Does the old saying that “You can’t judge a book by it’s cover” hold for wine? Clearly those who design packages don’t think so. It’s said that many wines are sold on the basis of their label; Yellowtail is often used as an example. It took the US wine market by storm with it’s yellow-tailed kangaroo–a graphic code for Australian wine—and subsequently we were flooded with animal labels. Other labels try for an austere, often pen and ink, drawing of an imposing Chateau, perhaps to imply a connection with the premier wines of France. Still others nearly make you laugh or are tied in to famous people.
We tasted a French wine–imported by Margerum Wine Company–this week, Chêne Bleu, whose graphic label tells so much about the vineyards and wine, it could be a QR code. You’re drawn at first to the Chêne Bleu, the ancient Blue Oak tree that grows on their hilltop property in the Vaucluse region of Provence. Around the tree, the graphic depicts the land, the people, the history, the philosophy of Chêne Bleu. The care in communicating about the land and the people in this way is an indication of the love and passion the family has for the vineyard and wine.
The wine reflects that passion. We started with a lovely, salmon colored rosé with hints of strawberries and citrus. I was tasting next to Betty Dunbar, a local wine representative, who has lived in France, and she commented to Doug Margerum how packed the rosé was. I had never heard that term applied to wine, but it seemed fitting; there was a sturdiness to the wine I don’t expect in a rosé . The reason, of course, is terroir (isn’t it always..). Specifically, that the mountains where the vineyard sits were created by the collision of tectonic plates when the continents were still being sorted out. The result is very little top soil, a hard, chalky base and a diverse cross-section of geological components. As Doug explained, this soil makes for a unique growing condition. He wishes he could recreate it in California, but he can’t. It’s what makes this Provençal terroir special.
When I talked with Nicole Rolet, whose family owns the vineyard/winery, and Laura Iverson, Head of Sales, they elaborated on the unique soil. They explained how it stresses the vines—a good thing with wine grapes, since unstressed vines tend to be complacent and produce wood and leaves instead of quality grapes. Some of the roots go as deep as 300 feet to provide water and minerals to the vines. The altitude—the vineyard sits at about 1600 feet—also contributes. The vineyard has the sunny days of Provence but the cool evenings of the upper Rhone. As a result, they grow marvelous viognier as well.
The viognier was good. But my faves were the reds: Abéard and Héloïse. Named for a couple in an historic love story. Both are syrah/grenache blends. Both were from the 2006 vintage and both were delicious, with a finish that lasted as we talked—and talked—about the wine and the vineyard.
I was surprised though, that the “current release” reds we were drinking were so old compared to most local current releases we’re drinking at home. The explanation gave a peek into the French classifications. Traditionally—and legally—to call a wine by it’s appellation (Burgundy, Bordeaux, Champagne..) you have to farm and vinify according to precise rules. Specific varietals are permitted, specific farming practices are permitted, specific vinification practices are permitted. It is “old world” after all; there are rules.
But sometimes wineries want to make the wines better than the rules permit; as an example, “Super Tuscans”, which push the Tuscan rules but which are often better than traditionally produced Tuscan wines. In Chêne Bleu’s case, they add a splash of Viognier to their syrah/grenache blend. Such a practice is acceptable in Northern Rhone, where quality viognier grows. But Southern Rhone is typically too warm for viognier. Unless your vineyard is on top of a hill at 1600 feet. So Chêne Bleu adds some viognier from a climate much like Northern Rhone. Makes for a better wine. But doesn’t follow the rules. So they have to call it a “vin du pays”—country wine–rather than use the higher quality classification of an appellation. At the same time, they vinify their wine in the classic, noble wine tradition. Which produces a wine with the ability to improve with age. A wine referred to as a “vin de garde.”
In short, they make a great wine, with the ability to improve with age, and delay releasing it until the wine has already aged some. To me, this is just another indication of how committed this family is to producing exceptional wines.
They only make 2500 cases a year. You’re not going to get them at the local supermarket. But you CAN get them at Margerum Wine Company Tasting Room and margerumwines.com. I suggest you seek that out. You’ll be pleased and you’ll be the only one on your block (or in your wine club) with these fantastic wines.
Article and photos by Bob Dickey