Lyrical Lirac: Rhône’s Sleeping Beauty

What do Lirac and Châteauneuf-du-Pape have in common?  Other than grapes, climate, tradition and soil structure, not much.

And other than price, just about everything.

Rodolphe de Pins

Rodolphe de Pins

Rodolphe de Pins, winemaker at Château de Montfaucon, in town to accentuate the positive, made that abundantly clear last Friday when he poured a flight from his new released line-up of Lirac estate wines.

“Until the phylloxera epidemic, the wines of Lirac were on top,” he says with pride. “Pope Innocent IV loved them and Henry IV and Louis XIV served them as the Court’s exclusive Rhône.”

In 1863, thanks to the sap-sucking, fortune-decimating Black Plague of vineyards, the shine was off, and to make matters worse—if anything could—the blight appears to have originated in Lirac itself. Someone with more ambition than foresight at Château de Clary planted California vines which, though themselves phylloxera-resistent, still harbored the aphid-like pest.  It spread rapidly, and by the end of the century, most of the vineyards in Europe had been destroyed.

In the aftermath, de Pins says, “Lirac’s market dynamism was not in line with other crus in Rhône valley family—certainly, it was nowhere the level of focused energy that Châteauneuf-du-Pape put into it.”

Rudy, Rudy, Rudy…

sylester_stallone04CDP comes up frequently in conversations with Rodolphe de Pins; I’d assume Sylvester does too when you’re talking about acting careers with Frank Stallone.  I’m not sure that frustration is the correct word to use when summing up de Pins attitude toward his neighbor’s fame and fortune—he seems confident in his own product, his own direction, his own future.  But when he gazes from the 11th century battlements of his ancestral seat, Castle Montfaucon, it’s sort of hard to miss—the hills Châteauneuf-du-Pape are right there across the Rhône, far closer than Russia is to Sarah Palin.

So naturally, he thinks about it a lot.

palin-russiaUnlike Sarah Palin, Rodolphe—‘Rudy’ to his amis—actually has an opportunity to do something about his rival across the water.  And unlike Sarah, who will never be President, Rudy is president—of the ODG de l’appellation Lirac.  He was elected earlier this year and intends to make some noise over the next few years.  He describes what he intends to produce in his tenure as, “History and options.”

Like the tale of the AOC he presides over, de Pins’ story is one of hidden talents, untapped potential.  Although born to wine, his family had been in the viticulture end, growing grapes and selling them to a co-op.  Considering the magnificent estate at Montfaucon contains a spectacular 16th century vaulted cellar, which until 1936 was used in estate winemaking, it was a shame, but the family maintained control of their property, including 40 acres of vines up to 90 years old.   In 1995, Rodolphe took over the estate, and armed with a degree from UC Davis (unlike many French winemakers, he adores California wines) and tours of duty at Henschke in South Australia’s Eden Valley and Vieux Télégraphe in CDP, he set out to translate the various vinous passions he’d learned into a new generation of  Château de Montfaucon.

“I adore Burgundy,” he admits, “and I try to emulate a Burgundian approach to winemaking.”

Rudy de Pins, with Alaska way, way in the background.

Rudy de Pins, with Alaska way, way in the background.

That’s a remarkable statement for two reasons; first, the wines of Southern Rhône tend to be burly and potent, with with 14-15% ABV not uncommon.  Second, Burgundy is, virtually without exception, the expression of a single grape—Pinot noir for the reds, Chardonnay for the whites.  Lirac requires grape blends by law, and le Pins’ top wine, Vin de Mr. le Baron de Montfaucon, contains fifteen varieties (two more than are permitted in Châteauneuf-du-Pape), each bringing something unique to the amalgamation.

But where many wines from Southern Rhône come on like a ‘roided truncheon,  ready to go medieval on your mid-palate, the thing that strikes you immediately about le Pins’ Château de Montfaucon collection is that is instantly accessible, requiring neither a joint of beef nor an pre-existing appreciation of ‘a certain Mediterranean style’.  In fact, the wines are fruit-focused, crisp, fragrant and somewhat delicate, and all show the ill-defined but obvious characteristic of ‘minerality’.

In this, they are quite Burgundian.

Here’s a brief overview of what le Pins brings (literally) to the table:

comtesse bottleComtesse Madeleine, 2013:  Madeleine was Rudy de Pins ‘take no prisoners’ grandmother, a woman he admired to the rafters and insisted on commemorated with her own label.  “The wine is a lot like her,” he reminisces.  “Filled with both elegance and power.  It’s an iron hand in a velvet glove.”

The wine is a blend of Marsanne, Viognier, Grenache Blanc, Clairette and Picpoul and shows an upfront floral focus with roasted nuts in the undertow; there is a citrus tang elevated by ripe melon, pear and peaches—the acid is pronounced and pleasant and the finish is spicy and lingers.

Les Gardettes Rosé, 2013 ($12):  Despite being a fairly small estate—around 15,000 cases—Montfaucon hits high watermarks in all three colors associated with the region.  The pink, certainly reminiscent of those of nearby Tavel, which produces nothing else. Low-yielding vines grown in limestone soil make these wines deep and aromatic; Les Gardettes, named for the twin towers of castle entrance, is a vivid coral with fresh notes of wild strawberry, watermelon, cherry and pink grapefruit followed by a bracing acidity to offset the creamy mouthfeel.

Les Gardettes Red, 2013 ($12):  The estate’s entry-level red, a blend of half Syrah, the rest Carignan, Cinsault, Mourvèdre and Grenache.  It is fermented in concrete—le Pins dislikes stainless steel—and has no delusions of grandeur, but is a wonderfully fresh Vin de Pays that offers a layered expression of dark fruits; mulberry, black currant, dark cherry along with a little spice and chocolate.

Côtes du Rhône, 2013 ($17): Hand-harvested fruit drawn from the 111 acres now controlled by Montfaucon, the wine is powerful and incisive, displaying berry preserves, cassis, earthiness, lithe smoke and an overall impressive energy and balance.

baron labelVin de Monsieur le Baron, 2010 ($38):  In search for the perfect label to dress up his homage to his great great grandfather, le Baron le Baron de Montfaucon, Rudy stumbled across one designed for his aristocrat ancestor in 1829.  What could be more appropriate?  He calls the wine ‘the first modern day field blend’, wherein he co-ferments fifteen varietals, both red and white, to produce an explosively perfumed bouquet filled with smoky herbs, black berries, licorice and garrigue spice without an undue impression of weight.  It is sweet and savory; a concentrated wine that you don’t have to be a Pope to love.

Today, Lirac is one of 13 crus in the Rhône Valley;  spread over four small local authorities in the Gard, its official specifications are among the region’s most stringent.

It is the southernmost cru the valley, and perhaps the least known, even to fans of the region.  As President of the ODG, Rodolphe de Pins’ mission statement includes heightening Lirac’s reputation in the wine world, and therefore, increasing general awareness of these structured, lyrical wines.  His personal contribution is one both of heritage and modernity, brining techniques he learned in the New World to fruit grown in the old, making his wines stand out like a bright, sensuous flag on a Rhône-ish hilltop.

Of his fellow producers, still creating wine in the old style, he says with respect:

“We’re all on the same train, but we aren’t all getting off at the same station.”

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