Blessed with a confluence of natural factors, Chêne Bleu benefits from the high altitude, isolated and protected location, minerally complex soils, unique geology of the region, southern Rhône climate and northern Rhône-style soils. These factors together create a unique terroir and microclimate.
1. Altitude: At an average of 550 to 630 meters (1800 to 2000 feet), the extreme temperature differential between day and night allows the grapes to ripen more slowly with better flavor development and higher acidity. This is particularly helpful for the whites and rosés. These may be the highest vineyards in the region, bringing refined northern Rhône freshness to concentrated southern Rhône fruit. Due to the elevation, harvest is often a month later at Chêne Bleu than in the valleys.
2. Isolation: The surrounding wilderness and isolation of Chêne Bleu protects the land from pollution and agricultural run-off, chemical and pesticide contamination, even from auto exhaust and fumes. With the 81,000-hectare UNESCO-designated Mont Ventoux Biosphere Reserve as a wildlife preserve to the south, Chêne Bleu has a permanent buffer zone of more than 200,000 acres. The isolation of the entire estate from other agriculture and industry safeguards the vineyards from harmful synthetic materials and pollution, which would compromise the biodynamic viticulture being established at the estate.
3. Geology: The geological history of the region is key to understanding the terroir. During the Jurassic era, 150 million years ago, shallow seas covered what is today southern France. At the bottom of these seas, extensive deposits of tiny shells and sea creatures accumulated as layers of limestone. Millions of years later, tectonic activity created Mont Ventoux and the foothills, including a diverse cross-section of geological strata. The Dentelles de Montmirail, in the northern foothills, were formed by a vertical slab of Jurassic limestone thrust upward, that has weathered into a mesh-like lacework (“dentelle” meaning “lace”). Alluvial deposits of sand, silt, limestone and mineral-rich schist (shale that has been compressed, with concentrated mineral content that weathers to excellent soil) form complex layers beneath the vineyards.
4. Poor Topsoil: The topsoil in the vineyard is thin clay and chalk mixed with sharp-edged stones, forcing the vines, their survival at stake, to burrow deep into the rock to reach the subterranean water tables that are sometimes as much as 91 meters (300 feet) below ground. The roots absorb complex minerals from these deep layers that contribute to the distinctive flavors which develop in the wines.
5. Soil Microorganisms: Renowned soil scientists, microbiologists and viticultural gurus Claude and Lydia Bourguignon (founders of LAMS: Laboratoire d’Analyse Microbiologique des Sols) conducted a very thorough analysis of the soils and praised the rich potential of the soil composition and its remarkably healthy, untainted microbial life. They were very excited to find many species of microorganisms now rare or extinct in areas using synthetic pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers.
6. Climate: The climate benefits from both the elevation, which creates a temperature differential between day and night that preserves the fruit’s acidity, and the intensity of the southern Rhône sun, that assures complete phenolic ripening of the fruit. Chêne Bleu is on the same latitude as Gigondas, one of the premier wine regions of the southern Rhône, renowned for its rich red wines.
7. Air: Many winds, including the famed Mistral, come from every direction, helping to cool and concentrate the grapes and keep them dry. This helps to prevent mildew and botrytis within the grape clusters, while intensifying their flavor concentration. Fortunately, the vineyards’ location on the slopes of the Dentelles offers some protection from the full, devastating force of the Mistral and the infamous local mini-tornadoes.
Terroir vs. Appellation
The juxtaposition of southern latitude, in line with Gigondas, and high altitude (more northern and thus akin to Condrieu), gives Chêne Bleu “one foot in the southern Rhône and one foot in the northern Rhône,” expressing the juxtaposition between concentrated fruit, spice and glycerol from growing in the sun-drenched south, and residual acidity and minerality typically associated with the freshness and finesse of the northern Rhône. The “ying and yang” flagship red wines, Héloïse and Abélard, are shaped around this enticing contradiction.
The decision to step outside of the AOC system but collaborate with a number of traditional and innovative leaders — within the region and well beyond — is key to the ethos of Chêne Bleu. The project fully respects history, heritage and tradition, while at the same time never stopping at the status quo. Every aspect of winemaking is revisited time and time again to stretch the bounds of possibility for expressing a “sense of place” and the quality it can produce.
The Rolet team set out to produce wines of the highest possible international standard, with southern Rhône flavors and aromas but northern Rhône finesse that can be attributed to the altitude. They believe that in many parts of France, terroir and appellation go hand in hand, but that in others, such as these remote areas, often less scrutinized and with historically less at stake, there are numerous exceptions. They have stepped outside the AOC system to make a family of wines that rise above preconceived notions and the constraints of appellations, wherever they think these are a hindrance to quality and originality.
At times this may involve planting grapes that are not included in the local appellations but might be very suitable for the altitude and thin topsoil. At other times, it might affect the varieties included in a blend. For example, they felt that the finesse of their Viognier would be an asset to the Héloise, the Syrah blend, as it is in the northern Rhône, such as in Côte Rôtie — this is not allowed in the local southern appellations, but they favored the taste of the wine.
Preferring the challenges and satisfactions of finding their own way rather than staying on the beaten path and settling for the security and limitations of appellation, Chêne Bleu wines are often given broader geographic boundaries, such as Vin de Pays, Vaucluse or AOC Ventoux. This should not be misconstrued, as the wines are always 100 percent estate-grown and bottled. Their choices in the place-of-origin hierarchy have prompted some journalists to refer to them as the first “Super Rhônes” in reference to “Super Tuscans” that were created to be the best that they could be with respect to their terroir rather than to their appellation.
Geology is key to understanding the terroir at Chêne Bleu. The distinctive, complex soils lend their signature to all the wines.
Chêne Bleu vineyards are planted on the slopes of the Dentelles de Montmirail (from “Dentelle,” meaning “Lace,” and the Latin “Mons Mirabilis,” meaning “Marvelous Mountain”). Located in the northern foothills of Mont Ventoux, this is a vertical slab of Jurassic limestone that has weathered into a lace-like outcropping. It all began 200 million years ago, with intense volcanic activity during the Triassic Era, whose famous “Trias de Suzette” soils still characterize the region today. 50 million years later, during the Jurassic era, shallow seas covered what is today southern France. At the bottom of these seas, extensive deposits of tiny shells and sea creatures accumulated as layers of limestone.
The whole area of Mont Ventoux (whose summit is bare limestone, appearing snow-capped in summer) and the Dentelles is located on the edge of the tectonic plate of Europe that smashed into the tectonic plate of Africa. In some areas, this collision resulted in the formation of mountain ranges, such as the Alps, as well as in volcanic activity. In others, there was subduction, and this combination resulted in the formation of the Dentelles. During this tectonic activity, the edge of the plate was pushed up and onto its side. Buried layers of rock were thrust upwards into a vertical slab of limestone which weathered over the millennia into a dramatic, lacey formation, as well as an up-lifted cross-section of other strata.
These exposed strata contain deeply buried mineral- and iron-rich schist, volcanic basalts, chalk, mineral-rich clay, black shale (known for weathering into excellent soil for vines), alluvial deposits of sand, silt and prehistoric seashells (some of which are bigger than a breadbox). All of these are present in the Chene Bleu vineyard.
Geologists come for field-trips to observe the otherwise inaccessible exposed strata of rock. Renowned soil scientists, microbiologists and viticultural gurus Claude and Lydia Bourguignon (founders of LAMS: Laboratoire d’Anaylse Microbiologique des Sols) have examined and praised the rich potential of the soil composition.Download (PDF)