Tasting Wine: Amazing Rhône Wines from Chateau L’Ermitage & Friends
I’m a pretty lucky guy at times. A few weeks ago, for example, I was fortunate to attend an exclusive, private wine tasting hosted by my friends from Vestergaard Wines at my local wine store, Kolding Vinhandel.
Vestergaard Wines had invited Jérôme Castillon from historic Chateau l’Ermitage in the Costières de Nîmes region of the Rhône Valley to drop by and present some of his wines in a unique setting: I, along with a select few local wine merchants and restaurateurs, were to spend an evening full of great wine and awesome food in the store’s iconic, private cellar.
Here’s an offer I couldn’t refuse…
The theme of the tasting, not surprisingly, was the wines of the Rhône Valley – more specifically – the not so well-known wines of the Rhône Valley: the boutique wineries, the small producers, the slightly odd specimens – in other words: the handcrafted, curious and interesting stuff rather than your run off the mill supermarket classics.
Aside from yours truly, the company on that remarkable evening included good friends in the shape of local clothing and gin pushers, the Harresøe brothers, representatives from Aarhus wine institution Chas-E, my buddy Martin from Restaurant Fællessletsgaard and several other kind souls and fellow wine enthusiasts.
Catering for the event was expertly provided by none other than the incredibly tall, loud, hard-working and extremely good-natured Rasmus Vemmelund from local gourmet restaurant Sdr. Bjert Kro (review here), who executed what he described as a humble tapas serving. Luckily, like yours truly, Rasmus has absolutely no grasp of the word humble and so his tapas serving included, amongst other things, hand-chopped steak tartare, a mountain of fresh lumpfish roe, foie gras terrine, several house-made sausages and charcuterie, local cheeses and several dips and spreads. You know, the simple, bare necessities.
Jérôme Castillon: A Man and his wines
Awesome food and local delicacies aside, the focal point of the evening was wine. A lot of wine! 12 different bottles to be exact. Surely such a venture demands a reasonably capable and somewhat responsible chaperone and on this front, we were in luck.
During the course of an entire evening’s extensive tasting program, we were to be in the very capable hands of Jérôme Castillon, owner and winemaker at Chateau l’Ermitage. From his historic estate which traces its roots as far back as the 12th century when wines were first produced here as nourishment for pilgrims treading the Santiago de Compostela pilgrim trail, Jérôme now produces a wide array of white, rosé and red wines which were the natural center pieces of an evening showcasing a variety of wines from the Rhône Valley. But wait, there was more…
Jérôme Castillon: The man, the myth… Well, the man anyway! Don’t worry, he doesn’t look half as serious in real life… Photo credit: @chateaulermitage_costieres on instagram.com
Aside from bringing his own wines, Jérôme came bearing gifts from friends. Jérôme’s estate Chateau l’Ermitage is a member of Ambiance Rhône Terroirs, a cooperation founded by eight wine-making families to simplify and unify a number of common activities marketing, PR and logistics. So, alongside six of Chateau l’Ermitage’s own wines, we also subjected to a further six impressions of Rhône wines from Jérôme’s friends spanning not only the very length of the valley from North to South but also several interesting (and famed) sub-appelations like Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Saint-Joseph. Oh woe were we!
As you can probably tell, on paper alone, we were in for an exciting evening spanning a number of styles, vintages and blends from a somewhat overlooked area of the great, wide wine world. Consequently, I happily ripped a Thursday evening out of my calendar to cover this experience for the blog. It’s a tough job, guys, but somebody’s gotta do it!
Rhône Valley wines: A general overview
The Rhône Wine region in France produces countless of wines under various AOC’s – or Appelation d’origine Contrôllée (protected areas of designation with a specific set of rules for wine production) – set along the banks of the Rhône River.
Broadly speaking, the Rhône Valley, one of the world’s largest wine producing areas, is split into two very different sub-regions: Northern Rhône (Rhône Septentrional in French) and Southern Rhône (Rhône Merídional). The northern sub-region produces red wines from Syrah grapes and white from either Marsanne, Rousanne or Viognier. In Southern Rhône on the other hand, blended wines are common with Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre being the predominant grapes in a large mesh of other grapes used for flavor and character.
