Shooting Stars

October 28th, 2016

I recently spent three days touring some of the most famous estates in the northern Rhone Valley with a group that wanted to visit the “star” names. If nothing else, it was a change from visiting my regular producers (and made me appreciate just how good the people I work with really are). But while my group was eulogising about Guigal’s “La Turque” and the like, I was left thinking that the cheaper wines were often just as interesting, and certainly better value for money, if one was willing to look past Parker points and price tags.

Chapoutier in Tain l'Hermitage

Chapoutier in Tain l’Hermitage

We started with Chapoutier. I preferred the whites to the reds, particularly the vibrant Saint Péray “Hongrie” 2015 and the ’15 Hermitage “Chante Alouette” (great minerality underlying its richness and one of the top whites of the week). Neither is cheap but the marsanne-based, super-expensive Hermitage “Le Méal ” 2012 white is much more expensive and, while clearly excellent wine, didn’t give me any more enjoyment. The line-up of reds included another from the “Le Méal” vineyard, the 100% syrah Hermitage “Le Méal” 2012. This costs over 200€ at the winery, but you could walk five minutes to the growers co-operative, Cave de Tain, and buy their almost as good Hermitage “Grand Classique” 2010 for just over 30€. Both have excellent concentration, ripe fruit, great balance. If the Chapoutier has greater finesse, is that worth such a big price difference? (As an aside, David, our guide, was excellent. He’s a winemaker at Chapoutier and his family has its own estate in the Beaujolais region.)

At Paul Jaboulet, Lætitia, who took us up to the chapel on top of the Hermitage hill and introduced the wines, was friendly and full of enthusiasm, possibly more than I was: I thought the flagship Hermitage “La Chapelle” 2007 was just old rather than mature. I know that I like my reds younger than many, but I honestly think it has nowhere to go. The Crozes-Hermitage “Domaine de Thalabert” 2012 (possibly ’13 – I was looking after the group rather than taking notes) held more interest – just as much concentration, more black fruit and more life. As Crozes go, it’s one of the more expensive. Put beside La Chapelle, it’s like a supermarket giveaway. The white Crozes, “Mule Blanche”, was my favourite wine of the tasting – a marsanne and roussanne blend of rare precision and balance for the appellation. The significantly more expensive white Hermitage “Chevalier du Sterimberg” was slightly fuller but what it gained in weight it lost in focus.

Alberic Mazoyer, Domaine Alain Voge

Albéric Mazoyer, Domaine Alain Voge

Day 2 started at Domaine Alain Voge. This was a really lovely tasting and I would very happily drink all three of the still St. Pérays we tasted. I give the edge to the pure marsanne “Terre Boisée” 2014 for its balance of power and St. Péray’s characteristic mineral freshness. Of the four reds, Cornas “Vieilles Vignes” 2013 was the most impressive. As domaine owner  Albéric Mazoyer said, it was a cool vintage and the wine has a certain sinewy austerity about it which means that you’ll need to wait to drink it. But boy is it good. The sparkling St. Péray was the one wine that I wasn’t convinced by, going down the bitter almond route rather further than I would have liked. “My” sparkling producer, Rémy Nodin, does a better job of combining bone dryness with apple blossom fruit.

From Voge to Vernay. Every single Domaine Georges Vernay white, from the vin de pays “Pied de Samson” 2015 through to the flagship Condrieu ” Coteau de Vernon” 2014 was delicious. Drink the VdP in the next year for the purity of its fruit and wait a while for the depth of the Vernon. Both are 100% viognier, but while Pied de Samson concentrates on showing off the grape variety (and very skilfully, too) the Vernon demonstrates the best of the Condrieu terroir. It is a wine that is both subtle and powerful. But I wouldn’t spend my own money on the Côte-Rôties, Blond de Seigneur 2014 and Maison Rouge 2013, when they cost 48€ and 85€. The estate’s reds have had great reviews in the French wine press, but they’re a bit too polite, too polished, a bit too haute couture for my taste. I want them to get their hands a bit dirty.

Domaine Georges Vernay

Domaine Georges Vernay (photo taken in 2015)

The day finished at Yves Cuilleron’s estate. As elsewhere, there was an excellent St. Péray, “Biousse” 2015, but the Condrieu “Les Chaillets”, which I normally love, didn’t seem to be on top form. The reds, particularly the Cornas “Village” 2013 and the St. Joseph “Les Serines” 2012, were excellent. Contrary to their reputations, the Cornas was the friendlier of the two, the St. Jo dark and brooding. Raspberry compared to wild plum. Both were preferable to the pricier Côte-Rôtie “Madinière” 2014, which, in common with many ’14s, has a slightly hollow mid-palate. In fact, I would rather drink either the Cornas or the St. Jo than just about any of the C-Rs we tasted over the three days, (although admittedly most were again 2014s).

Day 3 and Guigal. We started with a well-made white St. Jo and then the “regular” Condrieu 2015, which was so overwhelmed by bitter, charred flavours it was actively unpleasant. Frankly, it left me slightly confused about what they were trying to achieve. The white Hermitage “Ex-Voto” 2012 was good, but still I preferred Chapoutier’s white Hermitages, which carry a greater sense of immediacy and life.

The reds started with the Côte-Rôtie “Brune et Blonde” 2010, which has the largest production of any wine from the appellation. That it was better than many of the Côte-Rôties we tasted during the three days is perhaps no surprise given its relative maturity and the fact that 2010 is supposed to be a stand-out vintage; I would have been interested in tasting more wines from the same vintage to make a fairer comparison. (You may argue that a better wine is a better wine regardless of circumstance and, in that case, why not buy it over the others? Except I would say buy Cuilleron’s Cornas or St. Joseph, enjoy a better, or at least more interesting wine and save yourself a pile.) The C-R “Château d’Ampuis” 2011 was significantly more concentrated, richer on the palate, a lot more tannic. It’s a serious wine in need of time.

We finished with the famous “La Turque” from the 2012 vintage. It’s great wine, but given the price of a single bottle – 200+€ in France, $300 plus tax in the US, £200 or thereabouts  in the UK – I think I’m allowed to be hyper-critical. Robert Parker gave it 98/100, but I can honestly say that just from within my own Côte-Rôtie producers I would rather drink Xavier Gérard’s suave, dark-fruited “La Landonne” 2013 or Maxime Gourdain’s lush but structured “Besset” 2013, both from a supposedly lesser vintage. (Interestingly, the biggest French wine guide, Hachette, gave the Besset a better review too. It costs 45€. Let’s be generous to Guigal and say that the Besset is one quarter of the price.) Ignoring people I work with, just in case you think I’m biased, there are several other producers whose wines I would rather drink – the top end of Stéphane Ogier’s range has fantastic precision and depth; Jean-Michel Stéphan’s 2014 (a “difficult” vintage) has more joy, purity and life in its little finger. I could go on. They do run a fascinating tour through the cellars, though.

After lunch we hit Delas Frères. For consistency, I’d say star of the week. The simple white Crozes-Hermitage “Les Launes” was well made, the lushly-textured, richly-fruited single vineyard Condrieu “Clos Boucher” 2014 massively better than the Guigal Condrieu, if not at Vernay standards. In the reds, the Crozes-Hermitage “Domaine des Grands Chemins” 2013 was a wine I’d take any day over Jaboulet’s “La Chapelle” 2007. It has dark fruit, richness, proper concentration. The red Hermitage “Domaine des Tourettes” 2012 isn’t cheap but it’s better, and cheaper, than the Jaboulet and Chapoutier equivalents. At 138€ Hermitage “Les Bessards” 2012 is in another price league again. The wine is dripping with dark fruit; the confidence and skill in the winemaking are obvious. But while it’s a step up from the regular bottle, and was my standout red Hermitage of the week (one of the standout wines full stop) I don’t think I’d pay the extra 90€ given the quality of the “Tourettes”. (By the way, if you plan on visiting Delas, Bruno, our host, was knowledgeable, friendly and speaks fluent English.)

Pierre Gaillard

Pierre Gaillard

We finished the week at Pierre Gaillard‘s estate above the village of Malleval, certainly the prettiest spot of the week. As at Chapoutier, the whites came out on top, especially the 100% roussanne St. Joseph blanc (’14 or ’15 – sorry, it was getting near the end of a long week) with the Condrieu coming in second. Both have lush, opulent textures lent relief by a streak of minerality. I also liked the sweet table wine, “Grapillage”, a 50:50 viognier/roussanne blend which has a great sweet/acid balance.

And with that final wine we set off to Lyon.

It would be unfair to leave you with the impression that any of these star estates is bad: there’s a reason these producers are highly-regarded and in general we drank very good, sometimes even brilliant, wines. In fact, I was so impressed that I finished the week having made arrangements to carry on working with Delas and Gaillard on a more regular basis. But if I’m paying big bucks for a bottle I expect fireworks, possibly even a life-changing experience. At the very least. So it was interesting to me that none of the super-premium wines we tasted offered significantly greater rewards than their cheaper stable-mates (and in some cases, Jaboulet being the most obvious example, I would have deliberately chosen the less expensive wines). And if you’re so rich that value for money is irrelevant and you just want the best (or as someone, depressingly, said to me, “I’ve got enough 94 and 95 point wines at home, I’m looking for 98+”)? Well I think I’ve already made it clear that there are often other wines available that match (at least) the star names without the price tag. In short, these producers are good, but they’re not the be all and end all.

La Capitelle – a Little Corner of Paradise

July 27th, 2016

 

Chef and owner of La Capitelle, Sylvain Croce

Chef and co-owner of La Capitelle, Sylvain Croce

I first met Sylvain Croce when he was the chef at the best restaurant/hotel in my home town of Nyons, “Une Autre Maison”. With his patisserie training showing through, Sylvain’s cooking was precise, assured and beautiful to look at and Michelin thought the place worthy of inclusion in its Guide.

A couple of years ago ago Sylvain and his partner Ludivine grabbed the chance to buy what was a slightly-down-at-heel (but fundamentally lovely) hotel in the picture postcard village of Mirmande, around 25 minutes north of Montélimar. Mirmande is a collection of centuries-old buildings perched on a hilltop and is built entirely from the local honey-coloured stone. So charming is the village it has been named as one of the most beautiful in France and, as you can see from the photo, La Capitelle hotel more than does it justice.

La Capitelle

La Capitelle in the setting sun

Inside there are more stone walls, polished stone stairs and a cosy vaulted restaurant, open to all but with priority given to the hotel guests. If the bedrooms aren’t huge (what did you expect, this is 400 year-old building in France?) then they are comfortable, tastefully decorated and spotlessly clean. And Sylvain’s food is still delicious.

The menus follow the seasons and make inventive use of ingredients – I remember once eating a beetroot crème brulée that sounded bizarre but which turned out to be a highlight of a meal that wasn’t short on high points. And many of those menus and ingredients are locally-based and sourced – caillettes (a sort of spinach-laden, warm ball of pork paté), guinea fowl and quail, picodon goat’s cheese are all specialities of the Drôme hills, while olives and tapenade reflect the Nyons connection and the fact that the southern Drôme forms the border with Provence.

