In this part of the southern Rhone you feel like in Provence, with the same white stone surfacing, same aromatic bushes and plants, and rocky hills that would be easily mistaken for being somewhere in the Var département. But we're a handful of kilometers southwest of Tavel and west of Avignon. Right before you reach Rochefort driving from Tavel, you pass a church on your right overlooking the region (pic on right - satellite view) with calvary procession shrines all along the way to the top. This is a pilgrimage place which was founded by Charlemagne in 798 A.D. (History page in French, written 1910)
This visit at Nicolas Renaud in the southern Rhone is among my backlog of still unpublished visits I made earlier this year before going to Japan. While my intention was clearly to publish the story later, the sight of Nicolas Renaud's bottles at an excellent wine/sake shop in Fushimi, Kyoto (story here), was a good reminder on my path that I hadn't finished my job.
Nicolas Renaud is a young vigneron I heard about through Eric Pfifferling (Domaine de L'Anglore), the two are almost neigbors and have been working along a similar winemaking philosophy. Nicolas's estate Clos des Grillons had its start in 2008. For the anecdote, Nicolas Renaud was teaching history and geography before that, he had no vineyards of his own when he quit the teaching sector in 2005. At that time he went to work for 2 years at the Vieille Julienne in Chateauneuf du Pape, both in the vineyards and in the cellar, to better the knowledge that he had already accumulated by meeting winemakers and vignerons. All the while, he took his first vineyards en fermage (rents) in 2006, in Rochefort and also near Saze. Typically, he would prune 8 or 9 hours at la Vielle Julienne and then do it again on his own vines in the evening.
Nicolas Renaud now works on 18 hectares, 80 % of which being rented vineyards (fermage), the rest in ownership. With the wine production crisis going on around here there weren't many people interested in starting a winery and it allowed him to find interesting vineyards, either to rent or to buy, which was very important for him as he didn't have family-owned vineyards to start his project. And there was no competitor particularly for these old vines yielding small volumes of grapes because the coops (coopératives viticoles) asked for more productive vineyards. For the types of wines that he wanted to make, these 70/80 years old vineyards with yields in the range of 20/25 hectoliters/hectare were just perfect. In total, he makes 400 hectoliters of wine from his surface of 18 hectares.
Nicolas Renaud's winery is located in the village of Rochefort, right near where he lives with his family and children. There isn't much room, just a side building on the other side of a paved courtyard with little room to maneuver. It is a good thing that a vineyard tractor isn't very wide, because he could still park it behind the gate. After introducing ourselves, we followed Nicolas inside the different rooms and surface cellars to taste a few wines, before driving to the vineyards very close from there.
__ Clos des Grillond cuvée 1901, another white. Almost 100 % Bourboulenc, from a vineyard planted in 1901. Bourboulenc was a very traditional white variety in this part of the Rhone, but now people don't plant it anymore and much of it has been uprooted, in spite of the quality of this variety, which yields enjoyable wines, saline with vividness. Nicolas says that he likes wines with a saline side, and this variety is among them. Vineyard near Rochefort on northern exposition with white clays. We're drinking here a wine made with a 110-year old vineyard... Fermented in casks and still in casks. 13,5 ° in alcohol.
__ Clos des Grillons, Les Terres Blanches 2010. The main cuvée here, with Les Grillons. Made with a large surface of vineyards including old vines (except the oldest, the 110-year ones). This wine is made with very old Carignan and old Grenache. Already bottled, since november 17. This cuvée is a complicated blending, it is made with a large number of small-batch vats, the carignan being usually non-destemmed but lightly crushed with a 6-7-day fermentation at cold temperature, and the old grenache being destemmed and fermenting in the open-top wooden fermenter for 15 to 21 days. A remaining part of grenache and carignan is blended in a concrete vat, the grenache being destemmed and not the carignan (alternate layers). He has some carignan that ripe at the same time than some of his grenache because of a particular soil and exposition conditions, that's why he can vinify them together, after which it goes into casks for more than a year, until the following november. Nice fruit with tannins. The dark color comes from the Carignan.
__ Clos des Grillons, Le Pic Gris 2011. Red wine. The first year he makes this cuvée. Made from Picpoul Gris, a variety which is from the same variety family as the Picpoul de Pinet but is a pink one, and which is native of the Chateauneuf du Pape region. There used to be a lot of Picpoul Gris around here and it remains only 3 parcels of it right now in the village. Nice acidity in this wine, Nicolas says that it's typical of the Picpoul Gris, plus it makes only 12,5 ° in alcohol. The parcel makes 0,35 hectare and he made 10 hectoliters of wine (1200 or 1300 bottles). Aromatic wine too, with a nice tension, although the malolactic fermentation went through. He planted 30 ares more of Picpoul Gris last year, with a massal selection. Very clear wine, he says that he made a very light filtration for this one, exceptionnally, because it was really too turbid.
