When I last caught up with Nicolas Haeni in 2008, he was making the wines for Domaine de Cabasse, a quality estate producing wines from the hilltop town of Séguret as well as Gigondas. The estate was owned by his father, but when business partners wanted to cash out, the Haeni family sold Cabasse (it's still in operation today, along with a hotel).
At the time, Haeni was developing some new vineyards, a small 10-acre hillside parcel on blue marl and limestone, not far from the vines of Domaine de Mourchon. He managed to keep that parcel for himself, dubbing it Malmont (bad mountain). 2013 was Haeni's first vintage there; he only made about 500 cases. By the 2015 vintage he was up to 1,200 cases, and as the vineyard comes into full production, the target is about 2,000 cases annually.
"My dream is to have a small estate, and really focus on everything personally," says Haeni, now 43. As we drive up the winding backroads behind Séguret to the vineyard and arrive at the now fully developed site, it's clearly a tricky site to manage. It ranges in elevation from 1,000 to 1,200 feet, and while the overall exposition is west, the hillside runs like a ribbon, resulting in varying exposures. There's a steady breeze too.
"I liked the site because there is basically no disease pressure here," says Haeni. "But with that comes other issues. With the altitude, we need to put the Grenache on the upper terraces to maximize ripening ability, while using a trellis that leaves the fruit exposed to more sun through the end of the season, because of the later ripening."
In addition, the organic material in the soil was so low, the vines struggled to establish themselves early on. A composting and nutrient program was started, and now the soil has increased from 1 percent to 3 percent organic materials, with the vines gaining in strength along the way. Haeni hopes to get to 5 percent, and then maintain from there.
"It's not just adding organic materials," he explains. "There has to be a balance, because too much results in too vigorous a vine, with bigger berries. That would increase the botrytis risk, as the skins would be thinner."
The 2016 Côtes du Rhône, made from a 60/40 Syrah and Grenache blend, was bottled in May and will head to the U.S. soon. It's juicy and energetic in feel, with lots of raspberry fruit and a bright, floral-edged finish. Though the fruit is in the Séguret AOC, Haeni declassifies fruit he doesn't feel meets Séguret quality, destemming the grapes vinifying in stainless steel and bottling after six months.
The 2016 Côtes du Rhône-Villages Séguret shifts to a 55/45 Grenache and Syrah blend, relying more on the better Grenache from the top of the vineyard. It's racy and pure, with raspberry, violet and graphite notes backed by a fine chalky minerality drawn from the limestone soil. The wine is vinified two-thirds in oak vat the rest in steel, then blended. Both wines are potentially outstanding, and continue the upward trend line of these wines as they establish themselves.
Kudos to Haeni for striking out on his own. His dream of a small project where he pays attention to every detail is now a reality.