Mercurol is a village sitting near the A7 toll highway, north of Valence and east of Tournon and Tain-L'Hermitage. Dard & Ribo's facility lies outside of the village near the A7, but to reach it you need to drive along narrow roads and know where you're going, as there's no sign and directions to the winery. Happily, we met René-Jean Dard shortly after leaving the toll highway and we followed his all-terrain, vineyard-proof vehicule (picture on left) right to the winery.
The winery looked unchanged compared to what we vaguely remembered of our 2004 visit (I had shot very few pictures then) : a nondescript building with little-appealing surroundings softened by the sunny atmosphere of the Rhone valley (pic on right). As we parked our vehicules, we saw Mr Hirotake Ooka [article in French] from Domaine de la Colline, waiting with his young child for René-Jean Dard. He is a Japanese vigneron based in St Peray nearby, and he needed parts for his press. He is also into natural wine, has been making wine near here for 9 years and knows also well Thierry Allemand (he bought recently 2 hectares of Cornas). Japan is often round the corner at Dard & Ribo, René-Jean's wife Hideko is Japanese, and also very long time ago there was this young Japanese traveller on his bicycle (Maruyama) who stopped at the estate for a few days and turned out to become a leading restaurateur after coming back in Japan. He ordered Dard & Ribo's wines through the importer enoconnexion (who discovered Dard & Ribo thanks to him) and helped put the winery in the spotlight in Japan... Maruyama's first Tokyo restaurant was Aux Amis des Vins, a very serious venue for wines, and he now has 10 restaurants among which the Brasserie aux Amis and Vinpicoeur.
Dard et Ribo goes for René-Jean Dard and François Ribo, the two men behind this winery which was started some 30 years ago. It was one of the first to follow a low-intervention, additives-less vinification. The natural-wine movement, as we call it today, was nascent, most of the wine amateurs including the knowledgeable ignoring then the extent of additives' use in their wines. The estate made its way without publicity to the top Rhone wines.
They're both natives of the region (Tain L'Hermitage) and they met through the Lycée Viticole de Beaune (the wine school in Beaune, Burgundy). Jean-René Dard had already a long experience in winemaking (for a youth) as he had helped his father, whom he lost when he was 15. His father made wine for the family consumption and a little bit for sale. The teaching in Beaune was for conventional, additives-loaded winemaking, and the only time they had a course about organic management, that was to mock it and warn about the risks. Actually that's in the school that René-Jean Dard learned about SO2, his father having never used any in his winemaking. SO2 was an additive among many others that he was taught to use extensively in Beaune. When back from the school, he and François Ribo began to work together on Dard's small vineyard surface and they soon brought back the traditional vinification methods learned from his father's time, adding improvements along. This was in 1980, and the Dard et Ribo winery was launched in 1984. They acquired or rented more surface along the years, reaching about 8,5 hectares today, of which 0,5 hectare is rented.
While René-Jean Dard is easier to meet and chat with, François Ribo is the discreet man of the team, a passionate grower who spends lots of time taking care of the vines and of the ground. Even if they shared all the tasks initially, René-Jean Dard shifted gradually to the customers relations, which leaves room for sharing the vinification tasks. This is no mystery that Dard & Ribo wines owe their quality to a precise and demanding vineyard management, but the cellar work, while minimalist, asks for vigilance and care.
__ Dard & Ribo Crozes Hermitage 2009, a white made from 100 % Roussane. It was originally in casks but they racked the wine into a 715-hectoliter stainless-steel vat because they felt it was moving too fast. Will be bottled before the harvest. In general, they raise the whites and the reds some 12 months. Nose : flowers, concentrated essence. White crip fruits, notes B. The wine feels rich in the mouth, powerfull too, good acidity, B. adds. Jean-René Dard says that in 2009 they got 40 % of a normal harvest because of drought. In 2008 it was even worse (30 %) because of rain and rot. The grapes grow on a very nice slope and terroir, but with the chaging weather patterns, every other year has its problems. This year (2010) things are going right, very nice vines, he adds that it's still growing in august and he had people cut a few shoots...
