The VinePair Podcast: The Dynamic Terroir and Winemaking of Costières de Nîmes

On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” host Zach Geballe is joined by Nicolas Ricome of Château de Valcombe in Costières de Nîmes to discuss his winemaking journey and the unique and exciting wines of Costières de Nîmes. Tune in for more!

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Zach Geballe: In Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe, and this is the “VinePair Podcast.” And today, I’m speaking with Nicolas Ricome. He is the owner of Château de Valcombe in Costières de Nîmes. Nicolas, thank you so much for your time today.

Nicolas Ricome: Thank you so much for having me on board. Very happy to be there with you, and to have a chance to talk about our vineyard and our region.

Z: Yeah. I’m very excited, too. I love doing these podcasts because it’s this great opportunity for me, and hopefully for our listeners as well, to sort of travel just in this half-hour or so conversation. Always makes me wish I was on the plane on my way to France, or wherever I might be going. But the podcast is a good fallback plan. So, again, appreciate you taking the time, and can you tell us a little bit about yourself? How did you get into the wine industry?

N: Well, there’s a French comic called Asterix and Obelix, where Obelix was basically dropped into a potion of liquid when he was young, and then he was strong his whole life. So basically, my story is I’m the son of the winemaker — that was my dad — and he was the son of my grandfather who was the previous owner of the property. And this estate, Château de Valcombe, has been in our family since 1740. So I’m just one part of a long chain, and my brother and I myself, we’re now the 10th generation that have taken over this stake in the Southern Rhône. But it is nothing original. It’s very traditional to the French, true to French wine culture — long family heritage.

Z: Yeah. When you’re growing up in that environment, do you just know all along that you’re going to take over the family business, or did you want to do something else and then decide, “You know what? This wine thing actually seems like a good idea.”

N: It is a very good question, because we two brothers, Basil and myself, we both had very different backgrounds. He knew he wanted to be a farmer. So after traditional schooling, when he was 18, he went to do a technical study on trees, vines, vineyards, and vinification. Immediately after, he came back to the estate to work with my dad. On my side, I wanted to do everything but be a wine grower. I just wanted to travel the world. So I went to a very traditional engineering school. And then when I was 23, I went to the Middle East, to Saudi Arabia, to Dubai. Been traveling for eight years. Ended up in South Africa making wine. And then I thought, “Okay, well if you make wine in South Africa, you might as well make wine for your own family.” And so yeah, I think, probably the heritage that we have on our shoulders, at one stage, it just comes back and hits you, and you feel it. And even though you want to do something else, there’s something heavier on my mind that tells me, “You know what? It’s time to come home.” But my first focus was to focus on a different job, and then when I was 30 I decided to come home.

Z: Got it. And for those who are unfamiliar with Costières de Nîmes, where is home? Where are we in France, and what is the growing region like?

N: Okay, so France, for a wine region, is quite vast, but most of the people know about Bordeaux, that is on the west coast, in the center part of France, but on the west coast, on the Atlantic side. Then they would also know Burgundy, would be at the top of the Rhône Valley, in the center-east part of France. And we are down below if you follow the Rhône River from the French Alps, all the way to the Mediterranean Sea, then the Costières de Nîmes is a very funny wine region that is part of the Rhône Valley, but is right on the Mediterranean Sea. So, that means the soils that we have are very similar and are growing soils. We can talk about it later on. But the climate is a very strong Mediterranean climate. So this is where we are in the most southern part of France, right on the Mediterranean border.

Z: Very nice. So you mentioned this, and we might come back to this as you said, but I want to understand this from the get-go. So soil structure, I assume, has a lot of those kinds of river stone deposits that we associate especially with the Southern Rhône. But when you talk about a Mediterranean influence, climate-wise, what are we talking about here?

