By Darren Delmore
I had the distinct pleasure of tagging along last week on a trade visit to the Perrin family's holdings in the Rhone Valley. Our odyssey began with our thirsty quintet of wine professionals packed into an undersized rental car like foie gras terrine as we traversed from Dijon to Valence. I sat shotgun with GPS in hand and snails in my belly as we watched the landscape change from the sunflowers and Charolais beef pastures of Burgundy to the lavender fields and olive groves of the Rhone.
I had been on three surfing expeditions to the old country -- relic of an earlier life -- but I had never visited an AOC. I had been waiting years to see the land where my favorite grape varietals hail from and experience the Tablas Creek mothership of Château de Beaucastel for the first time.
An hour into the southward drive, Côte-Rôtie stretched out to the west, with its expansive south facing range planted densely with vines. Between the hills and our American automatic transmission predispositions, our unfortunate rental car received the name “Le Clutch Fumé” about this time. “The Hill of Hermitage should be popping up like a Jack in the Box next,” our driver advised.
We were first scheduled to meet with Nicolas Jaboulet and taste the wines he is making and selecting for Maison Nicolas Perrin. Having the last name of Jaboulet in a burg like Tain-l'Hermitage is like living in Hollywood with the surname of Hitchcock: it’s billboarded on the hill of Hermitage itself, which at one time his family owned a coveted 30 percent of. When he started Maison Nicolas Perrin (in partnership with the Perrins) in 2009, he used his many key connections to source fruit and wine for the project, the range of which includes Hermitage, Côte-Rôtie, St. Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage, and Condrieu. We met up with Nicolas at a brand new tasting bar in the main square of Tain-l'Hermitage, where you can buy all of the Famille Perrin wines and taste a range of them too.
“Crozes-Hermitage is the wine we want to be known for,” Nicolas pointed out during the tasting. His 2013 certainly makes a case for it. We learned that 85% of the Crozes-Hermitage plantings are Syrah, with the balance being Marsanne and Roussanne. “Many growers have taken out Roussanne,” he said. “They only wanted Roussanne if it could be co-harvested and fermented with Marsanne. Growers didn’t want to wait to have two different picking dates for the whites.”
At the tail end of the tasting we met Benoit Busseuil, Nicolas' assistant winemaker. He drove us up onto the top of Hermitage to see the labyrinth of Syrah plantings stretch out below us to the banks of the Rhone river. Seeing the tiny parcels and gnarled vines, the price tag on the rare bottles to hail from the hill instantly made sense to us.
We piled back in the car and headed south where Nicolas met back up with us and treated us to lunch at Michel Chabran in Pont de l’lsére. The wiser of us followed Nicolas’ lead and opted for the Tapas Dégustation menu, along with tastes of the 2013 Hermitage Blanc, 2012 Cote-Rotie, and a rare 2013 St. Joseph Blanc from Domaine Bernard Gripa.
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In a way, the region of Vinsobres reminds me of Mendocino County in Northern California. The most northernmost appellation in the Southern Rhone, the vines perch on hills up to 1200 feet elevation with plenty of wooded areas between the steep hillside plantings. Vineyard blocks of all different sizes, unmarked and unfenced, with little trellising, must require institutional knowledge or government intervention to keep straight who owns what.
Vinsobres' name originates from the Latin words "vin sobre" meaning "dark wine". The dark color comes from the high percentage of Syrah in the appellation: higher than any other in the southern Rhone.
In a small cluster of houses -- might we call it a Patelin? -- a few kilometers outside of the village of Vinsobres, the Perrin Family guest house is notoriously difficult to find. That said, I take full responsibility for typing in the incorrect address on the GPS. We pulled up at the wrong house, unloaded our bags and even entered a place that kind of looked like it could be the Perrins' house (with the exception of dirty dishes in the sink, shoes and socks at the door and a desk with documents and an adding machine in place). Paul drove off to see if we’d overshot the address, leaving four of us to roam the grounds. Soon an engine sputtered its way up the drive and I encountered a 60-something couple and their terrified faces upon the sight of four dudes and my beard in particular, plus all of our luggage sprawled out on their driveway. They handled it well enough, especially since they had no idea what we were saying and vice versa. Paul reappeared with word that we were two kilometers short of the destination. We hoped they didn't lose much sleep over the knowledge that we were still somewhere in the vicinity.
The Perrin guest house at La Vielle Ferme de Vinsobres would have author Peter Mayle reaching for an advance. They carefully restored this centuries-old five-bedroom farmhouse over a decade, adding a modern kitchen, bathrooms, swimming pool and wi-fi. Well-manicured lavender and rosemary line the property, with old vines above and below and no neighbors in range. A well stocked wine cellar on the ground floor awaited us, and we’d shopped heavily in Tain for the night’s provisions, which one of my fellow travelers (a chef in real life) attacked with aproned vengeance.
With Merguez sausage from the grill, steak, cheese and jambon d’Ardeche, plus the biggest salad we’d ever seen, we enjoyed an extended evening on the outdoor balcony, eating and raving about the day, with some major anticipation for the next day's agenda.
