Today was my last day in the area, with another four visits on the docket. I figured I'd continue to explore estates in the Côtes du Rhône-Villages areas around Cairanne, eventually circling back close to my hotel. As with yesterday's visits, these estates are carving out some delicious wines that carry modest price tags from the lesser-known areas of the Southern Rhône.
How's this for a story line? Handsome Frenchman meets and marries beautiful blonde from Arizona (they met in a nightclub called Mistral) and then heads back to France to make wine. After buying some vines in a little out of the way place he starts to make excellent wines while she writes a popular blog and publishes two books on their travails. Well, Jean-Marc Espinasse is living it out with his wife, Kristin, in the vineyards near the town of Ste.-Cécile-les-Vignes, just west of Cairanne. Movie rights to the script forthcoming soon, no doubt. Perhaps Russell Crowe in the lead role?
But seriously, there is something going on at this tiny 8-hectare estate, which debuted in the 2007 vintage with an outstanding Côtes du Rhône bottling and a tasty Vin de Pays to boot. Espinasse bought the property in 2006, a victim of the wine bug.
Espinasse's uncle owns Domaine du Banneret in Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Espinasse himself had been brokering wine in the states for a few small domaines, so he wasn't exactly new to the game, but he'd never actually made the stuff.
"But this was just what I was looking for, when I saw the place," he said. "Something to start from scratch with, but with huge potential."
Espinasse is working as naturally as he can, calling his methods "inspired by organics and biodynamics," adding. "But I don't have the means to do it all by the book. Plus I want to be free to do things my way."
Surrounding Espinasse's house are his vineyards, all with 50-year-old or older vines, the fruit from which had previously been sent to the local co-op. The previous owners wanted out, as the old vines and their naturally reduced yields of 35 hectoliters per hectare or less had become economically unviable as far as they were concerned.
"That's the problem with old vines and the co-op. They are too big to value them properly, so they get lost in the mix," he said.
Technically most of Espinasse's parcels are in the Côtes du Rhône-Villages appellation, but he doesn't have the minimum amount of Syrah necessary to qualify. So why not just add the Syrah needed, so Espinasse can bottle his wines with a somewhat loftier appellation? "They ask me that all the time," he said, well-prepped for my question. "Why not just take out 1 hectare and put in Syrah? Because you're telling me that by pulling out old vines and putting in young vines, I can make a better wine. Sorry, but I don't think so."
Domaine Rouge-Bleu, named for the American and French investors Espinasse cobbled together to help stake him, produces 30,000 bottles annually, with an ample 60 percent going to the U.S. There won't be much growth here either, as Espinasse wants to be hands on with everything and can only handle so much.
As we drive around the vineyards, we stop in a small parcel with medium-sized rolled stones, just a short walk from the Ouvèze river. It stands out like a sort thumb, with old goblet Grenache vines, in a midst of either fallow parcels or those with wire-trellised vines on richer soils. Like at Domaine Les Aphillanthes yesterday, Espinasse is saving a few parcels from extinction, or worse—a conversion to higher-yielding viticulture and different varieties.
"That parcel over there is Merlot, which easily gets 80 hl/ha," said Espinasse, pointing at a parcel just off in the distance. In between that and his small lot of vines lies an empty strip, where another grower decided to give up and leave. (Watch the accompanying video as we talk about the economics of working with old vines in lesser appellations.)
The Vin de Pays de Méditerranée Dentelle 2009 is a 60/40 blend of Carignane and Grenache, which was bottled last week. The grapes are not destemmed and it spends 12 months in cement vat.
"We get good ripeness here and because of the old vines, never have a problem with green stems," said Espinasse.
The fan club at Domaine Rouge-Bleu leaves their mark on the vats used by Jean-Marc Espinasse.
The wine delivers lots of pebbly-textured herb, tobacco and roasted plum notes with a lightly rustic, hot stone-tinged yet charming finish.
"Carignane delivers lots of acidity and freshness, so it's just a wine for drinking," said Espinasse.