N: So soil-wise, you are absolutely right. Absolutely correct. We are talking about those pebbles, old Rhône and Durance, those two rivers, the pebbles that we inherit from those rivers. So the higher you are, the closer to the surface, the bigger the pebbles. And as you’re going low and down, it would be softer and thinner after 18-20 meters deep. But when I say Mediterranean influence, it means basically the summer months, so May, June, July, and August, during the ripening period. We are very close to the sea, so the water in the sea remains quite cold, while the air is getting very warm. And that difference in temperature between the air and the coldness of the sea creates a depression. And that depression, we call that a pressure difference. And the pressure difference creates wind called sea breeze or sea wind, which is the same mechanism in many, many countries. So, people that love to go kitesurfing, for instance, they would go to the beach around 3, 4 p.m. in the afternoon and then use that beautiful sea breeze to do the kitesurfing or windsurfing. And for us as winemakers, we have the chance to have these sea breezes coming onto our vineyards, I would say 18-20 kilometers inland on a normal day. And that breeze brings a lot of saltiness and what we call “iode” onto the grapes and also brings humidity because it’s sea wind, it would be more humid than a north wind that would come from the north and part of France would be very dry. So, that influence of the sea wind during the ripening period makes me say that the Costières de Nîmes vineyards have a very strong Mediterranean influence on the grapes and on the wines.

Z: And is that sort of saltiness perceptible in the finished wine?

N: The saltiness is very perceptible in mostly the white wines because it’s got a direct impact on the skins. And as you know, for white wines we don’t do skin contacts. We press the grapes and get the juice and start fermenting the juice only without the skins, which means the iode that has deposited onto the grapes and the juices, is immediately released into the wine, I would say. For the red grapes because we have much longer, we have a real skin contact and skin fermentation juice and skins together for 8, 9, 10, 12 days, it depends. Then there are much more things that are being extracted from the skins, the color, the fruits, the tannins, of course, that we all know about, and also some of the taste that the environment has deposited onto the skins. So that’s why we feed it more onto the white ones than onto the red wines.

Z: And talking a little bit about grapes, when we’re talking about the varieties that are typically grown and produced in Costières de Nîmes, are we talking about your sort of traditional Rhône varieties on the white and red side or are there some specific singular varieties that do particularly well there? What are we talking about? What do you grow?

N: At Valcombe, on our family estate, we grow mostly Syrah. My grandfather was the first winemaker in the Costières de Nîmes to plant Syrah in 1955. At the time they were very, I would say more low-quality vineyards in which grapes would produce a lot of juice, a big quantity of juice that would be blended with other juices from other parts of Europe. And only in the late ’60s, we started to focus on low yields, better quality grapes, and proper wine, I would say. And my grandfather was one of those pioneers. So my dad kept on planting Syrah and we now have about 60 percent of our black grapes are Syrah grapes. But we also have Grenache, which is typical of the Southern Rhône. Syrah and Grenache really are the key elements and the key varieties of the old Rhône Valley. You can add Cinsault, which has slightly bigger size grapes and also thinner juices with less color. They’re very nice in making it. We used to have it for rosé, but now we love the fruit and the delicacy of the Cinsault. So more and more of the wine growers here also plant Cinsault. So Grenache, Cinsault, Syrah, and Mourvèdre. Mourvèdre is also a variety that is not well spread but that is growing into the Costières de Nîmes area. Those are the four red grapes that are the most *important. You can also add Carignan and Marselane, those are two red grapes we can also grow in the Costières de Nîmes if we want to. We are allowed to grow it.

Z: And then on the white side, what is the white wine typically made up of?

N: The white side is beautiful because there’s such a large portfolio of varietals that we can use. Of course, very traditional Rhône varieties for white wines, which is a Roussanne and Marsanne. But you can add Grenache Blanc, you can add Viognier, we can use Vermentino or what we call “Rolle” here in France, but Vermentino in Italy or Sardinia or Corsica. So the Grenache Blanc, Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne, Vermentino, we have a very large, we also are allowed to use Bourboulenc. And so that gives us a really very rich balance of white wine. And that’s a beauty I think of our appellation. The white wine diversity is tremendous.

