A blog devoted to exploring wines made from unusual grape varieties and/or grown in unfamiliar regions all over the world. All wines are purchased by me from shops in the Boston metro area or directly from wineries that I have visited. If a reviewed bottle is a free sample, that fact is acknowledged prior to the bottle's review. I do not receive any compensation from any of the wineries, wine shops or companies that I mention on the blog.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Tibouren - Côtes de Provence, France

Today's wine should be a fun one since not only is the grape somewhat unusual, but the style of the wine is as well.  My friend Matt over at the Wine Bottega was so excited when he got this in their shop that he emailed me right away.  At the time, I was on a real Jura kick and was drinking a lot of Vin Jaune and other slightly oxidized white wines from the region that Matt was helping me to track down, so when this popped up, he let me know right away.  And I'm glad that he did, because this wine was not only right up my alley in terms of how unusual it was, but it was also really tasty to boot.  But I'm getting ahead of myself.  Let's start with the grape itself, Tibouren.

Jancis Robinson, in her Oxford Companion to Wine, calls Tibouren "the Provençal grape variety" because of its long history within the region and the typically Provençal character that wines made from the grape tend to possess.  Despite this kind of critical praise, Tibouren isn't all that widely planted.  As of 2000, it covered about 450 hectares, or just over 1,100 acres, nearly all of which are located in the Var region of Provence.  The reason for its unpopularity with most growers will sound familiar to those of you who've been reading along with me for awhile: it's a pain to grow in the vineyard.  Mainly, the problem is that the vine is very susceptible to a condition known as coulure, which is an affliction that causes the tiny berries that form just after flowering to fall off of the cluster, and when coulure hits hard, as you might expect, yields from the vine drop dramatically.  From year to year, it's difficult to try to predict what kinds of yields the Tibouren vine will provide since coulure is influenced by a number of factors that are out of the grower's hands, meaning that some years coulure isn't much of a problem and yields are good, but other years coulure is a menace and yields are way down.  You only find out how much of a problem coulure is going to be when it hits, and by then there's nothing to be done.  When you grow grapes for a living, it's very inconvenient to have no idea what your crop size will be so many growers moved away from Tibouren to more reliable and consistently yielding vines.

I mentioned above that Tibouren had a long history in Provence.  As with most issues regarding the provenance of a specific grape, that particular fact is in some dispute.  The noted ampelographer Pierre Galet believes that the grape's origins are Middle Eastern because of the unique shape of the vine's leaves.  The leaves of grapevines are made up of individual lobes and the curved area between these lobes are called sinuses.  Many vines are easily identifiable because of the relative depth or shallowness of the sinuses.  Riesling, as you can see in this picture, has kind of fat looking lobes with shallow, narrow sinuses.  Tibouren, as you can see on the right, has deep, very well defined sinuses, which apparently are more common in vines from the Middle East.  Galet's theory is that the vine's ancestors were brought over to Greece and then imported into Marseilles at some point in the fairly distant past.  The competing theory is that the grape was only brought into Provence via Saint-Tropez on the Riviera in the late 18th Century by a Navy captain named Antiboul, for whom the grape is named (kind of...if you try really hard you can probably get to Tibouren from Antiboul, but the synonyms Antibois, Antiboulen, Antiboulène, Antibouren, and Antibourin are definitely more directly named for him).

Wherever it is ultimately from, Tibouren is now almost exclusively a product of Provence.  It is used mostly in the production of rosé wines, though it is occasionally used as a blending ingredient in some of the local red wines.  Jancis Robinson has famously proclaimed that wines made from the grape have an aroma of garrigue.  Others have followed her example, though few of them take the time to explain to their readers just what the heck garrigue is.  Garrigue is basically the name of the underbrush or the wild scrub that grows in the limestone rich soils of the regions around the European coast of the Mediterranean Sea, particularly in the region of Provence.  The garrigue is made up of many different kinds of plants, but most notably there are a lot of wild herbs like lavender, sage, rosemary and thyme.  It's an evocative term to be sure but it's also kind of exclusionary because if you've not been to the region (and I haven't), it's a little difficult to get a real sense of just what garrigue might be.  It must be more than wild herbs or she'd just say wild herbs (you'd hope), but filling in the blanks is difficult.  The precision of tasting note terms is an argument for a different time, though, so let's try to soldier on.

Provence is interesting because it is the only region in France other than Bordeaux to develop a classification system based on noted estates (other French classification systems classify vineyards, not producers).  In 1955, eighteen estates were given the ranking Crus Classés, and as far as I know, the classification hasn't been altered since then.  One of the estates ranked is Clos Cibonne, who makes the wine that I'll be reviewing below.  The estate was purchased by the Roux family in 1797 from a guy named Jean Baptiste de Cibon.  The Roux family made wines from grapes grown on the property for many years.  In the 1930's, André Roux completely modernized the winery and began to really focus on quality production, making a real name for the estate as a serious producer.  He also uprooted all of the Mourvedre vines on the property and replanted them over to Tibouren, a grape that he had great belief in.  Clos Cibonne was even given special permission from the AOC to use the word Tibouren on their labels, a practice which, until very recently, was really only allowed in Alsace.

The Tibouren vines, covering about 15 hectares, are mostly located about 800 meters from the Mediterranean in a kind of natural bowl that faces south to the sea.  The warm air and southern exposure helps to ensure that the grapes ripen properly.  The grapes are harvested and then vinified in stainless steel before the real fun begins.  The tank-fermented wine is pumped into 100 year old neutral wood barrels called foudres which hold 5,000L each (about 1,320 gallons) where it is aged for one year under a thin veil of yeast known as fleurette.  The yeast actually protects the wine from oxidation, to some extent, while imparting its own unique kind of flavor to the finished wine.

I was able to pick up a bottle of the 2009 Close Cibonne Tibouren rosé from my friends at the Wine Bottega for about $27.  I also spotted the wine over at the Spirited Gourmet, but I don't have a price on it and would be surprised if they had much left at this point anyway, though if you're interested I'm sure either shop could track a bottle down for you.  In the glass, the wine was a medium salmon pink color.  The nose was fairly aromatic with juicy watermelon, strawberry and maraschino cherry fruits with a hint of dried herbs (or something slightly herbal in any case).  On the palate, the wine was medium bodied with fairly high acidity.  The fruit flavors were a bit more subdued than they were on the nose with some watermelon and strawberry fruits backed by a kind of saline tang and a clean, minerally finish.  Overall the wine was bright, vibrant and clean with a really interesting mix of fruit and salinity that kept me reaching for the glass.  It was kind of like someone took a really fresh rosé wine and spiked it with a little bit of Fino Sherry.  It is on the expensive side for a rosé, but it's just so interesting and unique and, yes, tasty that I really didn't mind paying it.  Fans of wines aged under a yeast film like Sherry or Jura wines should definitely check this out.  People who aren't such fans of those kinds of wines might also find themselves pleasantly surprised by this wine, as the salinity and nuttiness aren't nearly as prevalent as they are for those kinds of wines.

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