As long as my memory goes, I have been fascinated by the taste profile and texture of Northern Rhône wines. Unfortunately here in Finland one does not get to taste them – especially the whites – very often, so the best way to learn more is to go to the spot. Before heading there with Rhônephiles Mikko and Ilkka, we agreed that each of us would come with one principal wish. Eager to expand my view on local whites, my reply was crystal clear: René-Jean Dard & François Ribo, an iconic duo renowned for their lively, characterfully aromatic and pleasant-to-drink terroir wines.
I have been a fan ever since I tasted their wines for the first time at the legendary natural wine mecca Aux Crieurs de Vin in Troyes, southern tip of Champagne. Be it red or white, there is something captivating in Dard & Ribo’s medium-bodied, deliciously elegant, tastebud-tingling wines.
Even C’est Le Printemps, their ”easygoing and not-so-serious red” as René-Jean likes to put it, is one hell of a wine in its charmingly vivacious essence packed with swinging blackberry, delicious acid line and that archetypal black pepper aroma I so love in Northern Rhône reds. A great and above all affordable example of easy-to-drink yet soulful red wine.
As I receive a reply from Monsieur Dard, I could not feel happier. But on the outskirts of Mercurol – the village where their tiny estate is located – our navigator gets lost. There are no signs, just rows and rows of fruit trees that stick out like ghosts in their wintery nakedness. As we arrive at their rustic winery close to the A7 motorway, we are not sure if we have picked the best moment since René-Jean has confirmed us the day but no time (or perhaps my phone did not receive his reply).
First we meet a man with twinkling eyes and woollen cap. François Ribo. He leads us to Dard who is glueing labels to the bottles. Time to perform with my lousy French!
The building is rustic and edgy, reflecting the craftmanship and devotion for making the best possible quality, on “let the vineyards speak” principle, of course. Having visited numerous wine cellars in wintery Europe, I am bitterly aware how to prepare for the coldness. But at Dard & Ribo we soon realise the day is ice-cold. Even René-Jean has to warm up his hands by blowing them every and and then. The entire week in Northern Rhône has been freezing: well below minus 10 degrees at night.
Having started in 1984 with just one inherited vineyard hectare in the heart of the Saint-Joseph appellation, the production of this nowadays 8,5-hectare estate (of which roughly five hectares are located across Crozes-Hermitage, a fair two in Saint-Joseph and less than a hectare on the prestigious Hermitage hill) is still minuscule: between 28,000 and 40,000 depending on the year. No wonder Dard & Ribo’s bottlings are so sought-after on various markets and well loved in Parisian natural wine circles.
After befriending each other during their wine studies, René-Jean and François were among the first Northern Rhône winemakers who intervened as little as possible in grape growing and winemaking, in a time when ’natural’ hardly existed as a term.
”All this buzz about natural wines seems quite funny to us since we have been making wines like this for nearly three decades. We simply continued the environmental-friendly way my father had adopted – avoiding chemical stuff on the vines and adding only a tiny amount of sulphur upon bottling. And instead of tailoring our wines for current palates, we just want to make wines we like ourselves, wines that would be pleasant to drink without years of cellaring so typical for many wines of our region”.
Yet the customers found their estate early on, and today Dard & Ribo imports its wines to nearly 20 countries. A warm tone appears in Rene-Jean’s voice as he talks about the Japanese:
”Japan is our biggest export market since the 1990s. They were ready for naturally made wines way before us Europeans. And thanks to our Japanese visitors, I have learnt how to speak French in a clear and calm way.”
Silently in my mind I thank those Japanese as talking in French and translating for the boys swallows all my energies. But then it happens: as I accidentally mumble something in Italian, it turns out René-Jean speaks my favourite language. Che bello! From that moment onwards the ice, if there ever was any, is cracked for good. If somebody had said to me last summer that this winter I would be tasting wines with Monsieur Dard in italiano, I would not have believed. But the best things in life tend to happen when you least expect.
As he admits they hardly accept any visitors, we feel really lucky. At wineries like theirs people always have hands full, and every visit is out of their time at work.
”We receive so many phone calls and visit inquiries that it is impossible to reply let alone arrange visits. We rather let our wines speak for themselves.”
