Gris 1999 Vinalies
100 per cent Gamay pale rosé. Generous berry fruit and cherry aromas, ideal with fish and white meats.
Côtes de Toul Blanc 2000
100 per cent Pinot Auxerrois, bright golden tones. Fruity with peach, pineapple and citrus aromas, drunk young as an appetiser or with fish and white meats.
100 per cent Gamay sparkling pale rosé. Fresh berry aromas, ideal as an appetiser or with desserts.
André et Roland Lelièvre
3 rue de la Gare
Tel: +33 (0)3 83 63 81 36
An Open Secret...
After a long period of being overshadowed by the wines of neighbouring Alsace, things might finally be about to change for Lorraine. We visit the Côtes de Toul.
For all the perceived glamour surrounding such a noble aspiration, being a winemaker is not without its frustrations. As if the uncertainties of the changing seasons and occasionally prolonged economic fluctuations were not enough to contend with, there's also the little matter of penetrating the consciousness of the buyers, be they individuals or wholesalers. Like most things, it's considerably easier said than done. If you're a star producer in a big-name appellation, then you have the problem of fulfilling dauntingly high expectations. For those who are trying hard to steal your crown, there's an awful lot of work to do, over a very long period, but at least they have the prestige of a respected region behind them to inspire confidence and at least draw attention to the new name on the label. Imagine, then, the task facing those dedicated souls who are producing often excellent wines, but in one of lesser-known wine producing regions of France. Doing so obviously takes a very special kind of person, with a firm belief and untiring commitment. Cue André and Roland Lelièvre, who produce classic Côtes de Toul wines in a small village in Lorraine's Moselle valley.
Today the name of Côtes de Toul is hardly likely to be instantly familiar, particularly to anyone used to selecting their wines from larger outlets in the UK. Simply mention the name of Moselle and most people will still immediately think of Germany (even though much of the river's course is actually through north-eastern France). No doubt this goes some way to explaining why the Lelièvre brothers' family business has a far from typical customer profile. Of the 120,000 or so bottles produced in a typical year, around 80% remain in the Lorraine region, while 10% are sold elsewhere in mainland France. Only the remaining 10% are exported, mainly to Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg. Not surprised yet? Okay, try this: 70% of the sales are to private individual buyers, 25% to wholesalers and wine dealers, 3% to supermarkets and just 2% to restaurants. Hardly a strategy for global domination, is it?
Certainly not, agrees André Lelièvre, whose disarming smile and robust handshake provide the warmest of welcomes to the family business in the heart of Lucey, at first glance an otherwise unremarkable community just a few kilometres to the north-west of the old city of Toul. I have many questions, but André is already one jump ahead of me, being well used to recounting the long history of local wine production. It seems that the area covered by today's Côtes de Toul vineyards was established as a wine-production area by the Romans, but only really began to assume major importance during the 15th Century, under the influential patronage of the Dukes of Lorraine and the Bishops of Toul. The foundations of the A.O.C. (Appellation d'Origin Controllée) were laid around the mid-17th Century, a period of unprecedented success for the local wine-producers; later the Revolution would enable the vineyard workers themselves to establish their own vineyards and finally allow them to enjoy the results of their arduous labours. The Lelièvre family's tradition as independent winemakers was established at the dawn of this period.
The good times would be short-lived, however. At least in wine-growing terms. In the space of a couple of generations, local wine-production would succumb to the catastrophic effects of phylloxera, a disease which wiped out vineyards throughout Europe at the dawn of the 20th Century. While the industry was managing to pick itself up elsewhere and making a fresh start with rootstock imported from California, wine production in the Côtes de Toul area was dealt a succession of crippling body-blows. The coming of the railway encouraged the establishment of heavy industry, then the market in Champagne closed. Finally came World War I, whose wide-scale destruction put an end to the Côtes de Toul's centuries' old A.O.C. status. All seemed lost, until 1930, when Auguste Lelièvre and a handful of other wine-growers initiated an ambitious programme of grafting designed to produce the thousands of Gamay, Pinot Noir and Auxerrois vines necessary to replant the depleted local vineyards. Their collective vision eventually paid off. In 1951, Jean Lelièvre and his companions received a V.D.Q.S (Vin Délimité de Qualité Supérieure) classification for the northern vineyards which produce the so-called 'gris' wines, which are actually a highly-distinctive pale rosé. Their reputation has continued to grow steadily under the enthusiastic stewardship of André and Roland, the family's wines gaining a gold medal at the 1971 Paris Agricultural Fair. Finally, in 1998 the coveted A.O.C. label returned to the Côtes de Toul, after a long absence. It's quite a story, and one which is obviously far from over; now the outside world has to be made aware of the fruits of all this hard work.
