The Dark Queen of Châteauneuf-du-Pape: Domaine du Pégau
She may be the Dark Queen of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but the darkness doesn’t come from her. In fact, Laurence Feraud is hard to characterize as anything but light, even after a full day skiing and a long drive to meet me at her little winery on the edge of town. Bundled in her ski parka, her hair in braids, Feraud may be tired, but she still exudes the casual, gregarious charm that has endeared her to just about everyone I know who has ever met her. This is a woman in command of her life, and at the top of her game, but without a shred of pretension.
So why is she the Dark Queen? Just taste her wines. Deep, brooding, and earthy, the wines of her Domaine de Pégau have a depth and a darkness of fruit in their youth that is somewhat unique in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and an intriguing contrast to the warmth of the heart and the hand that raises them.
“I grew up in Avignon, and then went to the Macon to study viticulture and enology, and then went to Paris to study marketing,” says Feraud, who wasn’t always sure she wanted to end up in wine.
“My grandmother came from Italy, and married a Frenchman just before the war. She had four children and my father was the youngest. In Italy, the tradition was that the youngest always stayed with the family to help in the vineyard, and so my father stayed to help, and grew up in viticulture. He was a farmer.”
After spending time in Paris, Feraud got the idea in her head that she would like to come back and do something with her family’s 10 acres of vineyards that her father had been dutifully farming for years.
“I came back in 1986, and my father and I, well, we weren’t of the same mind. So I went back to Paris, and spent more money than I earned. I was broke. So then I came back and said to my father, ‘OK now I have to insist I do something here.’ I arrived in 1987 and it was spring. I worked all the time in the vineyard, and in July I got to drive the tractor. I plowed. Then I did the harvest, and then my father made me go help my grandparents with the harvest [in Avignon], which I didn’t like, because I wanted to be with him.”
In 1988, Feraud convinced her father to build a small cellar near their house in Châteauneuf-du-Pape and that year she crushed her first vintage into a couple of concrete vats donated by her grandmother, in a winery that still didn’t have a roof.
“We threw the bunches of grapes into the vats,” remembers Feraud, “and then after 15 or 20 days I got in and took the must out with a pitchfork. It was my father, and me, and one employee.”
“I continued to work in the vines,” says Feraud, “always pruning. And one day Michel Bettane was in the area for a visit and stopped by to visit for the first time. He asked me how it was going, and I told him ‘I’m fed up. This is nowhere. This is the countryside. I’m going to stop and go back to Paris.’ He said ‘I don’t know who you are, but you’re not too bad. This is a good wine,’ and his article brought in 100 private customers, and I thought, ‘OK, maybe we can do this.'”
At the time, the wines were still being bottled under the name Domaine Feraud, and were made primarily at her grandparents house. “I was worried that no one would be able to find us,” says Feraud, “so I convinced my father to move everything here. I came up with the idea of naming the wine. Pégau is the latin name for a clay pitcher that holds wine. Latin words, I knew, if they were not too long, could be pronounced by everyone. Too many ‘e’s or ‘i’s are hard, but if you have ‘a’ and ‘o’ sounds it is easier.”
For the record, the pronunciation of Pégau is “pay-goe.”
“So we put that name on the label, and we started bottling 2000 to 5000 bottles per year. I had to put the labels on by hand. I did 800 per day. But we always saved some wine in bulk, in case we had bills to pay, and it was something we could sell. We kept the wine in barrels, and it was our richness to keep them there. It’s better to have wine age in barrels than bottles. It got better. But the bank wouldn’t agree that it increased in value.”
“Step by step we bottled a little more. One year Dan Kravitz came and wanted some of that wine and asked if we could bottle some. I said ‘no, I have no money.’ So he gave us some money so we could bottle the wine.”
“By 1992, we had gotten to the point where we had sold 100% of the 1990 vintage plus most of our older stock, and then we finally did sell everything by the end of the year. My father wanted to kill me because the cellar was empty. But people kept asking for the wine and I couldn’t say no. But with that money we easily paid back the bank for what we borrowed to build the winery, and we also bought some more vineyards.”
Feraud and her father continued to collaborate in the cellar, gradually increasing their production by plowing their profits back into acreage and the minimal equipment required to make their simple wine. But it wasn’t exactly a raging success. The family still struggled to make ends meet.
Then in 1998, Feraud had a bit of an epiphany.
“I was in Amsterdam with Randall Grahm and Paul Draper and we were talking about the demand for California wine, and how the European markets fought to have exclusive rights to sell Ridge and Heitz and these wines. I said to them, ‘My god, these wines are expensive and people are fighting to get them.’ And I tasted the wines and I loved them. But I went back home and I decided I wanted to keep some barrels aside that I didn’t want to blend into Cuvée Reservée.”
