By Melyvn Crann
Before you read any further try this test. Run your eye down a mental map of the wine regions of France and pick out the wine regions below Beaujolais. What do you see? Probably it’s the corridor of vineyards that make up the northern Rhône and then a leap to the appellations of the southern Rhône. The chances are that you envisage a gap in between – oblivious of the wine producing region of the southern Ardèche, an area of 27,000 acres of vineyards south-west of Montelimar. As far as availability in the UK is concerned, this is virtually terra incognita. A recent visit to the region raised my awareness of the wines; an imminent PR campaign might soon affect yours.
The area is best known as a holiday destination, renowned for its stunning landscape: steep hills and valleys, often luxuriantly clad in sweet chestnuts, beautiful old villages, some of them appearing to grow organically out of the dramatic gorges cut by the Ardèche river and its tributaries. But it also possesses three major appellations: Côtes du Vivarais, Coteaux de l’Ardèche, and at the south-eastern tip, around Bourg St.-Andeol, the vineyards that just nudge into the Côtes du Rhône.
There is a long history of wine production here. Two thousand years ago, the Helvi, romanised Gauls, had a sophisticated capital at Alba la Romaine and at this time Pliny the Younger described the Ardèche as the “valley of wine”. Wine production remained a major activity until the vines were devastated by phylloxera in the second half of the 19th century. In the recovery period the region tended to go along the blind alley of replacement by hybrid vines – resistant to phylloxera but not permissible under wine laws for the production of quality wines. The modern wine industry in the area really dates from the late 60s and 70s, with widespread replanting with noble grape varieties.
In many parts of France the problems arising from declining consumption at home and exports eroded by upstart New World producers have created conflict and upheavals as traditionalists clash with modernisers. In the Ardèche tradition doesn’t seem to have such a strong hold.
The winemakers of the Ardèche pride themselves in having taken quality improvement seriously before the producers further south (although this seems to have had little influence on perceptions outside the area). A great stimulus was the decision by the major Burgundy house of Louis Latour to start producing Chardonnay in the Ardèche in the late 70s. Previously Chardonnay was unknown here, but Latour, searching for a location which could provide good quality grapes at reasonable cost, decided that the Ardèche could deliver the goods.
Now there is a modern winery, near the archaeological site of the original Alba la Romaine, with a tasting room presenting a large range of burgundies, but only the three wines produced locally: a blend of Chardonnay and Viognier called Duet, a light, citrussy Chardonnay de l’Ardèche, and the richer, buttery Grande Ardèche, the last two being the wines most widely available in the UK.The grapes are grown by members of the co-operatives under contract to Latour, who exercise strict control over quality in the vineyard – an important factor in the encouragement of improved vineyard practice in the area.
Rather oddly the name Chardonnay de l’Ardèche can be used only by Latour under the terms of the agreement between the company and the co-operatives.
Topography and Appellations
The hills of the region tend to run diagonally from north-east to south-west (with the River Ardèche cutting across on the opposite diagonal, hence the gorge), creating a number of valleys, with the vineyards occupying the lower slopes and valley bottoms.
There is a variety of aspects and soil types in the region. To the west the terraced slopes at the edge of the granite highlands of the Cevenne provide suitable conditions for growing Gamay. Further east there is a mix of limestone and sandstone. The variety of soils and the Vin de Pay status of the larger part of the region, Coteaux de l’Ardèche allows the planting of a wide range of grape varieties, including Chardonnay, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Further east, entering the appellation of Côtes du Vivarais (AOC status granted in 1999 – dark green on the map), the grape varieties we associate with the southern Rhône dominate, with Grenache Noir and Blanc, Syrah, Cinsault, Marsanne and Clairette. The communes in the south-east that fall within the Côtes du Rhône and Côtes du Rhône Villages appellations (grey on the map) are home to just 21 producers.
Predictably the co-operatives are the biggest producers in the area, responsible for 90% of total production. The individual co-operatives are co-ordinated under a region-wide umbrella organisation, the Union des Vignerons des Coteaux de l’Ardèche (UVICA). “It’s like the Soviet Union,” joked the Deputy Director, Jean-Pascal Beylier, “We keep tight control.” The co-operatives sell their full range of wines from their own shops, but aren’t allowed to sell them into general stores, supermarkets, etc. UVICA organises the wider distribution and export.
The wines produced are fresh, clean and well made in a modern style. The VdP wines tend to be from single varieties with clear varietal character, easy and enjoyable quaffing wines rather than keepers. At the local prices (mostly in the 2 – 6 euro range) they would be hugely popular in the UK. But once duty and other costs are added the British market is a tough one, given the wide range of competitors. What is needed is something distinct to make the wines stand out.
