If you consulted a bunch of wine experts about the very best land for growing grapes, you’d get pretty much the same answer from them. Steep slopes and poor soil – the best combination for growing wine grapes. This is especially true in France, where grape growers aren’t allowed to irrigate. Being on a slope as opposed to flatter ground means the roots of the vines have to dig further into the soil for water and also keeps all the vines in the sun. And the poor soil acts in concert by providing another reason for the vines to develop deep roots. South and southwestern-facing slopes are even better, giving the vines maximum sun exposure.
There’s no doubt that you’ll find a lot of land like this in Vinsobres, the village where Valérie Chaume-Arnaud lives, grows grapes, and makes wine. But not Valérie’s land. She does have some of land on the slopes of Vinsobres, but not all her land is there. The rest is completely flat and runs along the River Eygues. So the water table isn’t as low and the soil, while not great, isn’t the chalky wasteland of winemaking lore. Any one of those wine experts would probably drive right by her vineyard without a second thought.
But if you set Valérie’s wines in front of those same experts, they’d tell you that these are some of the best wines in the region. One or two of them would even let it slip that the white might just be the best in the entire Southern Rhône Valley. Valérie is a magician at winemaking, and no one better illustrates the importance of the winemaker’s instinct, knowledge, and abilities than she does.
Valérie took over the vineyard from her parents in 1996. They were growers who sold their grapes to the village cooperatives in Vinsobres and St. Maurice sur Eygues, the village to the west. But Valérie wanted to make her own wine and began with one very old wine press and six old tanks. As if that wasn’t daunting enough, she went for the trifecta of difficult production: using only natural yeast from the skin of the grapes themselves, 100% hand harvesting of the grapes, and chemical free agriculture. While there are prohibitions against using pesticides, fertilizers, and herbicides, growers in the region are allowed to use a fungicide if they need it to prevent the vines from rotting in very wet weather. But Valérie decided she wouldn’t even use that, a trend that was just then starting in other types of agriculture throughout the Drôme, the region of Provence where she lives.
Despite the difficulties, her wine attracted local interest and a loyal following among British wine critics. With steadily increasing business, Valérie decided to expand Domaine Chaume-Arnaud in 1999, bringing in her husband, Philippe. They increased the number of different wines produced, but still kept to their methods and were super-selective about the results. This meant sometimes going against the conventional wisdom about which years were good or bad. For example, Valérie decided that some of the grapes in their 2000 harvest were exceptional enough to merit a special cuvée, while her neighbors were hoping that 2000 would just be a passable year. The new wine was made from 50% Syrah and 50% Grenache, when most of their other wines were no more than 20% Syrah. La Cadène Rouge was released for sale in 2004 and is still outstanding today. (Valérie made another batch in 2005 and released it in 2009.)
Above all, her reputation has been made by her white wine, also called La Cadène. It’s 50% Viognier and 50% Marsanne. Viognier is a notoriously difficult grape to grow, and wines with Viognier can be a little flat, although delicious. But the combination of Valérie’s grapes and her winemaking techniques make a stupendous white wine in a region where the whites are generally good but rarely awesome. If you went by the rule book, you’d understand why the French national winemaking authorities awarded cru status (the highest designation) to her village in 2005 for its red wines, but excluded all the whites. Valérie fought them and won – so her La Cadène white has its own cru, making it one of the few single-vineyard special status wines in the country.
Her tenacity extends to every aspect of the business, and there’s nothing that she won’t do herself. Plus she and Philippe have three children. It’s no wonder that her e-mails to me are always time-stamped after midnight. I kid you not, it took two years of visiting before she agreed to sell me her wine. Not because she doesn’t want new customers (even though she could easily sell most of her wine in France) but because she didn’t have the time to give me the attention that she likes to give her customers, big and small. But I’m tenacious too, and Cy can tell you that the morning I got her e-mail confirming my first order, I danced around the breakfast table.
First Vine imports both the red and white La Cadène ($27 and $20), plus a 2005 Vinsobres cru red ($18) made from Grenache, Syrah, Carignan, Mourvèdre, and Cinsault, and a Côtes du Rhône red called Le Petit Coquet ($13), which got its name from one of her customers, a Parisian bistro owner who told her that the wine was a little darling. We also sell a 100% Grenache wine called Granges Rouges ($15) – a wine that Valérie discouraged me from buying because she thought it might be “too French” for my customers. It may be too French (if such a thing is possible), but it’s also too good to ignore, and never ceases to amaze with its earthy flavor.