The mouth of this white St Jo with greenish reflexions is splendid, very mineral. B. notes floral notes, then honey. The mouth being very fresh with a small bitterness. Almond hint, end of mouth ample but refined. Made from 2 vineyards, the soil is a mix of granit and galets roulés (big pebble stones). Speaking of the proportion of whites and reds at Dard et Ribo (for some reason, I had mostly their reds in my mind), he says that on a normal vintage, they make 35 % of whites, which is very big for the region. Oddly, he adds, they're often against the trend compared with what is done in the region, it's not a voluntary stand, but that the way it unfolds. In 2007 and 2008 for example, they sold less whites on the market while the other vignerons increased their production. This recent spring, it reversed and D & R whites went up sharply. Also about the picking, they're harvesting usually the reds before the whites, and they're the only ones in the region to do that around here.
__ Dard & Ribo St Joseph 2009. Roussane. Les Champs vineyard, a plot near Tournon, from Stainless-steel vat. Nose : distillates of aromatic-tree leaves, encense. B. notes minerality with notes of mirabelle and mignonette. Quite powerful in the mouth. Ready to be bottled, he says, about 600 bottles in all. René-Jean Dard says that this pairs well with butter/garlic/parsil cuisine, as well as with Japanese cuisine. Speaking of the economic crisis and the sales, he says that some venues don't seem to suffer, like for example le Repaire de Cartouche, le Verre Volé, Chez Michel (10 rue de Belzunce) or L'Os à Moelle in Paris where their wines keep selling well.
The grapes stay in the wooden open vats some 8-10 days to 20 days depending of each cuvée and conditions. No recipe, this is decided case by case through multiple tasting of the juice. François and Jean-René take part to this stage, no one is particularly assigned to this stage. Every morning they taste all the fermentation vats, from the very start, they like to understand very early where the juice/wine is going. It helps avoid mistakes, he refers to the vintage 2003 when most vignerons assumed that it was a good harvest when actually it was not ripe. They worked on the juice as if it had been ripe and the resulting wines were often hard to swallow.
After the open-vat stage, the wine is entonné, goes into the casks after a night or two of settling into a stainless-steel vat. The fine lees will go with the juice, not the thick lees. They use an old press which can handle even small volumes of grapes. In the early years in this facility (1987 to 1991), they used the old press on the picture left. The press juice is blended with the rest immediately. The wine isn't moved much when in the casks, it's often racked only once. For the SO2, there' no recipe : in 2009, few wines got some while in 2008 they all got some SO2. The SO2 addition, when there is one, takes place at the harvest. It's otherwise common, depending of the vintage, that no red cuvée get any SO2 at all.
Regarding the casks, they stopped buying used casks because of the bad suprises that may come with, so they buy 2 or 3 new casks ervery other year, just to renew the casks. The last time they bought casks (demi-muids) for example was in 2007.
They have their own Roussane massal selections and they also use other vignerons' selections. They bring their own shoots to the nursery, it is still allowed but alas may be forbidden soon. René-Jean says that the bottling is made by a service company on demand. They don't schedule the bottlings with the moon, he says after I ask about that. In the vineyard, they don't use chemical products except copper and sulphur. They don't use insecticides, even organic ones. Thanks to the conditions on these latitudes, there's no pressure on the insects and pests front. He says that they were occasionally told by vignerons who sold them vineyards that 3 sprayings were necessary to prevent the grape worm otherwise everything would get lost. They didn't follow the advice and went without treatments and everything went fine, many conventional sprayings are decided by overreacting against a non-existent threat. He says that when you don't put nitrogen in the vineyard and keep your yields under 40 hectoliters/hectare, everythng goes smooth.
__ Dard & Ribo Crozes-Hermitage 2009. The first red of the day. From a big size cask (a 500-liter demi-muid). The clusters came in as whole as possible, with like usual 10 % of them foot-stomped. Nice fleshy mouth. Integrated and softened tannins for me, but B. finds them still harsh, the fruit standing out later. On the nose : empyreumatic notes Jean-René aknowledges that with the changing weather pattern of recent summers, they have harscher tannins than what they usually get.
