Interview with Denis Alary, Domaine Alary, Cairanne

Interview with Denis Alary at Domaine Alary, Cairanne 10th June 2019.

Edited for clarity and brevity.


Tell me how you went about promoting Cairanne from named village to cru.

We had to make a delimitation of the growing area, and put together a cahier des charges that reflected our history and an idea of how we made wine. We made the decision in 2006. In 2007 we put together our dossier. It took a year and half, we did it all ourselves. We put together a number of working groups with 7 or 8 people in each: History, Technical, Terroir, Wine, all to characterise our appellation. We presented it to the INAO in 2008. It was accepted straight away.

In the minds of many winemakers we were already a cru.

We put together a cahier des charges that wasn’t entirely economically-based. Normally they’re based on making the appellation economically viable, but we didn’t do it that way. We said ‘we have a product, and we want to keep it this way. We have soils and vineyards like this and we want to keep this tradition.’

We based our cahier des charges around this. It did cause problems. We didn’t want to destroy the hillsides with our old bush vines, and to do this there’s only one solution – to ban machine harvesting. Firstly, the vineyards aren’t set up for that. And we didn’t want to pull out trees so the machines can turn around. It’s to protect our landscape.

We wanted keep things as close as possible to how our ancestors made wine.

And why did you restrict the level of sulphites permitted?

We discussed this for a long time. eventually we agreed to take the maximum amount for organic viticulture. If you treat the grapes well, you don’t harvest with machines, so there’s no juice you can use less sulphites. Ten or fifteen of the domaines had been trying this for a long time, I’d been using small doses for a long time since going organic, so knew it could be done.

But why is it important to decrease sulphite levels?

Because when you put in too much sulphur you lose fruit, you dry out the wine, and one thing I notice straight away is that it gives me a headache, and it burns my stomach. And I’ve met a lot of people who are allergic. So we decided to be an example to other appellations. It’s to be as natural as possible.

We have three rules in fact. The first is for the health of the vineyard – reducing herbicides. The second is for the health of consumers – less sulphur. And the third is for quality and our landscape.

And thirdly, reducing herbicides?

Yes, it’s forbidden to spray herbicides over the whole vineyard. Around 13 years ago when we started the process we envisaged a 100% organic appellation. But we realised it would be a bit complicated, and we’d risk not succeeding. But it’s important for the microbiological life in the soil. In Cairanne there’s now 30% of the surface is in organics. In Côtes-de-Rhône it’s 10%. And several more estates are moving in that direction.

We’re a village that compares our work a lot. There’s a wine bar called the Tourne au Verre. Thirty years ago, we used to do a tasting every Friday, three domaines each time. everyone would come and taste, and we taste all the tanks – the best and the less good ones. And then we’d discuss. And we’ve always done a lot of parcel selections, lots of small ferments. And that helped us see which variety, which year, which terroir, which vinification, to see what worked and how it was done. And we discussed blending a lot. Cairanne is a bit of a mosaic of terroirs, and each terroir has its own particularity and can work well in the blends.

To begin with, did the INAO cut a lot of the terroir out of the appellation?

Yes, they cut a lot. To start with. 500 hectares. But we had to defend it as much as possible. We weren’t allowed to meet the experts from the INAO though, I met them twice during the entire process. There was lots of discussion for nearly 5 years. Eventually we went from 1300ha to 1088ha. The delimitation was the hardest bit, I knew on a human level it would be hard.

Were there some growers that were hit particularly hard by this?

We had to find a solution so that everyone could make a living. Those who were particularly affected were labelled as priority cases for buying vineyard land with the SAFER… And all the vignerons know each other. When you don’t know people personally it’s easier… when you know people personally, it’s more difficult.

And for 5 years we had a derogation – it gave people the chance to replant if they didn’t have the correct varieties to secure the appellation.

And how would you describe the style of Cairanne just in a few words?

We tend to use the word elegance. We don’t overextract. We try to have a wine that’s fruity, supple and elegance, with silky tannins. That’s why kept at least 50% of Grenache. It’s good, it’s silky, it’s round, it’s supple. That’s what makes Cairanne great.

It’s a bit like Rasteau, but they’re more concentrated.

And is there a difference in the viticulture and vinification between Rasteau and Cairanne?

There’s more extraction in Rasteau, more infusion in Cairanne.


They already made VDNs [Vins Doux Naturels], and that’s one of the great riches of Rasteau. But making VDNs obliged them harvest later, to get the right percentage of sugar. This gave them a generous, powerful style of wine. Some are starting to dial it back now, like Domaine La Soumade. It’s a lot of old vines, a lot of extraction, and it’s also habit.

We’re more used to work on the finesse, on the silkiness. Our terroir gives us less concentrated wines, and it obliged us to concentrate more on finesse. And lots of us in Cairanne love Burgundy!

And what’s the future for Cairanne?

Me I’m an optimist. We need to stay passionate, pushing further in quality without quality without looking for overly technical solutions. But that’s up to the younger generation.

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