16 Jun 2012

No appellation please, but a great Rhone wine in the making

It is not often that one has the clear feeling of tasting a series of wines that have every chance of becoming future benchmarks in terms of quality for a whole region. And which are also exemplary in the daring of the project behind them. This happened to me just last week and I feel that I was a lucky man to have been there. The story behind these wines (or, I should say, sketches of what the wines will almost certainly become when they have completed their adolescence) is both interesting and exemplarary. Of course few things are perfect, and the labels, whilst unusual, are not quite in line with the character and the extremely high quality of the wines. I consider that to be a detail given the potential of the wines, but details do count in this world and I hope there will be some changes in this respect. The name of the winery is Les Amoureuses, by the way, and it comes from the Rhône valley, in France. It says MADE IN FRANCE quite clearly on the labels, but more of that later.

my rather poor photo of bottles of some of the wines from Les Amoureuses

When a wine is not only spectacularly good in terms of its taste, but also when the producer has stepped outside the over-rigid constraints that govern wines and winemaking here in France in order to produce it, my levels of curiosity, interest and, finally, respect, are immediately raised. This is not a matter of trying to be different or a "rebel" or whatever. It is simply a growing reject of the stupidities of the French appellation system that tends, far too often, to adopt the "tall poppy syndrome" of chopping off anything that grows about the average wheat patch.

The laws that govern the French appellation system for wines are very often hard to understand in terms of logic, not to mention from a quality-oriented point of view. In fact they too often have the perverse effect of preventing producers from making the best possible wine on their repective pieces of land. Grape varieties, names of wines, planting and pruning methods, wine-making techniques and many more aspects are imposed and controlled by the appellation system. The problem is that the powers-that-be seem more obsessed with the past than with the future in so many respects. Hence they prevent many energetic and enterprising producers from experimenting in order to produce wines that will, in time, make the world flock to their doors. This has happened so often over the past 20 or so years that I am close to considering the French appellation system, under its current configuration, as simply a dead weight that only serves to preserve vested interests of the firmly entrenched and all those who are afraid of trying new solutions in a changing world.

Les Amoureuses is in the mid-section of this map, just to the left of the river and where there are practically no other vineyards

Ok, so now that I have had my little rant, where are we, geographically speaking? In the Rhône Valley, and right in the middle of the stretch that takes it from Lyon to the Mediterranean. Just north of the small town of Montelimar, famed for its nougat, this is a kind of vinous no-man's land in terms of the standing reputation and even existence of the local wines, although the potential is clearly there. Appellations like Hermitage, Côte Rôtie and St. Joseph, which are home in particular to the syrah grape, lie further north, and villages like Vinsobres, Cairanne, Vacqueyras, Gigondas or Chateauneuf, all of which, whatever their "status", use a majority of Grenache, are some way to the south. On the left bank, in the Drôme department, lies the recently re-named and yet unpronounceable appellation of Grignan-les-Adhémar, whereas on the ardéchois right bank, wines can only, at best, claim allegeance to the vast Côte du Rhône appellation.

What I find particularly paradoxical is that, even in such a lowly appellation, people have seen fit to prohibit certain ways of training the vines, not to mention limiting the varieties of grapes, and even the authorised proportions of these. I therefore totally understand and support the initiative of Château les Amoureuses to take two steps sideways (and, I feel, a big pace forwards) and put their wines under the regime of "vin de pays", now known as Indication Géographique Protégée (IGP for short), which allows them far more latitude to plant and cultivate their vines, and then make their wines, in the way they want. As Jean-Michel Novelle, the consultant oenologist in charge of this project said:  " We could not have produced wines of this quality under the French appellation system". Not only do I totally agree with him, I have tasted the proof! They will be sold under the Vin de Pays de la Méditerranée designation and have Made in France clearly marked on the labels. This is a calculated process designed to induce freedom to make what they want in the way that they want. Clearly these wines aim for the top, which their "usual" appellation would not permit on account of silly technical restrictions.

Jean-Michel Novelle

Les Amoureuses belongs to a local business man, Jean-Pierre Bedel, who owns a company called Fabemi that produces building materials. He is a lover of wine and good food and so, having acquired an existing wine estate, he set about improving and extending it. To help him do so, he hired Jean-Michel Novelle, a Swiss winemaker and oenologist, to supervise the project. They currently have about 50 hectares under production and the capacity to double this in time. When I visited it last week, the vast winery, like a concrete cathedral, was just nearing completion, but the 2011 vintage has been produced there and these were the wines we tasted. The vineyards are divided between different altitudes and zones in the Ardeche hillside, giving the opportunity to plant a variety of grapes and havest at different dates. For instance, the spread of harvest dates for the grenache variety can extend over 2 weeks.

photo Jacques Perrin: and here is a link to his excellent blog and article on this same estate and event, in French : http://blog.cavesa.ch/index.php/2012/06/13/205272-naissance-daun-grand-vin

The production covers the three colours, and derives mainly from quality Rhône varieties. Roussanne, Marsanne and Viognier are behind the white wines I tasted, and Grenache, Syrah, Carignan and Mouvèdre behind the reds. There is also some Merlot, and future plantings will include that great Portugese variety, Touriga Nacional. The only wines that are currently available from the new winery and approach are 2 rosés of the 2011 vintage, which I will describe below. The whites and the reds are still being aged, either in tanks or in barrels, prior to blending in most cases as the final range has yet to be finalised. 