Looking down the cobbled streets of Mirmande towards the Ardeche hills on the other side of the Rhone.

Looking down the cobbled streets of Mirmande towards the Ardèche hills on the other side of the Rhône.

Recognition has followed pretty quickly – Gault & Millau lists the restaurant and Sylvain has even become a semi-regular on the daily cooking programme on one of the Rhône’s main radio station, France Bleu Drôme-Ardèche. (Not that that stops him being behind the stoves in the evening.)

Evening sun coming through an archway.

Evening sun coming through an archway.

As you might imagine, the wine list makes extensive use of Rhône producers. I love the fact that hotel sells the wines of the one winemaker in the village, Domaine Besson, but if you want to try wines that are truly local but absolutely world class then the Brézème reds and white of Domaine Lombard are the ones to go for.

Julien Montagnon, Domaine Lombard

Julien Montagnon, Domaine Lombard

Mirmande is worth visiting just for the sake of it – wandering round the village can be a delightful way to spend a couple of hours – but stay for a night or two and it makes a convenient mid-point if you want to visit the vineyards of the northern and southern Rhône. And if you’re staying, what better place to be than La Capitelle?

Santé,

Paul

Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours. You can also find shorter bits and pieces on Facebook (@RhoneWineTours). You may even think about booking a tour or tasting. Go on, you know you want to.

It must be pretty obvious by now that I know Sylvain and Ludivine, so you might say that this blog is biased. Well firstly I wouldn’t risk my hard-earned reputation (ahem!), especially without a payment, if I didn’t think La Capitelle merited it. Secondly, I don’t care.

Hybrid Power

March 13th, 2016

After an evening in a local restaurant we were the last two customers left. Anyway, we got chatting with the chef and I mentioned that I ran wine tours. In return, he told us that his sommelier wife had put together the interesting wine list and urged me to try a new arrival. And here it is…

"Bacco", one of the few wines available in France made with a hybrid grape.

“Bacco” from Laurent and Christine Demeure and Pierre Rolle.

“Bacco” must be one of the very few wines commercially available in France that’s made with a hybrid grape, that is from a vine developed by crossing a European vine type – think pinot noir, syrah, merlot, chardonnay, etc – with another, usually North American, vine – concord, norton, and so on. Cross European folle blanche with US riparia grand glabre (which admittedly doesn’t sound very American) and you get baco noir, “black baco”, hence the name of the wine (using two Cs). And, at least in this case, it’s delicious, certainly good enough to put a goofy grin on my face. It might not be what you’d call complex, but if you like the taste of over-ripe strawberries and blackcurrant coulis then it will be just what the doctor ordered.

At one time hybrids were extremely popular in France for home winemaking as they’re hardier than pure European vines, making them easy to grow. Indeed I read that the grapes for “Bacco” come from isolated old trellised vines sprawling up homes around the village of Boisset-Saint-Priest, a wine wilderness south west of Lyon, and not an actual vineyard. (Given the tiny size of Boisset that seems pretty unlikely – how many vines are there? – but I’m not one to spoil a good story.)

But hybrids weren’t just for the amateurs. After the devastation of phylloxera in the mid-late 1800s, professional winemakers in France needed to replant their vineyards with vines that were resistant to the louse. One option would have been to plant native American vines which are naturally resistant. The vitis labrusca family (which includes the concord, catawba and niagara varieties), vitis æstivalis (norton), vitis riparia, vitis berlandieri and others all grow wild in North America and have at least some degree of phylloxera resistance. The problem is that they don’t necessarily make good wine.

Option two was to plant grafted vines. You get a grafted vine by splicing the fruiting part of your chosen European vine (all members of the phylloxera-prone vitis vinifera family) onto American roots. That way you should get the best of both worlds: phylloxera resistance with the flavour of cabernet sauvignon, riesling, or whatever the European element happens to be. Over time most of the world’s vineyards were planted with grafted vines.

But there was a third way: to plant hybrids. Plant breeders would cross two different sub-species (vinifera with riparia, vinifera with labrusca, etc) to form a new variety. Not all crosses were successful – some experiments produced vines without phylloxera resistance, others couldn’t shake off the flavours of their american parents, so-called “foxy” flavours – but many were widely planted. Baco noir’s sister grape, baco blanc, “white baco” or, less romantically, baco 22A, a cross of folle blanche and noah (which has riparia and labrusca parentage) still makes up almost half the plantings in the Armagnac region, famous for its brandy.

Other hybrids that took off in France include seyval blanc, the seibel family of grapes and black and white versions of villard, to such an extent that in the late ’60’s villard noir was France’s 5th most planted black grape and villard blanc the 3rd most planted white grape, ahead of sauvignon blanc. Total plantings of the two amounted to some 50,000 hectares. That’s roughly 125,000 acres!

Since then there’s been a sharp decline in French hybrid plantings. European legislation banned the use of hybrids for making “quality” wines* and so as the french began to drink less but “better” wine, and encouraged by a government-sponsored vine-pull scheme, villard and others started to disappear. By the late ’80’s villard blanc and noir combined covered just 8,000 ha of French vineyards, and now, less than thirty years later, the two grapes have almost disappeared.

This red wine from Ontario is made with a hybrid popular in Canada and the northern states of America, Marechal Foch.

This red wine from Ontario is made with Marechal Foch, a hybrid popular in Canada and the northern states of the United States.

But is there hope for hybrids? Outside Europe, and especially in North America, hybrids never really went away. One of the benefits of having North American ancestry is that many of the hybrids are tolerant of the extreme cold, allowing wine to be made in parts of Canada or around the Finger Lakes where European vinifera vines would be killed. And we’re talking about some great wines like vidal ice wine, into the bargain. On a lesser scale, hybrids such as rondo and regent allow English winemakers to make red wine while chambourcin grows in the high altitude vineyards of Colorado (snow-covered, it seems, for half the year).

Even in France, there is a growing acceptance that the right hybrids might have their place. Cépages Oubliés (“Forgotten Grapes”), an organisation that campaigns for the acceptance of hybrids, points out that their natural disease resistance makes them perfect for organic farming. It should be self-evident that minimising vineyard treatments is better for both the land and the vineyard workers. Surely that alone makes them worth another try?

Santé

Paul

* My use of the words quality and better isn’t intended to imply that hybrids can only make plonk (“Bacco” is proof to the contrary). It’s just that under European legislation there is a distinction made between what it calls “table wine” and “quality wine” (although, frankly, I’ve had table wines that were hugely better than some so-called quality wines). In France, quality wine (in the legal sense) is labelled “Appellation d’Origine Protegée” or AOP for short (formerly AOC, where the C stood for Controlée) and anything else is table wine. You can use hybrids for table wine but not quality wine, although since the ’30’s France has completely banned six hybrids on the grounds that drinking them will make you mad(!): noah (despite the fact that it is a parent of baco blanc), clinton, jacquet (on the list of grapes authorised to make Châteauneuf-du-Pape until 1935), othello, isabelle and herbemont.

Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours where we like a bit of the unusual. But there are plenty of posts about normal Rhône wines both here and on our Facebook page.

PS sorry about the quality of the Bacco photo. It was taken on an old Nokia mobile with a camera resolution can be counted on the fingers of one hand. I took the Georgian Hills photo from their website. I hope that they excuse the fact that I didn’t ask permission on the grounds that I’m giving free advertising to their wares.

Village People

December 22nd, 2015

If you read my blogs or if you like the Rhône Wine Tours Facebook page (here’s the link www.facebook.com/Rhone-Wine-Tours), I don’t need to tell you that I love the wines from this region. Still, nothing’s ever perfect and so, just for once, and without wanting to come across like the grinch that stole Christmas, I want to get a complaint of my chest. But in order for me to do it, you need to know a bit of background…

Most of the wines made in the Rhône are covered by a four layer hierarchy. Here are the basics:

Level 1, Côtes-du-Rhône covers 171 “communes” (the idea of  a commune doesn’t translate easily but think village and you’re just about there). As long as a commune’s winemaker sticks to rules regarding, for example, what grape varieties he or she can grow, the resulting wine can be sold as Côtes-du-Rhône.

A label from a simple Cotes-du-Rhone. This is unusual because i was made by a (very) small-scale producer based in the northern Rhone when almost all CdR comes from the southern sector.

A label from a simple Côtes-du-Rhône. This wine is unusual because it was made by a (very) small-scale producer, Francois Corompt, based in the northern Rhone, when almost all CdR comes from the southern sector.

95 of the 171 communes have a higher ranking – Level 2, Côtes-du-Rhône Villages – and should be making better wine. Provided slightly tighter rules are followed, wines from these communes can be called Côtes-du-Rhône Villages. Otherwise, the catch-all Côtes-du-Rhône label applies.

Level 3, Named Villages. 18 of those 95 have been singled out because they have (supposedly) something special about them. These are the “Named Villages” and a wine from one of these has a label that states both Côtes-du-Rhône Villages and the name of the village itself. Here’s the list of 18 villages in full:

Cairanne, Chusclan, Gadagne, Laudun, Massif d’Uchaux, Plan de Dieu, Puymeras, Roaix, Rochegude, Rousset-les-Vignes, Sablet, St. Gervais, St. Maurice, St. Pantaleon-les-Vignes, Séguret, Signargues, Valréas and Visan

A typical label for a wine from a Named Village. Underneath the vintage you have the producer's name (Domaine Castan), the "village" name, Signargues, and then, under that, Côtes-du-Rhône Villages.

A typical label for a wine from a Named Village. Underneath the vintage (2012) you have the producer’s name, Domaine Castan, the “village” name, Signargues, and then, under that, Côtes-du-Rhône Villages. Just to confuse matters even more, there isn’t actually a village called Signargues; it’s the name given to a group of four tiny neighbouring villages. Nobody said French wine was easy.

At the very top you have Level 4, Cru. There are 16 Cru wine regions, 8 in the north and 8 in the south, responsible for the most famous wines of the Rhône Valley. In the north you have Château Grillet (actually a single estate), Condrieu, Cornas, Côte-Rôtie, Crozes-Hermitage, Hermitage, St. Joseph and St. Péray. And in the south, Beaumes-de-Venise, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, Lirac, Rasteau, Tavel, Vacqueyras and Vinsobres.

All sixteen are in fact part of the Côtes-du-Rhône family – they’re essentially just posher versions – but in most cases the wines don’t mention CdR on the label, so unless you have an intimate knowledge of French geography you wouldn’t know.

You might have noticed that the classification only deals with the villages not the wineries (“domaines”) themselves. That means that domaines in the Rhône, many of which will have a dozen vineyard plots or more, can make a range of wines with different official quality levels depending on exactly where the vines are planted. It also means that a great winemaker in an unrecognised village may only be able to make a wine carrying, at best, the Côtes-du-Rhône label while a poor winemaker in, say, Hermitage will still be able to sell his wine as Hermitage (with corresponding price tag, no doubt).