__ Dard & Ribo Crozes-Hermitage 2009. Old vines from les Bâties. Vinified in the newest cask (a demi-muid bought in 2007). Jammy fruit on the nose. The wine is a bit too oaky, he says, adding that ideally, it would be great to give the new cask for a while to someone they know so that the oaky imprint fades away. The reds are unfiltered and unfined, he says. The whites are occasionally fined.
__ Dard & Ribo Crozes Hermitage les Bâties 2009. Same wine but another cask (1/2 muid too). Intense dark color. This wine, he says, is more in line with what the final blend will look like. Anyway, he says that they have not yet decided (with François Ribo) which casks will go into the final cuvée, they're slowly evaluating and take their time to decide. They may hve 5 demi-muids of les Bâties 2009, but that doesn't mean that all five will go to the cuvée. The new-oak one in particular may not get the green flag. The wine : Jellied fruits on the nose, exquisite red-fruits tart feel, you just drink that right away (we otherwise tried to pour back in the cask what wasn't drunk). B. praises the touch in the mouth, both limpid and full, with on the nose peony and a redcurrant fruityness. The tannins are there but not harsh, the mouth is long and aerial. Very nice, classy wine. And probably still a baby with more to offer in the future.
Asked about when they designed the iconic black label of Dard & Ribo wines, he says that it was in 1983. They were looking for something sober and lean but with still some originality, and a label maker came out with this and that was it. It wasn't very common at the time, since then, there's been sea changes on the label scene. The label is so much loved (I guess the wine has to do with it...) that it has been used in various places, I think to Cory Cartwright's Saignée and , obviously a core fan of Dard et Ribo's wines, and Jean-René says that he saw once that a Japanese restaurant in Osaka also used the logo for its business cards.
__ Dard & Ribo Saint Joseph les Champs 2009. Fruity, encense, some chocolate says B. Very nice nose indeed, with earth. Jean-René says that while a Crozes throw everything it has to your face, you must dig deeper to discover the St Jo, this is a more feminine wine. We like the chewy side of this wine. Asked if they keep bottles on the side to monitor the vintages, he answer yes, they try to. He says that the Crozes age well, but he doesn't see the point to keep the wines for ages, they're beautiful after 2 or 3 years and you must drink them then. The St Joseph has an even longer ageing potential. He adds that older whites are actually more interesting than older reds.
__ Dard & Ribo Hermitage 2009. Cask. Complexity on the nose. Cooked fruits behind with raspberry. Tobacco leaves and aromatic herbs, adds B. Very, very nice wine. René-Jean Dard says that the Hermitage wines will be noticed in 2009. This is the first year that they put on the market so much Hermitage wine. And on the other hand, they have 40 % less in whites in 2009.
__ Dard & Ribo Crozes Hermitage 2008. Fruity nose. Mouth with freshness & fruit.
__ Dard & Ribo St Joseph 2005, bottled opened yesterday (Joe Dressner was around...). 2 years in casks and 3 years in bottle. No name yet, this is "le Spécial" for now. This is a blend of Les Champs and Pitrou, there are only 200 bottles in all, it will probably not be commercialized. Lightly fizzy, super legs on the glass. Nice wine for me, but he says they feel some volatile in there and are not fully satisfied with it. In 1996, he says, they had a special cuvée, they called it cuvée Toto, it got a cult status in Japan even though it wasn't exported there, just by the people who heard about it by word of mouth and found it in a single Place in Paris. Lots of Japanese amateurs went to the Repaire de Cartouche and asked for a Dard & Ribo Toto 1996. Rodolphe Paquin, the restaurateur, was very impressed by this following then. It is in Le Repaire de cartouche that you find the largest choice of Dard & Ribo wines, there's more than 30 references, and everything is not displayed on the wine list. The other restaurant with the biggest number of Dard & Ribo references is Maruyama's Aux Amis des Vins in Tokyo.
Dard & Ribo wines are exported to several countries. Importer for the United States is Dressner Selections, for the UK, les Caves de Pyrène, for Japan, it is Mr Ito's oeno-connexion.