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Rieu Frais and Coriançon

’It’s Wednesday. Let’s go to Buis market - and then fetch some of Grandpa’s rosé!’

’Good idea. We could have a picnic and a game of boules at Col d’Ey - and a bathe on the way back.’

Ever since I was introduced to wine-hunting in Provence, exchanges like this have prefaced long, hot, idyllic days, followed by dreamy evenings on the terrace with large, cold glasses of ’Grandpa’s rosé’ - and ’his’ Chardonnay.

Buying these wines from ’Grandpa’ is a rare pleasure. It goes without saying that the wines of the Domaine du Rieu Frais (telephone, where he holds court, are excellent. You’d be daft to settle for anything less in a region so rich in good, inexpensive wines - even for the sake of the other benefits.

Grandpa Liotaud
Grandpère Liotaud

Getting there

Visiting Rieu Frais takes you into territory quite different from that of the Côtes du Rhône villages we’ve looked at in previous articles, as you can see on sheet 60 of the Institut Géographique National (IGN) Série Verte 1:100,000 map, so if you haven’t already bought this you should.

Starting from the Vaucluse village of Caromb where we ended up in Part 2, at an altitude of just 185 metres (606 feet) above sea level, head north up the D938 towards the Alps, climbing steadily into their provençal foothills. First, fruit orchards begin to take over from the endless rows of vines - a sign just outside Caromb welcomes us to le Pays des Abricots, and just after that you pass a house whose drive is bordered by a wonderful apricot hedge - an extraordinary sight when the fruit is ripe. Then, as more and more of the region’s bones are exposed in outcrops of weatherbeaten limestone, groves of stunted grey-green olive trees become the dominant features, (though still with little sloping vineyards filling every sheltered south-facing corner). You are heading towards Nyons, the olive capital of the South-East.

Like all main roads, the D938 takes the easy route along the valley bottoms, but you are made of sterner stuff. Between Malaucène and Vaison-la-Romaine, turn right onto the D13, signposted Entrechaux and Buis-les-Baronnies. Between Entrechaux and Mollans, you cross the boundary between the Vaucluse département and the part of Drôme that calls itself la Drôme Provençale into serious hill country.

Try to do this trip on a Tuesday or Wednesday morning. If it’s Tuesday, go on to Vaison for its wonderful market, which fills the entire town, then backtrack and take a left on the D54 for Buis. If it’s Wednesday, set out early to catch the morning market in Buis. Both towns are well worth a visit anyway, but market day gives them a very special atmosphere, with every street lined with stalls selling everything from the wonderful local food to straw hats and the colourful cotton prints of the Camargue..

Take the D546 north from Buis and follow the signs to the D108 turn-off for the Col d’Ey (a col is a pass). Just where the road crosses the river Ouvèze by the hamlet of Chapelle St-Martin, there is an officially designated bathing area. The water is rarely deep enough for a real swim in summer, but offers a wonderful opportunity to cool off Wear shoes, though, because the rocks are unkind to tender feet.

From about 380 metres (1240 feet) you now ascend rapidly to the col itself at 718 metres (2350 feet). There are a number of delightful unofficial picnic spots along this road - just turn onto a dirt track into the woods and find a suitable clearing. One such has been the scene of many a blissful afternoon of food, beer and boules for us and our friends.

As you reach the col itself a delightful vista opens up - a vast bowl of a valley, rimmed with hills as high as 1200 metres (about the height of Ben Nevis, but mere pimples compared with the mighty Alps beyond) and dotted with vineyards and lavender fields. Follow the road down to the Vieux Village of Sainte-Jalle. The entrance to the Domaine du Rieu Frais (named after the river Rieufrais on which it stands - I haven’t been able to find out what a rieu is) is signposted just before you reach the village.

Greetings from ’Grandpa’

If you’re lucky you’ll find Grandpère Liotaud minding the shop - or rather the cave de dégustation. He was 73 years old when we visited in June 1998, and very lively. Since we were familiar faces, he greeted us enthusiastically - and eccentrically - as ’Monsieur le Directeur-Général’ and ’Madame la Patronne’. He then recruited me to interpret between himself and a charming Dutch couple who spoke very little French but excellent English. Fortunately, Grandpère had no way of judging how far my limited French went (or didn’t go) in conveying the nuances of his rapid-fire, thickly-accented, provençal dialect.

At one point, the issue of language itself came into the conversation. ’Moi,’ Grandpère announced with great dignity, striking his chest, ’je parle trois langages.’ He gave us time to be impressed, which of course we were. Then he went on: ’Je parle Français...’ (pause for effect) ’ parle Provençal...’ (longer pause for even more effect) ’ je parle...’ (at this point a humorous leer was directed at the ladies present) ’...le Langage d’Amour!’ Grandpère went into gales of throaty laughter, leaving the baffled Dutch couple to wait some time before I could make my translation heard.

