While 45 hectoliters per hectare are allowed in the area, Boulle's parcels average just 25 to 30 hl/ha. It's that economic decision that many growers won't take, not only to make less wine, but also do it on your own? And use the old goblet system for training the vines? That's hard work. Why not bring the vines up onto a wire trellis so they can be machine harvested at higher yields? That's the easy way, after all.
But Boulle doesn't take the easy way. And his wines show it—focused, pure beams of fruit and minerality, with a wide portfolio that has plenty of diversity to boot. All of the reds are fermented in cement vats and production usually tops out at around 130,000 bottles a year, as Boulle keeps the top 80 percent of his production and sells off the rest.
Boulle has seen the demand for organically grown grapes increase in recent years, and so he was able to make another tough decision in '08. Boulle chose to bottle no '08s under his label, instead selling off all his production.
"It gives me a good cushion," said Boulle, regarding the demand for organically grown grapes. "So I can keep the level of quality high for my own bottlings as I make the selection, knowing that I can still sell the remaining production," he said.
We tasted through the full range of '09s here, some of which have already been reviewed officially and are noted accordingly.
The Côtes du Rhône Carmin 2009 is produced from half declassified Côtes du Rhône-Villages fruit, a blend of 50/40/10 Syrah, Cinsault and Grenache. Boulle starts with some as carbonic maceration, then pumps over to turn it into a normal fermentation. The wine is sleek and pure with crushed black cherry and lilting spice and a nice lingering pastis hint lends a perfumy edge.
The Côtes du Rhône-Villages Plan de Dieu Cuvée des Galets 2009 is outstanding (I rated it 91 points in the Oct. 31 issue), a 60/20/20 blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre that sports a dense core of crushed plum, hoisin sauce, fig reduction and blueberry and blackberry fruit flavors, all wound with bittersweet cocoa and anise notes. The Côtes du Rhône-Villages des Cuvée 3 Cépages 2009 is made from equal parts Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre, which Boulle tries to pick all at same time. That means he waits for the Mourvèdre as that ripens last, and thus alters the winter pruning time to delay the ripening of the Grenache and Syrah so it's timed with the Mourvèdre. It shows delicious Linzer torte, boysenberry and fig sauce notes, laced with violet and graphite on the long, toasty finish (I rated it 90 points in the Oct. 31 issue.)
Daniel Boulle relies on old vines in the sandy, red clay and gravel soils west of Cairanne to fashion a range of well-priced wines.
Among the '09s not yet released, the Côtes du Rhône-Villages Le Cros 2009 blends fruit from around Plan de Dieu and Serignan du Comtat. The 100 percent Syrah cuvée shows a nice streak of plum, with hints of blueberry and black currant. Warm and inviting, with a dash of Christmas pudding on the finish. It's fleshy, with nice drive. The Côtes du Rhône-Villages Cairanne L'Ancestrale du Puits 2009 (90/10 Grenache and Mourvèdre) is the last vintage for the wine, as Boulle is losing his parcels in Cairanne. The wine is open and stylish with mesquite and mulled plum and cherry notes and a suave, incense-tinged finish.
The Côtes du Rhône-Villages Rasteau 1921 2009 is labeled for the year in which the vines were planted. The 87/10/3 Grenache, Mourvèdre and Carignane blend is the darkest and grippiest of the cuvées, with fig paste, espresso and graphite and a long, smoldering finish that will need a year or two to open up fully. It should also age nicely over five years or so, delivering more iron and mulled fruit notes as it expands. [Note: The Côtes du Rhône-Villages Vieilles Vignes 2009 was not tasted as it was just bottled and closed from the mis.]
Boulle has made the hard decisions—to work on his own, to skip a vintage if need be, and to aim for quality. Your decision is fairly easy, especially since Boulle's wines are all typically $25 or less per bottle.
From the flat plateau of Plan de Dieu, I then cut across the valley, heading due east, up into the gentle rolling hills around Rasteau to visit Gilles Ferran at Domaine des Escaravailles. The drive ends up a winding dirt road, finally stopping at the winery, which looks like a sprawling compound more than small family domaine. At the top, you get a 360-degree view of the vineyards spread out below.
"We are at altitude here and with a lot of clay," said Ferran as he pointed out parcels on the hills below. "There is good water retention, so the best years are really the dry years. We did well even in '03, because of the freshness we always have here."
From there though, Ferran, 46, then deflects questions to Cambie. "Gilles is a beautiful man, but he sometimes forgets what is in the tanks," said Cambie with a friendly laugh, drawing a dismissive head nod from Ferran. Ferran is one of Cambie's very first clients, and the two are close friends.
Ferran's vineyards range from 250 to 320 meters of elevation, the same as the terraces in the Dentelles above the town of Gigondas, where real estate commands a higher price. That altitude results in a later ripening, putting Ferran's vineyards on the edge in some years.
"When we harvest here, we're already done in Châteauneuf," said Cambie. "It's always the last to pick because of the altitude and it can be difficult, because the weather can be breaking down then and turning rainy."