Z: And I know that you and your brother farm organically. Is that difficult to do in Costières de Nîmes? Is it relatively easy? What does organic viticulture look like there?

N: When we took over the estate — I came back to France in 2005, my brother was already here — and once we decided to leave Valcombe and the farm and maybe have kids and stuff, we decided it would be maybe time to go organic, basically to stop doing any chemical spraying onto the vineyards. It was not a decision that was made to increase the quality of our grapes. It was a decision that was made to enhance the quality of our life and the people that are surrounding us on the estate. That was the most important thing. So we went organic, also because, of course, sales-wise we could feel there was a demand for those wines. And finally, because technically, it’s not the hardest place to grow organic. What is the most difficult point in growing organic vineyards? First, is all the weeds. If it starts running in the springtime from March all the way to July, then you have a lot of weeds in your vineyards. What is the problem? The problem is weeds are competing with your vineyards. So with all the resources of the soil, you want to dedicate it and to focus it on your vineyard, not to have weeds basically using the water that is available, using the nutrients, and what’s available in your soil. So when people do not work on organic weight, they just pray and then kill all the weeds. When you grow organic you have to do it mechanically. So you have a tractor and then you just plow the ground on the first 20 centimeters, basically, and you plow the ground and remove all those weeds. And because [of] where we are, the rain in springtime is very little. We might have a bit of rain in April, a bit of rain in May, and almost nothing else. That means there are not many weeds growing. And so if you [don’t] have many weeds then it’s much easier to do organic farming as well. So technically, we are in a region where growing organic vineyard is not so difficult and that is why in our appellation, in Costières de Nîmes, today, just more than 30 percent of the total vineyards that are growing are already certified and labeled as organic, which is probably one of the highest rates you would find in any wine appellation in France.

Z: And I know you mentioned that for you and your brother, the decision at least initially was mostly about quality of life and wanting to keep the land you were living on free of chemicals. Is your sense that that is true for most of the other growers that have made the decision in the region? And are they mostly people like you and your brother, family operations? What is the sort of breakdown? Is that mostly what the Costières de Nîmes is in terms of producers? Smaller family concerns?

N: I think the Costières de Nîmes got a few very important key assets. First of all, buying a hectare of vineyard, of a very good, beautiful Syrah, would cost you about 15,000 euros. Not very expensive. If you look at the price of vineyards in Washington State or in California, it’s probably three or four times the price easily, easily. So it’s one region where youngsters and young winemakers can come buy grapes, buy vineyards and start and grow their grapes. So first of all, lots of young winemakers are coming to Costières de Nîmes and that is a very strong, I would say, asset of our wine region. We have a lot of family farms but lots of the winemakers are young, 25, 30-year-old guys coming back to the farm. In other regions of France, Beaujolais for instance, or Bordeaux, it’s much harder, lots of young 25, 30-year-old kids decide to give up and do something else. But in Nîmes, because the price of installation is not so high, the price of the vineyard and also because we can grow organic quickly and also we are very close to the sea. There is a very strong demand for white wines and the white wines we produce here are doing very well. Then we have more and more young winemakers — I’m 47, but I’m already old — 30, 35 coming in. And so it’s a very strong asset for appellations, the age of the winemakers. In Costières de Nîmes, we have 75 private estates, which means estates like Château de Valcombe, where you have your own cellar and you make your own wine with your own vineyards. Private estates, about 75. And we have say, 10 big cooperatives that would basically bring the grapes from vine growers and then make a lot of wine from their grapes. And the split would be about, I would say 60 percent of the production is in the hands of private wine estates and about 40 percent in those cooperative systems, which makes a good balance and makes wine affordable for all kinds of clients. You can find a bottle for 9 euros and you can find a bottle for 50 euros in the same appellation. That’s quite interesting. But yes, we have had a traditional historical part like Château de Valcombe since 1740. But also we have young winemakers looking at buying six, seven hectares of vineyard to start their own production. They can come to Costières de Nîmes because the price of land remains very affordable for young winemakers.

