I sometimes worry I come across as too principled. I so rarely get invited on press junkets. I suspect many PR people imagine me to be a saber-rattling natural wine radical who, if cornered on a cliff's edge by LVMH regional sales managers, would sooner jump than appear in their selfies.
In fact, I quite like playing the shill now and then. I have no trouble appearing gracious and amused when plied with free things. So it was that I recently enjoyed a splendid trip to the Île de Porquerolles the other day, organised by the Côtes de Provence AOC in conjunction with a Lyonnais press agency called Claire de Lune.
The Île de Porquerolles is an island south of the Provençal town of Toulon. Formerly a private island belonging to the industrialist François Joseph Fournier, who purchased it in 1912, Porquerolles was bequeathed to the French state in 1985, and today is home to three wineries: Domaine La Courtade, Domaine Perzinsky, and Domaine de l'Île. "There are three domaines on the Île," explains Domaine Perzinksy oenologist Richard Auther, "And we have three completely different styles."
|Auther and the Perzinsky brothers.
The distinct personalities that differentiate the Porquerolles wineries is all the more surprising given that Auther has had a hand in defining two of them. Auther was the longtime winemaker at neighboring Domaine La Courtade, before leaving to join his wife and her brothers at Domaine Perzinsky in 2015.
Domaine Perzinsky, the youngest of the island's three domaines, was founded in 1993 by brothers Alexis and Cyrille Perzinsky, who were granted permission to clear National Forest land to plant vines. Before beginning his eponymous domaine, Cyrille Perzinsky was winemaker at Bandol estate Château de Pibarnon. Today the Perzinksy vineyard holdings comprise well over 10ha of quite wide-spaced vines. The spacing looked around 180cm to me.
Curiously, for a domaine composed of such recent, wide-spaced plantings, Perzinksy does not practice organic viticulture. (In this they are the outlier on the island; both Domaine de l'Île and Domaine La Courtade are certified organic.)
I regret not having had a chance to visit the chais on this trip. When evaluating a wine, one is always on better footing having seen the actual equipment. Suffice it to say I have the impression the working methods at Domaine Perzinksy favor their red vinification.
It is a causal chain afflicting many wineries. All but one of Domaine Perzinksy's wines derive from machine-harvested fruit. The resulting mess of the harvest calls for elevated sulfur use during vinification, which in turn makes it expedient to use commercial yeasts to start fermentation. For whites and rosées, Auther is a strong believer in blocking malolactic fermentation in the name of preserving acidity. This involves more sulfur addition and a round of filtration, if not enzyme use.
For whites and rosés, this combination of elevated sulfur use, select yeast, filtration, and blocked malo tends to yield wines of fearsome vapidity. So it is for Perzinksy's basic 2016 white and rosé, from rolle and a blend of grenache / mourvedre / cinsault / syrah, respectively. A new schiste-soil white parcel cuvée, debuted in 2016, entitled "Le Grand Blanc," showed more promise as a barrel sample, its young-oak nose redeemed by an interesting savoury cucumber note on the palate.
By contrast to the whites and rosé, the basic 2014 Domaine Perzinksy rouge is a very charming demonstration of contemporary vinification savvy. A blend of cabernet, mourvedre, grenache, and syrah, the wine bloomed with garrigue, the herbaceous, lightly saline notes of the Provençal scrubland. The rouge too had been machine-harvested. But the fact of having undergone malo implied somewhat lower sulfur use, and probably just one round of filtration directly before bottling. I could venture a bit farther and try to attribute the wine's pleasing salinity to the largely schiste soil? But I have no idea, to be honest.
Domaine Perzinsky's sole hand-harvested cuvée, a blend of mourvedre and syrah entitled "Le Grand Rouge," is still in barrique. In the sample I was poured I tasted only wood at this stage.
|Florent Audibert in the vines.
Domaine de la Courtade lies a short bike ride over a ridge just east of Domaine Perzinsky. It was founded in 1983 by the architect Henri Vidal. Under Vidal and Auther's direction the winery became certified organic in 1997. Vidal died in 2007, and as I understand it the domaine was somewhat rudderless for seven years as his family decided whether or not to continue. Present winemaker Florent Audibert arrived two years ago, installed by the domaine's new owner, the investment banker Edouard Carmignac, who purchased the domaine in 2014. Audibert previously worked at Château de Pibarnon, and Château d'Eclair, the Beaujolais appellation research vineyards in Villefranche-sur-Saône.