And oh boy, they do. We start from a barrel room so low you nearly have to bend down upon entering. Like all ambitious environment-conscious winemakers, Dard tirelessly talks about the significance of healthy vineyards (more than crucial if wines are made without or with minimal sulphur) and different terroirs that they want to highlight by vinifying each plot separately.
The difference between the terroirs truly shows in the white barrique samples of 2016. Never before have I realised how different two 100 % Roussannes from the same place can taste (or to be honest, never before have I gotten to compare two pure Roussannes from a barrel). Whereas the first two charm with their completely distinct characters, the 100 % Marsanne is less acidic, oily, exhibiting beautiful round aromas of almond, spices and marzipan.
Unlike most local vignerons who concentrate on growing Syrah, the dark pride of Northern Rhône, more than one third of Dard & Ribo’s production is white wine based on Marsanne and Roussanne grapes. I am tempted to whoop “luckily!” since these barrel samples are so damn delicious, giving a nice mouthwatering effect that prepares our palates for the reds to come. A key to the Dard & Ribo style are the 12 months these white wines get to spend in old 225-litre barriques.
The reds, in turn, are aged in 600-litre demi-muids as they are the best for creating traditional-style Syrah. Contrary to many producers of the region, René-Jean and François prefer to make Syrah for early enjoyment: their medium-bodied, acidicly elegant and nicely accessible red wines do not need years in the cellar before getting rid of their sturdy character.
It is lovely to taste expressive and harmonious Crozes-Hermitage and Saint-Joseph samples from the barrels. But although tasting red samples of this high quality is a rewarding task, trying to express myself in French makes my head spin and my memory vague. To put it short: I am charmed by their balance, beautifully sticky but not harsh tannins, impressive length and sophisticated potpourri of wild herbs, black pepper, violets, liquorice root (and nice meaty aroma in some examples) instead of prominent oakiness typical of some modern Rhône producers.
In the beginning, these two natural scene pioneers from two sides of the Rhône river (René-Jean from Tournon and Francois from Tain l’Hermitage) shared most of the winemaking, but today their roles are complementary. While Francois is responsible for the health of the vineyards, René-Jean concentrates on pressing and other cellar practices while also taking care of customer relations and paperwork – ”a lot of administrative work”, as he sighs. But the tasting of fermenting juices and all winemaking decisions are still made together.
As our tasting proceeds, I notice a growing fire inside me to taste their Hermitage Blanc, a white rarity with only 200 bottles produced per year. So when the moment comes, I casually ask about the wine, and contrary to my prior expectations we get to taste the 2015. Wow. Made 100 % of Roussanne, this vintage is pure, fresh and elegant, with plenty of stylish yellow fruit, white flowers, subtle oak aromas and a smoothly running texture to die for. Its lingering finish still feels in the mouth a quarter afterwards. What a seducer! When I playfully ask René-Jean whether he would sell one bottle, he shakes his head with a smile.
Unfortunately our timetable is so tight that there is no time to taste any Dard & Ribo rouge in the bottle. I feel horribly embarrassed about us having to leave way too early, but René-Jean just winks his eye:
”Maybe we leave something for the next time too…?”
Thinking that way, we couldn’t have wished for a better ending to our visit. After hugging for goodbyes and receiving a bottle of white Saint-Joseph 2015 as a gift, we walk out to the yard where snowflakes dance around like never before.
Despite their early drinkability, next I would love to try some older Dard & Ribo wines. So far my oldest bottle has been the white Saint-Joseph 2007 I dragged home from Crieurs two years ago: quirky and funky, quite spicy, clearly developed wine that seemed to have funny-looking golden chips inside the bottle. But the content was flawless. In fact, despite this common talk about conspicous bottle variation of natural wines, I have not yet managed to encounter a tired or faulty bottle of Dard & Ribo.
And if YOU, my dear reader, happen to be lucky enough to have a bottle of white Hermitage in your cellar… or if you know about a place in Paris where to enjoy it, I’m all ears!
Visiting Dard & Ribo was a wonderful crystallisation of our 5-day Northern Rhône trip during which we were stunned by the spectacular level of local whites. So next time when someone starts again nagging about fat and flat, overtly exotic, way-too-spicy Rhône whites, I just say:
Go to Northern Rhône, pick good addresses and let your tastebuds become all white.
Or pay a visit to Le Verre Volé, one of the nicest corner bistros in Paris 10ème, and order some Dard & Ribo to escort your meal. You won’t be disappointed.