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The number of transcendent wines emerging from the South of France is, so far, a small one. Yet, they are some of the country’s most compelling.
Four come from domaines that have recently gained worldwide fame as leaders of the southern French wine renaissance: Tempier, Trévallon, Grange des Pères and Mas de Daumas Gassac. Their renown is the result of the vision to see that certain terroirs, planted with the right grape varieties, could produce wine of the complexity and longevity to stand with the best of Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Rhône.
Yet, for nearly two centuries, the far more obscure Château Simone’s Rougier family has quietly been producing stunningly nuanced, nearly immortal whites and reds that attest to the greatness of this limestone amphitheater, located within the tiny Provençal appellation of Palette.
Made from complex blends of grapes, proven over time to be ideal for this unique terroir, through a traditional approach that expresses site character with startling transparency, the Ch. Simone wines are revered in France as some of the country’s greatest vinous treasures.
Yet, their originality and several-decade lifespan remain little known outside of their native land. They have rarely been reviewed elsewhere, and their magic continues to be overlooked in the wider wine world, despite the greatness evident to those who’ve experienced them.
Once tasted, however, mature bottles of Ch. Simone remind us that the world’s greatest wines are born of great terroirs and traditionally inspired winemaking, built to develop with uncanny grace for decades.
Ch. Simone’s terroir was created for great wine. It’s a high-altitude, north-facing amphitheater of limestone, sheltered and cooled by surrounding pine forests, the massive Mont St-Victoire and the Arc River. That produces fruit of an ideal balance of richness and finesse.
These unique qualities have been noted since ancient times, and vines have been planted there continuously since then, but its modern era began with the acquisition of the estate by the Rougier family in 1830. Today, seventh-generation vigneron Jean-François Rougier is in charge, and he does everything just as his great-grandfather Jean did.
It was Jean who recreated Ch. Simone as it is today following phylloxera. He replanted the vineyards, strictly with selection massale cuttings, and established an organic farming regime for soil and vine health decades before it was a trend.
This gives Jean-François very old vines to work with; the average age is more than 60 years, with some parcels dating back to 1891. Not they are not only old; they’re complex in their assemblage. The reds are dominated by Grenache, followed by Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and tiny amounts of indigenous varieties, co-planted as they had been for centuries.
The whites are unusual in being primarily composed from Clairette, with Grenache Blanc, Ugni Blanc, Muscat and a sprinkling of strictly local grapes completing the blend. As with the red, all of these varieties were selected generations ago for their suitability to this unique terroir.
Jean-François’ approach in the cellar is every bit as classic, per the domaine’s history, as his farming is. The white grapes are very slowly crushed in an old vertical basket press and fermentation starts with the native yeasts. Barrel aging is for a year in old foudre, followed by another in equally old smaller barrels.
Key factors in the Simone blanc’s expansive richness coupled with mineral-tinged freshness is the high proportion of Clairette and the inhibition of malolactic fermentation by the château’s frigid 16th-century cellars. Clairette is typically seen in only a supporting role elsewhere, but is the star of the show at Ch. Simone, contributing nuance and depth reminiscent of great white Burgundy.
The reds, too, are made by time-honored methods that have long proven ideal for the grapes and terroir. The fruit is completely destemmed and undergoes a three-week fermentation and maceration featuring pumpovers for gentle extraction, followed by the same barrel aging regime as for the whites.
The results are thrillingly complex, deep wines with the structure—in both colors—to develop even greater magic with age. But what makes the domaine’s wines so treasured by those who know them is how transparently they express their unique terroir.
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