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COTEAUX DES BARONNIES

OUT OF THE WAY COUNTRY WINE, QUALITY UNDERESTIMATED

LEADING GROWERS OF THE COREAUX DES BARONNIES AT THEIR FIRST OPEN DAY, MAY 2013. L-R VALÉRY LIOTAUD OF DOMAINE LA ROSIÈRE, SYLVIA TESTE OF LE MAS SYLVIA, ALEXANDRE LIOTAUD OF DOMAINE DU RIEU FRAIS, FRANÇOIS OF THE CAVE CO-OPÉRATIVE DU NYONSAIS

One of the simple pleasures of wine writing is taking a car on a quiet Sunday – a day when I never make appointments, unlike some members of the press – and tootling around the hinterlands of the vineyards to soak up local life and colour. In May 2013, I spent a day with an eye on visiting the countryside of the COTEAUX DES BARONNIES, which I visit rarely.

In the 1980s there were two branches of the same family, the LIOTAUDs, who were the front runners at Coteaux des Baronnies. They had invested in improved cellar equipment, and made wines that caught attention for their degree of local truth and their relative fault-free end result. Talk about damning with faint praise, but the Viognier, planted in the mid to late 1980s, was indeed good, helped by the altitude of the vineyards, while the reds could be “steely”, a little robust, but acceptable in their VDQS (Vin Delimité de Qualité Superieure) category.

JEAN-YVES LIOTAUD of DOMAINE DU RIEU FRAIS, the leading domaine, told me at the time – the early 1990s: “I am happy to step outside the main ground where everyone aspires to making Côtes du Rhône, or Tricastin. That is why I have elected to make single varietal wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Chardonnay and Viognier from my 20 hectares, and sell them as Coteaux des Baronnies.”

Today JEAN-YVES, who was 50 in May 2013, has been joined by his son ALEXANDRE, working on the domaine since 2011. Alexandre is an oenologue who studied for two years at Dijon, and the domaine has also grown to 32 hectares - one of the good, progressive stories of this confidential appellation.

The name Baronnies derives from two clans of the Barons de Mévouillon family falling out in 1125, with the result that one line kept the original Buis-les-Baronnies (in Provençal Lou Bouis) as its capital, or HQ, while the other centred on Nyons. Religious wars came and went, with the Baronnies a noted Protestant region, and population remained low, rather cut adrift on its own, out of reach of Provence and out of reach of the Dauphiné.

The climate is pre-Alpine, on the limit between that more Swiss influence and the furthest outreaches of the Mediterranean. Altitude plays a strong role in the wines. The network of valleys tends to run east-west, notably around Saint-Jalle, thereby lessening the velocity of the Mistral that rushes down the main Rhône Valley from the north to the south. In 2013, this was a big help when cold weather and violent, cold Mistral destroyed so much of the Grenache flowering in the main southern Rhône corridor.

The whole area is said to be made up of 74 communes, over what is a pretty unspoilt area of 770 square miles, composed of seven valleys. One of the high spots in the vineyard area is the Col d’Ey at 718 metres, past the Gorges d’Ubrieux through which flows the River Ouvèze on its way south-east to the village of Bédarrides, part of the CHÂTEAUNEUF-DU-PAPE appellation, a million miles away in semblance. Elsewhere above one of the outer extremity eastern villages, Saint-Sauveur-Gouvernet, stands the Montagne de Grimagne at 1242 metres, while in the north above Villeperdrix, is a series of mountains that run from over 1100 to over 1500 metres.

So, one should expect freshness in these wines. As VALÉRY LIOTAUD of DOMAINE LA ROSIÈRE explains: “my father was a pioneer and took his Viognier cuttings from Georges Vernay – they were massale, hand grafted. Viognier and Chardonnay are both compensated here by standing at altitude, usually above 500 metres, and being positioned facing north. The Syrah, Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon are planted at the foot of the hills, around 450 metres, and facing south/south-west. My Vertue Syrah vineyard stands at 452 metres, for instance.”

The biggest example of this freshness is the custom of allowing the malolactic fermentation to occur on the whites, since there is enough natural acidity for the wines. Down the hills, towards Vaison-la-Romaine and the Rhône Villages there, malos are blocked to preserve acidity and vivacity. Harvesting is invariably late – certainly into October, and sometimes later than that.

