Getting the UK’s first taste of the new wines from Chêne Bleu would normally be an occasion for unbridled joy, especially with the Southern Rhône estate having just won the 2020 Terre de Vins trophy for best wine tourism in France. But Geoffrey Dean hears first hand from owner Nicole Rolet of the stark reality that small wineries face during Lockdown and coming into the recession that awaits – and all that she and her winery are doing to help those most in need in the hospitality sector.
The new vintages ‘Héloïse’ 2012, Abelard 2012 and Viognier 2016 are tasted alongside a selection of other Chêne Bleu back vintages.
Lovers of Chêne Bleu’s wines, as well as wine tourists who have visited the stunning estate near the old Roman town of Vaison-La-Romaine in the southern Rhône, will be heartened by twin pieces of good news in these most trying of times. First, The Buyer can reveal that the IGP Vaucluse winery’s latest releases – the 2012 reds and 2016 Viognier – are showing outstandingly well; secondly, Chêne Bleu has just won a prestigious oenotourism trophy from French magazine ‘Terre de Vins’ – namely the Grand Prix d’Or Restoration dans le Vignoble ‘Bistronomique.’
More on the award later, as well as the trials and tribulations facing Chêne Bleu under lockdown, but first the wines, which are available in the UK from Justerini & Brooks and in California from Wilson Daniels. The Rolet family, who in the mid-1990s acquired the estate, known as La Verrière after its medieval glass-making tradition, initially sold their grapes to the local co-operative before deciding to make their own labels in 2006.
Because Chêne Bleu did not want to take any chances with other wineries’ used barrels, they opted for 100% new oak in their first vintage, followed by 50% new and 50% second fill in 2007, and 33% new, 33% second fill and 33% third fill thereafter. Feeling that the wines needed time for their tannins to bed in, they held back release. Hence the fact that the 2012 reds are the newest release.
Detailed tasting notes of several vintages follow this piece, but it was noticeable how effortlessly well the 2012 reds had absorbed the new French oak. The ‘Héloïse’ 2012 (65% Syrah, 31% Grenache and 4% Roussanne), possessed quite overt but very fine, refined tannins that gave it impressive structure; the ‘Abelard’ 2012 (85% Grenache, 15% Syrah) had silkier tannins with sumptious red plum and cherry fruit. Both wines spent 18 months in barrel, were 14% abv and had a pH of 3.6, with an exquisitely weighted balance between tannins, acidity, fruit and alcohol.
Until 2011, the Héloïse contained no Roussanne, but that year it was added in place of Viognier at the behest of winemaker, Jean-Louis Gallucci, brother-in-law of Xavier and Nicole Rolet, co-owners of Chêne Bleu.
“It was a big departure for us,” Nicole told The Buyer. “The original decision to blend Viognier was very controversial as that’s classically a northern Rhône style. But we thought if we have a high micro-terroir elevation [530-550m] and good levels of acidity with it, as well as perfumes that are elegant rather than over the top, then maybe it’s a good idea to blend Viognier. We were very pleased with the result and that’s one of the reasons we stepped out of the appellation, and made wines we felt were a better reflection of our terroir. But Jean-Louis was very intrigued with Roussanne, and it was his idea. I was initially resistant to it as liked Héloïse as it was, but the Roussanne brings two benefits: we feel it adds to the pretty perfume on the nose and makes our Syrah a bit more feminine and appealing. I also love how it fleshes out Héloïse and gives it a bit more texture, adding to the voluptuousness of the wine.”
Chêne Bleu’s Viognier 2016 is a classy wine, oozing elegance and harmony. Barrel-fermented, it has a hint of oiliness and some pears-in-syrup richness, but apricot and peach notes on the palate provide attractive fruit.At 13% abv, the alcohol has been kept in check for a grape naturally high in it, and there is enough fresh acidity to balance the wine neatly. In short, a lovely example of Viognier.
How Chêne Bleu is coping with the lockdown
“Jean-Louis and his wife Benedicte [Chêne Bleu’s viticulturalist] are at the property and trying to hold down the fort along with their son Hugo,” Nicole said. “They have very specific instructions as how to do work on the estate, social distancing and keeping everyone safe. A lot of people rely on Romanians and other Europeans at this time of year as there’s so much to do in the vineyards. These people, of course, are home with their families in whatever countries, so there’s really no one around to do the work. So it’s quite tricky.”
“I think small wineries are set to be whacked because they have very high fixed costs with no flexibility on production or labour costs. In France, you can’t furlough anyone in agricultural production, which includes wine. In a small company you have staff that are either your family or they’re like family, so you’re not going to be hard-nosed about saving the company finances at the expense of the people that make your company work. You’re going to do what’s right for your staff.”