Coralie Goumarre in the doorway of her cellar at Domaine Galevan.

Coralie Goumarre’s Domaine Galévan estate lies at the junction of three appellations, Côtes-du-Rhône, Côtes-du-Rhone Villages and Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Because she has vineyards in all three areas she’s able to make a range of wines of different status.

You might also have noticed that there’s no “Grand Cru”catergory in the Rhône. It’s not that the best wines aren’t worth it, it’s just that the Rhône uses a different vocabulary to Burgundy (where you will find Grand Cru), which in turn uses different terms to Bordeaux. And Alsace. Oh, and the Loire too.

Now that all might seem a little complicated, but that’s not my complaint. Personally, I don’t have a problem with classifying the villages according to potential quality, as long as the classification reflects some form of reality. My issue is the creeping promotion of less deserving villages and the potential that has for devaluing the very idea of the hierarchy – if every village ended up a Cru then the very idea of a Cru would become meaningless.

Some of the 16 Cru have greater reputations than others (as you’ll notice when you pay for a bottle of Côte-Rôtie and a bottle of Lirac) but I sense a general acceptance that all have met some sort of hypothetical minimum standard that makes them worthy of of their Cru status. And come 2016, the Named Village of Cairanne is likely to join the list. Now Cairanne has enough great producers like Marcel Richaud and Domaine Alary to show that it has something special about it. The question is, how special? If you accept that every one of the existing 16 should be a Cru then I’d say fair enough, Cairanne, too, is worthy.  But one could argue that 16 Cru were already too many and that the number should be reduced rather than increased, with certain lesser Cru being demoted to join Cairanne in the Named Village category. (But then to start naming names you would have to be braver than I.)

More difficult to defend is the list of Named Villages. Some have a number of excellent estates – Séguret can count on Domaine du Morchon, Domaine Jean David and La Fontaine des Fées, to name just three – others have just one or two star producers, but sometimes it seems that politics and power have as much influence as the quality of the wine. For example, Domaine des Escaravailles and Domaine Elodie Balme make great Roaix (although both are actually based in neighbouring Rasteau), but in volume terms production is dominated by the Roaix-Séguret growers’ co-operative which makes some distinctly average stuff (and that’s me being polite). The question is do you rank the village highly because of two talented estates or on the back of the vast majority of Roaix? If you’re judging the whole village rather than individual estates, which is more representative of Roaix’s ultimate potential?

What’s worse is that there are some Named Villages where there isn’t a single producer that would justify their special status. St. Pantaléon-les-Vignes and next door village Rousset-les-Vignes have none that would lead you to think that their terroir is special. The village of Puymeras went from a generic Côtes-du-Rhône Villages to a Named Village in 2005 and while I’ve had individual tasty, honest wines, that’s not enough to make me think that the promotion was merited. (I don’t want you to think I’m picking on those three – I could go on.)

Looking down the rows of vines in St. Pantaleon, early evening in July. There's another major local crop, lavender, at the end of the row.

Looking down the rows of vines in St. Pantaleon, early evening in July. There’s another major local crop, lavender, at the end of the row. Yes it’s pretty, but that’s not enough to make it a Named Village.

And there’s more. Next year Sainte Cécile, Suze-la-Rousse and Vaison-la-Romaine will probably make the jump to Named Village status. Why?

I want to say straight away that I work with an estate based in Sainte Cécile, Domaine Rouge Bleu, and it makes excellent wines, Cru standard in fact. But again one estate doesn’t make an argument for promoting a whole village.

Thomas bringing in the harvest at Domaine Rouge Bleu, the stand out estate in Sainte Cécile.

Bringing in the harvest at Domaine Rouge Bleu, the stand out estate in Sainte Cécile.

Patrice and Chloë Chevalier at Mas Poupéras in Vaison-la-Romaine make great wines, but nobody else in the area comes close. As for Suze-la-Rousse, well the LePlan-Veermeersch estate has an ambitious pricing policy, if that’s enough to justify anything.

Patrice Chevalier who makes the Mas Pouperas wine with his wife Chloë.

Patrice Chevalier who makes the Mas Poupéras wine with his wife Chloë.

So by the end of 2016 we could have 17 Cru and 20 Named Villages. Too many, I think. I love the Rhône and its wines, but when everybody has a high status then the title means nothing. Better to let the truly special regions shine. A shake-up is in order, but who’s going to accept being demoted?

Santé and Joyeaux Noël (with a small helping of bah humbug),

Paul

Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours. If you’d like to visit some of the places that really are worthy of their status just get in touch with us – here’s the link to our home page which has our contact details. There’s also a Facebook page with (much) shorter pieces and lots of photos.

 

 

 

 

Crozes’ Feat

July 30th, 2015

Crozes-Hermitage produces four times as much wine as Condrieu and Côte-Rôtie combined. You buy Cornas in a wine shop but you can pick up Crozes-Hermitage in a supermarket. Rare it ain’t. So perhaps it’s not surprising that other northern Rhône appellations have more cachet with wine snobs. But I’m here to tell you that the best wines of Crozes-Hermitage are delicious, (relative) bargains and worthy of a place on anybody’s table.

Christelle Betton in the Les Chassis vineyards south of Tain l'Hermitage.

Christelle Betton (Domaine Betton) post-harvest in the vineyards south of Tain l’Hermitage.

But what exactly is Crozes-Hermitage? What (apart from price) makes it different to its neighbour Hermitage? And why is it worth searching out the best producers? Well read on…

First of all, a bit of geography. The vineyards of the Crozes-Hermitage wine region surround the small town of Tain l’Hermitage on the banks of the Rhône river, which flows from north to south, towards the Mediterranean, down the eastern side of France. Lyon is around an hour’s drive to the north and Avignon around 90 minutes to the south. The (hand drawn!) map below shows the Crozes-Hermitage vineyards in yellow, Hermitage in green and the southern part of St. Joseph, on the opposite bank of the Rhône, in orange. (You might need your magnifying specs for this one).

EPSON MFP image

The vineyards of Crozes-Hermitage (yellow), Hermitage (green) and southern St. Joseph (orange)

You can see that the bulk of the Crozes-Hermitage vineyards lie south and east of Tain, running down as far the Isère river. There’s a good reason for that – the land is relatively flat and easy to cultivate. There are large swathes of vines here, but also cherry, apricot and peach trees.

In comparison, the Hermitage vineyards are found only on the south-facing slope of the hill that overlooks, or rather dominates the town. The wines from here, red or white, should be powerful, concentrated and capable of ageing for years, if not decades. No Crozes-Hermitage is ever going to match an Hermitage on those counts, but that’s nothing to be ashamed of – very few wines can.

Behind Hermitage hill is a series of smaller hills and valleys that form the northern sector of Crozes-Hermitage. The vineyards here take up the south and south west-facing slopes or squeeze into the thin stretch of flat land between the hills and the Rhône. (In fact, the eagle-eyed among you may have noticed on the map the village of Crozes-Hermitage, a few kilometres north of Tain, which gave its name to the wine district.)

A hillside vineyard in the village of Gervans, early March. Compare this with the flatter vineyards in the photo of Christelle Betton.

A hillside vineyard in the village of Gervans, early March. Fruit trees are in the foreground. Compare this with the flatter land in the photo of Christelle Betton.

In theory, this north-south Crozes divide matters because the northern sector vineyards, around the village of Crozes-Hermitage itself and neighbours Gervans, Erômes and Serves, are largely planted on decomposed granite whilst large parts of the southern sector are on stony alluvial soils brought downriver by the Rhône and Isère. In the eastern sector around Mercurol and Larnage there’s more clay. And in turn that all matters because it has an effect on the flavour of the wine – all Crozes-Hermitage reds are pure syrah but the southern wines should be softer, bursting with fruit, while those from the north should be a bit spikier, with more obvious tannins and acidity (some would say better structure).

Well that’s the theory, but in practice a lot of the northern producers, like Laurent Habrard of Domaine Habrard and the Fayolle Fils et Fille estate, both based in Gervans, also have land on the southern plain, so their wines are a blend of grapes from the two sectors and the distinct “terroir” differences are smoothed out.

Laurent Habrard

Laurent Habrard

That’s not to say that there aren’t different types of red Crozes, it’s just that the biggest difference is usually a stylistic one imposed by the winemaker: between super-fruity reds made to be drunk young and fuller-bodied wines made to be aged. Typically, it’s the un/less-oaked wines that are lighter, can be drunk younger and give an uncomplicated, if highly enjoyable, blast of syrah fruit (blackcurrant, raspberry, black cherry). They are smile-inducing, thirst-quenching and fun.

Marc Romak and Marlene Durand

Marc Romak and Marlène Durand, Domaine Melody

One of the best is Domaine Melody’s “Les Friandises”, but there are many other wines that make an excellent job of the light’n’fruity style –  the Crozes from Gaylord Machon that he calls “Ghany”, “Les Pitchounettes” by Domaine de Lucie (half raised in tank, half in larger, previously-used barrels) and Maxime Graillot’s “Equinoxe” (40% is aged in used barrels).

Maxime Graillot

Maxime Graillot

Although Domaine Betton‘s “Espiègle” is 100% oaked, the barrels aren’t new and recent vintages have all been about fruit and flowers. In general, this style is lovely served cool alongside nothing more than a few slices of salami, and frankly without even that, but it sits happily with a simple roast chicken, veal or Toulouse sausages. (There’s also a completely unoaked wine from Domaine Lombard that has the estate’s trademark purity of fruit, although perversely I’d say that they’re looking for something slightly more serious.)

Julien Montagnon, Domaine Lombard

Julien Montagnon, Domaine Lombard

As for the richer, fuller-bodied (although I’d never say heavy) wines, there’s often the impression of cooked fruit – stewed blackberries and damsons – and grilled meat. Personally, I’m happiest if that also comes with a lick of acidity to keep the freshness and a side-helping of floral notes, but I realise that’s not everyone’s cup of tea. When I was starting in wine I sold Domaine Belle‘s “Cuvée Louis Belle” which certainly fitted the bill for me (made with grapes from plots in Crozes-Hermitage village and Larnage, by the way). It wasn’t the biggest wine, nor the deepest-coloured, but it was silky, refined, pure, really quite classy. You could perhaps put Alain Graillot (Maxime’s father) into that stylistic camp, too.

David Reynaud, Domaine des Bruyeres

David Reynaud, Domaine des Bruyères

Other winemakers use a combination of southern Crozes grapes and oak for wines that emphasise the plumper, softer fruit and darker colour you get south of Tain. Yann Chave‘s “Le Rouvre” can be pretty opulent, as can some of the more high-end offerings from David Reynaud’s Domaine Les Bruyères.

Remy Nodin

Remy Nodin

Rémy Nodin‘s grapes come from Pont de l’Isère – his “Le Mazel” 2013 is rich but also deliciously floral; Christelle Betton uses fruit from the Les Chassis plain south of Tain for her chocolate-tinged “Caprice”; Etienne Chomarat’s Domaine de Chasselvin “Les Lièvres” also picks up on the chocolate.

