Chêne Bleu Extreme Wine Skills Improvement in Provence
This article “Immersed in Wine” was previously published in Sommelier India (October-November, 2015).
Sommelier India is India’s first and premier magazine dedicated to wine and wine lovers. Filled with news, feature articles, wine profiles and the culture surrounding wine, Sommelier India is written by international and Indian writers, wine experts and aficionados.
Reva K. Singh is the magazine’s publisher and editor. Her industry experience in journalism and publishing runs deep, spanning 25+ years. However, it is her passion for fine wines of the world that lead to the launch of a magazine dedicated to wine and wine education for a readership primarily based in India. Mrs Singh and I attended the Chêne Bleu Extreme Wine Experience at the same time in June 2015.
This wine course is aptly named. The program is designed to improve your wine appreciation, tasting skills and take a general level of knowledge to the next level in a short timeframe. It is intense, maybe not like extreme skiing or skydiving, but tasting well over 100 wines in a 5-day period is not for the faint of heart.
Luxury Boot Camp, Chêne Bleu, Extreme Wine Course, La Verrière, Provence
The Extreme Wine Experience packing list was my first clue that I might have been out of my depth. The recommendation was to bring casual clothing, sun hats, rain gear, bathing suits and black tie attire, for the final evening. Now, I had two issues. I was signed up for a five-day wine immersion course with what I judged to be sub-par skills, and there was nothing in my closet remotely suitable for a black tie event. At least the second issue was easily rectified.
La Verrière is a property that includes a 35-hectare (87 acre) working vineyard located 3.5 kilometres (2.2 miles) outside of the hilltop hamlet of Crestet in Provence’s Vaucluse. As I drove further away from the village and onto what appeared to be the intersection of hiking trails I thought that my GPS had failed me, and to turn the car around risked going into a ditch. It was then that I noticed a sign for the Croix de la Verrière this slightly rusty iron cross was a talisman to indicate that I was close to my destination. Just around the next bend was my first glimpse of the postcard-worthy panorama of the hamlet of la Verrière, where rows of lush leafy vines bearing fruit destined for the 2015 vintage of Chêne Bleu wines framed the main house.
Wine and Food Essentials
My first chance to connect with fellow Extreme Wine attendees was during the “Welcome Dinner.” This so called “casual” evening was a taste sensation that began with a heirloom tomato stuffed with vegetable tartare in burratina cream and ended with fresh strawberries served over a balsamic reduction and crème anglaise. As we worked our way through the beautifully prepared four-course dinner, I reflected upon the fact that a common interest in wine had brought together a diverse group from Peru, parts of North America and Delhi. By dessert, we had sampled the full range of Chêne Bleu wines from a 2014 rosé to the crisp white Aliot (2011 – White Grenache blend) to the pair of signature reds named after medieval lovers Abélard (2009 – Grenache blend) and Héloïse (2009 – Syrah blend). As the dinner chatter wound down, it became apparent the week ahead would be one of both extreme wine and food!
Despite a relaxed, convivial atmosphere at dinner class starts at 9:00 am sharp, and there is no nonsense about that fact. Clive Barlow, a Master of Wine, and his fellow instructor Nick Dumergue, with their resumes fully drenched by the wine trade, have taught the Extreme Wine Experience for eight years running. The course material follows the Wine Education and Spirits Trust (WSET) Level 2 syllabus, the same information offered in classes around the world. However, the WSET program offered at la Verrière is supplemented by Chêne Bleu’s tailored course content, information that General Manager Nicole Rolet feels is essential to truly cracking the wine code.
Wine is a Family Business
When Xavier Rolet purchased this plot of land in 1993, it is highly likely that there were some hardy discussions at the local brasserie. Why would anyone, especially an outsider, buy a parcel of land that had been in limbo for 40 years due to an unsettled inheritance dispute? The 135-hectare (340 acre) property consisted of some dishevelled grapevines, a 9th-century priory and the remains of a subsequent glass factory from 1427. Mr. Rolet had essentially bought a ruin. Nicole Rolet told me that her introduction to la Verrière occurred in the early days of her relationship with the handsome Frenchman. By that time he had fallen in love with the property and the dream of creating a world-class vineyard. According to Nicole, the notion of living through the renovation realities that Peter Mayle had turned into his best-selling book A Year in Provence gave her sweaty palms.
The project took over ten years and millions of decisions to complete. The Rolets ensured that all the new buildings assimilated into the landscape, where possible old structures were retained and in every case the history of the medieval site revered. Xavier’s sister Bénédicte and her husband Jean-Louis Gallucci were convinced to relocate to Domaine de la Verrière to establish and run the wine operations as viticulturist and winemaker, respectively.
The Rolet family has a history of wine production from the Jura in Eastern France. It was this innate passion for the vines and belief in the unique terroir at Domaine de la Verrière located 550m (1700 feet) above sea level that propelled their enormous effort to venture into the winemaking business. From the outset, the team at Chêne Bleu surrounded themselves with respected wine industry advisors; including Zelma Long and Philippe Cambie, who channelled the evolution to a full-fledged operation that now produces 5-6000 cases per year. The first vintage (2006) of organic Chêne Bleu wines were launched to an expectant market in 2009. The Chêne Bleu wine label is a pictorial homage to the medieval past, the mythical grapes and the tireless team who run the operation and wine production.
Tasting Skills at Chêne Bleu Extreme Wine
Nicole Rolet admits that her wine knowledge 15 years ago was average, and her understanding of the wine industry was weak. Coming from a background in capital market sales and political science Nicole is one who thirsts for comprehension, so she began tackling wine-related courses offered in London and elsewhere. However, she quickly realised that the curriculum was lacking in the realities of the lifecycle of the vine. Where was the information how to grow healthy grapes, how terroir affects varietals and how winemaking techniques impact the glass of wine that is eventually consumed? So, she created her own course.
Nicole worked with Clive Barlow to craft the material for what is the basis of the Chêne Bleu Extreme Wine Experience. During the week, Clive and Nick present WSET course material that is complemented by a working visit to the vineyard where you are expected to prune the vines, collect soil samples and inspect the new crop of grapes. You even get the chance create your assemblage (blend) of Grenache, Syrah and Viognier. It would be impossible to walk away from that combination of experiences without having increased your comprehension of the industry.
When Clive and Nick informed us that we would taste over 90 wines during the week, I started to get cold sweats. Would I make it through all the wines and still be able to tell red from white? I discovered that the WSET approach to wine tasting is systematic, logical and easy to follow. Although, I can confirm that my approach to my first sip is now more thoughtful I am not confident I can distinguish between peach and apricot aromas.
Each meal at la Verrière was beautifully presented and perfectly paired with the feature wines from that day. It would be impossible to pick a favourite dish other than to say if I were rating for Michelin chef Fabrice Leclaire and his sous-chef Cyril Vernon deserve a star-studded rating. If that is not enough, at la Verrière, you are never quite sure who might show up for dinner it could be Eric de St Victor of Château de Pibarnon, a winemaker who came to share his personal wine story.
On the first day when we began sampling wine at 10:15 am I silently questioned whether I would make it through the next five days. Then all of a sudden it was Thursday night and we were seated at an elegant dinner table wearing gala attire serenaded by the voice of an opera singer. My initial doubts had long been washed away with the fantastic wines, and the increased awareness I now possessed. The only regret that I had was not spending enough time enjoying the comfort of the Frette sheets and silk duvet in my suite.