The Côtes du Rhône Mistral 2009 is a 75/20/3/2 blend of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Roussanne, also bottled last week. The Grenache, Mourvèdre and Roussanne are vinified together, the Syrah separately, and then all blended together blended the malo. The wine spends its first six months in cement vat, the second half of its élevage in used barrels. It's a potentially outstanding follow-up to the excellent '07 here, with mouthfilling crushed plum, sweet tobacco and garrigue notes backed by a lightly tarry edge on the very juicy, lively finish. There's also a nice licorice snap note that takes an encore at the very end. The wine has lots of character and also has more focus and freshness than the '07 that Espinasse said he had to bottle with a touch of CO2 to keep it lively in that very ripe, flattering vintage.
After tasting the bottled wines, we head to the 'cellar', which is literally in a converted garage. Espinasse has to climb up and over palettes of wine which block the way to his vats and barrels, but he eventually draws a sample of the Vin de Table Lunatic 2009, which totals all of four barrels. It's the Grenache cuvée from that small plot we stopped in before, with the name coming from the seeming folly of vinifying such a small parcel for its own bottling. It could be labeled Vin de Pays, but Espinasse takes this one down a run as well with the Vin de Table designation.
"What's the point," he said. "It's what inside the bottle that counts."
Espinasse will age the wine another year, giving it 24 months élevage, "just like my uncle does in Châteauneuf," he said.
The wine is very juicy, with a large core of plum, fig and blackberry paste. It's rounded but grippy, with a dense anise note on the finish.
"Sometimes I don't like some of my wines," said Espinasse. "But this one I admit I am excited about."
The wine will be racked every six months, out into a holding tank, while Espinasse cleans the barrels, before putting the wine back. "This way the whole wine will see the inside of every one of the four barrels," he said. As the wine naturally settles and stabilizes, there will be no filtration before bottling. It's another potentially outstanding wine, one that oozes character and passion. It will be a fun one to try and track down.
Sometimes my GPS takes me the long way. And then sometimes it takes me the loooong way.
Heading from Domaine Rouge-Bleu to André Farjon's estate, the road I was on turned from paved to dirt, as it wound up a hill, past vineyards and eventually into a forest. When I passed a hunting blind, I figured I was a little lost.
"Continue straight," said the GPS. Uh, OK …
With the car running in two deep ruts and trees pinching in on either side, I couldn't turn around. Eventually the ruts turned to bare stone, but by then I was on a steep descent. I was calculating if the insurance coverage I had on the rental car was enough as the car bounced up and down, the bottom scraping noisily on the rocks underneath. Finally, at the bottom, I see a paved road cutting perpendicular across my path along with some signs of civilization—"whew!" I thought to myself. But then the car finally bottoms out, its back wheels spinning helplessly. No cell phone reception either, and now I'm 30 minutes late for my visit.
Enter two locals, emerging from the wood with a bag of girolles big enough to feed 12 people. As they approach, a third man walks up from a house under construction a few meters down the road (he'd heard my spinning wheels). Another 30 minutes of well-placed planks and heavy pushing, and I was on my way again. The three men would accept no thanks or gratuity.
"C'est une service, bien sur," said one, waving me off with his hands to stop me from trying to give them something for their efforts. If only all service in France were that good!
When I finally pulled up at Domaine de Dionysos, a worried André Farjon popped out to meet me. I gave him my tale of woe, and he looked back over his shoulder at the wooded hill I had come over, then back at me.
"That hill?" he asked incredulously. "Maybe it's time for a new GPS."
The good news is you won't need a GPS to find the wines. While I enjoy writing about small, family-run estates, the fact is many times the wines can be difficult to track down in the marketplace. Farjon and his U.S. importer though are sending an ample supply of the domaine's 200,000-bottle production here, which debuted in the 2007 vintage, and most of the wines cost $15 or less. This domaine delivers value and quality in spades.
