Vines first appeared in the Ardèche more than 2,000 years ago, well before the Roman conquest of Gaul. Pliny the Elder made mention, but it was not until the Middle Ages that the wines of the Vivarais achieved any real notoriety. Later, in the 17th Century, Olivier de Serres, a pioneer of modern agriculture (he introduced mulberry trees, silkworms, almond groves as well as vineyards to the region) praised the wines of the Ardèche as ‘so precious and delicate that there is no need to go and seek elsewhere’.
Today, the southern Ardèche is organised into 70 independent growers and 23 co-operatives, collectively responsible for producing round 20 million bottles a year. Some 10,000 hectares qualify for the Coteaux de l’Ardèche appellation.
Built during the 13th Century, Château de la Selve is a fortified house, sitting on the ancient frontier between the Empire and the Kingdom of France. The architecture is typical of the Bas-Vivarais. It was once a logis du chasse for the Dukes of Joyeuse but, over the centuries, hunting evolved into farming. Located on the banks of the Chassezac, the main tributary of the Ardèche, it enjoys a unique and protected position.
Since 1990, this magnificent property has been in the hands of Jean-Régis and Magdeleine Chazallon. The family hails from the region, although Jean-Régis made his fortune through insurance rather than agriculture. The vinous link comes through Magdelaine whose mother was part of the famous Delas wine dynasty. It is their son, Benoît, who convinced his parents to return the farm to viticulture as the primary interest, although one wing of the house has been converted into five separate gîtes.
As a teenager, Benoît worked stages in the vineyards and cellars of the region and, after school, he concluded his viticulture studies in Beaune. It was at the completion of these studies that he convinced his father to buy some existing vineyards, acquired through the local co-operative. Of the original 60 hectares purchased, Bénoit elected to grub-up about half of them or graft to alternative varieties more suited to the region. He believes strongly that Chardonnay, Gamay and Pinot Noir have no place in the Ardèche. In addition, they planted a further 20 hectares around the château.
The cellar was constructed in 2002, part of which was converted from an old bergerie.
Today, there are a total of 40-hectares in production, planted to six different varieties. Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault, Cabernet Sauvignon and Viognier intermingle with the indigenous herbs and plants of the surrounding garrigue.
Naturally low yields limit the production to around 38hl/ha. The untamed landscape, rare clay and calcareous soils, combined with hot summer days and cool nights (there is a diurnal range here of 15-20 degrees) offer a unique environment in which to work and make wine. Whilst the vineyards lie an altitude of 115 metres, there is no influence of the mistral.
The resulting wines retain a style that is reminiscent of Burgundy. Not surprising when one learns that the climate delivers the same level of acidity as found in Chablis.
All the vineyards have been certified organic since 2008. The conversion to biodynamic principles started one year later.
Along with Benoît and his wife, Florence, there are a team of seven full-time workers on the farm, growing to a dozen for half the year.
There is a core of eight wines produced, over two separate ranges. Equal amounts of red and rosé wines are produced, with just 20% of Viognier, planted for the white wines.
Les Classiques range consists of:
Maguelonne is a dry, mineral, durable rosé that is suited for the table and, according to Benoît, is at its best after two years in bottle. It’s a blend of 40% each of Grenache and Cinsault, with 20% Syrah. It is produced using direct pressure, with Benoît adopting a Champagne-like triage during the pressing, taking only the first free-run juice. The name is inspired by his sister, Madeleine, when translated into the local language.
Saint Régis is Viognier grown on sandstone and clay. The wine is raised on its fine lees in tank. It has a parsimonious 12% alcohol and speaks more of its site than the varietal.
Serre de Berty is comprised of 50% Syrah with 30% Grenache and 20% Cinsault, planted within the garrique directly onto clay and limestone. The yield averages 30hl/ha. After a cuvaison of 40 days, the wine is aged in amphoras and 228 litre barrels for 18 months.
Beaulieu is made up of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon with 30% Grenache with Cinsault, grown at a slightly higher altitude on clay-dominant soils, mixed with a little limestone. The yield averages 35hl/ha. After a cuvaison of 40 days, the wine is aged in amphoras and 228 litre barrels for 12 months.
Petite Selve is described as a vin de copain, with equal amounts of young vine Cinsault and Grenache with 20% Syrah. The cuvaison is shorter at 20 days and has 30% of the press juice from the rosé wine added before fermentation. At 50,000 bottles, it is the principle cuvee of the estate and designed for immediate drinking.
Les Confidentielles is the premium range, which represents a single red, white and rosé.
L’audacieuse is a second rosé, made from 40% Syrah, 30% Grenache and Cinsault with some Viognier. This is a rosé de garde. Aged in 70% barrel and 30% amphora for up to 10 months and bottled in the following summer. The wine shows some wood influence, with a note of Viognier and has a positively tannic finish. Unique.
Madame de. A subtle reference to Benoît’s aristocratic mother. This is from Viognier planted on a bed of limestone, with some clay and sandstone. It’s the best plot on the estate, according to Benoît. Barrel fermented and aged in wood for a year, it is the only white or rosé wine than undergoes any malolactic fermentation.
Florence is named after his wife. This red wine utilises hand selected Syrah, Grenache and Cinsault grapes from the best sites and fermented, along with a seasoning of Viognier, in open-top Burgundy barriques. The wine is then aged for 18 months in the same oak casks and combined with an amphora aged component.