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28th August 2014

The extraordinary wines of Vignobles de St Jeannet

Local wine for local people

Improbably situated in the super-prime real estate of the hills above Nice, on the other side of the Var and near the exquisite village of St Jeannet, are 5ha of vineyards belonging to the Rasse family.

It is a delightful anachronism that this land has been preserved as vineyards when the temptation to sell it for yet more villa construction must have been, and probably remains, almost overwhelming.

Fortunately Georges and Denis Rasse care more about wine, and providing a link with Provençal history, than they do about becoming super-rich, and so these noble vineyards (and olive groves) persist as a testament to their tenacity and selflessness.
Their delightfully laissez-faire attitude also shows through in the wines themselves and how they make them. Not because they do not care for passion and tradition – they most certainly do – but because they do not care about perceived wisdom of how they should go about things. This results in a range of wines that is the definition of different.



The 5ha vineyards are given to no fewer than fourteen different varieties (Grenache Noir, Merlot, Mourvèdre, Cabernet Sauvignon, Braquet, Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, Grenache Blanc, Muscat, Rolle, Ugni Blanc, Chardonnay and Viognier) producing ten different wines. In fact there are also probably at least two different Muscats, and the table grape called St Jeannet too (although somewhat improbably the only place this is made into wine is in Argentina). As there are limited yields from these largely old vineyards at 400m above sea-level, this means the production of any one of the wines can be at best, tiny.



I was lucky enough to taste with Georges Rasse, and my friends Elizabeth Gabay MW and Randall Grahm – California’s original ‘Rhône Ranger’ and a winemaker whose passion for the unusual is world famous. These wines certainly epitomised that!

Almost all of the wines are aged in glass demi-johns called ‘bon-bons’, probably because of their shape. This ageing takes place in the full glare of the sun. According to Georges this reduces the levels of Sulphur to practically nil, because it kills any bacteria, rendering the subsequent addition of SO2 unnecessary.



Rosé Traditionelle Pressoir Romain 2012
The grapes (Grenache and Mourvèdre) for this wine are trodden by foot, and the wine is not aged in glass (I don’t think anyway). It has a mid-pale colour and a fresh, fruity and strawberryish aroma with a dry flavour and a good length.

Rosé Tuilé de Saint Jeannet 2012
This spent nine months in the sun ageing in the glass demi-johns, which stabilised the wine. Despite some uncanny and appealing rancio notes to the aroma, the wine is fresh and completely unoxidised. The colour is deeper and somewhat more orangey than might otherwise have been the case, but what really marks the wine is a distinctive aroma of spice, specifically curry powder or cumin. It’s bizarre, but I like it.

Blanc Traditionelle Pressoir Romain 2012
Aged for three months in the sun, and then 10 in barrique, this 70% Rolle (with Chardonnay, Ugni Blanc and Viognier) manages a rare degree of freshness and citrus character that defies its maturation treatment. No malolactic fermentation was used (hardly surprisingly) but the wine nevertheless has a creamy texture and finish.

Blanc Prestige 2010
This is a selection of the best grapes, with an emphasis on ripeness judging on the flavour. Again mainly Rolle, this also includes some Grenache Blanc and a small amount of Muscat. The latter is apparent on the nose with a grapey hint to accompany the crystallised fruit and hints of spice coming from its heating in the sun and subsequent vinification in American(!) oak.

Rouge Cuvée Pressoir Romain 2012
With a final sulphur level of 20g/L (which is very low) after the three months in the sun in bon-bons, this is quite vibrantly fruity, although very dry indeed. It had Italianate aromas of cherry and earth, with marked acidity.

Rouge Cuvée Pressoir Romain 2011
This vintage, a year older and from a frankly superior year, is deeper and richer with more spice flavour, but still marked by serious dry tannins.

Rouge Cuvée Longo Maî Prestige 2009
As with the wines above, this is a blend of Mourvèdre, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Grenache and Braquet. Which - as though there were not enough other factors to consider - almost certainly makes the wine unique. After its three months in glass, it spends four years in barrels. Displaying the characteristic Mourvèdre qualities of liquorice and spice. The texture is a bit chocolatey and the wine finishes with an earthy dry finish.

Muscat Doré 2009
Late harvested, and with passerillage (leaving the bunches to dry on the vine rather than to become infected with botrytis, or dried on mats), this is the kind of wine that really benefits from the oxidative ageing, which adds marmalade flavours to its raisiny and baked fruit quality. Pre-phylloxera, this was the wine style for which the vineyards of the region (extending to the coast at St Laurent du Var) were celebrated throughout France.

Cuvée St Jeannet Vendage Tardive 2004
A botrytis affected Rolle, another unusual combination, has produced a distinctive deep golden colour with flavours of coffee, hazelnut and peanut-brittle. It has piercing acidity and resembles a Madeira in style – an enormous quality for a wine to be able to boast, especially since it has only 15% alcohol and was not fortified.

Cuvée Rancio 2004
Merlot and Grenache, both with botrytis, fermented slowly in oak across the whole winter and with two years in glass demi-johns, this is like a number of wines I have tried, but simultaneously unlike any single other wine I have encountered. It has something in common with Pedro Ximinez Sherry – flavours of coffee, raisin and nuts, but it is more elegant and fresher, rather like a Malmsey Madeira, but with far less alcohol (only 15%, no fortification). There’s a creamy, herby complexity on the supremely long finish. This really is a terrific wine.



A thoroughly fascinating tasting of some singular and distinctive wines.
They’d probably all qualify as ‘natural’ but let’s keep that to ourselves, shall we?

Comments

Thanks for this post, seems to be a very unusual an interesting visit/tasting. Interesting also the SO2 and sun exposure/élevage approach...looks great on the pictures. I would naturally fear premox but it seems some wines remained very fresh and not oxidative. A good visit to plan in the future! [Jeremy Cukierman, 28th August 2014]

We had the 2011 Rouge Cuvée Pressoir Romain at Chantecler in Nice last month. It was wonderful We can not find this in the US anywhere Do you have a contact at the Vineyard that might be able to export to Des Etats Unis? [Sean Kath, 17th October 2016]

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