Thursday 8 August 2013

Terre des Chardons - a very exciting discovery

I first read about the wines of Terre des Chardons in an article by Richard James, one of the more unheralded Languedoc-Roussillon specialist writers and bloggers. It was only a week or so before I was due to go on holiday, but Richard's impressions of the wines (especially as he doesn't dish out praise lightly) had me all excited and determined to try and organise a visit. A quick Google, followed by a couple of emails to owner and winemaker Jerome Chardon did the trick and so, on the way to our holiday base in deepest Languedoc, we made the detour to Bellegarde, in the most south-easterly corner of the Costières de Nimes region. As is often the case, it took a bit of finding, being a couple of kilometres down a series of narrow, winding roads, with a mix of dirt and tarmac. As the crow flies, it is only a few hundred metres from the autoroute. In practice, it is one of those sort of places that feels like miles from anywhere, so isolated and tranquil is it. And I am so glad we made the visit, for it turned out to be a very rewarding journey of discovery.

Jerome Chardon
The Chardon family moved from Touraine (in the Loire Valley) to Bellegarde in the early 1980's, where they bought some land and began farming fruits such as apricots and cherries and vegetables, converting to organic farming a few years later. When their son Jerome graduated from his studies in agronomy in 1993, he moved to the estate to assist his parents. At the same time, he planted vineyards with Syrah and Grenache, and also bought an established vineyard planted with Clairette (the local white variety). Because much of Jerome's time was still devoted to the fruit and vegetable side of things, he employed the services of a certain lady by the name of Julie Balagny to manage the winery, which she did for the next 4 years. I have it on good authority - from more than one source - that Julie is now making big waves (and great wines) in Fleurie. I mention this because, by complete coincidence, I had had it in mind to arrange a visit with Julie earlier in the day, on our way down through southern Burgundy, but my (probably misplaced) perception of her fearsome reputation, and the fact that she probably wouldn't have any wine left to sell, dissuaded me. I must remedy that some time, because her wines sound wonderful! Suffice to say that Julie's passion for biodynamic viticulture rubbed off on Jerome Chardon, for the estate has for many years now been certified as both organic and biodynamic. 

Jerome Chardon is a gentle, unassuming man, with a clear passion not just for organic and biodynamic viticulture, but for the whole ethos of sustainable farming and respect for tradition. This even extends to the winery, which Jerome built himself next to the farmhouse, from natural materials. The walls are made from the same stone that was used by the Romans to build the nearby Pont du Gard. Each one is 2.1m wide, 0.9m high and 0.6m thick and weighs a whopping 2.5 tons! The roof structure consists of untreated oak beams and rafters, traditional baked earth tiles and 8cm thick cork insulation. The result is an extremely functional and cool yet really rather beautiful chai. The tasting table is actually a huge (and very ancient) grape press, which was rescued from a Burgundy grower who was about to send it to the tip.

The cellar - note the "bricks", weighing 2.5 tons each!
The idyllic setting of the Chardon farmhouse, with the winery on the right

The 9 hectares of vineyards (2 ha of Clairette, 4.3 ha of Syrah and 2.1 ha of Grenache) surround the property, along with fruit and olive trees. The soil consists of the same sort of siliceous rocks that are the hallmark of the Costières de Nimes region, and of course Chateauneuf du Pape, a few kilometres up-river, whilst the vines are trained on wire trellises, in order to facilitate good air circulation. No chemicals (apart from the occasional treatment with a very weak "Bordeaux mix") are used in the vineyards, the only regular treatments being completely natural herbal and biodynamic sprays and soil treatments, plus shallow tilling to keep weeds to a manageable level (with a flock of sheep doing their bit for the cause through the winter!). Similarly, no chemicals are used in the winery, save of course for a little SO2 at the fermentation and bottling stages. The grapes are de-stemmed and some parcels fermented traditionally, whilst others go through a sort of semi-carbonic maceration, depending on the style required from each parcel. Fermentation is entirely reliant on the naturally-occurring indigenous yeasts. Picking, racking and bottling are all carried out in accordance with the phases of the moon. Rather importantly (in fact crucially, in my opinion) the wines are all aged in vat - the only oak barrels in sight are old and purely ornamental. Which - biodynamic practices aside - is one of the main reasons why the wines all taste so alive and "un-mucked-about-with" - as you will gather from my rather enthusiastic tasting notes!

These vines are in extremely rude health!
Olive groves are also a feature of the estate, not to mention some majestic cedars and cypresses

Jerome makes 3 different dry red cuvées, a rosé, two dry whites (a "regular" Clairette and a "reserve") and also a late-harvested sweet Clairette. We didn't taste the reserve Clairette or the sweet wine (we have more than enough of those to be going on with). Apart from the Clairette, all are from the 2012 vintage (the Clairette may be slow to shift, but the reds obviously fly out of the door). All of these wines came in last week, so are available for you to buy. So what do they taste like.........? 

