Posted: Sep 25, 2018
by Andrew Chalk
On a 2016 tour of the southern Rhône I acquired a lasting impression that winemakers in the AOP appellations of Lirac, Tavel, Vacqueyras, Beaumes-de-Venise, Cairanne, Rasteau, and Gigondas, most of them little known in the U.S., were turning out some of the best wine values available today. In many cases equalling the wines of the famed Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Recntly, I got a closeup of one of those remarkable producers, Chêne Bleu, when they came through town and gave me a chance to taste their wines in the oenologically copacetic environment of Pappas Bros Steakhouse.
Chêne Bleu, French for Blue Oak (in honor of an old oak tree on the property preserved in a blue coat of copper sulphate), is even more remotely situated than the areas above. Nestled in the rolling Dentelles de Montmirail hills on the backend of the Gigondas AOP, near the Séguret AOP is Ventoux AOP (until 2008, Côtes du Ventoux). Despite being the third largest Rhône appellation there are only 113 wineries and less than 6,000 ha of vines. Most of the 1,315 growers actually sell to one of the 16 cooperatives. Since Ventoux wine can be sold as simple Côtes du Rhône much of it uses the latter, better known, name. Ventoux, out of mind until recently due its remote location, remains out of mind as most of its wine is denuded of its identity.
Does this anonymity reflect what Ventoux is capable of? Chêne Bleu wines show that view to be profoundly mistaken. Their wines earned scores up to 95 points from Jeb Dunnuck writing as Robert Parker’s hired gun in 2013. But this is a winery that ignores all traditional constraints and confinements. Founded in 1993 by Xavier and Nicole Rolet, the estate was a dilapidated former priory. They built a state-of-the-art gravity flow winery, replanted the vineyards on double cordon trellising, and enlisted the help of some of the foremost experts in viticulture and enology. Nicole, despite a background in international relations and finance, pivoted over to winemaking with courses at the WSET in London and The University of California, Davis. In the vineyards, they decided to follow biodynamic principles and kept a whole farm of animals to provide food, fertiliser, and pest control. Chêne Bleu is in the UNESCO Mont Ventoux Biosphere Reserve so they emerged from supportive environs.
To Nicole Ventoux is a “mosaic of micro-terroirs”. However, the Ventoux appellation wines did not project the quality that Chêne Bleu aspired to and the rules were sometimes unduly restrictive. For example, the use of viognier in the syrah, a practice from the northern Rhône appellations like Côtes Rôtie, was not permitted. Iconoclasts to the last, Xavier and Nicole courageously labelled their wines Vin de Pays du Vaucluse, a generic département level classification, and later IGP Vaucluse, following a change in EU regulations. This, despite the fact that they were all made from 100% estate grapes. The closest analogy is the Super Tuscan wines of Italy where, faced with restrictive DOC rules, some of the best producers made a mockery of them by making better wines and labelling them as Vino Tavola (table wine) in order to use the grape blends they wanted. Chêne Bleu had just done the same thing to the mother of all wine classification systems, the French AOP. Deux doigts pour vous!
Like the Super Tuscans, the Super Rhône wines sell for higher prices than their AOP-conforming counterparts.
NOTES ON THE WINES
Serious Rhône wine enthusiasts should look for these Chêne Bleu wines in the U.S. market. Handled by Wilson Daniels, they are widely distributed. Note that 2009 is the current release for the two red wines below.
2009 Chêne Bleu Héloïse, IGP Vaucluse
A blend of 60% syrah 37% grenache, 3% viognier.
Yes, this is a northern Rhône cépage, and this wine should be stood alongside wines like Côtes Rôtie counterparts. Nose of forest floor, roast meat, and dark fruits. Meaty fleshy mouth filling flavors, warm earthy finish. But the clincher for me was the tannic backbone that made this such a copacetic match with 28-day dry aged prime New York Strip steak (thank you Pappas Bros. Steakhouse).
$83. Aggregate critic score on wine-searcher 90/100. My score 94/100.
2009 Chêne Bleu Abélard, IGP Vaucluse
A blend of 15% syrah 85% grenache. More fleshy and softer than the Héloïse. A wine to be compared with the best Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines.
$90. Aggregate critic score on wine-searcher 92/100. My score 93/100.
2017 Chêne Bleu Rosé, IGP Vaucluse
A blend of Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault, Mourvèdre, and Rolle. This refreshing wine displays a delicate balance between the varietal characters involved and a mineral edge. to the finish that makes it distinctive.
$28. Aggregate critic score on wine-searcher 89/100. My score 90/100.
By Andrew Chalk
September 25, 2019
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