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Wines whose producers do not submit to the taste dictates of "wine pope" Robert Parker; winemakers who dare to have their own character in their wines, even against the mainstream; authentic, honest wines on a very remarkable level, which taste like much more than they cost and - at least with us - are still as good as undiscovered... Just a wine fairytale, beautiful but unfortunately not true? Not at all, because such wines really do exist in the hinterland of Nimes under the name Vin de Pays Duché d'Uzès. The grapes grow in an area that is about to be upgraded to AOC or AOP. This is not the only reason to keep an eye on the wines from the south of France, which are a worthwhile discovery for all those who like to leave the beaten wine path.

Small-town jewel with a radiant past

View of the inner courtyard of the Duché d'Uzès% which was built in the 16th century and rises majestically in the centre of the small town.

Duché d'Uzès - never heard of it? Even for experienced wine lovers in Germany, this is no reason to immediately doubt their own connoisseurship. If at all, the Duché is primarily known to culture vultures and holidaymakers in the south of France as the ducal castle, built mainly in the 16th century, which with its towers is visible from afar and shapes the silhouette of Uzès. With its picturesque alleys and romantic squares and the imposing fortress as its centrepiece, the town of 8,000 inhabitants in the Département Gard (Languedoc-Roussillon region) is a southern French small-town jewel with a radiant past.

The French King Charles IX elevated Uzès, which dates back to a Celtic oppidum and a military camp built by the Romans in the 5th century BC, to the "first duchy of France" in 1565; and in 1632, a member of the noble Crussol family, who still owns the Duché today, was granted the dignity of the first Duke of France and Royal Pair. In the sixties, at the instigation of the Marquise de Crussol, the old town of Uzès was placed under a preservation order and lovingly restored - and so it is today.

The coat of arms of the Dukes of Uzès adorns the main roof of the castle.

attraction for tourists and history buffs.

As famous as the Duché and Uzès are: The wines from the 130 or so approved wine-growing communes in the scenic VdP region, which stretches roughly from Remoulin to Anduze at the foot of the Cévennes, are hardly known in Germany and their names elicit only a shrug of the shoulders from the vast majority of wine lovers. This is different in France, where the wines enjoy a high reputation and the winegrowers, who focus on quality, know neither image nor sales problems. The Duché d'Uzès does not have to be awakened from its slumber and kissed awake by being upgraded to AOC or AOP.

Around 80 cooperatives and another 70 wineries that bottle and market their own wines produce 15,000 to 20,000 hectolitres of Vin de Pays Duché d'Uzès in white, red and rosé every year. Now the wines from this region are about to be upgraded to AOC (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée) or, according to new EU regulations, to AOP (Appellation d'Origine Protégée). The new designation replaces the AOC in France and has officially been in force since August 2009. However, French winegrowers and winegrowers' associations are still fighting against the change imposed by the wine bureaucracy. They fear an uncertainty among wine drinkers and want to keep the AOC, which was introduced after the First World War and is very familiar to their customers.

15 years of fighting for the AOC

But what do the winegrowers expect from the upcoming AOC and what is the current state of affairs? The author spoke about this on site with Rémy Dolladille, president of the "Syndicat des Vignerons Duché d'Uzès" and owner of the Domaine Puech Saint Martin. Dolladille has long been one of the driving forces behind efforts to improve the quality of the Duché d'Uzès and in the struggle to climb the wine hierarchy. For 15 years - the first efforts even go back 20 years - the winegrowers in the area have already been working hard for this, and now they see light at the end of the tunnel: "We have finally reached our goal," says the head of the winegrowers' association happily, because the upgrading to AOC has meanwhile been decided at the responsible wine-growing and control authority INAO (Institut National des Appellations d'Origine).

However, there is still a little way to go in a lengthy procedure: The commission responsible for identifying the wine-growing communes, winegrowers and parcels to be included has not yet quite completed its work. Over the coming winter, however, Rémy Dolladille hopes that the registration of AOC-worthy vineyards will be completed, so that the wines will be able to bear the new quality designation from the 2010 vintage or 2011 at the latest. Apart from new labels, the upgrading will not bring about any serious changes, neither for the winegrowers whose areas will be included nor for the buyers of their wines, as Rémy Dolladille explains.

Vineyards around Uzès% whose unmistakable silhouette can be seen on the hill in the background.

