The Powerful “Super-Rhônes” of Chêne Bleu

I had the good fortune of meeting and having lunch with Nicole Rolet of Chêne Bleu (“Blue Oak” in French) on her recent trip to New York. I didn’t know much about the wines before we met, but I was immediately taken away by her story. She and her husband had renovated La Verrière, a Medieval property in Provence, high in the mountains above the Gigondas region in the Southern Rhône.

They are producing wines using regionally-specific grapes but with an approach that’s entirely their own. Everything about the project, from the wines to the label to Nicole herself, spoke to experimentation, dedicated research, creativity, expressiveness, and as a result extremely high quality:

Experimentation. This was evident in the care given to the rosé. The wine-drinking market demands a rosé, particularly from Provence, to have certain characteristics: light, crisp, easy to drink, cold. Wines made in this style are delightful and refreshing, but there’s not necessarily a lot of thought to aging capacity or depth of character.

The Rolets are turning that notion on its head, using the best vines on their property, pressing the grapes and giving the juice times on their skins, and even aging in a little bit of oak (20% for 3 months for the 2012 vintage). They are making wines “designed to be drunk not as cold, all years long, and with food,” according to Nicole. To me, it felt like an any season wine, rich and structured, yet not overwhelming on the palate, and this is just straight off the bottling rack. Imagine what a little more age might do to it.

Dedicated Research. Theoretically, any winemaker is going to give thorough attention to his or her wines—the blends, the grapes, the vineyards themselves—and all are certainly true about the wines of Chêne Bleu. I was particularly struck, however, by the diagrams of the vineyards that were shown to me. These vineyards are high above the surrounding alluvial plains, and the vines must penetrate through various geological layers of chalk and clay (there’s little topsoil) to get down deep enough for a drink of water.

The height of the vineyards, at 1,800 feet some of the highest in France, also means that the vines get the extreme temperature variations, the bright southern sun reaching them on high where the air is cooler, seasons are longer—thus, the altitude deeply affects the transformation of the grapes. It also pushes the style across boundaries, allowing Chêne Bleu to produce wines that can be characteristic of anywhere in the Rhône, whether north or south.

Creativity. In this case, I was particularly smitten with their label. Part Hieronymous Bosch, part Vitruvian Man, Chêne Bleu has created its own Eden. The label is full of metaphors—divisions of labor, barriers representing their own cordon sanitaire (450 acres of private forest surround their property, creating a UNESCO biosphere reserve and bird refuge), and the blue oak at the center, their own tree of life, painted in blue sulfur to protect it from disease. They’ve also incorporated Medieval images that refer to the old property and its owner.

And in true art historical style, the Rolets themselves along with the winemaker and others are featured on the lower panel, both actors in and benefactors of the work at hand. Through this label, they are effectively communicating their mission: that the wines of Chêne Bleu are positioned at the crossroads of the art and science of winemaking.

Expressiveness. These wines each tell a story, from the concentration of the flavors and the age of the vines to the transmission of the terroir. The standout of our tasting was the 2007 Abélard, a blend of grenache (60%) and syrah (10%). The Rolets believe that grenache is a heavily overlooked grape despite that fact that it’s one of the most widely planted grapes in the region; it’s supremely versatile and adept at showcasing the place from which it comes, similar to pinot noir. At times delicate, it can also pack a punch, and the 2007 (a fabulous vintage throughout the Rhône Valley) is inky, muscular, and concentrated—a masculine wine, fitting considering its name.

High Quality. “Contrast and contradiction.” These words came up again and again in our conversation as Nicole explored her motivations for making these wines. Her goal is to create something that can be enjoyed, but also left, returned to, studied over and over again, like a great piece of art. The ability to discover something new each time the wine is visited is of the utmost importance, a reflection of both quality and the originality of expression. Or in her words, “add something new to the conversation, or don’t quit your day job.” I think she’s on her way to achieving that goal.

All photos property of Chêne Bleu.

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