The wind is petulant near the river, whipping up a cool breeze. I clutch my wrap and an errant wisp of hair dances in my face while I try to stay warm. I’m heading off to Angéle. A relaxing little gem on the Napa River. Its cozy atmosphere and delightful morsels of goodness are perfect for tasting. I am meeting with a former Wall Street investment banker who consulted for the likes of the Rockefellers. Her affluent upbringing introduced her to the world of wine early on. Her mother was a chef and food critic, her father a wine collector. Nicole Rolet left everything she knew to live in a remote part of the Provence region of France for a man and a place, Chene Bleu.
As I sit down, we engage in small talk for a moment to get oriented and introduced. The intense energy of Nicole consists of focus and curiosity. The lovely aspect of this meeting is her genuine nature. There are no airs, no pretense, simply a delightful enthusiasm to share her story. I ask Nicole about the journey. Where this beautiful American woman, raised in NYC and Milan began and how she met her French husband. She likens the meeting to the Aha video of the 80’s, where a comic strip character invites a young woman to experience a parallel universe. He offers his hand, and she impulsively joins him on a whim, pulled into his world. Here her journey began with Xavier Rolet, the man with a dream and leaped into his adventure.
Early into their relationship, they found a piece of property abandoned by time with no water, electricity and outbuildings full of sheep dung. The location, protected by forests where people thrived for a thousand years, from Knights Templar to men and women who took vows when it was a priory. While the restoration was a project of an unimaginable magnitude, the work began. Starting in the vineyards, they worked to retrain old vines that could be saved and infused the land with more Rhône varietals. They did this by preserving the original Syrah, Grenache while adding Mourvèdre for the Reds. They also added Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier and Grenache Blanc for whites. In total, the plantings now cover some 80 acres. This compelling destination where quality outshines volume of fruit, as the perfect nature of the grapes they grow.
This enchanting haven far above the clouds exists in the south of France where souls from ions ago once tilled the land. Left forgotten for hundreds of years, it is hidden from view and protected by oak and pine tree forests. It began as a monastery in 600 AD. With the advent of progress, it was left to languish until discovered by the Rolet’s. It boasts one of the highest vineyard elevations in Provence. The land, complemented by extreme temperature shifts and 21 different winds, contribute to the incredible success of the wine. Nicole reflects on the reason they purchased and restored the location, ” We were in love not only with the history but with the land and it’s potential to grow remarkable grapes from vines planted so long ago.”
Chene Bleu means Blue Oak. The location borders where the Provence and Rhône Appellations meet. These two tectonic plates came together and pushed the earth high into the heavens and created jagged peaks near Gigondas AOC in the Dentelles de Montmirail on Mont Ventoux. It is distinctly higher than its neighboring terroir, Chateauneuf du Pape which is peaks at 380 feet. At 1800 feet, Chene Bleu is nestled amongst the clouds and some of the most wine friendly weather on the planet. During growing season this crazy combination of earth and minerals make for incredible wines.
You see the soil, and the terroir is one of a kind. The thin layer of topsoil consists of chalk and clay. The billion-year-old bedrock includes seabeds, complete with petrified snail shells and riverbed stones. “On your first step into the wine world to have that gift from God is a pretty extraordinary place to start,” Nicole explains. The wines made a sensation as the first Super Rhônes, winning recognition from the Wall Street Journal. On this journey of exploration and making a name for Chene Bleu, they hired not only the top microbiologists (Claude and Lydia Bourguignon) in the space but also were determined to grow outside the established appellation system to create the best possible wine for their region.
I’ve been fascinated by the story of Abelard and Heloise, a nun and monk from the 11th century, who fell in love. The story has remained with me since the 1980’s in Paris when standing at their grave site and first learning about them. So far apart in age, and worlds away in life. Who were forced to relinquished the possibilities of being together, but managed to maintain a connection over the years through letters. With a love so strong it transcended the people who tried so hard to keep them apart. Chene Bleu has incorporated an important part of this history into the brand and make a great wine in honor of this tragically lovestruck pair. United in death by Josephine Bonaparte in the Pére Lachaise cemetery, Paris, France, the lovers are represented by Grenache and Syrah blends named after them.
The love of the land, the dazzling destination Nicole & Xavier created is apparent. However, to say they’ve done all this for themselves would be irresponsible. Truly this is a place to be shared as Nicole says. So other’s may enjoy and partake. They’ve created La Verrière, a part of the estate dedicated to education and seminars. Extreme Wine, an all-inclusive, high-level retreat for all walks of wine experience interested in taking their knowledge to superpower levels. The course, taught by Clive Barlow, the Chairman of Education at the Institute of Masters of Wine is an immersive experience. Whether a history lover, want to be wine aficionado or simply one seeking out the creature comforts with a powerful spiritual experience, you can achieve all three.
2014 Chêne Bleu Rosè: Divine strawberry, with citrus. The nose is elegant, enticing. The palate finishes long and smooth.
2013 Chêne Bleu Viognier: Pear & delicate apricot beckon. It’s a deliciously refreshing wine with a lingering memorable finish.
2009 Chêne Bleu Héloïse: Syrah Grenache Viognier Not a timid red, but one that opens like a flower every moment it breathes. Exquisite cherries, vanilla & sweet spices. It’s full bodied with a brilliant finish and a caress of soft tannins.
2009 Chêne Bleu Abélard: Grenache Syrah Rich and powerfully elegant. Nuances of pepper with wonderful blackberry, cherry & anise. Its finish is long and distinct.