Almost all the domaine's production is bottled now, as Ferran is another who made the choice to break away from selling to the co-op (he still sells a little fruit to the Tardieu-Laurent operation). Ferran joined the family estate in '87 and he eventually joined with Cambie, working together to debut the Escaravailles label in the '99 vintage with just 20,000 bottles. Today, Ferran produces a hefty 250,000 bottles annually. There were some reds produced in '08 but the range was reduced. Production is back up to full in 2009. One-quarter of the production is sent to the U.S. market.
I guess you could call Escaravailles a critter label. But there's a little more history here than with most—monks owned the farm in the 14th century, and when they walked around in their black robes and hoods, they looked like beetles to the local town people. Since then it's been known as the farm of the beetles. There are now 70 hectares, either owned or rented, with 40 of them in the Rasteau AOC.
The winery works simply: stainless steel ferments for Syrah and some Grenache; cement vats for the remainder of the Grenache. Most of the élevage is then in cement vat, with a few cuvées some limited oak aging. Extraction is gentle, using a modern pneumatic pigéage system just slowly flips the cap upside down, so Ferran and Cambie can do a longer ferment and maceration of up to four to five weeks. The system is used on the Syrah, which has more tannins to begin with, as well as the old-vine Grenache.
"It's very good to use on lots with high degrees of alcohol, as it airs the lees out well so they don't tire out in the tank because of the higher alcohol," said Ferran, as he starts to pour the portfolio of '09 reds.
The Côtes du Rhône-Villages Rasteau 2009 is taut, with a slightly sinewy frame to the red cherry and ganache notes, backed by a tangy iron hint. It's made from a blend of 70 percent Grenache and 20 percent Syrah with the remainder Carignane and Cinsault. The Côtes du Rhône Les Antimagnes 2009 has more weight, with rounded mouthfeel, licorice, spice and blackberry fruit. This year it's entirely Grenache sourced from some 60-year-old Grenache vines (other vintages have up to 20 percent Syrah). The Côtes du Rhône-Villages Cairanne Le Ventabren 2009 is a 70/20/10 Grenache, Syrah and Carignane blend, all picked together when the Grenache is ripe, so Syrah might be a little overripe but balanced by Carignane on the fresher side. It's very sanguine, with lots of mesquite and tangy cherry peel and plum sauce notes and a long, fine-grained finish.
The Côtes du Rhône-Villages Cairanne La Boutine 2009 (first made in '05) is all Grenache sourced from a parcel of 60-year-old vines dear to Ferran's heart. "When the domaine split between my father and uncle, my father kept this parcel as it was his favorite," said Ferran. The wine is super pure and fresh, with red currant, Damson plum and cherry sauce notes and a long apple wood–tinged finish that is very, very stylish. You'll have to hunt for this one though as there are usually just 3,000 to 5,000 bottles made.
The Côtes du Rhône-Villages Rasteau La Ponce 2009 is to be bottled next week. The wine is a 70/30 Grenache and Syrah blend with the Grenache aged in cement vat and the Syrah aged in barrel, the first cuvée where oak élevage arrives. It has a driven beam of licorice sand fruitcake, with supple, well-embedded tannins that are stylish but persistent. There's a layer of prune too, but not overripe, with a long, pure, rounded feel. The Côtes du Rhône-Villages Rasteau Héritage 1924 2009 is named for the date the vines were planted according to an old map, though they were probably planted earlier. Made from all Grenache and bottled in September, it is young and tight, with a super fresh beam of red and black cherry, lots of spice and a long iron and smoked apple wood finish. It's clearly outstanding and should rival the La Boutine for top honors here in '09. The Côtes du Rhône-Villages Roaix Les Hautes Granges 2009 is made from all Syrah and is all barrel aged. It's very dark and pure, with plum and boysenberry fruit carried by graphite and black tea. It's also very, very silky despite its heft, with a note of baker's chocolate checking in on the finish.
The Côtes du Rhône-Villages White Rasteau Galopine 2009 is a 40/40/20 Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier blend, barrel-fermented (one-third new oak) but with no malolactic. It's rounded but not heavy at all, with gorgeous chamomile, green melon and yellow apple fruit flavors. The '10 is still in a barrel obviously, with lychee, green fig and apple notes that have yet to broaden out fully. The wine will be just Côtes du Rhône-Villages in '10 as the new Rasteau cru AOC does not cover reds.
"That's a pity," said Ferran. I think it's pretty obvious we have the potential to make good whites too, since we have the acidity here at altitude."
As at Domaine Les Aphillanthes, the wines here are very modestly priced, most at $20 or less, and the top cuvées will age nicely over a three- to five-year period in the bottle. That's a hard-to-beat combination.
For my last visit of the day, I split the difference, geographically speaking, between Domaine Les Aphillanthes and Domaine des Escaravailles, stopping in the town Cairanne to visit with the brothers Bruno and Alain Boisson.
"I'm the young brother," said Bruno, 32. "But he's got the hair," he added about Alain, 34, who stands almost a full head taller and has long curly hair pulled back in a pony tail.
The Boissons, along with father Régis, have worked with Philippe Cambie since '98. The Boissons are the sixth generation to work their family vineyards in the area, though it was their grandparents who began to form the family domaine. Régis pushed ahead and began bottling the family's own production by 1986. After working in Australia and the Mâconnais, Bruno joined the estate in '98; Alain followed in '02 after studying at Montpellier.