Eventually, we managed to steer him back to the other reason for our visit - the wine.

The Liotaud family has owned the land that now makes up the domaine at least since the 12th century, but it was not until 1984 that Grandpère’s son Jean-Yves and daughter-in-law Dominique set up their own wine-producing business. (If, as on our last visit, Grandpa is not on duty, you will find his son almost as good company - he has obviously inherited his father’s sense of fun!) All their wines are Vins de Pays des Côteaux des Baronnies so, relatively unfettered compared with growers of appellation contrôlée wines, they grow no less than five grape varieties on their 26 hectares (about 65 acres) of clay-and-limestone soil - the black Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah, and the white Chardonnay and (unusually) Viognier.

Les vins de pays

Vins de pays,

representing about 25% of all French wine production, are on the first rung up the complicated ladder of wine classification and control - vins de table (28%), at ground-zero, are subject to no regulation at all and can therefore be anything from dishwater to sublime, depending on the commitment of the maker. The vin délimité de qualité supérieure or VDQS (1%) denomination is a mere staging-post after vin de pays status, before ’promotion’ to the most demanding level, appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC).

There are 141 vin de pays (country wine) denomiations in France. Four are regional, covering vast areas around the Loire, the south-west and much of the south-east. 42 are départemental. And 91 are zonal, covering much more limited areas. The small Côteaux des Baronnies zone is in the south-east corner of the Drôme département.

The denomination offers the producer considerable freedom, but still imposes some quality control. The New Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia warns us not to jump to the obvious conclusion, saying that many vins de pays are ’better than average-quality AOC wines and the best rank as some of the finest wines that France can produce.’

This mouthwatering book lists all 141 denominations, but picks out only about 100 producers by name. I was thrilled to find that the Domaine du Rieu Frais is the only one named in the whole Drôme/Vaucluse area. Even without Grandpère and the scenery, this guarantees that it is it well worth a visit.

The wines

It was ’Grandpa’s Rosé’ that first brought us to the valley, buying it en vrac at 7½ francs a litre (about 60p a bottle at today’s exchange rate). At 12.5% alcohol it was gentle by our Vaucluse standards - grapes grown at 400 metres (1300 feet) above sea level produce less sugar than those grown 200-odd metres lower down - but was far more refined than, say, the similarly-priced rosé from the cave co-opérative in Caromb. Then we discovered the 12.5% Chardonnay at 10 francs (80p a bottle) - a white which, with a few months in bottle, gave some of the lesser Chablis I’ve tasted a good run for its money.

Inflation has now taken the rosé to all of 9½ francs a litre (75p a bottle) and the Chardonnay to 12 francs a litre (95p a bottle). If you buy them ready-bottled from the domaine, they cost 19 francs (£2) and 27½ francs (£2.90) respectively - still excellent value, but you don’t want to cart hundredweights of glass back to the UK, do you?

The bulk-buyer can take away four different reds: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah at 9½ francs a litre (75p a bottle) and the mysteriously named Rouge Cépage - cépage means grape-variety - also a Cabernet Sauvignon, at 12 francs a litre (95p a bottle). The Merlot and Syrah are 26 francs (£2.75) in bottle and the Cabernet is 19 francs (£2).

We bought 10 litres each of rosé and Chardonnay, and 20 of Cabernet Sauvignon, ready-packed in bag-in-box containers, and 10 litres of Rouge Cépage in a new rigid container for 731 francs - an average of 14½ francs a litre (£1.54 a bottle) including containers (10-litre bag-in boxes are 15 francs and 10-litre cubitainers are 16 francs, adding about 1½ francs a litre to the cost of the wine, which isn’t expensive to prevent spoilage).

Two wines are only available in bottle: an excellent oak-aged 1995 Cabernet Sauvignon at 29 francs (£3.05) and a 1996 Viognier. Viognier is the grape that produces Condrieu, described by The New Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia as ’the greatest white-wine appellation in the entire Rhône valley’, and Château Grillet, ’one of only two single-estate appellations in France’. These two wines are outrageously expensive (£20 or more a bottle!), and Viognier is quite rare, so you should try a couple of bottles of the Rieu Frais wine at 39 francs (£4.10).

The extra bonuses

Without leaving the cave you can stock up on a small, carefully-chosen selection of other produce, all local and all with that magical French designation artisanale. We have bought both jam and the aptly named nectar, made from local apricots, and honey made by the bees that feed on the valley’s vast area of lavender fields.

Walk a few metres to the lavender mill next door to buy bunches of the fresh flowers (in season), bags of dried flowers, vials of oil and bottles of perfume.

Then climb reluctantly back into your car and bear left through the village to the D64 and Nyons. The main road bypasses the town, but you need to cross the river Eygues into the town so you’ll have the opportunity to visit the Olive Capital and buy some of the wonderful fruit and its delectable oil.

