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Visiting Chateau Du Campuget

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Okay, so you read the book A Year in Provence and are very excited to become a winemaker in the south of France. Yes, by all appearances it is a glamorous life. Gorgeous sunny weather, long leisurely lunches by the pool, sipping rose by the Mediterranean sea …

Wait! This is the fantasy. If you really want to make good wine, prepare for 20-hour days – even if you are the owner. Perhaps ‘especially if you are the owner’ is a better phrase since your reputation – and that of your wine – is all you really have.

Recently, I’ve had the good fortune to meet and spend some time with handsome, broad-shouldered Franck-Lin Dalle at his Chateau Du Campuget winery in the sun-kissed Costieres de Nimes area of southern France. I had first tasted Mr. Dalle’s wine this past spring in Manhattan, at a formal luncheon tasting with his distributor. Tasting notes reflect my favorable impressions of the rose and prestige Viognier, as well as the very elegant Syrah, both the slightly oaked Le Sommeliere and the top offering simply called “1753.”

So you can imagine my excitement when offered the opportunity to meet Mr. Dalle at his estate in Nimes and see how the vines are grown and the wine is produced. Geography is very important in this region which is largely referred to as the Languedoc-Roussillon as the terroir is extremely varied over this vast expanse of land extending from the Spanish border in the Southwest to nearly Marseilles. For those of us in the wine world, this region is viewed as an up and coming area where younger winemakers such as Mr. Dalle strive to make quality wine.

“Let us be clear on this one point,” says Mr. Dalle, when I ask if he considers his Chateau in the Languedoc Roussillon area. “We offer Rhone style wines. We have the same soil as the Rhone Valley, the same pebbles.” As an example, Mr. Dalle picks up one of the rock-sized ‘pebbles’ that are a signature of the world-famous vineyards in Chateauneuf du-Pape. By all accounts, this association with the Rhone Valley is correct, especially in terms of terroir. The Languedoc-Roussillion area is as large as many small countries put together, and driving two hours to visit an ancient ruin or have lunch in a Michelin-starred restaurant is common practice. Furthermore, each AOC of the region has its own soil and thus its own characteristic style of wine.

Mr. Dalle’s mention of the Rhone soil and pebbles (washed into Nimes a million years ago during the ice age) is very important, since one of Chateau du Campuget’s most important wines is Syrah, a varietal that has its best expression in the Northern Rhone. The pebbles he mentions (galets roules) also have the added protective advantage of preventing the sub-soils from drying out in summer, and enabling vine-roots to plunge deep into the ground.

One morning, Mr. Dalle took me into the vineyard in his little car to see the Syrah vines. It was mid-June and even at seven in the morning, the sun was fierce overhead. “These vineyards are named for family members,” Mr. Dalle told me, helping me onto a concrete slab in the middle of the vineyard so I could see the expanse of vines all around me — quite an impressive sight.

Stepping down, Mr. Dalle took me into the vineyards and explained that Chateau du Campuget does not believe in green harvesting, a technique whereby unripe grapes are cut from the vines, so that the vines can focus its energy on the healthy ripening of the existing grapes. “We believe a vine is a living thing,” he tells me. “Our goal is to nurture the vine and bring it to its fullest expression.”

Toward that end, canopy management is extremely important to Mr. Dalle, and on the morning of my visit he showed me the tractor that drove through the vineyard, with the mission of making sure the canopy of the vines was trained at the correct level to allow the right mix of sun, shade, and air flow. You have probably heard of the Mistral, the wind that comes down from the Rhone valley and can blow quite hard, yet the upside is that it dries the vines after summer storms, preventing rot.

Franck-Lin Dalle is understandably proud of Chateau du Campuget’s terroir, and of the gorgeous property which his grandfather purchased in 1941after a physician urged him to move south after a WWII injury. Mr. Dalle’s grandfather had owned breweries and thus understood the basics of fermentation, while his botanist partner (and brother-in-law) knew how to grow healthy vines. Though the pair had never made wine before, they quickly mastered the process. Now, over a half century later, Mr. Dalle wants to kick it up a notch and produce wine that will make the world take notice. Already their Prestige Viognier is offered by the glass at the prestigious Café Boulud in Manhatan and other fine restaurants around the world. Japan, Belgium, and many EU countries as well as the U.S. are big markets.

After the vineyards, we visit the cellar – which in the way of many ancient wineries has epoxy fermentation tanks from a hundred years ago standing nearly side by side with shiny new stainless steel. Though this is not a formal tasting visit, I can’t resist the temptation to taste and contrast the difference between the subtly oaked Le Sommelier Syrah and the unoaked prestige 1753, with grapes taken and selected from the best vineyards. Mr. Dalle indulges me by finding two glasses, opening two barrels, and taking a sample of each into the glass. Both wines are elegant and well balanced, yet it takes real finesse to create a wine as graceful as 1753 without oak. It is almost like a woman with the right bone structure and/or underlying personality has no need for makeup to appear soignée at a cocktail party. And if the 1753 is that good fresh from the barrel, I think to myself, what would it be like with some bottle age?

So far, I have just spoken about the wine of Chateau du Campuget, and not of the gorgeous, fairy tale estate which was first built in the 17th century and includes many buildings in addition to the main Chateau where Mr. Dalles was born and grew up. Now that his father has retired, he runs the winery on his own, with the help of a vineyard manager and other key employees. Though Mr. Dalle lives on the property with his elegant wife Sandra and two adorable young daughters, the main Chateau in which he grew up is vacant. “I want to see this place full of life,” Mr. Dalle tells me, saying he has many ideas, including turning it into an exclusive bed and breakfast, or even a little restaurant.

If Mr. Dalle moves forward with these plans, guests will be the lucky ones. The expansive property offers a pool, pink and purple flowering trees, and even roaming peacocks with their vibrant plumes. Chateau du Campuget is a way of life, not merely a winery. In addition to the high quality of the wine, my strongest impressions was the hospitality of the entire Dalle family and Mr. Dalle’s passion for fulfilling his grandfather’s dream of making Chateau du Campuget a globally known brand through a combination of the latest technology and genuine husbandry of the vine.

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