Hidden in the hills of St Etienne–du-Grès in the protected Parc Naturel Régional des Alpilles, seven kilometres from St Rémy-de-Provence is one of Provence’s wine making treasures. And like any treasure it is not an easy one to find. After completely giving up on the GPS and with an address that did not have a house number, we finally stopped a passing driver to enquire as to whether she knew where to find Domaine de Trevallon, the estate of Eloi Durrbach whose wines seduced me from the very first moment when I discovered them in England many years ago.
Luck was with us, and the lady told us that we were not far it was just the next drive on the right. My Canadian friends passionate about wine came for a visit in the third week of October for a week-long stay in Avignon and Châteauneuf-du-Pape and I had promised to take them to some special vineyards. Domaine de Trevallon was on the top of the list. Next right, no sign just a dusty winding gravel drive that seemed to lead to nowhere, still no vines in sight had we taken the wrong turn? Uncertain, we decided to continue along the bumpy drive, it would have been better to have chosen a 4 x 4 I thought and then suddenly we entered into a grove of olive trees that hid the ancient buildings of the domaine which appeared to be undergoing a massive renovation by the evidence of the builders and scaffolding that surrounded the right side of the building. To the left of the building site, a doorway was open and the delicious scent of fermenting grapes announced to my nose that this was where the harvest was being transformed. I stepped through the old doorway carefully sidestepping the numerous large plastic hoses that snaked between the large stainless steel fermenting tanks. A young man wearing a tee shirt stained with grape juice covered with bits of purple skins and pulp noticed my arrival and came to greet me.
“I have an appointment to visit the estate.” I told him. “Ah then you are looking for Mr Dürrbach, his office is just next door”, he said pointing towards a set of old French doors, that looked to have seen their fair share of harvests. Thanking him, I went over and knocked on the door and was greeted by two distinguished looking older men in a comfortably quaint office piled high with papers and books. “Bonjour Monsieur’s, I am here to visit your domaine with my friends from Canada, your daughter Ostiane organised this for us. I am sorry that I am almost late but it was a challenge to find you.” The gentleman wearing a violet jumper chuckled and came forward to shake my hand. “Eloi Durrbach, and don’t worry you are one of the few people that has arrived on time, almost every visitor is late, we are used to it.” He said smiling. His friend bid him farewell with promises to stop by later.
“Shall we go and visit the vineyards?” I followed him outside and we were re-joined by my friends, introductions were exchanged as we walked up the dusty track passing a very healthy vegetable garden, the plants growing very happily in soil that was evidently very rich.
Then suddenly the vines appeared as if out of nowhere, nestled on the gently sloping hillside surrounded by dry scrubland and granite boulders, the perfectly straight rows were growing in a mixture of granite stones and rich soil. “When I arrived in 1973, there were no vines. We had to create the soil and over the years we now have 20 hectares. There are eighteen of red, fifty per cent is Cabernet Sauvignon and the other half is Syrah. We have two hectares of white.” He said leading us to another small plot that was further up on the hillside and to the right of the large red vines plot. “You see before we came there was nothing and now look what we have. Our vines have always grown naturally we have never treated them with any chemicals. The biggest threat that we have are the wild boar that are everywhere in these mountains, they enjoy eating the ripe grapes. This is nature, the hunters come in during hunting season but the population is so large that it really does not make any difference. It is best to let nature take her course and everything stays in harmony.”
“The vines look to healthy and happy,” I commented as we made our way back to the winery. “I am certain that you must care for them as if they were your own children ensuring that they have everything that they need to be happy.” Eloi smiled, “yes it is something like that.”
