During our last vacation in France, we spent a day touring the wineries of the Southern Rhône valley, a friendly region of vineyards, farms, picturesque villages, and Roman sites.
Characteristics of the region
The village of Cairanne surrounded by vineyards.
The wine region of Côtes du Rhône is a land rich in diversity.
The climate is Mediterranean with heavy rains, high temperatures, and exceptional amounts of sunshine. The fierce Mistral wind, which blows down the Rhône valley and out into the Mediterranean sea, is actually beneficial to the vine's development as it helps keep
the region dry and the grapes disease-resistant. The soil is mostly limestone covered with alluvial deposits.
There are many grape varieties growing in the Southern Rhône valley and they originate from different areas. The Cinsault, Clairette, and Bourboulenc come from France's Mediterranean region. The Grenache, Carignan, and Mourvèdre come from Spain, brought by travellers centuries ago. And Syrah, Roussanne, Marsanne, and Viognier are thought to have come from the Alpine regions of Dauphiné and Savoie.
Traditional winemaking in the region is to blend these varietals in order to obtain wines of increased richness and multi-dimensional complexity. Grenache, a very heat- and drought-resistant grape, is the dominant red varietal. It produces very fruity wines that are high in alcohol, low in acidity, and prone to oxidation. Mourvèdre and Syrah are usually added to the blend to bring firmer tannins, resistance to oxidation, and longevity to the wine. Cinsault brings acidity and freshness.
The noblest white varietals growing in the region are Roussanne, which is high in acidity, very racy, and has a great potential to age, and Viognier, a grape with an exquisite and exotic bouquet.
Grenache Blanc is, like the red Grenache, very drought-resistant. It produces aromatic wines with crisp acidity and high alcohol. Clairette brings floral aromas, low acidity, and high alcohol to the blend. Bourboulenc adds freshness and acidity, and Marsanne, color, body, and relatively simple fruity flavors.
There are many wineries to visit in the area, most of them open for tasting during the week. That day, we visited five of them, recommended by the Bettane&Desseauve guide, and were very impressed by the overall quality of the wines we tasted.
Domaine de l'Oratoire St. Martin
We started our trip with the village of Cairanne and our first visit was for the Domaine de l'Oratoire St. Martin. The domain is named after an oratory built in the middle of the vines. The vineyard is planted with a high percentage of old vines, the oldest being 96 years old. For the red wines, they have some Grenache (approx. 60%), Mourvèdre, the domain's favorite variety (approx. 30%), and Syrah, and for the white wines, some Marsanne (approx. 50%), Roussanne (approx. 30%), Clairette (approx. 15%), and Viognier. The soil is stony with a high percentage of limestone, yellow clay on the surface, and blue clay deeper. The white varietals and the Syrah grapes are grown on the cooler, north-east facing slopes and the sun-loving Grenache and Mourvèdre grapes are grown on the warmer south-west facing slopes. The vines are cultivated without pesticides or fertilizer and the grapes are harvested manually.
At the winery, we were friendlily welcomed by the daughter of the house. That day, she was just replacing her sick mother but she did a great job in the tasting room. Here are the wines that we chose to taste:
Domaine Dominique Rocher
Our next stop was the Domaine Dominique Rocher. Dominique Rocher used to own a restaurant in London until an inheritance from his father allowed him to purchase a hillside vineyard planted with 40 years old vines in Cairanne. He is passionate about his vineyard, which he farms organically and harvests manually, and his wines that he makes traditionally but with state of the art technology.
With Monsieur Rocher, comfortably seated under the nice shade of a pergola covered with vines, we tasted the following wines:
The domain's terraced vineyards at the foot of the Dentelles de Montmirail in Gigondas [from Brusset].
Our last visit in Cairanne was the Domaine Brusset. Founded in 1947 by André Brusset, the domain is now run by his son Daniel and his grand-son Laurent. The family owns several vineyards in Cairanne, Gigondas, Carpentras, and in the generic Côte du Rhône appellation. For the red and rosé wines, they are planted with Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, and Carignan, and for the white wines, with Clairette, Bourboulenc, Marsanne, and Viognier.
We had an interesting tour of the winery's facilities where one can see three generations of winemaking equipments. The domain produces a large range of wines from different appellations, but in the tasting room, we decided to limit ourselves to those from Cairanne and also from the striking, terraced vineyard at the foot of the Dentelles de Montmirail in Gigondas:
2001 Gigondas Domaine Brusset Les Hauts de Montmirail: a blend of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre, this cuvée is aged in 100% oak, 30% new. Dark color, woody aromas on the nose with cherry liqueur notes, rich, dense mouthfeel on the palate, followed by a long spicy finish. The wine is still very young and should continue to develop further depth and complexity in the bottle.
Domaine La Soumade
After a relaxing lunch in the nearby village of Sainte-Cécile les Vignes, we drove to Rasteau to visit the Domaine La Soumade.
André Romero, owner of the domain, is one of the best vignerons in Rasteau and believes in low yields, traditional vinification and unfined, unfiltered wines. He makes rich and powerful wines that can age at least a decade.
We felt warmly welcomed in the tasting room and were offered to taste the following wines:
Domaine Les Goubert
We ended our trip with a visit of Domaine Les Goubert in Gigondas. The Domaine Les Goubert is one of the oldest wineries in town and produces complex and rich wines from the villages of Gigondas, Sablet, Beaumes de Venise as well as a generic Côte du Rhône. The vineyards have different exposures and a rich diversity of soils. They are planted with Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Clairette, Picpoul Noir, Terret Noir, Vaccarèse, and Carignan for the red wines, and with Clairette, Roussanne, Bourboulenc, and Viognier for the white wines.
Once again, the tasting was a treat:
Domaine La Monardière
Unfortunately, we did not have the time to reach Vacqueyras that day but later on, we were lucky to taste two delicious wines from Domaine La Monardière, in nearby restaurants: