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.