Lirac, Tavel & Châteauneuf-du-Pape diamonds in the rough
By Florian Glemot DipWSET - Photograhs: courtesy of the estates, ©Julien Gounel, posted on 13 March 2023
Mention the Southern Rhone wine region and most people immediately think Châteauneuf-du-Pape. As the region’s spearhead, blessed with ancient craftsmanship and an international reputation, it could easily make us forget that very nearby other fine southern wines are being produced, on similar soils. One is Lirac, in all three colours, and the other is the rosé-only Tavel appellation. We go on a voyage of discovery through these three appellations to look at their unique characters.
Pebbles store up heat during the day and radiate it back over night, expediting fruit ripening.
An undisputed standard-bearer worldwide, Châteauneuf-du-Pape has a history of winegrowing dating back to the Roman Empire. The area truly gained its prestige though at the turn of the 14th century when the Bordeaux Pope Clement V recognised the genuine quality of its vineyard sites. His successor, Pope John XXII, bestowed upon it the status of ‘Wine of Popes’. Served at the Pope’s table in the palace of Avignon, it enjoyed recognition that went far beyond national borders. After the phylloxera crisis that devastated vineyards in 1866, Baron Le Roy de Boiseaumarié, owner of Château Fortia, along with local winegrowers, set in motion the process that would culminate in the official creation of France's first AOC for the production of red and white wines in 1936, cementing the future for high quality wines. Swept up in the same movement, the neighbouring area of Tavel was also promoted to appellation status, but only for rosé wines. Lirac would be singled out for distinction a few years later, in 1947, but for all three colours of wine. What the three AOCs have in common is their generous sunny Mediterranean climate and the strong influence of the Mistral, the blustery, dry wind hailing from the North of the Rhone Valley. Despite these similarities, their characteristics differ, lending each of them their own specific identity. We take an in-depth look at each appellation.
Émilie Boisson, the seventh-generation winegrower at Domaine du Père Caboche, produces signature fine, elegant wines.
CHÂTEAUNEUF-DU-PAPE: MULTIFACETED SOUTHERN CHARACTERS
Châteauneuf-du-Pape’s global reputation has been built up over time through the methodical and passionate work by countless families with roots in the region that go back a long way. The Boisson family is a case in point – its involvement in the local wine scene dates back to the 18th century. Jean-Pierre Boisson took over Domaine du Père Caboche in 1972. The estate’s name is a nod to its other activity at the time as a farrier – ‘caboche’ in Provencal refers to the nail that fixes the shoes to the horses’ hooves. The former mayor of Châteauneuf-du-Pape and chairman of the winegrowers’ organisation, Boisson played a pivotal role in securing recognition for Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines in the international arena. One of the ways he did so was by representing the appellation at the Vinexpo trade fair from its inception in the early 1980s, at a time when the exhibition was largely dominated by Bordeaux. Attendance at the event paved the way for conquering international markets, particularly North America. Seventh-generation winegrower Emilie Boisson has been at the estate’s helm since 2016. Inspired by the wines of Burgundy, she has successfully imbued the estate’s wines with a fresh, delicate style. The iconic Elisabeth Chambellan label, dedicated to one of her ancestors, is a blend of the 13 grape varieties initially authorised as per appellation rules; the number has now risen to 18. The wine is made from century-old vines in the La Crau area. Its sandy soils with high iron content have encouraged these old vines to put down deep roots and lend the wines remarkable balance and fullness.
Jean-Pierre Boisson, the former mayor of Châteauneuf-du-Pape and chairman of the winegrowers’ organisation, has worked hard towards securing international recognition for the appellation.
Grenache noir is king in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, accounting for three quarters of area under vine and boasting an outstanding legacy of very old vines. Olivier Hillaire, with the help of his two sons Baptiste and Corentin, farms 17 hectares of vines in the appellation spread over the three main vineyard sites in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The Les Petits Pieds d'Armand label is made from vines planted in 1899 by his grandfather in La Crau. Olivier aims for powerful site-expressiveness in his wines by harvesting his Grenache grapes after a very long hang-time, with yields in the range of 12 to 15 hl/ha. “The fruit is the linchpin of the potential quality of a wine. Intense colour and aromas can be extracted from Grenache provided it is very ripe”. The grapes soak for over a month on the skins, then undergo rack-and-return and punching of the cap repeatedly in a bid to extract intense, powerful and extremely concentrated juice. The wines are subsequently matured for a minimum of one year in lightly toasted oak barrels to give them a silky and generous sheen. The wine is very popular with North American consumers, with two thirds of volumes exported to the continent.
Olivier Hillaire and his 2 sons produce concentrated, expressive Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines.
