PIERRE BENETIÈRE is a man who is happy with quietude. Over the thirty years I have known him, there have been moments when he has, quite literally, disappeared off the face of, if not quite the world, then the face of CONDRIEU, where he lives.
When we first met, he lived in a most unusual setting in a nondescript corridor of a place on the left bank ISÈRE département , ROUSSILLON by name. It’s just about opposite MALLEVAL on the other side of the RHÔNE. PIERRE resided amidst a jumble of casks, wooden stakes and cellar tools, house and garage in the mix of producing CONDRIEU and CÔTE-RÔTIE.
His devilish wit meant that he took great delight in stymying his suburban neighbours – a car would pass once every three hours until the moment during harvest when the hired truck and the crop were halted outside his [also] suburban dwelling, when “lo and behold, a car would come along inside a minute!” The kerfuffle and faffing about that “local outrage” can be easily imagined.
ROUSSILLON, it turned out from PIERRE, had a noble back story in that it was where CHARLES IX, CATHERINE DE MEDICI’s son, proclaimed the start of the JULIAN calendar in 1564, moving us to a 1 January New Year, rather than Eastertime, so write it off at your peril.
With his parents wine merchants in CONDRIEU, PIERRE moved back to those premises in 2003. But his route to making wine had started a lot earlier, in 1986, to be precise. He had studied oenology in LYON, PARIS, DIJON and MÂCON, but had no land. “My friends all said it was an impossible task, to get land cleared and planted for vines, then to make the wine,” he recalls; “well, that got me going, for a start.”
His first vineyard was on LE TINAL above CHÂTEAU-GRILLET – stone wall terraces and VIOGNIER. This was his main wine presented to the world in those days, but he also planted SYRAH in 1990-91 on CORPS DE LOUP on the sanded granite, locally termed ARZELLE soils of the southern sector of CÔTE-RÔTIE.
Gradually he became rather fed up with CONDRIEU – “they didn’t all please me, and I sold some as wine, some in bulk to merchants” - and preferred to concentrate on CÔTE-RÔTIE, which also had better commercial prospects. In these days, the late 2000s and early 2010s, he was a like a mole – invisible for most of the time. The landline telephone was cut off – “it was a nuisance” – and not readily replaced by a mobile contact. Shouting in his small courtyard also proved fruitless at budging him from his lair.
His renown was growing, though, perhaps aided by this cloak of mystery. The US hipster market had latched on to his use of whole bunches in his fermentation, and the quest for anything NORTHERN RHÔNE that was poorly known created another spur to people seeking him, contacting me to find out news, and wondering where he was, when he was, and almost, why he was.
As a lover of rugby, and a person who can trip off the names of the legendary Welsh players such as GARETH EDWARDS and JPR WILLIAMS, he is also broad in his interests, and his humour remains quirky. QUESTION: “what do you get when you drop a grand piano down a mine shaft? ANSWER: “A flat miner.”
He has now reduced his CONDRIEU vineyard to 0.2 hectare, while the CÔTE-RÔTIE has grown towards 2 hectares, of which a precious 0.08 hectare, a smudge really, is on the mighty CÔTE BRUNE, and provides his LE DOLIUM cuvée of 300 to 400 bottles. The 2017 has the iron and nerve of its place, being a ****(*) STGT wine. “It is extremely rustic, what I used to taste chez PÈRE JASMIN and GENTAZ-DERVIEUX when I was young,” he says.
PIERRE avers that the inclusion of the stems allows the wines to live well, and that the use of 350-litre or 400-litre casks permits a gentle exchange between the oak and the wine, not too heavy on the oaking. SO2 use is limited – a couple of 10 mg/litre applications when racking, and 20 mg/litre at bottling. When discussing the ***** 2015 CÔTE-RÔTIE CORDELOUX, he states “it made itself on its own. It was good immediately; I have no merit on this wine.”
PIERRE is troubled with back issues now he is in his fifties, but will be a touring success when he hits the USA later this year, invited by one of his importers. It’s a journey that has him buzzing with anticipation. His English and his wry sense of humour, with a gravelly-voiced delivery, will appeal.
As I leave, the first sighting of him for a few years, he says: “wait, I have a present for you.” I wonder what on earth will appear – dead or alive. He emerges from his house with a fridge magnet of a tiny bottle – his LE DOLIUM – with the addition of a corkscrew attached, the vintage 2007 also written as MMVII: quite correct, MAÎTRE BENETIÈRE. I disappear into the cold spring night after an embrace.
