It was a hot summer’s day in 1974, something of a rarity in that vintage, when I drove slowly up the winding hill of Sainte-Épine at Saint Jean de Muzols, past the house of fruit and vine grower Jean Minodier, whose wife had previously informed me: “we even have some film stars buying our wine after we won Gold Medals at the Paris Wine Fair.”
My mission was to visit a father and son called Trollat, about whose wine I had heard good reports, for all that they were regarded as being slight loners up high and out of sight of the valley below. It was dusty, the wind was blowing, and I wondered if ever I would reach my target.
As I rounded the last bend, silhouetted against the blue sky stood two figures, looming like mysterious sentinels, one of them wearing what was then known as a string vest – a white garment with holes allegedly for ventilation purposes, even though I thought they always served to encourage heat if worn back in England.
The elder of the two was gruff, taciturn, suspicious, while the younger, Ernest’s son Raymond, was more chatty, more genial. It was clear to whom I should direct my questions, and exercise extreme patience as I stepped into a world lost in time.
They were both sweating hard from their labours, and seemed as one with their hot, windy vineyard, their boots well planted on the loose granite soils. I was taken on a tour of their sloping site which was interspersed with apricot fruit trees providing a little shade. The impression was one of viticultural diligence, a fancy way of saying that they knew their land intimately, were proud of it, and cared for it as they might a child.
On 21 February, 2023, I received a call from Jean Gonon, whose Saint-Joseph is in part from the Trollat vineyard, telling me that Raymond had died two days earlier at the age of 92. He had not been well, and had become something of a recluse, his wife Jinette, whom Raymond married when he was 70 years’ old [and she was 55], having looked after him in recent years.
We discussed our mutual friend, my first thought being that Raymondo, as I would call him, took the word simplicity, and invested it with character. He had become a cult figure for the hipsters and keenos of the wine world, even though he would look on with bemusement as people discussed his wines in front of him in earnest tones.
He had never made wine to be put on a pedestal, and preferred to stay at home and serve it straight out of the ancient demi-muid, the 600-litre cask that he could conveniently lean on, to locals who dropped by for a drink and a chat. Never far away was the penknife for slicing the saucisson to accompany the brambly Syrah.
“Raymond lived a long time with his parents, though he lost his mother early,” said Jean. “His dad was very gentil, but depressive, and always treated Raymond as a child. He had never travelled until his military service in Germany, which opened his horizons.
He received people with a lot of joy, and put up with them talking English around him, for example – never judging them. If they came, had a drink and a snack and sang a song, then he was happy, but so were they – there are many around here who remember the jokes and good moments more than his wine, even if it was through the wine that those memories happened. He had a belle vie, but one made by him.”
The Gonon brothers, Jean and Pierre, were honoured that Raymond chose them to work the vines that had been planted by Ernest and his father, especially as it was a time when no-one was interested in them.
In my 1992 book The Wines of the Rhône, I wrote: “Raymond Trollat is one of the unsung heroes of Saint-Joseph, since over a period of at least twenty five years he has been turning out delicious, thoroughly intense reds and whites – as good a yardstick as about the old-fashioned values of the appellation as one can find in the best years. They are vinified in a traditional way, the whites fermented in old barrels and the reds stored in a mix of old oak and chestnut for up to eighteen months before bottling.”
When I first met him, Raymond had pointed out what he liked doing most: “being given appellation Saint-Joseph means our wine sells for more than before, which is very welcome, and we also now bottle most of it.
I must say, though, that I really enjoy being out in the vines, and even vinifying the wine, but when it comes to bottling and sticking on labels one by one . . .” His Gallic shrug and sharp whistle of breath were sufficient to demonstrate his feelings about that particular aspect of progress!
There are still bottles of Trollat R in circulation, with vintages such as 1989, 1990 or, more recently, 2005, capable of still being in good shape. Raise a glass to cher Raymondo if you have one, svp.