We returned to the winery and entering through the office, Eloi takes us into the small room where he labels the wine bottles; he chooses some glasses that are engraved with the domaine’s name before leading us into the first room of the cellar that is filled with barrels. “We will try some of the white from this year’s harvest.” Eloi says opening one of the barrels and with the skill of many years’ experience he fills the glass pipette with the bubbly golden liquid which he then emptied into our glasses. “It has been in the barrels for almost two months and is in full fermentation but at least this will give you an idea of the white. I only produce 6,000 to 8,000 bottles per year, and supplies run out very quickly.” This was a new experience for us to discover the wine at such a young age and the nose and bubbly palate promised a white that would be delicious. Knowing that his quantities were precious we returned the remains of our glasses to Eloi who carefully returned it to the barrel. There was another man in the cellar cleaning the empty barrels with sulphur to prepare them for the next vintage. “I like to give the wines plenty of time to age” Eloi explains closing the barrel, “The reds up to at least two years and the whites up to 14 months. I avoid disturbing them as much as possible and rarely rack them.“
Before re-using the barrels for the next vintage, it is necessary to disinfect them to ensure that there is no mould or other harmful bacteria that could affect the wine that is put into them to age. Interested in what he was doing I went over to investigate. “It is a very simple process,” he explains as he shows me the process. A tiny cube of sulphur is attached to a thin metal wire with a hook at one end. After lighting the sulphur cube, he puts it in the barrel and then hooks the other end of the wire to the lip of the barrel opening, the barrel is then closed with the stopper and the sulphur is left to do its work.
We followed Eloi downstairs and leaving us to admire the beauty of this third cellar, he went to find some bottles for us to taste. The sound of drilling often disturbed our discussion. “We are renovating the building to increase the size of the cellar and part of the process is to drill through the walls and reinforce them.” Eloi explains as he opens the first bottle, a 2009. It was pure heaven, the aromas of dark fruits and earthy tones that followed onto the palate with a long rich finish. The combination of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon and 50% Syrah was perfectly balanced for a wine of such a young age. We continued with a 2008. Once again the wine was sublime.
“How long can your wines age?” I ask as my nose is enchanted by the lovely aromas of his wines. “They can age from 20 to 25 years easily”, he replies without a moment’s hesitation, “all of the wines that I make have this ageing potential,” he brings us a plastic bucket half filled with wood shavings. “If you want to spit;” He explains. “Does this finish in the vines?” I ask of the contents of the bucket. “Of course”, he chuckles, as he returns with another bottle of wine, this one a 2001. No one spits, the wine is so smooth and well-balanced, the idea of wasting one precious drop of this nectar incomprehensible.
“I keep the winemaking process as natural as possible;” Eloi explains, “no chemicals or synthetic yeasts are added. There are enough natural years on the grapes to make the wines, if I add the synthetic yeasts then they kill of the natural ones and this ruins the final result. We do not practice much temperature control either, it is up to nature to do her work and let the wines evolve at their own pace.”
“Is this not a stressful process all the same?” I ask “Letting the wine take its course without interfering? Is it not a risky gamble to take?” He just smiles. “I suppose that you would see it as a risk but I do not. The secret to a good wine is to take excellent care of the vines. Healthy and happy vines produce excellent fruit and there is nothing to worry about during the winemaking and ageing process.” I am in awe of his modest but quiet assurance and his respect and confidence in his vines. But there is no reason to question his methods. His philosophy works, his wines are some of the best reds that I have ever tasted. His wines are classed under the label of “Vin de Pays Baux de Provence.” Why no AOP? Because Eloi’s beautiful wines do not conform to AOP standards because he uses too much Cabernet Sauvignon. There was a time that this was very upsetting to him but this chagrin has passed. He protested the de-classification of his wines and tried to convince the INAO to reconsider their decision. His argument being that before the outbreak of Phylloxera, Cabernet Sauvignon was one of the native varieties that were planted in the region. They refused his argument and insisted that he conform to the rules. At the time it was a painful decision, but looking back he has no regrets. His wines are in high demand and they are selected by top restaurants around the world for their amazing quality and not their classification and rightly so.
We leave the cellar and return to the bottle labelling area where Eloi happily demonstrates the process. He places a bottle on the tiny conveyor belt and turning on the machine, the bottle first receives the aluminium capsule around its neck and then moves to the second stage of the process where it receives one of the beautiful labels that was designed by Eloi’s father, who sadly passed away in 2000 from cancer at the age of 89 years of age. “He was a sculptor by trade and towards the end of his life I asked him if he would be interested to design some labels for the wines. He happily accepted the task and each label represents the growing season of the wine through the colours and graphics. He created many designs and there are still quite a few that can be used for future years.”
Eloi Dürrbach is living proof that sometimes one has to think outside of the box to create wonderful wines and it is not only his strong belief in what he does that makes Domaine Trevallon special but also his gentle modesty and warm welcome that we took away with us on that beautiful October morning.
This blog was written by Shoshanna, Winerists' Provence regional expert and tour guide.