Rhône Valley’s organic wine cult movement
Rhône Valley’s organic wine – In the natural wine movement, France’s Loire may be the holy grail of the revolution , but if you look down southeast to the country’s other important river valley—the Rhône—, there are a small group collection of fellow winemakers who tend their vineyards with ancient and chemical-free methods and despise additives and new oak making Rhône Valley’s organic wine cult movement. Their wines are vibrant, digest and full of vitality as their Loire cousins. Only in the Rhone, the grapes are Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier, Syrah and Grenache rather than of Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc.
Organic wine cognoscenti state that the Rhône Valley’s organic wine cult movement began in the Ardèche—a patch of vineyard area on the western side of the river once forgotten to bulk wine production. That’s where many romantic winemakers moved in, because land prices came at a fraction of the price of the more prestigious hills to its east. Another hypothesis is that local vignerons could make wine freely according to their desires, inhabited by the rigid appellation rules of pedigree labels such as Hermitage or Cornas. Now, odd bottles are turning up all over the region.
Despite their humble prices, many of these bottles are hunted over and quite difficult to find in some cases. It’s simple economics: the wineries are small and their vineyard holdings equally so, so a limited number of bottles are made each year. The SAQ and LCBO import little of them, so you have to acquire them in the private importation network. However, this endeavour is quite difficult, as importers favours restaurants, so is essential that you have a good relationship with an importer.
In my last trip to the Rhone Valley, here are some natural wine producers that caught my attention in the wine fair Découvertes en Vallée du Rhône 2017:
Domaine Terre Forte
Early on in my sommelier studies, I discover the wines of Chateau Terre Forte and it was love at the first sight. Pierre Jauffret, the winemaker of Terre Forte comes from a lineage of winemakers in the town of Rochefort of Gard, between Nimes, Tavel and Avignon.
Terre Forte practices biological and biodynamic wine culture. The objective of Pierre and his family is to preserve the ecosystem, patrimony and the terroir for future generations. The Jauffret family cultivate Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Carignan, Viognier, Borboulenc and Grenache Blanc
At the Rhone wine fair, I had the chance to taste all of the latest vintages of the wines of Terre Forte ( 2015-2016) and meet the the family of Pierre Jauffret. Honestly, it was the highlight of my trip. All of the wines of Terre Forte are outstanding but my coup de foudre goes for the white Terre Forte. A blend of Grenache Blanc, Viognier, Picpoul and Bourboulenc, is a very electric wine with pure yellow flowers bringing to mind crushed chamomile and white fruit aromas. It is round, convivial with a sexy freshness and very mineral, reflecting its terroir. Pierre is well liked in Montreal natural wine circles and his wines are represented by Raisonnance.
Mas de Libian
Mas de Libian was the first biodynamic producer that I tried in my early years of my wine formative studies. I got to know them in the Renaissance des Appellations wine fair in 2012. Right from the start, I was captivated their wines, with the Khayyäm Côtes du Rhône, a majority blend of Grenache with some Syrah and Mourvedre. This wine marked me with its nitid aromas of licorice, deep black fruits as the darkest night and garrigue, the vegetation scrub of the Rhone Valley.
The domain is just outside of Saint Marcel d’Ardèche on the Rhône River’s right bank, in the northwest sector of the Côtes-du-Rhône. Two important facts stand out about this location. First, the majority of its vineyards (all of its Côtes-du-Rhône Villages and part of its CdR appellation vineyards) are high on top of an ancient river terrace, in a similar terroir as Chateauneuf du Pape
The second distinguishing fact is the weather: it’s warm, and protected from much of the cool, ripening-retarding winds that whip along the Alpine foothills across the river. On average, Mas de Libian harvests ten days earlier than most domains in Cairanne, to the southeast. Maturity is not an important factor. On the other hand, they must be careful with over-ripeness, and Mourvèdre, that tough grape, relaxes well exceptionally well here. (Rhône folks that Mourvèdre likes its head in the sun and feet in the water, and Libian’s clay terroir retains water nicely.). Mas de Libian is represented in Quebec by Vini-Vins.
Jean Michel Stephan
The wines of Jean Michel Stephan have a cult following in Montreal, Quebec. I discovered this producer while dining in Montreal’s club Chasse et Peche and I was hooked from the start.
The rebel of Cote Rotie, he work his vines extremely different than Guigal and Chapoutier which dominate the steep slopes of the Côte Rôtie in the northern Rhone.
Unlike his peers from the region, that heavily oak and make extracted wines Jean-Michel opts for lower alcohol and no new wood for his wines. Another important element that makes him different is his passion for the grape variety Sérine. This is a variant of Syrah that has smaller grapes and looser bunches. It is also more sensitive to disease than Syrah. However, Serine has more depth of aromas and flavours than Syrah.
His vineyards are on the Coteaux de Tupin and the prized Coteaux de Bassenon as well as a new plot on the plains of Condrieu right next to the Rhone. Stephan manages his vines using biodynamic principles and the wines are fermented in large cylindrical steel vats. Jean Michel Stephan is represented by Labelle Bouteille and they are strict allocations for his wine.
La Ferme des Sept Lunes.
My biggest discovery at the Découvertes en Vallée du Rhône 2017 were the wines of La Ferme des Sept Lunes. I first heard of this producer, a few months ago when reading an article in the
Wine magazine Terre des Vins.
La Ferme des Sept Lunes can be found in Saint Joseph between Vienne and Valence. The domaine was founded by the Delobre family in 1984. From then, the estate has specialized in vines, apricot trees, and grains. Slowly , they converted to organic agriculture and biodynamic vineyard management.
The family started by selling wine to a local co-op until 2001, when they made their first vintage in a cowshed from a 5.5 hectare vineyard of Syrah, Marsanne and Roussanne planted on granite soil. The wine are vinified in open cylinder-shaped concrete tanks, and aged in oak barrels.
The estate now makes a fascinating range of cuvées under the Saint-Joseph and nearby Vin de Pays appellations. The majority of his wines are produced and bottled with no added sulfur, but can change according to the character of the wine and vintage, and a very small dose may be added if is necessary to keep the wine healthy and clean. These are very singular and energetic wines. They are worth seeking out if you are in France over your next holiday. However, it is not to my knowledge if the wines are available in Canada.