Behind The Bottle: Chêne Bleu Abélard and Héloïse

The companion reds from the Rhône winemaker are inspired by medieval lovers and have been dubbed the first Super-Rhône wines. We take a look at what makes this power couple

Words by Adam Bloodworth

Chêne Bleu
Chêne Bleu's red-wine power couple, Abélard and Héloïse, which have been dubbed the first Super-Rhônes by critics

Abélard and Héloïse, the two signature bottlings from contemporary Rhône Valley winemaker Chêne Bleu, are in many ways like any power couple: well-suited, but completely and utterly different. Much like many Rhône reds, both are Grenache/Syrah blends – yet the former is deep and bold while the latter is delicate and restrained.

Chêne Bleu’s two flagship reds have helped the winemaker redefine the reputation of the Ventoux region of the southern Rhône, traditionally viewed as sub-par compared with France’s historic and lauded AOCs – such as Châteauneuf-du-Pape, just 20 miles away.

‘Our first taste of the fresh-pressed juice was the first “a-ha!” moment,’ says Nicole Sierra-Rolet, who took over the Domaine de La Verrière land in 1994 with her husband Xavier Rolet, the former CEO of the London Stock Exchange. With plots straddling four AOCs, together, they chose to make a name for themselves outside the appellation system. ‘We decided to cross the Rubicon and devote our lives and livelihoods to making wines worthy of that juice.’

Jean-Louis Gallucci – Chêne Bleu
Nicole Sierra-Rolet – Chêne Bleu
Chêne Bleu winemaker Jean-Louis Gallucci (left) and owner Nicole Sierra-Rolet (right): ‘Abélard and Héloïse allow drinkers to get to know their palate better,’ says Gallucci

Don’t just take their word for it, though: French wine critic Michel Bettane called the first vintages in 2006 ‘the birth of a new Grand Cru’. And in the 15 years since Chêne Bleu sold its first Abélard and Héloïse cuvées, praise includes The Wall Street Journal suggesting the vineyard could be home to ‘the world’s first Super-Rhône’.

As well as exceptional flavour, Abélard and Héloïse offer a novel way of interacting with wine. The idea is that drinkers try both and learn something new. As Chêne Bleu’s winemaker Jean-Louis Gallucci – brother-in-law to the Rolets – puts it: ‘Abélard and Héloïse allow drinkers to get to know their palate better.’

The origins of Abélard and Héloïse

You’ve heard of Romeo & Juliet? Well, Abélard and Héloïse are the famed medieval lovers that predate them. Their passionate and illicit 12th-century love story has inspired almost one thousand years of poetry and artistry – as well as these wines.

‘We knew we wanted to name the wines after a historic power couple,’ reflects Sierra-Rolet. ‘Abélard was an innovative thinker and Héloïse a shining light. I identify with their devotion to each other despite their 30-year separation: from the beginning of our relationship, Xavier and I managed to stay committed to each other despite considerable geographic separations and work challenges.’

There’s the lighter, more delicate Héloïse, with notes of sweet spice, liquorice and truffle, made with Syrah and some Grenache, and then the punchier Abélard, which offers a generous mouthfeel, with mocha, plum and black cherry to taste, made with Grenache and some Syrah.

‘Usually, it’s an either/or situation,’ says Sierra-Rolet of the two variant styles they’re able to produce. ‘Very occasionally, a vineyard is able to manage both.’ At the foothills of Mont Ventoux, this vineyard’s secret weapons are a combination of southerly sun, bringing concentration to the grapes, and high altitude at around 1,600 feet above sea level, bringing freshness and cool air.

When coming up with the idea for the wines, Gallucci hoped to ‘show the yin and yang faces of the vineyard’ with two contrasting reds. ‘It’s the perfect metaphor for these two cuvées, different in style but equal in quality,’ he says. ‘Among friends, we refer to them as the power couple they were: “Abélise”.’

Chêne Bleu vineyard
More than a decade was spent getting the Chêne Bleu vines in perfect condition

What goes into making Abélard and Héloïse?

‘Xavier had a hunch that this abandoned vineyard had exceptional potential,’ explains Sierra-Rolet. The vineyard site dated to the Middle Ages, but had been long left abandoned and derelict.

After purchasing the vineyard and 12 years spent attending to each old vine – ‘nurturing them like little unique bonsais’, says Sierra-Rolet – the family graduated from bathtub production (they made their first wines in a vat in the medieval farmhouse on site) to a precision approach to winemaking.

While the winemaking techniques are similar for the signature pair, a combination of 85% Grenache and 15% Syrah is used to make Abélard, while high-altitude Viognier is added to the Syrah-dominant Héloïse.

Yields are kept low, even for the region, to concentrate the quality of the grapes, and the wines are then aged for seven to eight years, ‘which is not economical but gives us mindful, controlled maturation,’ explains Gallucci. Abélard and Héloïse are both aged for 18 months in 228-litre French oak barrels – a mix of old and new oak – then for 12 months in concrete tanks after blending, before ageing in bottle for another five months. Even before ageing, the process is slow, the winery choosing to operate on a gravity-fed system.

It’s not just in the winery where Chêne Bleu let nature take its course. When working the land, biodynamic practices are championed, and chemicals and synthetic fertilisers have been replaced by less invasive natural methods. A flock of sheep takes care of weed control and provides compost, and propolis, a resin-like substance harvested from the estate apiary, is used as a natural disinfectant.

Label design
The striking bottle label for Chêne Bleu was designed by British artist Jane Randfield

How did the design come about?

British artist Jane Randfield designed the art on both bottles, which combines medieval imagery of the power couple, but at the same time feels modern. At the heart of the bottle design is the blue oak tree, which for many years stood at the centre of the vineyard.

The old tree, a visual disrupter to the natural tones of the soil and the rest of the vineyard, was painted a brilliant ocean blue with bouillie bordelaise, an organic fungicide, to extend its life – but after surviving another 15 years, the tree eventually fell.

‘It seemed a fitting symbol for our desire to protect and preserve the majestic beauty and natural history on site,’ says Rolet, who says she cried when the tree came down.

Die-hard fans of these two bottles can buy the Theatre Box, designed by paper engineer Claire Middleton, which stores both in an adults’ version of a children’s pop-out book. The wines appear on something like a stage, with the pop-up characters of Abélard and Héloïse on either side – and there’s even a secret compartment to store tasting notes.

Chene Bleu estate
Domaine de La Verrière and the iconic blue oak from which Chêne Bleu takes its name

What’s next for Chêne Bleu?

The vineyard will welcome guests again once restrictions ease. There’s a pool with panoramic views of the vineyards, and rooms are available in the luxuriously redecorated medieval outhouses on site. Aside from swimming and supping, guests can enjoy tastings, guided cellar tours and an intensive wine school, as well as educational programs about biodiversity in winemaking.

In terms of the wine, though, Gallucci has just begun training new winemaker Josselin Guiziou to ‘bring his own vision’ to Abélard and Héloïse, as well as the rest of the Chêne Bleu portfolio. In time, the hope is that Guiziou, who has worked in Turkey, the US and France, will take the reins over the winemaking process. But there’s little doubt about venerable French power couple Abélard and Héloïse continuing to lead the way for Chêne Bleu.