In the magazine: Super Rhônes

A new wine movement in the South of France is abandoning traditional classifications while resisting being defined by previous schools of rebellious winemakers, writes Roger Morris.

NICOLE ROLET did not set out to be exhibit number one in the emergence of what are being called the ‘Super Rhônes’. When the former Merrill Lynch investment banker and her husband, Xavier, head of the London Stock Exchange, bought a derelict estate high in the mountains east of Avignon 25 years ago, they thought it would be a good place to make wines. It was, and the first releases from their Chêne Bleu estate came from the 2006 vintage.

One was a red blend dubbed Héloise, which Rolet decided to make with, “a splash of Viognier”, as is done in Côte Rôtie. “There was just no question that [Viognier] made a better wine,” she says, “more fragrant, more complex aromatically.” The only problem was that Ventoux, the appellation where Chêne Bleu is located, as well as surrounding regions, did not permit that “splash of Viognier” in its blends, and it wasn’t interested in making an exception. So Rolet decided to embrace the lesser designation of Vin de Pays du Vaucluse, but she wasn’t willing to accept a VdP price for it.

Instead, she set a much more extravagant tag (it sells for about HK$600 today) more in line with CôteRôtie prices, and certainly more than a standard Ventoux or Vaucluse would fetch. In appellation-conscious France, it was a bold decision. Rolet then took her act on the road, visiting the trade and media in England, the US and elsewhere, discovering she could sell Chêne Bleu wines as adroitly as she once traded stocks and bonds. It helped that the wines were complex and delicious, and soon journalists were dubbing Chêne Bleu as “the first Super Rhône,” a designation Rolet has not been reticent in using.

It’s a good story, but do Chêne Bleu and a handful of like wines really constitute the next wave in a recurring tide of rebellions by innovative wine producers worldwide against traditional appellation and marketplace rules? Are they legitimate cavistes in the tradition of the Right Bank garagistes and Napa Valley cult producers; classic French vintners who abandoned their hallowed terroirs in search of freedom and adventure in the New World, and – yes – the Super Tuscans? Perhaps the answer as to whether Super Rhônes will carve their own niche or fade away as quickly as early morning mist may depend on how the new movement is defined.

One Response to “In the magazine: Super Rhônes”

  1. Allen Murphey says:

    Well, why not. Mas de Daumas Gassac achieved success doing this as a VdP wine. Super Tuscans for years were Vino de Tavola.

    The wine industry has thrived because of innovative thinking. All the wines we enjoy today are vastly superior to those made 30 years ago. The number of grape varieties, pruning methods, vinification techniques, soils, and barrel regimens provide quite a palette from which to paint. I am quite confident some of these innovative wines will survive the traditional producer’s and drinker’s scrutiny. Consumers will let you know when you make a mistake, and make you a fortune if your right. What good is reward without some risk!

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