The Farjon family has been in the area since the 1700s, which in France means you're named for the area—the estate is in the lieu-dit Les Farjons. As we walk through the large winery, I comment on the long rows of various sized fermenting and aging vessels.
"This is how you tell time here," said the affable Farjon. "The big cement vats are from my grandfather," he said, gesturing to one row. "The smaller ones were added by my father. The stainless steel by me."
Farjon has 50 hectares of vines that he started farming biodynamically in 2008. The Farjons didn't bottle their own production until the '93 vintage, selling off to négociants beforehand (and he still sells some juice off). Farjon connected with the consultant Philippe Cambie in 2001.
The Farjon wines are sourced from clay and limestone slopes around the town of Uchaux, as well as the gravel and clay soils on the flatter areas around Cairanne, giving Farjon a range of terroirs with which to work.
From the flatter areas comes the Côtes du Rhône La Devèze 2009, which blends Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault and Carignane to produce a rich, black cherry and plump plum core, but lots of hot stone notes buried on the finish. The Côtes du Rhône-Villages Cairanne La Cigalette 2009 blends Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Cinsault, giving the wine a nice tarry frame that still stays fresh, with lots of dark fig, cherry pit and tobacco notes.
The contrast in terroirs can be seen as you move to the Côtes du Rhône-Villages Massif d'Uchaux 2009, which has not been bottled yet. Sourced from the hillside parcels, it shows more blueberry and blackberry fruit, with a lusher feel and a long velvety finish. There will be around 15,000 bottles of the wine when it is finally released.
The top bottling here is a late release, the Côtes du Rhône-Villages Cairanne La Trilougio 2006, which blends Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre from Farjon's three oldest parcels. The Grenache is aged in demi-muid, the rest in vat and the wine delivers a broad, smoky, roasted fig, Maduro tobacco profile. It's very fleshy and full-bodied, with Châteauneuf-du-Pape-like notes of roasted chestnut and humus on the finish, though it's also still youthful and vibrant.
If all goes according to plan, Farjon will send more of his portfolio to the U.S., including some delicious whites, led by a 100 percent Grenache Gris bottling of Côtes du Rhône and a delicious, non-malo-style bottling of Viognier that carries the Vin de Pays de la Principauté d'Orange moniker.
This is a domaine that starts with the benefits of experience (Farjon is 58) along with a strong, well-established vineyard base to produce ample quantities of modestly priced yet very good to outstanding wines. Another island in the difficult sea of Côtes du Rhône-Villages.
I never get tired of seeing vineyards, especially those as dramatic as the ones in Gigondas. So when I stopped in at Laurent Brusset's domaine, located in Cairanne, and he asked if I wanted to get a quick tour of his vines in Gigondas, I didn't say no.
Brusset has some of the most dramatic terraces in the appellation, located on the backside of the Dentelles, with full southern exposure.
The domaine began with 6 hectares of vines in Cairanne, bought by Brusset's grandfather. His father, Daniel, joined in 1966 and bought the family's first vines in Gigondas in 1986. Laurent came on board in '89 when the domaine had 55 hectares. He's since brought the total to 88 hectares of vines (including 18 in Gigondas and 35 in Cairanne).
Brusset, just 42, has already changed a lot at Domaine Brusset. When he joined his father, many of the reds were aged in 100 percent new oak. But since 2000, that percentage has steadily dropped, now down to 20 percent for the top cuvées.
"It's the style I've come to prefer," said Brusset, as we head up the hillsides of Gigondas in his four-wheel-drive truck, a much better ride for the situation than my rental. "I'm looking for wines of finesse and elegance. I want to respect the Grenache." Brusset has also switched to destemming his fruit entirely in recent years.
Laurent Brusset has some of the steepest, warmest spots in the appellation for his two Gigondas cuvées.
As we approach the vista overlooking his Gigondas terraces, Brusset recounts how they were abandoned when his father bought the land. It took five years to plant them, and today they ripen a full two weeks ahead of parcels on the opposite side of the Dentelles (where Château St.-Cosme and Domaine La Bouïssiere have their vines, for example).
