It is now pretty much taken for granted that a high profile domaine anywhere in the world should be working organically, or moving towards that. Even if it’s a question of a family grower in once rainy Champagne, where chemical treatment levels have traditionally been high, there is now the likelihood that some form of natural farming is occurring in their vineyards, these being growers who would previously have sold their harvest to the Grandes Marques.
In the Rhône, it is the South that is replete with organic and more and more biodynamic estates. It’s easy to care for swathes of vines from a tractor, after all. Labour by hand is only really needed for canopy management rather than soil care.
In the North, with its hillsides, slopes and terraces, work has largely been manual for centuries. The Taille Guyot where the vines are trained up wooden stakes, échalas, is a staple at Côte-Rôtie and Condrieu, and in previous decades application of weedkillers such as Round Up have left a desolate panorama, most noticeable so in the spring time before the vineyard vegetation and gradual re-emergence of weeds has occurred.
A shining light has been the CLUSEL family, GILBERT, the son of RENÉ CLUSEL and his wife BRIGITTE ROCH. The domaine has been officially organic since 2002 but their organic work goes much further back, with weedkillers suppressed from the start.
In their early days, when GILBERT inherited a few vines from his Dad, most income came from vegetables. Their journey started with a hands-on premise that included hand grafting vine stock from old, healthy vines, so since 1991 they have only worked with massale selection Syrah, aka Serine. They even re-grafted a clone Syrah planted in 1984 on the excellent lieu-dit of La Viallière in 1999, not satisfied with the fruit it was giving. Not many growers go to such lengths.
They were out on their own, really, certainly for the combination of commitment and quality in the wines. A subsequent name to appear on the organic roster appeared in 2009, when ISABELLE GUILLER started the CLOS DE LA BONNETTE high up at CONDRIEU with her husband HENRI, who had a fruit and vegetable growing business on the plain beside the Rhône, itself organic since 1970.
ISABELLE is most charming and natural, and gave a moving explanation of her approach when telling me: “organic is really what I consider is good, I truly feel that. I make the walls, clear scrubland for planting, look after the vines, make the wine. It’s a big challenge, but I’d like to think that at least one time in my life I could offer God the quintessence of the place: the climate, my savoir faire and the place might all come together in one given year.”
A recent addition, in a formal sense, is the highest profile CONDRIEU estate, the DOMAINE GEORGES VERNAY. It has been working organically in all respects since the mid-2000s, but the official status commenced in 2020, with biodynamic registration from 2023.
CHRISTINE VERNAY chatted to me about the challenges that such an approach involved, stating, “managing the grass is the greatest challenge, given also that Vernon (the super lieu-dit of Condrieu) and Maison Rouge (top site in the South of Côte-Rôtie) are not at all mechanisable, with even the system of a pulley-winch [treuil] rarely deployable. [One person has a form of rotavator while another person sits at the top of the slope winding in the winch to which the rotavator is attached, calls for strong muscles and good footwork].
Our new plantations are adapted to le treuil, while only the low end of Vernon can be worked with it, not the higher terraces. We do a lot of pick axe work [pioche] as a result, and wholly on any young vines.
We make Maria Thun [disciple of Rudolf Steiner] compost preparations from nettles and valerian which we buy as dried leaves. We apply green fertilizers on the mechanisable parts only, so we can roll and dry the grasses and they gradually break down into compost. There can also be sedum plants along the rows.
In 2022 we tried a drone to treat one hectare, which brought a gain in time. I have three teams for the organic work; you have to have the capacity to treat at very short 24-hour notice, since once you are organic, you are preventative, not reactive.”
Talking bottom line, the sums are daunting, with CHRISTINE observing: “I estimate that organic adds a minimum of 30% extra cost – equipment, labour, while your yield falls by 30%. Our harvest involves 25 cutters and 10 of us over three weeks, the team from Senegal or Malo, lodged by us.”
Hence the gross difficulty that such an approach would pose for a low-profile, middle ranking domaine. I think of the Vin Nature formula from the Southern Ardèche, where 3-4 hectares can be worked by somebody starting up with low funds, with guaranteed immediate sales to the hipsters of New York, Tokyo, Paris, London and beyond. There is a ready made commercial network for such wines, provided they are not too high in volume.
