Like most wine lovers, I have my favourite wines that I buy vintage after vintage, safe in the knowledge that I will not be let down. I will recognise the much-loved characteristics of the wine and discover new nuances every time I open a bottle.
How these discoveries come about varies. Some start as recommendations in a restaurant. Some come from wine tasting events. Some come from cellar door visits. Others come from recommendations, either from the wine press or directly from wine merchant’s themselves.
These favourite wines generally need to tick three boxes to get on my list;
They are interesting wines with a story;
They represent good value for money; and
They taste amazing.
My latest discovery started with an email from Howard Ripley offering a mixed case from a producer I had never heard of from Ardeche. A small region of the Southern Rhone in South-West France, Ardeche sits roughly halfway between Montpellier and Lyon.
The first thing to catch my eye was the estate is a venture started by a biodynamic winemaker from Burgundy. Biodynamic, Burgundian winemaking in the Southern Rhone, now that is interesting. First box ticked.
Secondly, the wines range in price from about £10-15. Second box ticked.
After tasting the wines (five different cuvees from the 2013 vintages) I quickly ticked the third box.
Domaine des Accoles is owned and run by husband and wife team Florence and Olivier Leriche. After meeting at agricultural college in Bordeaux (where Olivier had placements at Chateau Palmer, Leoville Las Cases and Cheval Blanc), they moved to Burgundy.
Olivier began working at Domaine de l’Arlot in Nuit St Georges in 1998. Florence joined him there after a stint teaching agriculture at a local college. It was here that they developed their philosophy of following biodynamic methods in the winemaking process.
I have always found the concept of biodynamics a bit weird. The idea that burying manure filled cow horns, nettles and the rest of the nine biodynamic preparations set out by Rudolph Steiner in his 1924 “Agriculture Course”, will somehow work with spiritual enlightenment to improve the performance of the vineyard sounds to me like some sort of April Fool’s joke.
But it seems to work. Olivier Leriche is not alone. Top estates like Domaine Leflaive, Maison Chapoutier and Zind Zumbrecht also follow Steiner’s nine preparations.
Above; Florence and Olivier Leriche at the cellars of Domaine Des Accoles.
In 2010, after twelve years at Domaine de l’Arlot, they decided to go it alone. Exorbitant property prices meant Burgundy was not an option. They already owned a holiday home in Ardeche so decided to look there. As Florence told me, “we discovered Ardeche in 2005, we tasted the local wines and climat. Both were interesting.”
They hit the jackpot almost immediately. After three months, they found old vines, in terraces, close to the forest. Ideal conditions for managing the vines in an organic and biodynamic way.
The domaine itself didn’t exist before they came along. The grapes were sold to local co-operatives. But the Leriches saw potential in the site. The east facing terraces sit on limestone and clay soils, attracting the morning sun and are close to water.
Not only did the site itself tick the right boxes for Florence and Olivier, but the quality of the neighbouring estates (Mas de Libian, Domaine Saladin, Domaine Gallety for example) convinced them that they could make great wine here.
Olivier and Florence have a clear winemaking philosophy both in the vineyard and in the cellar.
In the vineyard, they try to produce the healthiest grapes possible, respecting the soil and terroir. Grapes are hand harvested, using small boxes (20-30 pounds), and then stored in a refrigerated truck until they get to the cellar. They harvest early, in order to keep freshness and low alcohol levels.
In the cellar, they work mainly in whole cluster (50% for Cabernet Sauvignon, 75% to 80% for the others grapes varieties) and use indigenous yeasts. The wines are aged in barrels and vats for 9 to 12 months. Small doses of sulphites are added, between 20mg and 50mg per litre.
As Florence says, “the focus is to retain fruit, freshness and elegance.”
Above; the use of biodynamics in the vineyard is key to the Leriche’s winemaking philosophy
This attention to detail really comes through in the glass. They are unique wines, offering the refinement and freshness of Burgundy with the fruity, herby barrique flavours of the South of France. No high alcohol fruit bombs here.
As Florence points out, “Our wines are different to the Southern Rhône Valley style, probably because of our Burgundian story.”
Above; Florence and Olivier tend to the vines
Alongside the usual suspects of Grenache, Syrah and Carignan they have plots of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Planted about 20 years ago, these varieties are not often found in the region.
With the Cabernet, they press the grapes early, to make a very fruity, easy going wine. As Florence says, “the grapes are quite different from Bordeaux’s, so we tried to make a very different wine.”
As for the Chardonnay, the soil is rich in limestone, which helps to give the wine minerality. Initially, Olivier was afraid of over-ripeness, but with the help of the limestone soil, and by harvesting early, he has achieved the balance he wanted in the wine. This encouraged them to plant more Chardonnay vines in 2014, on similar soil, to increase the size of the cuvee.
