Tavel, Southern Rhone
Today we’ll be travelling to a very small yet influential appellation in France’s Southern Rhone region. Tavel is located just north of regional capital Avignon, and is surrounded almost entirely by regions that produce nothing but heavy, rich red wines from the classic GSM (Grenache/Syrah/Mourvedre) blend all along the Rhone as it meanders south to empty into the Mediterranean. However in Tavel, things are quite different- this is one of the only appellations in France (or the world really) that makes entirely Rosé wine!
Tavel and its neighbouring appellation Lirac were the first places on earth to perfect Rosé production and produce it in commercial volumes. The wines of Tavel were adored by Louis XIV and the French court in the early 18th century, and after the fall of French royalty it was still loved by the newly popular arts class, authors and playwrights such as Balzac and Mistral throughout the 19th century. The popularity of Tavel peaked in the 1950s as France recovered from the ravages of WWII and sought to rebuild with peace and prosperity around the corner. Young, dry, fruity and crisp Rosé was the perfect fit for the times it seems! To match this popularity the Tavel region was expanded back from the Rhone River up into the hills, clearing out hectares of the picturesque and ubiquitous Southern French garrigue to make way for vines. Today there are 900 hectares of vines within the Tavel appellation producing around 5 million bottles of wine per year, however the vast majority of this is consumed either locally, in the bars of Provence to the south or in the bistros of France!
As in much of the Southern Rhone, Grenache is the hero variety here in Tavel, and is grown extensively. Grenache must make up a minimum 30% and a maximum of 60% of all wines produced in this appellation. As any of you who have been reading my Friday Focus pieces for any extended period of time will know, in my opinion Grenache is one of the unsung heroes of the wine world due to its versatility and general deliciousness. Now one thing many of you may not know about Grenache is that, just like fellow thin-skinned varietal Pinot Noir, it is known as being very “genetically unstable” and mutates often. Therefore while Grenache usually makes up more than half of Tavel wines, this can legally include any of the mutations of Grenache. This means it can include the pink-skinned Grenache Gris as well as the white-skinned Grenache Blanc, which makes it much easier to make a Rosé from! In general however, Grenache brings sweet strawberry fruit flavours, warm alcohol and a delicious earthy finish.
But it’s not just all about Grenache, in fact blending is a major part of what makes Tavel so individual- it is illegal to have a Tavel wine made from just one variety. 8 other varieties can go into the blend to make Tavel Rosé, and no one variety can make up more than 60% of the final wine. This forces vignerons to plant a spread of varieties, which builds complexity in the wines, increases biodiversity in the vineyard and is also a good insurance policy during inclement weather, as each variety ripens at a slightly different stage. Each variety brings something to the blend;
Mourvedre; gives the wines their distinctive bright pink/ruby colour, which sets Tavel apart from the wines of Provence further south, as well as adding a sweet rhubarb note.
Syrah; brings spice and red fruit aromas.
Cinsault; bring aromatic elegance and a rustic, dried herb flavour.
Clairette; a white grape with thick skin which brings unctuousness and depth, as well as flowery aromas.
Bourboulenc; is another white grape that ripens late in the season whilst still retaining fresh acidity which it adds to the blend alongside fresh, flowery tones.
Carignan; brings tannin, colour and deep blue fruit aromas.
Picpoul de Pinet; another white grape which brings finesse and white flower flavours.
Calitor; an extremely rare grape found pretty much only here in Tavel, this variety is part of the history of Tavel but not grown in any serious volumes today due to its small annual crop.
Legally, Tavel Rosé must be bone dry, fermented to full dryness with less than 6g/L of residual sugar and of course must be made from a blend of the aforementioned 9 varieties, however within this appellation there are 2 main styles of Tavel produced. The first is released around the same time as Beaujolais Nouveau, which is on the 3rd Thursday of November of the year of harvest. This style is light, fresh and served icy cold to make the most of the last few rays of sunshine in the Southern Rhone. This quick turnaround means there is very little time for building complexity or flavour in the wines. They should be served ice-cold and are not suitable for ageing. The second wine style is the more premium expression of Tavel, and matches refreshment with interest and concentration of flavour by allowing the juice to sit on skins for a longer period and then allowing the wine to settle naturally. This process is more labour and time consuming, meaning this style is more expensive but will actually age well for a few years, building even more complexity when cellared carefully.
Buyer and Seller of the Bottles