Douglas Blyde discovers 'super Rhône' producer Chêne Bleu
Lizzie Shell of boutique "Super Rhône" producer, Chêne Bleu, demonstrated the versatility of its output at North African restaurant, Momo, in Piccadilly, London recently. Against a vigorous soundtrack, including Maghrebi songs, Shell poured 2011 rosé into fancy glasses which amusingly resembled enhanced versions of those once available via vouchers at petrol stations.
It seems life begins at 40 for this confident, slightly glycerous (down to part use of carbonic maceration) Grenache, Syrah and Cinsault, made mostly of grapes from re-trained scraggy, tough vines of that age. Not only did it match in colour the veins of Momo's marble tabletop - it also partnered refreshingly well with the intricate, sweet spice of their pigeon pastilla.
Opened in 1997, the exotically-appointed, lantern, fern and statue-strewn Heddon Street souk-meets-brasserie is the brainchild of Parisian-Algerian restaurateur, Mourad Mazouz. He is also mind behind Sketch, Momo Dubai and Beirut, three restaurants in Paris, and record label, Mo'Zik. Despite the glasses, and considering no sommelier works the floor, staff, clad in piped blazers from Zara, appeared keen to get involved with the wine list.
Known as the estate's "Mrs Fix-It", viticulturist, Bénédicte Gallucci takes a biodynamically-inclined approach to tending her vines, applying natural fertiliser downed by organically-managed sheep which winter in the vineyards, and treatments of bee propolis gleaned from its' own bee colony.
Meanwhile, her winemaker husband, Jean-Louis prefers to bottle on supposedly propitious flower and fruit days. The latter occurs in the purpose-built four-level winery sunk into rock. According to estate owners, French-born Xavier Rolet and his American wife, Nicole Sierra-Rolet (who met through mutual friends at a wedding in France) the ensuing solid subterranean surround circumnavigates the need for a Faradic cage, which might otherwise have adversely affected the wine.
Aliot 2009, a blend of young Roussanne, Marsanne and white Grenache, found favour with warm octopus with smoked paprika. The following wines take the names of forcedly-estranged, 12th century lovers, Héloïse d'Argenteuil and Peter Abélard. 2007 Héloïse Syrah solicited the comment "Oh hello baby!" from Shell. "I love to sell something I love so much," she added, while Grenache-centric Abelard, of the same vintage was super-concentrated, and (perhaps down to auto-suggestion) more masculine-seeming.
It felt to me as though it had appeared to have been sent to finishing school.
Both provided elegant tannins to tame the Momo Grill of roast honey-coated quail, lamb cutlet, merguez, particularly supple chicken kofta with roasted vegetables and harissa-dusted yoghurt.
Like Chêne Bleu's owners who were previously very high-flyers in finance, Shell did not begin her career in wine. A commercial property lawyer with French, Shell saw her job "disappear" in 2008. "I'd already studied WSET level one at, London Bridge," she said. "When I finished law, I studied levels, two and three, working at the International Wine Fair's Inter-Rhône stand."
At the same time, Shell applied to Sopexa UK to work as a bottle washer - for "the experience". "But I was upgraded to collar press for a blind tasting - ‘nab anyone with a press pass, get them in!'" Having got the attentions of six journalists, she also gleaned those of her future boss. "Nicole appeared and talked about how she was organising a Grenache symposium at her property."
The Grenache symposium went ahead in June 2010 and, on account of there being attendees from 21 countries, the "G-21 Summit" on the world's most widely-planted red grape was sponsored by Inter-Rhone, Riedel, Wine Academy of Spain and supported by Harpers Wine & Spirit.
Built as a medieval priory in the ninth century, restoration of the estate latterly known as La Verrière was began by Xavier Rolet in 1993 - when it was finally released from the tangle of over four decades of an inheritance feud. Chêne Bleu released its first commercial vintage in 2006.
Wines benefit from vines' notably high atltitude (up to 1,600ft) and their sheltered location within the reserve of Mount Ventoux at the boundary of Gigondas, Seguret and Côtes du Ventoux, The estate's symbol is inspired by a bare oak, "rehabilitated" in death by local sculptor, Marc Nucera, and protected from rot each year with distinctive blue Bordeaux mixture.
Although now earning one fifth of what she did as a lawyer, Shell, who returns to the Southern Rhône at least quarterly, professes to be no fewer than "30 gazzilion times happier". On life as a lawyer, she recalled: "I spent every day worrying about being sued." However, client lunches are something she still feels a fondness for. "Name a top London restaurant and I'll have been there." Indeed, one of her finest occurred at the kitchen table of Gordon Ramsay's Maze.
The estate also offers what Nicole Rolet terms an "extreme" wine course, uniting "prestigious wines of the auction-house courses, the rigorous approach of the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET), and the fun of friendly tasting events". These range from five-day "full-immersion" experiences, working towards the WSET Intermediate (the next occurs June) and Chêne Bleu's own certification following a plan designed by British MW, Clive Barlow. So far participants have travelled from England, France, China, Brazil, Tunisia, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Australia, Germany, Ireland, Hungary and the US.
You can find Chêne Bleu's wines at Hedonism Wines, Justerini & Brooks, and Sketch restaurant.
* Read more from Douglas Blyde at www.intoxicatingprose.com