Thus, the grape varieties that may be used in a Duché d'Uzès will remain the same as under the current VdP statute: Grenache, Syrah, Cinsaut, Carignan and Mourvèdre for red and rosé wines, Clairette, Grenache blanc, Marsanne, Rolle (Vermentino), Roussanne, Ugni blanc and Viognier for the white wines. The aim is to produce wines full of character that express their terroir in the best possible way and do not pay homage to fashionable tastes. in the future The head of the winegrowers' association does expect a reduction in the maximum permitted yield - currently 70 hectolitres per hectare - but even that will not generally cause any problems for his association members. Among the winegrowers who focus on quality, the yield is already "not more than 50 hectolitres per hectare", Dolladille emphasises - an expression of the Duché d'Uzès producers' increased striving for quality, which has also persuaded quite a number of former grape suppliers to the cooperatives to open their own wine cellars and market their products themselves.

With the Duché d'Uzès "a brand created"

The president of the association is pleased that the idea of quality and terroir has fallen on such fertile ground among his colleagues: "We have created a brand with the Duché d'Uzès," Dolladille can say with satisfaction today. A brand that also bears an unmistakable distinctive mark: the Duché coat of arms embossed on the neck of the bottle (similar to the wines from the AOC Châteauneuf-du-Pape). This has given it its own identity and established it among wine lovers with a "good product at a reasonable price". Against this background, Rémy Dolladille does not expect any more miracles with regard to the marketing of the wines under the AOC label. And he assures us that the intention is not to increase prices - even if that would be a welcome side effect for the winegrowers. But that depends solely on the development of the market, Dolladille emphasises.

Vineyards as far as the eye can see: typical vineyard landscape in the Vin de Pays Duché d'Uzès area in the hinterland of Nimes.

The head of the winegrowers' association sees the upgrading to an AOC primarily as "recognition for our work in the past", which should further boost the self-confidence and ambition of the winegrowers in the region. However, Rémy Dolladille does place one hope in the wine-legal upgrading of the Duché d'Uzès: free advertising and a growing reputation abroad. According to Dolladille, the marketing resources of the financially modest winegrowers' association are extremely limited, and as far as the awareness of the wines from the hinterland of Nimes is concerned, Germany in particular is still a "developing area". A tasting of the wines on site proved that they indeed deserved to be better known in this country as well.

Of course, one should not expect a "great wine" from a Duché d'Uzès in the sense of those extract and alcohol bombs that Robert Parker likes to throw around with high points, nor should one expect the kind of top Bordeaux with its incomparable finesse and longevity. The wines are anything but uniform and modern, but with a few exceptions they have a common basic line: they are drinkable, fruity-spicy, usually somewhat tamed in terms of alcohol and completely without or with discreet use of wood, everyday wines that can be enjoyed light-heartedly, but which offer astonishing depth for wines in the price category of (sometimes significantly) less than ten euros.

Recommendable winegrowers and their wines

Among the few producers of Duché d'Uzès who also have a "name" in Germany and whose wines are traded here, the Domaine Philippe Nusswitz in Durfort-et-Saint-Martin-de-Sossenac should be mentioned first.

Late-comer and successful winemaker with an unusual history: Philippe Nusswitz

There are two reasons for this: the special quality of the wines and the unusual history of their maker. In the far north-western corner of the VdP region at the foot of the Cévennes, the Alsatian-born Philippe Nusswitz realised his lifelong dream and became a winemaker, after the 46-year-old had previously got to know the wine business from a different perspective. In 1986, Philippe Nusswitz was the best sommelier in France and the world. At that time, he worked at Château d'Isenbourg in Rouffach - as did his wife Pascale. After a two-year intermezzo (1987-1989) with his own restaurant in New York, years followed for Philippe Nusswitz in which he travelled a lot and got to know the most diverse wine makers, estates and philosophies worldwide.

From 1990 to 2002, he worked in various functions for the former Canadian conglomerate Seagram Company Ltd, once the world's largest spirits producer, which was also heavily involved in the wine business. But marketing and selling other people's wines satisfied him less and less: "I wanted to create something myself and press my own wine," says Philippe Nusswitz. Moreover, Seagram was already showing signs of disintegration and so he turned his back on this side of the wine business after twelve years. But Philippe Nusswitz sees the fact that he was able to acquire global wine knowledge and knows the taste of wines from all over the world like hardly any other winemaker as his great capital today.

Success came immediately: After buying his beautiful estate near Durfort - his wife Pascale runs a few Chambres d'Hôtes there - and a few vineyards in 2002, without initially having his own cellar, he took off as a winemaker just three years later. Already the 2005 vintage of his organically produced red top cuvée Miratus (Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre) spontaneously fermented with wild yeasts - the first work from his own cellar, which he had acquired in the meantime - was chosen as the best Vin de Pays in France among 1200 wines. The current vintage of Miratus is the 2006 - a wine that explodes in nose and mouth with black fruits and garrigue notes, great depth and supple tannins.

