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robert camuto: letter from europe

Mountain Men

The Ravaille brothers run a stunning estate in France’s newest appellation
Photo by: Robert Camuto
Pierre Ravaille in a stony vineyard of Ermitage du Pic St.-Loup

Posted: Apr 10, 2017 11:00am ET

I’ve visited a lot of vineyard estates, but when it comes to inspiring awe, few compare to the Ermitage du Pic St.-Loup in southern France.

Size makes a lot of the difference. On a clear day around Pic St.-Loup—a craggy 2,159-foot-high, sharkfin-shaped mountain in the Languedoc region—the sky seems as big and blue as it gets. In all directions are the rugged lands of the Ermitage.

The owners, the Ravaille family, cultivate 110 acres of vineyards, most of which fall in the newly designated Pic St.-Loup AOC that debuts with the 2017 vintage. But their estate, spreading out from the ruins of a 13th-century castle, covers more than 1,300 acres of Mediterranean forest and the fragrant Provençal scrub known as garrigue—including the entire sheer southern face of the Pic itself.

“Right up to the cross on top of the ridge is ours,” explains winemaker Pierre Ravaille as his mud-splattered truck bounces up a mountain path on a winter morning.

Ravaille calls the vineyards îlots (“little islands”) in a sea of wild green. “We have no neighbors, which is very good for preventing diseases,” he says. “Especially when you work organically.”

Ravaille stops his truck more than halfway up the mountainside in Ermitage’s highest vineyard, Ste.-Agnès, marked by hard gray limestone. The vineyard produces the mineral-driven Ermitage du Pic St.-Loup Cuvée Ste.-Agnès (2013, 87 points, $25).

Like its slightly rounder sister cru, Tour de Pierres, from a lower-elevation îlot of iron-rich red and limestone gravel soils, Ste.-Agnès is blended chiefly from Syrah and Grenache, with 10 percent each of Mourvèdre and Carignan.

All the Ermitage’s wines show Pic St.-Loup’s characteristic fresh acidity and spice aromatics, which are fed by the appellation’s cool summer nights and its relatively high rainfall for the Languedoc. “We are in the south, but there is always the freshness that you don’t find elsewhere,” Ravaille says.

The property, now run by Pierre and his two brothers, has been in their mother’s family since the French Revolution. Their father sold grapes to a local cooperative and raised sheep until the local industry shriveled due to competition from cheaper imports in the 1980s.

The three brothers took charge in 1992, at the start of the area’s move to better-quality wines. Pierre, now 48, runs the cellar, younger brother Xavier, 44, oversees the vineyards, and the eldest, Jean-Marc, 50, runs the business office.

“In the beginning, 100 percent of our wine was for export,” says Jean-Marc. “In the last 10 years, the French have discovered their wine regions and have reclaimed the culture of wine.”

From the outset, the brothers set out to understand their varied terroirs, with a range of limestone-based soils, marls and dolomite. “The idea was to separate these ilots,” says Pierre, “and see what they would give us.”

The brothers also undertook an extraordinary vineyard program, doubling their vineyard acreage and meticulously selecting and propagating vines not only from their estate but also from stellar southern producers. For Mourvèdre, they went to Bandol’s Domaine Tempier; for Syrah to Thierry Allemand in Cornas and Michel & Stéphane Ogier in Côte-Rôtie; and for Grenache and Carignan to Roussillon’s Domaine Gauby.

The Ravailles now produce more than 8,300 cases annually: three site-specific reds, one rosé (about which Pierre glibly says, “rosé is not wine”) and a rich, intriguing, barrel-fermented white Cuvée Ste.-Agnès, which is dominated by Roussanne (2014, 88 points, $24).

Like much of this part of France, the Ermitage conjures a more pastoral time. Bread is still delivered by a local baker every morning, Mom prepares lunch in a kitchen above the winery, and the family employs a team of 40 stout Camargue horses to tame the garrigue and winter vineyard weeds.

The Ravailles ferment their red wines in unlined cement tanks in their grandfather’s winery, which is more than a century old, and age them a few yards down the hillside in large barrels in an old sheepfold.

Yet the brothers aren’t afraid of using technology when it helps express their terroirs. They employ modern wine presses and pumps in the winery. At harvesttime, they place the grapes in airtight bins treated with protective inert gas for the short ride back to the winery.

Their labors are still a work in progress, as they scout their vast lands in search of more sites that will produce wines of balance and character. “We have more terroirs to refine,” says Pierre. “We can grow, but we are doing it slowly, about 1 hectare [2.47 acres] a year—little by little.”

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