Just upstream of the ancient city of Arles, the mighty Rhône river abruptly forks, and its resultant two arms—the southeasterly-flowing Grand Rhône and the southwesterly-flowing Petit Rhône—encircle the largest river delta in western Europe. The Camargue’s 360 square miles possess a raw and rugged beauty, far removed spiritually from the idyllic seaside beach towns of the Côte d’Azur, but equally as spectacular; Arles, after all, is where the likes of Gaugin, Picasso, and Van Gogh set up shop to capture the area’s spellbinding southern light.
The Camargue is renowned for its distinctive agricultural products: salt, from vast marshes that hug the Mediterranean; varyingly hued and deeply nutty wild rice; and, of course, wine. Just ten miles due south of Arles, the Michel family stewards the lovely Mas de Valériole, a 45-hectare estate founded in the early 15th century and purchased by the Michels in the late 1950s. Around the turn of the century, brothers Jean-Paul and Patrick Michel focused their energies on improving the estate’s wines, adopting organic viticultural practices in 2006 (certified today) and refining their approach in the cellar; today, the next generation is beginning to assume greater responsibilities, and there are exciting projects in the pipeline here…
Mas de Valériole’s vineyards, which today comprise 32 of their 45 hectares, encompass a variety of soil types: sand, clay, limestone, and alluvial loam deposited by the Grand Rhône. A reliably steady wind blowing in from the Mediterranean mitigates the Provence heat, facilitating their chemical-free approach to farming and ensuring modest alcohol levels for the wines. Produced from a variety of cépages, including Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, plus crossings like Caladoc (Grenache and Malbec) and Marselan (Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon) which are particularly well-suited to the Camargue’s climate, Mas de Valériole’s wines combine the breezy freshness one expects from Provence with a sense of wildness and an underlying salinity that is very Camarguais.
|“Vé” Rosé IGP Mediterranée: “Vé”—a local Provençal expression meaning “Look at that!”—is a blend of 70% Caladoc (a crossing of Grenache and Malbec), 15% Merlot, and 15% Marselan (a crossing of Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon) from soils of sand and loam. Harvested at night to ensure that the bunches are cool upon entry to the winery, “Vé” is pressed directly and given a brief passage in stainless steel before bottling. Clocking in at a modest 13% alcohol, it offers bright, salt-tinged flavors of raspberry and ripe citrus fruits, with a sneakily long finish given its modest price.|
|“Grand Mar” Rosé IGP Bouches-du-Rhône – Terre de Camargue: “Grand Mar” is pure Caladoc, a crossing of Grenache and Malbec which is particularly well-suited to the deep south of France, given its resistance to coulure (uneven flowering). Macerated briefly before pressing, it is slightly more assertive in its fruit character, with higher-pitched white cherries and a more penetrating impression of minerality on the palate. While no heavier than the “Vé”, it is both finer and longer, with an overall sense of poise that shames many a rosé from the Côtes de Provence.|
|“Charmentin” Blanc IGP Bouches-du-Rhône – Terre de Camargue: Mas de Valériole produces white wines as sprightly and evocative as their rosés, and we are excited to dip into their lineup here with the “Charmentin”—a blend of 70% Rolle (Vermentino) and 30% Chardonnay, fermented in stainless steel and bottled after six months on the fine lees. This is a wine anchored no so much by its acidity, which is adequate yet not assertive, as by the cleansing sense of bitterness left on the palate by the thick-skinned Rolle. A subtle hint of salinity weaves its way into the generous but restrained fruit, and the domaine’s preference for low sulfur shows itself in the wine’s lift and purity.|
|“Beauduc” Rouge IGP Bouches-du-Rhône – Terre de Camargue: Though far from being fundamentalist about it, the Michels produce a number of cuvées with no added sulfur dioxide, and “Beauduc”—pure Marselan, a crossing of Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon particularly well suited to the climatic specificities of the south of France—is a sterling example of their acumen in that regard. With appetizing black and dark red fruits, wispy spice, and a subtle undercurrent of foxy earthiness, this steel-aged wine is clean, juicy, and beautifully balanced.|
A New Partner in the Heart of the Camargue
Just upstream of the ancient city of Arles, the mighty Rhône river abruptly forks, and its resultant two arms—the southeasterly-flowing Grand Rhône and the southwesterly-flowing Petit Rhône—encircle the largest river delta in western Europe.