CÉDRIC OUT IN THE VINES, ALWAYS A SMILING, RESERVED PRESENCE
A tragedy occurred in December, 2022 with the premature death of Cédric Parpette after a botched gastric operation. Cédric was a vigneron I would visit regularly to discuss and taste his Côte-Rôtie. He wasn’t accustomed to a lot of scrutiny from the press, allowing his wine to do most of the talking if the truth be told.
Cédric took over the vineyard of his father-in-law René Fernandez in 2003. René died in May 2023, and was a lively character. In “The Wines of the Northern Rhône”, I wrote: “dark, wiry and fast talking, and very southern in looks and name, René Fernandez finally achieved his aim of being a full time vigneron in 1997. Born in Lyon, he would come south as a boy to pick fruit and by 15 was working on fruit, vegetable and vine growing at Verenay.
In 1971 the plain area was bought up to build the autoroute A7 and the Rhône canal, so that meant I had to go and work in the public sector. It was 1986 when I was able to buy 2.5 hectares of abandoned vineyard and for the next three years I cleared and planted 2.7 ha in my spare time. Just when I thought I might be able to start the wine properly, the bad vintage of 1993 came along, followed by the pests of 1994.”
René started by renting vines on Le Bourg and La Viallière and would sell the crop to Guigal. By 2005 the domaine comprised 2.7 ha on the south-facing Montmain (1988-90) topped up by 0.6 ha on Le Plomb (1996).
In all this time, he was on his own. René’s is a story about the tenacity that lies behind domaines now considered well installed and successful. It’s easy to overlook how much determination – physical and mental – is required to go up the hill and keep chipping away at a project that, on freezing, wet and windswept days, must have seemed very far from fruition.
In my book, I wrote about him thus: “René moves around his cramped cellar, an old stable, with swift, neat movements. With his black hair slicked back, he looks like an Argentinian tango dancer. “Yes, I do like dancing very much,” he says. “The slope keeps me fit, too!”
Cédric held no family background in wine, but did formal wine studies. He was a steady, grounded person, who went about his business in an unassuming way. He produced two cuvées, the Montmain off schist, with, from 2013 a separate cuvée from le Plomb, also off schist, the vineyard having grown to 5 hectares, including a new 1 hectare on Bertholon planted in 2016, a vineyard touching Le Plomb.
To keep the domaine on a stable footing, he would sell half the Montmain to Ferraton Père & Fils for their Montmain cuvée, and, before 2013, the whole harvest of Le Plomb to Chapoutier.
Cédric called Montmain his “Côte-Rôtie of finesse”, his Le Plomb “my robust Côte-Rôtie”. They are both genuine, hand crafted wines, recent successes including, for Le Plomb, the charming 2019, the solid, careful 2017 and the intricately woven 2016, all ****. The 2021 Montmain was natural, unforced, a wine with a Burgundy connection.
Cédric had started a cellar expansion, and things were moving in the right direction, his children interested to be the third generation to be actively involved. From 2020, elder son Romain (1996), who has done a bts at Montpellier, has been working on the domaine, while younger son Maxime (1998), who did studies at Bel Air, has been working chez Christophe Billon. They are now on their own keeping the domaine going, and I have no doubt that they will make a success of it.
Jacky Bernard of the Domaine La Ligière at Vacqueyras died suddenly in early 2023, having been hale and hearty until his passing. Jacky was an ex Co-opérateur whose son Philippe left the Cave de Vacqueyras in 2010 so he could manage the family’s 58 hectares across Vacqueyras, Beaumes-de-Venise (red and Muscat), and Côtes du Rhône with a smidgin of Gigondas. There is also a busy nursery, plant propagation, business.
Jacky was an oak tree of a man, with the most appealing vigour, a deep voice declaring his beliefs about cultivating the land, which was a second nature for him. As President of the Syndicat des Vignerons, he worked tirelessly for the Vacqueyras appellation, an extremely stout hand on the tiller, capable of navigating though tricky administrative challenges as well as those relating to the comportment of the vineyards.
He was thoroughly well respected, even held in some awe, by his vigneron and vigneronne colleagues, and is much missed by all connected to the village. It says much about him that he was willing to devote bucket loads of time for the general good when also running such a widespread, and large, successful family business. Adieu, Jacky, and merci.