Lucie Fourel

Lucie Fourel

Lucie Fourel‘s “St. Jaimes” takes its grapes from south of Tain, although it’s notable as much for the complex flavours you get from fermenting non-destemmed bunches. Domaine Melody‘s “Etolie Noire” is unusually rich and dark-fruited. Laurent Habrard‘s red, which mixes Gervans and Les Chassis fruit, has its share of sturdiness. His 2009, tasted just a few months ago, still had lots of life in it. I’d also put in an honorable mention for Delas Frères, which makes a range of red Crozes which at the top end combine concentration, plenty of stuffing with at least some refinement.

With the fuller Crozes I’d be thinking of eating beef, lamb (grilled over an open fire if I’m lucky, but otherwise almost any way it comes) and duck breast served medium-rare.

Guillaume Sorrel

Guillaume Sorrel, Domaine Les Alexandrins

One estate that bucks the trend is Domaine Les Alexandrins, which has a deliberate policy of making two Crozes-Hermitage reds in exactly the same way, with the same barrel treatment etc, but sources the grapes from different parts of the southern region so that any differences are purely down to the terroir. “Attrirance” is lighter and juicier while “Séduction” has greater weight and richness.

But what unites all of these wines is their pure, direct syrah fruit and the relative softness of their tannins. They’re friendly, easy to enjoy but there’s plenty going on if you care to look. And the great news is that most Crozes-Hermitage rouge  costs less than 20€ at the cellar door, and many delicious wines fall in the 10-15€ range. There’s a retailer/importer list at the bottom of the page so get buying.

Santé

Paul

Note: Crozes-Hermitage also produces white wine. The best are just as delicious as the reds – rich and creamy from the marsanne and roussanne grapes used to make them, perhaps with a bit of oak, and flavours of apple, pear, grapefruit, butter-rich pastry, almond, spring flowers. I prefer them with food than as an aperitif – fowl, white meats, richer fish dishes. Although not intended for long-term ageing, they certainly can live a few years – Christelle Betton recently donated a bottle of her 2006 (thank you Christelle!) which had aged very gracefully, combining quince fruit with notes of honey (although the wine was dry) and verbena. It was deeper coloured – green gold – and richer than the 2013 I drank a few days later, which is as you would expect.

Note 2: Many of the UK supermarket own label wines (often made by the local growers’ co-operative, Cave de Tain) and some of the wines from the two big local producers, Chapoutier and Paul Jaboulet, fall into the bright and breezy category. Maybe that should be aim to fall into that catergory – I’m often slightly disappointed by the cheaper Crozes-Hermitages from all three, although I find that easier to excuse in the case of the co-op as the wines are generally cheaper, at least at the cellar door. (But not at UK supermaket Sainsbury’s. Last time I was in England I picked up a £10 bottle of Crozes made for Sainsbury’s by the Cave de Tain which was inoffensive but pretty forgettable. There was also a “Taste the Difference” Crozes, this time made for Sainsbury’s by Chapoutier, again at £10, which did make me wonder why they have two Crozes, one “special” and one, by inference, not, at the same price).

Note 3: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours. We spend a lot of time around Tain l’Hermitage and if you’d like to join us just go to our website – www.RhoneWineTours.com for more details.

Retailers and importers:

For the UK, it’s largely retailers names that I give.  Most will be able to deliver wine so even if these people aren’t on your doorstep that shouldn’t be a problem. Otherwise, agents/importers can point you in the right direction. In the USA, the names I give are those of importers. Give them a call or send an email and you should be able to find out your nearest retailer.

In order of appearance:

Domaine Habrard – USA, Return to Terroir, Balanced Wine Selections.
Fayolle Fils et Fille – Thorman Hunt is the estate’s UK agent; USA, BNP Distributing Co and Cru Wines.
Domaine Melody – UK, Flint Wines.
Gaylord Machon – sold by the small Caviste chain in southern England. Imported by Carte Blanche Wines.
Domaine de Lucie – also sold by Caviste and also imported by Carte Blanche; in the USA it’s VA’s Wine Traditions.
Maxime Graillot/Domaine des Lises – UK, Berry Bros. and Yapp Bros.; USA – Michael Skurnik and Chambers & Chambers.
Domaine Betton – UK, Theatre of Wine.
Domaine Les Alexandrins – USA, JAO Wine Imports; UK , John Gauntley.
Domaine Lombard – I think that most, if not all, importers concentrate on Lombard’s Brézème wines. But if you contact one of these you should be able to find out more: USA, Paul M. Young Fine Wines in California, Casa Bruno in Oregon, Cru Sélections in Washington State and Cellar to Table in New York; UK, Yapp Bros.
Domaine Belle – The Wine Society and Caves de Pyrène in the UK; USA, Wine House and Robert Kacher Selections.
Alain Graillot – Not surprisingly, the same as son Maxime: UK, Yapp Bros.; USA, Michael Skurnik and Chambers & Chambers.
Yann Chave – Stone, Vine & Sun and Winegrowers Direct in the UK; Weygandt Selections in USA.
Domaine Les Bruyères (David Reynaud) – In the UK, The Winery and Swig. You could also contact Liberty Wines – they import the wine rather than retail it, but they should be able to tell you where you can buy it. In the USA, Regal Wine Imports.
Rémy Nodin – USA, Jeff Morgenthal at Gran Fondo Wine Co.
Domaine de Chasselvin – The Sampler in the UK.
Delas Frères – UK importer, Berkmann Wine Cellars; USA, Maisons Marques & Domaines.
Domaine Les Alexandrins – USA, JAO Wine Imports; UK , John Gauntley.
Cave de Tain – USA, Kysela Pere et Fils; UK, check out the supermarkets – Waitrose and Sainsbury’s certainly. As for independents, N.D. John stock some of the (well made) higher-end wines, Spirited Wines. Imported by Boutinot.
Chapoutier and Paul Jaboulet are widely available

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wine Tasting Offer

April 1st, 2015

Except in the most roundabout way I never use this blog for advertising the Rhône Wine Tours business. I write about things that interest me and hope you find them interesting too. And if you find them interesting enough to want to come to the Rhône Valley, and maybe even bring a bit of work my way, well that’s great. But this time I’m going to make an exception.

That's me talking about Rhone wines.

That’s me talking about Rhone wines.

I’ve written before about how much I enjoy hosting wine tastings, how they’re an opportunity to show off the best of the region’s wines, from Côte-Rôtie in the north to Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the south, in a way that’s impossible in a day’s touring because of the distances between the different regions (Lyon and Avignon being 2½ hours apart along a busy autoroute). It’s a simple set-up: I arrive where you’re staying (villa, gîte, bed and breakfast, you name it) with a range of lovely wines, artisan bread, cheeses and charcuterie, glasses, maps, tasting sheets – in fact everything you need to host a tasting – and spend a couple of hours chatting about the Rhône Valley, its wines and winemakers. All you need to do is provide a table and chairs and then sit back and enjoy. I’ve hosted tastings for two people and I’ve done them for forty. Wine buffs are welcome, but you can be an absolute beginner – all you really need is a love of great wine.

Wine photos 036

Doing the important thing – opening bottles. There’s no need to stand on ceremony – t-shirt and shorts are fine.

So here’s the advertising. What I’m offering is a wine tasting that reads like a roll call of the greatest names in Rhône Wine for 200€. And that’s not per person, that’s for groups of two to twelve people. The tasting covers eight wines and is guaranteed to include Côte-Rôtie, Condrieu, Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas. There’ll even be fizz to start. And get this, once the bottles are open they’re yours to keep. So any wine not used in the tasting you get to enjoy over the rest of your stay.

Do the maths and you’ll see that at current exchange rates 200€ works out at around $215 or £145. Now look at your local wine merchant’s wine shelves and you’ll see that you would struggle to even buy the wines for that amount. You’re basically getting eight delicious wines and my services are a free added bonus.

Here’s the small print: the offer is open to just the first ten groups to book a wine tasting. The price is the same for two people or twelve because the same number of bottles will be opened either way, it’s just that if there are two of you you’ll have more to enjoy afterwards. And if you’re staying nearer Lyon the price will be 230€ – that’s simply because I’ll use more fuel getting to you and will have to pay 25€ in road tolls on the way. That’s as complicated as it gets.

I think that’s a fantastic offer. I hope you agree. To book a tasting simply email me at info@rhonewinetours.com and mention you saw the deal.

Santé

Paul

Tain-ted Love

March 7th, 2015

Tain l’Hermitage is a small town next to the Rhône river. Even its biggest fans couldn’t say that it’s the most attractive place, and it wouldn’t attract much attention were it not for one thing – the steep vine-covered hill that looks down on it. Because that hill is the home of the world-famous wines of Hermitage; it’s the reason two of the biggest estates in the Rhône Valley, Chapoutier and Paul Jaboulet, make Tain their home. And every year it hosts a four day wine fair for the local producers of Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage and their neighbouring wine regions.

Tain l'Hermitage in autumn

Tain l’Hermitage in autumn

Last year I went to the fair and somehow managed to taste far more of the neighbours’ wines. This year I was planning to concentrate on Crozes-Hermitage…

As a quick aside, just a brief explanation of the difference between Hermitage and Crozes-Hermitage. Both wine regions use the same grape varieties – syrah for the reds, marsanne and (to a lesser extent) roussanne for the whites – but the grapes used to make Hermitage have to come from the 136ha (about 340 acres) of vines planted on the south-facing slope of the hill itself, much of the vineyard soil being made up of decomposed granite. The Crozes-Hermitage wine region surrounds Hermitage and is more than ten times its size. Most of the vines are planted on the flat land south and east of Tain where there’s a right old mix of clay, limestone, sand and stones. The result is two different styles of wines – Hermitage, both white and red, should be powerful, concentrated and capable of ageing for years, potentially even decades; Crozes is more often soft, gentle, fruity, ready for drinking within a year a two. That isn’t a criticism, they’re just two different wines. Crozes can be delicious, but there’s a reason why Hermitage is three and more times the price and any wine merchant who tries to sell Crozes as a bargain Hermitage is pushing his luck (at best).

Anyway, on with the show. Most producers have now released their 2013 reds and it was those I wanted to focus on, but if the youngest red available was 2012 well so be it. And if anything else cropped up I’d see where it led. The estates are listed in the order they were tasted.

Johann Michel

Chatting with Johann Michel (right)

Chatting with Johann Michel (right). What I wouldn’t give to be able to photoshop in more hair and fewer chins (on me, that is)

Johann doesn’t make Crozes-Hermitage, so that was my Crozes-only resolution broken straight away. But in my defense, his Cornas is excellent. The Classique 2013 is floral and cherry-scented. It’s still young but has bags of potential. Cuvée Jana 2013 is a great wine – it’s more intense, more exotic than the Classique, with spice and orange peel.

