My first reference point for Ardeche wines is a black tie dinner about a decade ago. An elderly gentleman to my right, in an approving reference to the Ardeche Chardonnay being served with the smoked trout said, ‘When I’m driving through France, I always buy myself a few cases of deliciously rough Chardonnay from the Ardeche.’
"I think in the future, we have the ability here to prove that we can both protect the environment and make make extremely good wines."
My mind had already flown to landscapes of lavender, dramatically steep gorges, the gurgling river, long languorous lunches, chatter and laughter, followed by bellyflops into deep cold water, surrounded by gently bustling trees, birdsong and siesta. All this relived as I arrived in the sleepy tourist town of Ruoms, to meet Philippe Dry, Director General of the Union des Vignerons Ardéchois.
Philippe has been in this role since 2015 having worked first in Beaujolais, then Burgundy and finally in Alsace. He said that he never for a moment thought he would end up in the Ardeche, recalling that when he used to sell Chablis, “Even in a bad vintage, it would sell itself. It was really very easy.” Here in the Ardeche, the challenges are more pronounced.
The wider perception of Ardeche is of a natural wonderland. People come to kayak, to eat, and luxuriate in nature. This is an area of outstanding natural beauty, a hotbed of biodiversity. The vineyards crisscross through the landscape and the Viognier’s, Chardonnays, Syrahs, and so on, are consumed appreciably. Back in the UK they are somewhat lost in the noise of other more illustrious regions, their moreish-ness and exceptional value all but forgotten.
Domaine Terra Noé - vineyard and house restoration
Philippe is going to introduce us to the Domaine Terra Noé, a restored estate of 25 hectares of organic vineyards producing a small selection of wines to demonstrate the modern face of winemaking in Ardeche. He says that the common perception of Ardeche is that the wines are ready to drink but, with widespread improvements across the region, quality and potential for aging has greatly increased.
Union des Vignerons Ardéchois
The Union is a grouping of fourteen cooperative cellars that organise their winemaking according to the optimal conditions of each member. The Union's oenology department sets the vinification process for each vintage, takes care of storage, bottling and marketing, operating as an umbrella to the cooperative.
Located close to the village of Rochecolombe is Domaine Terra Noé, fifty kilometres west of Montalimar, south of Ardeche. Philippe says the best soils are here, called gravitate, a stoney calcerous soil with a subsoil of clay that he says is also found in Burgundy.
It is a hot June day and with each passing year, the mercury in the thermometer continues to rise. Philippe says that despite the increasing heat, they still have enough temperature variation between night and day to keep the vines cool. He says this, as well as careful clonal selection and cover crops between the vine rows, are key contributors to protecting the freshness in the wines.
Another factor that he says contributes to Terra Noé’s longer term resilience is the conversion to organic viticulture and extensive restoration of the estate, including planting hedgerows, maintaining dry stone walls, installing nesting boxes and working with the LPO (League for the Protection of Birds) Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, to identify and monitor populations. Thus far twelve species of bats have been named, and these good pest-munching friends to have in any vineyard.
This is the direction land stewardship needs to be travelling across Europe. Those of us who benefit from the produce of estates like this in the Ardeche, need to know that our custom is fed back into the cycle of restoring and enhancing life systems.
Terra Noé vineyards and winery
It has taken three generations of winegrowers to restore the twenty five hectares. Philippe says his teams mission was to increase the quality of the production and the way of working.
He says the growers here had in the past worked in the ‘classic way, using pesticides. So we wanted to get rid of it. We have worked organically for three years now. The new vintage will be fully organic. We also changed all the vinification processes, investing more than three million euros in a new winery.’
Citing his earlier career as inspiration, he says:
‘We work like a Burgundy house works, only by gravity. We pick the grapes and we don't want to damage any of them. There is no pumping. I think in the future, we have the ability here to prove that we can both protect the environment and make make extremely good wines.’
