"THE GAME OF RHONES"
Dating back to July of 2019, I received an email from David Sawyer, former wine director for both Husk Restaurant in Charleston & Lilia Ristorante of Brooklyn. The email was short—“Hey, a small group of sommeliers are headed to France in September. You in?" The short answer—HELL YES!
The group of sommeliers was a small one with just David Sawyer, Matthew Kaner, Carole Mac, and myself. Kraner is the owner/sommelier of Bar Covell, a SommTV host and founder of AM/FM Wines, and made his name on ‘Wine Spectator 40 Under 40.’ Carole Mac of Wine4Food and Somm School Insider also joined our gang. To say it was going to be a fun trip was just a bit underrated.
Our journey was a deep dive into two regions—the Luberon and Costieres de Nimes—both in the far south of the Rhone. The two areas are rarely discussed stateside apart from standout growers. French sommelier and fearless leader—Alexia Gozlan from Inter Rhône—sponsored our group, showing us the beauty of the Rhône Valley. Locally, “The Game of Rhones” is a legitimate saying.
The history of the Southern Rhone is vast and astonishing with ancient Roman villages scattered throughout because ancient Romans did conquer this area many times. The famed Provencal sunshine illuminating our way daily. As a region producing wine for more than 2000 years, food and wine together as a lifestyle does not begin to breach the surface of this ancient culture. One of its most famous contributions to cuisine is brandade, the Provencal dish of salted cod whipped with potatoes and olive oil, and pairs beautifully with the region's white wines. Classic varieties in the area are Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, and Viognier. The Rhône has more than its fair share of struggles. Its location is mere miles from the Mediterranean coast; the climate is near perfect, albeit exuberant heat with the last few vintages growing hotter and hotter. Over the years, fires have devastated numerous vineyards. And yet, talk of wine tariffs from the current administration scare some of the small farmers we spent time with.
Ever since I began to fall in love with wine, the priority has always been about the story of the people and the quality of their juice. Our goal of the trip was to absorb as much as possible; the breadth of winemakers varied from bigger estates to small boutique artisan farmers. Some blew me away in terms of quality; others reminded me of what’s possible in warm growing regions when the focus is quantity over quality.
Within minutes of sitting down with Michel and Tina Gassier over lunch at a local restaurant, I knew that Domaine Gassier would be a property I would work with in the near future. I knew that I’d be working every angle to bring these wines home and share with those that trust our vision and palate. What drew me in to the warmth of Michel and Tina was a never ending curiosity to keep moving forward, never settling. I remember chatting with Michel about farming and the challenges of Costieres de Nimes, a place with a legendary history in not just winemaking, but wine of value. Costieres de Nimes has two dramatically different climates. Domaine Gassier focuses on the cooler sites, directly influenced by the Camargue, a natural region on the coastline forming a large river delta. Michel figured there must be a way to manage heat, extract more flavor from the wines, and still yield high quality. The challenge is relying on progression, not necessarily tradition. I think the core of their mantra was a goal to make wines that they enjoyed drinking, but still provoked thought. Their views were able to show the uniqueness of the region and capture the terroir that makes artisan wines so special. Learning the struggles and intricacies of winemaking during these trips inspires me, keeping me connected to my passion.
Michel sees himself as a "peasant-researcher." The "peasant" side of him is attached to the land; this part genuinely enjoys immersing himself in the heart of the vineyards, working with his hands. The "researcher" side reflects Michel’s perfectionist personality, and his desire to create a personal approach to farming and winemaking. Constant research and theory exchanging with winemakers internationally give him a broad opportunity to innovate and further his wines.
The Lietmotif of Domaine Gassier: "to craft wines of balance and minerality. Always in search of vineyards capable of preserving the freshness, growing them in organic farming, and minimizing interventions in the cellar, our wines are a very personal reflection of their appellation or grape variety. Each bottle brings a little piece of our corner of the world, a sensory journey and a unique experience where pleasure and curiosity are aroused." -Michel Gassier.
We are pleased beyond measure to bring these wines to you nearly one year later. Having just landed, the value proposition for this quality of wine is difficult to beat. Domaine Gassier was truly a highlight of my trip. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that other wines we’ve discovered will continue to find us in the near future.
By Kevin Hart - Founder Hart & Cru