By Jim Walker
Being in the wine business provides one with the opportunity to enjoy some very, very good bottles. But, as our wine correspondent Jim Walker reports, better still, it gives one the chance to get to know some truly remarkable people. Such is the case with the Palon family, vintners in Gigondas.
It was the spring of 2007 and we had just arrived in Saint-Rémy de Provence, blessed Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. The mimosas were in full blossom, my beloved irises were beginning to bloom and the sidewalk cafés were in early season form. But I had just one thing on my mind … to visit to my favourite caviste, Christian Esparza (read all about him in my Gentleman’s Portion post, “My other partner in the wondrous world of wine”). He was still Monsieur Esparza at the time, vous not tu. It would be a couple more years before he would invite us to call him Christian. Anyway, I was anxious to hear the latest gossip about our wineries (actually, it was Hélène who was anxious) and to find what new treasures lay in store.
We got down to the crux of the matter following the usual pleasantries which, aided and abetted by Hélène, lasted a good twenty minutes. What were his latest discoveries? Sporting a Cheshire cat-like grin, he poured us a glass of Domaine Palon's 2004 Côtes-du-Rhône. It was pure ambrosia. This was followed by the same winery’s 2004 Vacqueyras and Gigondas. Both sublime. Here are my tasting notes for the Vacqueyras: “Oh boy, Vacqueyras doesn’t get much better than this! And, it is not by accident. Vineyard yields have been restricted to a miserly 28.8 hectolitres per hectare and the average age of the vines is 40 years. Made from 75% Grenache, 16% Mourvèdre and 9% Syrah, it is a beautiful clear garnet colour. The nose is marked by spices, flint, saffron and ripe red fruit. In the mouth one finds a wine that is full, round and soft with silky tannins and a lingering, persistent mocha aftertaste. This wine will keep nicely for at least ten years.” You can tell I was smitten.
I asked M. Esparza if there was any chance that the Palons might be looking for a North American agent and would it be possible to meet them. “I would be pleased to introduce you,” he said, “but, first let me tell you something about the Palons.”
“The Palons have been in the grape growing business for several generations. It all started with Valérie and Léopold Palon who were growers in Gigondas. Their son Jean (now in his nineties and known as Papi Jean) founded the Cave Coopérative de Gigondas and served as its administrator from 1956 to 1978. Incidentally, he is still actively involved in the winery and enjoys his daily bottle of white wine. His son Jean-Pierre then took over as president of the co-op and held that position for the next 23 years. Jean-Pierre’s wife Annie Gleize also worked for the co-op. Annie and Jean-Pierre are the current vineyard owners and have seven hectares in the appellation of Gigondas and five more in Vacqueyras along with two of Côtes-du-Rhone and one of vin de pays. Now then, Annie and Jean-Pierre have a son named Sébastien.
He is their secret weapon. After attending oenology school, Sébastien apprenticed as a wine-maker in South Africa. He showed such a knack for crafting fine wine that in 2003 Annie and Jean-Pierre decided to quit the co-op and have him produce proprietary wine under the Palon label. Although but 24, he is a wine-making magician. I think you will be very impressed by what the family has accomplished.”
So the next day we headed out past the storied wine villages of Châteauneuf du Pape, Beaumes-de-Venise and Vacqueyras in search of the Palons. It wasn’t long till we found them in their little ochre building just off the main road leading up to the charming hillside town of Gigondas. Annie Palon greeted us warmly and called Papi Jean, Jean-Pierre and Sébastien to join us. As Hélène chatted with Annie, I joined the men and together we tasted all of the current vintages of the Domaine Palon wines (I might still be there, but the ever reasonable Hélène dragged me away amid loud, gurgling protests). The 2005s were not yet bottled, so Sébastien had us try, directly from cask and tanks, the individual component juices (Grenache, Mourvèdre and Syrah) that would be blended in the Vacqueyras. I thought the Syrah by itself was about as good as a wine could be.
He then combined the juices in the proportion he estimated he would use in the final product. It was magical. The fruit of the Grenache rounded out the silky tannins of the Syrah with the Mourvèdre adding backbone and texture. It was reminiscent of a young Châteauneuf-du-Pape: a very, very good one.
It was a delightful and delicious introduction to the Palons. As we were about to depart Annie pronounced that they would be pleased to have the venerable firm of Arthur Sellers & Co. represent them in the Ontario marketplace. She concluded by saying that their production was very small and demand was high. We were to be the last agents that they would employ. Apparently M. Esparza had said something good about us.
Our visits to the Palons occurred pretty much annually over the ensuing years. Their wines were greatly enjoyed by our wine club members and our relationship with them continued to grow.
