Pebbles of Wrath: Terroir Theft in the Rhône Valley

Pebbles of Wrath: Terroir Theft in the Rhône Valley

Some of the Rhône Valley’s most flavourful vineyards are being fast depleted of their vital stones…

Under the grey November sky, Xavier Anglès squats and places side by side some of the red, ochre, orange and black pebbles that carpet the arid expanse where his vines grow.

“They are beautiful, but I’m fed up! People steal them to finish a calade (stone path) or build a pool wall,” rants this Rhône Valley winemaker. “They are stealing our terroir!”

The distinctive stones of Châteauneuf-du-Pape vineyards. Photo: Christophe Constant

This stolen terroir, relatively unknown, is on a vast plateau near the village of Châteauneuf-de-Gadagne, where nine producers make a flavourful wine; which in 2012 earned the superior quality appellation Côtes-du-Rhône Villages Gadagne. Often called “the other terroir of the Popes”, it’s only a stone’s throw away from prestigious Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Both share a characteristic almost unique in the region: their famous rolled pebbles carried from the Alps by the Rhône at the beginning of the Quaternary Period.

“When there’s no one in the vineyards, people come to help themselves with buckets. Sometimes, they are even masons, who fill entire trailers,” complains Xavier, who owns the Domaine du Bois de Saint-Jean in Jonquerettes. “When I explain to them that they are on private property, they respond, ‘we didn’t know it was forbidden’ or, ‘with all that you have, what difference does it make?’,” adds the winemaker, who has never led a complaint but instead prefers to raise public awareness. “For us, psychologically, it’s hard. It feels like being stripped.”

Xavier Anglès laments his vineyard’s diminishing carpet of pebbles. Photo: Christophe Constant


Not far away, at the Clos du Caillou (the Pebble Estate), one of the flagship domaines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Sylvie Vacheron explains why these pebbles are so important: “In summer, they accumulate heat and restore it very slowly during the night. This makes it possible to obtain an optimal ripening of the grapes, and wines that age well. And, in case of drought, the vines that are on pebbles suffer much less than the others. However, I haven’t heard much about thefts around here. Sometimes people come and ask if they can take a bucket or two and that’s about it.”

The winemakers around Châteauneuf-de-Gadagne believe their pebbles are more subject to theft because of the proximity to Avignon and the construction of many housing projects near their vineyards. Xavier, who resents that the appellation ‘Gadagne’ had to drop the ‘Châteauneuf’ in its name to avoid the wrath of its powerful neighbour, has an additional theory. “It’s also because their stones are bigger. They’re less interesting than ours for decoration.”

From France Today magazine

Sylvie Vacheron at the Clos du Caillou. Photo: Christophe Constant

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A former foreign correspondent in the United States for leading French newspapers, Patrice is currently based in the south of France where he writes for various magazines.

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