In conclusion, CHRISTINE states: “Bio is a conviction, finally – that’s the deal. Consumers are pressing for more respect in the handling of vineyards. The payback is so thoroughly interesting on the environment – birds, worms, flowers, every thing is re-born, an eco-system that was lost during the 1990s with the use of chemicals in the name of progress.”
Having been organic in East Sussex since moving there in 1999, I can fully endorse the above observations.
The acquisition by the GUIGAL family of DOMAINE DE NALYS at CHÂTEAUNEUF-DU-PAPE just before the 2017 harvest marked a step change across the Rhône Valley, since it signalled a clarification of what has historically been an undervalued vineyard region.
With buildings, equipment and stocks of wine included, the price per hectare pushed towards seven figures. It was a shrewd move by the Guigals, since acquiring 53 hectares across the Northern Rhône would have taken them years and years, with multiple purchases left and right to approach any such surface area.
The GUIGALs have since augmented their Châteauneuf holdings through the purchase of the once celebrated LES CLEFS D’OR, piloted into prominence in the 1960s and 1970s by JEAN DEYDIER, a domaine with good holdings across 18 hectares often near the village, including La Crau, Grenache of 1905 and 1950, and Les Pialons, 1946 Grenache present. It had been on a steady down trend in the past ten years.
There was also a further purchase of 6 hectares near Bédarrides in the east of the appellation, bringing the GUIGAL coverage at CHÂTEAUNEUF-DU-PAPE to 77 hectares now.
The GUIGALs moved once more this year, in May 2022 completing the acquisition of the splendid CHÂTEAU D’AQUÉRIA at TAVEL, an estate with a beautiful house and a grandeur of the past attached. Its owner VINCENT de BEZ had lost his fight against cancer, and this was another example of a vacant succession.
AQUÉRIA comprises 47 hectares of TAVEL and a connected 18 hectares of LIRAC from sandy, en finesse soils. Just as the purchase of NALYS gave CHÂTEAUNEUF added impetus, so the AQUÉRIA takeover will really push TAVEL closer to the spotlight.
Whether it is a post Covid effect or not, there are more transactions occurring now. Perhaps there are growers who a more ready to call it a day as life becomes more complicated. The incidence of mildew, frost and hail since 2018 has been high, and notably stressful, ongoing drought conditions also leading to reduced yields. 2021 brought more setbacks, some domaines wiped out by frost – no DOMAINE DU VIEUX TÉLÉGRAPHE VENTOUX in 2021, for example.
Interrupted sales is another pressure point – any dependence on the CHR Café Hotel Restaurant trade was punished during Covid, the entertainment sector across Europe now suffering from a lack of staff prepared to work the anti-social hours, especially at weekends.
Then there are supply line issues. Bottles are scarce, domaines forced to place time sensitive rosé in dark bottles, domaines waiting over six months for magnums and so on. There is said to be a, for once, genuine Ukraine effect, many bottles being made there in quieter times. The supply of bottle capsules is also under pressure.
The context therefore lends itself to those with no successor in sight to shrug their shoulders and sell. One example, from the Northern Rhône, is MAXIME CHOMEL, whose cellar and house stood in isolation above the village of Gervans at CROZES-HERMITAGE, with magic views of the River Rhône winding its way below.
MAXIME’s son is an osteopath in Saint-Étienne, and not interested in taking up the baton. MAXIME started work at 16 and a half years’ old, and is now 61. “I was an electrician at first, then have built up the domaine since 1983. I am proud that I managed to create a beau domaine, and to plant jolis terroirs,” he says. Right next to his house was mainly apricot trees when he arrived, accounting for around 8 hectares.
“There’s a lot of Syrah on loess here – usually it’s Marsanne – and that gives a bit more length and a more silken side to the wine than the more powerful, aromatic wines from the granite,” he adds. He is off to a house at ROMANS SUR ISÈRE with a garden and the approval of his wife, and is, I feel, a relieved man.
The purchaser of MAXIME’s 10.5 hectares of Crozes and 1.5 ha of Collines Rhodaniennes Viognier is STÉPHANE VEDEAU, the owner of CLOS BELLANE at VALRÉAS and the SCEA LA FERME DU MONT based at Rasteau, which produces two very sound quality Châteauneuf-du-Pape reds, as well as Côtes du Rhône and Villages reds of a high standard.