We were pleasantly surprised to learn during our next call that they had named their Côtes du Rhône ‘Cuvée Esparza’ after our mutual mentor. Annie and Jean-Pierre treated us to a most enjoyable lunch on the terrace of the nearby Les Florets restaurant. During lunch
Annie told us about a conundrum she was facing. A foreign agent had sent her a blank cheque for the winery’s entire 2006 production. As that cheque sat on her coffee table at home, she thought about how wonderful it would be to have no sales challenges for an entire year. She wouldn’t even have to keep the winery shop open. But she knew that her existing, loyal clients would be bitterly disappointed and was concerned about the risks associated with placing all of her distribution eggs in one basket. She returned the cheque uncashed.
Annie began having back problems that seemed to get progressively worse with each visit. Jean-Pierre developed health issues of his own. And, sadly, Papi Jean passed away in his mid-nineties. Sébastien was quickly taking on more and more responsibility for Domain Palon’s operations. His wife Marie Line assumed most of Annie’s administrative and sales duties. There was some wonderful news. Marie Line and Sébastien had a son they named Noé. They purchased an old house on an adjacent property and renovated it to their needs. Sébastien found that maintaining their vineyards was occupying all of his efforts, leaving little time for his family. So they sold a parcel of their less valuable land in order to strike a better work/life balance.
On one visit, Sébastien and Marie Line hosted us to a most memorable lunch at Côteaux et Fourchettes located just off a roundabout amid the vineyards near Cairanne. This Michelin mentioned eatery is quite modern and very reasonably priced given the overall quality. They brought along several Palon treasures, all delicious. The normally reticent Sébastien really opened up and Marie Line was as vivacious as ever. The food was quite innovative including the desert that was made up of several olive-based variations … including ice cream! Lunches in Provence are wonderful things, especially when shared with the Palon family.
We arrived one morning on a subsequent visit to find Marie Line and Sébastien clearly out of sorts. Oh, they were as welcoming as ever and had everything set up for our usual tasting, but something was definitely amiss. As the tasting and conversation wound down, a policeman appeared on the scene. It was only then that we learned that more than 1,200 bottles of premium wine had been stolen from the Palon cellars the night before, just a few hundred meters from where Marie Line, Sébastien and Noé lay sleeping. They did not hear a sound; their security system had been neutralized. The policeman theorized that it had been the work of the ‘travellers’ who were known to help themselves to great quantities of fine wine whenever a special celebration like a wedding was at hand. No wonder Sébastien and Marie Line weren’t their usual cheery selves.
Ensuing visits returned to form and the Palon wines continued to impress, even in off vintages such as 2013 and 2014. Noé grew like a weed and was totally immersed in all of the vineyard and cellar activities. Would he be the next Palon to carry on the family’s grape growing and wine making traditions? Sébastien would occasionally be suffering the effects of some mishap like wrenching a knee while attempting to free a mired tractor; hazards of the trade.
In April we once again descended upon the Palons, this time to sample their recently bottles wines from the 2016 vintage. Needless to say, they were absolutely splendid. However, once again something seemed amiss. Also, what struck me as odd was the fact that they had many of their old and best vintages of Vacqueyras and Gigondas for sale, including those from 2005, 2007, 2009 and 2010. Normally they would have only the most recent year available for purchase. After we laid waste to the 2016s, Sébastien took us back to the storage area where the 2017 juices hibernated in their tanks. As before, he had us try the individual varietals and then poured them together into the approximate blend that would become the 2017 Palon Vacqueyras. It was simply stunning. I asked him if he thought the 2017 vintage would turn out to be as good as the vaunted 2015 and 2016s. His reply was, “Better.” While normally this would cause rejoicing, the problem was that the yield for the 2017 harvest was only half that of a normal year. Such are the vagaries of a vintner’s lot in life.
We received a note from Marie Line last week. It was a very sad and unexpected. The Palons had sold their vineyards and winery! It seems that Sébastien has contracted a serious illness and is unable to continue the arduous life of the artisan vigneron. The 2017 vintage will be his last. Marie Line will carry on at the winery for the next year or so to assist the new owners during the transition. She will make sure that our requirements for the vintage will be met; a typically kind Palon gesture. Further, she wanted us to come over so that we could have lunch and be introduced to the new owners. I wish we could.
The Palons had all too short an inning, producing their ethereal elixirs from just 2004 to 2017. But they certainly made their mark on the wine-making scene in the Southern Rhône. We were blessed to be a part of it all, bringing thousands of their vinous treasures to the thirsty denizens of Ontario. But it was getting to know the family – Papi Jean, Annie, Jean-Pierre, Sébastien, Marie Line and Noé that was the greatest pleasure, something we will treasure for ever. And, fortunately we have a few of their creations nestled away in our cellar. We will think happy thoughts about the Palons whenever we uncork one.
Unfortunately none of the Palon’s splendid 2004 Vacqyeyras remains available. But, there is good news for those who would like to try the apex of Sébastien’s craft. You can obtain his 2016 Vacqueyras and Gigondas at LCBO.com. If you order a bottle of each, the LCBO will ship them gratis to your favourite LCBO retail store. I recommend you decant them a couple of hours before enjoying. Should you wish to try their final vintage, the 2017s, join our wine club (no fees or other obligations) and we will send you a notice when they become available.