We talk a lot in the wine industry. We talk about yields, and grape varieties, and oak programs, and how the wine has to be great because it was made by so and so who used to work for whom and whom who was the former winemaker at such and such winery. But there is one thing that we do not talk about enough. One thing that deserves far more credit than it receives one thing that is often overlooked yet is more important than any other aspect in winemaking save for the graces of good weather. This one thing is hard work.
Making wine is not always genteel auctions at spacious estates. Sometimes it is a brow furrowed with sweat. Making wine is not always looking over the vast array of pristine barrels at Opus One. Sometimes it involves dirty jeans on a hot day. Not everyone is blessed with a budget for hundreds of workers, dozens of cellar rats and scores of enologists and consulting winemakers. Sometimes you have to roll up your sleeves and do the work yourself. I can think of no winery that exemplifies this concept more than Château Noël St-Laurent.
Located about ten kilometers from the city of Avignon in the southern part of the Rhône Valley, Château Noël St-Laurent is a small winery run by the husband and wife team of Brigitte and Didier Noël. Now when I say small I really mean it, as they count their production in the hundreds of cases. The best way to visit the estate is to go to the Avignon Golf Course and wait for Didier since the turn into the Château is so hard to spot. But the quality that flows forth from such a small yet dedicated establishment is truly amazing.
Set in a lovely courtyard of the castle of Saint Laurent, Château Noël St-Laurent could indeed be called a Garagiste, as the wines are made in what was once a garage. The barrels and tanks are stored in the former stables and even a centuries old cistern is used to house barrels that await the next harvest.
The castle itself dates back to the 13th century and used to serve as a place of shelter for pilgrims traveling to Santiago de Campostela. It has been in the Noël family since 1940. Though Carthusian Monks first planted vines on the local hills, a more interesting story is that the vines were kept in working order as a means to satisfy the local labor laws. Each worker at the estate was entitled one bottle of wine per person per day, so it became more cost efficient to produce the wines at the estate. Funny how things work out in the long run.
Though we did not have the opportunity to meet Brigitte, we were fortunate enough to drag Didier away from his work in the fields so that he could share his wines and his passion. At first he seemed all business yet the intensity was only for his craft, as his charming and affable nature began to show as well. The first thing we discussed were the different plots of land on the property and their relation to the exposure of the sun and which grape varieties thrived where. This is when his true love for the wine and the vine began to shine through: “It is important to find the right soil for the right grape, and to find the right combination of earth and vines.”
This desire for the right combination, the right formula as it were, was evident in everything from the choice of grape varieties in the blend to the age and level of toasting of each barrel. “For the Côtes du Rhône the Grenache is the skeleton, the Syrah adds color and violet perfume and the Mourvêdre adds spice and soft tannins. Each plays a role in the overall wine.”
Didier and Brigitte produce a wide range of wines, from simple table wines produced from Chardonnay and Cabernet to Côtes du Rhône reserves. The grapes are harvested at night to retain their fresh acidity and fermented both in barrel and in tank at cool temperatures. The white grapes hail from vineyards that rest on a mix of rock and limestone soils, while the reds reside in more of the galets and rolled stones that have made the nearby Châteauneuf-du-Pape so famous. Careful attention is paid to each vine, and through canopy management and green harvests a higher quality of wine is made, though each wine is produced with the greatest possible respect to the environment. With 80 acres of vines to tend Didier is a busy man.
Despite the fact that the wines of Château Noël St-Laurent are very affordable, Didier insists on the highest quality possible when it comes to barrels. They produce two white wines that make it into the U.S., a CdR blanc that is a blend of Viognier, Marsanne and a little Bourboulenc and a reserve that is 100% Viognier. The Viognier for both is fermented and aged in one year old barrels from the prestigious Ch. d’Yquem, known for producing the greatest dessert wines in the world. The grapes for the reserve are harvested six days later than the rest and aged only in the best d’Yquem barrels, those that have the most sugar and botrytis left from the unctuous nectar that commands hundreds of dollars for even a half bottle.
A similar approach is used when crafting the red wines as well, as Didier employs barrels from such stalwarts of the wine world as Ch. Margaux and Ch. Smith-Haut-Lafite. The barrels are old enough to not be obtrusive but young enough to add flavor, character and body to the wines.
Château Noël St-Laurent also makes a reserve red that has not yet made it into the States, but the heavy gauge glass is an indication of the quality that lies quietly inside. Though the wine was not yet ready to consume one can tell from Didier’s enthusiasm for the packaging of this project (he has ideas that range from sand to glass to a special concrete case) that this will be a special wine indeed. Stay tuned.
It is interesting to view where the costs lie in a bottle of wine that fetches less than $18 here in the U.S. “The corks can cost anywhere between ten cents and two dollars. We use the more expensive ones,” says Didier before he adds with a laugh: “Here is your Two Buck Chuck except it is just the cork!”
In the end it seems that one can almost feel the positive attitude and drive that Didier brings to his work emanate forth and into the barrels resting nearby. One can tell that the wines are great because he wills them to be so. Never does an ounce of superiority or sense of entitlement show forth, only a quiet confidence that stems from a life of hard work in pursuit of his dreams. He wants you to love his wines because he loves his wines and he knows what goes into them on an everyday basis to make them as good as they are.
Even the dog is affable, as he went running off to chase the cat but returned quickly to quietly enjoy our wine chats. His name is Merlot, a subtle joke on the dog by the Noëls: “Because he is a blend of a dog, we pick only one grape to call him, so we picked a rubbish grape as a joke on him,” explains Didier. While not everyone would agree that Merlot is a rubbish grape, the dog’s tail never stopped wagging so I don’t think that he minded too much.
While I am all too aware that this phenomenon occurs all over the globe, I feel that it is indeed an area that needs more recognition. We stand in our local wine shop and take for granted the blood, sweat and tears that it takes to create a great wine. Too often we dismiss this bottle or that bottle because we do not know the wine, or like the label, or feel that because it was not reviewed by a certain magazine that is cannot possibly be good. The reality is that there are gems to be had from all over the globe, from wineries whose wines are made by hand in such small production that they may be unknown, but that deserve our praise nonetheless.
This is what I love about the wine industry, that these great wines that are made through care and love and hard work can be brought to us and that we may enjoy them, just as those that poured their heart and soul into them do, just as Brigitte and Didier have done. At least for my palete, their hard work has not gone unnoticed.