So are these wines organic, biodynamic, natural, or what? We’ve talked about these designations before, and it isn’t always clear what they mean. Valérie doesn’t label them as anything in particular, and although the wines qualify as organic, she hasn’t applied for organic certification. It’s expensive to get, and Valérie prefers to focus her energy on winemaking. But she and Philippe have joined with other winemakers in the area to create an organization called “Les Toqués des Dentelles.” (The Dentelles are the chain of hills that run like a spine through the southern Rhône valley.) The group is made up of winemakers and farmers who share the same philosophy about wine and protecting the land. If you get a chance to visit the region, you could do far worse than visiting some of the Toqués winemakers. You won’t find fancy tasting rooms (and most likely the winemakers will be coming right out of the fields to meet you – I’ve never seen Valérie in anything other than work overalls), but you’ll drink very well.
The last time I profiled one of our producers I gave a recipe for an elegant beef stew that matched the elegance of the wines and winemaker. And while Valérie’s wines are elegant, there’s a rusticity to her and to them that makes me think of less fancy food. I was leafing through an old Jacques Pépin cookbook a couple of weeks ago and saw a recipe for a hard-boiled egg casserole that he named for his mother (another one of his empty-the-refrigerator creations that are always good). I thought it would make a great hot sandwich, sort of like the Hot Browns that are served on Kentucky Derby Day. So I fiddled a bit and came up with this recipe for hot deviled egg sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs on toast with a spicy white sauce with carmelized onions, topped with cheese and broiled. You can either chop the eggs in large pieces and mix them with the sauce or use an egg slicer, place the slices on the bread, and then top with sauce and the cheese. You could also add cooked bacon, turkey, or shrimp if you’d like, maybe some cooked asparagus too, but I like them with just the eggs. And, of course, any of Valérie’s wines. (Or make them for Derby Day, because there’s pretty much nothing in this world that doesn’t go with mint juleps, at least when you’ve had enough of them.)
PS: Check out the profile of First Vine on the blog The Hill is Home. (We’re thrilled that Dare is finally getting the recognition she deserves as Capitol Hill’s Official Bon Vivant 😉 ) Seriously, thanks for the post, and be sure to check out the blog if you live on the Hill — or just like to visit.
6 large slices rustic French bread
6-8 hard-boiled eggs, cooled, shelled, and sliced or cut each into about 8 pieces
1 small onion, peeled, cut in half, then cut into thin slices
3 cups milk, heated to warm
4 tablespoons butter, plus extra for spreading on the bread
6 tablespoons flour
One half teaspoon salt
One half teaspoon to three-quarters teaspoon dry mustard powder, or one and a quarter teaspoons prepared Dijon-style mustard
One quarter teaspoon hot sauce (more if you’d like)
One cup grated Swiss cheese
One-third cup grated Parmesan cheese
Toast the bread. While it’s still warm, butter it. Set aside. To make the sauce, first melt the 4 tb of butter in a medium-sized saucepan. Saute the onion in the butter until it’s lightly browned. Meanwhile, stir a half teaspoon of the mustard powder and the salt into the flour, then add the flour/mustard/salt to the browned onion, and whisk over low heat for at least two minutes, to cook the flour without browning it. Add the warm milk and keep whisking, turn the heat up to medium-high and cook until the mixture thickens. Add the hot sauce, then the Dijon if you’re using that instead of mustard powder, then the Parmesan cheese and whisk until melted. Taste for mustard – if you want more, dissolve the remaining quarter teaspoon of mustard powder in a teaspoon of water and whisk it into the sauce, or add a little more Dijon. Taste for heat and salt and add a little more of either if you like.
If your broiler is large enough to sit over six slices of bread, adjust the oven rack to about six inches below the broiler, then preheat the broiler. If not, preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. Place the bread slices, buttered side up, on a baking sheet. If you’ve chopped the eggs, mix them with just enough sauce to moisten them. Divide the egg mixture (or sliced eggs not mixed with sauce) among the bread slices, top with sauce, then the Swiss cheese. Broil for a few minutes, watching carefully, until browned and bubbly. If you’re baking them, it may take up to 10 minutes, but keep watching. Let the sandwiches cool for a couple of minutes, then serve.