The land is pretty abundant, its produce nicely varied: olives, épeautre (a prized form of barley), pasture for grazing, cherries, plums, apricots, lavender, tilleul (linden). There is a Route de l’Olivier as befits lands with masses of olives, the Tanche being the most popular variety. The inclination towards polyculture remains, a healthy instinct indeed, with LE MAS SYVIA still active on 9 hectares of apricots, while the DOMAINE DE ROUSTILLAN’s organic vineyards, whose crop is sold to the merchant trade, also offers honey, fruits and olive oil. Soils are largely clay-limestone, light coloured, with plenty of chipped limestone white-coloured stones.

VINEYARDS SOUTH OF SAINTE-JALLE, LOOKING EAST TOWARDS THE DEEPER BARONNIES HILLS

There are spectacular views, which offer the broadest of sweeps. There is an understandable inclination, given the relative lack of development, to work organically. A slow-advancing project does exist to create and thus protect the region through a Parc Naturel Régional des Baronnies. Already the area is very popular with cyclists, walkers and rock climbers. Hang gliding and horse riding are other popular activities, while the cast of village names delves into La France Profonde – try Le Poët-Sigillat, Bellecombre-Tarendol or Saint-Ferréol-Trente-Pas for size.

As one climbs past the rocky outcrops above Buis-les-Baronnies towards Sainte Jalle, the drift of pine and thyme and mixed herbs scents, gorse in season, lavender as well, is fantastic and stimulating, an entrée to an exotic world of intimacy, the busiest movement coming from scuttling lizards. As a setting for vineyards that are off the Superhighway, it takes some beating.

The whole vineyard underwent considerable change, termed restructuring by the growers, during the 1980s. It was then decided to upgrade the varieties and get rid of what were hybrid direct producer plants – some that were termed Couderc blanc and Couderc noir, and another named Seyve Villard, also blanc and noir, named after its two originators.

In their place was planted Gamay and the first lots of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. After that first stage, the 1990s saw further refinement, with the suppression of the Rhône Valley varieties considered unlikely to ripen at altitude. This ushered in more Gamay, Merlot, Syrah and Chardonnay, with Aramon, Cinsault, Carignan and Alicante disappearing.

Sainte-Jalle, the LIOTAUD family village, is pretty much headquarters for the domaines of Coteaux des Baronnies. Other active participants such as LE MAS SYLVIA and DOMAINE DU FAUCON DORÉ are at Curnier and Faucon respectively. The vines are a little higher than the village, running between 400 and 450 metres for RIEU FRAIS. DOMINIQUE LIOTAUD, wife of JEAN-YVES, explains their micro-climate thus: “the summer heat here can be like that of the plain, but the main thing is the cool nights. We are on the limit between the Alpine and the Mediterranean influence. The valley is closed, with high hills around it, and we are largely sheltered from the strong Mistral.”

The stream running through the village is called the Ennuyé (the Annoyed), derived from the autumn fogs that occur in these parts. It is joined by the Rieu which below RIEU FRAIS is a tiny run of water. Together, these enter the River Eygues that runs through Nyons on its way past Vinsobres, Cairanne and Orange before joining the Rhône. Hence the Baronnies sits within two of the foremost Southern Rhône Left Bank river influences – the Eygues that skips through the lower Drôme, or Drôme Provençale, and the Ouvèze that can be a snarling torrent of water after heavy rains, that runs through the Vaucluse.

With Alexandre on the domaine, RIEU FRAIS have been looking ahead and altering the composition of their vineyard, and since 2010 have planted Roussanne, Marsanne and Pinot Noir. Their staple red vines, the Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, are now about 20 years’ old, the Syrah also used for a very attractive, w.o.w. rosé. They have worked organically since 2007, and from 2012 the wine itself has also been made organically. Degrees do not exceed 13.5°.

