|Is there a perfect wine for Valentine’s day? Surely that depends on whether it is to be shared over dinner or simply enjoyed on its own. A fore-runner for the top Valentine’s match, regardless of situation or accompaniment, are the wines of Lirac. This region in the Rhône Valley in the South of France has been making wine since before the Roman occupation. It had built itself such a good reputation, that in order to deter forgeries, barrels leaving from the port of Roquemaure had to be stamped with CDR (Côtes du Rhone) and the year of harvest.
The Valentine’s connection doesn’t occur until 1866 when phylloxera (a vine louse accidently brought over from the USA) wiped out the majority of Roquemaure’s surrounding vineyards. The local vigneron tried everything to rid themselves of the pest but to no avail. A wealthy landowner decided that the best solution would be to head to Rome and acquire the relics of Saint Valentine from the church in order to save the vines from phylloxera. In 1868 the relics were paraded through the town and left to lie in the church of Roquemaure. Whilst this didn’t cure phylloxera, the town has an annual celebration on the nearest weekend to the 14th February where the relics repeat their parade across town, which is followed by a weekend of dancing and folk music.
The region itself is on the Right-Bank of the river Rhône, just opposite the more famous vineyards of Châteauneuf du Pape. It has a Mediterranean climate of hot, dry summers and mild, cool, wet winters. The Appellation of Lirac is made up of four communes: Lirac, Roquemaure, Saint Geniès de Comolas and Saint Laurent des Arbres. They make red and rosé wines from Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsaut and Carignan; and whites from Grenache Blanc, Clairette and Bourboulenc. As part of the regulations all the wines must be made as blends: any single varietal wines would be “downgraded” to Côtes du Rhône or Vin de Pays.
The Sabon family have owned vines over the river in Châteauneuf du Pape since 1540, but Domaine Roger Sabon was only founded in 1952. Since then, Roger and his three sons (Jean-Jacques, Denis and Gilbert) have expanded the business including acquiring 17 hectares in Roquemaure, where they make their Lirac and their Côtes du Rhône wines.
This thriving business is still very much a family enterprise with Denis and his son Julien tending the vines, and until 2004 Jean-Jacques was making the wine. The wine is now made by Didier Négron, Jean-Jacques son in law: who had previously been in charge of making their white wines. Whilst the domaine has an esteemed reputation for its Châteauneuf du Pape, their Lirac is delicious and great value for money.
Their Lirac vines are on the hillsides of Roquemaure where the soil is chalk with galets (small round stones) on top. The vineyards are maintained without any herbicide and a bare minimum of chemicals. The grapes are rigorously selected at harvest time before pressing. The grapes are then destalked and the juice is fermented in tanks for 20 days before being matured in a combination of large and small barrels.