Terra Noé wines
The estate has divided the wines into three ranges. The first is the Classique, offering a blend of Syrah and Grenache for the red and Viognier and Chardonnay for the white. The second range is called, Esprit de Noé, and is defined by a fruit forward character. Upsilon is the upper tier and during our visit, we taste the first Upsilon Viognier to be produced.
Esprit de Noé Rosé
Tian of sun-kissed vegetables and mozzarella salads in vinaigrette with Vagnas olive oil.
The Esprit de Noé rosé accounts for 42% of production at Terra Noé. This is demand driven and demonstrates the power of quality pink wines in the marketplace.
The rosé is a blend of Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon, vinified at a low temperature to preserve the overt fruity characteristics. It has all the ripe bursting summer fruits but with a cool backbone of structure and long clean finish, leaving the drinker in the throws of sipping satisfaction. I can see why it sells.
Esprit de Noé, Chardonnay Viognier 2022
Both varieties of grape are expressed in the aroma, the stone fruit with a touch of citrus. Fresh, fruity and more-ish to taste. East going, fun and approachable.
Terra Noé Blanc 2022 - 80% Chardonnay, 20% Viognier, Organic
More opulent nose, honeysuckle. Flashes of both varieties in the blend. More creamy but still fresh. The six months aging on the lees and partial malolactic fermentation lends that touch of sophistication setting it apart from the Esprit de Noé.
Upsilon Viognier 2022
Upsilon is the first offering in the top tier of the estate. An organic Viognier with no malolactic fermentation, it is aged in large oak tank. It is the deliberate blocking of the second fermentation that is the key winemaker choice that differentiates Upsilon from Condrieu. Upsilon is rich on flavours; white peach, conference pear and scrub herbs. The texture added by the oak is attractive. There is a real age potential. Will the absence of the second fermentation help balance the wines in these hotter years? Time will tell.
Esprit de Noé, Cabernet, Grenache 2022
Alluring aromas of red rose and ripe compote of berry fruits. A bright sensation of lightness but still with ample tannins. An approachable wine.
Terra Noé Rouge, Syrah and Grenache
A long maceration and aging in oak (unsure how long) leaves a subtle impression on the wines. The emphasis is definitely on a lightness of touch. Waves of floral notes, violets, sweet spices and black pepper. Very fine juicy tannins, perfect for late plate of Ardeche cheeses.
Subterranean Ardeche blues
After the Terra Noé visit we moved into the mountains to visit the mind-blowing Aven d’Orgnac, a subterranean natural wonder of the world, discovered in 1935 by Robert de Joly. The cave structure stretches for five kilometres and has the ambience of an art studio belonging to a deified Giacometti. Over 120 metres below the surface we see Gaia producing sculptures, one drip at a time, forming spindling stalagmites one way, and stalactites like boney hanging arms the other.
A corridor shooting off at 50metres below ground leads to an chamber where a cache of Ardeche fine wines are stored. We taste wines that have aged above ground alongside those that have aged below. There is a marked difference with the subterranean wines aging much slower, with more emphasis on structure. But what other changes occur down here? A link to the selected wines we tasted is below.
Visitors to Terra Noé are invited to buy a share in the overall project that involves an annual tasting in the caves. It is the perfect gift for those who possess appetites for adventure and for wine. Perhaps they are one and the same?
Recalling the elderly gentleman in black tie referring to ‘rough’ Chardonnay’s of the Ardeche, I expect, in context, they were then to be desired. In todays Ardeche, there is a contemporariness that draws on the accumulated expertise that the region is keen to express. And, given the creeping darkness of winter approaching, it is not nostalgia so much for times past, but a wistfulness for changes constantly afoot.
Each vintage expression is now marked by the emission of humanity’s wider activity. We will need all of the collaborative intelligence and resource to navigate the storms that are upon us. In many cases, we will undoubtedly fail to hold them back from the threshold of all kinds of viability but in others there will be success and adaptation. Time above ground is moving fast. The inertia in the Earth system is catching up with us.
Perhaps the expressionistic interior of Aven d’Orgnac, with a slowly aging Ardeche Chardonnay in our glass, is just the refuge for weary winelovers.
Author - Nick Breeze