Z: And what does that influx of young winemakers do for the region? Do you feel like it brings in people who are …

N: It’s huge.

Z: … looking to do newer tech, like different techniques or different styles of wine? How is the wine being made in Costières de Nîmes different now than maybe it was 15 or 20 years ago?

N: Well, first of all, if I was the one that was traveling in South Africa before and making wine maybe before coming back to France and to Nîmes and to Valcombe, but many other young winemakers today have been to California. They have been to New Zealand, they have been to Australia, they have been to many foreign countries where they’ve learned different techniques, far different from what their dads or grandfathers were doing before. So first of all, technically, when you have been traveling for a few years before coming back to your own legacy or to your own land or to your homeland, you come back with new techniques and new ideas, technically. Second thing is you also come back with more confidence. That means you know that you’ve been traveling, you can export your wines, you can address your wines to not only your neighbors, but you can also propose your wine to someone who is in France, you can propose your wine to U.S. clients, to Australian clients. That means you have good confidence because you know what you’ve been making abroad … what you’re going to make now in Nîmes is not as good as what others have been making and you’ve got that confidence for you to propose and to offer your wines on new markets. And finally, the dynamics create dynamics. So in a dynamic region people come and want to move in and to be part of it. In a slow region where there’s no dynamism, people [I] don’t think [are] attracted. So that’s really something you can feel if you come to Costières de Nîmes. And I would say the average age for winemakers would be in the late 40s, which is quite young for the wine region. So technically, the fact that people have been traveling brings on different ways to make wine, but also to address it to people that consumers, for instance, used to think Costières de Nîmes red wines would be red wines that you have to cellar for three to four, five years before you can actually taste it. They used to think that we used to have very wooded wine and use lots of barrels in our aging. Today, the fruits that you get from the wines, the freshness that we can afford and we can propose specific uses between climates that helps us get a lot of freshness. The structure of the wine is extremely large. There’s a very broad scope of red wines being produced here and I think the change in the style over the last 10 years has been much more powerful than it has been over the past 50 years, right where we are.

Z: That’s really interesting and that actually leads into the next thing I wanted to ask you about, which you already started touching on, which is sort of how these wines actually taste and perform at the table and things like that, which is also very important to me and to the people listening here. So, let’s start, maybe, with the red wines and we can touch on white and rosé. But I wanted to get the sense of, you mentioned that a lot of your production is Syrah, and for our listeners who might be familiar with Syrah from, say, the Northern Rhône or might be familiar with Syrah from Australia or America. And obviously, generally, you’re going to have to be general here because I’m sure that within not only your own portfolio but certainly within the region as a whole there is a lot of variation. But generally speaking, what if someone picks up a bottle of Costières de Nîmes Syrah-based wine? What are they going to get?

N: Since our audience is extremely knowledgeable about wine, I would get a few details. There are, I would say, two types of Syrah that you can find any questions on them. All the vineyards that would be located in the northern part of the appellation have less of the sea wind and more of the mistral, the north wind. So the sun’s got a stronger influence. So you’re going to find ripe Syrah, lots of red berries — strawberry, raspberries, cherry — and quite slightly jammy. That would be the northern part of Costières de Nîmes. [In] the southern part, because of the strong sea influence, we don’t have that red-tasting on the Syrah. We have a black taste, it would be a blackberry, it’ll be black currant, it will be black olives, and that fresh carbon print on the finish. So, I would say you really have two different kinds of Syrahs within the Costières de Nîmes appellation. The northern part further away from the beach, from the sea, would have a more red, traditional southern style. The southern part closer to the sea will have a much more Mediterranean and delicate style with more black fruits, less red fruits, more freshness, less jammy. So, you have really two styles that you can expect from the Syrah in the Costières de Nîmes.

