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robert camuto: letter from europe

To Hail and Back

A freewheeling Provence winemaker’s ride from ruin to recovery
Photo by: Robert Camuto
Château de Roquefort's vines are back in production after the vineyards were devastated by hail in 2012.

Posted: Oct 13, 2014 10:30am ET

Raimond de Villeneuve grins like he's won the French Loto as he looks over rows of Syrah vines loaded with dark, healthy grapes.

"It's my first real harvest since 2011," says the 52-year-old producer, who is in his 20th vintage at his Château de Roquefort in Provence.

It's a happy chapter in a story that looked like a tragedy two years ago after a hail storm destroyed his entire 62-acre crop and left half his vines damaged for the next vintage. 

Just after the storm, de Villeneuve faced financial ruin. He was saved by the rallying of 35 Provence and Rhône producers (and the flexibility of French authorities) who contributed grapes for a special rosé and two reds labeled Grêle (Hail) 2012, under his name rather than the château's. 

De Villeneuve's survival is a good thing for Provence wine: Château de Roquefort is a one-of-a-kind place run by a singular category-defying winemaker.

The setting is stunning—a north-facing amphitheater of clay-limestone soils rimmed by sheer cliffs a couple of miles inland from both the coastal Cassis and Bandol appellations. De Villeneuve calls it "geologically like Cassis but at [1,300 feet] altitude."

Here, de Villeneuve has painstakingly restored abandoned terraces and replanted vineyards using hand-grafted cuttings from Provence, Corsica and the Rhône. It's a laboratory for a line of quality, value-priced wines—nearly all under $20—that changes every year.

Perched over it all is a 15th-century farmhouse fancied up with a three-story tower about 160 years ago. The estate came into de Villeneuve's aristocratic family in 1812, but his path to winemaking was far from assured.

When he was 10, his Germany-born mother took him from Provence to Munich, where she enrolled him in a Waldorf school (inspired by biodynamics founder Rudolf Steiner). "The first three months at school all we did was gardening," de Villeneuve remembers.

Though he has used biodynamic farming methods at Roquefort for two decades, de Villeneuve criticizes the cultish mentality of some Steiner followers. He split with the Demeter certifying organization in 2001 because he found the group's wine-fining guidelines too restrictive to make limpid rosé.

As a rebellious youth in Germany, de Villeneuve quit high school in his senior year to apprentice as a carpenter. A few years later, he returned to France, counterfeited a high-school diploma and went on to earn a master's in business.

In 1987, de Villeneuve was a bored futures trader at a Paris bank when he responded to a help-wanted ad for an export representative by the Burgundy négociant Mommesin. "Burgundy was a magic word for me," he says. 

Five years after joining Mommesin, de Villenueve returned to Provence. At Roquefort he found a "cellar the same as when it was built in the 1730s—there was no money, no equipment and vines trailing on the ground."

He renovated the winery that had been used to produce bulk red wine, hired an experienced cellar master for his first harvest in 1995 and learned by listening and observing.

"Vines aren't complicated," says de Villeneuve, the first traces of gray showing in the dark hair that frames his light-blue eyes. "It's just work. You have to move your ass."

For the first decade, de Villeneuve focused mostly on reds. Since 2007, he has shifted the emphasis to rosé to meet the booming demand for Provence pink. His principal wine is now is Corail (2011, 87 points, $18).

"When I started out, rosé was like trash—where you put all the grapes that were not good enough to make red," he says. "Now it's different. I want to make rosé that's a real wine."

As he produced more nuanced rosés, de Villeneuve made less-tannic, easier-drinking reds (including the quaffer Gueule de Loup). He's also honed a pair of crisp whites from Vermentino and Clairette.

All the wines meet de Villeneuve's oxymoronic vision: "Wines that are seriously unserious."

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