Viognier can be successful here. Some have the typical weakness – seductive nose and thin, unattractive finish on the palate, but the Rosière co-operative shows that it is possible to produce a very satisfying version. But these days there’s nothing unusual about Viognier. What really caught my fancy was the late harvest Vendanges d’Octobre, which often benefits from noble rot. The vintage I tasted wasn’t botrytised, but was delicious none-the-less: a fragrance of ripe pears, flavoursome and sweet without cloying on the palate and fairly long, attractive finish. This doesn’t appear to be available in the UK at present.
A Unique Grape?
In the year 2000 a special programme was initiated to revive an old Ardèchois grape variety which had almost disappeared. The Chatus is praised in a famous book written around 1600 by the “father of modern farming”, Olivier de Serres, a native of the region. Thanks to the programme the vine is being propagated and new plantings established in the acid, granite soils of the Cevenne slopes, although the quantities are still very modest and the wines sell out soon after release.I didn’t have high expectations of wine made from an almost forgotten grrape when I tasted the 2002 vintage at Rosière. But then its seductive bouquet filled the glass: spice, cherries and leather were delightfully mingled. On the palate it was relatively light, reflecting the adverse weather conditions that year. But what was odd was the impression of drinking an Italian wine. Ah, yes, the grape has a synonym. The locals had a brief consultation: “It is also known as the Nebbiolo”.
It would be fascinating to trace the story of the migration of the grape to this part of France. Possibly it came from Italy in the train of the French Popes. For the co-operatives the amount produced is too small to be of any significance. For the wine enthusiast the quality and the interest make this a distinctive asset, but it will be some time before enough is produced to find its way to these shores.
Some Individual Producers
As ever it is the individual producers who make the running and the Ardèche has its share of producers with a passionate belief in the potential of the area. Some of the best in the small area that fall within the Côtes du Rhône boundary are the most likely to be found in UK Merchants. The only UK merchant I have found with a broader selection (albeit still modest) is Yapp Brothers.
Côtes du Rhône
Mas de Libian (St. Marcel d’Ardeche)
The owner, Hélène Thibon, is well-known in France. Her estate is organic and the vines are old and low yielding. The 2004 Khayyam was a very youthful, opaque wine, reserved as yet but with deep, juicy fruit waiting to emerge. (Haynes, Hanson & Clarke list the 2003 at £8.70)
|Domaine Coulange (Bourg St. Andeol)
Chrystelle Coulange is another female producer who has been amassing an impressive hoard of awards. The very ripe 2003 CdR is a hugely characterful wine. The impression it gives is of grapes which are almost raisined. This is a wine which is almost certain to evoke love it/hate it responses from wine lovers – there can be no half-hearted reactions. (Lea & Sandeman have stocked earlier vintages)Domaine Saladin (St. Marcel d’Ardeche)
The 2003 vintage, a blend of 40% Syrah, 40% Mourvèdre and 20% Grenache, is a very spicy specimen, quite big and concentrated on the palate. (Older vintages at Buygreatwines)
Côtes du Vivarais
|Domaine Gallety (St Montant)
Alain Gallety is one of the most highly regarded producers in the Ardèche. His top wines, 100%Syrah, are very ripe, matured in new oak, and command prices of around £30+ a bottle, but export is primarily to the US and continental Europe. I haven’t found a UK stockist.Domaine de Belvezet (near Vallon Pont d’Arc)
Cuvée Vieille Vigne 2003: Syrah is dominant in this blend with Grenache. A dark and youthful wine, muted at present but with ripe fruit on the palate and depth on the finish it promises well. (No UK stockists)
Coteaux de l’Ardèche
Chateau de la Selve (Grospierres)
Benoit Chazalon is the young vigneron with experience at Chapoutier who is responsible for some attractive wines. A delicately tinted Grenache and Cinsault rosé, Cuvée Maguelonne 2004, with its delicate strawberry flavours, is available in the UK at £6.95. The richly aromatic blend of Cabernet, Grenache and Merlot that makes up Beaulieu 2003 delivers a well-integrated ripe palate of some richness, decent value at £8.45. (Martlett Wines)
|Domaine de Bournet (Grospierres)
If you visit the Ardèche this is a property you shouldn’t miss. The characterful owner, Xavier de Bournet, was educated in England and he or his wine-maker son, Olivier, is likely to make an entertaining and informative host in the shop. They make a lovely Cuvée Special Rosé from Syrah (“for the spice”) and Merlot (“for the fruitiness”), as good as any you are likely to find in our stores.
The reds are very impressive. The oaked Merlot 2001 (8 euros) had developed irresistible scents and flavours of cherries with the few years ageing. From the same vintage the blend of Cabernet and Merlot under the unlikely name of Cuvée Chris (after an enthusiastic and very knowledgeable customer) had good concentration and shows attractive development. There are no exports to the UK at present.
For a complete list of Ardèchois producers and further information about the region see the website, Les Vins d’Ardeche.