A trademark for a Vin de Pays Duché d'Uzès: the embossed bottles bear the coat of arms of the local dukes.

However: The Miratus (aged at 50 % each for twelve to 16 months in three-year-old barriques and in fever glass tanks) may not be marketed as Vin de Pays Duché d'Uzès. The reason: One of the two vineyards from which the grapes come is outside the VdP area. For the 2007 and 2008 vintages, which are not yet on sale and of which only 5000 to 6000 bottles will be available, Nusswitz is thinking about blending them, at least in part. The 2008 is too acidic and not complex enough for him, the high alcohol of the 2007 bothers him.

The fact that the powerful wine would certainly have what it takes to be decorated with high points at international tastings and to be highly acclaimed in the trade press is not an argument for the 46-year-old. His ideal is harmonious wines with a moderate alcohol content: "I want to be able to drink a bottle of a wine and not just a glass. And Philippe Nusswitz likes to experiment and sees winemaking as a "creative act". But his popular, wonderfully drinkable bestsellers are the Orénia wines (white, rosé and red), which, in contrast to Miratus, are produced conventionally and do not come from his own vineyards either. They are exemplary for the VdP region Duché d'Uzès and are (among) the best in terms of quality.

Thanks to his competence and persuasiveness, Philippe Nusswitz has achieved something amazing within a very short time: as a non-native, he was able to persuade long-established grape producers to produce their grapes exactly according to the 46-year-old's specifications. The wines are then vinified separately at the cooperative and marketed by Philippe Nusswitz under his own label.

The Domaine Puech Saint Martin is run by Rémy Dolladille% President of the "Syndicat des Vignerons Duché d'Uzès".

Wines that are exemplary of the VdP region and its terroir are also produced by association president Rémy Dolladille at his Domaine Puech Saint Martin in Belvezet, about ten kilometres north of Uzès. The 35-hectare vineyard has been in the family for four generations. In 1993, Rémy Dolladille took over the domain from his father. Just one year later, he opened his own wine cellar and began marketing the grapes himself, after they had been delivered to the cooperative until then. Success came quickly and today Domaine Puech Saint Martin has a particularly loyal customer base with whom a big harvest festival is celebrated every year.

The 2007 Duché d'Uzès blanc from Viognier and Grenache blanc is one of the particularly successful white wines of this region with exotic fruit, fine acidity and good structure, and its 2007 Duché d'Uzès rouge from Grenache and Syrah (from the winery only 4.30 euros!) follows on seamlessly. The top red wine, however, is his 2007 Cuvée Alexandre, a blend of Grenache, Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Carignan with deep fruitiness and polish. It clearly brings the aroma of "réglisse" (liquorice) into the glass, which is often attributed to wines from this region.

The Domaine de Malaigue, located a few kilometres southwest of Uzès on the D22, is dedicated to organic viticulture. Francois Reboul, who runs the winery today, comes from a family in which viticulture has been practised for eight generations. The Domaine de Malaigue was founded by his grandfather about 30 years ago, but at that time he only produced grapes that were used in the cooperative wines. About twelve years ago, Francois Reboul took over the winery from his father and already two years later came the radical conversion to organic production - an expression of the winemaker's conviction: "The earth is only lent to us by our children". Today, around 160,000 bottles per year are pressed on the 25-hectare domain.

Plump grapes just a few days before harvest: 2009 promises to be a good vintage in the south of France

From a qualitatively very homogeneous range of wines, the 2006 Vin de Pays du Gard from Chardonnay (therefore no Duché d'Uzès) and Roussanne, aged for eight months in barriques, as well as the two very fruity and drinkable Duché d'Uzes rouge (additionally with attractive spice) and rosé of the 2008 vintage stand out. The flagship of the estate, however, is the 2007 Duché d'Uzès, which spent 13 months in barrique; relatively long for this region, but just right for this elegant cuvée of Syrah and Grenache with its fine tannins, in which only the best and hand-picked grapes are processed.

At the Domaine Natura in Saint Laurent La Vernède, about 12 kilometres north of Uzès, the name is not the last word: viticulture here is not completely organic, but as close to nature as possible, emphasises Laurent Savy as head of the domain. Except for the moderate use of synthetic fertilisers, everything is natural, and when it comes to harvesting, the 18-hectare vineyard occupies a special position in the VdP region: While machine harvesting is otherwise widespread - at least for the standard wines - the harvest at Domaine Natura is done exclusively by hand. Around 100,000 bottles leave the cellar, which was only opened in 2005, each year, around 40 percent of which are Vin de Pays Duché d'Uzès.

