I knew I was heading out to the boonies, as whenever I mentioned to a vigneron that I was going to see a domaine in Arlebosc, all they kept asking me was "Where are you going?"
This was my first visit to Hervé Souhaut and Domaine Romaneaux-Destezet, a relative newcomer which has rapidly become a darling among the hipster set for its pepper- and violet-infused unoaked Syrahs.
Hervé Souhaut, 50, and his wife, Béatrice, 49, were a Paris-based couple who returned to Béatrice's parent's farm in the hamlet that apparently no one outside of Arlebosc has heard of. It's located a 30-minute drive from St.-Jean de Muzols, up a hairpin turn-filled road through the stunning, craggy, savage Doux valley. As Béatrice's parents recouped their vineyards from lease agreements that were ending, Hervé, a chemist, decided to be more than just a weekend winemaker. After studying a bit in Burgundy and learning from his friends, including vignerons Marcel Lapierre and Philippe Pacalet, they took the plunge and started their domaine, adding additional parcels through purchase and new plantings over the years.
The couple converted the cellars of her parents' centuries-old hunting lodge into the winery and now draw on four parcels of vines totaling 8.5 acres in St.-Joseph, as well as 20 additional acres of Vin de Pays vineyards on the plateau, planted primarily to Gamay, Roussanne and Viognier. The AOC wines are labeled under Souhaut's name, while the Vin de Pays cuvées are named Domaine Romaneaux-Destezet, in homage to the name of her parents' estate combined with Béatrice's family name.
The domaine was created in 1993, growing steadily from there to total about 3,750 cases annually today. The couple doesn't intend to grow much past that.
"Well, with pigéage and vineyard work," said the amiable Béatrice, "I have enough to do already!"
Reds are vinified in stainless steel, with whole bunches going through a long, cold maceration before undergoing a semi-carbonic fermentation. Malo is usually done in tank as well. From there the wines are moved to used barrels for a brief six to eight months of aging. The whites are barrel-fermented (but no new oak) and also see the same brief élevage. It's a curious decision, particularly for the reds, since the parcels in St.-Joseph range from 25-year-old vines and up on steep slopes of granite, including some in the prime Ste.-Epine sector. They could easily handle a more traditional vinification and barrel élevage.
"I just don't like the taste of oak, and don't want the wines marked by oak," said Hervé with a light shrug.
The 2013 Syrah Vin de Pays de l'Ardeche is marked by violet and cherry pit notes, flecked with white pepper and backed by a lightly dusty edge on the finish. The 2013 St.-Joseph Les Cessieux is a debut bottling for this vineyard selection, sourced from a slope of 25-year-old vines that features a run of north to southeast exposure. It crackles with anise, blueberry and pomegranate fruit, laced with a high-pitched violet hint and finishing with high-toned acidity and a brisk mineral edge. It's a touch bony overall, with a twinge of stem holding the finish. The 2013 St.-Joseph Ste.-Epine is sourced from 60-plus-year-old vines. It's brambly edged, with blueberry and pomegranate fruit flecked with pepper and once again backed by a stemmy twinge on the finish, though it's not drying or aggressive—instead it's slightly edgy and lively.
We also tasted the 2014 St.-Joseph Les Cessieux from barrel, though the pipette drawn from one cask came out flecked with white spots—a flor has developed in the barrel and the ensuing sample shows a pronounced lifted note with a nose-twitching pinch of white pepper. A blend of other barrels tames the oddball, turning to a silky, fresh berry-, violet- and bluebell-filled wine. The 2014 St.-Joseph Ste.-Epine, also still in barrel, delivers dark, racy plum skin and plum pit notes, rather than succulent flesh, giving way to slightly edgy bay and lavender notes on the finish.
The two whites include the 2013 Vin de Pays de l'Ardeche White is a 60/40 blend of Viognier and Roussanne that has broad apricot, peach pit and nectarine skin notes, and it flirts with an orange wine profile. But it has just enough orange zest zip to keep it honest, and vinous, through the finish. The 2013 St.-Joseph White (all Roussanne) is plump, with apricot, tangerine and bitter orange notes. It's so friendly and flattering though, I wonder if there's a touch of residual sugar? No, said Hervé, it's dry.
These are wines on the edge, both technically in terms of winemaking as well as idiosyncraticly in style. They are that way on purpose, as Hervé and Béatrice are happy with their efforts. I can't argue with them—they seem to be fully immersed and having the time of their lives, so kudos to them for pursuing an agrarian lifestyle with a fun-loving attitude. Still, as intriguing as the wines are for their distinctively unadorned profiles and dressed down accessibility, I can't help but wonder if a little fine-tuning and a little push couldn't take them to the next level. For right now, there is certainly terroir here, but it's pushing through rudimentary winemaking rather than blazing forth thanks to a defter hand.