The is two separate domaines that use the same facility. Régis & Bruno Boisson totals 32 hectares of vines (28 in Cairanne) and produces around 100,000 bottles annually. While still selling about 20 percent off in bulk. Alain Boisson totals 16 hectares of vines, though just five hectares are used for the Domaine Cros de Romet bottling, the rest are used by the local co-op. Regarding the split, Alain joked dryly, "It's better to separate some vineyards now and work together while doing what we want, instead of being one domaine for 20 years and then separate."
Neither brother farms organically, though they did stop using insecticides over 10 years ago.
Bruno prefers to blend parcels together for complexity for some cuvées, while keeping some parcels spearate for the domaine's top bottlings. Regarding blending, Bruno likes to bring opposites together.
"I like the finesse of a sandy soil parcel combined with the power you get from a clay or gravel area," said Bruno, who also destems the majority of the fruit.
The Régis & Bruno Boisson Côtes du Rhône 2009 is sourced from the young vines on the estate (20 years or less) and is a blend of 60 percent Grenache, 20 percent Syrah and the rest Carignane, Cinsault and Mourvèdre. After fermenting at a cooler temperature, it's aged for just six to eight months in cement vat, which results in a brighter floral and red berry profile, with juicy acidity and a fresh finish.
"We pick the young vines right at the start of harvest just to keep freshness and minimal alcohol, only around 13 percent," said Bruno.
The Régis & Bruno Boisson Côtes du Rhône-Villages Cairanne 2009 is sourced from mostly 20- to 25-year-old vines, with some up to 100-years-old. The 50/20/20/10 blend of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Carignane is fermented at a slightly higher temperature and then sees a longer four- to five-week maceration, depending on the vintage before aging for 12 months. It shows nice succulent blackberry and black cherry fruit, with a lacing of tobacco. There's still bright acidity too, with a lively finish.
The Régis & Bruno Boisson Côtes du Rhône-Villages Massif d'Uchaux Clos de la Brussière 2009 is sourced from a single parcel bought by Bruno's grandfather in 1957, who struck out from Cairanne when he couldn't find what he wanted. Locals in Massif d'Uchaux told him that the area had a good reputation for vines before phylloxera, so his grandfather took their advice and eventually planted the vineyard in 1961. Made from a 60/30/10 blend of Grenache, Mourvèdre and Carignane, the wine sees a short maceration but longer élevage of up to 14 months, with just 5 percent aging in used barrels, the rest in cement vat. It has a juicy beam of red currant, lavender and tobacco, with a racy finish that has a nice iron note.
"It's near Fonsalette on similar soils but without any limestone," said Bruno of the parcel. "It has some similar notes as they are both Burgundian in style, the way they smell and feel. The wine has more minerality, it's straighter than most wines from the Cairanne area."
The Côtes du Rhône-Villages Cairanne L'Exigence 2009 is a blend of parcels with older vines planted on mostly sloped vineyards. The 70/20/10 blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre represents the last fruit picked at the domaine; the Syrah and Mourvèdre are aged in barrel, Grenache in concrete. The blend is made just before bottling by the next harvest and the wine is dark and focused, with crushed plum and roasted fig fruit, laced with fruitcake and sweet tobacco. It has muscle and weight but stays sinewy and focused.
There is a new cuvée in '09 as well, the Côtes du Rhône-Villages Cairanne Réserve RB 2009, sourced from a single parcel of 60-plus-year-old Grenache and Mourvèdre. The grapes (three-quarters Grenache, the rest Mourvèdre) are co-fermented and check in at a hefty 15.8 alcohol and the wine displays sweet, ripe plum and blueberry fruit with a very focused, long graphite finish. It's very pure.
In contrast to his brother, Alain Boisson produces just one wine, and he typically picks after his brother Bruno is done, aiming for a more powerful, extracted style of wine.
The Alain Boisson Côtes du Rhône-Villages Cairanne Domaine Cros de Romet 2009 is an 80/20 blend of Grenache and Syrah, sourced from slightly rockier soils with more limestone than the vineyards for Régis & Bruno's wines. Alain also destems less than Bruno, does a longer maceration, and ages the wine in 10 percent barrels, the rest in vat. The style is much
darker and lusher, with blackberry and fig fruit and lots of sweet tobacco and a long, velvety finish. It checks in at 16.5 alcohol, but stays balanced and flattering through the long finish. Alain's wine has been consistently outstanding since the '05 vintage, checking in at under $20 retail. The Régis & Bruno wines are also consistently very good to outstanding, with all of the cuvées costing $25 or less.
[You can now follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at http://twitter.com/jmolesworth1]
Ray Lam — Vancouver, BC, Canada — December 1, 2010 4:43pm ET
James Molesworth — Senior Editor, Wine Spectator — December 2, 2010 1:29pm ET
Ray Lam — Vancouver, BC, Canada — December 2, 2010 4:12pm ET
James Molesworth — Senior Editor, Wine Spectator — December 3, 2010 3:29am ET
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