STÉPHANE will be active from the 2022 harvest onwards, and the domaine will be officially organic from 2023. STÉPHANE told me: “I am very excited – about where it is located, an incredible location it is, one that gives me a lot of good vibes – it will be possible to make very elegant, fresh, pure wines.” For one man relieved, another man excited, therefore – a spread of emotion on a personal level.
A similar situation faced the longstanding organic and biodynamic DOMAINE DU JONCIER of MARINE ROUSSEL at LIRAC. MARINE took over from her Pa, and faced some of the additional challenges of a woman on her own in the early days, always battling away to secure a successful continuation on the family lands.
Recent years have been difficult, with attempts at crowd funding to help upgrade facilities, followed by 2018, which MARINE termed: “a disaster – 7 hl/ha. I had to buy crop for my Côtes du Rhône red.”
These have been wines with character, MARINE favouring years such as 2014, of which she said: “I like the offbeat years such as 2014 – they have elegance, freshness, purity. I didn’t expect purity and balance – I was expecting wines that wouldn’t be clean and clear. They aren’t keeping wines, but they are charming.”
The buyer in this instance, after the 2021 harvest, is CHÂTEAU MONT-REDON from CHÂTEAUNEUF-DU-PAPE, under the stewardship of PIERRE FABRE. In so doing, he has added a second biodynamic property to his portfolio, following the purchase in 2020 of the excellent DOMAINE DE L’ORATOIRE SAINT-MARTIN at CAIRANNE, where the ALARY brothers similarly did not have obvious successors to take over.
The transactions so far mentioned have all been by entities established in the RHÔNE. There are recorded examples of financial groups owning domaines – Insurance Groupama, for instance, were the old owners of NALYS, while CHÂTEAU LA GENESTIÈRE at TAVEL is in the hands of CHRISTIAN LATOUCHE, CEO of the Lyonnais Fiducial Group, finance and accountancy advisers. Their impact has been reasonably limited, though.
Since 2019 a new big beast has appeared in the form of MAISONS & VIGNOBLES STRASSER RADZIWILL, led by ARNAUD and ISABELLE STRASSER, a family from the board of the Casino supermarket group. Their first move was for a large part – over 13 hectares - of the DOMAINE LA MILLIÈRE in the north of CHÂTEAUNEUF-DU-PAPE, where MICHEL ARNAUD chose to sell after personal tragedy and a lack of a next generation. This has since been re-named LE PRIEURÉ DES PAPES.
It was followed by the purchase of old family, and reasonably priced restaurants La Garbure and Le Pistou in the village of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, not far from La Mère Germaine, its lease also bought, and now a flashy, expensive Michelin starred restaurant. A new wine bar-restaurant on the concourse near the Vinadea shop has also entered the portfolio, while the La Mère Germaine brand has been launched for three wine shops called Les Caves de la Mère Germaine situated in Paris [boulevard Saint Germain], Brussels and Lourmarin in the Lubéron. Are you keeping up at the back of the class?
VIEW DOWN THE ENTRANCE DRIVE TO DOMAINE DE COYEUX
The real trophy in their spending spree in my view is the DOMAINE DE COYEUX, the 112 hectare estate high above BEAUMES-DE-VENISE, bought in July, 2021. This has the most glorious aspect, with stunning views of Mont Ventoux, air that is several times clearer and more intoxicating than that of the hot plain, and limitless potential as a country hotel.
Its backstory has been mixed since it ascended in a rush in the late 1970s under the colourful YVES NATIVELLE, a gentleman from an army cavalry family and an executive in marketing at Rhône Poulenc until his wine conversion. After good years of sales and success, he fell victim to a refusal to accept that a rogue beam of wood from a ship, a decorative piece treated with xylophène, had infected his cellar and penetrated every bottle he produced.
Eventually he sold in 2013 to the de Feraudy brothers, two locals who used to hunt on the property when young and who had since made their money in chemical recycling, as well as in fruit and vegetables from nearby Aubignan. They could not make it pay as they wished, sales of Muscat de Beaumes being difficult, so sold on to the STRASSER family, at what appears to have been a breakeven-plus rate.