Z: And you mentioned that, contrary to what some people might have assumed, oak aging and all that is not a huge part of production. Is that about preserving the delicacy? Or why aren’t new barrels a big part of the wine-making approach in the region?

N: There are various elements to answer that question. There is a very obvious element which is consumption. As I was saying earlier, lots of winemakers now are less than 40 or 50 and they’ve been traveling so they know the consumers. And they tend to realize that people drink wine today, red wine, in a very different way than we used to drink wine 40 years, 20 years ago. Which means we don’t cellar the wine as long as our parents used to. We just want to grab a bottle, open it with our friends quickly. We don’t always prepare four-hour lunches or dinners with six courses. When we drink wine, sometimes you only have a few, a bit of saucisson, whatever aperitif is on the table, and you want to open a bottle and be ready. That means we need to produce wines that will be very, not easy to drink, but easily drinkable. That means drinkable immediately. Yeah, if you have to cellar your wine for four or five years, you need to have … of course, some of the wines produced have to be cellared for a few years, but we also need to produce wine that is very easily appreciable and drinkable by the people. So that’s why when you use oak, proper oak for wine aging, you want to use oak because the tannins of the oak are going to melt with the tannins of the wood and reduce the oxidation potential, which means to enhance the aging of the wine, the aging capacity of the wine. So there’s no point, in my opinion, to have one that’s going to be aged in a barrel and drank within six months. The whole point of barrels is to slow down the oxidation potential so that your wine can resist much longer and then they can age much longer. So I would say people use less wood in the Costières de Nîmes because we also want some of our wines to be drinkable quickly with lots of freshness and fruit. Second thing is important, freshness. If you’re close to the ocean or close to the sea, that sea brings freshness. You want to offer the freshness in your wine. That cranberry, raspberry, black olive these days just shows up quickly, nicely. And so we don’t need wood anymore for wine that’s going to be drunk within two and a half to three years.

Z: That makes sense.

N: Finally, there’s a very interesting point. I think my dad and my grandfather before him also loved wood because the effect of new wood, new oak, onto the wine was to soften up the tannins. There is that sweetness from the oak that was really nice to the tannins that were a bit harsh or a bit sour, slightly sour, a bit too hard, too young basically, or too green. The new wood would help to cover it up and to smooth it up. Today, good winemakers can work their tannins in the tank during fermentation, and we are capable of coming up with beautiful, subtle, fine tannins right after fermentation, and suddenly, we don’t need wood anymore to soften up the wine because it’s already soft. So then the use of wood can be only kept for aging potential or to have that nice wooden taste that people also enjoy. But the softness of the tannins does not depend on wood anymore. We are capable technically of getting soft tannins with direct fermentation in the cement tank.

Z: Very cool. And let’s talk a little bit about enjoying these wines with some food, because obviously here in the United States, as you might be aware, for some people wine is, it’s not quite the way it is in France and the rest of Europe where it’s something that people kind of often only will have with food. But it’s still very important to our audience, to a lot of our listeners, to think about some possible pairings. So, starting off with Syrah, in particular, because, again as you mentioned, that’s a lot of what you make and it’s one of the most exciting varieties in the region. What are some of your favorite foods to have with this wine?

N: Okay, the Syrah, as I was saying earlier, shows very nice black taste, black cherry, black olives, black currant and a bit of that ink and carbon finish. I love to pair it with lamb chops that I’m just going to grill softly with a bit of Provence herbs on top. The grilled toastiness of the meat of the lamb, which has a very strong taste, pairs beautifully with the kind of Syrah that we are producing here. Clearly, that’s something that matches extremely well. What we do also here, there’s a course where we use beef meats usually that we stew. It’s called toro, the bull meat basically, stewed with carrots, with a heavy gravy in a red wine sauce. And the beef that we use actually, it’s bull, bull from our region. The flesh has a very strong taste, like game. And so that strong taste pairs beautifully with the nice black olives that the Syrah that we produce here comes with. So, I would say, if you are also a big fan of hard-crust cheeses, not the soft crust like Camembert, but the hard-crust like Emmental, old Emmental, like Salers, old Cantal, those cheeses have a very strong salt taste and they also do beautiful match with those black-style Syrah.

