16 August 2018

the tavel rosé of today: couleur tavel 2018

"Couleur Tavel" is an annual tasting festival held in the Gard village of Tavel to celebrate its eponymous rosé appellation. I had the pleasure of attending this July on the invitation of the Lyonnais press agency Clair de Lune. The public tasting itself, held in the warren of ancient gardens in Tavel's town center, was a labyrinthine clusterfuck, choked with giddy wandering families; it was followed by dinner at a wagon circle of food trucks surrounding a sort of dance-free dance-party, resembling a nocturnal exercise video, held in the Place du Président Leroy.

Given that the appellation comprises just 930ha, and is devoted exclusively to rosé wine, the "Couleur Tavel" event is not particularly diverse, nor does it appear to be aimed at a professional market. I was still delighted to attend, because it offered an occasion to familiarize myself with the prevailing norms of the Tavel appellation. The only Tavels I ever seem to drink are the wines of the appellation's black sheep, Eric Pfifferling, and as magnificent as his deep red rosés are, they are unrepresentative of the appellation at large.

Perhaps it is better to say Pfifferling's wines are unrepresentative of the Tavel appellation as it exists today. As I've come to understand it, a rosé wine, at the time the Tavel appellation was decreed in 1936, resembled more a light red wine than the transparent pink wine present-day drinkers have come to know as rosé. The overwhelming majority of the vignerons of Tavel, meanwhile, are producing something in-between, but closer to the latter, a watermelon-coloured rosé neither quite of the present era, nor of tradition.

That's certainly not to say the Tavel of Today is any worse than other rosés. Indeed, given the harsh clarifications most conventional rosé producers will enact in search of a pale colour, it is surely a positive thing that the vignerons of Tavel have made a darker-than-average colour central to the appellation's identity.

Yet while the intention to make a darker-than-average rosé has remained in Tavel, what has changed is the manner in which this is generally achieved.

While the appellation presently permits eleven grape varieties, two of these - syrah and mourvèdre - have been permitted only since 1969. Not coincidentally, these are, along with carignan, the most dark-colouring grapes in the blend, with the others being either white - clairette, grenache blanc, picpoul, bourbelenc - pink (clairette rose) or lightly-colouring red, in the case of grenache, cinsault, and calitor.

Carignan never having been a dominant variety in the blend, the circumstances would indicate that a short, light maceration - rather than direct press or bleeding - was probably at the origin of Tavel's famously dark rosé. Supporting this idea is the fact that the appellation's historic terroirs are the sand and clay soils close to the village and its water sources; it was only in the 1960's that plantation began on the drier terrains that have since become the appellation's most iconic, picturesque terroirs: galets roulés, or rolled stones, and lauzes, brittle slabs of inactive limestone. The latter two soils yield slightly more concentrated, richer wines.

Galets roulés terrain.

Lauzes terrain.
New plantings on sand soils. 

Terres blanches terrain.

These developments - the addition of dark red grape varieties, along with the expansion of the appellation to allow plantation of drier sites - effectively encouraged a prioritization of red wine over rosé. (The expansion of the AOC was also presumably a response to the suburbanization of the actual village of Tavel, a continuing effect of its proximity to nearby Avignon. Today the village's best terroirs are still being developed apace.) With a darker, more concentrated must, a dark-enough Tavel can be produced by the saignée method, without necessarily reassembling the lesser free-run juice with the more choice press juice. Most Tavel domaines nowadays simply bleed off a bit of rosé and macerate the rest longer for sale as red Côtes-du-Rhône.

It's a shame. The overall category of rosé - leaving aside the individual merits of most of the wines it contains - is more popular than ever right now. The time would seem to be ripe for complex rosés from Tavel. Instead most winemakers are bleeding off free-run juice, clarifying it, yeasting it, blocking malolactic fermentation, filtering it, and packaging it in clear bottles for supermarket shelves.

Positive signs persist, however. Organics and in certain cases biodynamics are well represented at estates like Domaine Lafond Roc-Epine, Domaine du Joncier, Château de Manissy, and Domaine des Carabiniers. The latter two domaines were responsible for two Tavel rosés I found quite agreeable at the small preliminary tasting held at the Auberge de Tavel.

The 78-hectare organic estate Château de Manissy's top Tavel cuvée - their "Tête de Cuvée," for which malolactic fermentation is not blocked - was unfortunately not presented at Couleur Tavel. (I'll have to visit sometime soon.) But their mid-range Tavel rosé, entitled "100%," was vinous and rich, the weight of an Alsatian pinot. It was good enough to overlook its hilarious packaging, which resembled a bad Lambrusco.

Domaine des Carabiniers are a 50-hectare estate farming biodynamically. Their Tavel was on the lighter side, and filtered, but thankfully fermented on native yeasts; it distinguished itself in the tasting with refreshingly genuine springtime aromas. Encountering it in the circumstances was like walking into a crowded room in which one person is smiling and not wearing a scary mask.

The tasting was catered by four chefs representing fine restaurants from around the Gard. It was a splendid way to highlight under-acknowledged regional chefs, undercut only by the task they'd been given, which was to present their cuisine in verrines. 

At catered events - where one usually encounters them - verrines are not glass jars, but wasteful plastic cups, invariably filled with a laborious, faux-sophisticated amuse-bouche involving a mousse of something. Somehow, perhaps due to their omnipresence at "chic" catered events, verrines seem to retain some appeal to French diners even in restaurants, where the jars (sometimes a repurposed water glass) typically contain a miserly portion of shellfish and / or tomato or avocado, with one or another element often having been rendered into a flan-type consistency as a means of further stretching the cost of ingredients. In such a way, a little transparent plastic cup has become a kind of Chinese finger-trap for both chefs and diners in France, enlacing them in an unamusing bond of parsimony and unsophistication. For the good of France, Macron should ban the things.

The actual content of the verrines was perfectly tasty, I should hasten to say. And the village of Tavel, while not bursting with amenities, is fascinating.

The town center's sublime Vieux Lavoir - the old communal washing area - springs from a source that also irrigates the adjacent patchwork of small enclosed gardens, which belong to the town's residents. The sections not playing host to "Couleur Tavel" that day were those being exploited as private vegetable gardens.

Half of one garden belongs to the Pfifferling family, and furnishes vegetables to the splendid restaurant where I dined that evening: La Courtille, a seasonal project launched by Thibault Pfifferling's girlfriend Natalia Crozon and her former colleague from Paris' Le Baratin, Marie Lézouret.

For anyone wondering, yes, I dined thrice that evening, first verrines, then La Courtille, then the food trucks. You only live once.


My recent interview with Jean-Christophe Comor of Domaine des Terres Promises on natural rosé vinification.

A 2018 visit to the Côteaux Varois with Agence Clair de Lune.
A 2017 visit to the Île de Porquerolles with Agence Clair de Lune.

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