Wine of the Ocean

par Katharina Woitczyk

Viticulture has been practiced on the Island of Ré for a long time, during the 18th and 19th centuries it counted amongst the Island’s most lucrative activities. Today the wines produced on the island are value for money and are mainly  sold on a regional basis.

Still today vineyards are planted on all suitable pieces of land and vines grow in long rows, which seem to stretch right into the sea.

This vicinity of the ocean is probably one of the reasons for the peculiar aromas of the wines, pineaux and Cognacs of Ile de Ré. A study of the INRA ( Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique – national agronomic research institute) has determined which soils are best suited for which kind of grape varieties. Since the 1970 replanting is done accordingly to the results of the study.

The island still counts 80 vine growers who are all members the cooperative and who produce some 2 million bottles of wine per year on their 650 hectares of vineyards. With no exception the wines, pineaux and cognacs of île de Ré are all produced by the cooperative.  It is called Uniré and has its headquarters in the small village of Bois Plage situated right in the middle of the island.

In order to offer ile de Ré wine lovers the best possible quality, all the growers have to follow all year long the strict culturing rules set up by the cooperative.  They have to carry out every single vineyard operation precisely at the moment considered appropriate by the experts of the cooperative. The harvest date of each plot is also determined by the oenology specialists of the cooperative.

The growers are paid accordingly to the quality of their harvest, which means accordingly to the respect of the rules of the cooperative.

The sales director of Uniré, Didier Tesson explains, that the system of quality linked payment works extremely well and that it has contributed to the constant increase of the wines’, pineaus’ and cognacs’ quality.

During harvest time the freshly yielded grapes arrive on tractor trailers at the cooperative, there they are analyzed for their sugar and acidity content. Thereafter the grapes are separated in lots according to grape variety and specific characteristics are destemmed and transferred into their respective fermenting vats.

The fermenting vats at the cooperative are immense stainless steel cylinders equipped with a temperature control system, which allows to exactly controlling the temperature of each vat.

Once the fermentation completed the wines are run-off into different stainless steel tanks. The caps are pressed and the wines from different vats are blended in order to produce the various cuvees of the cooperative’s range of products.

The grapes for white wines are immediately pressed, and then cold settled and later fermented.

The rosés from île de Ré benefit from very short skin contact, therefore their colour is extremely light pink.

The Cognacs are produced from distilled white wines,  which are made from the Ugni Blanc grape variety. The cooperative also has its own laboratory that constantly controls the quality of the wines, cognacs and Pineau. A tiny part of the harvest is used to produce a local sparkling wine called Trousse Chemise. It exists as a white and a rosé wine and is produced using the champagne method.

A large part of the grapes is transformed into the cooperatives star product “Rosé des Dunes” ( rosé of the dunes) a fresh and fruity unpretentious summer rosé. The yearly production of rosé des dunes lies at about 500,000 bottles, many of which are consumed on the island itself, where the rosé of the dunes is the uncontested star of the typically French “apéritif”. One can find in the bars, restaurants and all the supermarkets and wine shops of the Island.

The Premium red wine of the cooperative is called Ultimium, it’s a 100% Cabernet-Sauvignon which is elaborated in oak barrels for seven months. The grapes used to make this wine are produced under particularly strict conditions and the yearly production of Ultimium is of only 6500 bottles.

I have tasted the 2009 Ultimium which has a deep red colour and delicious aromas of cassis and blackberries. On the palate it is beautifully fresh, well balanced and has got as salty minerality. The tannins are powerful and give the wine a great backbone. The finish is really long and fresh. I believe that Ultimium can age for at least another two years in the cellar. Thanks to its great freshness and powerful tannins it pairs very well with rich meat dishes and barbecues such as T-bone steak for instance.