The ’sober wines’ of the Côtes du Rhône

Head south-west from Nyons on the D94, which follows the valley of the Eygues. About 6 km from the town, the village of Vinsobres sits above the road. This is one of the the 16 villages that have earned the Côtes-du-Rhône Villages appellation, so its wines can be labelled ’Côtes du Rhône Vinsobres AOC’.

The Domaine du Coriançon (telephone is on the main road a couple of kilometres before you reach the left turn for Mirabel-aux-Baronnies and then the right turn for the village

One of my main hopes when meeting François Vallot, whose family has owned the 60 hectares (150 acres) since about 1900 and who took charge in 1976, was to find out why the village has such a bizarre name. It translates as ’sober wines’ - odd for a village whose best products reach 13% alcohol. All he could tell me was that the name appears as ’Vinsobrium’ in documents from as far back as 1140, and that in 1633 the Bishop of Vaison, Joseph-Marie de Suarez, wrote (in Latin verse):

Hills planted with vines produce the bountiful gifts of Bacchus.
It is from these that Vinsobres takes its name, endowed with the savour of the wines.

(My translation from the French.)

No help there, then. I haven’t attempted to translate a second verse:

Le village est sur une colline,
Son territoire porte un vin doux et piquant,
Vin sobre ou sobre vin, prenez le sobrement.

because there is obviously some subtle significance in whether the adjective sobre is used before or after the noun. My Concise Oxford French Dictionary gives a dual definition:

Sober, temperate in regard to drink;
well balanced, tranquil, moderate, quiet, inconspicuous

and comments that sobre means ’abstemious’ or ’temperate’ rather than simply ’not drunk’ (at this moment), as in English.

François Vallot checking the progress of his grapes
François Vallot checking the progress of his grapes

Coriançon’s grapes are grown on slopes of ancient alluvial deposits, oriented East-West to give the the vines maximum exposure to the sun while sheltering them from the Mistral, the dominant - and destructive - wind of the region. The range of varieties is bewildering: the basic Côtes du Rhône red alone is a blend of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Clairette and Bourboulenc. Yet the 1995 costs just 22 francs (£2.30) in bottle, and the newer wine en vrac is a mere 12 francs a litre (equivalent to 95p a bottle).

Also available in bulk are Côtes du Rhône rosé and Côtes du Rhône white, also 12 francs a litre (and 22 francs in bottle). The white is a blend of Grenache Grise, Marsanne and Rousanne, bringing the total number of varieties grown to an impressive nine. There is also the cheapest wine I have ever seen anywhere in the region - a red vin de table (11%) at just 5½ francs a litre (45p a bottle).

The more up-market Côtes du Rhône Vinsobres wines are only available in bottle. The 1992 red and the 1995 rosé are 27 francs (£2.85). There is also a gold-medal 1993 red at 32 francs (£3.35) and the 1993 Cuvée Claude Vallot red at 34 francs (£3.60). So going for the best will hardly break the bank!

The 1993 Côtes du Rhône red from Monsieur Vallot’s other domaine, the 6-hectare (15-acre) Château Isaure in the neighbouring commune of Valréas, which grows only Grenache, is 26 francs (£2.75).

All this and bubbly too!

The real surprise of our visit to Coriançon was to find something called Blanc de Blancs Brut Méthode Traditionelle. It shouldn’t have been such a surprise, because not too far north of Nyons - though separated from it by some rather inconvenient 5000-foot mountains - is Die, home of the excellent (and very inexpensive) Clairette and Crémant sparkling wines.

For a moment, I thought we might see the whole mysterious process of what used to be called la méthode Champenoise revealed, but it turned out that Monsieur Vallot sends some of his white wine elsewhere to be turned into bubbly. This normally retails at 35 francs (£3.70), but we found boxes of six bottles on special offer for 150 francs - £2.50 a bottle. Needless to say, we bought a box, along with a 10-litre bag-in-box each of red, white and rosé. It turned out to be very good, and mixed with crème de cassis it made an excellent kir royal.

The following year we were let into the secrets of Champagne production, but in Champagne itself. That visit will be described in detail in the next article.

The amazing 45p red will have to wait, because after visiting six domaines the poor Mondeo’s suspension was threatening to bottom every time we hit a bump. Happily, it and the wine survived the long run north. Less happily, I have to report that the wine did not survive very long once we had got it back to Derby. In fact, we had great difficulty keeping a couple of bottles for a blind tasting with friends. It stood up very well against the competition from La Garrigue, La Fourmone, Chaumard, Couroulou and Rieu Frais.

Personal site for Paul Marsden: frustrated writer; experimental cook and all-round foodie; amateur wine-importer; former copywriter and press-officer; former teacher, teacher-trainer, educational software developer and documenter; still a professional web-developer but mostly retired.

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