Two young oenologists, Claudia Gomez, from Chile, and Christine Basson, from South Africa, are in charge of the day-to-day supervision of the wines since Jean-Michel Novelle acts as a consultant, also dealing with his own Domaine le Grand Clos, near Geneva, and consulting elsewhere, including for the Abbaye de Leirins on the eponymous island near Cannes, and the Amayna estate, on the coast of Chile near San Antonio. The vineyard team is mainly from Portugal, and so the whole outfit has an international colouring that is very unusual in France. The owners are French, but are clearly daring and open-minded, as well as ambitious and patient! I have known Jean-Michel for some years and have learned to appreciate his honesty, his demanding and pragmatic approach and his attention to detail. A wine supervised by him cannot possibly be banal, and this was what encouraged me to make the trip. 

The first rosé tasted, from the 2011 vintage, is called Loverose. Like its sister wine it has deliberately been bottled in a dark bottle, breaking the usual code of clear glass for whites and rosés. This makes perfect vinous sense as dark glass protects wine from alteration by ultra-violet light, which clear glass cannot achieve. It is made from 100% grenache in stainless-steel tanks.
The nose is tender, making me think of rose petals. The alcool, for a southern wine, seems very moderate and is barely noticeable. Yet the touch is rounded and the flavours delicious. Perfectly defined, this shows character and reasonable warmth. A real wine that can ne enjoyed before a meal or with salads. (note: 14/20)
Novelle explained that this wine, as the other rosé, has had its alcohol reduced by 2 degrees, using the reverse osmosis technique. There seems to be no lack of flavour as a result, and the balance is perfect. Given the rising alcohol levels that especially afflict southern wines here, I wonder why this technique is not used more widely, since few, at least in cooler climates, hesitate to chaptalise their must to increase alcohol?

Rose Vintage 2011 is also made in tanks and bottled in dark glass, but it uses a complex blend of grenache, syrah, merlot, mourvèdre and carignan.
It has a slightly deeper colour than Loverose, and the nose is crisper and fresher, with unusual complexity. I loved the feel of this on the palate, as it has a great combination between its delicate structure and the precision of its fruit flavours. One of the best rosés I have tasted this year. (note 15/20) 

We then tasted a series of single variety barrel samples, both white and red. These wines will be blended later in the year, also using wines made in tanks. Although one could therefore consider them to be anecdotal (and you probably know of my aversion to judging any wine before it is finally bottled) they are very interesting as a means to gauge the potential of this estate and team. And what a potential!

The Marsanne was rich to the point of seeling a bit heavy. It is long, warm and powerful. I would like to see it blended with something lighter.

The Roussanne I liked much better, for its balance, intensity and gentle hint of bitterness that lifted the finish. Although also warm and very powerful, it was vibrant and should provide the backbone for the final blend.

The Viognier is certainly one of the most promising that I can remember tasting outside Condrieu. Well perfumed, slightly oaky at this stage, it has astonishing freshness to go with its length and its warmth. Very promising, maybe on its own or as a minor chord in the blend. 

The real revelation, at least for me, was yet to come with the red wines from the 2011 vintage, also single varieties and barrel samples (with the exception of the first sample). One should remember that, since the winery is brand new, so are all the barrels. This will probably evolve in the future, but it is interesting to note the capacity of these wines to "absorb" that amount of new oak without flinching. Unusually they all come from the same cooperage: the excellent Taransaud firm and their Burgundy workshop.

Grenache (tank sample). Incredible colour and intensity of fruit on the nose, then on the palate. The texture is lovely and the the aromatic intensity very impressive. A bomb of a wine! We are at Châteauneuf-du-Pape level here, without a doubt.

Grenache (barrel sample 1). The oak is marked on the nose. Very smooth texture, and the barrel ageing has clearly added a dimension of depth and complexity to the wine in terms of its texture and its aromatics. The alcohol comes through a bit on the finish, as does a metallic-like feel that tightens and spices up the finish.

Grenache (barrel sample 2). This seems to make a good compromise between the first 2 grenache samples. Greater complexity, more discreet that the tank sample yet with exceptional fruit quality. Very intense and the best balance and length of the 3.

Syrah. Very deep colour. Deep and ripe on the nose, close to cassis but not in an excessive manner. Lovely freshness on the palate with glorious fruit quality. Precise flavours, intense and long. Here we have a wine close to the level of a good Hermitage.

Carignan. This much maligned variety is capable of great things, particularly when the vines have some age. Here is another proof of that. Very savoury and fresh, it is packed with wonderfully rumbling flavours that roll around the tongue. Beautifully sexy!

Mourvèdre. This has just about everything going for it: richness, intensity and fruit quality. Quite magnificent, it took my breath (and words) away.

I then played around with a blend of my own, in a very imprecise and amateurish manner. I found the result quite conclusive, adding intensity and focus, as well as balance. These wines clearly have the potential of being great! Congratulations to the team who produce them. I am impatient to taste the finished products. It is not every day that one is able to observe the first steps of a future great wine. Only time will tell now.....


  1. Marc & I met Jean-Michel at Amayna. We liked the guy and the wines too. Cross-fertilization between old Europe and new world, why not. Amayna's sauvignons are amongst the most interesting I know from this side of the world

  2. Yes, I agree about cross-fertilisation. Jean-Michel's own wines, made from a not necessarily "great" area near Geneva, are remarkable for their precision.