The vineyards are located at an altitude of around 250 metres above sea level, which gives the wines a special freshness, elegance and fruitiness - qualities that are particularly important to Domaine Natura, just as clean processing and strict limitation of the yield to only 28 to 40 hectolitres per hectare for the Duché d'Uzès in white (2008 vintage, Viognier and Roussanne), rosé (2008 vintage, Grenache and Syrah) and red (2007 vintage, half Syrah and half Grenache). An insider tip with their price of nine euros are the two top cuvées N rouge (Syrah, Merlot, Grenache) and blanc (Chardonnay, Viognier) from the excellent 2007 vintage, both aged in barriques.

In the tasting room at Domaine de L'Aqueduc: Carole Mazoyer presents the wines of the house charmingly and competently.

An old water channel, uncovered behind the new cellar building opened four and a half years ago and leading directly to the Pont du Gard a few kilometres away, gave the Domaine de L'Aqueduc between Uzès and Saint-Maximin its name. Grapes were already produced on the domain in the past, but due to the lack of a cellar of their own, they were delivered to the cooperative. Today, particularly elegant and complex wines are produced on around 25 hectares, with yields of less than 30 hectolitres per hectare and hand harvesting for the top cuvées. "Quality is the key to success" is the maxim here, as Carole Mazoyer, the extremely charming ambassador of the Aqueduc wines, who is responsible for marketing and sales, explains.

No empty promises - this is evident when tasting the wines and ensures that the domain has no sales problems. Very accessible are the two Vins de Pays Duché d'Uzès of the 2008 vintage, the white Cuvée du Grand Chêne (Viognier, Roussanne) and the red Cuvée 3 Vieilles (Grenache, Syrah) from three old vineyards. The top red cuvée La Garrigue de Bornègre (70 % Syrah with Grenache and Mourvèdre, aged for 18 months in used barriques) impresses with complexity and spiciness. 10,000 to 12,000 bottles are produced per year. The somewhat more rustic, but soft Cuvée Les Restanques 2007, dominated by Carignan and produced with carbonic maceration, is also definitely worth trying.

Directly on the northern outskirts of Uzès, the Domaine Saint Firmin, founded in 1925 by Pierre and Marie Blanc, can still be found within the town. In 1945, the cellar was built and the estate was expanded by Emile Blanc. The farm, which covers a total of 80 hectares, is now run in the third generation by the brothers Robert and Didier Blanc, who cannot deny their particular passion for wine. They have gradually increased the wine-growing area to 44 hectares by now and replanted the vineyards with noble grape varieties. The logical next step was the conversion to self-marketing and direct marketing in 2000. Since then, the brothers have won numerous private customers in addition to the merchants who stock their wines.

In keeping with the size of the domain, the range of wines is also particularly diverse, including three Vins de Pays Duché d'Uzès in addition to a long list of Vins de Pays d'Oc: the white Ananda, a rosé and a red. The striking characteristics of all three wines are freshness and discreet minerality, which shines through behind the fruit. Of the other wines from the domain, two specialities still deserve special attention. The profound Cuvée 1925 (in reference to the founding year) from the 2007 vintage consists of 100 percent Carignan from 58-year-old vines, and the Cuvée L'Aire d'Antan 2007 is a sweet late harvest from Viognier with an interesting bouquet and dominant grapefruit aroma.

Large plaques indicate the beginning of the production area for the Duché d'Uzès at the main traffic routes

A few kilometres east of Uzès, below the hilltop village of Saint Siffret, you will find the Domaine Luc Reynaud, named after its owner. His family has been farming for several generations and his grandfather and father still pressed their wine with simple means in the cellar below their estate. Then, for a long time, the grapes were delivered to the local cooperative, but that is history: In 2000, Luc Reynaud opened his modern winery, and since then he has been bottling his wines under his own label. Today he is master of an impressive 60 hectares of vineyards, mainly on slopes.

Luc Reynaud's wines differ from many others in this region: they are less charming and accessible, dare to have corners and edges, need a little longer to mature. In any case, the tasted red wines from the 2007 and 2008 vintages still presented themselves somewhat uncouth and challenged the palate. Lovers of modern and polished wines will not find much to like in Luc Reynaud's wines, but if you are looking for character and are not put off by somewhat rough tannins, this is the place to be - especially with the top cuvées "Rubis" and "Pomeyron", both Vins de Pays Duché d'Uzès from the grape varieties Syrah, Grenache and Carignan.