"There are 40 hectares of surface area, but just 18 hectares of actual vines, said Brusset. "I guess now you see why my wines cost so much," he added with half a laugh. True, but while his prestige cuvée may be among the top-priced wines in the appellation, at under $50, it still over delivers vis a vis its quality range.
There are 250,000 bottles produced here annually from a wide range. All the '09 reds, fermented in stainless steel or cement vat and then aged primarily in cement vat, have been bottled. Back at the tasting room (which is open to the public), we start with the Ventoux Les Boudalles 2009, sourced from a lieu-dit near Carpentras. The 60/10/10/10/10 blend of Grenache, Clairette, Mourvèdre, Syrah and Carignane delivers friendly cherry and floral notes with a lightly dusty finish. The Côtes du Rhône Laurent B. 2009 is a 60/20/10/10 blend of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Carignane, delivering super fresh red cherry and cherry pit notes with a nice mineral-laced finish. Both typically retail under $15 and are fine values.
As we move up the portfolio, the Côtes du Rhône-Villages Cairanne Les Travers 2009 is the first cuvée to see some oak aging, 20 percent in barrel, but nothing younger than 3-year-old oak. The 60/20/10/10 blend of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Carignane takes on a darker aroma and flavor profile, with hints of licorice and plum leading the way, backed by lightly firm cherry pit and fresh acidity. The Côtes du Rhône-Villages Cairanne Les Chabriles 2009 is a 10,000-bottle blend of equal amounts Grenache and Syrah sourced from 80-year-old Grenache and 50-year-old Syrah vines. After aging 40 percent of the cuvée in demi-muid (none new) it was bottled just last week and is still open and inviting, with super fresh kirsch and red licorice notes and nice underlying grip, though this should flesh out a touch more in the short term.
Continuing to move up the scale, the Côtes du Rhône-Villages Cairanne Cuvée Hommage a André Brusset 2009, named for Laurent's grandfather, is an 80/20 blend of Syrah and Grenache, from 80-year-old Syrah vines planted by André himself. It's the lone '09 red not yet bottled here, and is still sitting in demi-muid, of which there are just four total. The wine is super dark and racy, with black licorice, blackberry and spice notes and is a very impressive young wine. It will be bottled just before the spring.
There are two Gigondas cuvées here, the first being the Gigondas Tradition Le Grand Montmirail 2009, made from a 70/10/10/10 blend of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Cinsault. It's racy, with sappy kirsch and raspberry ganache notes, long spice and licorice flavors and very fine-grained tannins. The finish is pure and stylish, but with nice latent grip (about one-third of the wine sees time in used barrels). The Gigondas Les Hauts de Montmirail 2009 is the only cuvée that sees new oak, aged half in vat and half in barrel, with about 20 percent of the barrel new. The 50/25/25 blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre checks in at a relatively modest 14.5 percent alcohol, and it's tight already, with lots of licorice, red currant, blackberry and spice. Firm tannins ride in quickly and this seems to be shutting down quickly from the mis, a good sign for longer development; both Gigondas here in '09 are clearly outstanding.
There are delicious whites here as well, starting with the Côtes du Rhône-Villages White Cairanne Les Travers 2009, made from equal parts each of Viognier, Roussanne and Grenache Blanc, co-fermented in one-third demi-muid and the rest tank. It's super fresh, with a nice beam of green almond and fig backed by a hint of melon rind on the finish to keep it going. The Côtes du Rhône White Les Clavelles 2009 is a 90/10 blend of Viognier and Roussanne, done half in demi-muid and half in tank. It shows more stone fruit notes and comes across as drier in feel, with nice precision and a finish of green fig and yellow apple fruit notes. There's also a delicious little Côtes du Rhône Rosé 2010, made by direct press from equal parts Cinsault, Grenache, Syrah and Carignane, showing nice cherry pit and rose petal notes with a brisk finish.