With a world economy heading for recession, the future of marginal wine estates could be called into question, but, from my subject of enthusiasm, horseracing, one only has to look at the prices of young geldings [no stud fee potential] that fetch £200,000 after winning a modest point-to-point in Ireland, prices paid to achieve the “glory” of leading in a winner at the most esteemed meetings.
The Châteauneuf-du-Pape market these days suggests that €800,000 will get you one hectare of 30 year-old Grenache, which makes one realise that there is, as they say, a lot of money out there. For those on more modest budgets, perhaps €25,000 for a hectare of VENTOUX would represent decent value.
Make no mistake: the march of outside investors will keep going – a move that brings the Valley closer to the often internationally financed Bordeaux, where managers are installed as a matter of course. The halcyon days of the Rhône grower greeting you with “well lived in” hands are starting to fade, I regret to write.
The winter of 2021-22 was a cruel time for the Rhône, with the passing of three extremely important growers who had all served their appellations with great distinction, and helped to furnish wine lovers with beautiful bottles over the decades during which the Rhône started to finally receive correct recognition for its qualities.
There was a Crozes-Hermitage appellation pre-ALAIN GRAILLOT, and one post-ALAIN GRAILLOT. That’s a very rare comment in the general scheme of things.
The opening paragraph on Crozes-Hermitage in The Wines of the Rhône [3rd edition, 1992) stated: “For many years Crozes-Hermitage bumbled along in the lee of Hermitage, a rather dowdy relation in name, producing red and white wines of a lesser stature and only moderate interest value.”
“Well, things have changed for the better.” I went on to describe better winemaking, with Alain Graillot telling me: “All I do is pump whole grapes into my concrete vats, and I back that up with two to five days’ cooling of the crop at 18°C, allowing a cold maceration before the primary fermentation, which never passes over 30°C, hence maximum extraction of aromas.” Note the word aromas - not mass, or power, or depth of content – which set Alain apart as a true progressive for those times.
He had of course parked his wagon quite close to his enfance, being a native of Vienne opposite Côte-Rôtie. Like me, he had spent time patrolling the highways and byeways of South America, working for Rhône Poulenc, selling agricultural treatment products there.
Back to my book: “the star turn of the 1980s was Alain Graillot, who before 1985 had never made a drop of wine in his life. He had made the break from Paris “because I wanted to make a Syrah wine, which I couldn’t do with a full-time job.” His Syrah inspiration came from the wines of Jean-Louis Chave, Paul Jaboulet Aîné [when they were in their pomp] and Jean-Louis Grippat.
Hence someone with no land, no winemaking experience, a determined wife Elisabeth, two young sons, Antoine and Maxime, lands like a flying saucer on the plain of Les Chassis at sleepy old Crozes, where peach and apricot trees mingled with vines. Talk about a blank, and for many, fearsome, canvass.
Taking six weeks off work, and renting a vineyard on Les Chassis, he managed to make a Crozes 1985 which I termed “a very creditable effort, very good fruit on the attack, and a well-knit structure”, as well as a 1985 Saint-Joseph red from purchased harvest off the granite at Andance.
And off they all went. He and Elisabeth were natural charmers, with great energy and a belief in hard work, hard play. Alain loved his Burgundies, and was a frequent visitor there, while his skill as a skier – French national team level – was way ahead of most growers I have ever known!
He quested and quested, improving his white wine, building a state of the art cellar, consulting on projects abroad, including near Venice and Eastern Europe. His energy was boundless, and, of course, he was deeply satisfied that the domaine was running well in the hands of his sons, and that a healthy future lay ahead.
I got him over to London for a Rhône dinner at the Turf Club once, where he cut a James Bond style in his dinner jacket and bow tie. The next day I wanted to give him a souvenir of his trip, and took him to a barber shop called Trumpers on the stylish Jermyn Street, near Piccadilly. We selected a shaving brush, which became a point of much two-way affection, since I would bring him supplies of the Trumpers almond shaving cream, which had the aroma of the Marsanne grape. His response was the impossibly sweet: “each morning, I think of you, John.”
