Domaine Combier - Crozes Hermitage
A forerunner in organic farming
Arriving at Laurent Combier we thought we'd got the wrong address. The owner emerges radiant and tanned with a broad Hollywood smile, silver hair and dressed in a dapper beige shirt and jeans. For a moment we imagine ourselves on a film set with Tom Cruise, until the imposing winery, alongside the famous National 7, brings us back down to earth.
We are in the Rhône Valley, in Crozes-Hermitage, at one of the region's most highly respected producers who has elevated his once humble table wine to iconic status.
Laurent's grandfather, Camille, moved to the area from the Ardèche in the 1930s, acquiring 3ha of vines and 4ha of fruit orchards. At the time, there was no money in wine which was mostly sold to workers constructing the motorway who would pull in at five o'clock every morning to replenish their casks getting through up to 12 litres each a day ! The wine was low in alcohol (only between 8 -10°C) and was used to substitute the undrinkable water.
During the construction of the canals and locks in 1962, the Combier's cellars were flooded.
They were forced to move to this new site and expanded their vineyards holdings, selling the grapes first to Jaboulet for a number of years and then to the co-operative Cave de Tain l'Hermitage. In 1970s, Maurice Combier converted to organic farming, one of only a handful of producers in France to do so at the time, which he maintained even in difficult years. Laurent was attending the local school in Pont de l'Isère before going on to study arboriculture in Nîmes then viticulture and oenology in Orange. After national service, he embarked on a three year 'tour de France' working in Pernand-Vergelesses at Dubreuil-Fontaine, in Bandol with Jean-Daniel Ott, in Châteauneuf-du-Pape with Jérôme Quiot, and Domaine du Vieux Lazaret.
In 1989 he returned to take up the helm in Crozes, assisted by his parents who supported his project. Up until this point the Combiers had been best known for their peaches and apricot production !
1990, a magnificent vintage, saw the arrival of the new winery. Laurent later installed the concrete egg tanks invented by Marc Nomblot (nick-named ' Lagerfield de l'elevage') and originally designed for Michel Chapoutier who had commissioned a tank modeled on Roman amphora. These quirky vessels, made out of sand, gravel, non-chlorinated spring water and cement, allow a slow gradual intake of oxygen as the wines ferment accentuating primary fruit aromas, and without imparting oak flavours, which Laurent avoids at all costs.
Like all good winemakers, Laurent's first priority is to ensure his grapes are in the best possible condition. For this he uses an experienced team of pickers who harvest all types of fruits "the best in the business !" he acknowledges.
The estate spans both extremes of terroirs in the Rhône Valley, to the north the roots of the syrah penetrate deep into craggy bedrock with well-drained granite soils, in the south the Chassis plateau is made up of chalky-limestone soils covered with pebbles.
Clos De Grives, the historic heart of the estate, an imposing single 9.5ha vineyard surrounded by a thick pyracantha hedge, has vines dating back to 1952, others have been planted over time by successive generations. It is this single plot which produces the domaine's flagship wine, a Crozes-Hermitage of exceptional aromatic purity.
Laurent's passion for syrah has led him further afield to St Joseph, where he oversees a 1ha vineyard, and also to Priorat in Spain where he has established a joint project 'Trio Infernal' with two longstanding friends Jean-Michel Gerin, a producer in Cote-Rotie and Peter Fischer, owner of Chateau Revelette in Provence. To make the commute between Valence and Tarragona, Laurent flies himself in a Piper Arrow 28T. Bitten by the aviation bug, he has set up a flying club with two friends, an ideal way of combining business with pleasure.