Charles and Ruth Simpson of Domaine Sainte Rose have been making wine in the Languedoc for almost 13 years. They both left behind successful international careers to turn to the life of a vigneron.
Majestic was an early adopter of their wines and they’re often a customer (and staff!) favourite. I’m not simply blowing smoke when I say that either – shortly after I started with Majestic I took about exploring the range with enthusiasm. Many holidays in the Sud de France had given me a taste for the incredible value for money you can find outside of the better-known regions and appellations.
Trusting in her experience, I asked my Store Manager for her picks. One of the first recommendations she made was Les Derniers Cepages from Domaine Sainte Rose, and another was La Nuit Blanche. To this day, La Nuit Blanche – a Roussane – remains one of my favourite whites in the range. Partly because varietal Roussane is unusual – it’s usually blended with Grenache Blanc in the Southern Rhône – but the main reason is that it’s a delicious wine. Wine Critic and writer Jancis Robinson has remarked that “…followers of Ch de Beaucastel Blanc, Vieilles Vignes might be interested to see this junior version.” In other words, touching on white Chateauneuf-du-Pape territory, but without paying for the history and reputation on top.
Our latest Online Exclusive is their superlative-defying ‘Le Pinacle Syrah’, a Syrah with a tiny splash of Viognier in the Northern Rhône style. Charles showed it to our staff at some tastings in late April and asked them to guess the price. The lowest any of us guessed was £18. We’re offering a case of 6 for £59.94 – so £9.99 apiece. Get this before our staff buy it all up, that’s all I’m saying!
Naturally, I was thrilled to catch up with Charles and Ruth earlier this month.
What inspired you to up-sticks and start making wine?
Our decision to cast aside our respective international careers in order to establish and run a high-quality, boutique, wine business in rural France was driven by a desire to work together and to create a family business of our own. It involved a large degree of risk and a huge amount of determination to realise this mutual dream. We started out as keen consumers of wine with a very commercial approach to the business and have learned the practical side of the business hands on.
Can you tell us what’s special about your little patch of the Languedoc? What drew you to it?
Our passion for wine and desire to invest in an, ‘emerging’ wine-producing area, rather than an area that was already well established, led us to the exciting and highly diverse French wine-producing region of Languedoc-Roussillon, whose reputation was beginning to change from that of a high volume, low quality producer to a lower volume, high quality producer. The dream had always been to produce quality wine and the property we found, Domaine de Sainte Rose, provided us with the perfect raw materials. We then had to completely renovate the winery and have made huge improvements in the vineyards.
On that topic, some winemakers say the wine is made in the vineyard, others that it’s the winery that matters. What’s your feeling?
You will have heard the old adage that “you can make bad wine from good grapes but you can’t make good wine from bad grapes” before. We are in 100% agreement with this so work extremely hard to ensure we bring the best possible fruit into the winery and to manipulate the juice and wine as little as possible during the winemaking process. Our overriding principles are to use sustainable farming methods in the vineyards and hygienic, minimal intervention policies in the winery. That said, you really have to know what you are doing in the winery as to obtain the full flavour potential from each variety requires a thorough understanding of the technical aspects of winemaking, so it really is a combination of good practice in both areas.
Have you ever had a ‘eureka!’ moment?
Our ‘Eureka’ moment was winning our first trophy in an international wine competition, which was for our rather unique single varietal, barrel aged Roussanne ‘La Nuit Blanche’. We felt that our goal of producing authentic, affordable, handcrafted wines of distinction had been achieved using lesser known varieties and labelling them as such.
You mentioned before that you came from a commercial approach and had to learn hands-on. What has been the most challenging aspect of winemaking?
Dealing with the weather! The climate is always the unknown element in the winemaking process, thus being able to guarantee consistent styles of wine year on year is the greatest challenge. We have learned to achieve this by picking each variety at different stages of development to obtain a flavour spectrum from which to make the final blend and not being prescriptive about percentages of certain varieties in a blend.
And the most enjoyable part?
The excitement and anticipation of the harvest and seeing people drink and enjoy the finished product!
Speaking of the finished product, can you share a few food-and-wine tips?
The wines that we make for Majestic are all food friendly wines and work well with a variety of dishes. We usually pour La Nuit Blanche Roussanne with our Christmas meal or a Thai Green Curry and La Garrigue with a variety of meats grilled on the barbecue. Les Derniers Cepages is fantastic with a traditional lasagne or moussaka and Le Marin Blanc perfect with fish or with a cheeseboard. Finally Le Vent du Nord pairs beautifully with fresh shellfish or sushi and the online exclusive Le Pinacle Syrah is divine with a hearty southern French Cassoulet or with sharp, dark chocolate desserts!
Finally: what’s your local hidden treasure visitors should know about?
Our property, Sainte Rose, is our hidden treasure. The site has a rich history of viticulture and hospitality, starting with vines being brought by the Romans who settled in this area in 400 AD. On occasion when we plough our Mourvedre vineyard, we have found pieces of old Roman amphora and Roman coins! A few centuries later on the site of the Domaine there was a hostellerie for pilgrims travelling on the southern route to Santiago de Compostella in western Spain. There is still the stone relief of a cockle shell, which is the symbol of the pilgrimage route, on a stone basin in the courtyard of the Chateau. The current Domaine dates from the 16th Century and was named after Sainte Rose of Viterbo, an Italian Catholic Saint. There is a statue of Sainte Rose in the old Orangerie in the garden of the Chateau. The Chateau was rebuilt at the turn of the 19th Century, which was a very prosperous time for the Languedoc, producing large quantities of wine to supply to the workers in the industrial north of France. Domaine Sainte Rose has always had a local reputation for producing the best grapes in the village and we are enormously privileged to be the current owners and guardians of this treasure, making clean, modern, new world wines from this highly respected, old world terroir and exporting them all over the world.