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Kirsty Manahan is the hospitality director for Famille Perrin. Born in England but raised in the south of France, she arrived the following cloudy morning with the property caretaker Mohamad to guide us around. The weather had changed dramatically, and she pointed out that we were due for a code orange weather day, which includes heavy rain, thunder and some lightning. As we took our positions in Mohamad's pickup truck for a vineyard tour, the luckier ones got in the four-seat truck cab, while the rest of us hopped in the back of the pickup with two umbrellas. A roar from the sky above had us looking at each other as "Momo" hit the gas. The drops soon followed.
We bounced up along a clay terrace and climbed a good 400 feet past Syrah vines and an interesting patch of Clairette Gris. It wouldn’t have taken much to roll right off of the tailgate with the speed and rocks we were pounding along. The landscape would vary from cobblestones to fluffy clay then to pure pink sand. At the top of the hill the gusts of wind whipped away at us and in spite of the umbrellas, we were now officially soaked, even before a gust imploded one umbrella, leaving it looking more like a weapon than anything useful in the rain. For the last half hour left on the tour, our wonder at the rugged scenery provided our only shelter from the elements.
Once we thawed and dried out, we followed Kirsty to Gigondas for a tour of Clos des Tourelles. In my previous life as a cellarhand, this micro, single vineyard operation would be my dream winery. Built to only produce the one estate wine, it’s compact, clean, historic, and simply appointed with open-top cement tanks for fermentations and French oak foudres for the aging process. The Clos des Tourelles is the only clos (walled vineyard) in Gigondas, and the Perrins have been rehabilitating the buildings since they bought it a few years ago. Construction was actively going on, with the goal of making it the centerpiece of the Famille Perrin holdings. The views are incredible, and the tasting room and guest rooms (scheduled completion: 2016) should be an instant landmark when they open.
From the Clos you can walk directly up to L’Oustalet which is the hotel and restaurant the Perrins opened a couple years ago.
The sleek restaurant was fully booked for lunch service and chef Laurent Deconick was in the house. We started with a splash of Miraval Rosé then had an incredible menu of Mushroom Risotto with 2011 Beaucastel Vielles Vignes Roussanne, chicken prepared three ways with a dense, powerful Famille Perrin L’Argnee 2010 Gigondas, and then -- we still had work to do, after all -- Rhubarb sorbet and espresso. I made a mental note to spend a few more days in Gigondas next time around.
Ancient Grenache vines for L'Argnee in Gigondas.
A very happy table at L'Oustalet.
The clouds clamored as we approached the four o’clock hour and the town of Courthézon near Châteauneuf-du-Pape. In case we were uncertain of its historic significance, there was actually a sign for Beaucastel on the main roundabout along with major cities and highways. People were snapping pictures outside of the Château as we parked. This was it. We’d finally made it to mecca. We took turns taking cell phone glory portraits of us standing on the stones while Kirsty gave us some backstory on the viticulture laws in the region (no irrigation, head trained low to the ground).
We toured the cellars and I wasn't entirely surprised to see the same bladder presses, destemmer and French oak foudres that we use at Tablas Creek. Cesar Perrin -- who worked harvest at Tablas in 2011 -- appeared at one point pushing a bottle cart to collect some wines to label for sale. In the foudres, 2013 and 2014 lots of Coudoulet de Beaucastel and Château de Beaucastel slumbered, while the rain hammered on outside.
Kirsty had arranged an impressive array of Famillle Perrin wines to taste above the cellar, starting with 2014 Les Sinards Blanc, followed by Coudoulet de Beaucastel Blanc and Rouge, three wines from Gigondas, and a powerful foudre sample of 2013 Chateau de Beaucastel Rouge. "And I have some surprises for you," she announced near the end, as if the tasting needed surprises to keep our interest. These treats included a stellar 2001 Hommage à Jacques Perrin, a lively and ethereal 1970 Beaucastel Rouge, and a 1985 Vieilles Vignes Roussanne that at 30 years old was clear, precise, and full of life.
It was clear to all of us in two days of touring that the Perrins are not only the ambassadors of the Rhone Valley, but they have achieved that difficult balance between tradition and modernity with their wines. Their vision, their experience with their terroir, and their commitment to making wines of place have produced a range of different village cuvees, each with its own identity and well-defined personality. And their commitment to converting each parcel they take over to organic farming means that over time these personalities will only become clearer.
For our last hurrah, we met Marc Perrin afterward for an early dinner in the village. He arrived from Provence where he'd been meeting with Brad Pitt and looking at vineyards and sources to grow the Miraval brand. Why not? If we needed a reminder of how the Perrins are always looking for new good ideas, Marc provided it. One of the guests brought up at dinner that they thought Miraval rosé half bottles -- which haven't been produced yet -- would have potential in the Los Angeles market. As if Marc didn't have enough going on in both the Northern and Southern Rhone, his eyes widened with interest at the suggestion, and you could see his mind immediately begin working. "If I can find the glass, we will try it," he offered. I can't wait.