There are big wineries and small wineries. And then there are really tiny wineries.
During my recent trip through the Northern Rhône, I discovered a tiny new project, one that is just starting out with the 2007 vintage.
Claire Darnaud-McKerrow, 36, is half-French (her father is a native of the town of St.-Jean-de-Muzols) and half-German. Born in the Rhône, she has worked in the wine industry in various capacities for several years, including the large Cave de Tain l’Hermitage.
Deciding she needed a change of pace, Darnaud-McKerrow traveled to New Zealand and Australia, where she wound up meeting her husband, Shane, who was working at a winery in Tasmania at the time. The young couple decided to take their shared wine bug back to the Rhône and set up shop. Shane, 31, is now earning his Rhône chops while helping out in the cellar at J.-L. Chave (which is where I met them both).
Darnaud-McKerrow may not be a recognizable name in wine circles, but she is starting out with old vines from Raymond Trollat, and Trollat is a name that Northern Rhône aficionados shoul recall—Trollat's St.-Joseph bottings from the late 1980s and early 1990s were among the boldest wines of the appellation. Trollat has since retired, and his parcels are now being used by Pierre Gonon (an excellent producer whose wines are not available in the U.S.) and Darnaud-McKerrow.
The winery (if you can call it that, since they’re borrowing space in another cellar for their six barrels) is comprised of a host of funny paradoxes. Despite her French heritage, Darnaud-McKerrow speaks fluent English with an Aussie twang. Despite her Aussie winemaking husband, the wine is distinctly French in style, in homage to Trollat’s traditional wines, the red is not destemmed and won’t see any new oak.
“It’s important to have some sentiment,” explained Darnaud-McKerrow as we walked through a parcel of 100-year-old Syrah vines. “This is a special spot, so you have to have respect. I’m not against New World winemaking, but sometimes I feel the use of new oak hides what’s really behind it.”
The sense of history in the vineyard is palpable. On the wall of a little shack at the entrance to the parcel is a list of rainfall measurements covering the last generation of vintages, all scrawled in pencil by Trollat himself as he worked the vines.
Darnaud-McKerrow has no marketing plan yet; no importer lined up. She and her husband are taking it day by day as they feel their way through the project's nascent phase. It’s fun to see such a small, family-owned project in its earliest form.
As for the paradox of her Aussie husband working with a few barrels of Northern Rhône Syrah after previously having worked with large volumes of Aussie Shiraz, Darnaud-McKerrow said with a laugh, “Well, his palate is getting Frencher by the day.”