The patchworked hills of the Ardèche to the west of the Rhône valley have traditionally been farmed by hard-working smallholders that now work collectively under the stewardship of large caves coopératives that buy their grapes under long-term contracts. This system has the advantage of minimal capital outlay for the viticulteurs and a high level of quality control in terms of the wine-making. This results in wines that are qualitatively excellent but also competitively-priced.
We have been shipping wine from the commendable 'Union des Vignerons Ardéchois' in Ruoms since 1982 and have found them to be progressive and reliable in equal measure. They specialise in producing Indication Géographique Protégée wines (the new name for Vin de Pays wines) that are ready to drink from release and have lots of varietal character. Two of their most popular and versatile wines are their 'Les Terrasses' bottlings which are sealed under screw-cap to conserve their bright-eyed fruit. The white is a blend of Sauvignon- and Grenache Blanc and has a bouquet of nettle and elderflower and a zesty, citrus-edged palate. The red is made from Merlot and Syrah giving ripe plum and damson scents and red fruit flavours with peppery undertones.
The Union was an early adopter of the state-sanctioned cépages améliorateurs (superior grape varieties) identified as producing wines of better-quality to historic high-yielding rootstock. This has resulted in a range of single-grape wines that have enjoyed great commercial success in France and abroad. Their Chardonnay is mid-weight, un-oaked and redolent of ripe orchard fruit and the Viognier has apricot and honeysuckle aromas, a yellow stone fruit palate and an elegant, dry finish. The Cabernet Sauvignon has blackberry and mint aromas and a core of cassis fruit supported by supple tannins. An equally meritorious Pinot Noir has a bouquet of soft red fruit and palate of raspberries and Morello cherries offset by fresh acidity. A more recent addition is a supple Syrah grown on volcanic soils on the Massif du Coiron that has lots of bramble fruit and fine-grained tannins.
Moving up the classification hierarchy to Appéllation d'Origine Protégée status, the co-op' produces a brace of Syrah-Grenache Noir blends that also merit attention. A Côtes du Vivarais, called 'Grand Aven' - from limestone soils in the southern Ardèche - has a briary hedgerow berry bouquet and soft black fruit palate with earthy undertones. It pairs well with rustic 'one pot' stews and casseroles.
Another Ardéche co-opérative with a terrific track record is the 'Cave de Saint-Désirat' based 10 kilometres due east of Annonay on the RN 86. We have been importing their excellent Gamay since 1977 and it enjoys a loyal following amongst the Yapp cognoscenti. With a purple robe, uplifting violet and red fruit aromas and a supple summer berry palate, it drinks well lightly-chilled and is ideal for impromptu lunches of salad and charcuterie.