Clairette de Bellegarde 2010 
100% Clairette, harvested at just 35 hl/ha (between 6 and 8 bunches per vine). Pale straw colour. The nose is smoky, herby and spicy at the same time, with notes of over-ripe apples, apricot and lime marmalade. The palate is quite rich, even gently oily in texture, nicely fruity in a lemon and lime sort of way, with a rich seam of herbs and spices and even a touch of grape tannin, which leads to a long, tangy finish. It is considerably complex and concentrated, and whilst the acidity isn't high, it is a match for many an expensive southern Rhône white and really does come into its own with food. 13.5% abv. 

Rosée d'Été 2012
70% Grenache, 30% Syrah. A delightful pale copper/pink colour, offering aromas of ripe red fruits, peach, apple and orange blossom and an intriguing touch of florality and smokiness. The palate is soft, almost creamy, medium-rich, with loads of summer fruit flavours, shot through with garrigue herbs and a gentle spiciness, cracking acidity and a long finish. This is serious rosé, not cheap, but definitely on a par with many of the more expensive Provence rosés (Bandol included). Lovely stuff! 12.5% abv. 

Bien Luné 2012 Costières de Nimes 
50% Syrah, 50% Grenache. This is so fresh, so intensely aromatic - it simply reeks of violets and lilies, damsons and cassis. Indeed, if you didn't know better, you'd be forgiven for thinking you were in the northern Rhône! The palate is one of real contradictions - wonderfully fresh, elegant and airy, but at the same time intense, concentrated and considerably complex. A core of ripe, tangy red berry fruits, black cherry, a lick of blackcurrant and a gentle herbaceous streak, married to ripe tannins and mouth-watering acidity, make for something really rather special. When I first tasted this wine, I was amazed to find that it contained any Grenache at all, for it smells and tastes for all the world like a pure Syrah from Crozes-Hermitage or even Hermitage - it really is that good. I was also pleasantly surprised to hear that it spends no time in oak whatsoever - indeed, none of the wines from this estate do - which allows the fruit to express itself to the full. And the best thing about it is that it is so good to drink now, despite its obvious age-worthiness. Wonderful wine. 12.5% abv. 

Marginal 2012 Costières de Nimes
80% Syrah, 20% Grenache. Initially a touch closed, with dark, smoky, mineral, citrus peel and tobacco notes. It opens-out nicely after a few minutes, revealing complex aromas of cassis, raspberry, cherry, black olive and lilies. As with its "Bien Luné" sibling above, it manages to be both delicate and light on its feet, yet possessed of a core of rich, concentrated black fruits and soft citrus, with subtle flavours of tapenade, garrigue herbs and warm curry spices (perhaps courtesy of the Grenache element, which shows a little more in this cuvée). Once again, the velvety tannins and ample acidity combine with all of that wonderful fruit (and no oak, remember) to give real definition and focus, all the way through to a very long finish. Another superb wine, from one of the star estates of the future. Voted the best Languedoc red at the 2013 "Signature Bio" competition. 12.5% abv. 

Chardon Marie 2012 Costières de Nimes
100% Syrah. This is the estate's top red wine, named in honour of winemaker Jerome Chardon's grandmother, Marie (Chardon-Marie is also the French name for milk thistle, hence the label design and the play on words). It comes from the best parcel of Syrah vines - and it shows. The nose simply reeks of all manner of red and dark fruits, especially raspberry, blackcurrant and red cherry, with complex floral and savoury undertones such as violets, black olive tapenade and just a hint of meat/leather. There's no oak, remember, but a wine as good as this doesn't need oak. It is so clean, so fresh, so full of life and youthful vigour, with a palate crammed full of concentrated fruit and herb flavours. There's an intriguing touch of saline minerality, countered by a cool, almost minty quality, whilst velvet tannins and a rasp of gloriously prickly acidity make for a supremely balanced and deceptively elegant wine. The finish is delightfully sweet and sour - and very long. This is very much in the Northern Rhone style of winemaking (with a nod to the elegance of the Côtes de Nuits) and, whilst unbelievably good to drink already, has the capacity to age and evolve into something even more beautiful, over the next 5 to 10 years. A very special wine, which (for me) sets a new benchmark for the appellation. 13.5% abv.

So there you have it - a brilliant grower, and brilliant wines. Indeed, the reds are a real eye-opener, and redefine for me what is possible in this little corner of south-east Languedoc. In fact, not only do they set a new benchmark for the Costières de Nimes appellation, they are simply some of the best Languedoc Syrah-based wines I have ever tasted. Trust me - they are that good!

Update - June 2020
The latest vintages from Terre des Chardons are available to buy via our new website, by clicking the following link;


Richard Mark James said...

Extensive info Leon, nice one. Will have to go there sometime. Thanks for the plug too. Glad he got a new listing, not much point in making good wines and people like me going on about them if you can't buy them. Richard

Leon Stolarski said...

My pleasure, Richard. And thanks again for writing about them yourself - I wouldn't have found them without you!

Vinogirl said...

These wines sound delightful and what great prices.
Love those 'bricks'!