The Small Pleasures of the Rhone Valley

In the middle of a terraced hillside vineyard, with statuesque Mont Ventoux in the background, Hugo Levingston kneels down to grab a handful of dry, rocky soil.

“This is what makes Domaine de Mourchon wines distinctive,” he tells our small assembled group as he lets the soil fall through his fingers. “The combination of clay and limestone, together with our microclimate, creates our unique terroir.” Hugo explains that terroir encompasses all the conditions – soil, climate, setting – that give a wine its particular character.

On a road trip through the south of France, my friend and I stayed for several days at the picturesque winery Domaine de Mourchon. This sunny afternoon, Hugo was taking us through the vineyards. He continued: “Our high altitude magnifies the impact of the sun. This gives our grapes their intense fruit flavour. During the dry summer, our vines send their roots deep into the soil for moisture, which is where they pick up the mineral freshness of the limestone.”

Back in the tasting ‘caveau,’ Hugo told us that his parents-in-law Walter and Ronnie McKinlay acquired the vineyards in 1998 and built the winery to capitalize on the outstanding terroir and exceptional vines. Soon after, they were joined by Hugo and their daughter Kate. Winemaker Sébastien Magnouac arrived in 2000. Since the outset, this team has refined the vineyard cultivation techniques and winemaking methods to capture the gifts of nature and coax the best features of the grapes into Mourchon wines. Rave reviews suggest the formula has been a great success!

There’s so much to experience at this beautiful family-owned winery in the heart of the southern Rhone region. If you stay at the winery as we did, you’ll be able to watch the activity in the vineyards, see first-hand how the wine is made, taste the wines, and visit the surrounding area. Perched on a hill with breathtaking views, the Winemaker’s House is available to rent year-round. With five bedrooms, three bathrooms, two kitchens, and a terrace, it can be used in its entirety to accommodate large groups or can be divided into separate apartments for couples and smaller groups.

“We want people to come for the full experience,” Hugo told us. “The wine is even more memorable when people see where it’s grown, how it’s made, and who’s had a hand in it.” The winery welcomes visitors for longer stays and short visits. “We love it when people drop by,” Hugo adds. “We get lots of cyclists, locals, hikers, travellers... and they are so excited when they discover us. Then, they tell their friends. We want to be a widely shared secret!”

Robert Mondavi said, “Wine is passion. It’s family and friends, warmth of heart, and generosity of spirit. Wine is art. It’s culture. It’s the essence of civilization and the art of living.”

Domaine de Mourchon brings this philosophy to life. To celebrate wine and the art of living, the family and staff throw open the doors for special events throughout the year. Hundreds of visitors come to the annual Domaine de Mourchon picnic in midsummer. They gather to eat, listen to jazz, wander in the vineyards and drink good wine. At other times, you might find guests enjoying wine while they listen to a chamber concert in the cellar, or a group having a catered lunch in the vineyard. At Domaine de Mourchon, it’s all about the fullness of the experience and the many connections between wine and the good life.

Living the good life is easy in the region surrounding Domaine de Mourchon, where opportunities abound for recreation-lovers, history buffs, culture hounds, and those who appreciate good food and great wine!

Early one morning, we took a short drive to Vaison-la-Romaine, an ancient town that sits along the Ouvèze river. We parked in a convenient lot beneath the watchful eye of a 13th century chateau, and admired the rare, single-arched Roman bridge that joins the old and newer parts of town.

We made it just in time for the Tuesday market: Street after winding street was lined with stalls selling everything from clothing to crafts, linens to soaps, and miles of incredible food – olives, cheeses, meats, vegetables, fruit, prepared meals and more. We sampled paper-thin slices of fresh garlic, crumbled shards of aged cheese, sweet red radishes, and raw stalks of just-picked asparagus. After stocking up on supplies to take home, we were ready for a break in the shade. On the perimeter of the town square, a perfect table came free on the patio at Le Monfort Café. Sipping on cold drinks, we lazily engaged in the art of watching people browse the nearby stalls.

I noticed chefs procuring their daily supplies, hungry cyclists on a break, and townspeople who knew their favourite vendors by name. Our little respite was made even more enjoyable when an impromptu jazz quintet sprung up on the corner and started to play fantastic music on an array of instruments – alto sax, guitars, stand-up bass and percussion comprised of a washboard, wooden boxes and cymbals...!

