Friday, May 14, 2021

Ask the Sommelier: 5 Great Vineyards to Visit

So many wineries to visit, so little time! How do you narrow the list?

This week I reached out to Ivan Mandelli, head sommelier at the Michelin one-star Maison Hache in Eygalieres, and asked him to recommend five fantastic wineries to visit in Provence. I suggested he choose based on the warmth of the welcome, the beauty of the domaine, the pricing/value of the vintages offered, the creativity of the winemaker or the way the wines express the attributes of the grapes and terroir. 

Just make sure they produce wonderful wines, I said, and that my readers will be happy they went!

Below you’ll find his selection, in his words. But first, a bit about our sommelier…

Ivan comes from the north of Italy, from a small town between Lake Como and Milan called Merate, where his grandmother had a trattoria and his uncle had a restaurant. He left home at 17 and landed a job in a Swiss hotel. There, he remembers being inspired and impressed by one particular maître d’, who encouraged his career goals and pushed him to get as much experience as possible. “He transferred to me so much knowledge and savoir faire,” Ivan says.

Ivan went on to work in many luxury hotels and Michelin-starred restaurants across Europe including the five-star Hotel Palace (Gstaad, Switzerland), Chewton Glen Hotel & Spa (New Milton, England), and the Michelin three-star Restaurant Michel Bras (Laguiole, France).

He met his French wife, Laurence, in 1999 in Bermuda and they married in Italy in 2002.

After many years as a restaurant manager, Ivan's love of wine inspired a change in career direction and he decided to pursue sommelier training. He earned his diploma in Italy in 2009, from the Associazione Italiana Sommelier (AIS). He later became a member of the Union de la Sommellerie Française (UDSF). 

When friends that Ivan had met at Michel Bras left to open a restaurant in Provence, they encouraged him to join them, to be maître d and sommelier. The restaurant, Meo, opened in Tarascon in 2012 and earned a Michelin star within a year. It closed three years later, when the owners decided to move to Normandy. But Ivan and Laurence were hooked on Provence and they stayed.

In 2019, Christopher Hache left the Hôtel de Crillon in Paris, where he was the Michelin-starred executive chef, to open Maison Hache. “Christopher and I met just once but we just knew we had to work together,’’ Ivan remembers. The restaurant launched in May 2019 and earned a star the following year; Ivan now oversees a 300-label cellar. Christopher Hache also co-owns three Hache boulangerie/patisseries, the villages of Eygalieres, Molleges and St. Remy. (Love their pistachio cake!)

Please note that many wineries in Provence will welcome you for a drop-in tasting (sometimes free, sometimes for a fee) but it’s always best to check the hours, then phone ahead to reserve. 

To follow Ivan on Instagram, click here...and read on for his winery picks!

Domaine Milan

Located in St. Rémy since 1956, Domaine Milan is one of the original and more eclectic winemakers of the region, now in the hands of the third generation. Theophile Milan and his American wife, Nathalie, work closely with Theo’s father Henri, experimenting with unique grape varieties in an organic and biodyamic style. The large selection of wines will surprise you and you’ll appreciate their new natural wines without sulfites added. The tasting room is small and rustic (but charming)…and their wines are very precise and balanced. Plus, ask to taste their gin!

Château La Nerthe

One of the oldest wineries in Châteauneuf-du-Pape (dating to 1560), Château La Nerthe is also one of the most beautiful. The domaine has natural springs, which makes everything green and lush, and there’s a lovely park around the castle, with 100-year-old trees. This is a beautiful space of nature, only a few steps away from the famous wine village, and they’ve been organic since 1998. Be sure to try their whites, especially the Clos de Beauvenir, but all three are very interesting; La Nerthe is actually known more for whites than reds. Of the reds, I love the Cuvée des Cadettes. Guided cellar visits with tastings are available by reservation.

Domaine Laurens, Vignoble des Templiers

Domaine Laurens Vignoble des Templiers is a family business in the small village of Roaix in the Vaucluse, between Rasteau and Seguret, near Gigondas.  The current estate was created in 2016 by winemaker Bastien Laurens (along with his parents Françoise and Bruno, and his sister, Julia) but the story of the property began centuries before, in 1138, with the Templars, the Knights of Rhodes and later, the Popes. (Read their rich history on their website.) I find their wines to be the most interesting of the region, under the appellation Côtes-du-Rhône Villages. Be sure to try their deep and spicy 100% syrah. To me, the Domaine Laurens looks like a spot of Tuscany in the Vallée du Rhone! (Photo of Bruno and Bastien from the winery's Instagram by Nicolas Bria.)

Château Mourgues du Gres

The winery Château Mourgues du Grès, in a 16th-century convent, sits in the countryside outside Beaucaire, west of the Rhône, in the appellation Costières de Nimes. There you’ll find the warming welcome of Anne and François Collard, who make generous and elegant wines, labeled organic since 1990. One wine definitely not to be missed is their Terre d'Argence (IGP Pont du Gard), with a dominance of viognier grapes and the taste of fresh yellow fruits…nice and crispy. The Collards love to promote local food producers at special events and welcome visitors to stroll among the vines and orchards; order ahead and they’ll prepare a picnic for you (local products) and direct you to the perfect spot to enjoy it. They offer wine tastings in the vineyard, with a sommelier, and have holiday cottages for rent too.

Domaine Viret

Twenty minutes from Vaison-La-Romaine, just over the border between the Vaucluse and the Drome, Philippe and Alain Viret of Domaine Viret are producing natural wines without sulfites, using more than 100 grape varieties, growing on 30 hectares. Philippe coined the term "Cosmoculture" to describe their unique philosophy while the cellar itself was designed using the divine proportions of the Golden Ratio, inspired by Egyptian architecture and Cistercian cathedrals. There are currently 14 wines in the range. One wine I like a lot is called Maréotis (grenache and syrah).  I also enjoy two of their amphorae-aged wines called Dolia: one red and one orange/amber that’s macerated for nine months. This place is really quite amazing! And if you understand what they're trying to do, you’ll understand and appreciate the wines even more.