“My dad said, ‘You’re crazy,’ but I said, ‘if no one likes it, I will drink it.’ Every once in a while I tasted people on these barrels and they liked it, and then one day one of my clients came to taste and asked how much would it sell for, and I said, well, that would be 500 francs per bottle, which is around 80 Euro. My father turned white, and looked at me and whispered, ‘you cannot sell a wine at that price!’ and the man went away but I was thinking to myself, at that price I could buy all the Ridge, Phelps, Dom Pérignon, and Bonnes Mares I wanted. A while later the man called back and said ‘I want 10 cases of that wine.'”
That was the beginning of a wine known as Da Capo, a musical term which Feraud chose as a nod to what she calls the “opera of grapes” that is Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but also for its literal translation of “back to the top” or “begin again.”
“The point for me,” says Feraud, “was to go back to the tradition, to not lose it.”
And tradition is what you’ll find if you ever visit Domaine du Pégau. Not a single new barrel in sight, no destemmer on the premises. They throw the whole clusters into cement tanks, pump over in the morning and evening, when the fermentation is done put it all into ancient oak barrels, and that’s about it.
“We try to do good, as my grandmother says, and she made some fantastic wine. A little more rustic — perhaps now the wines are slightly more refined, but they are the same style, same identity,” beams Feraud.
Feraud gets up at six in the morning and goes into the vineyard. Her father goes to the winery to manage the pumpovers. Feraud’s 19 year-old son works in the vineyards during the holidays, and the domaine has a an Austrian assistant who has been with them now for 8 years.
“I don’t want to pretend I’m the boss,” says Feraud. “We did everything together. My father took some time to understand that to make some money was not just about working hard in the vineyard, but when he understood that we could make money by selling the wine well, that really opened his mind.”
Feraud now handles all of the global sales efforts for the domaine, which produces about 6500 cases of wine each year. 95% of the wine is exported to more than 40 countries, and is handled by around 80 different importers.
“My father, who is 75, is always in the vineyard and winery and my mother is the accountant. I’m absolutely not interested in that. She knows how much money we have. I don’t. Neither does my father.”
Laurence and her father, who is slowing down after breaking both his arms last year, farm about 50 acres of Châteauneuf-du-Pape vineyards, about 3 of which are planted to the region’s white grapes. In recent years they have purchased additional vineyards outside the appellation’s boundaries, and now produce several Cotes-du-Rhone wines under the Château Pégau label, including their charming Pink Pégau rosé.
Under the Domaine du Pégau label, Feraud generally produces two wines each year, her Cuvée Reservée, and a Cuvée Laurence, which is aged in her big oak foudres roughly twice as long as the Cuvée Reservée (36 months instead of 18). Starting with that first vintage in 1998, Feraud has made her special Da Capo bottling only four other times: 2000, 2003, 2007 and 2010. While her other reds are roughly a blend of 85% Grenache, 9% Syrah and 4% Mourvedre, Counoise and other varieties, the Da Capo blend is about 90% Grenache and the rest Syrah and Mourvedre. The grapes for Da Capo are usually from Feraud’s oldest vines and are picked the latest of all her bottlings.
Feraud is also known for her occasional unique cuvées as well. She bottled a special barrel selection in 1995 named after her son Maxime, and another in 1997 named after her daughter Justine. In 2003 she made a special barrel selection for bottling in magnum only called Cuvée Inspiration, which she duplicated in 2010.
The wines of Pégau consistently offer a cassis and black fruit quality that few other wines of the region possess, and they are known for their intense and powerful tannins, which make them somewhat gruff in their youth to my palate, but incredibly long-lived. And in that age they blossom into gorgeous wines that balance power with finesse.
Unlike some producers, whose dark wines have a jammy ripeness, Pégau’s wines almost always carry an intense mineral quality to them beneath the fruit, something that I cannot merely chalk up to her use of stems and cement tanks. There is something bracing and fresh about the wines despite their dark ripeness that ultimately pushes them towards the profound.
Pressed to define the source of that quality, Feraud is most likely to shrug and say, “its just Pégau.” She doesn’t feel the need to put into words something that she knows with the same certainty as she would the faces of her children. The mysterious darkness of her wines is merely the air she breathes every day, the rolling cobbles under her feet in the vineyard, and the sound of her wines quietly resting in their old oak homes. In her mind she is surely not a queen, but we all know royalty when we taste it.
2013 Chateau Pégau “Pink Pégau” Rosé blend, France
Bright baby pink in the glass this wine smells of watermelon and alpine strawberries. In the mouth, tangerine zest, watermelon, and wet stones dance with excellent bright acidity and a long sour cherry finish. Fresh, mouthwatering, and delicious. A blend of 80% Cinsault and 20% split between the three white varieties Grenache Blanc, Clairette, and Bourboulenc. 12.5% alcohol. 450 cases produced. Score: around 9.
