Friday, March 18, 2011

An Expert's Tour of Top Rhône Wineries

Philip and Jude Reddaway run a wine-tour company called La Madèlene Rhone Wine Holidays, based in a renovated 12th-century priory just outside Malaucène, between Mont Ventoux and the Dentelles de Montmirail in the Haut-Vaucluse. (Lonely Planet recently picked La Madelène as one of the four top places to stay around Avignon.) The Reddaway’s most-popular offering is a three-day Southern Rhône tour, with lodging, meals, wine pairings, wine education and visits to some of the region’s top domaines. They also offer one-day excursions, custom tours, chambre d’hôte overnight stays and specialty tours such as “Truffles and Wine” (Nov 30 to Dec 3, 2011). Because Philip knows where all the best wines and winemakers in the region are hiding, I asked him to share a few of his favorites with us. With one exception, all of these domaines welcome drop-in visitors during traditional tasting-room hours. Still, Philip cautions, it’s best to call ahead. To contact Philip directly, use: rhonewineholidays@googlemail.com.

I like to start by taking guests up into the Dentelles range to visit Domaine Mourchon. At around 400 meters, this Scottish-owned estate is regarded as probably the best producer in the Côtes du Rhone Villages Seguret AOC after only 12 years of production. Their Napa-style winery, perched on the side of the hill, is complemented by their respect for traditional wine making--wood is used sparingly. These are robust, sweetly ripe, herbal, mainly Grenache- based wines that shout “terroir.” The delightful owners, Walter and Ronnie McKinley, along with their daughter Kate and her partner Hugo, are extremely generous with their time and expertise.

For those with a sweet tooth, a visit to the caveau of Domaine des Bernardins in the village of Beaumes de Venise is essential. The Hall/Castaud family has been making wine here for five generations and theirs was the first to be awarded AOC status in 1943. While they make very quaffable reds, it’s the magnificent sweet Muscats that receive ecstatic feedback from our guests and get them reaching for their wallets. The classic Muscat is a deeper red/orange hue than a standard Beaumes de Venise, arising from a blend of 20% black Muscat grapes along with the usual white “Muscat a petit grain.” The result is an indulgent wine redolent of candy peel and orange flower water, unctuously sweet but with just enough acidity to keep it fresh. On a typical visit you will usually find son of the household Romain Hall, who will quietly but authoritatively talk you through the science (“mutage’) of how a Vin doux Naturel is made.

My next choice would be Domaine Goubert in the village of Gigondas. Here the Cartier family developed something of a maverick reputation from the 1970s onward; when everyone else was maturing wine in those vast old barrels called foudres, Jean-Pierre Cartier was using small Burgundian oak barriques. I’m not always a huge fan of new oak married with Rhône varietals but Jean-Pierre’s "Cuvée Florence”  is a masterpiece of winemaking. We often buy magnums for our alfresco dinners at La Madèlene, recently the 2003, and use the bottle itself as a striking centerpiece. If we’re lucky, the eponymous Florence (daughter and only child of the house), hosts our visit. The village of Gigondas is full of other great addresses, notably Château St. Cosme and Domaine la Bouissière.

Choosing a favourite Châteauneuf winery is the hardest as we visit so many and all are so good. But visits to Domaine de la Solitude are always special. The Lançon family ancestors were part of the Avignon Pope’s court, a lineage reflected in the name of their top cuvée, Barberini.  Whites and reds here can hit the highest notes: a 1978 classic cuvée I tasted last year was probably my finest tasting moment in the appellation. But it’s not just the wines that make for a sensational visit: in Châteauneuf, most vignerons grow grapes on small parcels of land throughout the AOC but the Lançon's family vines actually all surround the house. And there are parcels that include pre-phylloxera ancient vines. The private tasting room is a delight, book lined with oil paintings of the family and a framed legion d’honneur medal earned by a Lançon at the Battle of Waterloo. Heir apparent winemaker Florent Lançon delights in hosting grand tastings in this room, his good English peppered with some course Aussie expressions picked up whilst doing a winemaking “stage” there a few years back. In Châteauneuf, I also love to take guests to La Nerthe, Pegau, Nalys, Vatican, Roger Sabon and so many more!

Visiting my friend Philippe Gimel of Saint Jean du Barroux is not an easy exercise as he’s so hard to track down: he works out of an office in Caromb, his vineyard near Le Barroux and a cave in the corner of a cherry processing shed in Malaucène. Philippe is a genuine garagist (someone who makes very high quality wines in small batches), rendering powerful exotic wines of unusual quality from the humble Ventoux appellation. Thanks to Philippe’s energy, passion and über-smart marketing (he’s the only winemaker I know with his Facebook and Twitter details prominently shown on his label), these are fast becoming cult wines in such disparate places as California, Denmark and Hong Kong. I have not taken a guest to his humble shed who has not stumbled out two hours later after a marathon tasting, utterly charmed by both man and wine. If you can find him, Philippe is definitely one to watch! To reach Philippe, call 04-90-70-84-74.


Top photo: When you sign on for a tour, you'll stay at La Madelène, just outside the village of Malaucène. Bottom photo: a typical Provencale vineyard photographed by Patrick Morand

3 comments:

  1. This is a nice recognition of Philip's work and expertise. Congrats to him and thanks to you, J, for showing this to us.

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  2. I have done of his 3 day tours and very much enjoyed it. I learnt a lot and enjoyed the drinking too! Oh and Jude is a great cook. I highly recommend the tours.

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  3. This sounds wonderful! What a beautiful area for enjoying wine.

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