The heady days of pre-lockdown have become a fuddled misty memory of a bygone time as many of us adapt to life through a lens. Wine lovers the world over are making great efforts to support the winemakers that they love and appreciate.
Yet sometimes the wine we love and appreciate comes in the form of a brand where the scale of production extends beyond what could be meaningfully called personal, however, not all brands are cast in the same mould. Cellier des Dauphins is a case in point.
Filmed interview with Laurent Paré, head oenologist at Cellier des Dauphins
Looking good at 40 million bottles
When Laurent Paré, Cellier des Dauphins’ chief oenologist, starts to talk about the brand as a whole during lunch, we start to get an idea of the scale of the business. For instance, they are the largest producer at 30% of all Cotes du Rhone. Their 2300 growers occupy 12,000 hectares (12% organic) of vines, producing 40 million bottles per year.
When I mention the challenge of maintaining an image of quality when dealing in such huge numbers, Laurent replies:
‘From this 40 million we are able to extract some really high-quality wine, a lot of premium wine. Especially in crus. A lot of our vines are in the valley of the Rhone so we do a lot of Vacqueyras, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and also Cairanne and Vinsobres.’
Having been established in 1967 as a cooperative owned by the growers the business undertook a review in order to readdress itself for the modern consumer. A year later Laurent was hired and 1.5 years on from then he is in London presenting a new range of wines over lunch.
One of the first questions I asked him was about maintaining any kind of quality control when working on such a scale:
‘Firstly, it is the approach that we decided a few years ago that we have to take the solution from the beginning. We truly believe that you cannot make a great wine without great grapes and everything is as a result of the great work of our winegrowers.
So, first of all, we choose a field that we want to select and we choose a field that we want to crop. Once that is done then 80% of the work is done because obviously you have quality grapes so obviously you are going to get quality wine.
Knowing this we are able to create really really good quality wine.’
‘The Modern style’
This is a term we hear a lot from Laurent over lunch and it is used purposefully to identify itself to the range. It is a term we hear at many lunches so in the interview I asked him to define what it means for him:
‘It is a quite a general term that is in opposition to a traditional style. Most of our crus and our villages are working to a traditional style in a traditional way. For the latest brand like Reserve of Dauphins', we are really looking for easy drinking, pleasure wine, fruity, sweet, not like sugar but ripe. In all our wines we do not add sugar, they are all-natural. What we want to do is bring pleasure to the consumer by cropping the fruit when it is really ripe and easy to work with.’
Be selective, raise the quality
Part of the interest for me in this brand is the division of the scale of the operation between 2,300 growers that, as you raise the magnifying glass, starts to reveal new opportunities that can raise the quality and the value of the offering.
‘Because we proved we were able to make large-scale wine of quality, of really great quality and price, we thought, ‘ok, why not try something better and premium but as our brand?’ So we say that inside the quality we already have, we are going to be a bit more selective from our fields, a bit more from our quality and bring this quality level a bit higher. So that is what we did.’
It’s the growers (obviously!)
Of course, the quality of the fruit thetas produced will define the wine that is made and Cellier des Dauphins are pivoting to highlight the diversity of terroir, applying the credit as well to their growers. This is not in the form of a few words on the back-label, no, they are putting their faces front and centre to carry the new wines:
‘Our first thought was to valorise the work of our winegrowers. You have to imagine that the 2300 wine families all live in the territory, they build the landscape, they work the vines and they support the community. So we wanted to give them back the handwork they do and promote their work by putting them on the bottle and say, ‘You are making the wine!’
Like Mathieu has 60 hectares in the Plan de Dieu, Laurie has 30 hectares and we want him to be recognised well.
They own the company. They are not shareholders, they are growers and they own the company. They really are the territory so we are bringing them to the fore. They are willing to do that and we are willing to promote their wine and their work.’
And the consumer?
This idea of the modern style is centred around freshness, a lightness of touch and elegance that has distanced itself from the big weighty styles of a decade ago. This movement is where Laurent is keen to move with the Cellier des Dauphins brand:
Yes, there is definitely a transition. Now people don’t want to think too much about it when they open a bottle of wine. They really want to have pleasure.
For us, most of the work is done in the vineyard. You don’t make it in the winery, or just a little bit. Winegrowers do most of the job so when you get most of the right fruit at the right moment with the right ripeness, you have not a lot of effort too put on.
When you get the crop like that you put the emphasis on extracting the right amount of tannin and the right amount of anthocyanins, which brings the right smoothness.
We also improve our method of micro-oxygenation and our method of ageing as well, to bring the ripeness and fruitiness into the wine.
Wine & climate change: positives & negatives
Other producers from the Rhone I have spoken to have expressed mixed feelings about the risks posed from climate change. With such a big producer like Cellier des Dauphins, climate change has to be on the radar. I asked Laurent about the positives and negatives:
'In terms of negatives, for sure, it is in the natural increase of the [alcoholic] degree but that can also be a benefit because more alcohol also means more roundness, more mouthfeel. So it depends on the consumer. Because more hot days bring more ripeness for us it can be an advantage.
It is a bit of a moving window from year to year. You can have some damage from the dryness from the heat. But sometimes like in 2019, heat has been beneficial for the colour, for the concentration of tannin and for the ripeness.'
Rising temperatures in southern regions
In southern France in the last few years especially temperatures have soared causing during to the fruit. The scale of the damage is different depending on different factors and Laurent here explains the natural resilience that has, so far, worked in their favour:
'In 2019, in the summer and in September it was a drought that is true but finally, it did pretty well. It was to do with the grapes and the age of the vines. So as the winegrowers are a great asset for us, the vines are a great asset too and because they are old on average, their roots are going very down and able to take the water from very deep.
If your vines are too young then water is not available but because we have a natural vegetal asset, we are able to fight the dry climate.
The proof is in the drinking
My local Neapolitan pizza restaurant has opened around the corner for takeaways only. Served across a barricade of tables by the door, they are not offering an accompaniment of wine. The sun is shining and the thought of sourdough pizza and smooth ripe easy-drinking red wine is hard to dispel.
We have been opening many bottles and taking a relaxed approach to keeping safe. The weather is brightening but, as always in England, it is not that warm. The appeal of wines that champion quality, that has style and incredible quality to value ratio, make Cellier des Dauphins Resérve a reliable pick.
The cru selection wines that Laurent is showing us offer more regional character or esprit de lieu! In his own words he says of the Cellier des Dauphins, Cotes du Rhone Cairanne, ‘it has more elegance and is more typical of the Rhone valley, it is also accessible. The price is not so expensive and the quality is great.’