At the southern tip of the appellation, on sandy soil with much better drainage, is Mas Saint-Louis with its thirty hectares. The unbroken vineyards are clad with the area’s storied pebbles. Matthieu Faurie-Grepon, the estate's manager, determines the harvest date only by tasting the grapes, so as not to be influenced by analyses. He is mindful to avoid over-ripe fruit: “We try and preserve the freshness of our wines, so we only carry out a few very light pump-overs to gently infuse the wine. We only destem a small share of our grapes, to enhance the structure and complexity of our wines, but also their freshness. The sandy soils help us achieve natural elegance”. The 2019 Grande Réserve label stood out for us. Boasting great fruit concentration and a structure that is still firm, the wine is already complex and will need a few more years to fully reveal its aromatic potential and soften its tannins to ensure the best flavour experience.
Matthieu Faurie-Grepon, estate manager at Mas Saint Louis, crafts beautiful age-worthy Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines, with a special mention for the Grande Réserve label.
Although rooted in a strong tradition of blending with Grenache at its core, Châteauneuf-du-Pape is not, strictly speaking, a blended appellation, unlike neighbouring appellations. New avenues can therefore be explored with different grape varieties. Philippe Granger began running Domaine La Mereuille in 2007. He is adapting vineyard management techniques: “Vines need to adapt and become stronger in order to rise to the agronomic challenges of tomorrow. Natural grass cover, for example, helps limit soil erosion, retains dampness and life deep in the soil to better equip the vines for sudden rises in temperature over the summer. This is essential for combatting drought which is becoming more common due to climate change”. His son Aurélien joined him and produced his first vintage in 2015. The label, La Cuvée D'Auré, has since been produced in the finest vintages from Syrah vines on red clay and pebble soils. The single varietal Syrah is then matured for 20 months in Burgundy casks. Its purpose is to push the envelope and add a new facet to the multiple iterations of wines from the appellation.
Philippe Granger and his son Aurélien are winegrowers at Domaine La Mereuille and they push the boundaries by growing Cuvée d’Auré, a single varietal Syrah Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
A winery’s task is to provide its customers with a clear and coherent range of wines, and the use of appellations in the Southern Rhone makes for much greater clarity. Château Mongin, located in the town of Orange, produces a wide range of wines under the Côtes-du-Rhône, Côtes-du-Rhône Villages and Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellations. Roxane Nibaudeau, its director, stresses how truly complementary the appellations are: “The appellations naturally create a range of wines, from the fruit-forward, Grenache-based pours for pleasure in Côtes-du-Rhône (10 days’ soaking), to greater structure, intensity and spice imparted primarily by Syrah in Côtes-du-Rhône Villages (2 weeks’ maceration), finishing at the top with Châteauneuf-du-Pape, an intense, complex, profound blend (32 days’ maceration)”. The estate, which has long-standing ties with the Orange viticulture college, invested in a variety of fermenters and maturation vessels such as concrete egg-shaped tanks, truncated conical oak tanks and demi-muids in 2020, in order to experiment with different types of maturation techniques and to compare their characteristics with students at the agricultural college.
The team at Château Mongin provides a comprehensive, coherent range of wines spanning the region’s different appellations.
CHÂTEAUNEUF-DU-PAPE, LIRAC, TAVEL: COMPETITORS OR COMPLEMENTARY?
The soils of Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Lirac are very similar, so how can the unique characters of the wines be explained? Xavier Vignon, a winemaker and wine merchant for many Southern Rhone appellations, answers this complex question: “Terroir comprises three major elements: water, temperature and wind”. Water acts as a vector for minerals (its availability depends on local rainfall and the ambient humidity provided by the Rhone); temperature (aspect, nature and colour of the soil) will influence ripeness; and lastly the wind has an impact on vine transpiration – vines exposed to the strong, dry Mistral wind, will ‘suck out’ more water from the soil, and with it a greater amount of mineral salts. The two appellations have different geographical characteristics and micro-climates. This is mainly due to the Cévennes mountains to the North of Lirac, which trigger more rainfall, and to a ‘Rhone bankside effect’ which means that Lirac gets more dampness from the Rhone than Châteauneuf-du-Pape when the Mistral blows – Lirac is located downwind of the Rhone. “The unique site-expressiveness of the wines in the two appellations is therefore intrinsically linked to the difference in evapotranspiration of the vines. Châteauneuf wines therefore express more savouriness (more concentrated mineral salts), which is what lends them their structure, their mineral backbone, their length on the palate, and substantial ageability”. Xavier Vignon excels in the art of maturing and blending wines, which offer a faithful rendition of their terroir. Careful tasting is a very practical way of translating the explanation provided above.
Xavier Vignon, a consultant winemaker in the Southern Rhone for 30 years, produces wines over many Southern Rhone growths, taking care to bring out the soul of their original vineyard sites.
Xavier Vignon excels in the art of blending. His Arcanes range of pop-up labels expresses the quintessential qualities of a vineyard site in a given vintage.