__ Grillons rosé CA 2011 (from the Carignan part). Different color, more like rosy/redish, it's a direct-press rosé. Nice intensity here, with lots of substance. Saline side that jumps at your face, you feel almost sea and iode here. Nicolas says that with these two very clearly different wines, they were better alone. His importer from Denmark visited a few days ago and he had him taste a micro-blend of the two to try but the guy said that it wasn't bad but he felt at times one side and at time another, so they tasted the single-varriety rosés and that was obvious, they had to be kept separate. Also a very nice expression, a bit more serious maybe than the other rosé which was so easy to swallow. In 2010, his rosé cost 7,5 € (public price).
__ Clos des Grillons Esprit Libre [means free mind] 2011. Red taken from a stainless-steel vat. This cuvée has no fixed composition, and every year it changes. This year it's a blend from the 3 terroirs he has on Signargues, that is grenache planted on pebble stones (galets roulés), then clay, then sands, to which he also blended some syrah (on red clay) and some mourvèdre (on pebble stones). Nice aromas on the nose, smells rocks or wet stones. Yummy wine. There will be 2500 bottles only of this wine. Will be bottled in march 2011 after the gas has been taken out. 14 ° in alcohol. I don't feel too much gas but he finds it too much obvious. Only stainless-steel here, no wood. Nicolas says that is not much syrah, no more than 10 % but he can feel the variety in the blend, the imprint is there. It will be labelled a Cotes du Rhone Signargues.
__ Clos des Grillons, Les Terres Blanches 2011, the Grenache part. A last red, from a stainless-steel vat. 19 hectoliters of this wine. The wine is cold, we have to warm up the glass in our hands. 14,5 ° in alcohol. Pi,ot style of aroma on the nose. This Terres-Blanches wine never goes into wood, because he considers it would sort of oxydize it too much. Fermented on wild yeats, like all his wines, which are also never acidity-corrected. Asked about the use of arabic-gum in the region, a common additive in France, he says it's widely used in the area. He of course doesn't use any. This wine we're tasting, he says, would be the typical wine where arabic gum would be added in the cellar, that's because arabic gum can soften, hide the tannins. He says that all these additives format the wines on the same model, they erase the terroir particularities. The reason a terroir like the one of Rochefort-sur-Gard is unknown is because the local coop buys most of the grapes in the area and as it works on a technological way [correcting with additives], the terroir was never expressed in the wines. He says that the terroirs around here are excellent, with the proximity of Tavel and Chateauneuf du Pape, interesting northern-exposition slopes etc...
When you look at these vines, you can't but think to what they went through : raised traditionally by plowing plus maybe some natural compost for years throughout the 20th century, they find themselves sprayed with the mixtures of the technological revolution in, say, the late 70s' or early 80s', until an unexpected truce brings the survivors back to breath and life in the early 21st century... I bet the wine must reflect their respite and gratitude.
We walk further to another parcel of Bourboulenc which Nicolas took over 4 years ago and which is part of the cuvée Grillons Blanc (white). He replaanted the missing vines but they struggle to grow because the neighboring vines sent their roots where the now-dead vine had its roots. It's a rent, the owner doesn't want to sell the plot because it's too close from the first houses of the village : if he sold it, he would risk loosing a juicy opportunity to make big money if the land status here went from vineyard & agricultural only (very small realestate value) to construction land (the jackpot). There's a suburban sprawl in many French villages especially in the south, and the local administrations are tempted to change the status of fields and vineyards because with more houses built, this will bring more taxes and permanent revenues, fill the schools etc.... It's a real problem for vignerons who want to buy vineyards, the competition with an ever-growing building-land surface prevents the purchase, leaving only the rent as option, until the land status changes, forcing the vigneron to look for another available plot. So, Nicolas just hopes to be able to work on this parcel the longest time possible.
We reach the old-Bourboulenc parcel which lies right after this first plot. The vines look like they come from a distant past (picture above), and still producing grapes, if not much. They stand quite high above the ground. the parcel is exposed on the north, which seems to be quite a good exposition under these latitudes, given the scorching heat in summer.
Apart of these old vines, most vines are relatively low in this area, that's because it's so windy all the time, the vine keeps safe, close to the ground level.
Nicolas Renaud's estate is certified by Ecocert.
Clos des Grillons wines are exported to Japan (Rakuten) and to the U.S. (Savio Soares)