Z: And what about the white and rosé wines? What are they kind of more robust, do they need sort of hardier foods or … you mentioned, obviously, part of their popularity in the broader Mediterranean area is their freshness, so what pairs well with them?

N: Very traditionally, people think of drinking red wines with cheese, and then meat with red wines, and the white would be an aperitif. For today, I think there’s a big, large production of goat cheeses in the southern France, where we are in Cévennes, and we have nice goat farmers and they produce beautiful goat cheeses. There’s no better way to ensure a nice, soft-crust cheese than a white wine with a bit of saltiness. That is just incredible. The cheeses are salty naturally, sometimes with the “affinage,” the aging of the cheese, that saltiness is showing up even more. And when you can blend the saltiness of our white wines, the saltiness of those natural cheeses, the blending is amazing. So it just brings up flavors on both sides. So, clearly hard-crust and soft-crust cheeses with white wines. Okay, white wine is beautiful. There’s something we also do here. We fish for sardines and red snapper. So, just a few sardines, nothing easier than getting a few sardines in your pan or on your grill with just a bit of salt. Nothing else, bit [of] salt on top of it. So the grilled sardines we got are with white wines. They also have that saltiness, of course, in the taste of the flesh. Pairs beautifully. And as you go along with red snappers or more red-flesh fish, you’re going to move to rosé, you’re going to move to [it] because the rosé in Costières can really show a very strong, what do you call that? Orange, mandarin, almost lime finish. So our rosés are not heavy, they’re not full of strawberry jam or full of sweet taste, they’re very dry. We can do very, very dry rosés and they play beautifully with red fresh fish, for instance.

Z: Very cool. And then just one last question for you, Nicolas. So for people who are interested in finding these wines, or first of all, are your wines available in the United States? Where might people look and more broadly, what should they keep an eye out for on a store shelf or wherever they might be looking on a restaurant wine list, etc.?

N: The funny thing is, I think the first time my parents exported wine, it was in the U.S.A. in 1993, they had a friend called Robert Kacher, Bobby Kacher. And he was the first one to export Château de Valcombe wines, basically. And our first export market was the U.S.A. So the clients and the consumers in the United States, they have been able to find our wines since 1993. Now today, our biggest region to find Château de Valcombe wines will be in New York and New Jersey, a company called Cognac Wine. One very nice French guy, Xavier, imports the wine for all the restaurants in New York and in New Jersey. We have a very strong retail place with Planet Wines in California and Virginia, Florida, I’m not going to name all of them, but basically on both coasts, on the Pacific coast, the Atlantic coast, that’s where most of my wines are being sold. But honestly, U.S. clients may not realize, but the U.S.A. is a big, big market share for Costières de Nîmes wines. Something great with the American consumers is opposite to French people that always believe they know everything about wines, the American consumers when you go for tasting are always open to discovering and they have no preconceived ideas about wine. They are just so open for tasting. And for us, that comes from a very small wine region that is very not known yet. It’s amazing to go to the U.S.A. to have a tasting and all people come and say, “Okay, well just let me know where it is made, how it is made.” In France, people will tell you, “No, I know my grandfather was making wine. So I think I know.” In the U.S.A., never. It’s a huge chance for our wines to have a chance to share it with you guys because you are always open to discussion, open for discovery. And that to me that’s why the U.S.A. has a big market share for cost wines export-wise.

Z: Well, Nicolas, it’s been really interesting. Really great opportunity to learn a little bit more about you and about your family’s winery and also of course about the region as a whole. And again, really appreciate you taking the time to let our audience know a little bit more about this small but powerful region.

N: No, thank you very much.

Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.

Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all of this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team, who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.

Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.

This podcast episode is sponsored by Costières de Nîmes.