After all this talk André suggests we take a look at the vineyards. Within minutes we're installed in André's son's much-travelled Peugeot and leaving the village centre, climbing steeply on a narrow side road which turns into a simple farm track on a gentle hillside amid a vast sea of vines. Below us are long rows of terra-cotta topped cottages, and the grey spire of the village church. It's a deceptively unchanging scene, giving no hint of the upheavals which must have taken place here during the last century. While we walk among the vines, André pauses now and then to inspect the swelling grapes. He then takes me over to one of a series of poles sited here and there at the end of the rows of vines. They're marked with the names of the respective grape varieties, and were put there to enable walkers on the footpaths to learn a little more about the vineyards around them. I ask about the climate and soil. 'It's a semi-continental climate, as winds from the west meet the surrounding hills. Our winters are cold and fairly dry, summers warm with not too many storms, and autumns can be quite sunny, too'. The vineyards face south and east, on clay mixed with alluvium, with lots of limestone rocks. Gamay accounts for 70% of the planting, with the remainder more or less evenly divided between Pinot Noir and Auxerrois.
'I'll show you something else which you probably won't have seen anywhere else', says André, with a conspiratorial air. Intrigued, I follow him downhill beyond the vines to a small area of dense woodland, where we pause at a small sign with a substantial length of rope attached. 'This is where, many years ago, the villagers used to grow hemp, used for making ropes'. We then follow a narrow footpath into the woods, between a series of overgrown excavations. 'These were the little reservoirs which everyone had to hold rainwater for the plants', André explains.
But there's more. 'We also grow mirabelles - would you like to see them while we're here?' By now the forecast rain has turned into a light drizzle, so we return to the car for a spot of spontaneous off-roading, bouncing between the rows of trees laden with the yellow cherry plums which will eventually be bottled by the family and sold as Mirabelles de Lorraine - traditional delicacies long favoured by the Dukes of Lorraine and today possessing their very own A.O.C. status. According to tradition, they came originally from Syria, and obviously found their new surroundings to their liking, spreading rapidly across the hills after the temporary collapse of the vineyards. Finally, the noble mirabelle can also be used to prepare brandy, roughly 40% of the fruit from the family's 5 hectares of orchards being employed for distillation.
As more determined rain finally stops play, we decide to head back to the village to sample the results of all this hard work. The results are encouraging, to say the least; in fact, given the area's relative obscurity, 'revelation' would not be overstating first impressions. Across the range, the wines are refreshing, fruity and remarkably versatile when it comes to partnering a variety of dishes. Above all, these are classic wines - modern in the sense of being perfect for today's market (particularly, I imagine, for as yet unsuspecting UK buyers), while at the same time upholding the traditional qualities for which the region was once more widely celebrated. So, good times lie ahead? The vital signs are certainly encouraging, with the vineyards of the Côtes de Toul currently occupying 110 hectares (1960's figure was just 20), of which the Lelièvre family, the area's largest producers, currently possesses 15 hectares. And, in an appellation whose approved area has a potential of around 700 hectares, there's ample room for future expansion. Finally, the latest generation of the Lelièvre family is already working alongside André and Roland, after completing studies in the Champagne and Beaune regions. Armed with this new wave of knowledge and enthusiasm, the name of Côtes de Toul, and in particular Lelièvre, finally looks poised to charm its way into the consciousness of the outside world.
© Words and pictures Roger Moss
This feature first appeared in everything France magazine Issue 10