Northern Rhône wines account for only about 5 % of the total wine production in Rhône, but the extremely elegant and long-lived Syrah wines produced here from such prominent AOC’s as Côte-Rôtie and Hermitage, are highly sought after by wine lovers and collectors.
Southern Rhône, on the other hand, is what most of us think about when we hear the term Rhône wine. Here we find the biggest AOC in Rhône, Côtes du Rhône, along with smaller but certainly equally famous AOCs like Chateauneuf-du-Pape. While stunning whites and some of the world’s best rosé wines hail from Southern Rhône, the area is area, broadly speaking, known for red wines.
Red wines produced in Southern Rhône are generally full-bodied, rich in tannins and characterized by ripe, dark fruits. During the course of this article, we shall explore a few such stereotypical reds – coupled with a few extremely interesting white alternatives. For the sake of relative brevity (and sobriety), we will not be covering all wines tasted that evening, but merely focus on a few that I found particularly interesting, curious or noteworthy.
But first for something completely different…
Prologue: Of warm welcomes and curious pink wines
My tantalizing invitation for this full evening of wines bid me to meet up at my local wine store Kolding Vinhandel shortly after closing time on a dark, cold, relatively non-descript Thursday evening in March. I did so and was greeted by the heartwarming sight of a bunch of fellow wine geeks flocking around a delightfully charismatic winemaker and numerous bottles of pale pink nectar.
Greetings and pleasantries were exchanged and within minutes we were off on a hectic, entertaining and heartwarming journey through the pleasantries of French wine-making starting with a delightful but somewhat curious contestant in a Rhône tasting: a 100 % Grenache Gris rosé from Southern Provence, more specifically Sable de Camargue on the sandy banks of the Mediterranean Sea near the Rhône delta. Now, I know what you’re thinking. Rosé from Provence is a bit of an odd start to a night focusing on Rhône winemakers, right? I mean, Provence isn’t even really part of the Rhône region, right? But here’s the deal, guys…
While the proximity to the river Rhône may be the only common characteristic between Southern Provence and the Rhône Valley wine regions, Chateau l’Ermitage, like many Rhône wineries, apparently, have possessions in Provence. The grapes are grown in Provence, harvested and vinified and bottled at a local winery under contract, then marketed and distributed by Chateau l’Ermitage – under the monicker Caveau Les Sablons just to shake things up a bit.
2016 Dune Gris de Gris – Caveau Les Sablons, Sable de Camargue IGP
Technicalities aside, the 2016 Dune Gris de Gris sports a beautiful light pink color which draws parallels to the flamingos that are apparently common in the area from whence it came. Amazingly, the pale orange/pink color has been achieved through only two hours of skin contact while the rest of the color stems from the grapes themselves. More impressive than the color, though are the aromas that jump out at you from the glass offering impressions of citrus blossoms, juicy red fruits, ripe banana and a distinct marshmallow or cotton candy note that is curious but by no means overpowering or cloyingly sweet.
On the palate, the wine shows clean, crisp red fruit with slight salinity, great acidity and a whiff of minerals. Perfect for quaffing on a hot spring or summer day, but still complex and balanced enough to leave a lasting impression. An interesting beginning to the evening and at its modest price point at around DKK 90 per bottle this is an absolute steal. As a matter of fact, I hear that a very reasonably priced 3 liter bag-in-box version of this nectar is in the making and I’m already seeing great potential for many happy, extended summer nights on the horizon!
With the tingling taste of banana and marshmallow still lingering on our tongues, we descended the stairs leading from the wine store itself into the spacious wine cellar below where, at the very back, we found a separate tasting room occupied by a large, ancient oak table set with glasses, note books and a glorious, glorious collection of snacks and small bites.
Beef tartar, lumpfish roe, dehydrated yoghurt, ramson pesto and spicy mayo… This is the sort of tapas serving, I can get behind!
We crammed into the small room and set out for a three hour tour de force of Rhône wines starting, of course, with Jérôme’s own wines from Chateau l’Ermitage.