Audibert, whose first vinification at the domaine was in 2016, is presently overseeing the replanting of the domaine's 35ha, in 2-3ha increments each year. Since his arrival the domaine has also begun experimenting with biodynamic preparations, with the aim of decreasing the amounts of sulfur and copper used in the vines.
Audibert has ties both to the work of Richard Auther, his predecessor at La Courtade, and Cyrille Perzinsky, who also worked at Château Pibarnon, so it follows that his approach to winemaking is not worlds apart. He blocks malolactic fermentation for all Domaine La Courtade whites and rosés. All grapes at Domaine de la Courtade are machine-harvested, a practice Audibert enjoys for the flexibility it gives him with regards to grape maturity at harvest. He indicated a 3ha plot of grenache and explained that it had been harvested on four different dates the previous year.
"A harvesting machine permits us to do what we want," he reasons. "To taste the day before at 8PM and to do an analysis of sugar and to go harvest the next day at 2AM."
I can understand the appeal of machine harvesting for large domaines such as La Courtade, particularly given the difficulty of access to the island for harvest teams. But it does seem to put a depressingly low ceiling on the quality and overall personality of wines, particularly whites and rosés.
The Domaine La Courtade range has undergone a significant restructuring with the arrival of its new owner. There are now three ranges. The wines bearing the domaine's historical label have been consigned to the export market and French supermarket distribution. A new La Courtade range was created, aiming for a higher end market, boasting lower yields, more demanding parcel selection, fermentation and elevage in small oak barrel, and a new label featuring a sculpture by the Spanish artist Miquel Barcélo.
Then there is an intermediate range aimed at restaurants and wine shops entitled "Les Terrasses de La Courtade," which sees less elevage, and fermentation in steel tank rather than oak.
"2016 is an important year for us, with the label redesign," Audibert affirms. "We wanted to start on a new foot. To show our work had changed."
The 2016 La Courtade white, from rolle and semillon, saw 50% vinification in barrique and a half-day of skin maceration. It showed lean and subdued the day I tasted, with perhaps a touch more CO2 than I anticipated. A technically well-made wine, but I still can't help questioning the wisdom of withholding the natural richesse of malolactic fermentation, and then subsequently attempting to add dimension afterwards via skin maceration and barrel fermentation.
The 2016 Les Terrasses de Courtade Rosé was a fine demonstration of why Audibert got his job. Majority grenache, with a touch of rolle and mourvèdre, the wine was bright and lively, projecting surprisingly big raspberry - hyacinth aromas. A wine like this is precisely what most consumers are after in a Provençal rosé: zippy, refreshing, with a fresh, primary flavour spectrum mostly limited to the iconography of greeting card borders.
The 2015 La Courtade rouge seemed too big for its boots, but we were on the outdoor deck of a restaurant on an island at 1PM and in such circumstances my palate may have simply rebelled against all red wines.
And what of the Île de Porquerolles' third wine estate, Domaine de l'Île?
I should say its first wine estate. Vigneron Sebastien Le Ber is the grandson of the island's former proprietor, François Joseph Fournier, who was responsible for bringing viticulture to the island. Le Ber has run the domaine since 1980 and today farms 35ha. Le Ber himself was absent during the trip, but his white and his rosé were available to taste at lunch before I departed on the ferry. The wines bear simple, fusty labels that resemble bargain Burgundy.
White and rosé both unmistakably undergo malolactic fermentation, while retaining a suave, appealing acidity. After passing the morning on Porquerolles hearing endorsements of machine-harvesting, select yeasts, and blocked malo, my expectations had been lowered to such an extent that I was genuinely shocked when I tasted the wines of Domaine de l'Île. They are Provençal wines made in the old style, organically farmed, hand-harvested, vinified and aged with attention to avoiding sulfur use. They're lovely. They bear a resonance and a dimensionality that belies their slight presentation, like the haunting analog production of a vanished era.
The last time I wrote about Provençal rosé on this blog was almost seven years ago, in a post about Jean-Luc Poinsot.