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stirring the lees with james molesworth

Day 6: From the Lubéron to the Northern Rhône, With a Truffle In the Bag

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Jun 27, 2008 4:37am ET

I had only two appointments scheduled today, but they were far apart. At the end of the day, the plan was to finish up at Restaurant Régis & Jacques Marcon located in the mountains of the Haut-Loire, which meant a lot of driving. So I headed out early and drove down to the Lubéron, where, underneath the striking hilltop village of Ménerbes, lies Domaine de la Citadelle.

Run by Alexis Rousset-Rouard, 41, Domaine de la Citadelle produces a range of value-priced, elegantly styled rosés, whites and reds. An 8-hectare property was bought by Alexis’ father, Yves, in 1989 and eventually expanded to its current 40 hectares, which are spread over 65 parcels in four different areas of the Lubéron, covering both plateau and hillside plantings. That diversity of plantings gives Rousset-Rouard a broad base from which to draw for his blends. The reds are made from a mélange of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre Carignane and Cinsault, while the whites are made from varying amounts of Clairette, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Roussanne, Viognier and Ugni Blanc. The domaine began producing wines in the 1992 vintage, and production now totals 15,000 cases annually, with 15 percent coming to the United States.

The Lubéron is often an afterthought (for its wines, not its scenery) even for the most ardent Rhône wine lovers. The appellation itself – Côtes du Lubéron – invokes the image of a country cousin to the generic Côtes du Rhône appellation – but the two are very different. The Lubéron is at a slightly higher altitude, and has many north-facing slopes that help to create a slightly cooler climate (by Southern Rhône standards) than the bigger-name appellations such as Châteauneuf-du-Pape to the north. The geography results in elegant wines, particularly the tender rosés, that pick up floral and garrigue notes while matching well with food. All of the wines from Citadelle are fermented in stainless steel (with the exception of those noted below).

The 2007 Côtes du Lubéron Rosé Le Châtaignier is very pale, with light rose petal and mineral notes, while the 2007 Côtes du Lubéron Rosé Les Artèmes offers a touch more precision and length. The 2007 Côtes du Lubéron White Le Châtaignier is a fresh, unencumbered white with honeysuckle and mineral notes; it stands in contrast to the 2007 Côtes du Lubéron White Les Artèmes, which is plumper, with more grapefruit and white peach notes. There’s also a tasty 2007 Viognier Vin de Pays de Vaucluse, with floral and heather hints and a clean, bright finish, along with the domaine’s top cuvée, the 2007 Vin de Pays de Vaucluse White Gouverneur St.-Auban, which gets just a touch of barrel fermentation, lending it a rounder feel and more heft, though it stays fresh and open with melon, nectarine and verbena notes.

Among the reds, there’s a good, medium-weight cedar and dusty cherry-filled 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Vin de Pays de Vaucluse, from grapes planted by Rousset-Rouard’s father, who was a Bordeaux lover when he started the domaine. The 2006 Côtes du Lubéron Le Châtaignier shows the black cherry and lavender notes typical of the domaine’s reds, and the 2006 Côtes du Lubéron Les Artèmes shows more depth, with smoke, cocoa and tobacco notes as well. The top cuvée, the 2006 Côtes du Lubéron Gouverneur St.-Auban gets just a touch of new oak during its élevage, and it picks up a denser fruit profile, with a racy graphite edge on the finish.

Before hitting the road, both Alexis and Yves wanted to give me a quick tour of the town itself, where Yves has been the mayor since 1995. It turns out that Yves and I share a common passion: truffles. The elder Rousset-Rouard has renovated a former private residence next to town hall and turned it into a truffle museum/wineshop/art gallery/meeting space (the most important function obviously being the first of the four). The museum features a collection of books, pamphlets and other historical truffle paraphernalia, as well as an interactive display on the history and production of truffles (the elder Rousset-Rouard proudly points out that the Lubéron produces far more truffles than the Périgord), and, of course, truffles are for sale year-round. Spring truffles, black on the outside and white on the inside, are currently in season. They're not as treasured as the all-black winter truffles, but they serve their purpose nonetheless. It’s amazing how far your money goes when you buy at the source -- so far, in fact, that I had to take one with me.

