Rhône's sleeping beauties
Decanter|January 2022
Beyond the big-name appellations in the Rhône are a number of smaller, previously dormant areas that are starting to make a name for themselves once more. In the north, Brézème and Seyssuel are shining examples to look out for
MATT WALLS

By 1965, the vineyards of Condrieu had largely been abandoned – phylloxera and two world wars had decimated the place and its people. There were just 8ha of vines remaining on these granite slopes. If it weren’t for the hard work of a few steadfast vignerons, the appellation might have disappeared entirely, reclaimed by the forest. Thankfully, Condrieu survived and has since flourished – but great appellations have been lost before. We know this because some have recently been rediscovered.

In fact, there are two very special terroirs at either end of the northern Rhône that are gradually returning to their former glory. These aren’t the only appellations making a comeback, but for now, Brézème to the south and Seyssuel to the north are the ones you need to know about. Their renaissance has begun.

Brézème

It wasn’t until Yves Mengin had retired from his accountancy role and moved to the village of Livron-sur-Drôme in the early 1990s that he first saw the hill of Brézème. A lifelong wine lover, it was immediately clear that, despite its overgrown state, this south-facing slope had magnificent potential. Establishing a vineyard wasn’t his original retirement plan, but, ‘I saw the abandoned hill,’ he says, ‘and I thought – why not me?’

Clambering up the slope, he found old stone terraces from previous vineyards, but the terrain was completely overgrown. It took him four years to clear the ground, rebuild the walls and replant vines. He named his estate Domaine des Quatre Cerises after the wild cherry trees he tore out to create his vineyard, and in tribute to his four children. His first vintage was 1998.

Mengin was by no means the first to recognise Brézème’s potential. Written references to its wines date back to 1422, and by 1813 there were 40ha of vineyards. By 1827, wine prices were approaching those of Hermitage.

When phylloxera ravaged the Rhône vineyards towards the end of the 19th century, Hermitage was replanted fairly rapidly. Brézème took longer to bounce back. It was only in the 1940s that a few rows of vines were replanted by the Pouchoulin family, followed by Mengin and others.

POINTS OF DIFFERENCE

When it comes to comparisons with Hermitage, it doesn’t stop at prices; the terroir itself bears some similarities, albeit on a smaller scale. Brézème is a long hill that stands proudly alone on the east bank of the Rhône. Its western flank rises to 256m, then gradually tapers down to the east. Unlike Hermitage however, the river that flows at its foot isn’t the Rhône itself but the Drôme, a blue-green tributary that flows down from the foothills of the Alps.

Another difference is that there is no granite here; the hill of Brézème mostly comprises clay limestone and alluvial deposits from the Rhône and the Drôme. Grape varieties, however, are largely the same: the reds are made from Syrah, the whites mostly from Marsanne and Roussanne, joined here by Viognier. Not that there’s anything stopping local growers from planting any of the 23 varieties allowed in the Côtes du Rhône rulebook.

It’s something of a historical anomaly, but even though growers here can use the name Brézème on their labels, the land is only graded AP Côtes du Rhône. They’re hoping that the powers that be will promote Brézème to the same level as crus such as Cornas and St-Joseph, but the process takes years, if not decades, and there is little sign of any imminent changes. Mengin says the current situation is illogical and that being promoted would give this terroir the recognition and visibility he thinks it deserves.

STANDING PROUD

He’s right: it does deserve it. Though there is some diversity in the reds and particularly the whites of Brézème, there is a stylistic thread that runs through them, and some of these wines are thrillingly good. What unites them is a sense of energy, tension and rising freshness. Aromatically I often find a subtle spicy char and a touch of menthol in the reds. They are only medium-bodied, but have remarkable intensity.

Brézème: Walls’ wines to look out for

Domaine des Quatre Cerises, Côtes du Rhône Brézème 2019 92 N/A UK ymengin@hotmail.fr

Still very young, this MarsanneRoussanne-Viognier blend is more about texture and structure than exuberant flavour for now. It has a pleasing freshness and is lightbodied for a Rhône white. A touch of creaminess on the finish and a hint of almond; well balanced, but needs a little time to unwind. Good sense of tension, precise and very drinkable. Might score even higher with time. Drink 2022-2026 Alcohol 12.5%

1 Domaine de Bréseyme, Côtes du Rhône Brézème 2018 91

£27.99 (2019) Blanco & Gomez, Liberty Wines, Nicholson’s Wines, Theatre of Wine

A domaine recently purchased by Maison & Domaines Les Alexandrins. 70% Viognier, 30% Marsanne. There’s orange blossom and subtle lime. The oak is bold but integrated and lends a little cashew and silkiness to the palate, as well as extending the finish. Not overly rich in fruit, the keen acid line also helps bring balance. Very fresh. Lovers of oaked Condrieu may enjoy this. Drink 2021-2024 Alc 13%

Domaine des Quatre Cerises, Côtes du Rhône Brézème 2020 95

N/A UK ymengin@hotmail.fr

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