Costières de Nîmes, an exciting region in the Rhône, part 1: introduction
The most southerly of the Rhône vineyards, Costières de Nîmes is southwest of Avignon, and due south of Lirac and Tavel, stretching down to the Camargue and the Mediterranean sea. The city of Nîmes is in the northwest of the appellation, and the vineyards are found on a plateau: a stony terrace deposited long ago by two rivers, the Rhône and the Durance.
It’s all about the stones
Most of the vineyards here share a very distinctive appearance (and terroir): big river pebbles, known as grès. There are variations on this theme, but these alluvial deposits were laid down more than a million years ago, and subsequent weathering has made them smooth and rounded, and has also resulted in some decomposition, with a deep vein of stones that then mixes with clay further down in the profile. The soils have been coloured orange/red by the presence of iron that has oxidised. The pebble layer is usually deep: between 5 and 15 metres. It’s a special terroir.
Part of the Rhône
‘It is important to explain why we are part of the Rhône Valley,’ says Michel Gassier, one of the leading growers in the region, ‘because so many people say we don’t know where you are. There is one single obvious reason: the soil. Our soil was created by the Rhône just like the rest of the Rhône Valley. It’s rolled pebbles and actually the largest terrace or rolled pebbles within the Rhône Valley.’
What does this mean for viticulture? Vines like these stony soils, and vigour is naturally controlled. The presence of clay deep down allows for retention of the 730 mm of annual rainfall (a reasonable amount, falling mostly outside the growing season). In addition, many of the vineyards here have irrigation, with water coming from a network of canals. This means that despite the sunshine and warmth here, the vines seem very happy. Even after the 2022 growing season, which was particularly hot, most of the canopies were still green at harvest, and there was little evidence of raisining or sun damage on the grapes.
One of the benefits of this soil is its excellent drainage, because although it rarely rains here, when it does the rain can be intense. ‘Sometimes we have heavy storms,’ says François Collard of Château Morgues du Grès. ‘Afterwards, we can go straight back in and work the vineyard. Vines don’t like too much water, but the water can go deep. In June and July it is very warm, but we have some clay deep down, and when the vines are 10-12 years old the roots can reach water deep in the clay. So this soil prevents the vines suffering: it balances the dry climate and the storms.’
And the winds, they blow!
But it’s the mesoclimate that makes this a very special region within the Rhône. ‘We are the Rhône Valley under a maritime influence,’ says Gassier. ‘We are closer to the sea and the marshes of the Camargue than way inland, and we do have a very specific microclimate exemplified in the summer by the sea breezes we get in the afternoon. They cool off the temperature and also bring some moisture in the air so it is not quite as dehydrating.’ By noon, when the sun has hit the stones in the vineyards, they heat up and air rises. This draws in the cooler air from the sea, and with it comes some humidity. This helps alleviate hydric stress.
There’s a second wind, too – the mistral, coming from N/NE. ‘This is a drying wind, and we have at it at its strongest in the beginning of spring and at the beginning of winter,’ says Gassier. ‘Colder air comes in from the north as hot air rises from the Mediterranean, and the Rhone valley acts as a funnel. It rarely blows in the summer, but if it does, we don’t get the cool nights.’
A plateau, but some variation at the fringes
The appellation is mostly a plateau. But what happens when you go over the edge of the appellation? This is where the terroir may vary a little. ‘There are a few spots in the appellation on fault lines, and the terroir we have in the south isn’t from the Rhône but the Durance, which is a tributary of the Rhône,’ says Gassier. ‘Here we have smaller stones that are more irregular, very different in colour. The mineral composition is very different. The Costières has a north-facing lip, a plateau, and a south-facing lip. The Durance is what you’ll find on the south-facing lip. The estate we have there is on a fault line that goes from Gigondas to Nimes. During tectonic movements the terroir from the tertiary period has risen. Before those rocky deposits this was a seabed. There we have quaternary deposit from the Durance versus the Rhône, and then we have the tertiary which is sand and chalk.’
This is largely a red grape area, and it’s also a region of blends. Syrah and Grenache are the two stars, supported by Carignan, Cinsault and Mourvèdre. But quite a few of the growers I visited are convinced by the potential of whites here, and from some of the wines I tasted, I’m inclined to agree. Many of the red grapes are used to make rosé: quite a bit of rosé is made here. But I think the whites could take some ground from the pinks, over time.
Culturally, the influence of the Camargue is strong in this region, and bulls feature heavily in this area. The bull culture here isn’t about fighting, though. The small Camargue bulls are bred for both meat and also for the spectacle of bull running, and the white Camargue pony is used by the cowboys (bull boys?) who look after these animals.
The coolest wine region logo
And it has to be said that Costières de Nîmes wins when it comes to coolest wine region logo. Theirs is a palm tree and a crocodile! Some of the bottles even have this embossed on them. It dates back to Roman times. Roman legoinairres, fresh from their victory in the Eygptian campaign, settled here in BC31, just after the defeat of Egypt at the battle of Actium.
The region used to be known as Costières de Gard, and was a VDQS (since 1950). It became AOC in 1986, and changed name to Costières de Nîmes in 1989. There are 2844 hectares of vines in the AOP.
Over the next few weeks I’ll be adding producer profiles, and listing some of my favourite wines. Costières de Nîmes wines offer great value for money, but more than that, there are many fine wines being made here that over-deliver when you consider what they cost.