It’s early summer in Provence, the sky is sharply blue and the midday temperature agreeably toasty but it’s not yet too hot to be tiresome. France’s magic date – le quatorze juillet – which signals the descent of southbound hordes via the Autoroute du Soleil – hasn’t yet arrived. This (along with autumn) is my favourite time to visit.
Down in the cellar of the Famille Perrin estate, Charles Perrin, one of seven siblings and cousins working for the family firm, has set bottles and glasses on top of an up-ended barrel for a tasting. We sniff, sip and spit, first a white Châteauneuf du Pape (who knew?), then a Roussanne-rich blend from old, low-yielding vines. Charles keeps up a steady and engaging patter, with animated explanations of every step each wine has had to take before reaching our glasses. “Our job is to talk wine,” he admits with evident relish, “We travel the world telling the story of Perrin wines.” Eighty percent of their production is exported, with the US their most important market.
Then we take off into the reds with a series of Beaucastel’s celebrated Châteauneuf du Pape from several different vintages. There’s plenty of talk, first of those famous, smooth, sunbaked stones in which the vines are improbably rooted, and then of the chilling effects of the fearsome mistral which blasts down the Rhone at regular intervals throughout the year.
We discover why a Beaucastel Châteauneuf is different from those of other estates: of the 13 grape varieties permitted in the mix (some of them in both red and white expressions), the Perrins use a higher proportion of Mourvèdre grapes than their peers; and we learn why it can taste subtly different from year to year – it’s all about the blend of those different varieties, whose composition is decided on after frequent and regular tasting, an exercise that gives rise to intense debate and lively discussion amongst the whole family team.
Our cellar business completed, we rattle off up a stony track in Charles’s 4 x 4 to one of the Perrin vineyards in Gigondas. It’s situated just beneath the Dentelles de Montmirail, a jagged limestone outcrop that dominates the skyline for miles around. Here, another upturned barrel with a magnum of chilled Perrin white wine awaits. To the west the sun shows signs of sinking below the skyline. The vineyard tractors have fallen silent; all we hear is an insistent chorus of crickets punctuated by occasional birdsong.
The crowning part of the programme is dinner down in the village of Gigondas at L’Oustalet, the small restaurant on the village square that’s owned jointly by Chef Laurent Deconinck and the Perrin family. On the terrace, where it all happens in summer, there’s room for around 40 guests – best of all is the huge table built around a gnarled olive tree that seats at least a dozen and serves as a sort of Stammtisch or communal table.
There’s a small page of seasonal suggestions, plus a 3-course petit menu at €60, a 4-course menu classique at €82 and the 5-course grand menu blowout at €96. You can also take the wine-matching option with your chosen menu: €32 for 3 glasses, €44 for 4 and €52 for 5. Check the website for what’s currently on the chef’s mind, but in early summer you can expect the likes of stuffed courgette flowers with asparagus and summer truffles, red mullet on black rice, spring lamb, truffled pecorino and a violet-infused fresh bilberry creation for pudding.
Given that the restaurant is jointly owned by the Perrin family and the chef, you might expect the wine list to major on Perrin wines to the exclusion of almost all else. Here’s the surprise: it’s a proper treasure chest of France’s top drops, with – logically – the southern and northern Rhone forming the backbone. But – hooray – it’s not all Châteauneuf du Pape at over €300 a pop: there are plenty of lesser-known, (relatively) affordable treasures whose prices hover around the €40/€50 mark. Best of all there are at least 25 different wines offered by the glass.
And if, after all this talk of L’Oustalet’s alluring wine list, you’re concerned about how to get home, remember there are three delicious rooms in the narrow street up behind the restaurant, so you can drink with impunity and without a thought for who will take the wheel. (The breakfast’s not half bad either…)
[A shorter version of this article appeared originally in FT Weekend]
Comp declaration: I was hosted by the Perrin family for the tasting, dinner and overnight at L’Oustalet