Today was a day not to lose faith in the GPS. Sometimes it took me on some squirrelly back roads, cutting through a vineyard on a narrow dirt path, even when there's a main road running parallel just a few hundred yards away.
But to find Domaine Gramenon, located up in the hills in the small hamlet of Montbrison, I knew I would need to keep the faith and stay on target. My GPS has taken me on the scenic route before, but it's always gotten me there.
Of course, I blew past the domaine once before turning around and seeing it as I backtracked. I should've known after all this time, that I was looking for a modest house with blink-and-you'll-miss-it signage. Set amidst vines that have already dropped their leaves when most others are still hanging on to theirs, and with browning weeds just as high running amok in the vine rows, Domaine Gramenon doesn't look like much at first glance. But the wines made here are distinctive, sometimes nebulous or awkward, but never anything less than provoking for their display of unadulterated minerality, smoky, garrigue-infused fruit and long, earth- and ash-laced finishes.
This was my first time visiting Michèle Aubèry-Laurent's domaine (and I made sure to bookmark it on my trusty GPS for easier future reference).
Aubèry-Laurent, 53, and her husband bought the property in 1978, bought some adjacent parcels of vines starting in 1979 and were soon bottling their own wine. Located at 300 to 350 meters of elevation, the domaine's 26 hectares of vines sit amidst gentle rolling terraces of argilo-calcaire soils, with more limestone at the top part of the estate and more sand at the bottom. A sanglier suddenly sprints through and the dogs at the neighboring farm bark an alarm.
Aubèry-Laurent's husband died accidentally in 1999, forcing Aubèry-Laurent to suddenly assume full control of the estate by herself. At the time, Domaine Gramenon was known for its vines in Vinsobres. But the struggles of keeping up with recently purchased vineyards took a toll, and Aubèry-Laurent soon sold most of her Vinsobres holdings (15 hectares) to the Perrin family of Beaucastel, who have since turned it into their base of operations in this burgeoning appellation. Nonetheless, Aubèry-Laurent still has 4.5 hectares of vines in Vinsobres along with 5.5 hectares in Valréas and the remaining 16 hectares around the winery itself. Today she produces about 85,000 bottles a year, 10 percent of which makes it to the U.S. market.
Aubèry-Laurent's son, Maxime-François, 29, joined the estate in 2005 after studying in Beaune, a departure from the more popular wine school in Montpellier.
"A little more interesting culture," said the soft-spoken Maxime-François about the choice.
Maxime-François has his own lineup of wines under his name, a small side négociant project separate from the domaine's wines, that currently totals 25,000 bottles annually.
The 2010 Côtes du Rhône Il Fait Soif blends Grenache with 10 percent Syrah, and Maxime-François employs a little carbonic maceration to accentuate lively Damson plum and cranberry notes with a lively, peppery finish. His 2010 Côtes du Rhône Pourpre is made entirely from Grenache, vinified with about one-third stems and sourced from 50- to 90-year old vines. It shows lots of spiced plum and blackberry fruit with a hint of Black Forest cake and a juicy finish that holds your interest.
Genteel and soft-spoken, both Michèle Aubèry-Laurent and her son Maxime-François stroll to the beat of their own drum.
For the Domaine Gramenon wines, the mother and son team farm their vines biodynamically and work in a minimalist manner in the cellar, with the reds fermented in cement vat, sometimes with a percentage of stems, and aged in cement or in a mix of used wood vessels. Sulfuring is kept to a minimum—1.5 grams—of about half what normal wineries would use. The cellar is a bit ramshackle, with a dirt-lined floor reminiscent of the decidedly old-school feel at Château Rayas.
The 2010 Côtes du Rhône White Vie on y est... is made from Viognier and vinified in barrel, though none new. In this vintage, the malolactic went through at the same time as the alcoholic fermentation, a relative rarity, though the wine still shows a bright and crunchy profile, with tasty green fig and plantain notes and a superfresh finish.