Domaine de la Citadelle’s wines are among the wallet-friendly (most well under $20 a bottle), quality-driven offerings in the Rhône, and their improving quality mirrors the growth of the Lubéron around them. When the Rousset-Rouards first started their winery, there were no other wineries around Ménerbes, and just two dozen in the Lubéron. Now there are six in Ménerbes, and more than 60 in the region.

As if the town of Ménerbes weren’t pretty enough, on the way to my next appointment I drove up the road past Gordes, a stunning hilltop village whose clutch of buildings seems to nearly spill down the mountainside. Unfortunately, I was already running late, so I couldn’t gape for too long.

I arrived in Séguret, back up in the heart of the Southern Rhône, where I met with Alfred and Nicolas Haeni, a Swiss father-son team who put down roots in this small town back in 1990 when they bought the existing Domaine de Cabasse, which at the time was selling bulk wines.

Alfred, 65, a former Swiss government agricultural research official, liked what he saw in the vineyards and, wanting to get back to his farming roots, purchased the property, renovated the restaurant and hotel, and began estate-bottling wines while expanding holdings. Nicolas is now at the winemaking helm, and the domaine currently comprises 20 hectares of vines, mostly in the villages of Séguret and Sablet, and some in Gigondas.

Haeni’s newest project is planting 3.5 hectares of terraced Grenache and Syrah in the hills behind the town, using a planting system devised in the Priorat region of Spain. The idea is to produce wines with more structure and ripeness to augment to current production, which features softer textures and elegant, more perfumed fruit.

Haeni, whose cellar is currently stacked floor-to-ceiling with pallets of wine waiting to be picked up (trucker and dock workers’ strikes in France have wreaked havoc with wine shipments, among other things), ferments all his reds in cement vats and then ages the wines in a mix of vat, foudre and barrel.

The entry-level 2007 Côtes du Rhône-Villages Sablet Les Deux Anges offers a clean beam of plum and vanilla. Stepping up in depth and length is the 2006 Côtes du Rhône-Villages Séguret Cuvée Garnacho, made from 80 percent Grenache with Syrah, Carignane and Counoise. It’s juicy and filled with briar and pepper notes. The 2006 Côtes du Rhône-Villages Séguret Casa Bassa is dark and winey, with graphite and charcoal notes and a solid, figgy finish. This Syrah/Grenache blend is set to be bottled next month, after which it should begin to show its more elegant side. The 2006 Gigondas should be an outstanding follow-up to the domaine’s 2005 version. It’s still tight, but very pure, with raspberry, perfume and spice notes.

The domaine’s top cuvée is its small-production blend of two-thirds Syrah and one-third Grenache. The wine has been produced only in vintages when the quality of the Syrah is tops: 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2003 and 2006. There are just 3,500 bottles of the 2006 Côtes du Rhône-Villages Séguret d'Eux Alfred Nicolas, which is very ripe, with melted licorice and crème de cassis flavor. With its powerful fruit, this wine is a noticeable departure from the house style.

The Haenis are soft-spoken but passionate, and their new terraced vineyards clearly indicate their sense of precision. The wines are consistently very good to outstanding in quality, with the Côtes du Rhône-Villages cuvées typically under $20 a bottle.

It was then time to make the long trek up to Restaurant Régis & Jacques Marcon, which specializes in mushrooms of all types. Dinner (I’ll file a report on my dining experiences after the trip) was a long, multicourse meal featuring a different mushroom preparation with each dish – sometimes as the focus, sometimes on the side. With a truffle packed in my bag (that should make for an interesting laundry experience when I get home) and a half-dozen courses of mushrooms for dinner, it was a fun-gus filled day ... I was looking forward to finally sleeping in a bit on Sunday morning before heading back down to Condrieu.

Jon C Martinez
Overland —  June 28, 2008 2:48pm ET
Hey James,Did you happen to taste the Les Ultimes? We brought some back when we were there last November. That is by far my favorite wine produced by them.
James Molesworth
June 28, 2008 6:11pm ET
Jon: Yes, I did. It's only produced in limited quantities and rarely gets to the U.S., so consider yourself lucky. It's excellent, and ages well too.

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