“On the marketing and sales side, the cheques for a lot of the big ticket items like trade fairs have already been written, with no chance of getting the money back. So I think I speak on behalf of all small winemakers when I say it’s really not possible to lay low in terms of cashflow expenditures, which are pretty inflexible. Meanwhile, a small winery depends or over-depends on sommeliers and middle men talking about their wines, recommending them and getting people to buy them. The big wine companies all sell to supermarkets, whose sales have gone up 30-40%, but the little guys don’t really have access to them. And if you’re a small producer and you make high-end wine, you come straight into the jaws into one of the worst recessions for 100 years. I’ve done the scenarios for small wineries, and unfortunately I don’t think it’s looking good.”
To their great credit, Chêne Bleu have been contributing to charities who support restaurants and their workers. “Those are the people we know are first in line to be hit, and we need to be looking after them,” Nicole continued. “In the USA, there are no safety nets… it’s a shocking sign when many sommeliers there don’t have enough money for food. The first thing was trying to figure out the best charities that would deliver on promises, so we did quite a bit of research for the US, UK and France as to how to support people.”
“In USA, we donated to the Restaurant Workers Community Foundation, which has no admin fees with 100% of the money going to those who need it – half to the restaurants and their owners and half to their workers, including immigrants who don’t have papers to qualify for benefits. In the UK, after asking around the trade, we were directed to the London-based Hospitality Action, which has a good reputation and has been around for a long time. In France, it’s less part of the culture and harder to find somewhere that’s been already set up. So we have a helpline every Monday where any member of trade can call in and talk with colleagues about any problems; and every Wednesday, at the winery, we have a weekly charcuterie happy hour gathering, which we’ve transposed online.”
Having personally experienced Chêne Bleu’s superb cuisine at La Verrière, it was no surprise to hear of Terre de Vins’ wine tourism award with its emphasis on food. “Our chef is so good, and sources ingredients very carefully,” Nicole declared. “He’s worked in Japan and Canada, and is bringing a bit of Japanese fusion. We’ve put a lot of effort into our tasting-room as we’re off the beaten path and want it to be a fantastic experience for people when they come. We treat people very well as we’re very happy they’re there. We try to punch above our weight and compensate for the handicaps of being in a lesser-known region and off the beaten path.”
“It’s great for the Ventoux region long-term as you get a lot of people around the world seeking out these little micro-terroirs with really exciting soils and micro-climates that require big investment of sweat equity but not a big investment financially. For you can still buy land for a very reasonable price in Ventoux compared to so many of the well-branded and established neighbours like Gigondas where the real estate prices have gone through the roof. A willingness to experiment and innovate gives you more long-term upside potential than if you want to sing from everyone’s else’s hymn book.”
So how are the Chêne Bleu wines tasting?
Abelard 2012 (85% Grenache, 15% Syrah; 14% abv): clove, licorice & pepper on the nose; red plum & red/black cherry fruit; very silky tannins; tremendous intensity of flavour; long finish with hints of spice.
Héloïse 2012 (65% Syrah, 31% Grenache, 4% Roussanne; 14% abv): truffle notes on the nose with hints of violet; red and black fruit on the palate with powerful, well-integrated tannins; notable concentration and very lengthy finish.
Abelard 2011 (85% Grenache, 15% Syrah, 15% abv): strong tannic backbone but beautifully integrated and silky; black cherry and plum notes with some fine spice; marked intensity of flavour and finish; balance not an issue despite 15% abv.
Héloïse 2011 (65% Syrah, 31% Grenache, 4% Roussanne; 15% abv): deep garnet with coffee, mocha and truffle on nose; black fruit and spice on palate; voluptuous texture with refined tannins; particularly long.
Abelard 2007 (90% Grenache, 10% Syrah; 15% abv): deep ruby colour with spicy garrigue nose; red fruit with some black cherries; silky tannins; complex wine with clear intensity and real concentration. Long persistence.
Héloïse 2007 (60% Syrah, 37% Grenache, 3% Viognier; 14.5% abv): deep ruby with floral sweet spice nose; red and black fruit merge seamlessly; rich with velvety tannins; wonderful concentration and lingering finish.
Aliot 2014 (65% Roussanne, 30% Grenache blanc, 4% Marsanne, 1% Viognier; 13% abv): golden yellow after 8 months in demi-muids; toasted almonds, brioche and honey on nose; rich, citrussy fruit yet freshness from low pH (3.3). Hints of minerality. Rich with persistent finish.
Viognier 2016 (13% abv): apricot and almond aromas; peach, pear and brioche notes; richness from barrel fermentation (seven months in demi-muids); quite fresh acidity; lovely concentration & lengthy finish.
Rosé 2019 (60% Grenache, 15% Syrah, 12% Rolle, 8% Mourvedre, 5% Cinsault; 14% abv): pale pink, bone dry; hints of red fruit with elegance and freshness. Satisfying length.