By Rose Murray Brown MW Published in The Scotsman 17 October 2020
Elodie Aubert owns some of the highest vineyards in the Southern Rhone – her ‘mountain wines’ from the Rhone-Alpes give a very different expression of what we normally expect from the Cotes du Rhone.
Based in the remote hilltop village of Merindol-les-Oliviers at 600 metres altitude, her winery Clos des Cimes on the north-eastern fringe of the southern Rhone, on the border of Drome-Provencal and Vaucluse, is the highest in the area.
“There are just two wineries here”, says Aubert. “My other neighbours sell grapes to the local co-operative, which is what my father did until I started bottling our own wines”.
Aubert is the 6th generation to run this small hillside domaine. When she returned to her family’s vineyards and mixed farm in 2007, she inherited a treasure trove of old vines and orchards: 2 hectares of vines, 3 hectares of apricots, cherries, almond and olive trees and a flock of mountain sheep and donkeys to graze between the vines. Interestingly, her father converted to organic viticulture in 1994, a philosophy she continues.
“After the devastating frost of 1956 when my family lost everything, my grandmother replanted all the vineyards and apricot trees – so our Grenache Blanc, Grenache Gris and Noir, Syrah and Carignan vines are over 60 years old”, she says.
Today Aubert has expanded to 8 hectares of vines, but what is interesting is that she has not just replanted the same grapes from the area, but is experimenting with introducing alternative grape varieties she discovered on her travels to combat climate change: in particular white Petit Arvine and rare red Cornalin (Humagne Rouge) from Switzerland and Chenin Blanc from Loire.
To learn about high altitude viticulture, Aubert trained in oenology and viticulture in Switzerland. She was attracted to the Swiss Changins college, known for its natural wine philosophies and focus on the vineyard, not just winemaking. Whilst there she worked with Marie-Therese Chappaz, a leading organic and biodynamic winemaker, and Benoit Dorsaz in Fully in Valais, a region with similar altitude and climate to Rhone-Alpes.
“In Switzerland I really began to understand the importance of acidity as the backbone of wine, as in the Rhone I had been used to tasting wines with less acidity. I found this useful as Clos des Cimes gets much higher acidity than other parts of the Rhone”, she says.
Based one hour’s drive northeast of Chateauneuf du Pape, the climate in Merindol is very different to warmer appellations of southern Rhone. The diurnal temperature difference between day and night can be 10 degrees, so these fresh nights give Aubert’s wines a wonderful ‘mountain freshness’ and brightness of fruit not found further south in warmer Gigondas or Chateauneuf du Pape.
Whilst in Switzerland she also met her ex-husband Raphael Gonzales who introduced her to his homeland, the Loire, where she discovered a grape which she loves, Chenin Blanc. She has less than a hectare of Chenin Blanc planted at 500m at Clos des Cimes, but she says she wanted to taste the limits of the grape - and it has been successful on her limestone clay soils.
“I get better acidity in Merindol than in Angers in Loire”, she says. Aubert uses Chenin Blanc to add vibrant acidity and honeyed notes to white blend Les Petits Sylphes and also makes 100% Chenin Blanc sparkling Petillant Naturel called Phylactere.
Another wine region Aubert adores is Priorat in Spain. “I was introduced to the region by my Swiss school and discovered the wines of Rene Barbier of Clos Mogador which I thought were incredible. I became friends with him and worked for a year. Rene taught me how to prune Grenache, use natural yeast, open barrel fermentation and to work with wood to get a different taste”, she says.
Rhone-Alpes is a semi-mountainous region, but hail and frost are not her biggest challenges. “Drought is my biggest worry, particularly for apricots. We had frost in 2014, but normally they get frost in the valleys below or higher up the mountain”, she says.
Clos des Cimes apricots are particularly sought after for their quality. She sells to the jam-maker for the famous La Tour d’Argent restaurant in Paris, as well as bottling her own apricot nectar.
She labels her wines ‘Vin de France’, leaving her free to experiment without getting involved with Cotes du Rhone authorities. She likes to be independent and autonomous. Her wine production is tiny: 15,000 bottles, but has no plans to expand as she wants to remain a small artisan winery making authentic hand-crafted wines, doing all the vineyard, winery and farm-work herself with her two young sons.
Her ambition is to express the unusual terroir, climate and history of her corner of southern Rhone. Judging from her wines, she has captured this with their fabulous clarity and freshness.
Clos des Cimes wines are available in the UK for the first time, imported by sommelier/wine importer Severine Sloboda of Glasgow-based Sevslo Wine who discovered Aubert’s wines when a friend tasted them in a Parisian bar.
LES PETITS SYLPHES 2019 Clos des Cimes (12.5%) ***STAR BUY***
20% Grenache Blanc, 20% Grenache Gris, 10% Chasselas, 10% Petit Arvine, 10% Marsanne, 10% Chenin Blanc, 10% Ugni Blanc & 10% Carignan Blanc
Unusual attractive 8-grape blend with bright fruits, vibrant acidity, superb freshness, rich pear and green apple flavours and honeyed undertones, a real ‘mountain wine’. Wild yeast fermented in stainless steel with no oak; Chenin Blanc is fermented separately and added to the final blend. Little or no sulphur used.
LA CLEF DES CHAMPS 2017 Clos des Cimes (13.5%)
75% Grenache Noir, 20% Syrah & 5% Carignan Noir
Deep dark colour, liquorice and cherry notes with stewed fruits, pine trees and herby undertones. Meaty tobacco notes, fine grained tannins; good balance between ripe fruit and cool mid-palate freshness. 12 months in barriques, unfiltered, with little sulphur used.