He was a man who gave inspiration, to the young, to those starting up, to those uncertain about what to do. He could have run any company, been the Head of any school or university, a gifted man indeed. It’s worth reflecting that today Crozes-Hermitage stands as one of the most profitable appellations in the whole of France – buoyant demand, accepted quality, a high profile name, much of that generated by the impetus Alain brought, especially on the international stage.
I quote from my 1992 book once more: “A good, solid chap, M. Graillot looks quite at home in his perky flat hat and vineyard boots, a far cry from the lightweight suits sported on the Avenida Altântica in Rio. His success in such a short time, starting from such little working knowledge, is quite amazing, and should give hope to anyone hitting forty and wondering what on earth they are doing with their lives – it can be done, folks, just run out and find some Graillot Crozes rouge and console yourselves!”
Losing their mum and dad so swiftly has been an immense blow to Maxime and Antoine, but I am sure they are fully aware of the total affection so many people had for both of them, a wonderfully dynamic duo. May they rest in peace.
My first encounter with the wines of Les Cailloux at Châteauneuf-du-Pape was through the vintages of the 1960s and 1950s that I would buy from the Les Reflets collective on the fringe of the village. The 1967 was especially good. These were made by ANDRÉ BRUNEL’s father LUCIEN, born in 1906, a small but tenacious man clad in blue working clothes – “bleu de travail” - whose cellars were just round the corner.
These were always Châteauneufs that correctly expressed the refinement and aromatic qualities of this noble terroir, the vineyards in the southern sector on Les Serres towards Sorgues complemented by old vines in the north-west on Farguerol, galet stones a feature, the oldest Grenache dating from 1889. That Grenache formed the heart of the Les Cailloux wines that I knew in my youth, until, precisely 100 years later, André introduced his Cuvée Centenaire in 1989.
As he told me at the time, “I created Centenaire because in the 1980s I felt that Châteauneuf was underestimated – the French press didn’t like us, Parisians said we were too heavy, etc; the French only liked Bordeaux and Burgundy.”
I had felt that the transition from Lucien had been complicated for André; my comment on Les Cailloux in the 1982 edition of The Wines of the Rhône had been: “Les Reflets has done much to further the name of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, led by three excellent domaines Les Cailloux, Chante-Perdrix and Clos du Mont-Olivet. The wine of all these domaines is made in the traditional manner, richness of flavour and an extended longevity being paramount. Les Cailloux is perhaps the most feminine of the three, always bearing a typical, swirling bouquet that is full of different herbal nuances.”
During the 1980s, André told me of his desire to make a “practical” wine, meaning a wine that would keep for ten years, while being drinkable soon after purchase. He asserted that Lucien said “Les Cailloux red should be drunk between five and 10 years’ old.” That was an old timer view, where the domaine wine was a practical resource, nothing to sit on, serving to pay the bills and affording a reasonable standard of living. It was the foreigners [such as me] who would go on about it being glorious after a few decades!
Hence there were early 1980s wines with the use of oak abandoned in search of “freshness”, followed by the use of new oak casks in the later 1980s, a reflection of the calling of the American market. At the time André told me: “I felt in the period when my wine wasn’t going into cask that it lacked something – a potential for development.” He would also sell very simple cuvées to English supermarkets.
However, I feel that for the last 30 years of his life, certainly since the mid-late 1990s, André had found his happy balance. Vintages that stand out in that time include a brilliant ****** 1998, a ***** 2003 that bucked the vintage imprint with tannic finesse, an exceptional achievement in that hot, hot year. Also, ****(*) 2005,2009, 2013 and 2019 and ***** 2010, all of them good value.
It’s worth bearing in mind that all these wines were made without the highest quality harvest from the old vines, grapes that went into the up to 5,000 bottle Cuvée Centenaire: its roll call of top vintages: ****** 2016; ***** 2019, 2017, 2010, 2007, 2006, 2005 of the most recent years.
I treasured a magnum of 1979 Les Cailloux in my cellar for 30 years until the day in June, 2010, when I took it along for a luncheon at Berry Brothers in London to celebrate those working in the trade born in 1950, all asked to bring a magnum. We were 14, including Jancis Robinson, the girl who did very good. My contribution was the only Rhône.