Later at Mourchon, we set the table on the stone patio outside our apartment and laid out our market purchases – yeasty goat cheese, fat green olives, bright red radishes, and a crusty baguette. We opened a bottle of the Mourchon Loubié Rosé and noted the warm pink hue as we poured two glasses. We were greeted with the aroma of strawberries and citrus, and the wine’s full fruity flavor and great acid balance was a fantastic complement to our Provençal picnic.

The next day we asked Hugo to suggest an excursion. In his typically generous fashion, he encouraged us to visit other wineries in the area. “We’re not competitors as much as we are collaborators,” he explained. “By working together, all the local wineries hope to attract more people to this quiet corner of Haute Provence, to experience first-hand what makes us special.”

Following Hugo’s directions, we made our way through the tiny hamlet of Crestet and up the narrow, winding road to a secluded, elegant winery called Chêne Bleu. There, we were met by Bryan Houde, who explained Chêne Bleu’s raison d’être: “We do everything to bring people to the site – so they have a chance to take in the entirety of what we have created.” The Chêne Bleu motto, “Non mihi, non tibi, sed nobis” means “Not mine, not yours, but ours.” It reflects their desire to share the experience with the world. The property offers accommodation at an ancient, restored priory which also serves as an exceptional facility for meetings, retreats and exclusive events.

We tasted Chêne Bleu’s distinctive wines: Their flagship reds, Abelard and Héloïse, are named for a famous pair of French lovers from the middle ages. Abelard is a full-bodied grenache blend, while Héloïse is a softer, more restrained syrah blend. We also tasted the Rosé - a complex grenache-syrah blend aged in oak, which adds to the complexity of texture and taste.

On our second last day at Mourchon, we took a left turn from the property’s front gate, and in minutes we arrived at the hilltop village of Séguret. Sitting at a height of 850 feet, the village has sweeping views over the Rhône valley. We entered the ancient town through gates in well-preserved ramparts, which led us to narrow village streets lined with traditional stone houses. The tiny town square hosts a 14th century bell tower with a distinctive single needle clock, topped by a 17th century belfry.

Better wineries near Séguret are permitted to use the “Séguret Côtes du Rhône Villages” appellation, because this small area has been identified as producing higher quality wines with a regional distinctiveness. This is the appellation to which Domaine de Mourchon belongs. After our excursion to Séguret, we returned to Mourchon to taste the wines and identify these uniquely local characteristics.

We joined a group of visitors from around the world, and Hugo took us through a full tasting.

He suggested we start with the white wine, because “it launches the acidity reaction and wakes up the palate.” This crisp white did that, and more. We could taste peaches and apricots, with a hint of honey and citrus on the finish.

Next, as I tasted the Rosé, I closed my eyes and recalled how its fruit-forward taste had enhanced our little picnic.

Hugo then poured Mourchon’s proprietary red blend. “Tradition” is a classic Côtes du Rhône Villages, blending grenache, syrah and carignan grapes. It felt surprisingly velvety in the mouth, and a bold berry flavor opened up against a peppery, spicy background.

“See if you can taste the rock,” said Hugo. We all looked a little confused, but he went on to help us. “There’s a tingle in the jaw, along the sides and back of the mouth where the minerality can come out. It’s almost salty, and this is what lifts the flavor up and brings it alive.”

I swished the wine to the sides and back of my mouth. I wasn’t sure if I could taste the rock, but I was sure I could appreciate the bright, bold flavor of Mourchon Tradition.

The next red blend was the Grande Réserve, comprised of old-vine grenache and syrah. With intense fruit flavor and licorice spice, the Grande Réserve struck me as a full-bodied, well-structured wine.

Last, we tasted the single varietal Family Reserve Grenache, which is produced in very limited quantity from the oldest vines. Garnering rave reviews, this wine is highlighted for its full-bodied elegance. I was struck by the deep plum color, followed by aromas of ripe fruit and exotic spices. The taste took me to my grandfather’s den, reminiscent of leather and cherry liqueur and fruitcake. Hugo rather humbly explained, “It’s a lovely, opulent wine and much craft goes in the making.”

Tasting across the range of Domaine de Mourchon wines was the crowning experience in our visit. Because we had stayed at the vineyard and roamed around the vicinity, we’d acquired an appreciation of everything that went into these wines. The vineyards, the landscape and most of all the talent, care and creativity of the people – came together in a wonderful experience called Domaine de Mourchon.

Brianna Petz