“Love” is a word heard often from the Gaïde family, who own Domaine St. Julien de l’Embisque in the South of France. In the town of Bollène, which lies close to Châteauneuf-du-Pape, three generations have been working together to share their deep affection for the vines, the grapes, and the ultimately delicious product which fills the glasses of wine lovers.
Their story began in the 1800’s in Pauillac, Bordeaux, but the Gaïdes moved to Auvergne after the phylloxera catastrophe in the late 1800’s. We make a superhero’s jump ahead to 1972, when Julius and Emilie Gaïde purchased a domaine further south, in the Côtes du Rhône. At the time the property boasted 2 houses and 4 hectares of vineyards (just under 10 acres) planted to Syrah, Grenache, and Viognier, plus another 12 hectares including a large vegetable garden, flowers, and forest. In the 1990’s, Julius and his son Thierry built a new wine cellar and house, and planted more vines. Being handy with a blowtorch, Julius made 13 stainless steel tanks which each hold 150 hectolitres (4,000 gallons) of wine. Those handmade tanks are still in use today, along with some purchased tanks (boring by comparison, and utterly without character!).
Until 2009, the Gaïdes sold their grapes to M. Chapoutier, a big, well-known Côtes du Rhône winery. Then grandson Fabien Gaïde, now 28, returned from years of studying oenology and agronomy in the town of Mâcon (“mah-koh(n)” – don’t believe what you may read on the internet, it doesn’t rhyme with bacon. Everyone knows bacon is in a class of its own!) in Burgundy and Bordeaux, with additional stints in Napa (6 months with Saintsbury) and Australia. Eager to produce wines under their own label, Fabien and Thierry started with the reds, bottling the 2009 vintage in 2011. This year they bottled the 2010 Rosé and Viognier, both of which were quite refreshing after a tour of the vineyards and winery. Thierry recently built three new stainless steel tanks to accommodate their growing needs, each one capable of holding 200hl (nearly 5,300 gallons) of wine.
As with any kind of agriculture, the grower is largely dependent on Mother Nature’s cooperation. Crops can be severely reduced by pests, rot, mildew, hail, and a host of other ailments. In France, government regulations prohibit irrigation in the vineyards. However, during extremely dry years, such as 2003, wineries in some regions may petition their local wine association for permission to water their vines, as the Gaïdes did in the Côtes du Rhône. They recently removed 2 hectares of Syrah vines which were dying; they still don’t know the cause. This past winter saw temperatures of -23⁰C (minus 10⁰F) in their area, which caused some of their vines to die. The vines will soon be replaced, but it takes three years for new vines to become contributing members of society.
As we walked around the property, serenaded by the cigales (cicadas), Fabien pointed out the parcels of Syrah, Viognier, Grenache, Cinsault, Mourvèdre, and 100 year-old Carignan vines, which must be harvested by hand. The mistral wind from the South was particularly strong, and I wound a scarf around my head, a la Catherine Deneuve. Hairstyle? What hairstyle?!
Finally we settled in the winery for my favorite part, the tasting! We started with the 2011 Rosée Estivale, which had soft floral and raspberry notes on the nose, medium acidity and a nice roundness in the mouth. 90% Grenache and just 10% Syrah, Fabien says he strives for a wine somewhere between the Tavel (more tannic) and Provençal (more fruity) style rosés, showing complexity and fruit, but still very dry.
The 2011 Délice de Viognier came next, with a gorgeous nose of honeysuckle, jasmine, and rose petals. Pale straw in color, it had a silkiness on the tongue, stone fruit on the palate, and a slight mouth-watering acidity on the long finish.
Time for the reds! Cuvée Plaisir (Blended Pleasure) 2010 offered bright red fruit to the eye, nose and palate, especially Stark cherries (read my blog on the delights of French cherries), with a finish of white pepper, dust, and red plums. A Grenache-heavy blend with Carignan, and a bit of Syrah and Mourvèdre, this is a very soft, easy-to-drink wine which would be good chilled on a hot day.
Cuvée Prestige 2010 is a Côtes du Rhône Villages red composed primarily of Grenache and Syrah, with 10% Carignan. I was very impressed with a complex and evolving bouquet of aromas: spices and herbs such as thyme, fennel and rosemary, dark fruits, and black currants. Heavier tannins than the Plaisir, this was an altogether lovely wine.
Lastly I sampled the 2009 Cuvée Prestige, a similar blend to the 2010 but showing the differences in the vintage through a nose of lavender and red rose petals, a well-balanced mouth with soft, lingering tannins, and a very long finish with a bit of vanilla, cherries flambé and kirsch.
After the tasting we returned to the house, where I chatted with Fabien’s mother Evelyne and grandmother Emilie in my stuttering French. I also got to meet Thierry and Fabien’s fiancée Audrey before heading home.
Fabien mentioned that they were looking for a sparkling wine from Saint-Péray for the wedding, and I agreed to do some reconnaissance tasting and send them my recommendations. I’ll save the details of my travail for a future post.
Several weeks later, Fabien and Evelyne came to visit me in Cornas, and we drove around Saint-Péray tasting the bubblies. They finally settled on one of my recommended wines, the Bulles du Biguet from Domaine Biguet. As they drove me back to work, Evelyne asked if I’d be able to come to the wedding! Wow, what an unexpected and thrilling invitation! My first French wedding! Of course, I said I’d be delighted to attend.
On the 21st of July, I headed south to the lovely Collégiale Saint Martin de Bollène for the big event. The wind seems to be constant down there, and it blew Audrey’s skirts as she prepared outside the church. Inside I was stymied – which is the “Groom’s Side”? Do they even have such a thing? I found an empty seat toward the front but not too close, where I could easily watch the procession down the aisle. I hardly recognized Evelyn, as she had always worn jeans when I’d met her before, but she looked splendid in bright purple as the mother of the groom. I enjoyed myself, though I found the minister’s remarks somewhat hard to follow. Fortunately, the benedictions and chants were printed in a small pamphlet on each seat, and it helped a lot to read while I listened.
I was touched by the way the two lovers held hands during the ceremony, and quite surprised when dozens of people including the “official” photographer(s) went up on the bimah/platform/pulpit to take photos of the couple. Well, I’m sure the shots were good!
The minister intoned, “Il n’est pas bon que l’homme soit seul” – it’s no good for a man to live his life alone (especially a winemaker)!
As the newlyweds left the chapel, showered with rose petals and bubbles, all the guests scrambled to record the moment for posterity on their iPhones.
We adjourned to the winery, for a beautiful spread of hors d’oeuvres accompanied by a very special Cuvée des Mariés – Elixir d’Amour created by Fabien and Thierry for the special day (“a subtle blend of love and joy”), as well as the bubbly from Saint-Pèray and the yummy Viognier.
I feel blessed to have been invited to share this celebration of love. Felicitations and best wishes, Audrey and Fabien!