The hidden villages of the Côtes du Rhône offer fine wines, delicious dishes and a more intimate taste of rural Provence
Dominic Rippon uncorks some of the Rhône Valley’s less familiar wines.
Situated in the far west of Provence, away from the rural glamour of the Luberon, the village of Séguret is an oasis of calm, perched above a sea of vines in the shadow of the Dentelles de Montmirail mountains. It was founded as a fortified settlement in the 10th century, with narrow cobbled streets built as enclosed terraces that cling to the hillside, shielding the village from the heat of the sun. The main street, Rue des Poternes, links two ancient gateways, Portail de la Bise and Portail Neuf, with a selection of atmospheric art galleries, gourmet restaurants and cosy cafés that have helped to earn Séguret its classification as a Plus Beau Village de France.
For wine lovers, however, Séguret is better known for its vineyards than its architectural charm, so I caught up with vigneron Christian Voeux, owner of Domaine de l’amauve and president of the local winemakers’ syndicate. Christian explained that the soils here are mostly clay and limestone, although vineyards are planted in three separate zones, the highest of which is set on a plateau behind the hilltop forest that acts as a backdrop to the village. These vineyards reach an altitude of more than 350 metres, adding elegance to blends that otherwise epitomise the bold flavours of the hot Mediterranean climate.
Séguret is one of 20 villages that is allowed to append its name to the Côtes du Rhône Villages appellation, which it can apply to its red, white and rosé wines. Reds are by far the most common, made mostly from grenache grapes, completed by syrah and mourvèdre: they are powerful and spicy, often age-worthy, bearing some resemblance to the more famous bottles from nearby Gigondas. Séguret’s vignerons have also proved adept at making fresh, berry-scented rosés, from similar grapes, usually harvested a little earlier and blended with the lighter-bodied cinsault. Only three per cent of Séguret’s wines are white, but the best among them are bewitchingly floral blends of roussanne, marsanne, grenache blanc and clairette.
One of the most exciting things about Séguret, according to Christian, is that it has enjoyed an influx of young winemakers, who have set up five new estates (out of a total of 25) in the appellation in the past few years. The area also attracted investment from further afield, when British entrepreneur Walter Mckinlay established Domaine de Mourchon, high in the Séguret hills, in 1998. The estate now makes some of Séguret’s most highly regarded wines.
Back in the village, I met Hugo Levingston, Walter Mckinlay’s son-in-law, at Restaurant
Le Mesclun, where he poured glasses of the estate’s Loubié Rosé: a fantastic partner for my plate of pan-fried scallops and grilled tiger prawns. The summer air cooled as we sat on the terrace, tasting through Domaine de Mourchon’s range of complex, spicy reds as the sun set over the vineyards below.
The following day I headed north, to the even more secluded and peaceful village of Visan. With just over 400 hectares of vines, Visan is similar in size to Séguret, making wine in all three colours. Until recently, production was dominated by the local cooperative cellar, with only a handful of independent winemakers, which helps to explain Visan’s relative obscurity as a named Côtes du Rhône village.
The wines reflect their cooler, slightly more northerly location, with reds made mostly from grenache and syrah, with a growing share of carignan; the grapes are grown on gravelly clay soils, yielding soft berry fruit and liquorice aromas, and gentler tannins than you find in many southern Rhône reds. Visan whites frequently include the viognier variety from the northern Rhône, making elegant, peachy wines with plenty of body.
I drove on to Domaine Dieu-le-fit, where I was to spend the night. Rémi Pouizin and his wife Géraldine bought the estate in 2014; a grand manor house with an ancient biscuit factory adjoined, which Rémi converted into a winery. The estate’s range of organic wines includes a food-friendly white, made only from marsanne, which shows deliciously pure white flower and peach aromas, and an austere, muscular grenache-based red blend called Visan ‘Garrigues’.
Rémi poured generous samples, which we sipped in the early-evening shade, surrounded by the scents of garrigue herbs and baked earth, cicadas chirruping in the grass. I sat back and listened to Rémi enthuse about Visan, the wines of the Rhône and organic viticulture, before gathering clouds forced us to decamp indoors, where the first course of a hearty home-made feast was waiting for us.
Dominic Rippon has many years’ experience in the wine trade, both in the UK and France, and now runs the wine merchant business Strictly Wine.
LEFT: Vineyards at Séguret; ABOVE: Rémi Pouizin among the vines of Domaine Dieu-le-fit; BELOW: The village of Séguret