My dear and much respected friend JOHN SWITZER lost his fight against brain cancer recently. He had been a regular on the RHÔNE tasting panel at the DECANTER WORLD WINE AWARDS, a wine educator and man of great culture who contributed greatly to that ever more corporate event. His interests and education were broad, up to speed on matters of education and teaching, finance, art and literature. His felt hat, a Sombrero du Nord, was also a sunny feature of his presence.
His regular newsletter was called WINESIGHTS VINTAGES NEWSLETTER, and covered wines that were good buys from the State monopoly, with thoroughly researched back stories on the wines. He also had some agency wines for ONTARIO, favouring the small, authentic domaines such as BURLE at VACQUEYRAS.
To receive a flavour of JOHN’s style I reproduce some lines from his newsletter of 31 March 2007, shortly after we had got to know each other better via the medium of the DÉCOUVERTES EN VALLÉE DU RHÔNE bi-annual event.
3. WINE IS IMPORTANT BUT THE PEOPLE ARE MORE IMPORTANT
I have always liked meeting people who spent all their waking hours working to make the best wines their land will let them make. These people work very hard and take enormous risks when they invest their capital in a vineyard and winemaking operation.
This trip we spent time with several of our producers, eating at their homes, meeting their families and learning more about them as people. Despite the great wines we tasted this was the most memorable aspect of our trip.
The real message for you, dear reader, is no matter how much you might enjoy the wine in your glass, it won’t really speak to you until you know the story of the wine: where was it made, who made it, what was the producer trying to accomplish when the wine was made, how has the wine evolved since it was made and since prior vintages. The only way to get the inside scoop on these questions, is to travel and get first-hand insight on these and countless other questions, directly from the producer.
END OF QUOTE
I send my most heartfelt condolences to his bright, vivacious and tenacious widow BARBARA, who accompanied JOHN on many of his vinous expeditions. They were having a long-term project of a new house built when the dread disease struck, and the past months will have been beyond belief tricky. I miss him greatly, BARBARA.
If you choose to explore the vineyards as I do, being one of a dying breed of journalists who regularly visits them rather than rushing straight to a tasting room, April is a revealing month to observe what is really going on.
It’s before the leaf canopy has developed, and the vines stand naked and brown, their curious shapes in direct proportion to their age. The quality and health of the wood, the sheen or lack of it, can be seen. So can the ground on which they grow, and that can be one of the most dispiriting aspects of any viticultural inspection.
Lunar landscapes are frequent – not a trace of grass or flower or weed, just a pale brown, deathly setting. The use of Roundup is most depressing. Not only is its key ingredient, glyphosate, a potential menace to human life, it also clears out all life in its path. Gone are the insects, the labyrinth of diversity.
CÔTE BLONDE VINEYARD AT CÔTE-RÔTIE, PHOTO TAKEN THE SAME APRIL DAY AS LES GRANDES PLACES OF CLUSEL-ROCH
Many growers on hillsides claim this is the only way they can work. The slopes and terraces cannot be worked mechanically - or easily – they say, so this is the only method of keeping things under control. The counterpoint to the weedkillers is the application of compost. So you kill the living daylights out of a place, then “compensate” with rotted matter.
Agitation has been rife about the use of Roundup, with a petition in late 2017 signed by 1.3 million people to urge its banning. In the event, the EU voted to extend its use for five years, until 2022. Since then, there has been a vote in the Netherlands to ban glyphosate use, while PRESIDENT MACRON wants its banning to be brought forward in France to nearer 2020-21. Glyphosate is a core ingredient of Round up. At present, it is hard, if not impossible, to buy Roundup as a private individual in FRANCE.
In the NORTHERN RHÔNE, with its hillside vineyards, we can take the example of CÔTE-RÔTIE and CONDRIEU. Out of over 100 domaines, there are very few officially certified organic. M CHAPOUTIER work their vineyards with a pickaxe, manually, while PAUL JABOULET AÎNÉ have also converted to organic, and spend a lot of time and money on their vineyards.
Another which is organic is DOMAINE GEORGES VERNAY. Then there’s CLUSEL-ROCH, who along with JEAN-MICHEL STÉPHAN, have been two of the pillars of the organic community and philosophy for decades now at CÔTE-RÔTIE. At CONDRIEU, a recent organic domaine is the DOMAINE CLOS DE LA BONNETTE, whose ISABELLE GUILLER has been organic for many years – on five hectares of fruits and vegetables - before turning to wine in 2009. However, absent are names that appear to have an environment-friendly image, but whose vineyards are spartan to the eye.