Chateau l’Ermitage: History, Terroir and Skills
Chateau l’Ermitage produces two major ranges of wine: Cuvée Tradition and Cuvée Sainte Cecile. Tradition, as the name might suggest, aim to provide a general expression of the unique terroir of the winery’s plot possessions. That is, essentially, a combination of the fruity characters of the grape coupled with a natural, vibrant acidity, minerality and salinity provided by the soil and microclimate of the region. Cuvée Tradition are young, fresh, vibrant and fruit-driven wines, beautifully simple and straight-forward at first, yet incredibly balanced and even largely complex given some time and attention.
Cuvée Sainte-Cecile on the other hand are expressions of craftsmanship, showcasing not only the terroir of the region, but more so the skills of the winemaker. They are made with much the same grape composition as Tradition, but through a much more complex and involved production process including a more noticeable degree of oak-aging and attention to detail.
Chateau l’Ermitage’s premiere offerings: Cuvée Sainte Cecile Blanc in the glass, Rouge on the side and a joker in the middle… Missed the opportunity to snatch pictures of the bottles at the tasting… So, uh, what can you do?
2015 Cuvée Sainte Cecile Blanc – Chateau l’Ermitage, Costìeres de Nîmes, Rhône
While the formal part of the tasting kicked off with a vibrantly fresh and fruity 2016 Cuvée Tradition Blanc full of life and acidity, the 2015 White Cuvée Sainte Cecile was the first wine of the evening to really showcase Jérôme Castillon’s skills as a winemaker as it entered the scene with a bombardment of white peach, pears, nuts and toast on top a buttery and rich, oaky foundation with a solid mouthfeel. After a couple of light and straight-forward wines to get the night rolling, Cuvée Sainte Cecile Blanc seemed quite an opulent wine with its rich oak notes kept nicely in check by a very noticeable, controlled acidity and clean cut fruit.
“Oh, wow, I surely liked the previous white better,” I heard the couple next to me whispering to one another and I can’t say I blame them entirely. Cuvée Sainte Cecile is not the most approachable of wines but for fans of more complex whites, it may well be quite the treat – at an extremely attractive price point. While the grapes are anything but Chardonnay (they’re Rousanne and Viognier to be exact), the wine seems almost remarkably Burgundian in inspiration with its almost buttery mouthfeel, toasted notes and richness in oak. And here’s the kicker, my friends: since white Rhône wines are largely overlooked by the international wine community, they do from time to time offer complexity and craftsmanship at a price easily half of what a similarly produced white wine from more prominent areas would set you back. Please, don’t anyone tell the Chinese, we don’t need them bumping up the price of any more appelations.
But I digress, the next portion of the evening was dedicated to an area already quite dear to my heart, a strong selection of Rhône reds, starting (naturally) with Jérômes own:
2013 Cuvée Sainte Cecile Rouge – Chateau l’Ermitage, Costìeres de Nîmes, Rhône
Balance and finesse were some of the first words that popped to mind when tasting Chateau l’Ermitage’s premiere red offering Cuvée Sainte Cecile Rouge made from the traditional Rhône trinity of Syrah, Mourvèdre and Grenache grapes. Easy drinking came next and I mean that in the best possible way. The 2013 Cuvée Sainte-Cecile Rouge showed a nice, clean and crisp drinking experience – perfectly balanced – with massive straight up black fruit, Herbes de Provence and black pepper tamed by a juicy acidity and tannins that seemed perfectly balanced after a couple of years in the bottle.
The winemaker himself predicts a ten-year lifespan for a wine of this caliber, but I believe it to be drinking perfectly even now at four years of age. Evil tongues would whisper that it is not a terribly complex wine featuring multiple opulent notes, but neither is it trying to be. It’s merely trying to be a perfectly balanced wine, offering both terroir and secondary notes from the winemaking process. It’s sophisticated in its crisp, balanced structure, forward fruit and peppery bite – it’s also quite an example of what a Rhône red can be at a price that other appellations have a hard time matching.
2011: A Great Year for Rhône Wines?
The 2013 Cuvée Sainte Cecile obviously showed great potential on the evening of our grand tasting. But what of slightly more mature wines?
Stunning examples of 2011 Rhône Wines (reviewed below): 2011 Chante Cigale Chateauneuf-du-Pape in the glass and 2011 Cuvée G to the very left.