Eating and drinking well in selected restaurants

If you drink well, you will also want to dine accordingly - in the area around Uzès this is really not an impossible desire, because there is also a lot to discover for gourmets in terms of cuisine. However, it is not easy to find one's way around and separate the wheat from the chaff in view of the wide range of restaurants, often with cosy terraces, but sometimes also with typical "tourist food". Here are a few tips to help travellers to Uzès find a restaurant.

The cuisine, which is unpretentious and down-to-earth, but based on the best regional ingredients, offers the greatest pleasure on many a day. In this category, Uzès has an "institution" to offer: the original "Terroirs" in the heart of the town. There are no seats inside, but there is a well-stocked wine and delicatessen shop; outside, you can sit directly on the Place aux Herbes or on the side under the arcades. There are no menus on the menu, or rather on the handwritten slate of the "Terroirs". The main dishes are the sumptuous assiettes gourmandes, gourmet plates filled with various regional specialities, or the tartines grillées, toasted breads with different toppings. Add to this an excellent wine list that changes weekly and gradually features all the wines sold in the shop in three price categories at 16, 26 and 36 euros, a friendly patron and nice and nimble service... epicurean heart what more could you want?

Also hidden in the medieval centre of Uzès in a small alleyway in the shadow of the Duché, the Rue Entre Les Tours, is the restaurant "Le Bec à Vin". Its great asset is first of all the romantic courtyard divided into three parts, which is also lovingly decorated with many accessories. With such a coherent ambience, the kitchen performance almost recedes into the background - and on this topic you also get different statements in Uzès. However, the snapshot of our visit was also quite good from a purely culinary point of view - if you ignore the magnificent setting when making your assessment. The three courses at 26.50 euros, with a free choice of main course and dessert from the normal menu, offered a price/enjoyment ratio that makes you want to come back - despite the uninspiring standard wine list.

The restaurant "La Taverne" on Rue Sigalon offers a similarly idyllic ambience in the form of a completely enclosed and protected terrace with beautiful vegetation, which is cosily indirectly lit in the evening. If you didn't have to sit on plastic chairs, there would be nothing to criticise about the external setting with friendly and attentive service. The cuisine revealed highs and lows, but the finale was a special treat. The tavern offers an Armagnac menu with more than 30 different vintages from the first-class distillery Château de Laubade, which should not be ignored...

In the centre of the small and tranquil village of Saint-Maximin, Julien Lavendet runs his small restaurant "La Table de Julien", also known to the locals as "Café de la Marie". Before he started his own business, he was part of the kitchen brigade of the no longer existing "Les Trois Salons", once the leading restaurant in Uzès. The fact that the still young patron and chef is ambitious is not only evident in the presentation of his dishes on the plate; his creations are also more refined than those of many of his colleagues. So you can overlook the fact that the same side dish was served with all the main courses. What is hard to "overlook", however, is that you have to sit down on the terrace on scraped plastic chairs that don't even have a seat cushion. But this deficiency is to be remedied in the foreseeable future - as was heard - in the course of the redesign of the outdoor area.

You have to be very careful - or just keep an eye out for the old tractor - if you don't want to drive past "Le Tracteur" in Sanilhac, a few kilometres from Uzès. There, guests can expect a rustic and alternative-inspired restaurant with bare old wooden tables and chairs, rustic accessories and cloth napkins that look more like kitchen towels. But everything is coherent and exudes a special charm. And the kitchen? The cooking is hearty - and so are the portions - but the dishes are always tasty. On the wine list, there is hardly any wine from the region: the Tracteur only offers organically produced wines and the kitchen only uses food produced without chemicals.

If you want to dine in style (at correspondingly high prices) and also reach for the stars when eating, you can reserve a table at the Michelin-starred "Le Castellas" in Collias, a few kilometres from Uzès. An insider tip here are the lunch menus, which are considerably cheaper but not lower in quality.

The author's recommendation in the upper category, however, is the restaurant "LisaM" in the mini-hotel of the same name in Vers Pont du Gard, only a ten-minute drive south of Uzès, with only four - but beautiful and spacious - rooms. In the stately home in the centre of the village on Place de la Madone, which was built in the 15th century and remodelled in the 18th century, you dine in an extremely private atmosphere - you can only be admitted by ringing the front doorbell, a seat in the restaurant is only available by reservation and there is only one menu to "choose from" - and all this in an ambience that has been styled to the last detail and is dominated by the colours grey and brown. But what the Danish owner and chef Lisa Muncan brings to the plate is also a feast for the eyes. And then there is the pleasure for the palate: with her unusual, imaginative, perhaps even a little funky creations, she ignites an indescribable firework of flavours that you simply have to experience - even if you don't have a "normal dish" with a side dish on your plate the whole evening, because all courses are served in bowls, small glasses and the like.

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