With pressure mounting against the use of toxic herbicides and weedkillers, growers are in a bit of a tizzy. There is a less aggressive product called Beloukha, manufactured by a Belgian company, Belchim Crop Protection. This is made up of 70% pelargonic acid, and destroys weeds except for the roots. It is said to absorb into the soil easily, but has not yet been accepted by official bodies inside France. By contrast, Italy has been more active in going down this trail. Roundup contains only a tiny percentage of Pelargonic acid.
Obviously, organic costs money. It implies increased labour, perhaps the requirement of local people on part time contracts, rather than just occasional labour which can be used for simple but time consuming tasks such as tying the vines as their shoots grow.
Organic complicates life. Indeed, the 1970s marked the call by the chemical companies in their literature that growers could put their feet up, take holidays, switch off thanks to the wonder properties of Agent XYZ. “You don’t have to be chained to your vines” was the message of those days, supported by endorsements from the Ministry of Agriculture.
I know from my humble abode in Sussex that organic multiplies life in the soils and in the air. That has been my method in the twenty years I have lived here. The soil life is tremendous – I couldn’t begin to name the names of all the insects, beetles and worms I find. I hand weed the gravel on the drive, much to the amazement of neighbours.
In those twenty years we have witnessed the arrival of thrushes and mistle thrushes, previously endangered, of two varieties of woodpecker [green and greater spotted], of songbirds such as nuthatches, returning blackcaps and firecrests. To say nothing of the butterflies. Their presence is a reward in itself.
One could argue that, given the lazy use of Roundup on hillside vineyards, the price of the wine is high. If you’re not in the vineyards very often, perhaps the wine should cost less. OK, additional costs of damage to walls has to be taken into account, and the nay sayers will always argue that if you work the soil, erosion will follow after any heavy rain: another extra cost from that.
However, the Day of Reckoning is drawing near. MACRON has offered an out in saying that perhaps 10% of cultivators will be exempt from the glyphosate ban, especially those on hillsides, but perception [and the dread hand of social media] will play its role in all of this. Worst hit will be domaines that have expanded to include vineyards across several appellations. Juggling commitments will be difficult. A two generation domaine working not more than eight hectares will be OK, as will “rich” estates or businesses.
The coming five years are going to see potentially far-reaching changes in the production of hillside wines. As consumers, greater awareness of what goes on behind the scenes will play a role in setting some basic ground rules.
The decision of JEAN MAROT to end his career as a vigneron at the age of 65 is understandable, but sad. Having lost 80% of his 2017 crop to frost, he sold the remaining 20% of the 2017 off as bulk wine, so that the last vintages of his VENTOUX VINDEMIO now on sale are the 2015 and 2016. I recommend readers to seek them out.
His route into wine, and then along its path has been one of small steps of discovery, prompted by the ebb and flow of life and its challenges. JEAN was brought up near PARIS, his father a doctor at MEUDON, a suburb south-west of the capital.
JEAN dutifully followed his father’s path into medicine, becoming a pharmacist at MEUDON, before moving to the TARN region in South-West France, then to NÎMES in the GARD département. In 1984 he moved across the RHÔNE to be the pharmacist at ROBION, near CAVAILLON [excellent melons] in the VENTOUX.
“It was during my eleven years at ROBION that I started to move to homeopathy,” he relates, his voice as deep and measured as his wines. “My daughter had a series of health problems, including bronchitis, and my wife FLORENCE and I had to look after her. What cured her was homeopathy. I had been brought up on the classic chemical route, which was how my father worked, so this was a big revelation.”
Meanwhile, JEAN had been slowly discovering wine. “I had a good friend near MONTPELLIER with a wonderful cellar, including ROMANÉE CONTI; it wasn’t until I was 25 that I started to drink wine with him, and that certainly showed me something! I had always liked to work the soils since I was a small boy, so things started to move in one direction,” he recalls.
In 1995 he set up LE MURMURIUM, working vineyards at MORMOIRON and VILLES SUR-AUZON, two neighbouring villages on the south side of MONT VENTOUX. The vineyards were worked conventionally with chemicals, however; “by 1997, I realised I had been struggling against chemical practices for so long that I had to convert it to organic,” JEAN says, even though the vineyards were rented.
The MUMURIUM arrangement lasted until 2006, when JEAN went on his own sole path, creating VINDEMIO. “It hadn’t been easy in the 1990s – I was self-taught in organic since there weren’t people around me in the VENTOUX to encourage that,” he says. Gradually he enlarged his circle of like-minded contacts, pointing to JEAN-LUC ISNARD, another biodynamic practitioner at DOMAINE TERRES DE SOLENCE at MAZAN, near CARPENTRAS. “He advised me, and helped me to take the next step forward, so I was biodynamic from 2008 onwards,” he says.
