Hors Champ
'Une Vie la Nuit' 2019

00:00 / 06:46

I used to work with this curious Cambridge-raised English girl who had a penchant for Indian valium (cheap thrills), bikram yoga and Burgundy rouge (spenny juice) and when she’d stick her tiny nose into any kind of glass of the good stuff she’d pull her head back and trumpet her feelings, her reactions like a valiant songbird.  And she was never wrong: with her guesses, with her witticisms, when given a wine blind she was never wrong.  She wasn’t always right, but with an olfactory weapon that aligned swinging deductions and a somewhat perpetual and insatiable thirst, she was never wrong.


And in our short time working together, long shifts and late nights spent running thick-glassed American cabs and dusty, label-peeling Bordeaux up and down the stairs, I learnt from her the quiet art of ‘no-bullshit’.  She’d taste anything table-side and run the befuddled city-boys through the history of a chateau or the differences between American and French oak and stupefy the masses by being someone seemingly not what the traditional idea of a sommelier might have been, (young—shock, horror! female—shock, horror!) was actually very very good at her job.  And didn’t bullshit you.  And when I once gave her a Crozes-Hermitage blind, she sniffed it and swallowed the generous pour in one go and smiled at me with a red shadow on her teeth and said ‘Shit, I love Syrah!’


When I cracked the Cyril Fhal side-project that is the Hors Champ ‘Une vie la nuit’ 2019, a wine initially made as a necessary reaction to the 2016 drought that saw Fhal purchasing fruit from his neighbours to keep his team employed and the business rolling, I had the same thought as my former comrade: ‘Shit, I love Syrah!’  And I do. And though this is quite a different beast to the carnivorous delight of Northern Rhone tipples of which said former comrade made her proclamation, it is none the less another French example of the much lauded spice-box red-skinned varietal that has me reaching for effs and jeffs before other weapons in my vocabulary.  And on second sniff, on first sip the non-expletives come: silk, velvet, cherry, fizz, mulch, manure, strawberry, autumn leaves, burning kindling, salt-marsh lamb, cotton-candy, glouglou, disco, bistro, Parisian ghosts, oil on canvas, dirt, love, sex, death.


Cyril Fhal works old and young vines in Côtes Catalanes/Latour-de-France (no relation to the bicycle wars), which are in the less-strict-than-elsewhere (though not without limitation) southern reaches of the great, grape-peddling nation.  His flagship wines under the Clos des Rouge Gorge are highly sought after Macabeu and Grenache Gris whites and Grenache and Carignan reds that serve to satisfy all of your outlying, roguish, hands-on Vin du Pays fantasies where the rules that were made to be broken are done so in pursuit of pleasure and possibly even perfection.  The Hors Champ side project, as mentioned, has seen Fhal lending his hand and his teams hands to purchased (organic) crops of Syrah and Macabeu and from them turn wines that are, like his Clos des Rouge Gorge, likely to turn heads.

The ‘Une Vie la Nuit’ is lean and delicate.  It’s a little cloudy and a lot of ruby.  It throws soft cheese and rotting strawberries.   The nose is generous and inviting and yet as soft-handed and slow as the making that rendered it thus.  Picked from the highest altitude vineyards in the Rousillon on the slopes of Trevillac and Montalba and left to mature in old barrels for almost a year it feels like something that has been left alone: to its own delicious devices, to develop and attain wisdom on its own terms, unspoiled by man and his meddling and his often heavy hands.  It feels like a wine that has arrived as it meant to, and not as the machines or the chemicals or the influence of elevage would otherwise dictate.  This is a wine that acts as a small trophy as to what nature and a tender heart and patience can render.  


For all it’s prettiness and soft perfume it still manages to smell and taste a little but like bacon.  And the other traits of Syrah circle around the palate also: olive, blueberry, tabacco, vanilla, violet.  The rush of fruit and spice on the front are followed by a meatiness, by a muscle and grit, by a slow spectre.  Though, it should be said, this is the younger cousin to the big boys of the Northern Rhone.  The younger cousin who is studying gender politics at the LSE and who challenges their robust elders on their archaic views of the world, the younger cousin what parties and occasionally shoplifts (though only in big stores that can afford the loss) and knows the difference between American and French oak and favours onesies for their practicality and makes money on TikTok and is a wonderful cellist but would never admit it.  This is the younger cousin of a friend that people easily fall in love with. 


And do we not all love Syrah?  That it can do so much.  That it can make (possibly) the greatest wines in the world?  (Ask Aunty Google if you disagree).  That it can help save a winery like Fhal’s in a drought-stricken year?  That it can make something as divine and accessible and unique as the ‘Une vie la nuit’?   That it can make a young (shock!) and female (horror!) sommelier reel and throw her head back and that it can be laced with the memories of my having learnt so much from the great women in my life.  That it can lead to an (almost) embarrassment of riches?  That it is, like so many of us, a humble servant and an occasional workhorse to a master we fail to qualify?  That Syrah is, like so many of us, capable of so much.


It might be ‘Une vie la nuit’ but I’ll be hard pressed to recall it as anything other than ‘Shit, I love Syrah!’


…and Cyril Fhal.


…and the hard-working somms I call my kin.

tasted July 2021

Bradley Tomlinson

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