Well, if the 2013 vintage is drinking well at the moment, then the 2011 vintage is spectacular in comparison which was easily demonstrated in a couple of interesting reds provided for the tasting from Jérôme’s friends in the Ambiance Rhône Terroirs cooperative.
2011 Chateauneuf-du-Pape Tradition – Domaine Chante Cigale, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Rhône
2011 evidently was a great vintage in Rhône in general and, in some cases, in Chateauneuf-du-Pape in particular. Not a vintage for the ages, but a great vintage for those of us who prefer drinking our wines rather than simply looking at the bottles in the cellar for decades on end. The 2011 vintage seems fresh, bright, acidic and full of ripe, juicy fruit and it is drinking so incredibly well right now as some of the last bottles in the lineup would prove, starting with a masterpiece of a wine from 30-some year old wine wizard Alexandre Favier from Domaine Chante Cigale in Chateauneuf-du-Pape.
Now, Chateauneuf-du-Pape wines are quite strange beasts in Denmark as clever marketing has led to the name being perceived as more of a quality marker than an actual wine region. Much as is the case with the Amarone wines from Italy. Thus, a lot of clumsy, heavy and unbalanced Chateauneuf-du-Pape wine is sold through supermarket chains at largely unreasonable prices based solely on the Chateauneuf-du-Pape insignia on the bottles. While the truly remarkable and memorable specimens go largely unnoticed by anyone but collectors willing to pay the relatively high prices that a quality CdP commands! A crying shame, really, as quality Chateauneuf-du-Pape wines are unlikely masterpieces light years away from what the price-oriented importers will have you believe.
The 2011 Tradition Chateauneuf-du-Pape from Domaine Chante Cigale, for example, is anything but clumsy, heavy and unbalanced. It is, for lack of better words, strangely elegant! Light and seductive, straight-forward fruity, balanced, surprisingly laid back and smooth rather than powerful and in your face as many Chateaneuf-du-Pape wines can seem. As for primary notes, it include both raspberries, strawberries and darker fruits like cherries on a bed of lightly smoky notes and salty minerals.
The 2011 vintage spent a whopping 18 months in oak, but only the subtlest of oak notes were transferred to the wine in the process. You will find no heavy toasted notes or punchy tannins – only well-rounded corners, silky smoothness and immaculate balance. One term used by Jérôme to describe this wine was “almost Burgundy-like in its finesse” – and tasted blind I will confess I could have probably been fooled.
Amazing effort from prodigy winemaker Alexandre, a young, aspiring winemaker who got his break at 15 and must have been no older than 30 when creating this masterpiece.
And as if we weren’t thrilled enough already, the superlatives carried on into the next featured red of the evening:
2011 Cuvée G – Domaine Le Colombier, Vacqeuyeras, Rhône
While Chateauneuf-du-Pape wines are known by pretty much every wine lover in the world, the same cannot be said for the wines of the neighboring appellation of Vacqeuyeras. Established in 1990, Vacqeuyras is the newest AOC in Rhône and still relatively unknown outside the insider world of wine geekdom. Not fair, say fans of the region arguing that Vacqueyras could rightfully be considered a little brother of the prestigious Chateauneuf-du-Pape or Gigondas appelations and produces wine of moderate prestige with pleasing characters. One such moderately prestigious wine with pleasing character was Cuvée G 2011 from Domaine Le Colombier.
This wine, made from a 50/50 mix of Syrah and Grenache, more than any other that evening, sucker-punched me in the memory department with an instant flashback to summer vacations of my youth, sitting in the sun, sipping my grandma’s homemade red currant lemonade in all its fresh, fruity and acidic glory. Following an initial onslaught of memories came wonderful notes of cherry, tobacco and licorice on a backdrop of ripe dark fruits and cherry blossoms. Lengthy aftertaste dominated by vanilla, pepper and warming spices.
In my mind, and in those of others present, this is what perfectly ripe, perfectly drinkable Southern Rhône red wine should taste like! In fact, we enjoyed it so much that many of us kept a glass around for sipping along with the remaining reds of the evening.
With the night slowly drawing to an end after a strong set of mature reds, Jérôme decided to bring us back to his own vineyard and end with a bit of a novelty.