Among the reds, the 2010 Côtes du Rhône Poignée de Raisins is made from the estate's young-vine Grenache, and it provides bright bitter cherry and pomegranate notes with rosemary and mineral hints on the finish. In contrast, the 2010 Côtes du Rhône Sierra du Sud is made from Syrah, sourced from 30-year-old vines. It's bracing, but darker in profile with more violet, plum and blueberry notes and a flash of bitter cherry on the finish. The 2010 Côtes du Rhône L'Élémentaire is all Grenache, sourced entirely from 40- to 50-year-old vines around Valréas. Fermented and aged in cement vat, it's a spicy take on Grenache, with bouncy red cherry and red currant fruit that fleshes out quickly as it sits in the glass, turning to darker plum and fig, offset by racy iron and tangy alder wood notes on the finish.
From there, Aubèry-Laurent's wines take a marked step up, starting with the still-unbottled 2010 Côtes du Rhône-Villages Les Laurentides, sourced from the winery's remaining vines in Vinsobres. These grapes from 60-year-old Grenache vines are fermented in vat but aged in used barrels, and the wine is noticeably darker in profile, with fleshy anise and blackberry fruit notes and lots of racy graphite, charcoal and iron notes on the finish. So why not bottle it under the now-allowed Vinsobres appellation, instead of just a generic Côtes du Rhône-Villages, I ask? Turns out, when the wine was proposed to the grower's syndicate for approval of the use of Vinsobres, it was rejected. Rejected? For what reason?
"Mauvais goût, was the official explanation they gave me," said Aubèry-Laurent laughing it off. "I think I do a real Vinsobres, but they seem to want dark and thick wines. And I don't make those wines," she added with a small shrug.
"I use minimal sulphur, and there is often more carbonic gas in the wines to preserve freshness and act as a preservative, which is needed since the sulphur is low. But do you think it's mauvais goût?" asked Aubèry-Laurent. The question came rhetorically and without the slightest hint of combativeness.
You have to look closely to find the vines in some of Domaine Gramenon's parcels. Weed competition takes on a new meaning here.
Admittedly, I have't been thrilled with every wine I've tried from Gramenon. I've seen some bottle variation, and with minimal sulphur added only once and early in the élevage (right after the malolactic is finished), the wines can sometimes really take a tumble after bottling, a fact that Aubèry-Laurent readily admits. But these are just idiosyncrasies typical of a small, artisanally run domaine. They are not heinous faults that merit exclusion from an entire appellation. France does love its dogma though, and a bureaucratic hurdle can stay in place for some time.
The 2010 Côtes du Rhône La Sagesse is all Grenache, sourced from 60-year-old vines around the winery and vinified with 50 percent stems before aging in used barrels. It sports lively kirsch and pomegranate fruit notes that expand with air, along with dusty tannins and a long floral finish. This wine has a track record for filling out as it ages, too.
The 2010 Vin de France La Papesse is another of Aubèry-Laurent's wines to sometimes not be granted use of the Vinsobres AOC. Sourced from her oldest Grenache vines and fermented entirely with stems in wooden vat, the wine has a burly edge, with juicy currant and fig fruit backed by roasted applewood and pain d'épices notes. It's dark in profile but not overtly heady or rich in feel, staying relatively suave and light on its feet, thanks to well-embedded minerality.
These wines may seem ambitiously priced for Côtes du Rhônes—they often start at $25 and can get into the low $40s range as you move up through the portfolio. But these are wines that are appellation-labeled more as a mere formality. At their best, they are outstanding and the top cuvées can easily age well for 5 to 10 years, in strong vintages. Considering the quality, along with their low yields and distinctive personality, the pricing seems fair.
And ultimately Aubèry-Laurent isn't miffed at the occasional AOC snub her wines get from the powers-that-be. France may like its dogma but Aubèry-Laurent likes her own style.
From Gramenon, it was back down to the plateau, heading south to Cairanne, and turning eastward, back up into the hills of Vinsobres. A short jaunt as the crow flies, but a winding road turns it into a 45-minute drive.
I was making another first-time visit, this time at Domaine Jaume, where brothers Pascal and Richard are the fourth generation of their family to run this estate. With 80 hectares of vines today, the Jaumes are among the bigger players in this small town, as the appellation itself only totals 500 hectares of vines currently (with room to expand to 1,400 hectares).