Extreme real estate pressure in Châteauneuf-du-Pape has prompted many winegrowers and trading companies to gradually move into the neighbouring appellations of Lirac and Tavel. This is particularly true of Ogier which produces wines in numerous Rhone appellations. Its technical director Édouard Guerin reveals through his wines the specific identity of each vineyard site with his ‘crus’: “Our aim is not to produce a ‘lesser’ Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the Lirac appellation, but rather to bring out the essence of its identity by focusing on the fawn-sand soils in the East of the appellation. These are very deep sandy Miocene soils, generating low water stress and fine, delicate characters in the wines. They are also cooler soils and by carefully choosing harvest dates that balance freshness and ripeness with razor-sharp precision, crisp wines with an elegant persona, gifted with very fine-grain tannins and great palatability, can be produced. The Lirac Le Petit Prince label therefore has its own personality, and sits easily within a coherent range, without being overshadowed by its prestigious stable mate.
Édouard Gerin, technical director of Maison Ogier, produces elegant wines by seeking out the right balance between freshness and ripeness.
Following the same rationale of complementarity, Château Correnson, which already had a foothold in the Lirac and Tavel appellations, was able to acquire a hectare in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Although production remains low, having a Châteauneuf-du-Pape label in its portfolio allows it to grow exports. Château Correnson winegrower Vincent Peyre uses a metaphor to describe his vision: “Making Châteauneuf is like driving a Ferrari, it's a kind of achievement for a winegrower”. Châteauneuf-du-Pape may well be considered the King of reds in the region, but Tavel is most certainly the Queen of rosés. It comprises three main types of soil: the historic sandy soils to the South-East of the namesake village; pebbles to the North; and flagstones to the West – these are white calcareous stones that instil distinct mineral character in the wines. The Tavel by Château Correnson, a blend of 5 grape varieties partly grown on flagstone soils, offers great roundness and intense aromas of fresh red fruits underscored by a mineral backbone, the signature trait of Tavel wines. It sits at the pinnacle of the estate’s range of rosés, with the appetising but less complex Lirac rosés a rung further down, and finally the very light, fresh Côtes-du-Rhône made in a fashionable Provencal style.
Vincent Peyre, the winegrower at Château Correnson, produces a range of wines spanning the three appellations Lirac, Tavel and Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Traditionally made from vines grown on sandy soil, which produces lightly coloured wines, Tavel has always been fermented in the same way as short-soaked red wines, akin to Bordeaux ‘clairet’. It is therefore only natural that when AOCs were established in 1936, Tavel was entitled to produce rosés, and Châteauneuf-du-Pape reds and whites. Richard Maby, who descends from a line of winegrowers based in Tavel for more than two centuries and is the former chairman of the winegrowers’ organisation, explains what happened next: “At the start of the 1990s and the emergence of lightly coloured rosés from Provence, Tavel witnessed a clear drop in sales. This led to some serious soul-searching, but rather than turn their backs on tradition, Tavel winegrowers rolled up their sleeves to improve quality. It was a challenging time, but we are now seeing customers return, some of them tired of light-coloured rosés and looking for characterful, food-friendly rosés”. Maby also produces magnificent Lirac reds, particularly the Bel Canto label, a pure Grenache noir from old vines grown on pebble-strewn soils. The wine is matured in demi-muids specially designed for the wine, where the wood was seasoned for two years before the vessel was made. The aim here is to oxygenate the wine very sensitively, while minimising oak influence. It is the result of decades of passionate work by Richard Maby after he took over the estate: “It is the purest and most faithful expression of our Lirac vineyards”.
The Maby family has been producing wine in Tavel for 4 generations.
Château Trinquevedel is located on the historic sandy soils of Tavel and is also an integral part of the appellation's history. Guillaume and Céline Demoulin, the fourth generation of winegrowers at the Château, produce two Tavel labels. The storied sandy soil promotes great freshness and elegance in the wines. The traditional label is macerated for 24 hours so as to best express the freshness of the fruit. The 100,000 bottles of wine produced are almost entirely marketed in export markets, particularly North America and Northern Europe. Guillaume Demoulin, current chairman of the Tavel winegrowers’ organisation, explains why the wines are successful: “These mature markets like red Rhône wines, but if they want to drink rosé, they will definitely enjoy Tavel. We carry out many joint sales and promotional activities with the Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation. The two appellations are truly complementary, and are often both enjoyed by the same clientele”.
Guillaume and Céline Demoulin, the fourth-generation winegrowers at Château Trinquevedel, produce Tavel wines on the historic sandy soils.
Guillaume and Céline Demoulin.
THREE INDIVIDUAL APPELLATIONS HEADING IN THE SAME DIRECTION
Although they have historical connections and are based on similar soils, the three appellations nevertheless display clearly unique characters. Despite their differences, the trio works in unison, each providing the others with that little extra something that the others do not have: the reputation of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the unique character of Tavel rosés, and the vitality of Lirac are all precious attributes that they convey naturally to one another. Many producers established in the three appellations point to the impressive harmony between the wines, which create a clear, understandable range for consumers. With Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the vanguard, the three appellations move forward together, sharing marketing success and tackling future climate challenges, showing the wine world that there is strength in numbers, not division.
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