The first thing that strikes you about Yvon Gentes is his gentle face, with a mop of hair that flops boyishly on his forehead and a playful, almost mischievous smile. Yvon is a man of many talents: the foremost of which is his natural charm. Beneath the gentle demeanour though is an adventurer and entrepreneur who now makes some of the finest wine in the southernmost Rhone appellation – the Costières de Nîmes.
Yvon started life not far from where he now makes wine. Early in his youth Yvon left the Mediterranean climes of Southern France for a place much colder – Sweden. Starting as a deck hand on a fishing trawler (‘mopping floors’ as he told me), he built up a formidable business over 30 years; ending up as the largest mussel farmer in Europe. Mussels though were not enough to hold Yvon and his Swedish wife Anna’s attention. They had another interest – wine, and the desire to live someplace warmer than frigid Sweden. That’s how the reverse migration to the South of France happened. Yvon and Anna sold their business in Sweden, bought vineyards and started Domaine de Calet. The ‘Calet’ is play on ‘galets’ (round stones similar to those found in Chateauneuf-du-Pape) that make up much of the soil in their vineyards.
Ending the contract with the local cooperative, Yvon and Anna started to make their own wine. I first tasted their wines in London last year and came away impressed enough to plan a visit to their estates. I drove in the early evening on a sunny April day, getting off the highway on to tiny and often unmarked county roads that weaved their way through vineyards. Domaine de Calet’s winery sits among gently sloping vineyards and offers a dramatic view of the Mediterranean Sea.
‘Respect for the soil’, is the one phrase that would sum up Yvon’s approach to the work in the vineyard. Since he bought the vineyards, he has been engaged in the task of regenerating the soil by embracing organic viticulture. Certified Organic for a few years now (and starting to follow Biodynamic principles), Yvon eschews the use of chemical sprays, pesticides and herbicides in the vineyards. Grass and flowers are allowed to grow between the rows of vines, helping the soil achieve its natural balance. The soil itself is stony – dominated by galets – and sandy alluvial. Mistral, the wind that blows through the Rhône valley – is common here too, and the proximity to the Mediterranean exerts its own influence. Altogether, this little piece of Costières de Nîmes is ideally suited to making exceptional wines from Southern Rhône grape varieties – and this is exactly what Yvon is doing with aplomb. The grape varieties used for the red wines (in varying proportions) are Syrah, Grenache, Cinsault, Mourvèdre, and Carignan. The white wines are made from Roussanne, Vermentino, Bourboulenc and Clairette.
Costières de Nîmes sits at the border of Languedoc and Southern Rhône, and offers some of the wine world’s great bargains. Domaine de Calet is one of the finest producers of the region – and without a doubt, producing wines that are full of character and great value for money. I tasted all the wines in the Domaine de Calet range – and was uniformly impressed with their excellent fruit presence, concentration, character and natural balance. The wines in this very hot climate tend to be ripe and full-bodied, so this natural balance is essential. At the end of the article I’ve listed some of my favourites.
Ever the entrepreneurs, Yvon and Anna operate part of their historic property as a Gîte (French term for something between a holiday home and a B&B). Packages (which include delicious local cooking and plenty of wine, of course) are offered in the summers which are particularly popular with sun-starved northern Europeans. Another of their projects is ‘Vin de Bosses’ – where they offer anyone who wants to the chance to own a row of vines and the wine that is produced from it (one barrel, about 300 bottles a year) with customized back labels in the name of the ‘owner’ or the ‘boss’ of the vines. This is a ‘dream merchant’ type of project – and Yvon is certainly the right person to sell the dream of ordinary people owning their own row of vines and wine barrel. It is, after all, no more than what he has done for himself on a larger scale!
Some of my favourites from Domaine de Calet:
Domaine de Calet, Esprit de Balnc, AOC Costières de Nîmes 2010
A blend of Roussanne, Vermentino, Bourboulenc and Clairette (vinified together). Fresh, slightly grassy aroma. Good balance with medium acidity. Salty, savoury edge, with good minerality, balance and freshness. Delicious!
Domaine de Calet, Grand Mas Rouge, 2007
Blackberry, leather, chocolate and hint of sweet spice. Wonderfully soft and plush fruit, with soft but present underlying structure and spiciness on the finish.
Domaine de Calet, La Tournerie, 2007
A blend of 85% Grenache and 15% Syrah. A complex nose of black cherry, earth, smoke, tobacco and cloves. Sweet, persistent berry fruit. Full and balanced with definite ageing potential.
Domaine de Calet, ‘Travers de Rey’ Syrah, 2005
A very enticing nose of blackberry, earth and spice box. Still present tannic structure and potential for longevity (10+ years more).Succulent and delicious with a tingling spiciness on the finish.