Above; the Chapelle vineyard
Having had five years to get to know the vineyard and settle in, they now produce nine wines (as well as a grape juice). However, they have plans to expand even more.
In the vineyard, they will plant more local white grapes varieties; Grenache Gris, Grenache Blanc, Carignan Gris and Carignan Blanc. They also need to build a new cellar as the one they use now is an hour away from the vineyard. They have grand plans to create an ecological cellar built into the terraces close to the vines.
Above; the terraces or “accoles” of Domaine des Accoles in the autumn sun
The terraced vines are obviously something that really appealed to Florence and Olivier. They named the domaine after them. “Accoles” means “terraces” in the local Occitan language.
The terraces also provide the focal point for the artwork used for their labels, produced by their artist friend Uyen Le Minh. They wanted to build an identity for the labels. All the designs are different but very much the same style, so each is instantly recognisable. The drawings were created using the gradient lines from the geological maps of the vineyards, reflecting the terraces or “accoles” of each vineyard.
Above; An example of one of Uyen Le Minh’s stunning drawings on a bottle of Domaine Des Accoles’ Miocene
So, unable to afford the rising costs of land, a wandering winemaker from Burgundy moves to pastures new. He is not alone. I talked recently to three other Burgundy winemakers (Jane Eyre, Mark Haisma and Andrew Nielsen of Le Grappin) who have started making wines elsewhere as a result of the rising cost of fruit in Burgundy.
But what does this concept of “wandering winemakers” mean mean at a macro level?
In years gone by, winemakers like Florence and Olivier Leriche would have bought a property in Burgundy itself and Burgundy would continue to evolve. As it is his winemaking skills have been lost to Burgundy.
If this pattern continues, the region will continue to lose many of the young and exciting winemakers which have made Burgundy what it is today. There is a risk that this talent drain could mean Burgundy loses the dynamism that makes it such a wonderful place to produce wonderful wines.
Is it possible that overtime Burgundy could become too lost in the past and even boring?
I think we are some way off this happening. It does appear to be a relatively recent phenomenon. The winemakers I have mentioned have all made these moves in the last five years, so it is worth keeping a watching brief.
Burgundy’s loss could be a gain for other regions. Regions like Ardeche will benefit from the skills and fresh ideas of these wandering winemakers. This will really raise the bar for wine quality.
But I do see a possible downside.
Wandering winemakers are not a new phenomenon. Since the 1980’s we have seen many winemakers from established areas like Bordeaux start projects in other parts of the world to make wines which try to emulate these famous regions.
Is that what we want as wine lovers? Wines that taste like they come from somewhere else? I don’t think so. Sounds pretty boring to me. I want to taste wines that taste of where they are from.
As long as winemakers are respectful of the traditions and character of the wines from their new region, I don’t think we have a problem. Raising the bar of quality by introducing new and innovative winemaking techniques has to be the way forward.
Winemakers who bring finesse, elegance and freshness to the wines, whilst retaining the familiar flavours of a region, as I think Florence and Olivier have done at Domaine des Accoles, should be encouraged the world over.
Chapelle, Domaine des Accoles, 2013 – Mainly old vine Grenache and Carignan with small amounts of Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. Inky red with a spicy, fruity nose. Sweet, herby plums on the palate, which becomes almost floral. Wonderful stuff. This is so refined and the freshness on the finish is invigorating.
Score 94/100 (£14.50, Howard Ripley)
Le Rendez-Vous des Acolytes, Domaine des Accoles, 2013 – Made from young Grenache vines. This has a meaty nose with rhubarb and raspberry flavours. Really elegant, with smooth tannins and a tart, balanced finish. This is brilliant value. So drinkable!
Score 90/100 (£10.30, Howard Ripley)
Le Cab’ des Acolytes, Domaine des Accoles, 2013 – Very dark red, almost black. Mainly Cabernet Sauvignon (85%) with some Grenache (15%). Slightly rustic, oaky nose. Tart blackcurrant flavours lead to some spiciness on the finish. Tannins quite firm, a little dry and mouth puckering. A hint of olive on the long finish. My least favourite of the five I tasted.
Score 88/100 (£10.30, Howard Ripley)
Miocene, Domaine de Accoles, 2013 – 70% Grenache and 30% Carignan. So smooth and seductive. The flavours of Chateauneuf-du-Pape with the finesse and elegance of Burgundy. A stunning wine with a long, thought-provoking finish. I don’t like the word ethereal, but this is it.
Score 95/100 (£16.30, Howard Ripley)
Gryphe, Domaine de Accoles, 2013 – 100% old vine Carignan. Spicy, peppery nose with hints of leather. Lovely light-medium bodied mouthful of red cherry flavours. A very quaffable wine.