Over at DOMAINE LA ROSIÈRE, life was extremely tough for VALÉRY LIOTAUD, whose parents were killed in 2006, when his father SERGE was 56 years’ old. Valéry has a strong sense of trying to drive the appellation forward, and this ex-Rugbyman converted the domaine to biodynamic and organic practices in 2010. He has been active in trying to promote the Coteaux des Baronnies more vigorously, resulting in a first open day in May 2013, when I visited them at the CO-OPERATIVE DU NYONSAIS on the way out of Nyons towards Curnier.

La Rosière has achieved the greatest penetration of overseas markets of the domaines – 30%, led by Belgium, NL and Germany. Their market in the USA, once handled by Alain Junguenet, has faded, while in Britain, the Wine Gallery of David Motion in London imported some of the wine in the past. "The wines are still good, but I guess it boiled down to price and my changing taste," recalls DAVID MOTION. "We had lost interest in Chardonnay outside the classic regions, and the wines had started to move towards the £10 price level. We did also import his very good Nectar d'Abricot." Certainly Belgium is a market that possesses a respected quality of remaining faithful to a domaine regardless of the vintage, unlike those of a more Anglo-Saxon persuasion.

Besides young ALEXANDRE LIOTAUD, SYLVIA TESTE is another ex-student of France's prime Wine Schools. Alexandre studied for two years at Dijon, while Sylvia did her b.t.s. at Mâcon Davayé, followed by commercial studies atDijon. These two are the new faces of Coteaux les Baronnies. “When I was small, I was interested in the vineyards of my father Michel,” Sylvia states. “The idea of being an oenologue appealed to me, from the age of around 16 to 17." She started to make wine in 2010, when she was 26 years old, and continues to work as a mixed farm, with apricots and the sale of grape crop to the Cave du Nyonsais. The wine is made in a cellar-hangar. “I hardly export anything,” she says; “the white, which costs €6, and the rosé €4.50, are all sold around here.”

I cannot confess to being impressed by sole variety wines made here from Cabernet Sauvignon, and to some extent, Merlot. The Cabs can be tough, rather unremitting, and lack the simple pleasure element that should prevail in these country wines. With Merlot, the approach taken, the date of harvesting, the intention to make a “serious” wine or a juvenile wine all come into play. NOËL AUVITU, in charge of vinification at the CO-OPÉRATIVE DU NYONSAIS, takes the view that “Merlot should be grown on slopes here, so it suffers a bit. It doesn’t perform on the plain.”

One of the only biodynamic versions of Merlot comes from the DOMAINE DU FAUCON DORÉ, whose style is quite full-on when it comes to the cuvées intended to impress, such as their oaked Syrah Côtes du Rhône Dédicace. Their Merlot dates from 1991, and the LOU SANGLIÉ (no doubt a reference to the wild boar that roam the woods) is raised for 9 months in vat, with 8-10,000 bottles made; this drinks well in the juvenile manner, similar in style to their Côtes du Rhône La Souche. In contrast, at RIEU FRAIS the Merlot is made for longer keeping, the vintage on sale in the summer of 2013 being the 2009.

I prefer Merlot in a blend, as witnessed by the DOMAINE LA ROSIÈRE BIO’RONNIES RED, which is mainly Grenache and Merlot, with back-up from the Syrah and Cabernet. It combines a suave texture with grip, allowing a fusion between gras and grain, and is an STGT wine. Another blend from this good domaine is the HÉRITAGE RED, made only in the best vintages. It is one-third Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and Valéry Liotaud chooses to raise the first two varieties in cask, the Merlot in vat, a formula that works well. The wine, such as in 2010, possesses an authority beyond its humble IGP station.

As VALÉRY LIOTAUD observes, “the assemblage makes the wine more complete.” I am sure that blending performed with skill comes most easily to a man who has lived his childhood on the spot, seen his father practise it, and therefore performs it as a natural way of working. Recent imports who buy domaines, however well-intentioned, lack that subtle grasp of the practical traditions of these hidden corners of the world.

Syrah does well here, ranging from the clear, w.o.w. features of the ROSÉ from RIEU FRAIS to the more sterling classicism of the ROSIÈRE LA VERTUE, made from 1970 Syrah, planted the year Valéry Liotaud was born. “This was the vineyard that most reacted to our conversion to biodynamic working in 2010,” he states. “It suffered in a difficult first year, but then came right back and is now providing 25 to 30 hl/ha of really good crop.” The vines stand in stony, hot limestone soils at 450-500 metres, and the 2010, raised in oak casks for 12 to 18 months drinks well in 2013, with herbs present on the nose, and clear fruit straight along the palate, its finish reminding me of the cut that would be present in a Saint-Joseph.

