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Southern Rhône start-up wins multiple medals


Chêne Bleu, a family-owned, boutique wine estate in Provence, tucked away at 1600ft in the foothills of Mt.Ventoux near Gigondas, has cause to celebrate.

A decade in the making, all four wines from Chêne Bleu’s first commercially available vintage were launched last month and promptly submitted to the discriminating palates of the IWC. They came away with no fewer than three medals:  a coveted Gold for the Roussanne blend Aliot 2006, and two silvers for two Grenache- and Syrah-based blends, Abélard & Héloïse (both 2006). 

The family team of four believes this is the result of the exacting no-short-cuts practices that they have implemented to turn the vineyard around, egged on by the superb and diverse wine experts who have taken an interest in their project. Grapes are hand-picked and triple-sorted in the gravity-ed winery.

“This is terribly gratifying” says Nicole Rolet, co-proprietor of Chêne Bleu, “the project is exhilarating but it has been relentless hard work for 10 years”.

Nicole Rolet is an American with Franco-Italian roots married to a Frenchman. They bought the dilapidated medieval priory, called La Verrière, and started renovating the derelict vineyard, with the help of the Galluccis, her sister- and brother-in-law, who run the vineyard and winery.  She explains how a family project has turned into an obsessive and shared passion, making this early recognition particularly sweet.

“The last 10 years have taken us on an Odyssey of epic proportions, says Rolet. "We spent an enormous amount of time in R&D, travelling the region and the world to review winemaking techniques. But now it makes these awards particularly gratifying. We are flattered to be part of this prestigious peer group, since our region, the Rhône, boasts so much great winemaking knowhow.” 

She believes that the team’s rigorous and systematic implementation of the most exacting ‘no-shortcuts’ practice has provided the foundation for this result. Hand-picked grapes are triple-sorted before they enter the gravity-fed winery. The resulting tiny yields (15-25hl/h) ensure top fruit quality. Attention to detail has become a way of life. Back-breaking biodynamic practices have helped restore the diverse and rich eco-system that they believe enhances the complexity of the wine. Their high-altitude, 30 hectare vineyard is in a protected UNESCO Biosphere reserve, which they intend to keep natural and chemical-free.

“We didn’t want to desecrate this idyllic corner of Paradise”.  Chêne Bleu is named after a centenary oak tree on the property painted blue with Bordeaux Mixture, the traditional copper sulphate spray used to protect vines.

Jean-Louis Gallucci, the winemaker, put himself through oenology school, and then trained with local heavyweights. The project attracted the attention and advice of winemaking greats such as Zelma Long, of Mondavi, Simi and Vilafonté fame and Philippe Cambie, the Rhône guru, as well as top Masters of Wine and experts.

“We were very flattered that they appreciated our level of commitment and our willingness to learn, as well as the potential they saw in the vineyard. We have relied a lot on this kind of validation to check we were on the right track, and the IWC results are hugely encouraging”.  The IWC judges picked up on Aliot’s “rounded flavours and persistence in an attractive style”, with “delicious ripe soft peach, honeysuckle and light oak”.  Héloïse stood out for its “firm dark fruit, really big and chunky tannins, … meaty and oaky structure”;  Abélard was found to have a “lifted, high tone and aromas of abundant red fruits, with deep and dark bramble flavours.”  

This pursuit of excellence extends into other areas, which include Extreme Wine, a top-end WSET accredited full-immersion wine course on the estate (www.chenebleuextremewine.com) that Nicole designed along with Clive Barlow MW, currently director of the Institute of Masters of Wine. The state-of-the-art tasting facilities are perfectly suited to welcoming other winemakers and wine experts from around the world for exchanges and forums.

“Keeping an open mind and a thirst for knowledge can help all of us bring great new wines to the world” says Rolet, who believes strongly in the power of shared knowledge.

Contact Nicole Rolet at info@chenebleu.com, +44 7976 399 998.

1 June 2009 - Felicity Murray