Bespoke Living Vineyards & Wine

Old World vs. New World: Couture Winemaking

From Old World to New, wine production is undergoing an evolution, as Nicole Rolet of “couture” French estate Domaine de la Verrière tells John Stimpfig

Ten years ago it wasn’t just possible to spot the difference between New and Old World wines, it was often boringly straightforward. Yet, in today’s vibrant and ever-changing wine world, it is now increasingly difficult to make that distinction with anything approaching certainty.

What has changed? Technology and vinicultural techniques for sure. But the biggest factor of all has been a sharing of cutting-edge ideas and experience across regions, countries, and hemispheres. Increasingly, the most talented and sought-after winemakers are cherry picking the best of both worlds to fashion wines that are not only new and exciting, but that also authentically reflect their individual terroirs.

Just a few years ago the noted wine writer Steven Spurrier celebrated the first vintage release of his Bride Valley Brut English sparkling wine, which was made to his precise specifications. A decade earlier, Spurrier planted the classic champagne varieties in a tiny amphitheater-like vineyard overlooking the village of Litton Cheney, near Bridport, 138 miles from London. “It’s been a wonderful adventure,” he says. “And I’m very proud of the wine we’ve made.”

The team at the Domaine de la Verrière vineyard estate. From left to right: Bénédicte Gallucci, Jean-Louis Gallucci, Lilian Morel (mother of owner Xavier Rolet), owner Nicole Rolet, vineyard worker Patricia Poiré, wine consultant Zelma Long, and vineyard worker Sébastien Bessac. Photograph: Jude Edginton. Banner image: Jude Edginton
The team at the Domaine de la Verrière vineyard estate. From left to right: Bénédicte Gallucci, Jean-Louis Gallucci, Lilian Morel (mother of owner Xavier Rolet), owner Nicole Rolet, vineyard worker Patricia Poiré, wine consultant Zelma Long, and vineyard worker Sébastien Bessac. Photograph: Jude Edginton. Banner image: Jude Edginton

Another European success story is Domaine de la Verrière, which produces very limited amounts of highly sought-after fine wine under its Chêne Bleu label in the Vaucluse region of Provence. The labor of love of ex-investment banker Nicole Rolet and her husband, Xavier, the vineyard enjoys a unique geography, which, paired with innovation in the making of wines using organic and biodynamic principles, produces vintages that are surprising and delighting oenophiles.

THE GRAPE GOES GLOBAL

This change of attitude and assemblage of ideas has been going on for some time – since the “flying winemakers” of the 1990s, when highly technical Australian winemakers first appeared in northern hemisphere wineries. However, it isn’t all one-way traffic. Increasingly, New World wineries are adopting some very Old World savoir-faire when it comes to balance and complexity in the bottle.

The net result is that we are living in a golden age of wine, which is coming from an ever-growing number of countries—not just England, Canada, Switzerland, Argentina, France, Italy, and Spain, but also India, Tibet, Peru, and China.

In the latter, for example, Moët Hennessy has inaugurated Domaine Chandon China, a 163-acre estate near Yinchuan in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. The list of these New World countries is almost as endless as the winemaking possibilities they afford an aspiring, ambitious vintner.

Harvesting grapes in Turpan, Xinjiang Province, an area known for its dried fruit and the highly cultivated Grape Valley. Photograph: Keren Su/China Span
Harvesting grapes in Turpan, Xinjiang Province, an area known for its dried fruit and the highly cultivated Grape Valley. Photograph: Keren Su/China Span

For anyone thinking of starting their own wine label, winery, or vineyard, there are now consultants galore to help you create the wine of your dreams. With enough investment, the right people on board, and the best possible patch of dirt, there’s no reason why you can’t succeed in a relatively short period of time.

It is possible to purchase an attractive Bordeaux vineyard for not much more than €1 million today

Of course, the quickest way to do this is to buy a fully functioning estate or winery. It’s also the most expensive way, but this entrée into the industry remains popular with passionate, cash-rich, time-poor aficionados. The wine world is now so big and well established that properties are always coming on the market, especially in major regions like Bordeaux where there are some 7,000 wine-producing chateaux.

From Old World to New, wine production is undergoing an evolution, as Nicole Rolet of “couture” French estate Domaine de la Verrière tells John Stimpfig

In the past few years, Far Eastern investors have been particularly acquisitive in the region—there are now some 100 Asian-owned estates in Bordeaux. “The Bordeaux vineyard market is only just now recovering from a long price correction that started back in 2000,” says Michael Baynes, an expert in the Bordeaux region. “Of course the world-famous wines and appellations still command enormous valuations and prices; it is, however, possible to purchase an attractive Bordeaux vineyard for not much more than €1 million today, making the asset class a competitive choice for those seeking this envious lifestyle.”

Another way of getting into the wine game is to buy or lease vineyards. Wineries can be eye-wateringly expensive to run, so many savvy vintners choose to contract out the winemaking element to external winemaking facilities, while retaining control of the wine they wish to produce. It’s not just wine “outsiders” who are doing this. Experienced wine professionals have been doing it for years in Burgundy, California, Spain, Italy, and Australia.

However, the most time-consuming and challenging approach is to create something from scratch, as Nicole Rolet, the heartwarmingly passionate chatelaine of Domaine de la Verrière, did: “It is also the most satisfying of all—when you get it right,” she says.

