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Up North – Part 2

Sunday, September 2nd, 2012

Previously on Up North: when we last met our intrepid travelers – click here if you missed Part 1 – they had enjoyed lunch in Tournon and were heading south, which is where we join them…

Johann Michel outside his cave

(Note: like most of the photos, this was taken in winter. Nobody would be mad enough to wear a scarf and jacket in a Rhône summer.)

The first stop of the afternoon was at Johann Michel’s estate outside the large village/small town of St. Péray. Johann has recently got himself a UK importer – Flint Wines – although he doesn’t seem to appear on their website yet, and has been available in America for a while through Kysela.

Johann only makes four wines, and even then not all of them are available year round. Only 2,000 bottles of the white St. Péray are made each year and it’s so rare we’ve never before managed to be in the same place at the same time. The blend is 50:50 marsanne and roussanne and, at 11€ at the estate door, it’s an absolute steal. The aromas of white flowers and honey lead onto a dry palate with lemon curd and brioche flavours.

We then went onto the red wines from his Cornas vineyards (Cornas and St. Péray are a matter of minutes apart), but not just tasting from the bottle. First Johann wanted us to taste from the barrels that contain the constituent parts that will eventually be blended to form the “Tradition” 2011, and then the same with the flagship Cuvée Jana. It was fascinating to taste and compare the wines at this stage in their development.

In the cave at Domaine Johann Michel

The first barrel sample was “Pied des Coteaux”. This wine was made with grapes harvested from flatter vineyards at the bottom of the slopes. It felt closed up, a bit compressed, but was relatively supple with fruits of the forest flavours.

Cornas vineyards on a grey September day - a gentle incline followed by full slopes

The 2011 Coteaux (hillside) wine that was resting in a 2 year old barrel was more deeply coloured, denser, with higher (but ripe) tannins. The same Coteaux wine that had been stored in a 5 year old barrel was, my notes tell me, simply “lovely”. Both were more than good, but there was a noticeable difference and that came solely from the age of the barrel.

At that, my ability to keep up with Johann disappeared. I know we tasted the flagship “Cuvée Jana” 2011 from barrel, and I seem to remember thinking it was a bit stricter than the Tradition, but I have no notes to confirm that.

Then onto the bottles – the 2010 Tradition is made from 100% syrah,  60% of the blend came from the hillside “coteaux” vineyards, the remaining 40% from “pied des coteaux”. Powerful and full, with a strong black fruit element and a tight core. Give it a few years.

The Cuvée Jana is 100% hillside fruit using whole bunches, so stems and all go into the fermentation tanks. The fruit is even richer but there is a more tannic backbone. This needs even more time. At the moment, there is the same dark fruit as the Tradition but with added flavours of macerated cherry, dark chocolate, a bit of black olive. What’s nice about it (among many other things) is that it still has a lick of cleansing acidity to lift the flavours.

Finally, when we thought there could be no more to taste, onto the Tradition 2007 which is coming into its own now, mellowing and softening, with cherry-like fruit.

What a great tasting with a warm, welcoming man who was as generous with his time as his wine.

The hill of Hermitage as seen from Tournon. The town of Tain sits at the foot of the hill.

Finally, across the river to La Roche de Glun, just south of Tain and the hill of Hermitage, at the southern end of the Crozes-Hermitage appellation. Christelle Betton was up to her eyes (almost literally) sorting Domaine Betton’s apricot harvest when we arrived so it was good of her to be so generous with her time – the “good half hour” she said she could spare became nearer 1½ hours.

Betton Père et Fille

Christelle filled us in on the estate’s history (they have been bottling independently for less than ten years) and poured the white “Cristel” Crozes-Hermitage 2011. This is essentially pure marsanne, although as unproductive vines are replaced roussanne is being planted, which will add another aromatic dimension to an already very tasty wine. Freshly opened its flavours revolve around ripe orchard fruit, but with a bit of air it becomes more exotic: a bottle opened at home developed subtle aromas of rose petals and dried orange.

Only two barrels (600 bottles) are made each year from the estate’s tiny holding on the hill at Hermitage (L’Homme vineyard). The 2010 white is dense and powerful, the firmest white of the day, with a sneaking feeling of tannins lurking in the background. This is not an opulent wine in the manner of a Condrieu viognier from a little further north, but it is intense, feeling like there is a solid core of muscle. The flavours lean towards stone fruit with a touch of tilleul, citrus and honey, although the wine is bone dry. Not a wine to be sipped as an aperitif, but to be enjoyed with food – think white meats, seafood possibly, in creamy sauces. At 30ish€ it isn’t cheap, but it is a bargain. You taste this and realise that so many wines are hollow and vapid in comparison. Christelle admitted that she spent the first few vintages changing the working methods each year to discover what worked best with the particular terroir – nice to see an enquiring mind – but it seems to me that with the 2010 she has hit on the right recipe.

Espiègle. Thanks to the Bettons for this photo.

Then the two cuvées of red, Espiègle and Caprice. Espiègle 2010 Crozes-Hermitage is from younger vines and is unashamedly about the fruit. It is uncomplicated and delicious. It put a smile on my face just tasting it. Drink it cool.

Caprice is the fuller-bodied, richer product of older vines. The fruit flavours are darker (more cassis) but the wine still has a certain freshness and digestibility. It isn’t, thankfully, another one of those soft, vaguely soupy Crozes. It is undoubtedly the more “impressive” of the reds and naturally a little more expensive (still only 13€) and I can fully understand why anyone might go for it in preference. I bought the Espiègle, because a wine that can make you smile has to be a good thing.

For reasons I can’t explain, Christelle hasn’t got an importer in either the UK or America. If you’d like to taste the wines, therefore, you will have to come to the Rhône or pester your local wine merchant/shipper to buy some of Domaine Betton’s wine.

With the tasting finished we left Christelle to her apricots and headed back to Lyon. With a car full of wine, naturally.

Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours, where we ramble on about food and wine and the food and wine of the Rhône in particular. If you would like to read more about both, there’s plenty more information on our website – www.RhoneWineTours.com. You can even book tours and wine tastings there, and maybe help us make a bit of money. If you have any comments, or any suggestions for future blogs, please get in touch. I read everything that gets sent, even if only to laugh at how bad the spam is.