2013 Château Pégau White Blend, Cotes Du Rhone, France
Pale gold in the glass with a hint of green, this wine smells of green apple and pear with a hint of white flowers. In the mouth, apple and pear flavors have a nice mellow brightness to them, with delicate acidity. Not dynamic, but pleasant and tasty. A blend of 40% Clairette, 20% Grenache, 20% Bourboulenc, and 10% Ugni Blanc. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $25
2013 Domaine du Pégau Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc, Rhone Valley, France
Pale gold in the glass with a touch of green, this wine smells of green apples and lemongrass. In the mouth the wine has a fantastic green brightness and a lean green apple and lime quality that is quite unlike most white Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Juicy and delicious. 60% Clairette, 20% Grenache Blanc, 10% Bourboulenc, and 10% Roussanne. 13.4% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
2012 Château Pégau “Cuvée Maclura” Red Blend Cotes du Rhone, France
Inky purple in the glass, this wine smells of blueberry, cassis, and black cherry. In the mouth blueberry and blackberry are strained through dark earth and wrapped in leathery tannins. Cassis and licorice flavors linger in the finish. 60% Grenache, and the rest Cinsault and Syrah. 14% alcohol. Score: around 8.5.
2012 Château Pégau “Cuvée Setier” Red Blend, Cotes du Rhone Villages, France
Inky garnet in the glass, this wine smells of blueberry, blackberry, and cassis with a hint of animal meatiness. In the mouth, rich and dark cassis and blueberry and blackberry flavors move towards licorice with hints of dark earth. Excellent acidity and a deep resonant minerality under the fruit. Powerful. A blend of 60% Grenache and 40% Mourvedre. 14% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9.
NV Domaine du Pégau “Plan Pégau” Red Blend, France
Inky garnet in color, this wine smells of garrigue, violets, and cassis. In the mouth thick powdery tannins wrap firmly around flavors of barnyard, cassis, licorice, black cherry and loamy earth. The barnyard flavor lingers in the finish with a hint of leather. An odd blend of Grenache, Syrah, Merlot, Alicante, Aramon Noir, and Carignan. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9.
2011 Domaine du Pégau “Cuvée Reservée” Red Blend, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rhone Valley, France
Very dark garnet in color, this wine smells of truffles, dried flowers, cassis and mulberries. In the mouth, rich and thick tannins close around a core of cassis, mulberry and licorice fruit like a massive glove. Wonderfully bright acidity and minerality keep the wine quite fresh, but the fruit is dark and made darker still by the deep earthy quality that pervades the tannins. Dark resonant, and deep. A blend of 80% Grenache, 4% Mourvedre, 6% Syrah, and 10% mixed white and red varieties. 14% alcohol. Aged for 2 years in old oak barrels before bottling. Score: between 9and 9.5.
2009 Domaine du Pégau “Cuvée Laurence” Red Blend, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rhone Valley, France
Very dark garnet in color, this wine smells of truffles, wet earth, licorice, dried flowers, and a hint of animal or smoked meats. In the mouth the tannins float about and fill the mouth like chalk dust and coat every nook and cranny to give texture to flavors of violets, licorice, and cassis strained through dark earth and wet cement. Excellent acidity. The finish is incredibly long with a faint vanilla cream sherry quality that lingers for minutes. Aged for four years in barrels before bottling. 14% alcohol. Score: around 9.5.
2012 Domaine du Pégau “Cuvée Reservée” Red Blend, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rhone Valley, France
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of violets, cassis, and a note of animal. In the mouth rich cassis, floral and juicy berry flavors mix with a dark wet earth quality that is a wonderful balance to the juicy fruit. Underneath this earth is a layer of hard stone that is deep and resonant, and the fine grained tannins wrap the edges of the tongue. Gorgeous. Score: around 9.5.
2010 Domaine du Pégau “Cuvée Inspiration” Red Blend, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rhone Valley, France
Very dark garnet in color, this wine smells of licorice, chocolate and ink. In the mouth deep licorice and gorgeous cassis flavors have an incredible rich density to them even as they taste like they have been filtered through wet earth. Incredible mineral depth lays behind this fruit and forest floor, as do muscular, rippling tannins. Includes the allowable white grapes from the region, and was fermented with indigenous yeasts. Score: around 9.5.
1990 Domaine du Pégau “Cuvée Reservée” Red Blend, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rhone Valley, France
Medium ruby in color, this wine smells of cedar, leather, dried flowers and dried cherries. In the mouth gorgeous flavors of dried flowers, redcurrant, raspberries, and cherry mix with leathery notes and forest floor. Fantastic minerality still lingers in the wine, with good acidity and great length. Outstanding. Score: around 9.5.
1981 Domaine Feraud “Cuvée Reservée” Red Blend Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rhone Valley, France
Medium ruby in color with a bit of brick color at the rim, this wine smells of dried flowers, leather, garrigue, and bacon fat. In the mouth, the wine is silky smooth, with fantastic acidity that delivers flavors of dried cherries, cedar, forest floor and leather across the palate in a wonderfully juicy melange. Jaw-dropping notes of dried flowers levitate for minutes in the long finish. Totally stunning. Score: between 9.5 and 10.