FROM THE VINES UP
When Nicole’s husband, Xavier, bought the estate in 1994, perched between the Dentelles de Montmirail and Mont Ventoux, it was literally an abandoned wreck. There was no running water, no electricity, and the ninth-century priory was not only drenched in foliage, one of the rooms had a tree growing in it. The vineyard had also been totally neglected for decades. Today it is one of the most impressive and beautiful vineyard estates I have ever seen. And I’ve seen plenty.

Xavier and Nicole sampling the fruits of their labors. Photograph: Jude Edginton
Xavier and Nicole sampling the fruits of their labors. Photograph: Jude Edginton

This passion project has been driven by an extraordinary determination to accomplish two things. The first was to make truly world-class wine from a unique micro-terroir, impressive given that Nicole had no formal wine training. And the second was to bring back to life a place of stunning beauty.

You can feel the passion by the level of personal detail in the design of the gardens and the exquisite decor of the private house and sumptuous, characterful guest rooms. Everything has been thought out, from the boutique, gravity-fed winery to the helicopter pad and the seminar and tasting rooms.

RIGHT PEOPLE, RIGHT PLACE, RIGHT TIME
Wisely, she brought in world-class consultants from both the Old and New Worlds, including the brilliant Californian winemaker Zelma Long and soil expert Claude Bourguignon. The latter revealed that La Verrière’s high altitude vineyards (around 1,800 feet) were sited on a complex subsoil mix of schist, clay, and limestone rock. In other words, it was the perfect terroir for both its low-yielding Syrah and Grenache reds as well as its Marsanne, Roussanne, and Viognier whites. They currently have 75 acres planted on this unique micro-terroir, all farmed organically.

Wine consultant Zelma Long checks barrels in the vineyard’s cellar. Photograph: Jude Edginton
Wine consultant Zelma Long checks barrels in the vineyard’s cellar. Photograph: Jude Edginton
The Rolets’ first 2006 vintage was released in 2009 to huge critical acclaim. There are now six impressive estate wines in the range: Abélard and Héloïse are the two flagship red blends, while Aliot is a sumptuous white Grenache blend. The rosé is a wonderfully vibrant and complex food wine, while the rare 100 per cent Viognier stands shoulder to shoulder with any great Condrieu. Most recently, the Rolets have added Astralabe, a classic Southern Rhône blend of Grenache and Syrah from the 2009 vintage, released late last year.

According to Nicole, “We have taken all our stylistic cues from the vineyard.” While this is undeniably true, haute couture winemaking is both modern and timeless; deft and dynamic. You would be hard pushed to guess exactly where in the Southern Rhône these powerful, dense, and complex wines came from. One of the Rolets’ greatest admirers, Spurrier commented after tasting the wines that, “these are certainly not your typical wines from Gigondas.”

Collectors’ interests are beginning to broaden. Bordeaux still dominates the salerooms, but less and less compared to the past.

The Chêne Bleu range is uncompromising and atypical of the region. “We are different from the wines around here,” says Nicole, matter-of-factly. For that reason, they chose not to operate within the regional appellation, but instead chose to describe their wines as Vin de Pays, rather like the trailblazing Super Tuscan wines of the 1980s and 1990s.

Today, the couple have been utterly vindicated by the many plaudits their wines have received, not to mention a string of wine awards. “It has been a lot of hard work,” says Nicole. But after more than a decade and a half of hard work, she is now clearly enjoying the fruits of her labors.

Nicole is also more than happy to pass on what she has learned to fellow oenophiles with her highly regarded Chêne Bleu Extreme Wine Course.

So far, none of the youthful Chêne Bleu wines feature in Christie’s auction catalogs, which is hardly surprising given how recently the estate was established. But I for one wouldn’t rule it out. No doubt, the Rolets’ time will come.

Xavier Rolet’s sister Bénédicte and her husband Jean-Louis Gallucci inspect the vines. Photograph: Jude Edginton
Xavier Rolet’s sister Bénédicte and her husband Jean-Louis Gallucci inspect the vines. Photograph: Jude Edginton

TASTING NOTES: WHERE TO DEEPEN YOUR WINE KNOWLEDGE

United Kingdom
Christie’s Education offers a number of wine courses in London, including the three-session Introductory Wine Course in which students learn the techniques of wine tasting, viniculture, and vinification. A more in-depth, five-session Classic Wines Certificate looks at grapes and particular vintages, and there are also masterclasses held throughout the year conducted by Christie’s Masters of Wine.

France
Aspiring vintners who are looking to get the fastest and most comprehensive insight into the world of fine wine should beat a path to the Chêne Bleu Extreme Wine Course. At the end of the five-day residential wine boot camp at La Verrière, taught by renowned Master of Wine Clive Barlow and senior wine educator Nick Dumergue, you will gain the world-recognized Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) Level 2 or Level 3 Award. Not only that, you’ll have tasted more than 100 benchmark wines, and had hands-on experience in blending wine in the chai and pruning vines in the vineyard.

United States
In 2015, Kevin Zraly celebrates the 40th anniversary of teaching his Windows on the World Wine School in Manhattan. Since his first course, more than 20,000 people have graduated and the course – comprising nine two-hour sessions – has been named the best wine school in the city by New York magazine. Zraly was the wine director at the Windows on the World Restaurant until it was destroyed in the attack on the World Trade Center Twin Towers in 2001. He remains one of the world’s most brilliant, charismatic, and respected wine educators.