The Rocky Road to Les Alpilles | Domaine de Trévallon

What’s in a name? Some estates are so special that they have been named and renamed! Successively designated Coteaux d’Aix, Vin de Pays and now IGP des Alpilles, Trévallon has never been anyone but itself, that is to say, one of the leading red wine producing estates in Provence. Let’s take a look at the Dürrbach family’s fascinating story.

It’s the kind of story that commands admiration as well as attention. How did this family manage to produce a great wine from nothing? Was it the natural flair, a feeling for the soul of the terroir or spades of self-belief?

Despite the more northernly connotations of the name, Eloi Dürrbach was born on the beautiful Var coast of the French Riviera, in the small village of Cavalaire where his parents lived. His father, René Dürrbach was a well-known painter and sculptor, once a student of the painter and philosopher Albert Gleize (one of the founders of Cubism and later Eloi’s godfather). Gleize rented his house in Cavalaire out to René Dürrbach. René’s wife was Jacqueline de La Baume. Also an artist, she met her future husband at a sculpture workshop. She specialised in large tapestries. The couple counted Pablo Picasso among their friends and he actually commissioned Jacqueline Dürrbach to make a tapestry based on his famous Guernica. As a side note, the tapestry in question now hangs in the UN headquarters in New York after being sold to the Rockefellers. The sale of this tapestry (and a few others) meant that the Dürrbachs could afford to buy their own home. In the late 1950s, they bought a property in very poor condition in the Alpilles, what was to bcome the Domaine de Trévallon.

Despite studying architecture in Paris, their son Eloi was quickly drawn to farming life. He undoubtedly inherited this interest from his father who had farmed for Provençal writer Jean Giono in Forcalquier, near Manosque during the Second World War. In the midst of the swinging sixties, Eloi Dürrbach took to camping in Trévallon, located on the northern slope of the Alpilles, between Avignon and Arleset. He was probably already imagining the plans for the renovation (not to mention the reconstruction!) of the estate. But it would be a few more years before he would fully throw himself into the project…

It was not until 1973, after seven years spent in Paris studying architecture, that Eloi announced to his unenthusiastic father that he intended to settle in Trévallon and plant vines there. That marked the moment the Trévallon adventure really began. “At that time,” recalls Eloi Dürrbach, “the red wines of Provence came down to two or three good Bandol wines and the production of Vignelaure. So, he packed his suitcases and moved down to the rustic mas farmhouse at Trévallon. In order to create his vineyards, he blasted into the rocky hills surrounding the estate. It was a mammoth task to remove the rock imbedded in the soil. The first vines were planted during the winter of 1973 on three hectares. It was quite an extraordinary site, a mixture of scrubland and limestone rock. In 1976, the first Trévallon vintage was bottled.

Eloi and Floriane Dürrbach have fond memories of the early years of their estate: “Aubert de Villaine, from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in Burgundy, was the first to be impressed by our wines. In 1978, he tasted them at the Beaumanière restaurant. He then spoke to his importer in the United States, who was also won over and started buying our reds from us. This importer spoke about it to Robert Parker who tasted vintage 82. He really liked it. We were also the first wine from the Alpilles that Robert Parker spoke about! It was 1984 and that was the beginning for us. We were better known abroad than in France. »

The vineyard, which today measures 17 hectares (15 hectares of reds) is made up of small parcels located within two-kilometre radius of the cellar. The vines are grown in the most natural way possible, without insecticides, fertilisers, or chemical herbicides. For the production of red wines, Eloi Dürrbach has opted for an equal amount of Cabernet-Sauvignon and Syrah. His father had read in Etude des Vignobles de France (A Study of French Vineyards) – by Dr. Jules Guyot, a renowned agronomist of the late 19th century – that Cabernet Sauvignon existed in Provence before the Phylloxera crisis, and that if it was blended with Syrah, it could make an excellent wine.

This decision has resulted in the INAO (the official body that oversees designations), to refuse his wines the local AOC Baux de Provence status, when the appellation was created in 1993. They argued that the Cabernet Sauvignon dominated the blend. However, there is no doubt that this is what gives the wine its distinctive character: on the Alpilles terroir, it brings spicy notes, with aromas of cinnamon and pepper. The Syrah undoubtedly brings a mellowness and a silky, seductive character to the wine.

This innovation and subsequent refusal by the INAO is how the Trévallon estate was marketed under many appellations: VDQS (Vin Délimité de Qualité Supérieure or Superior Quality Designated Wine) from its inception to 1993, before entering under the Baux de Provence appellation. Since then it has been integrated into Vin de Pays des Bouches-du-Rhône. Now it is “IGP des Alpilles” (Protected Geographical Indication from the Alpilles area), following the new framework of appellations that is being established in France.

The INAO refusal was reminiscent of the history of Grange des Pères. For this iconic Languedoc estate, the presence of Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend was also an issue, and so it is designated the IGP de l’Hérault. In both cases however, the decision to use an Atlantic grape variety in the blend paid off and justified the winemaker’s decision to proceed without appellation status.

Since the 1996 vintage, the bottle labels change every year and are illustrated with René Dürrbach’s original artwork, drawn a few years before his death in 2000. “I gave him 50 posters and he began to draw on them using colouring pencils, using his inspiration only as a guide. Each year, we choose a label whose design corresponds to the characteristics of the vintage”. The estate is now managed by Éloi and his children, Ostiane and Antoine, and is certified organic. The wines, unanimously acclaimed by critics across the board, regularly appear on top restaurant menus around the world.

The fruits of this incredible project are numerous, since several well-known wine makers trained at Domaine de Trévallon: Marc Delienne in Fleurie (Beaujolais) and Clément Pinard, the son of Vincent Pinard in Sancerre.

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What do the guides say?

RVF:

Eloi Dürrbach has become one of Provence’s most emblematic figures. On his clay-chalk terroir, exposed to the north, he has always had faith in his Syrah and Cabernet vines to produce great reds. Attentive and meticulous, he crafts IGP Alpilles cuvées that express well their terroir and the perfect maturity of their grapes, vinified in whole bunches and matured for two years in foudre casks. These methods allow for the production of dense, taut and refined wine. Through their aromatic complexity (notes of spice and black truffle), Trévallon’s reds are typical of the Mediterranean, all whilst holding onto a northern freshness. Across two hectares of white varietals (Marsanne, Roussanne, Chardonnay and Grenache), the resulting cuvées are vinous and floral with a bitter finish.

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