Last Call: A sweet rarity from Costières de Nîmes
Sweet wines are not common in Costières de Nîmes. Actually, they’re all but non-existent within the Appellation. Appellation rules simply do not allow production of sweet wines. Period. Chateau l’Ermitage, though, are in possession of very specific and important historical documents citing that going back as far as 900 years, sweet, white wine was produced on the site to sustain pilgrims during their trek along the Santiago de Compostela pilgrim route…. And if there’s but one thing the French respect more than wine regulations, it’s probably history! As a result, Chateau l’Ermitage produces the only sweet wine in the appellation of Costiere des Nimes, Le Muscat, made from 100% Muscat Petit Grains, the smallest and most noble of Muscat grapes.
2016 Le Muscat – Chateau l’Ermitage, Costìeres de Nîmes, Rhône, France
Chateau l’Ermitage’s Le Muscat is produced in the Vin de Liqeur tradition in which alcohol is added during the fermentation process. The sudden addition of alcohol causes the yeast cells to basically die a happy, drunken death before having done their job of turning the sugar in the grapes into alcohol, thus leaving a product with a total alcohol content of about 15 % and some 80 grams of residual sugar pr. liter of wine. The result is a fresh, fruity, sweet but astringently acidic dessert wine in perfect balance; neither too sweet nor too overly alcoholic or rampantly acidic. With a nose of jasmine flowers and honeysuckle coupled with a taste of exotic fruits like white peaches and apricot tied together by a razor-sharp acidity dipped in simple syrup, it’s a perfect supplement for strawberry or rhubarb-based summer desserts or a worthy substitution for Sauternes in a decadent foie gras pairing.
Le Muscat from Chateau l’Ermitage caught on another night of wining and dining… Sweet wines obviously go well with dessert, but if you ask me, they’re pretty darn good with foie gras as well!
The winemaker suggests drinking this wine within 3-4 years of its harvest year. I see no point in waiting and suggest popping it open this summer while the acidity is still raging and the primary fruity flavors are still bright, crisp and clean!
Epilogue: Good times at The Blue Café
With the 2016 Le Muscat, we reached the end of the official tasting program after three intense hours of snacking, sipping and comparing. Still Jérôme, being the perfect host, gentleman and lover of life that he was, did not hesitate in kicking back a few more hours, popping a few extra bottles and answering whatever questions we may had had about the wines, production methods and/or life in general. Despite, it should be noted, having only about 24 hours to spend in our lovely country before rushing off towards Prowein and other adventures.
I’ve always had tremendous respect for hard-working people who walk that extra mile to showcase and preach understanding of their produce. And when, finally, at 11 PM or so, the master bid us goodnight and left us to finish the last bottle and our heated debate about Danish Michelin-starred restaurants, he left not only a lasting impression. He left also a profound appreciation for Jérôme Castillon as a person, for Chateau l’Ermitage, for niche Rhône wines and for the Ambiance Rhône Terroirs initiative as a whole.
For those of us not quite wise enough to follow the move of the more experienced enjoyers of life, wine and great spirits, the night continued at another iconic Kolding institution, Den Blå Café (The Blue Café), which under its new management has become a bit of a favorite haunt for local restaurateurs, athletes and other good people!
A master of his trade. Another cocktail before bedtime? Okay, then!
The plan, originally, was to sample the limited edition gin that the Harresøe brothers had produced in cooperation with Swedish Hernö Gin. You know, the same old “one drink before bedtime” song… But one thing sort of led to another and with a young prodigy of a mixologist behind the bar shaking up refreshing takes on classic and not so classic cocktails, it was dangerously into the wee hours before our protagonist made it to bed… But that’s definitely another story so let’s cut it off here and leave our heroes alone on a thankful note:
Thank you to Vestergaard Wines for hosting one hell of a wine tasting, to Jérôme Castillon for taking the time to educate us on some of the overlooked aspects of the Rhône Valley, to Den Blå Café for hosting one hell of an afterparty, to the boys of Sdr. Bjert Kro for once again putting on the most flavorful of food pairings… And to everybody else involved for creating a most memorable evening of great wines and food, shenanigans and cocktails.