In the Rhône with Robin

Robin Langton is our newest buyer; an ex-flying winemaker of great experience on three continents … and also an ex-policeman! You get stuck in a lift as we did on the first night of last week’s trip down the Rhône Valley and it’s handy to have a big lad from The Met as knows how to kick down doors.


New buyer Robin

Condrieu will always be a small region but every time I pass it, further bits of sheer hillside have been converted to vineyards. It used to be hard to see any vineyards at all. Good times in Condrieu. Many, like a possible new supplier we visited, have converted from growing almonds to making wine. Today the few remaining trees looked gorgeous in full blossom.

Crozes-Hermitage has grown even more. It used to be just a handful of steep hillsides north of the single hill of Hermitage itself. Now there’s a big zone to the south; not so steep, warmer, can be cultivated by machine. Makes a nice wine; riper, softer. But not quite the same.

Robin had met a Crozes girl at the regional show called Vinisud, liked her wines and arranged a visit. When I saw her name on our itinerary I got quite emotional because twenty years ago the young Celine Fayolle had done some months’ work-experience in our office. I’d bought her father’s wine and her grandfather’s before that. Then it had all stopped. Partly us, I think. Every buyer has their own way of doing things and I’ve always allowed them loads of latitude.

But also the Fayolle family had split. It happens. Not to my own, I fervently pray. A man who wrestled daily with a horse and plough in incredibly steep vineyards, old Jules was the most horny-handed son of the soil I ever met. He had twins. Lovely lads, the pair of them. But after marriages, they fell out. Best not to probe. They split the property in two and a second cellar was created.

Bit it was all a struggle, very emotional, and it was more than the wine that suffered. Celine’s father; Jean-Paul, tragically died of a brain tumour. Very young, Laurent and his sister were thrust into the breach. But on the evidence of today’s walk and taste round the cellar – and the new cuverie being built into the steep hillside it’s overdue that we return here as the important buyers we once were.

Laurent and his late father

Jean-Paul and Laurent

“Yvette! Les Caillettes, les Caillettes, Cherchez les Caillettes!” I could still hear old Fayolle bellowing as, 40 years ago we prepared to drive off after a quick visit. Our visits are always notoriously quick – so much ground to cover – and we almost never stop to eat. But here they have these little pork and spinach based things the size of a tennis ball. Jules would thrust these, warm into our hands as we left. Ah! Jules.

Old Jules in the cellar

Old Jules

Imagine then, my delight as, ten minutes later, at the motorway services down the A6, we saw and were able to regale ourselves with … real caillettes.

When we were approaching those very distinctive fingers of jagged rock above Gigondas in the southern Rhône the nostalgia kicked in again. Sorry about that. André and Colette Roux were my greatest friends in wine for many years. Their home between Gigondas and Sablet was my home when working the valley. But they are long gone now; retired to Paris. Today it’s a new chap. Young Bertrand though, seems to have a lot of André’s quiet brilliance. And he has those same deep, stony soils as his vineyards are contiguous with those André had. Liked his style. We’ll see.

Domaine de Nalys in Châteauneuf-du-Pape is, unusually for us not a family affair. But it was when I knew its owner, the legendary Docteur Dufays, the man who with Baron Le Roy virtually created the Châteauneuf we know today. The Docteur – he was Châteauneuf’s GP – built the fame of this estate but on his death it was taken like many other ‘Great’ estates by an insurance company.

However the winemaker that Dufays trained is still there and still brilliant. Though Pierre Pellisier is threatening retirement! Great man, great place. Great visit.

Next day we visit this winery in Roquemaure by the river which claims to have been the birthplace of Côtes du Rhône. Long story. But is actually in Lirac. Good tasting. But the memory that will always stay with me is of the immaculately suited cellar President, arms flailing, legs going in all directions, vainly trying to stay upright in his cellar. He’d boasted how he had the most immaculately clean cellar in the whole valley. But he’d forgotten this was the morning they soaped the whole place down.

Finally, I took Robin up the Gorges de l’Ardèche. I like people to realise the Ardèche – home of Viognier – is a very special region indeed. Years ago we would put our own winemaker into this region where the fruit was so good … but the winemaking a little off the pace. We took huge amounts of wine from here.

Admiring l'Ardeche

Admiring l’Ardèche

As you go up the gorges road you begin to understand; this is a remote region. Robin seems keen we renew our efforts in this area. There’s no wine left to buy this year. Virtually. Though there was a super tank of Sauvignon B they’d kept for us. We maybe plan for next year.

Anyway, it’s up to Robin but Ardèche may be about to make a comeback! Look forward to further trips with Robin.


About Tony Laithwaite

Tony Laithwaite, founder of Laithwaite's, whose passion for wine is still going strong!