Zoom tasting with Charles Bieler

In a career of numerous epithets, the first earned by winemaker Charles Bieler was hustler.

Charles’ merchant banker dad started making wine in Provence in 1992 after selling a Lancashire pet food business. “He decided Provence was a more beautiful place than Blackburn, certainly with a bit more sunshine,” says Charles.

Six years later, Charles was recruited to lead a north American sales drive. “The wines were charming but he had a lot of trouble getting them out into the world.”

Charles – born in Henley-on-Thames but raised mainly in the US and Canada – bought a 1965 black convertible Cadillac, painted it pink and hit the road. “The goal was to get out there and hustle.”

It was the start of a wine career that’s led to him becoming an acclaimed maker of what he calls “edgy and traditional” wines in France and the US.

He has continued that early association with Provence to make his own wine in Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence, which has earned him the tag of the rosé wrangler.

“I’m OK with that,” he says during a Zoom tasting, hosted by The Wine Merchant, of a quartet of his wines that are all available through Vintrigue, the independents division of Lanchester Wines.

After his father’s Château Routas estate was sold in 2005 there was a chance to “reset and think: if our goal in Provence is strictly to make high-tone, savoury rosé, what’s the best place to do it?”

Aix-en-Provence offered high altitude vineyards with cooler evenings and later ripening which promised wines with depth and personality.

“I think about rosé as a three-way tug-of-war between the red fruit character, the savoury elements and the acidity,” he says. “I don’t want any one side to win out.

“I want enough of the herbal floral component to challenge the red fruit, and you need the acidity to hold it all together.”

Aix marks the spot

The Bieler Pere & Fils 2019 Sabine rosé (£13.99) included in the tasting has the familiar Grenache and Syrah supported by Cinsault, Cabernet Sauvignon and Rolle.

“I’ve always liked the herbal, spicy note that Cabernet brings,” says Charles. “Rolle adds a floral, almost apricoty aromatic and mid-palate density.

“For me, the difference between great rosé and mediocre rosé is not the power of the aromatics, it’s the density of the mid-palate, the transition from the fruit up front to the acidity at the end, a sort of creamy bridge.”

Though the wine is fashionably pale in colour, flavour expression is his goal.

“We really don’t think about colour,” he says. “I know a lot of producers obsess about it but to achieve that lighter and lighter colour you’re probably picking a little earlier than you would if flavour was your goal.”

As a self-professed “rosé evangelist”, Charles’ fascination with the style led him to make pink wine in the US, through a collaboration with Charles Smith, creator of acclaimed wines such as Band of Roses rosé and Kung Fu Girl Riesling.

Gone with the wind

The pair’s 2017 Charles & Charles Riesling (£14.50) was the second wine featured in the Zoom tasting.

It’s a single vineyard wine from Art Den Hoed Vineyard in Washington State’s Yakima Valley, to the east of the Cascade Mountains, a desert region famous as prime American hop-growing territory.

“The vineyard is a very windy spot, and because of that it takes forever for the grapes to ripen. That means there’s a lot of flavour development before the sugars and the acids come round.

“It’s a bit more tropical than is typical for eastern Washington while at the same time having loads of acidity.
“We irrigate which means we can control when we feed the vines, and by holding back we can encourage that petrolly element, which is something we love.”

As climate change increasingly takes its toll further south in California, Washington may get its chance to shine in future, says Charles.

“Washington has been a bit insular and just trying to be better than their neighbours rather than competing with the rest of the world, but the potential is there,” he adds.

Scorched earth policy

Participants in the tasting also had the opportunity to taste the 2017 vintage of Charles & Charles Post No 35 Cabernet blend (£15.99), named after an old American Legion building in the state that Charles Smith bought and turned into a conceptual art piece.

“It’s the reds that bring home what’s different in Washington, which is texture,” says Charles. “California makes great wines with fruit very easily because there’s abundant sunshine but, when it comes to texture, Washington’s latitude and extended sunlight give a Bordeaux level of development. That’s really something for retailers to key in on.”

The Cabernet is blended with anything between 20% and 40% Syrah, depending on the vintage.

“The Syrah is fermented whole-clustered with the stems because we like inviting the spice and texture that brings.

“We’re big fans of extended maceration, leaving it on the skins for an additional couple of weeks to build structure and a silky depth.

“We make them reductively, without much oxygen, so there’s a scorched earth quality. It’s a descriptor I like that speaks to an earthy and mineral character.

“It’s a wine that picks up speed once it’s opened; it’s not a wine where you pull the cork and that’s all it will ever be. It will lift and evolve in quite a positive and dramatic way as you drink through the bottle.”

Thieves like us

The fourth wine in the tasting was Three Thieves 2019 (£12.50), a Californian Pinot Noir made in collaboration with renowned winemaker Joel Gott and Roger Scommegna with fruit from the Circle K Ranch vineyard that sits on the edge of the San Francisco Bay in Central Valley.

“The moderating influence of the delta means the nights and mornings are quite cool but give way to quite hot days,” says Charles.

“That gives good ripening potential and reasonable crop sizes but maintains freshness and acidity, which is important for Pinot Noir.

“We want to have a rich unctuous element but ultimately be representative of Pinot which is medium-bodied; spice and cherry cola.

“We’re doing subtle adjustments everywhere we’re working, to slow down ripening, peeling back oak use and picking earlier to find more purity across the board.

“If we’re not telling a really honest story about the place, the grape and the people involved, we don’t deserve to be on the shelf.”

All wines listed are available through www.vintriguewines.com

February 2021