Vinsobres is one of the Southern Rhône's frontier appellations, having been elevated from Côtes du Rhône-Villages status only in 2006. Currently, Vinsobres production is dominated by three co-ops which total some 70 growers, leaving only 19 other domaines to bottle their own wines. The Vinsobres appellation is made up of four distinct quadrants: two large terraces, one hilly section and then a plateau above. The Jaumes have all of their vines on the upper terrace and hilly area.
Founded in 1905, Domaine Jaume survived by selling its production en vrac and in tonneau to local restaurants. In the 1960s, Pascal's grandfather and father began to bottle their own production, and the estate quickly grew from only eight hectares to 50 hectares.
Pascal then joined the family business in 1981, followed by his younger brother Richard in 1989. Today, Pascal and his wife Isabel handle the vineyards, Richard the winemaking, Richard's wife Laurence is in the office and tasting room, and their son Antonin now represents the fifth generation at the winery.Total production now stands at 25,000 cases annually, with 7,000 cases coming to the U.S.
In 2003, the Jaumes purchased Domaine Courtois, a 30-hectare estate that they added to their own 50 hectares. But rather than assimilate the vines into their own holdings, the Jaumes decided to keep the new vines separate, and the wines are bottled under the Courtois label.
"Adding 30 hectares to 50 would have been a huge shift. Even with many vineyards in the same area, it would have meant a large change for the wines we were already making," said Pascal, 48, about the decision to keep them separate.
The Jaumes' vineyards are made up primarily of Grenache, along with some Syrah and a small amount of Mourvèdre. As Pascal noted, "We are the north of the South. We work our vines more like in the Northern Rhône than in Châteauneuf-du-Pape."
All the wines are fermented in stainless steel tank, before being moved to a mix of cement vat or barrel, depending on the cuvées, for their malolactic fermentation and subsequent élevage. All blending is done right after the malo, and most of the wines are aged for just 12 to 14 months.
Under the Pascal & Richard Jaume label, the 2010 Côtes du Rhône Domaine Courtois La Grande Vigne is a blend of 65 percent Grenache, 25 percent Syrah and the rest Carignane. It shows juicy red currant and cherry pit notes with nice flashes of spice on the finish. The 2010 Vinsobres Domaine Courtois La Grange is a 60/40 blend of Grenache and Syrah, which sports lush violet and plum notes but stays racy, with a chalky edge giving the finish nice cut. The 2010 Vinsobres Domaine Courtois St.-Pierre is equal parts Grenache and Syrah, sourced from the oldest vines in the Courtois vineyards. It's a shade darker in profile, with velvety plum and fig fruit, offset by the chalky edge on the finish, though it's buried a little deeper here than in the La Grange.
Under the Domaine Jaume label are the wines from the family's original estate, starting with the 2010 Côtes du Rhône-Villages Génération. Made from a 70/20/10 blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre, it delivers bright raspberry and Damson plum fruit, tangy spice notes and a nice taut, sinewy edge, which defined the wines from this side of the portfolio. The 2010 Vinsobres Altitude 420 is a 60/40 Grenache and Syrah blend sourced from vines at the top of the hilly area. It's lacy in feel at first, with bitter cherry, blood orange and pomegranate notes which flesh out nicely in the glass, offset by mouthwatering acidity on the finish. The 2010 Vinsobres Référence blends 50 percent Grenache with 40 percent Syrah and 10 percent Mourvèdre to produce a lush mocha-, plum- and fig-filled wine that gives way to a tauter feel on the finish, where iron and violet notes flash through nicely.
The top bottling here is the limited-production (only 4,000 bottles) 2010 Vinsobres Clos des Échalas, produced from a single three-hectare parcel of old-vine Grenache and Mourvèdre and aged in 100 percent new oak. First made in '99, the wine is bottled only in top vintages (it was skipped in '02, '03, '06 and '08). It shows an outstanding combination of flesh and sinew, with raspberry and currant paste spiked with iron and chalk. It's long and well-built for cellaring.
The entire portfolio here are excellent examples of Vinsobres, whose higher altitude results in a cooler microclimate that delivers a dark fruit profile offset by brisk and pure minerality. Most of Jaume's wines retail for $25 or less, making them superb values as well.
And speaking of cooler microclimates in the Southern Rhône, tomorrow I head out to the Ventoux.