Domaine des Bruyères

David Reynaud

David Reynaud

David Reynaud makes some great Crozes, but I wasn’t blown away by his Beaumont 2013 – it came across as a bit grainy and charmless with not enough fruit to support the tannins. The Georges Reynaud 2012, on the other hand, is delicious – juicy, mid-weight, mixing cherry liqueur and bramble fruit with something more savoury.

François Merlin

Francois Merlin

Francois Merlin

François doesn’t make Crozes either. Ah well. His Côte-Rôtie 2013 is young and the tannins need time to soften. But there’s promise there – nice syrah fruit with subtle oak support.

Vallée Haute Vallée Basse

Emilie

Emilie Guironnet

A new venture between four young wine people – Guillaume Sorrel (son of Hermitage producer Marc Sorrel) and Alexandre Caso, who together also run Domaine Les Alexandrins (see below), and Stephane Massonnet and Emilie Guironnet. They don’t own the vineyard land but they do harvest the grapes and make the wine (all 7,000 bottles of it). Emilie told me that the Crozes-Hermitage Rouge 2013 is unoaked in order to emphasise the syrah fruit. It’s attractive and easy-going but a little reductive at the moment. In other words it smells a bit farmyardy, but that should pass with time and a bit of breathing and underneath it all there’s lots of nice supple brambly fruit. 2012 was their first vintage and that year’s wine leans more towards cranberry and cassis.

Domaine Saint Clair

Denis Basset’s Crozes-Hermitage Etincelle 2012 was still too young. On the nose, the fruit (bramble) was nice and bright but on the palate the tannins still dominated . Leave it for six months or a year to let it soften and round out.

Domaine Lombard

Crozes-Hermitage and Brezeme

Crozes-Hermitage and Brézème

Julien and Emmanuelle Montagnon own this excellent estate in the Brézème appellation, but also turn their hand to Crozes-Hermitage and Hermitage. Their Crozes-Hermitage 2012 is bright and fruit-forward (no oak). The house style puts purity over weight, so the fruit is clean and precise.

I thought it would be interesting to see how their Brézèmes compare with the Croze. Grande Chêne 2013 is more structured than the Crozes, built around its acidity, which helps lift its raspberry fruit. For me, it’s finer, more chiseled than the Crozes (although I’ll happily drink that too). Eugène de Monicault 2013 is a step-up again. It’s more outgoing, more expressive and has greater weight and depth. Finally, La Tour du Diable 2012 is the flagship Brézème. At 45€ it’s more expensive than their Hermitage, which tells you something, but then it’s beautifully made wine – elegant and long, all dark fruits and flowers, concentrated but not heavy.

Domaine de Chasselvin

Etienne Chomorat

Etienne Chomarat

Etienne Chomarat’s estate was new to me and a nice surprise. His unoaked Crozes-Hermitage, Cuvée du Domaine 2013, has lively blackcurrant fruit with a little touch of dark chocolate. It isn’t complex but it’s perky and does well what it sets out to do. Les Lièvres 2011 had two years of ageing before release and spent some time in barrel. It’s fuller than regular bottling, with attractive chocolate liqueur fruit and a good balance between freshness, fruit and structure.

Etienne has just ½ha (just over an acre) of marsanne and roussanne planted for his Croze-Hermitage Blanc 2013 white. It’s a gentle, unoaked style that feels unforced, very natural. Although it’s dry, there’s a subtle honeyed edge and the scents of hedgerow flowers.

Domaine de Rosiers

Maxime Gourdain

Maxime Gourdain

I first came across Maxime Gourdain’s Côte-Rôtie at last year’s Tain wine fair and wanted to try it again. In fact, this year he had two wines on show: Côte-Rôtie Classique 2012 (syrah with 2% viognier) spends 18 months in new oak barrels. Despite that, the dominant flavours are of loganberry and mulberry. Silky, mid-weight and refined. For the other wine, Cœur du Rose 2012, Maxime selected his favourite barrels of the Classique and bottled them separately (yes, you do get variation between barrels of the same wine). It’s a bit richer and spicier than the Classique, but I can’t honestly say that I would pay the 10€ premium to buy it. I’d be extremely happy if you gave me a bottle, though.

Domaine Melody

Marc Romak

Marc Romak

This estate is only five years old but has already made a splash in the area (and won France’s most cherished wine accolade, A “Coup de Cœur” from the Hachette wine guide). It’s not hard to see why – they’re outstanding wines.

The entry-level Crozes, Friandises 2013, is a riot of fruit – raspberry, strawberry and violets. At just 10,50€ at the cellar door it’s a bargain. The next step up, Premier Regard 2013 is just a few euros more. It’s a more serious style from older vines and half of the wine is aged in barrel. The fruit is darker (black cherry and licorice), although still a little closed, but it has the same seamless flow. Top of the range is Etoile Noire 2013. It’s from the oldest vines and is aged purely in barrel. Despite what I said earlier, this really does start to approach the style of an Hermitage. Concentrated, dark and ripe, although still very young.

Alain Verset

Alain and Madame Verset

Alain and Madame Verset

Alain Verset’s Cornas couldn’t be much more different to the wines of Domaine Melody, but in their own unmistakable way they’re also delicious. Alain was showing two vintages – the Cornas 2011 is softening and has the estate’s trademark dusty, spicy nose – think warm earth, rose petals and incense. The Cornas 2009 is still massive and is showing little sign of maturity. It should still be kept for a year, or better still two.

Gilles Robin

Gilles Robin

Gilles Robin

Another Croze producer with a good reputation. Papillon 2013 has an attractive nose with plenty of fruit and flowers, but for me the grippy tannins don’t suit this fruitier style of Crozes. The Albéric Bouvet 2012 is from older vines planted by Gilles’ grandfather in 1960. It’s a fuller wine with cooked red berries and orange peel. It also has firm tannins, but unlike the Papillon, it’s got the concentration to stay the course while they soften.

André François

André François’ Côte-Rôtie

André’s Gerine Côte-Rôtie 2012 is almost as dusty as Alain Verset’s Cornas and so it’s no surprise that I like it. It has briary, chalky fruit and a real sense of “terroir”.

Paul Jaboulet Aîné

Emmanuelle Verset on the Paul Jaboulet stand

Emmanuelle Verset on the Paul Jaboulet stand

Paul Jaboulet is one of the great names in Rhône wine, world-famous for its La Chapelle Hermitage, but something’s missing. The last time I tasted the white Crozes-Hermitage, Mule Blanche, it was very good, one of the best white Crozes I’ve tasted in a long time. But the reds leave me cold. It’s not that they’re bad by any means, but they’re all a bit safe, afraid to take any risks. This time I only tasted the basic red Crozes, Les Jalets 2012, and admittedly that comes from purchased grapes not their own vineyards. Yes it’s clean and clearly competently made, but surely it’s not unreasonable to ask for more from such a famous estate? At least it gave me a chance to say hello to Emmanuelle Verset, Alain’s daughter, who has just started working full-time for Jaboulet.

Rémy Nodin

Remy Nodin

Rémy Nodin

I’ve just started working with Rémy, so what would you expect me to say? I admit that it was his sparkling St. Péray that first attracted me to his wines (it’s great!) but this time I restricted myself to his Crozes, Le Mazel 2013. There’s silky, bright black cherry fruit and a lick of acidity gives it a long, clean finish. (Wine Spectator thought it more bramble than cherry, but hey they still liked it.) As a footnote, I visited Rémy at his estate  a few days later and the wine was tasting even better, with a strong floral element that hadn’t been as apparent at Tain.

Domaine de Lucie 

Lucie Fourel (right)

Lucie Fourel (right)

For me, these wines typify what’s good about Crozes-Hermitage. Les Pitchounettes 2013 is the starting point in Lucie Fourel’s organic range. Don’t come looking for grandeur, this is about pure enjoyment – it’s juicy, crunchy, bright and breezy, a mix of cranberry, raspberry and floral notes. St. Jaimes 2012 is at the other end of the scale, using old vine fruit and no de-stemming. It’s complex, dark fruited, with the subtle leafy notes that come from using the stems in the fermentation. Don’t expect either to be star-bright as there’s very little in the way of filtration, but the flavour is spot-on.

Domaine Les Alexandrins

Guillaume Sorrel

Guillaume Sorrel

This estate is associated with the Vallée Haute Vallée Basse business (see above) and there’s a certain family resemblance in the wines. Attirance 2013 comes from 30 year-old vines at the southern end of Crozes, around Pont de l’Isère and Beaumont. It spent 10 months in used oak barrels. It’s an attractive, classy Crozes with a velvet texture. Cuvée Séduction 2013 is from 70 year-old vines growing in stony soil. It’s an unusually dark, refined Crozes with flavours of chocolate liqueur, morello cherry and bay leaf.

Vignobles Verzier Chante-Perdrix

Philippe Verzier

Philippe Verzier

Philippe Verzier’s estate is at the northern end of St. Joseph, or the southern end of Condrieu depending on how you look at it. He makes both (and a little Côte-Rôtie too). His white St. Jo, Granit 2013, is drinking well already. It’s soft, gentle, the oak present but certainly not dominant. The apple blossom and honey nose leads onto ripe apple fruit, soft reinette more than crunchy granny smith. The Condrieu Authentic 2013 is a very pretty wine. It’s certainly not as big as some (Cuilleron etc), it hasn’t got the oily texture of others, but if you like your Condrieu a little more restrained then it should be right up your street. The nose is quietly exotic (peaches and violets) while the palate picks up on the stone fruit, its lack of acidity leaving an impression of sweetness (when in reality it’s dry).

Domaine Habrard

Laurent Habrard

Laurent Habrard

I tasted Laurent Habrard’s Crozes-Hermitage 2012 last year at Tain and liked it. After a year’s ageing I like it more. It’s floral, fruity (cherry, violet, raspberry), mid-weight, a very friendly style. Laurent was also showing his Crozes-Hermitage 2009. Unsurprisingly, given the hotter vintage and extra maturity, it’s quite different. The wine is more concentrated, more structured, the fruit flavours darker, without the floral element. At six years old it’s obviously mature, but very far from over the hill. Laurent thought there may be 2,000 bottles available (it had been held in reserve for a customer and then released) – an enterprising importer should snap it up. Finally, a hop over the Rhône – Laurent’s St. Joseph 2013 is also floral and has an edge of dark chocolate, but it’s lighter, juicier, slightly more grainy with crunchier tannins. Very tasty.

Domaine Betton

Christelle Betton

Christelle Betton

I’d already tasted Christelle Betton’s 2013 reds straight from barrel, but this was the first time I’d tasted the bottled versions. Espiègle 2013 is very much in the same style as the ’11 and ’12 with the same aromatic fruit, although a touch lighter than both. It’s a very pretty wine where flowers form a background to the red cherry fruit and can be drunk with great enjoyment right now. Caprice 2013, on the other hand, would be best left for a while. It’s very good but it’s more closed than the Espiègle, with less fruit showing but more peppery spice and chocolate. It’s a little fuller-bodied, too, although by no means a heavyweight. A few months will let it soften, relax and allow the fruit to come to the fore.

