Home to famous names like Hermitage, Chateauneuf du Pape and Cote Rotie, the Rhone has long been an ancient hub of wine making. Peel back the layers; look a little deeper and you’ll make an amazing discovery: Roquemaure, the birthplace of the Cotes . . .
The Rhone Valley is so long that it stretches for almost 150 miles north to south. The wine region begins at the gastronomic paradise of Lyons and ends in the south, west of Marseille, where the River Rhone flows into the Mediterranean Sea. The valley is awash with history and wine; it’s an ancient trade route that merchants have travelled for thousands of years. Amidst the more famous wines there are many hidden gems that glint from within the valley’s reaches; often long forgotten by those outside France.
Exploring earlier this year I came across a real diamond.
In the Southern Rhone at the end of a narrow limestone ridge that rises abruptly from the flat plain below sits a ruined castle. Its sister, the Castle of Hers, sits on the opposite bank of the River Rhone. When they were built the Rhone was wider at this point than it is today and both castles were on islands within the river. The castle on the crag is known as Roquemaure (‘Rocca Maura’ which means the ‘black rock’ in the old French language of Occitan).
It was here that I discovered a little cooperative making stunning wines that have a history so weighty behind them that I was astonished by what I’d found.
Roquemaure sits on the right bank of the Rhone 6 miles north of Avignon, 5 miles south east of Orange and 2 miles west of Chateauneuf de Pape – ideally placed to become a trade centre. This region has a very old historical roots; a Roman villa and grave yard lie beneath the ground in the outskirts of the castle and it’s thought that Hannibal himself crossed the River Rhone here with his war elephants on his journey from the Iberian peninsula to northern Italy. Wines have been produced in the region since pre-Roman times, and those from the right bank were the favourites of Kings and of the Avignon Popes who ruled the area.
Roquemaure castle dates back to the 1209 at the eve of the Albigensian Crusade. Perched high on its crag Roquemaure was a wealthy wine hub; the castle hosted frequent visits by French Kings, Popes and nobility and its little port on the river bustled with wine exports.
The fame of its wines even reached England; the earliest written mention of viticulture in Roquemaure is by Gervase of Tilbury (Essex) in 1214!
Five hundred years later in 1735 more than 8,000 barrels a year were being shipped from the port.
Roquemaure – the birthplace of the Cotes du Rhone
The trade in wines caused rivalry between competing French regions – Burgundy in particular tried to protect its reputation against the rise of the Rhone. Bordeaux frequently used Rhone wines (especially Hermitage) to spice up poor Bordelaise vintages. In 1650 a rule was passed to safeguard the quality of of the Rhone wines in order to protect against forgeries:
The term Cotes du Rhone was coined at this time in attempt to guarantee the origin of the wine and this rule forms the basis of today’s nationwide AOC system!
In 1737 King Louis XV decreed that all casks from Roquemaure should be branded with the initials C.D.R. The Cotes du Rhone was born. At first only wines from Roquemaure and neighbouring Lirac, Tavel and Chusclan could bear this mark. Two hundred years later it was expanded to a wider area and made law by the INAO in 1937.
Changing Tides for Roquemaure
Some links with Bordeaux and Burgundy remain to this day:
The famous negotiant house M. Chapoutier have been producing both Burgundy and Rhone wines for over 200 years.
Francois Pinault, owner of Permier Cru (First Growth) Chateau Latour also owns Chateau Grillet in the Rhone.
Bernard Magrez, owner of four Bordelaise Premier Crus also produces Rhone wine. Oddly enough the oldest of Magrez’s Premier Crus is Chateau Pape Clement (which celebrated its 700th anniversary in 2006) which was once owned by Pope Clement V – who died at the castle of Roquemaure in 1314!
However as time marched on the port of Roquemaure silted up as the Rhone changed its course and the wine trade started to fade into obscurity. Of course wines were still produced in the area but the rise of Bordeaux with its great port eclipsed the Rhones and Roquemaure became a back water. In France connoisseurs know where to hunt out these wines but across the Channel their notoriety has been washed away.
In 1922 a group of local wine makers clubbed together to form Rocca Maura, a cooperative based in Roquemaure. Today vintners from nine villages bring their harvests to the cellar and work in common with one goal in mind: to produce good wine of great character. Their vineyards cover some of the best terrain and stretch across the Roquemaure’s lands, Tavel and Lirac. Fanned by the winds of the Mistral and marked by the passage of the River Rhone these lands sit on limestone bedrock and granite outcrops covered with red soil and pebbles. The plots, established by their grandparents and ancestors, are reworked and the wines of Roquemaure have been reborn.
I have brought a sample of my favourites back to the UK; you can try them all as part of a case or individually to suit your personal tastes. Enjoy!
Deliciously deep and elegant Cotes du Rhone. Fine and fruit driven with satiny smooth tannins. Dense flavours of dark morello cherry, raspberry and ripe fig with subtle notes of cloves, vanilla and black pepper. A lingering finish of liquorice. Well balanced and full of finesse.
Dangerously good, fruit driven, aromatic Viognier from the Gard. Sensuous flavours of ripe white peach, lime and poached pears with heady notes of verbena flowers, sweet aniseed and freshly cut hay. Complex, expressive and elegant with an impressively pure and long finish.
Fine and fragrant Rose from the Pays du Gard. Lithe and lively with refreshing flavours of ripe raspberry, black cherry, cinnamon and sweet anise with a touch of strawberry. Gorgeous heady aromas of lily and wallflower. Svelte, smooth and well balanced.
Smooth, refreshing, crystalline White from the Gard. Clean flavours of pear, lemon and honeydew melon lifted by notes of apple blossom, almonds and sweet anise. Vivacious and bright this is also layered and expressive in the mouth. A crisp, well balanced white with lovely harmony.