Brothers Vincent and Bruno own and run this family estate, located on the main road into Cairanne, right on the southern edge of town. It's also just across the street from my hotel, so it was logistically the best way to finish my trip.
As I exit my car, Delubac's father comes out to see who's arrived. I give him my name and mention I have an appointment with Vincent.
"You're an American," he said loudly—and I'm not sure if it's a question or statement. "Vachement," I say in return. "OK then," he said with a smile, before pointing the way to Vincent.
Vincent, 41, joined the estate in 1990 and then began to bottle some of the family's own production in '95 under the Domaine Delubac label (his grandfather had bottled some production but under another label). Today the Delubacs have 33 hectares of vines (28 in Cairanne) producing around 80,000 bottles annually for their own label, though they still sell some production off en vrac.
This was my first visit at the estate. While I had met Vincent Delubac and tasted a few of his wines before, the estate's U.S. importers haven't kept me current on samples, and I tend to visit the domaines whose wines I taste regularly in my New York office. Nonetheless, the Delubacs are well-respected among vignerons in the area and I wanted to see the place first-hand. Talk about coming full circle—Vincent's wife walks out to say hello—and it's Claire, the woman who is always in the office at Vieux Télégraphe when I arrive there, the Châteauneuf-du-Pape domaine where I often start my visits in the Southern Rhone. It really is a small world.
Vincent Delubac is jovial, with a cherubic face under a layer of stubble and a potbelly. When he answers a question, he can take off on a range of tangents, but eventually coming back to the initial question, moving in close to you when he gives his final answer.
While learning the ropes of winemaking, Delubac spent some time with Jean-Luc Colombo in Cornas, as well as Jacques Granges of Delas and Albéric Mazoyer of Alain Voge—and that Northern Rhône upbringing shows through in the wines, which are decidedly smoky, meaty and more rustic in style than many other Southern Rhône reds, even though Delubac destems his fruit and uses a range of stainless steel vats for most of the fermentations. Though there's ample Grenache in the reds here, the Syrah portion always seems to dominate; it's also always aged in used demi-muids and barrels, many of which look very well-worn and are likely the reason for the rusticity in the wines here.
The lone white bottling here is the Côtes du Rhône-Villages Cairanne White 2009, made from Grenache, Clairette, Marsanne and Bourboulenc. It is in a more open-knit style, with grapefruit pulp, chamomile and fennel notes backed by nice cut on the finish for balance.
"It's not an apéritif though," said Delubac. "For blanquette de veau," he added with a wink.
Among the reds, the Côtes du Rhône-Villages Cairanne Les Bruneau 2009 is made from Grenache, Mourvèdre and Syrah with a drop of Carignane. It's stainless steel fermented, then aged in a mix of cement vat and oak (for the Syrah) The wine is stitched with lavender and warm stone notes that hold the supple core of cherry and currant fruit, with a long, lacy finish. There are 40,000 bottles of the cuvée. The late-release Côtes du Rhône-Villages Cairanne L'Authentique 2007 is the top cuvée here, a 50/50 blend of Grenache and Syrah with the Syrah all in barrel and seeing a rather long 18-month élevage. It has a strong mesquite edge, with tangy pomegranate and blackberry fruit laced with a hint of pastis on the finish, and there are 8,000 bottles made.
Delubac chooses the lots for his cuvées in the winery, rather than in the vineyard.
"In 2004, the parcels that did better were different than the ones that did well in '03, for example," said Delubac.
The Côtes du Rhône-Villages Cairanne L'Authentique 2007 is racier than the rich '07, with more lilac, crushed plum and bittersweet cocoa notes and a long, lingering espresso hint on the finish.
These are gutsy styled, character-filled wines, that perhaps lack the technical precision some people may prefer. But Delubac's spirit courses through nonetheless, and it's a fitting end to my run through the region. As I prepare to make my exit, Delubac is talking morels, ceps and truffles—he has lot of chef friends as well as vignerons. He breaks into a wide smile and leans in close.
"I love wine," he said, dragging out the "love" for emphasis.
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