Ben Thomas \ Rhone Valley
Bonjour! This week’s column is coming to you from France’s Rhône Valley and the town of Tain l’Hermitage.
I’m perched high up on the Ermitage hill, in an old hunting lodge surrounded by shiraz vines that are tended to by winemaker Michel Chapoutier.
The winery lies in the centre of the Rhone Valley, with the Côte-Rôtie and its elegant blends of shiraz viognier to the north and the grenache-dominant reds of Châteauneuf-du-Pape and the Côtes-du-Rhône to my south.
This trip isn’t all about wine. Our next destination is Provence, where our friends Jessica and John are getting married.
Part of the reason for our visit to Ermitage is not only to visit the spiritual home of shiraz, my favourite grape, but to pick up some Victorian wine to serve at the wedding.
Several years ago, Chapoutier started investing in Australian vineyards, first in South Australia’s Mount Barker area and most recently in Victoria’s Pyrenees and Heathcote regions.
Being in a different hemisphere means that not only can Chapoutier make wine twice a year, he is free of the rigid laws that govern French winemaking, where only specific grapes can be planted in specific regions under an Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée system.
“My first reason to invest outside of France was to run away from the strict rules in France,” says Chapoutier.
“Secondly, geologically speaking, Australia is the oldest continent – if I look at a geological map of Victoria, it is a paradise – and it is the perfect place for growing shiraz.
“Plus, there are grape clones here that were exported from France in the 1830s pre-phylloxera, and for me that is interesting.”
Chapoutier isn’t the only French winemaker to put roots down in Australia. Jacques Lurton, whose main operation is in Bordeaux, came to Australia to work a vintage in the mid-’80s and fell in love with the country. He has been coming back ever since.
“I did not come here for the terroir – I came for the people and lifestyle,” says Lurton. “Since my first vintage in 1985 I have kept coming back every year. My wife and I have loads of friends in Australia and we spend around four months a year here now.”
Lurton made wines from semillon and sauvignon blanc in McLaren Vale under his own label in the 1990s before buying land and planting vines on Kangaroo Island.
While a search for the perfect vineyard site may not have been the driving force behind Lurton’s decision to invest here, it turns out that Kangaroo Island is perfect for growing grapes.
“It was difficult at the start. There was no trained labour on the island and everything comes in by ferry, but the climate is perfect for growing grapes,” says Lurton.
“This is the one vineyard in the world where I’ve worked where there is no need to spray (the vines against disease), let alone add acid to the wines.”
“Plus, there’s that freedom to blend grapes that can’t go together in France, freedom to change your mind and not be set to a system.”
I’ve got the best of both worlds covered this week, with wines made in France and Australia by Chapoutier and Lurton, plus a top-end rosé.
You might not be here, but pour yourself a glass, close your eyes and take a sniff – it’s got to be better than any postcard.
Ben stayed in Ermitage as a guest of M. Chapoutier wines.
The Islander Estate Old Rowley 2006
(Kangaroo Island) $35; 12.5%
A blend of grenache, shiraz and viognier, with half the grenache undergoing carbonic maceration providing an elegance and lift to the wine’s aromas of red berries, blackberry and vanilla. It’s light and lifted, with vibrant medium-bodied flavours of cherry, raspberry, spice and white pepper. It spends nearly three years ageing in oak and has fine-grained tannins, fresh acidity and stalky, sappy elements to the persistent finish.
Food match \ Five-spice pork belly and pak choi
Domaine Tournon Lady’s Lane Shiraz 2008
(Heathcote) $60; 14.5%
From vines planted 10 years ago in ancient soil to the north of Heathcote, this is Heathcote shiraz in all its bold elegance. Fermented in concrete tanks and aged in French oak for 14 months, this has alluring ripe plum, cherry, blackberry, spice and wet stone aromas. It has a great mouthfeel and structure, with layers of bold flavours including cherry, blackberry, dark chocolate and spice, complemented by a fine mesh of grippy tannins that prolong the finish
Food match \ Onglet with frites
M. Chapoutier Deschants Saint-Joseph 2007
(Saint-Joseph, France) $39; 13%
From the other side of the Rhône Valley to Tain l’Hermitage, this is a blend of syrah and a 10 per cent mix of marsanne and roussanne – it’s the southern Rhône version of shiraz viognier. It’s a pretty wine, with lifted floral aromas of cherry, raspberry, liquorice, dried flowers and spice. There’s a vibrancy to the red berry, mineral, meaty and spicy flavours that makes this a delight to drink. It’s a smooth wine, with sandy tannins providing drive to the cherry and bittersweet chocolate finish.
Food match \ Rabbit and chorizo salad
2011 Domaines Ott, Château de Selle Coeur de Grain Rosé
(Côtes de Provence, France) $65; 13.5%
I tasted through the full range of Domaines Ott rosés at their winery in Provence. I’m usually a sucker for the powerful rosés from Bandol, but this elegant rosé really struck a chord. It’s a blend of 50 per cent grenache, 30 per cent cinsault (included in the blend to lower the overall alcohol level), with shiraz and cabernet sauvignon making up the remainder. It has pretty aromas of summer berries, a touch of dried herb and delicate strawberry and raspberry flavours. It has a delightful creamy mouthfeel, yet it’s zesty and refreshing, and there’s a real drive to the intense finish.
Food match \ Gambas a la plancha
Love a bargain?
Jacques Lurton Touraine Sauvignon Blanc 2009
(Touraine, France) $25; 12%
You don’t often associate sauvignon blanc with character, but here’s a lovely example with quite a bit of personality. From the Touraine region in central France, this displays subtle aromatics of citrus, tropical fruits and herbs. There’s a lovely intensity to the mineral, citrus and tropical fruit flavours with a lovely texture as well. Bright acidity keeps the long, clean finish going. This has the capacity to age nicely, too.
Food match \ Asparagus with eggs en cocotte