A Rhône diary – week 1

Sunday 25th October

VineNovember is a lovely time to visit the Rhône. It’s still sunny but the air has been drained of heat. After some typically eventful French driving fun from Marseille Airport, I arrived in Châteauneuf-du-Pape in search of dinner. It’s a small town, and quiet this time of year. There was only one restaurant open, so I installed myself and decided on the duck breast, which I ordered ‘a bit pink’. I tucked into my practically raw duck breast with a glass of red, happy to be back in the heart of Grenache country. I’m here to research my annual vintage report for timatkin.com, the distillation of dozens of visits and over 1,000 wines. It’s going to be a busy couple of weeks.

Monday 26th October

Le Chateau

Got up early and paid a quick visit to Le Château – what remains of a former pope’s party palace at the top of the town. There’s not much left – two huge stone walls propping each other up with crows nesting at the top. The countryside below was a hazy blue and church bells clanged in the distance. I made my way down to the Fédération des Syndicats des Producteurs and spent the morning working through a host of red Châteauneufs. Later on I paid a visit to Château de Beaucastel to taste through the component varieties of their reds which have yet to be blended. Their finished whites are phenomenal this year. Next stop Château Rayas – this quiet wooded glade is a genuinely unique spot and feels like nowhere else in Châteauneuf. The Grenache here has a piercing intensity of flavour even though it’s remarkably pale in colour. Dinner with Véronique Maret from Domaine de la Charbonnière (some of the best value wines in Châteauneuf) and Daniel Coulon from Domaine de Beaurenard (an exceptional biodynamic domaine) to get their take on the vintage.

Tuesday 27th October

Sample 1

A steady day’s tasting today. I polished off the remaining reds then had lunch with Michel Blanc who runs the Fédération. He’s a good-humoured guy, younger than you might expect, with endless projects on the go – including a wine bar in the middle of the town that’s due to open in 2017 and a big tasting at next year’s London Wine Fair. I started working through some whites today, which was a pleasure – 2014 is a very good year for white Châteauneuf. It deserves to be appreciated more widely – some, such as Chante Cigale’s 2014 white is wonderfully fresh with no heaviness and can be drunk happily with or without food. And they can age: Daniel from Beaurenard opened a bottle of his white 1984 (a pretty poor vintage all told) and it still had lots to give. At the end of the day I met with Didier Négron who makes the wines at Roger Sabon. A really sound guy, very down-to-earth, and makes some of the best wines Châteauneuf has to offer – and you can pick them up their Cuvée Prestige for less than £40 a bottle. There’s still a lot of value to be had in Châteauneuf.

Wednesday 28th October

Samples galore

Stéphane Vedeau from La Ferme du Mont dropped in while I was tasting the remaining whites. He brought a cheeky sample of his Clos Bellane Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages Valréas ‘Les Échalas’ 2012 – a dry, botrytis affected, 100% Roussanne reminiscent of rose petals, pear, honey and citrus. He only makes 6,000 bottles, but get some if you can, it’s unique and fascinating. In the afternoon I paid a visit to Vincent Avril at Clos des Papes to research an article for Decanter. He’s great company and a generous host; he opened countless bottles including a 1990 Clos des Papes rouge that I’ll never forget.

To Avignon that evening to meet up with Michèle Aubéry from Domaine Gramenon who makes biodynamic wines from the most northerly vines in the Southern Rhône. She bought the estate in 1978 with her husband Philippe Laurent which contained some very old vine Grenache where they set out to make something a bit different. Marcel Lapierre of Beaujolais was a friend and influence, and they were one of the first exponents of natural wine in the region. Philippe died unexpectedly in 1999, so Michèle was left to bring up her three children and run the estate with no formal wine training. Her son Maxime-François trained in winemaking, and in 2006 returned to the domaine. The wines have an incredible freshness and purity, even in a tricky vintage like 2014.

Thursday 29th October


With all the Châteauneufs put to bed, today I started tasting all the other wines of the Southern Rhône at the Maison des Vins in Avignon. I started the day sending some urgent emails on a French keyboard (the very definition of frustration) then dived into the reds. A mixed bag, but some very good wines. The afternoon and evening were dedicated to Vacqueyras. A visit to Serge Férigoule at Le Sang des Cailloux, owner of one of the best estates (and most effervescent moustaches) in the Southern Rhône, whose wines were beautifully fresh and as drinkable as ever. I spent the evening with Eric Bouletin from Roucas Toumba. There has been a Bouletin in Vacqueyras since at least 1518. He’s a talented and thoughtful vigneron who pays great attention to his 15 hectares of organically farmed vineyard. Like his hand-drawn labels, his wines are a neat, accurate and accomplished portrayal of Vacqueyras.

Friday 30th October

Oratoir Saint Martin

After finishing the remaining Southern Rhône wines I paid a visit to Frédéric Alary, 10th generation winemaker at Oratoire Saint Martin (above), one of the best estates in Cairanne. His top white, Haut Coustias, is particularly good in 2014. Comparing 2014 to 2004, he opened one of his reds from this vintage; fully evolved and remarkably complex, full of leather, forest floor and hung game. With wines of this quality, no wonder Cairanne is soon to be promoted from Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages status and given its own appellation. That evening I met up with Olivier Klein of Domaine la Réméjeanne, an organic estate on the west bank of the Rhône near Lirac. They had a tough vintage, losing 40% of their crop to hail, so only made their more basic cuvées in 2014. This estate always punches well above its simple Côtes-du-Rhône appellation and are worth seeking out.

Saturday 31st October

After averaging 100 wines a day, I need some down time. Being an incorrigible wine geek, I went here:


And shopped at Le Vin Devant Soi, a small independent wine shop with the best range of Rhône and Provencal wines I’ve ever seen, loads on Enomatic and really friendly and knowledgeable owners. Avignon is one of my favourite cities, and is the perfect base for visiting the Southern Rhône. It’s a short drive to Châteauneuf, and most of the other main winemaking hotspots are an hour’s drive away tops.

Sunday 1st November

Exercise. Salad. No wine (well just a glass). And preparing for the coming week: Gigondas on Monday, then up to the Northern Rhône for the rest of the week. Plenty of tasting, and visits with Combier, Chave, Sorrel, Faurie, Delas, Jaboulet, Clape, Guigal, Jamet, Emmanuel Darnaud, Francois et Fils…

For full notes on the wines and everything you need to know about the vintage, my full report will be available via timatkin.com late November/early December. For a free copy of the 2012 report, click here.