Christelle also makes white Crozes-Hermitage. She had bottled samples of her new white just for wine fair – 2014 is its first vintage and at the moment it has no label and no name. It’s pure unoaked marsanne from 30 year-old vines in the southern sector of Crozes. It has a gently creamy texture with soft acidity and orchard fruit. It’s subtle but certainly not bland. A really nice first effort.

The estate’s classic white Crozes, Crystal 2014, comes from a vineyard on the hill of Hermitage itself but the vines sit just outside the Hermitage boundary. As with the un-named new wine, we were tasting sample bottles, but it’s clear that this wine is broader shouldered, richer. Marsanne makes itself felt through the creamy texture and the ripe, apple tart-like fruit.

Importers and Retailers

Northern Rhône wines are becoming more and more evident on wine merchant shelves and many of the producers listed are available in the the UK and USA. It’s worth looking at www.wine-searcher.com for a local supplier, but the website isn’t exhaustive and if you can’t immediately find the wine you’re looking for at your local specialist it may be worthwhile contacting the names below:

Johann Michel – Kysela Pere et Fils in the USA (you’ll need to check with them for local retailers), Balanced Wine Selections; Flint Wines in the UK

Domaine Les Bruyères (David Reynaud) – In the UK, The Winery and Swig. You could also contact Liberty Wines – they import the wine rather than retail it, but they should be able to tell you where you can buy it. In the USA, Regal Wine Imports are based in NJ, but distribute to many States.

François Merlin – USA, Integrity Wines are based in NY and supply lots of NY retailers; Moonlight Wine Company are also in NY and supply the East Coast and California, Cave to Cellar in California; In the UK, Yapp Bros. are selling François’ Condrieu, while Vine Trail have that and a vin de pays viognier.

Vallée Haute Vallée Basse – Nothing for the moment, but the Les Alexandrins wines are in a similar style (see below).

Domaine Lombard – USA, you wait for one importer and then nine(!) come along at once. I don’t have the names of all of them but here are the four I do know: Paul M. Young Fine Wines in California, Casa Bruno in Oregon, Cru Sélections in Washington State and Cellar to Table in New York; UK, Yapp Bros.

Domaine de Chasselvin – USA, Fass Selections; UK, The Sampler

Domaine de Rosiers – USA, Global Wine Company

Domaine Melody – UK, Flint Wines (come on USA, wake up)

Alain Verset – UK, Berry Bros. & Rudd, The Wine Society ; USA, see Melody above.

Gilles Robin – UK, Lea & Sandeman, Enotria also import it and should be able to give you the name of a retailer

André François – Nope, sorry.

Paul Jaboulet Aîné – Oh, just about everywhere. If you can’t find Jaboulet wines you’re not looking hard enough.

Rémy Nodin – USA, Jeff Morgenthal at Gran Fondo Wine Co.

Domaine de Lucie – USA, Wine Traditions, VA ; UK, Caviste.

Domaine Les Alexandrins – USA, JAO Wine Imports and Fass Selections; UK – John Gauntley.

Domaine Verzier – USA, Voix de la Terre on the East Coast, Beaune Imports in California; UK, Christopher Piper Wines.

Laurent Habrard – USA, Return to Terroir, Balanced Wine Selections.

Domaine Betton – UK, Theatre of Wine.

Good luck with your search.

Santé

Paul

Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours. If you want to meet the winemakers first hand you know where to come. In the meantime, there’s loads more stuff on the blog, on the website and on the Facebook page. Feel free to browse, but ask before you use the photos. Oh, and I lied about the hill of Hermitage being the only interesting thing in Tain – it’s also the home of Valrhona chocolate, which is well worth the detour.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Head for the Hills

January 23rd, 2015

Better late than never, I guess. I visited the Vacqueyras/Beaumes de Venise wine fair in mid-December, the day after my trip to Cornas (you can read that blog here), but what with one thing and another – Christmas, New Year, decorating the house, even a bit of work – it kind of got left behind. My brief write-up follows in all its glory, but first a bit of background.

Looking across the vineyards to the Dentelles de Montmirail, near the village of Lafare.

Looking across the vineyards of Beaumes-de-Venise to the Dentelles de Montmirail

The villages of Vacqueyras and Beaumes de Venise are just a few kilometres apart and, along with next-door-neighbour Gigondas, form a chain of southern Rhône wine regions (appellations) nestled into the sheltering hills of the Dentelles de Montmirail. Because the three villages are so close, and because it’s common for estates here to have their vineyards spread over a number of plots, it’s not unusual to see winemakers making both Vacqueyras and Gigondas or Vacqueyras and Beaumes-de-Venise, or … well you get the idea. (Just a short aside here – when I’m touring with clients I’m often asked how an estate with a winery in the village of, say, Rasteau can be allowed to make Rasteau wine and a wine labelled under the name of its neighbour Cairanne. The reason is that the physical location of the winery is irrelevant, it’s where the vines are growing that counts. So Domaine La Fourmone in Vacqueyras, can sell you wines from its home village as well as Gigondas and BdV.)

Looking towards the Dentelles from the Vacqueyras side. Notice the stony soils.

Looking towards the Dentelles from the Vacqueyras side. Notice the stony soils.

Although white and rosé Vacqueyras exist, about 97% of all the wine made under the name is red. Beaumes-de-Venise is a dry red while Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise is a sweet white wine (see my review of those here) – any dry whites or rosés from vineyards within the BdV appellation boundary are sold not under the village name but as Côtes du Rhône or Côtes du Rhône Villages, the general catch-all appellations for the region as a whole. Don’t ask why unless you want an explanation that may be longer than the whole of this blog.

So what makes a Vacqueyras red different to a BdV red, or a Gigondas red for that matter, given that all three villages adopt the southern Rhône grape trinity of grenache, syrah and mourvedre (aka GSM). Well if you believe the winemakers, and I do, it’s all about the “terroir”, that magic combination of climate, micro-climate and soil.

Being so close to each other, the three can’t but share the same Mediterranean climate. And while the higher parts of the Beaumes-de-Venise appellation, up in the hills, have a slightly cooler micro-climate, the real difference is the soil. Clearly that doesn’t change precisely at the village boundaries – the shift is more gradual – and equally obviously, within a single region there will be differences in soil composition from one sector to another, even from one plot of vines to another (something gardeners will understand well), but in general Gigondas has more clay, Vacqueyras is stonier with more sand in the mix, while Beaumes-de-Venise has three distinct soil types with limestone being important in the higher vineyards and sand playing a major role around the village itself. The end result is that Gigondas makes the fullest-bodied reds, BdV the lightest. (That’s not to say that heavier is intrinsically better than lighter. And anyway, as 14+% alcohol isn’t uncommon in a red BdV, all things are relative.)

So what about the wines? Around 20 or so Vacqueyras and Beaumes-de-Venise producers turned up for this mini wine fair, although my tasting was skewed towards those that had also (against the rules) brought along their Gigondas. Here’s what I thought:

Chateau Redortier

Isabelle and Sabine de Menthon and their Chateau Redortier wines.

Isabelle and Sabine de Menthon and their Chateau Redortier wines.

The estate is high up (500m/1600ft) in the Dentelles near the tiny village of Suzette. The Beaumes de Venise “Tradition” 2011 (60% grenache, 40% syrah) comes from vineyards with clay/limestone soils. Typically 2011 – soft, warm, round – it mixes dark fruit, blood and chocolate and is expertly made. Their Gigondas 2011 comes from a parcel of vines close to the border with BdV, a west-facing slope at the far north of the appellation. The style is similar to the BdV but richer, with black pepper spice, cherry, roast beetroot and frangipane. Beaumes de Venise “Monsieur le Comte” 2010 was left until the end, and for good reason. The grapes were harvested very ripe, the wine is robust, almost black and the fruit leans that way too with lots of bramble and blackcurrant. What’s great is that the wine isn’t just big and burly, there’s some style too.

Mas des Restanques

Mas des Restanques

Jean-Luc Faraud, Mas des Restanques

The first thing to say is how nice it is to see a French estate using modern, clean label design. Believe me, as a former wine merchant I know how important visual appeal is. The wine doesn’t quite live up to it, sadly – fine, ok, yes, but not exciting. The Vacqueyras 2012 is a relatively straightforward chocolate/bramble jelly glugger. The Gigondas 2012 has a 3€ premium, but doesn’t justify the step in price. Very similar in style to the Vacqueyras, with a bit of fruit cake thrown into the mix.

Domaine le Sang des Cailloux

Serge Ferigoule (with the moustache, and what a moustache)

Serge Férigoule (with the moustache, and what a moustache)

In Vacqueyras terms, these wines are expensive (15€-21€ a bottle for the two I tasted). But that’s nothing compared to many other great wines, and, believe me, these wines are exceptional. Azalaïs 2012 (grenache, syrah, cinsault, mourvedre) has concentration with freshness – great balance. The palate is macerated cherry. Cuvée de Lopy 2011 is the old vine blend of grenache, syrah and mourvedre. It’s in a darker, more bloody style. Tannins are present, but ripe and fine. There’s an impression of sweet fruit, dried orange peel and warm clay.

 Domaine les Semelles de Vent (previously Montagne Vieille)

Yu Yen Galon, Domaine les Semelles de Vent

Yu Yen Galon, Domaine les Semelles de Vent

The change in name occurred in time for the 2012 vintage, so you will see both labels on the market. Vacqueyras Vieilles Vignes 2010 had a dusty, chalky nose, like warm earth on a hot day. Gigondas 2011 is soft, almost sweet, and smells of dark fruits and coffee, but I got no sense of real concentration. The Gigondas 2012 was by far the best of the three, with its ripe fruit intensity. Chocolate and rose petals are followed by black cherry.

Clos des Cazaux

Clos des Cazeaux

Clos des Cazaux

The Vacqueyras 2012 was made in a relatively simple but easy to enjoy style. The syrah vines (60% of blend) are 80 years old – so one could argue that there should be greater concentration – but it’s friendly and easy-going. Gigondas “La Tour Sarrasine” 2011 has the same relaxed style but far more depth. Red fruits with pepper and clove spice. Gigondas “Cuvée Prestige” 2012 is, unusually for a wine from that village, dominated by syrah (60%, plus 40% grenache). It doesn’t taste very traditional either. The vines are up in the hills and give the wine a cool, fresh, almost medicinal nose. Distinctive and really quite classy.

Domaine de la Colline St. Jean

Neither the Vacqueyras “Tradition” 2012 nor the Gigondas 2012 did it for me – both reminded me of fermenting apples.

Domaine la Garrigue

David Bernard, Domaine la Garrigue

David Bernard, Domaine la Garrigue

I think you get more for your money here lower down the range. Vacqueyras “Traditionelle” 2012 is soft, ripe, very tasty. Vacqueyras “Cuvée de l’Hostellerie” 2012 is riper still but the chewy tannins make it harder work. Leave it a year to help soften it. The Gigondas 2013 was lighter but had similarly mouth-drying tannins, which stood out even more due to the relative lack of stuffing. There was, however, a nice touch of violet running through the wine.