“Working biodynamically and looking back at my career in wine, I have learnt to have a lot of humility, from the effect of working with nature”, he reflects. “We are connected in the universe. Homeopathy is in tune with biodynamic working, and I have no regrets about the path I have taken. Both the vine and wine are living things, and all I have wanted to do in the later years is move more and more towards finesse.”
His trio of red wines starts with imagine – “it’s what happens when you taste wine, and also the song of John Lennon.” There’s regain – “the title of a Jean Giono novel [second harvest in English], a book about the renaissance of a village, and also referring to the lands after a summer rainfall.” And lastly, amadeus – “I like opera, Mozart, and wine is like music.” These all brim with character, as does the offbeat regain white.
For the future, “the next stage, my third career”, JEAN wants to give advice, to help young people to learn about biodynamie. “To help those who want to work simply, to give them practical, not complicated advice. There’s too much complication in what they are taught these days,” he states.
For VENTOUX, JEAN’s withdrawal is a loss, but there are domaines still working away well in the spirit of organic and biodynamic practices. These include CHÂTEAU PESQUIÉ, CHÂTEAU UNANG, CLOS DES PATRIS, LA FERME SAINT-PIERRE, DOMAINE DE FONDRÈCHE, DOMAINE DU GRAND JACQUET, MARTINELLE, OLIVIER B, SAINT JEAN DU BARROUX of PHILIPPE GIMEL, and the already mentioned TERRES DE SOLENCE.
So it’s not adiós, JUAN, it’s hasta luego, and bonne route in your advisory travels!
Organic practices, as signalled by the little green flag on the back label, have been adopted by many domaines in the RHÔNE in the past 10 years. I think of ALSACE as perhaps being ahead, the LOIRE also prominent in this movement, but the RHÔNE can be thankful that there have been some genuine pioneers in this respect.
I would expect precisely zero of my readers to recall dear old ALBERT BÉGOT, who lived at SERVES-SUR-RHÔNE, the plain, bare village backed on to by its granite hill in the north of the appellation of CROZES-HERMITAGE. But ALBERT was THE MAN, working five hectares on the slopes around the village, a heck of a lot for what the French call a CAVALIER SEUL, a lone operator. Some of his wines were literally explosive, but there were moments when ALBERT hit the target, his wines offering beautiful, clear-cut SYRAH fruit. You had to walk through his house in a row in the village, into a lean-to out the back, where all sorts of mystery accompanied the raising of his wines.
ALBERT started in the early 1970s, and sadly, died in the late 1980s, his widow MARCELLE taking over for a while, before she passed the vineyards on to MAURICE and his son LAURENT COMBIER, a domaine that is now extremely well established as the source of well-fruited, stylish CROZES reds.
In addition to ALBERT, other early hard core organic practitioners were the ruggedly low-key duo of RENÉ-JEAN DARD and FRANÇOIS RIBO, also at CROZES-HERMITAGE, whose prize possession [to my eyes] was the INSPECTOR MAIGRET style black CITROËN 15 voiture, running boards and all, next to their garage cellar in TAIN. This site is now being renovated for flash new cellars, by the way, by one of the merchant houses, NICOLAS PERRIN. The two lads both remain as sceptical of the wine press as they did at the outset.
In the SOUTHERN RHÔNE, front runners were PHILIPPE LAURENT and MICHÈLE AUBÉRY, who bought 12 hectares in isolated land in the MONTBRISON, RIVER LEZ VALLEY in the lower DRÔME in December, 1978. They called their creation GRAMENON. These were wines full of interest and character, not always safely balanced, but made with a firm commitment to their surroundings, and the ecological balance around them.
PHILIPPE tragically perished in an accident while out walking in late 1999, but his widow MICHÈLE has shown tremendous resolve in battling to continue their dream, to bring up the three young children, and to make stylish wines under the GRAMENON name, which is rightly revered in organic circles. Her son, MAXIME-FRANÇOIS, has been present on the domaine since 2006, and makes wines under his own name.
Across the RHÔNE, these inspirations have encouraged others to follow in their footsteps, and many of these domaines are great friends together. I can think of HÉLÈNE THIBON at the MAS DE LIBIAN in the ARDÈCHE, DAVID REYNAUD of LES BRUYÈRES at CROZES-HERMITAGE, MATTHIEU BARRET at the DOMAINE DU COULET at CORNAS, the DOMAINE MONIER-PERRÉOL at SAINT-JOSEPH, HELEN DURAND of DOMAINE DU TRAPADIS at RASTEAU, my old chum JEAN DAVID at SÉGURET, my also old chum MARINE ROUSSEL of DOMAINE DU JONCIER at LIRAC, and the wonderfully low profile, much respected, true JACQUELINE ANDRÉ of DOMAINE PIERRE ANDRÉ at CHÂTEAUNEUF-DU-PAPE.