Life can be told through old bottles, which is one of the greatest pleasures that having a cellar can afford. Here is the tale of this magnum, as I wrote at the time: “By 1979, Lucien’s son André was full-time on the estate, having started in 1972, and was judiciously adapting methods without upsetting his dad. Thus the crop was whole bunch crushed and fermented (Lucien), and raised 70% in enamel vats (André`s innovation since 1977, driven by his dislike of old wood that for him tainted the wine) and 30% old 50 hl foudre or barrel (Lucien). There was also cooling equipment, installed after the very hot year of 1976 (André).
The wine was high in Mourvèdre – 20-22%, the vines planted with prescience by Lucien in the 1950s; it held around 73% Grenache (average age about 50 years then) and the remaining 5-6% was Syrah, planted in 1972 when the INAO central body advised it as an improver vine for the region. If only they had suggested more Mourvèdre…
“I made no Cuvée Centenaire in those days,” recalls André, “so this includes crop from the north and the south of the appellation” – Farguerol (N-W, very stony soils near Cabrières and Mont-Redon) with its 1900s Grenache, also Vaudieu with its sand and Cansaud and Les Serres down in the south with their more free-draining soil. Farguerol (4.5 hectares) and Cansaud (3.5 hectares) were the main sites.
“There were snowflakes at harvest time, near the end, which was very, very rare,” continues André. “It had been a dry year, and the crop was very ripe and healthy. We picked in a hurry from the end of September until 10 October. The vinification lasted three weeks, with only pumping overs, and I had to heat the cellar to finish the sugars. We only used natural wild yeasts in those days, remember.
The wine was quite tannic to start with, and averaged 15°; Farguerol’s wine came in at 16° to 16.5°- it was the last picked, with the first picked crop 14° to 14.5° - all this talk today about high degree is one thing, but Châteauneuf has always been like that” (implying you have to not over-extract and then blend expertly).
The wine was raised for 16 months, bottled 18 months after the harvest in several different tranches. Maybe 200 to 300 magnums were produced. The label has a healthy artisanal 1.5 L engraved on the bottom right hand corner.
Any wine like this gives the drinker an insight to a time several decades ago when the grower was just that – a person feeling his or her way by instinct, common sense and a dose of patriarchal instruction. If Wine Schools could all have a Department of Instinct, as I have implied to the growers of McLaren Vale, then we would all be better off – people and wines.”
I send my heartfelt condolences to André’s son Fabrice, and to the rest of the Brunel family.
The most striking estate at Tavel in my youth was Château d’Aquéria, with its classic gates leading through a well tended vineyard and curving down to an elegant and well furnished seventeenth century Château, a note of grandeur about it both outside and inside, with rose beds and lavender flanking the stone steps, and wistaria draped across the side buildings, a chic that was pretty rare in the Rhône of the early 1970s.
JEAN OLIVIER, the owner whom I met once before his death in 1974, had friends from New York and Boston who visited Aquéria in the late 1920s, and he was swiftly off the mark after the lifting of prohibition in 1932 to arrange a shipment to the USA. This established Aquéria as a prominent name there, with most of the wine actually reserved for that market, which enormously helped the international profile of Tavel.
It was M.Olivier’s son-in-law PAUL DE BEZ and then his son VINCENT who took over the reins of Aquéria, maintaining it as a standard bearer for Tavel, and also Lirac, where there was a very fine 7 hectare vineyard at Roquemaure that grew to 18 hectares over time.
The wines, drawn from sand with some clay across the 47 hectares of Tavel, were always elegant, both rosé and the Lirac red, the latter made in a fruit-forward style, while the white was a trim affair, based on 50% Grenache blanc, 20% Clairette, 20% Bourboulenc, sometimes a little safe.
Tavel traversed a period of anguish in the 2000s as the long march of Provence rosé took off – pale pink, heavily marketed wines, the antithesis of the deep red and more discreet presentation of Tavel to the outside world. However, Vincent stuck to the task, and Aquéria remains in the top echelons of a more revived Tavel landscape now.
He suffered with a long, drawn out battle with cancer, but was enormously relieved to know before his passing that the estate had been bought by a Rhône enterprise of high standing, its future secure. He was as elegant as his wines, a highly cultured man, and will be much missed.