Domaine Montvac

Domaine Montvac

Domaine Montvac

Vacqueyras Cuvée Arabesque 2012 is ripe but blurred around the edges and lacks definition. I also find the raspberry fruit one-dimensional. Gigondas Cuvée Adage 2011 is starting to brown a bit at the rim, which surprised me given its relative youth. And it doesn’t hide its alcohol that well either.

Domaine l’Arche des Garances

Claude Pleindoux, L'Arche des Garances

Claude Pleindoux, L’Arche des Garances

Rhône Wine Tours faithful Claude Pleindoux was there, too. I know Claude’s wines well enough not to have had to taste them again, but I did sneak a taste of his delicious Muscat de Beaumes de Venise 2013 to finish off the day. Fresh, bright and floral on the nose, it’s sweet and rich on the palate (but not so much that it tastes cloying). If anything with so much sugar and 15% alcohol can be said to be refreshing, this is it. His regular, un-oaked Beaumes de Venise 2013 red would put many of the more famous Gigondas and Vacqueyras to shame, and I have to admit that I prefer it to the oaked version.

Summary

It has become relatively easy to find Vacqueyras and, especially, Gigondas in specialist wine merchants, even some supermarkets. If you don’t already know the wines but you like Côtes du Rhône and Châteauneuf-du-Pape then you should certainly give them a try – you should find a wine that’s a big step up from the one but without the price tag of the other. I find Beaumes-de-Venise reds harder to recommend – production is dominated by the local “Balma Venitia” co-operative that makes a range of resolutely dull wines. But there are some good and very good independent producers worth discovering – Claude Pleindoux’s L’Arche des Garances estate is still very young and doesn’t export as of yet, but Chateau Redortier’s wines are available in the UK and USA. I’d also suggest looking out for Domaine de Cassan (UK and, for some reason, Colorado-only according to wine-searcher) and Domaine de Fenouillet (USA only). Happy hunting.

Santé

Paul

Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours. The clue’s in the name. As well as the blog and the website – www.RhoneWineTours.com – there’s also a Facebook page where we post snaps and shorter comments. Though we say so ourselves, it’s a damn fine source of independent advice about Rhone wine and food. Apart from the bias towards our winemakers, of course.

 

 

Cornas Wine Fair

December 19th, 2014

December sees a little flurry of wine fairs as the producers gear up for the local Christmas and New Year trade, so a trip up to the Marché aux Vins in Cornas, where some half a dozen Rhône Wine Tours’ winemakers have vineyards, was always going to be on the cards.

First stop was Alain Verset. Alain is the most “traditional” of the Cornas winemakers I work with – there’s no de-stemming of the grapes; he uses open fermentation tanks and a basket press; ageing is in used (if not downright old) barrels and the wines are held for a few years before release to let the resulting naturally high tannins soften and mellow.

Alain Verset

Alain Verset

Alain was showing his Cornas 2012 for the first time. Frankly, I was surprised at how approachable it was, how tasty it is right now. Black cherry on the nose, bright and fruity, with flavours of bramble, black olive and grilled meat. Mid-weight and not at all aggressive, although the young tannnins are still a little dry on the finish. You could drink it now, but it would be worth waiting a year or two. His Cornas 2010, on the other hand, still needs plenty of time. Classic, old-school, strapping Cornas.

Next up was Xavier Gérard‘s stand, where Xavier was busy chatting with another RWT grower, Mika Bourg. Xavier doesn’t actually produce Cornas but had travelled down from Condrieu to show off his wines.

Xavier Gerard

Xavier Gérard

Xavier’s Viognier 2012 is perfect right now. This mini-Condrieu plays up viognier’s peach fruit with unusual clarity and poise. His vrai Condrieu 2012 goes less for fruit and more for the “terroir” – the wine is broader, richer, more mineral (almost volcanic).  Xavier said that he would be officially releasing the ’13 version at his local wine fair in the village of Chavanay the following weekend. But as I had a sneak preview a couple of months ago I can tell you that the Condrieu 2013 is a bigger animal again, with maturity pushed to the max. Lush, I think, is the right word.

Xavier’s St. Joseph “Le Blanchard” 2012 rouge is typical of a well-made wine from the northern sector of the appellation – the vineyard is in Chavanay – with peppery, bright raspberry and cherry fruit, whilst the Côte-Rôtie 2011 is really starting to get into its stride. The vineyards are further north again, but more sheltered, facing south rather than east. No surprise then that it has warmer fruit – damson and licorice – rounder tannins, greater depth. Like the St. Jo wrapped in a fur coat.

On to Matthieu Barret’s Domaine du Coulet. Matthieu is one of the leading younger producers in Cornas and a darling of the organic/biodynamic movement. Along with RWT growers Mika Bourg (that name again) and Johann Michel, Matthieu was recently chosen by the main French wine magazine, RVF, to represent the new guard of Cornas.

Matthieu Barret (right)

Matthieu Barret (right)

Petit Ours Brun 2013 is made “in partnership” with another producer. It’s labelled as a Côtes-du-Rhône but, I understand, comes from vines planted in Cornas. 100% syrah with no oak. A very pure style that really brings out syrah’s blackcurrant/floral fruit. I can drink this sort of wine any time. It’s crunchier, not quite as ripe as the last POB I tasted, the ’11, but the purity is there.

Cornas “Brise Cailloux” 2012 makes me think of Côte-Rôtie. Certainly it’s softness, almost gentleness, have very little in common with Cornas of old. Whether you think that’s a good thing or not is down to you, but there’s no doubting that the wine is expertly made.

Domaine Laurent and Dominique Courbis – The estate is celebrated for its Cornas and St. Joseph, so perversely I tasted the Crozes-Hermitage 2013, which I’m afraid did nothing for me at all. Slightly green and dank.

Onwards and upwards. Tasting with Mickaël (“Mika”) Bourg (that man again) was always going to be a treat. Mika had his St. Péray 2013 on show. (The village of St. Péray is just two miles south of Cornas, but whereas Cornas is only ever red, St. P is always white.) Pure marsanne, it smells of ripe pear and quince with finely judged oak. The wine has fantastic tension from the balance between richness, weight, minerality and acidity. Mika agreed when I suggested it was his best St. Péray yet. Pity I’m not such a fan of the new label, but hey, I’m not drinking that.

Mika Bourg

Mika Bourg

Mika’s Cornas 2012 is still very young. Unlike the ’11, which was open from the start, this is stricter, harder-edged, although the fruit on the nose and palate share the same dark fruit purity. Buy now while you can and put it aside for a couple of years.

Next was one of the grandees of Cornas, the Alain Voge estate. I still remember popping the cork on a bottle of his 1998 Vieilles Vignes at the end of a long day in my former life as a wine merchant. What a wine! The domaine is now run by Albéric Mazoyer.

Alberic Mazoyer, Domaine Alain Voge

Albéric Mazoyer, Domaine Alain Voge

Going up through the range, the Cornas “Les Chailles” 2012 has concentrated, slightly medicinal dark fruit. The palate is fresh, peppery, linear, direct. It’s as clean as a whistle and very classy. The Cornas Vieilles Vignes 2012 has the same feel but is a step up again in concentration and dark fruit ripeness. A lovely spicy edge. At 70€, the Vieilles Fontaines 2012 is at the top end of Cornas pricing, but is great wine by any standard. It’s deeply coloured, even for a Cornas, and mixes sloe and raspberry fruit with notes of Parma ham.

Louis Sozet wasn't there when I tasted, so here's a photo of his wine.

Louis Sozet wasn’t there when I tasted, so here’s a photo of his wine.

Louis Sozet is another old producer, but a new one on me. He makes just the one wine, but if the vintage I tasted is anything to go by he’s got that down to a fine art. His Cornas 2013 has a precise, bright nose, refinement and elegance. The kirsch-like aromas carry on to the palate. It isn’t big by any means, but it is delicious. The brightness of fruit makes me think of a great St. Joseph rather than old-school brawny Cornas, but that’s no criticism.

Escaping Cornas for a moment, I then tasted the viognier-based wines of François Corompt, who must be about the most publicity-shy grower I’ve ever met. I tasted his wines at the St. Péray wine fair and really liked them, so when I was in the village of Vérin, where François lives, I thought I would look him up. Sadly, his business card/price list doesn’t give a street number, or street name for that matter, but Vérin is very small and I assumed I would see a sign advertising the estate. Forget it! I couldn’t even find a letterbox with his name on it. I explained my difficulty to François, inviting him, or so I thought, to tell me exactly where I could find him. He agreed that he didn’t have a sign but didn’t elaborate, other than to say that he opens his doors less and less to customers (!) and that if I wanted to come to the estate I would need to telephone ahead (no e-mail, no website). Presumably if you call he will give you directions…

Francois Corompt

François Corompt

Anyway, I started with his Côtes-du-Rhône blanc sec 2013. It’s 100% viognier, from vines planted in Condrieu. But whereas the Condrieu itself is from vines on the mid-slope, the vines for the CdR are lower down. It’s made in a fine, almost delicate style, the flavours clear and fresh. The 2012 version is richer, weightier on the palate, but still has a gentle, unhurried air about it. I lean towards the ’12 and put my money where my mouth is by buying a few bottles.

François’ Condrieu 2012 is in the same gentle register, with no apparent oak presence at all, just a slightly old-fashioned (good!) interpretation of viognier from those hillsides. The Condrieu 2013 is more obviously fruity, with ripe pear and a touch of banana. It’s a bit more “zingy”, if one can ever say that of Condrieu. Although I like the ’12 very much, this time I prefer the ’13.

Remy Nodin's St. Peray - take your pick from the sparkling Extra Brut, "La Beylesse" and the "Vieilles Vignes". There is also a regular cuvee.

Rémy Nodin’s St. Péray – take your pick from the sparkling Extra Brut, “La Beylesse” and the “Vieilles Vignes”. There is also a regular cuvée.

Next was another young guy, Rémy Nodin. Let me declare an interest from the start – I’ve just started to work with Rémy. But that doesn’t stop his wines being great – just the opposite, I would hope. He didn’t have his Cornas at the fair (production is tiny), and I’d tasted everything else recently at the estate, but I did have a quick sip of his delicious, chalky St. Péray Extra Brut. Why anyone would spend more to buy a bottom of the range Champagne I can’t imagine.

Two generations of the Clape family. Pierre on the left and Olivier on the right.

Two generations of the Clape family. Pierre on the far left and Olivier on the right.

Back to Cornas. Domaine Auguste Clape is possibly the most famous of all Cornas producers, with a worldwide following, to the extent that you can’t buy wine at the estate (it’s already allocated) and, although they generously turned up and poured wine, you couldn’t buy any at the wine fair either. So I’ll try to explain why I didn’t like the Cornas 2012 more. The nose is ripe, the palate is rich, ripe and long. So from that perspective, it’s impressive. But I detected a whiff of nail varnish remover (interestingly, I later saw that RVF’s otherwise excellent review of the wine mentions acetate, but says that this disappears with breathing). For me, there was also a charcoal-like bitterness on the finish that I didn’t like.

