I sat down with Nicole Rolet here at my New York office the other day to get introduced to one of the Rhône's newest projects, Chêne Bleu.
Rolet is working with her husband, Xavier, to bring back an ancient estate tucked on the northern side of the Ventoux, just east of the Dentelles de Montmirail mountains that define the appellation of Gigondas. Xavier found the property in 1993, before the couple was married. Now, after more than 15 years renovating the vineyards and building a new winery facility, the Rolets have released their first wines, from the 2006 vintage.
"It was a labor of love," said the engaging Nicole, 47, with long, flowing, platinum blond hair. "It was a lifelong dream just to renovate the old 9th century priory and bring the area back to life a bit. When Xavier said he was thinking about actually making wine as well, I thought 'no way, too much'! But then I went to UC Davis to get some technical background and I was totally bitten by the wine bug."
The Rolets have the benefit of old vines—50-year-old Grenache and Syrah in particular, which survived while leased out to a local grower who sold the grapes off to the co-op as the rest of the property languished. After buying the estate, the Rolets began converting the vineyards to biodynamics, during which time they've broken their 75 acres of vines into numerous blocks while adding additional Viognier, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc and Marsanne plantings.
The area features north-facing hillsides with fractured shale soils above 1,700 feet of elevation.
"We're basically on the same latitude as Châteauneuf-du-Pape, so we get a great expression of fruit," said Rolet. "But because we're at altitude, we have one foot in the Northern Rhône as well, stylistically."
"We have garrigue as you'd find elsewhere in the Southern Rhône, but we also have semi-Alpine conifers as well. It's a unique little eagle's nest of a spot tucked up in this saddle between the Dentelles and Ventoux," said Rolet.
With the combination of a cool, breezy microclimate, and naturally low-yielding, old vines, the Rolets are only putting out 2,200 cases annually, though production should creep up slowly as newer plantings come on line.
There are two reds from Chêne Bleu, starting with the Vin de Pays de Vaucluse Abelard, an 80/20 blend of Grenache and Syrah that Rolet describes as the terroir-driven cuvée, in contrast with the Vin de Pays de Vaucluse Héloïse, a Syrah, Grenache and Viognier blend that is made more with a specific style of wine in mind, with the selection done primarily in the winery rather than the vineyard. It was ultimately the addition of Viognier to the blend that forced the Rolets to use a Vin de Pays designation rather than a more recognizable Ventoux or Côtes du Rhône appellation.
"With the altitude, the Viognier comes off as really fresh and floral, rather Condrieulike," said Rolet. "The quality was so good and we liked what it did in the blend, we decided to go for it and then just use a Vin de Pays on the label. The downside is, we have pricing at Châteauneuf-du-Pape levels, but a Vin de Pays label."
There is also a Vin de Pays de Vaucluse White Aliot, made from Roussanne, Grenache Blanc and Marsanne, as well as a rosé made from direct press (rather than saignée). Both of the reds are set to retail at around $79, the white at around $75. Pricing may seem ambitious on the surface, especially with the Vin de Pays designation, but the Rolets have put in over a decade of effort and investment in the estate before releasing their first wines.
Though there is an in-house winemaking and viticultural team, the Rolets have opened their doors to advice and help not only from the rest of the Rhône, but internationally as well. Respected consulting winemakers Philippe Cambie and Zelma Long, among others, have spent time at the estate and offered their thoughts and guidance.
"A lot of people might come to you and say 'this is my wine,' and that's fine. But this isn't just me. It's not just my wine. It's a collaborative effort," said Rolet. "I spent time at a think tank before starting this and I really believe in the team approach."
"Last harvest, we had some winemakers here helping out. The two New World winemakers were arguing for the traditional punch-down in the vats. The two French winemakers wanted to do a more modern-styled pump-over. It was really upside down—but I guess that's the wine world today," said Rolet. "So, in the end, we did a little of both to see what we liked best."
Fifteen years of work have gone into the Rhône's new Chêne Bleu project.
And while I rarely comment on labels or packaging, the Chêne Bleu labeling is fun to explore. It's Where's Waldo meets medieval art, with numerous references buried in the details, including a depiction of Nicole on a cell phone while balancing spinning plates—"that's my role as general manager," she said with a laugh.
Though most Rhône domaines are already on to their 2009s, the 2006 vintage marks the debut commercial release for Chêne Bleu, with the 2007s soon to follow here in the U.S. market.
"We tend to do things to the extreme, timewise," said Rolet. "It took over 12 years to get a wine in the bottle. So, I guess we're not in a rush to release anything."
As usual, formal reviews of the wines based on official, blind tastings, will appear in the near future.
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