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Way Up High in the Southern Rhône

Testing the limits of Grenache at Chêne Bleu
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Jul 24, 2017 5:50pm ET

With its vineyards sitting atop a mountain above the Southern Rhône town of Le Crestet and set around a 9th-century priory, Chêne Bleu is fairly unique. I sat down with owner Nicole Sierra-Rolet and winemaker Thomas Oui to taste through some unreleased vintages and talk about where this project is going. For background, reference my blog notes from 2014.

The site itself, based on altitude and longitude, is basically the limit of where Grenache will ripen. Consequently, a big, meaty style of wine is only going to occur in outlier vintages here—2010, for example. Now with a decade of experience developing the site, they are establishing a ripe but elegant style here, with silky, structured reds marked by pure fruit and floral notes.

Sierra-Rolet likes to ask questions, of herself and of her team. The approach here continues to be a wine laboratory of sorts, with Sierra-Rolet soliciting lots of advice and showing a willingness to experiment. She's worked with Philippe Cambie, Alain Graillot and the late Paul Pontallier, among others.

"Certainties are fallacies, because they are limiting. That's why I'm committed to trying every possible thing and going down every possible road," she says. "Self doubt is a good thing because it drives. Though with all the self doubt I have, maybe I'm the female Woody Allen of the Ventoux," she adds with a laugh.

For the two main red cuvées, the wines are selected through the élevage process, with the softer and more elegant lots going to the Héloïse, the more muscular ones (relatively speaking) going to the Abélard. As the project has developed, the amount of new oak has been dropped, both from experience working with the wines and as stocks of barrels have built up over the years.

"And as we have less new oak, we like to keep the wines longer in barrel," says Sierra-Rolet, who also notes that the still-unreleased 2010 saw 18 months élevage.

The 2010 Vaucluse Héloïse is a 63/35/2 blend of Syrah, Grenache and Viognier. It's dense and smoky, with lots of dried lavender, savory and tobacco notes weaving around steeped fig and blackberry fruit. Long and loamy through the finish, it has a broad swath of ganache as well. The 2010 Ventoux Abélard is an 85/15 Grenache and Syrah blend, bursting with pepper and garrigue that lead the way for this mouthfilling red, which is followed by steeped plum and raspberry fruit. Lots of bay underscores the finish, along with a graphite note. It has lovely flesh and depth with a petrichor echo at the very end adding further intrigue.

Things change drastically with the 2011 vintage though, as the 2011 Héloïse is more elegant and vibrant, with lots of Linzer, red currant and blackberry confiture notes laced with violet and graphite accents. It has a racier feel, with a bright bay note through the finish backed by an iron accent. I like the energy and drive here, versus the bass-line dominated 2010. The 2011 Abélard is fleshier in feel, with inviting raspberry, plum and boysenberry compote notes. Lively black tea woodspice and anise notes fill in the background. It has plenty of grip, with fresh acidity to match as well.

The 2012 Héloïse is juicy and fresh, open in feel, with lots of raspberry purée and cherry flavors. It's bright and more accessible in feel than 2011 and '10. The 2012 Abélard is focused, with a light alder edge running alongside juicy cherry and plum fruit. Bright anise and rooibos tea add detail on the finish.

Then the 2013 Héloïse, the first vintage with Marsanne instead of Viognier in the blend, is also the first vintage to be vinified in small lots of 2,000 liters versus 6,000 liters. It's quite fresh, with violet and lilac notes out front, backed by raspberry and black cherry purée flavors. Light black tea and spice accents line the finish which is slightly taut in feel. The 2013 Abélard shows raspberry and red currant fruit, staying on the fresh and racy side of the spectrum, with bergamot, blood orange and pomegranate accents as well. Bright acidity lines the finish, and this is still quite youthful.

We end with the 2014 Héloïse, still in tank and set to be bottled in a few days. The weakest year in the south between 2010 and 2016, it has a soft feel, with lots of primal plum and blackberry purée flavors. The toast is well-integrated, with lots of alluring cinnamon, black tea and melted licorice on the finish. The 2014 Abélard is a big step up from the Héloïse, with crushed plum and raspberry flavors melding nicely with fruitcake, licorice and sweet spice accents. A buried graphite hint is just starting to develop on the finish.

While there are swings in style and quality here, it's also a progression—there's no regression. It's a great sign for the future of a project that is still feeling its way.

"We don't want to replicate what we did the year before. So we're always tweaking and changing. And that's difficult, because it could be in the vineyards, in the winery. And knowing what to change, and how much you can change each year, is the hard part," says Sierra-Rolet. "Especially when you're trying to establish a brand and consumers probably don't have a clear idea of what we are yet, so to keep changing right from the beginning is a challenge. And to compound that since we're on the viticultural edge, so to speak, there's real vintage variability too."

Follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at twitter.com/jmolesworth1, and Instagram, at instagram.com/jmolesworth1.

Thomas Burnakis
Jacksonville, FL USA —  August 2, 2017 3:16pm ET
Gosh, wish these had been on-line sooner! We just got back from two lovely, though hot, weeks in the Rhône staying in Sablet (which is the full working village facing the tourist town Seguret). During that time we drove up over the small and sometimes "are you sure this is a road" paths that went by Malmont and Mourchon (which we have visited in the past) and even went up the equally scary asphalt strip to Le Crestet. Unfortunately we did not stop at any of the Domaines there this visit so I guess I just have to go back! Luckily I did get a chance to visit Beaucastel and even got to taste a newly bottled 2015 CDP - LOTS of fruit even as young as it was and loads of promise. Great set of articles, transports me back without the hassle of air travel.

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