Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Tavel AOC (Southern Rhone): Terroir, wine production, wines

The wine producers of Tavel have no reservations as to which is the premier Rosé producing region in France.

And while that sentiment is not universally shared, it is widely acknowledged that Tavel stands alone as a Rosé-only AOC and is, without a doubt, the most famous wine of that style in the land. I traveled with a group of fellow bloggers to Tavel and Chateauneuf-du-Pape on a DWCC2014 Pre-Conference Press trip and continue my observations herein with a report on the region's non-soil terroir components, winemaking, and wines. The region's soils were covered in a previous post.

The vineyards of Tavel AOC are located 15 km NW of the Avignon mainly in the municipality of Tavel with a small portion in the town of Roquemaure, both in the departèmant of Gard.

The vineyard was originally planted by the Greeks, extended by the Romans, and, until the French Revolution, maintained by churches and Abbeys. The vineyard reached a peak of 800 ha in 1868 but was devastated by Phylloxera shortly after and did not attain that size again until 1977.

In 1936, Tavel became one of the first winemaking regions (the others being Arbois, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and Cassis) in France to be granted AOC status.

Tavel's climate is Mediterranean-influenced with hot, dry summers (average temperatures of 22 ℃) and 2700 hours of sunshine per year. Summer and winter (average temperature 7.3 ℃) alike are moderated by two strong north-to-south winds called Mistral and Tramontane. The Mistral is called La Bise at the beginning of its journey down through the Rhone Valley where, upon reaching Provence, it lays claim to its more notorious nomenclature. The Mistral blows for approximately 158 days per year with 100 of those days experiencing winds of 60+ kph. Both the Mistral and Tramontane clear the atmosphere and dry out the leaves and grape bunches after summer storms.

Average annual rainfall is 700 mm with an average of 201 mm in the summer and 503 mm for the remainder of the year. While this amount of rainfall may be sufficient in other wine regions, the free-draining soils that are a characteristic of Tavel ensures that the soil moisture will flow rapidly to the underlying clay layers or into the cracks in the limestone bedrock. In order to gain access to these potential water sources, the vine roots will have to dive deep.

Treated previously

Vines are planted on one of the the three soil types described previously with a maximum planting density of 4000 vines/ha and space between vines of >2.25 meters. The dominant training systems are the older Gobelet and the newer Royat Cordon. Gobelet is used for untrained vines and provide the advantages of (i) better resistance to wind and drought and (ii) less sensitivity to wood disease. The disadvantage is less exposure of the leaves to the sun's rays. Royat Cordon is used for wire-trained vines and has the primary advantage of increasing the amount of the canopy exposed to the sun's rays with the resultant increase in color, tannin, sugar, aromas, and berry sanitary conditions. Gobelet systems are restricted to a maximum of 2 buds/spur and the Spurred Cordon to a maximum of 6 spurs/vine and two buds per spur.

In the cases where a vineyard is moving from a Gobelet to Royat Cordon system, it is allowed two years to make the transition. During the transition period, the Double Guyot training system is allowed.

Tavel wines are blends and the allowed grape varieties are divided into two classes: main and accessory ( The main varieties are (in alphabetical order) Bourboulenc, Cinsault, Clairette, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Picpoul, and Syrah. The accessory varieties are Calitor and Carignan. The deployment of these varieties into the blend are curtailed as follows:
  • The proportion of all Grenache should be greater than 30%, but less than 60%, of the blend
  • The proportion of each main grape variety should be less than or equal to 60% of the blend
  • The proportion of each accessory variety should be less than or equal to 10% of the blend.
The contribution of each variety to the finished wine is indicated in the table below.

Variety Contribution to Tavel Wines
    Powerful aroma of red fruits
    Color and aromatics; freshness; structure; ageability
    Aromatic elegance
    Unctuousness and depth; flowery aromas; spiced notes of dried fruits
    Balance and strength
    Fresh flowery tones
    Tannin, color, and fruit; elegance; structure; hint of bitterness
    Finesse; flowery flavors
    Extremely rare
Sources:; Rolf Bichsel, Tavel: The People and the Wines, Féret, 2011

Vineyard Management Practices
Tavel wine production is split between the Cooperative (45%) and 34 private producers each of whom, on average, controls 15 ha of land. According to Kelly McAuliffe, a US-born Sommelier who provided technical leadership on behalf of the Tavel Vintners Association, the region's growers are moving rapidly away from vanilla viticultural science and towards management practices such as organic, biodynamic, and integrated vineyard management. The table below provides a composite of the vineyard management practices of a number of the wineries we visited plus those whose wines I had tasted as a part of a Guild of Sommeliers Tavel-CdP tasting I had attended in Miami earlier in the year

Cultural Practice
Fall - Winter

Add small quantities, when needed, of Potassium, Magnesium, and Nitrogen

Reconstitute hummus by grinding pruned vine branches and working into soil with cut leaves

Add natural compost
Spring through Harvest
Grass Control
Tilling and hoeing

Chemical weed killers (less and less annually)

Grape Moth Control
Use of pheromones to make it difficult for male moths to find partners

Downy/Powdery Mildew Control
Copper or sulfur spray
Shoot Thinning
Remove shoots to aid air flow
Green Harvest
Drop fruit in order to focus vine’s resource production and allocation

Leaf Culling
Pull leaves in order to improve micro-climate

If survival of plot at stake
Remove damaged or less-ripe bunches that could affect overall quality

Wine Making Process
A composite of the Tavel winemaking process is illustrated in the figure below.

After tasting selected Tavel wines at the Guildsomm tasting and on the DWCC Press trip, I can characterize them as follows:

  • Variable in color with hues from salmon to deep strawberry
  • Possessing higher extract than any Rosé I had tasted previously
  • Higher levels of alcohol than Rosés I had tasted previously
  • Redolent of ripe strawberry and raspberry fruit
  • Possessing moderate acidity
  • On the palate, intensity, power, spiciness, and in, many cases, a vinosity that is not characteristic of Rosé wines that I have previously experienced.

In the near future I will attempt to compare the Tavel Rosés to those of Provence.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

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