I discovered Patrick Charlin’s wines in 2013 thanks to Nicolas Gonin, over lunch at l'Auberge du Ru whose owner is Laurent Derhé, a Meilleur Sommelier de France. For his entire career, Patrick’s Altesses have been sous le manteaux, wines of clandestine greatness, sold exclusively to top local restaurants and aficionados.
Patrick was reticent on the phone. "I don't have much wine”, he said, “and I am semi-retired." Nicolas had put in a good word for me though and he agreed to see me. I took a few wrong turns, called a couple times for directions, arrived at the winery acceptably late. Patrick– tall, handsome, and impressively fit for his sixty years– was waiting outside the winery, relaxing on the hood of his car as if it were a bar stool.
He was reserved when we started tasting. But after he poured the second vintage of Altesse –Roussette as it is called locally– my eyes must have conveyed what, rendered speechless, my mouth could not. So Patrick went and fetched another vintage, then another, then another —eight vintages in all: 2012, 2011, 2010, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004 and 1996.
The discovery of a profound terroir, of a brilliant winery, always leaves me paralyzed yet euphoric, in the manner I imagine a spiritual revelation would affect the faithful. Normally, if I have never had a wine from a great appellation, I have at least heard or read about it. But with Charlin, and Montagnieu, I was totally blindsided. I had tasted the single other example of Altesse from Montagnieu I know of, but it is a good wine rather than a grand wine, a fun regional curiosity, not the miracle that is Patrick’s.
When young, Patrick’s Roussettes are aromatically reserved, with a youthfully awkward power on the palate —stately, yet like golden retriever puppy. But there is a ton more wine in them than their price would lead one to suspect. That in itself is a reason enough to buy them.
I realize that this poses somewhat of a commercial complication, but the miracle truly happens when you put just three or fours years on them. Then the wines make a one eighty to another landscape entirely, a mesmerizing place.
Depending on the older vintage’s ripeness, either pungent truffle or quince will dominate the bouquet, but then it changes, and changes and changes. Patrick's wines are rich, even somewhat sweet, on the attack, from glycerol mind you, not RS. Later I read that Jules Chauvet considered Roussette du Bugey Montagnieu to be on a par with Château Grillet, Château-Chalon and Yquem. It is, without a doubt, in the league of such celebrated terroirs. Agreed, this sounds like quite a meal, but the texture on the mid-palate and the finish is stunning. It is silky yet densely mineral, and beaming with energy. Perhaps the slightest bit of thrust on the finish is missing to make Montagnieu one of France’s greatest terroirs, but as I have said, these are Bourgogne Blanc prices. And the evolution with air is just insane, captivating, always evolving towards more grace and focus. Despite the power up front, at the back these wines remain very Alpine, and the more time and air you give them, the more they climb the slopes.
I have blinded sommeliers, some of the best, on Charlin’s older wines. They have had two conclusions: great Chenin Blanc, likely to be Savennières; northern Rhône, Hermitage. It may sound contradictory but it’s a tough blind. “If you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”, says Sherlock Holmes, who might as well have been instructing at the Court of Masters. But what remains in this case is nothing anyone has ever been exposed to- older Roussette du Bugey? The point is though, that everyone —us, Chauvet, the blinded somms— think of way more illustrious and expensive terroirs.
After the tasting we drove to Patrick's vineyards. I had not approached the domaine by way of Montagnieu and had thought the region idyllic with its old farms and peaceful vineyards laying at the foot of the pre-Alps. I followed Patrick at treacherous speeds around sharp turns. Through the woods, I suddenly caught a glimpse of vineyards as steep as the Mosel. Shit! Stop! But to my huge disappointment we did not slow down. A kilometer or so later Patrick pulled into a small path and gestured for me to park my car. I stepped out of the car and looked up: there was the Mosel again.
The appellation of Montagnieu is spread over three communes: the villages of Montagnieu, Briord and Seillonnaz. For the humidity-loving Altesse, the village of Montagnieu, where Patrick’s vineyards are located, is the better of the three terroirs. The soil there is water-retentive deep clay, with plenty of fossil-rich limestone, whereas the other terroirs are on limestone scree. The hillside at Montagnieu is magnificently steep. Ok: it’s not nearly as high as the Mosel or Condrieu. Still, everything about it screams great wine. It faces south and southwest, traps the sun, and overlooks the Rhône. There are only 32.85 hectares planted in the entire Montagnieu A.O.C. —1.75 for reds, 22.1 for crémant, and a pitiful 8 hectares for the whites. On the hill, vineyards are interspersed with lots of brush: there has been little interest for a while now in working vineyards that are this steep, given the modest prices the Bugey commands. Both Patrick and Nicolas told me that viticulture is in a deep crisis in the Bugey. Standing on top of the vineyards after tasting such majestic wines and staring down at the impossibly steep hillside, the silver Rhône in the distance, and at the postcard village of Montagnieu perched on a rocky outcrop, it is difficult not to feel incredulous. In nearby Savoie, the vignerons’ union pushed growers to preserve their identity, but in Bugey and Isère the unions bureaucratically pushed for the production of price point wines and sparklers made from Chardonnay, Gamay and Pinot. It was a suicidal move.
Patrick is outwardly resigned to retire and sell his vines. But as he shows off his beloved terroir, his ambivalence is obvious. It is also obvious in the fact that even though he was fast approaching sixty, he took his vineyards organic in 2007. His youngest child, a son, is in his late teens and has professional aspirations at rugby. It’s not that I wish his son anything but the best in his endeavors but I told Patrick “You know, I moved to Los Angeles to escape the wine trade.” I sensed in Patrick weariness yet amusement with my visit. Why export a miniscule quantity of wine now? Then again, why not?
Patrick’s winery is located just few kilometers from Montagnieu, in the village of Groslée, where a coat of arms in the ruined medieval castle is inscribed with the motto “Espoir De Myeulx”, Hope For The Better. I hope that Patrick resists retirement until his son is certain he will have nothing to do with this magnificent terroir and his father’s magnificent wines, or even the Jean-Marc Roulot outcome: two successful, parallel callings. That would be so much myeulx.