The hidden gem performers at Coteaux des Baronnies are the white wines - CHARDONNAY, with VIOGNIER as a good side-kick. Keep it simple is also a necessary cry. No pumped up oak, just a well-timed harvesting, cool pre-ferment maceration, and a 6 month vat raising do the job well, or, in the case of LE MAS SYLVIA, four months in used Burgundy casks. I actually find the Chardonnay of Les Baronnies more convincing than that of the Ardèche, where Louis Latour has made such a big impact over around 25 years now.

DOMAINE DU RIEU FRAIS produces 80-90,000 bottles a year, the rest of the wine sold as Bag in the Box to private, mainly local customers. Exports account for just 5%, led by Germany and Belgium. Yields aren’t high for a Vin de Pays or IGP – around 40 hl/ha for the Chardonnay and Viognier, 45-50 hl/ha for the Syrah. I have always liked their Viognier.

The other active private domaine is LE SERRE DE CONDORCET at CONDORCET, north of the River Eygues. This is owned by a Danish gentleman called NIELS LACOUR. He was not present when I visited, since he spends a lot of time shuttling between France and Denmark to promote the sales of his wine there.

THE VALUE ANGLE

EXAMPLES:

2011 DOMAINE DU RIEU FRAIS SYRAH *** €4.50, ideal with barbecues, steaks, brochettes. Can be served a touch chilled.

2011 DOMAINE DU RIEU FRAIS CHARDONNAY *** €5.60, a little oak, good aperitif, shades the 2011 Viognier which is €7.80.

2012 LE MAS SYLVIA CUVÉE NAÏADE WHITE *** €6, 100% CHARDONNAY, using ex-Louis Latour casks for a 4 month raising. Good aperitif, w.o.w. wine

2012 CO-OPÉRATIVE DU NYONSAIS LA NYONSAISE CHARDONNAY *** €3.30, yes, just 3 bucks and a bit! Light touch, terrace wine, salads, aperitif, all at just 12.5°. Miles better than their misjudged attempt at the organic Chardonnay which is oak chip infused.

2012 CELLIER DES DAUPHINS RED ***(*) £6.49 from Waitrose supermarkets in GB. This won a Silver Medal when tasted blind at the DECANTER WORLD WINE AWARDS in May 2013; it is another good blend, led by 60% Grenache, with 20% Merlot doing a good filling in the middle job. I praised its blending at the time, and also liked its breezy instincts - a good, STGT reflection of this high and hilly area.

TOP WINES

RED  
***(*) 2012 CELLIER DES DAUPHINS
*** 2011 DOMAINE DU RIEU FRAIS SYRAH
*** 2010 DOMAINE LA ROSIÈRE BIO’RONNIES
*** 2010 DOMAINE LA ROSIÈRE HÉRITAGE
*** 2010 DOMAINE LA ROSIÈRE LA VERTUE SYRAH
WHITE  
*** 2012 LE MAS SYLVIA CUVÉE NAÏADE
*** 2012 CO-OPÉRATIVE DU NYONSAIS LA NYONSAISE CHARDONNAY
*** 2011 DOMAINE DU RIEU FRAIS CHARDONNAY
*** 2010 DOMAINE LA ROSIÈRE HÉRITAGE

ROSÉ

 
***

2012 DOMAINE DU RIEU FRAIS ROSÉ DE SYRAH

   

FOODS

LE MAS SYLVIA CUVÉE NAÏADE CHARDONNAY WHITE - oysters

ROSIÈRE CHARDONNAY & VIOGNIER - recommended is shellfish, fish, cooked cheese

ROSIÈRE HÉRITAGE WHITE - white meats, St Jacques/scallops

ROSIÈRE BIO’RONNIES RED - grills, charcuterie, cheese

ROSIÈRE HÉRITAGE RED – game, red meats, generous cheeses