The last stop of my day was at Johann Michel‘s stand. Johann, too, I work with. But believe me when I say that that has no influence over my view that he made the best Cornas I tasted that day.

Johann Michel

Johann Michel

His Cornas 2013 had only just been bottled, but there was no stopping the dark fruit nose that has touches of grilled meat and coffee about it. The palate is similarly dark with excellent richness. His top wine, Cornas “Cuvée Jana” 2013 was my red of the day (Voge’s Vieille Fontaines was very close). There’s great richness on the nose and palate, with red fruits mixing with mandarin (!) and tapenade. It’s fluid, silky, more flamboyant than the regular bottling, but with fantastic balance. And at 35€ at the cellar door, exactly half the price of the Voge, it has to be seen as a relative bargain.

So there’s my little round-up of what’s hot in Cornas. Dig out some at your local wine merchant (stockists/importers are listed below) and then rustle up a hearty, wintry meal to enjoy your wine at its best. And if you’d like to know more about Cornas, here’s a link to my blog about the wine region itself – http://blog.rhonewinetours.com/?p=1593

Santé

Paul

Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours. We may be the unofficial cheerleader for Cornas, but we’re also partial to the rest of the Rhône too, so feel free to browse the blog for other subjects.

If you’d like to see Cornas for yourself (or any other Rhône wine regions, for that matter), just get in touch through info@rhonewinetours.com or have a look at our website, www.RhoneWineTours.com

UK and USA stockists and importers

In the US, you may have to contact the importer to find out your nearest retail supplier. You could also try www.wine-searcher.com

Alain Verset – Not available in the USA, I believe, but you can buy his wine in the UK through the Wine Society and Berry Bros. & Rudd;
Xavier Gérard – UK, Cambridge Wine Merchants; USA, Rosenthal Wine Merchant;
Matthieu Barret/Domaine du Coulet – UK, Dynamic Vines and Oxford Wine Company; USA, Jeff Welburn Selections (their website lists local distributors);
Mickaël Bourg – Wine MC² in New York, not available in the UK;
Alain Voge – Berry Bros. or Goedhuis in the UK; in the USA,  Worldwide Cellars and K&L Wine Merchants are listing Voge;
Louis Sozet – The Winery in London carries his wine;
François Corompt – Cellar door only (if you can find it);
Rémy Nodin – Jeff Morgenthal at Gran Fondo Wine Co in California;
Auguste Clape – Yapp Bros. in the UK, Kermit Lynch in the USA;
Johann Michel – Flint Wines in the UK; Kysela Pere et Fils in the USA (despite the French-sounding name) .

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Châteauneuf-du-Pape – Pick of the Year

December 9th, 2014

If there’s one name in Rhône wine that immediately strikes a chord with the public it’s Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Other wines from the region may be more expensive, but it’s Châteauneuf that the visitors most want to see.

High Street, Chateaueuf-du-Pape

High Street, Châteauneuf-du-Pape. On a busy day.

I’m in the fortunate position of working with four excellent estates in Châteauneuf-du-Pape – in alphabetical order, Domaine Galévan, Domaine de la Janasse, Domaine Roger Sabon and Domaine de Saint Siffrein. Janasse and Sabon are the most famous – if you look at Wine Spectator’s list of the best CdP’s, they’re always there – but I’m happy to say that all “my” estates make great wine. (After all, why else would I want to work with them?)

I also taste wines from lots of other producers. And that’s how I know that, sadly, not every bottle with a Châteauneuf-du-Pape label is worthy of the name or its price. In too many cases, you would be better off spending less and buying a top quality Côtes-du-Rhône. But when it’s good, there’s not much that can compare with a CdP, so here’s my pick of what I tasted this year.

Let’s start with the producers I work with. Here are my selections from their ranges:

Domaine Galévan – the white Côtes du Rhône 2013 and red Côtes du Rhône Villages 2011 are amazing value for money, but the two red CdPs and the one white are exceptional.

Coralie Goumarre in the doorway of her cellar at Domaine Galevan.

Coralie Goumarre in the doorway of her cellar at Domaine Galévan.

The Tradition 2012 is dark, inky, rich and voluptuous. Delicious pure fruit. The first time I tasted the Saint-George 2011 my tasting note said “bloody lovely” (excuse my French). 100% old-vine grenache, it has richness, complexity, waves of flavour. The Blanc 2013 has already sold out, but believe me it was fantastic. Hardly traditional – it tastes like a southern Meursault – but great nonetheless.

Just a small part of the Janasse range.

Just a small part of the Janasse range.

Domaine de la Janasse – My vote, if I had the money, would go to the Vieilles Vignes 2012. Deep, dark and dense but lifted by its freshness. Despite its power, it’s remarkably elegant. As I don’t have the money, I buy the Côtes du Rhône Villages Terres d’Argile 2012. It has 25% carignan in the blend (which is always a good thing in my book), beats many a CdP and costs me 15€.

In the cellar with Gibert Sabon

In the cellar with Gilbert Sabon

Domaine Roger Sabon – The fact that this estate is world-famous doesn’t mean the prices are ridiculous – you can buy a bottle of the Olivets CdP for less than 20€ at the cellar door. The cuvée Prestige 2011 and 2012 are twice the price, but for the depth and concentration you get that can hardly be begrudged. But my money goes on the Cuvée Réserve. It falls between the other two in price, but has much of the Prestige’s class. Sweet red fruits, a bit of spice and a lithe, supple palate. (And they make a very good Lirac, too.)

Domaine de Saint Siffrein – my longest standing CdP partner. Saint Siffrein makes one of the best white CdPs I know and two red CdPs that are quite different in style.

Cyril and Patricia Chastan who lead the Siffrein estate.

Cyril and Patricia Chastan who lead the Siffrein estate.

Because of small harvests in 2012 and ’13, the latest vintage of white is the Blanc 2011 (although I’m told that there will be a ’14). It’s a lovely wine that’s still going strong (and, judging from a 2006 I tasted this year, is likely to have plenty of life in it). More traditional than Galévan’s white, it has the subtle fruit and creaminess of grenache blanc.

The red Tradition 2011 got great reviews in the French and English wine press – it’s a soft, up-front wine that you can happily drink now – but I reckon the 2012 is going to be even better. It has more structure and brighter fruit. Wine Advocate called it an “outstanding Provençal effort”.

Terre d’Abel 2009 is the estate’s special cuvée. Its high mourvedre content makes it far more meaty, far more tannic and gives it darker fruit. It also gets slightly high scores from the critics, but I have to admit to a preference for the cheaper, more classic Tradition.

Now for the other estates. I’d be very happy indeed drinking wines from any of them. Again, they’re listed alphabetically:

Domaine du Banneret – The estate only has 3ha (about 7½ acres) of vines and make just 10,000 bottles of a single cuvée, but boy is it good. Whole bunches are used during the fermentation, so stems and all go into the tank.

Tasting Domaine du Banneret's wine in Chateauneuf-du-Pape

Tasting Domaine du Banneret’s wine in Châteauneuf-du-Pape

The Banneret 2011 has an old-fashioned feel (in the best possible sense) with sweet, strawberry-ish grenache fruit. The 2010 is sleeker, more structured, with plenty of spice.

Domaine de la Biscarelle – I tasted two different CdPs here – the Classique 2011 and Les Anglaises 2011. It’s the Anglaises which has really been grabbing the critics’ attention, but the Classique is delicious too.

Christelle and Jerome Grieco, Domaine de la Biscarelle

Christelle and Jérôme Grieco, Domaine de la Biscarelle

Classique 2011 – Aromas of ripe fruit, dark cherry and animal fur (warm dog). Lovely texture – starts off round, soft and then the tannins start to kick in. On the palate there’s raspberry, mulberry and black olive.

Les Anglaises 2011 is in a similar mould but with the volume turned up. More red fruits on the nose. Still young and needs a bit more time.

Château La Nerthe – Very highly rated in France. The 2011 is made in a big, ripe style, mixing plum, clove, pepper and licorice. A real crowd-pleaser.

La Nerthe

La Nerthe

The 2013 white is also going to be good. Stony, mineral, weighty. Broad and long, rather than fat.

Domaine du Pegau – Like Banneret, Pegau likes to use whole bunch fermentation. They also like big old barrels (“foudres”) for ageing. The results can be funky, dare I say a little rustic, but with bags of personality and appeal. Unfortunately I wasn’t taking notes when I tasted the Cuvée Réservée and the Cuvée Laurence in July. So now I can’t even tell you which vintages I tasted. But it’s enough to say that the Réservée must be one of the best value buys in CdP (around 30€ at the cellar door) and the Laurence (about twice the price) is simply great wine.

Domaine Pierre Usseglio – Frankly, the Cuvée Traditionalle 2011 isn’t my favourite vintage of PU, but still it’s very good. Plummy and rich, maybe just a bit too “porty” for my taste. But like the La Nerthe, a crowd-pleaser.

Pierre Usseglio

Pierre Usseglio, white on the left, red on the right

Domaine Vieux Télégraphe – One of the most celebrated names in CdP. The La Crau 2011 didn’t get a great rating when Decanter magazine reviewed 100+ CdP’s from the 2011 vintage, but what does it know? Sweet, ripe fruit but with structure and finesse. Ignoring the producers I work with (I wouldn’t want to spoil a beautiful friendship), the best, classiest CdP I tasted all year. A brilliant balancing act.

The slightly cheaper (or should that be less expensive?) Piedlong 2011 doesn’t hit the same heights, but still it’s excellent, punchy and full of fruit.

The Vieux Télégraphe white 2012 was also a delicious, subtle glass.

The stony vineyard soils of Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

The stony vineyard soils of Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

You may be asking where’s Château de Beaucastel in this line up. Well I tasted the 2011 twice this year, once in April and again in July, and despite excellent reviews elsewhere I just can’t get excited by it. In April it was tasted straight after the Banneret wines and, I thought, simply didn’t match up. My tasting note from the day describes it as being a “so what?” wine. In July, it had the misfortune to be tasted on the same day as the Vieux Télégraphe. For me, there’s no contest.

The almost-as-famous Clos des Papes also disappointed. Not that the wine was bad, not by any means, it just didn’t strike me as great. Rich and powerful, certainly, but when I tasted it at the estate I thought the wine lacked freshness (I wonder how long the bottle had been open?).

Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator love both wines, so feel free to ignore me.

Tasting room in the village.

Tasting room in the village.

Every one of the producers listed exports their wine. So if you want to get hold of a bottle or two check out the internet for your nearest supplier – www.wine-searcher.com isn’t a bad place to start. Happy hunting and even happier drinking.

Santé

Paul

Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours. We don’t drink Châteauneuf-du-Pape every day, so when we do it had  better be good. There’s plenty to more to read on the blog, so browse away. There are also more photos and short pieces on the Facebook page. Last but not least – we have to earn a crust, you know – there’s also the website, full of suggestions for wine tours and tastings in the Rhône valley.