Next to each domaine’s entry on drinkrhone there is a large green O, by the way, indicating domaines that are either Organic and/or Biodynamic. These are all names that should be closely followed, keeping the spirit of ALBERT BÉGOT and PHLIPPE LAURENT flying.
Recent research on British wine drinkers shows a sharply increased awareness – and prejudice – about high degree wines, the small print % figure playing a prominent role in buying decisions. The fine wine market, however, is still heavily geared to big vintages. I wonder if this is because the wines are obvious and impressive, or obviously impressive, or also because they are expected to live a long time.
Looking at the NORTHERN RHÔNE, there has been a recent cycle of vintages that have alternated between what I term PURITY and DENSITY. 2012, 2014 and 2016 are PURITY vintages; 2013, 2015 and 2017 are DENSITY years.
PURITY vintages are those where some hiccough occurred during the ripening season, probably rain, with cool weather another prompt. The bunches are attractive, swollen, the skins not very thick. They are lower degree years than the DENSITY vintages, and afford the drinker access to terroir, an STGT [Soil To Glass Transfer] presence in the glass, from the early days. In their best examples, they are well-balanced and extremely charming.
DENSITY vintages come along with the imprint of climate on them. The summer will have been very hot, probably largely dry, or perhaps happily “irrigated” with timely rainfalls, often around mid-July and mid-August. The grape skins are thick at harvest time. From the start, these wines hold a brooding intensity, and stamp dark colours and dark tannins as assets. Their juice is thick. Weather trumps terroir until they are mature. At their best, they are monumental wines with a 3-D presence, wines that will live for many decades.
Casting my memory back a couple of decades or so to two such vintages, it strikes me that time has shown a narrower gap between the much acclaimed vintage of 1990 – a DENSITY year - and its neighbour 1991 – a PURTIY year - than appeared at the time. The CORNAS CLAPE 1991, a floral, mineral beauty, has recently sidled up to the imposing 1990, a wine that PIERRE CLAPE termed “more HERMITAGE than CORNAS when tasting it in 2016; both are now ***** wines, their quality marvellous, their deft nuances established from differing sources.
It’s all a question of taste, even if their prices are closer than once was the case – a quote of £499 ex taxes from FINE & RARE for the 1990, and £426 ex taxes, also from FINE & RARE, for the 1991. My tasting notes of May, 2016 showed a longevity towards 2034-37 for the 1990 and towards 2032-35 for the 1991: not a large gulf, and an illustration of the eternal importance of balance in any wine deemed to be “fine”.
In November 1991, AUGUSTE CLAPE told me that 1991 was “good, even if it was too much to say that it was very good; it’s not 1990, but better than 1989, which was very Cornas, rustic. There’s a good level of alcohol at 12.8° [high for the era],” he continued, "lots of colour, a slight lack of acidity, and good tannins.”
Another example of PURITY AND DENSITY in these two neighbouring vintages comes with the ERMITAGE LE PAVILLON RED from CHAPOUTIER. The 1990 I rated a ***** wine, the 1991 a ****** wine in their youth. I note a wide price differential here, however. The 1990 is on for £443 (ex tax) with FINE & RARE, the 1991 £292 (ex tax). Here is a glaring example of DENSITY trumping PURITY on the price scale.
At Hermitage, the 1991 harvest was later than 1990, the CHAVEs starting on 2 October after GÉRARD waited following late September rain. Importantly, the rain was followed by a cold North wind, so there was little or no rot.
In the early 1990s fine wine markets were still inefficient. The rainswept BORDEAUX 1991 vintage cast a shadow over prices and perception for the rest of FRANCE, which doesn’t apply to the same extent today. The RHÔNE has gained more credibility and authority on its own terms, I am glad to write.
2015 and 2016 relate to 1990 and 1991. 2016 at HERMITAGE was hit by hail, while there has been a leap forward in winemaking standards at CORNAS since 1991; hence the most fair, broad comparison falls on CÔTE-RÔTIE, whose 2016s are cool and beguiling. 1991 is now established as an extremely good vintage there, so let’s bear in mind the words of MARCEL GUIGAL when he discussed 1991 with me at the time: “our hopes were high on 15 September,” he stated, but then the rain arrived, so he started his harvest on 25 September as a result, bringing it forward. Tellingly he told me, “good colour, good balance, acidities – these are wines that can age.” Let’s hope 2016’s profile runs with similarly long-lived PURITY.