I am sometimes asked what makes for a better wine, a single variety or a blend of varieties? The straightforward answer is neither. The more complicated answer is that most wines are already blends, even if you only see one grape name on the label. This is because even your simple, varietally-named Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough is likely to be an intricately selected blend of distinct plots and vineyards, annually tweaked by the winemaker to achieve consistency and quality. Winemakers are always blending to achieve their goals.
Some winemakers develop a reputation for having a mastery of the blend. Xavier Vignon, a son of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, home to one of the world’s most notable blended wines, is one such ‘master blender’.
This area of the southern Rhône valley has always been planted to an abundance of different grape varieties and the Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation permits as many as thirteen red and white varieties in a blend. These areGrenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Clairette, Vaccarèse, Bourboulenc, Roussanne, Counoise, Muscardin, Picpoul, Picardan and Terret Noir. As far as reds are concerned (93 per cent of production), the lion’s share is made from that initial trio.
Quite why it has developed like this, while other great French regions have settled on a relatively narrow range of varieties or in the case of Burgundy just a couple, is anyone’s guess. Not least because when Pope Clement V relocated his papacy to nearby Avignon, the wines of Burgundy to the north were his and successors’ lodestars when formulating local wine production. But in those days, few knew the differences between grape varieties, certainly not on the scale we do now. This goes to the heart of the French and indeed Old World reliance on place rather than variety as the benchmark for a wine.
So blending is par for the course here and in surrounding appellations such as the Côtes du Rhône, a sprawling and disparate ‘region’ (really collection of areas) that constitutes half the Rhône Valley’s wine output. Here there are twenty-one sanctioned grape varieties (don’t worry, I’m not going to list them all) but again for reds in practice very few are used, and in this wine, you have in declining order Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah and Cinsault.
Back to Monsieur Vignon, whose very name evokes winemaking. Xavier has been an oenologist consultant in these parts for two decades, working with more than 250 wineries, while simultaneously making wines overseas racking up a total of 34 vintages in all corners of the globe. He has winemaking experience that few can match and a magpie’s eyes for a good parcel of grapes or barrel of wine, which sometimes he will acquire for his own projects rather than receive payment for his consultancy work.
This Indiana Jones of winemaking has travelled the world, but you may already be able to tell that his well-honed sourcing and blending skills are nowhere better deployed than his birthplace, where he skilfully blends not just different varieties, but different locations and vintages, and you tend to get a wine that is quite a bit more than the sum of its parts.
The Côtes du Rhône appellation is best known for relatively simple, fruit-forward, sometimes quite rough & ready wines (usually these days in a good way). Profundity isn’t the watchword, except where Xavier is involved.
His very limited production, certified organic La Fondation de la Mer, actually from the superior Côtes du Rhône ‘Villages’ appellation, is a study in high-altitude mountain vines (most regular Côtes du Rhône is from low-lying vineyards) and interesting soil types like gravel and marl. These vines are ancient too, the Grenache almost centenarian, Mourvèdre over eighty-years-old and the Syrah nearly hitting a half-century.
All in all, the wine demonstrates that alchemical combination of levity of touch and density of flavour and calls to mind more the prestigious wines of Vinsobres or Ventoux.
And it will leave you on a heart-warming note, because with every bottle of this wine that’s sold, €1 is donated to La Fondation de la Mer, a charity protecting sea life and the health of our oceans. Bien fait, Xavier!