When living in Aix-en-Provence in the early 1970s, my drinking spot was a bar on the Place de la Mairie. As opposed to the grandeur and the outdoor seating on the swanky main avenue the Cours Mirabeau, with bars such as Les Deux Garçons [Les Deux G], views cast over bellissime youth and soignée ladies passing by, this had no terrace. You walked into something of a den.
It was a Pari-Mutuel bar, PMU, and took bets on the day’s races – until midday. I never really called it anything other than the PMU. The zinc bar was on the right, occupied most days by a tough little local called Marcel. His lowly stature had qualified him to be a trotting driver, and there were faded photos of Marcel posting the odd win at Marseille Borély racecourse. He was certainly in his natural habitat post big race retirement.
The betting action was further down the room, and clusters of hopefuls would gather there every day. The standard drink was pastis, beer the saving bet. Ricard, being from Marseille, wasn’t the top drink, it was more Pastis 51, which Marcel would pronounce Sankantayung. There was never a glimpse of a foreigner, a tourist, no-one beyond the Bouches du Rhône – except me.
Marcel would greet me with the call “Banjourah L’Angley, ça gasser?” Basically, “how are you doing, Englishman?”
He knew I was involved in wine, but could not accept that an Englishman could know anything on the subject, nor be qualified to even dabble in it. It was, as hunters see posted in woods all over France, CHASSE GARDÉE – hunting out of bounds.
I would draw myself as high as I could in order to deliver the lofty response that “the Romans made wine in England, and jolly good it was, too.” Whether I muttered anything about Kimmeridgian limestone is unlikely.
One Christmas I went home, hatching a plan for the New Year. I was going to take an unlabelled bottle into the bar, serve it to them, and wait for them to admire it as English wine. Their regular level of wine was atrocious, so a young Côtes du Rhône, vintage 1972 [indifferent, but capable of serving the purpose] would really put it up to them.
I stuck a blank postage label on the bottle, and wrote HIGHVIEW WINE ESTATE, and below it, VAT NUMBER EIGHT on the label. All set, off we go. There was no capsule or any local dressing on it.
I selected the busiest morning of the week, a Sunday, when the bets were flying on the day’s big money Tiercé race – select the first three in a 20 runner handicap – and the pastis levels were high. Sunday was the day when the locals dressed their best, as well, either before or after greeting the Lord. It was my re-appearance after a Christmas away, so added impact came from that.
I presented the bottle to Marcel, and told him: “here is a bottle of English wine that I brought back from England for you. The estate has not yet bottled it, but I thought it would interest you.” He was stopped in his tracks. I had brought a corkscrew, but for the sake of transparency I suggested that anyone in the bar could draw the cork.
POP! There was a hushed silence as the first glass was poured for Marcel. His judgment was awaited. “Ce n’est pas mal, eh,” he declared, nodding as he savoured some Southern Rhône Grenache. The next move was of course to offer the wine around the bar: there were many eager takers, and soon we had a Clochemerle-style happening, with bets paused, pastis drinking suspended, and the unsuspecting locals savouring a wine made up the road, but thought to be from across the sea. I was congratulated, hailed as a bit of a hero, and certainly England’s stock rose for a brief few minutes.
Alas, as there has to be an alas. Marcel’s son Aimé, at least double his size - so the distaff side must have been lanky - had never really gone for me. Where Marcel was open and chatty, fit and wiry as a butcher’s dog, the dark-haired, pudgy, unfit Aimé [getting my own back there] was closed, sceptical, never one for a real laugh.
With a cry, he suddenly brandished the corkscrew, the cork still attached. He unwound the cork, and declaimed to the whole bar, “THE CORK SAYS MIS EN BOUTEILLE AU DOMAINE!”
I was a goner. Resistance was futile; I claimed that English wineries bought French corks since they were the best, but I was toast. My fall from grace was rapid, and the belief that England and Englishmen had no right to be able to make wine, talk about it, write about it, probably even drink it, continued, stronger than ever, in that PMU bar in sunny Aix-en-Provence. Still, I had my five minutes of triumph, the fish on the line for those glorious moments. But for one fatal flaw… oh well.