In a just world, Chateau Simone would be as renowned and coveted by Americans as the greatest Bordeaux and Burgundy are. As it stands, the wines from this singular estate in Provence remain something of an insider’s secret in the United States—hugely respected and beloved by those in the know, but known by far too few.
Nearly everything about Chateau Simone is unique. Vines have been planted there since ancient times, and the estate has been run by the Rougier family since 1830—with the quick-witted and intelligent Jean-Francois Rougier at the helm today. Jean-Francois’s grandfather cemented Simone’s identity decades ago: he eliminated the use of chemicals in the vineyards (none have been employed since); he replanted many of the vineyards using massale selection (those vines are still in use, putting Simone’s average vine age over 60 years of age); and he brazenly presented his wine at local fairs as a “Grand Cru de Provence” before the appellation system was created (Simone’s neck labels are allowed to bear that otherwise unauthorized declaration even today, due to the historical nature of the assertion). Furthermore, Simone exists in its own incredibly distinctive micro-climate. Within greater Provence’s intense warmth and heat, Chateau Simone’s boomerang arc of due-north-facing vineyards gives them a distinct advantage: fresher acidity, less roasted fruit, and a longer ripening cycle. Geographically speaking, Chateau Simone is literally isolated: its unique micro-climate is heavily influenced by the hundreds of acres of pine forest which completely surround and enclose the vineyards, as well as the majestic Mont Sainte-Victoire which looms broodingly in the distance. These are wines of terroir in the purest and most profound sense, as they could be produced from nowhere else in the world—and, thanks to the long-standing sensitive and careful stewardship of the estate, they taste quite unlike anything else.
2013 Chateau Simone Palette Blanc
Simone’s white wine is perhaps their most compelling, if only because it’s the most difficult to compare to any other wine in the world. As with the estate’s other offerings, the white features a wide-ranging cast of characters: Grenache Blanc, Ugni Blanc, Muscat Blanc, Bourboulenc, Semillon, and Picpoul all make appearances. But the star of the show is the humble Clairette, comprising 80% of the blend and providing the truest glimpse into Simone’s terroir (according to Jean-Francois). A relatively low-acid, high-alcohol variety, Clairette rarely makes wines of real substance and nuance, instead providing structural support in, for example, the rich white wines of Chateauneuf-du-Pape. But here, on the high-altitude, well-drained north-facing slopes of Chateau Simone, it achieves unparalleled precision and minerality—aided no doubt by the extreme age of the vines (over 100 years in some instances) and the careful elevage employed by the Rougiers.
In their jaw-dropping, labyrinthine 16th-century cellar, the just-harvested grapes undergo a slow 24-hour crush in an old vertical basket press. Fermentation begins naturally, without the addition of any outside yeasts, and takes place in large, old foudres. (In fact, Jean-Francois has never yeasted a wine, stating that introducing artificial yeasts even once can unfavorably and irreversibly alter the chemistry of such an old and “alive” cellar.) The wine is aged for one year in old foudres, then one additional year in small barrels, before a final assemblage and bottling. Jean-Francois believes that obvious oak unnecessarily masks Chateau Simone’s unique terroir, so he limits its use severely, and the resulting wines show not a trace of vanilla or oak tannin. Malolactic fermentation is not purposefully blocked; it simply never occurs.
The complexity and uniqueness of Simone Blanc is hard to express in words. There are traces of fresh hazelnuts and acacia honey in its aromas, which are exuberant without being insistent, and which defy one to tease out specific fruit flavors. There is also an unmistakable underlay of pine resin—a haunting manifestation of the hundreds of acres of pine forest which surround the appellation. On the palate, Simone Blanc is rich without being opulent, seamlessly integrated, and with a long, swelling finish reminiscent of great white Burgundy. A spine of acidity atypical for Provence keeps the wine lively, and allows it to evolve for decades.
2012 Chateau Simone Palette Rouge
Chateau Simone Rouge is one of the few truly great wines of France that contains multiple grape varieties most even wine professionals have probably never heard of. Built on the backs of Grenache and Mourvedre, it also contains Cinsault, Syrah, Carignan, and Cabernet Sauvignon—as well as such obscurities as Castet, Manosquin, Théoulier, Tibouren, and Picpoul Noir. As with the white, some of the vines exceed 100 years of age, and the wine is a true field blend.
The red grapes are destemmed entirely, and fermentation takes place in cement vats, with a maceration period of 20-25 days, during which remontage (pumping-over) is performed once per day to achieve a gentle extraction of tannins. As with the Blanc, the Rouge is aged one year in old foudres, followed by one year in small barrels, but it is left to rest one year in bottle before being released.
A classic vintage of Simone Rouge presents like a hypothetical blend of great Cote-de-Nuits red Burgundy (think Chambolle or Morey) and old-guard Bandol. Unlikely bedfellows perhaps, but the wine somehow combines the best attributes of northern and southern French reds: grace, elegance, and aromatic nuance, but also ruggedness, wildness, and spice; red fruit and silk, but also sun-warmed earth and smoke. The incoming 2012 is particularly enchanting in its relative youth, with a ripe black cherry core flanked by an intense but elegant garrigue element reminiscent of the greatest Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and a mineral/acid union that provokes involuntary salivation. This should reach its apex 10 or 12 years after the vintage and hold there for some time, but it will be a pleasure to drink at any point before then as well.