Archive for the ‘Wine in general’ Category

Shooting Stars

Friday, 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.

Hybrid Power

Sunday, 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.

Crozes’ Feat

Thursday, 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

Wednesday, 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.

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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

Châteauneuf-du-Pape – Pick of the Year

Tuesday, 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.

 

 

Points Mean Prizes

Saturday, November 29th, 2014

We all want to drink great wine. And marking wine out of 100 (or 20, or whatever) certainly makes it easy for consumers to find the “best”. But should we be judging wine in that way and does the pursuit of high-scoring wines mean that we’re missing out on wines that are enjoyable, fun, delicious even?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m delighted when Rhône Wine Tours’ producers get good scores – if nothing else, it helps them sell their wines – but that doesn’t stop me having issues with the system. First off, who says what makes a wine good? A deep colour and massive concentration will earn your red a bucketful of points and yet one of my favourite wines of the last year has been Alain Verset’s Cornas 2008, a lighter wine from a “difficult” vintage that never was opaque purple and is now fading gracefully towards brick red. It does, however, have the advantage of smelling like the contents of a spice rack. (The last time I drank it was alongside an octopus stew flavoured with tomato, orange zest, chilli and fennel. That red with that meal sounds an awful combination. It was fantastic.)

Alain Verset with his Cornas in hand.

Alain Verset with his Cornas in hand.

And “best”? Best for what? Señor X’s Mendoza malbec may be worthy of 95/100 if you believe the critics, but it’s going to swamp a selection of charcuterie chosen for a summer lunch. On the other hand, a leafy cabernet franc from the Loire valley or even Señor X’s bonarda might just be perfect. But the malbec has the higher score, it must be better! So everyone sips the impressive, full-bodied (15%!) malbec vaguely aware that solid food is passing their lips but not really able to taste it. Except to notice that it really doesn’t go with that lemony young goats cheese from the farmers’ market.

Secondly, even if we do all agree what makes a great wine, I simply don’t believe that it’s possible to give a wine a definitive score. Wines change, or at least our reaction to them changes, sometimes from one week to the next. One time a wine can seem headily aromatic, full of fruit, the next, more reserved, less expressive. It may be the surroundings, it may be the weather, it may just be our mood. Whatever the reason, the wine tastes different, yet the score – the result of a single tasting – is set in stone.

Thirdly – sadly, the list goes on – are critics’ tastebuds so highly attuned that they can say that wine X is clearly worthy of 93/100 rather than 94 or 92? (And it takes just a moment on google to see that not all reviewers give the same score to the same wine.) More importantly, as drinkers can we tell the difference? I think the short answer is no. Of course the critics, and most wine lovers, can tell the difference between dud and delicious, and hopefully many stages inbetween. But a 1% difference? We’re not marking a maths paper here where there’s a right and a wrong answer, we’re talking about a subjective opinion on somebody’s hard work.

Problem 4. The points system distorts the market. If a wine gets 90/100 it’s home and dry. A 90-point wine can be easily advertised, easily sold. A wine scoring 89 – and remember what I said about our ability to taste a 1 point difference – sits pathetically on the shelf. So lazy wine merchants gravitate towards selling 90+ wines. That, admittedly, is a problem with merchants who use headline scores as a means of marketing rather than a problem with the concept of scoring wine, but the result is reduced choice for the buyer.  (Of course for the poor, overworked merchant it is so much easier than getting to know their customers, finding out their likes and dislikes and selling them a wine that night actually might suit them.)

5. Distorting the market is one thing, but wines themselves have changed to cater to certain influential critics’ tastes. (Remember winemakers, a higher score makes a wine easier to sell. And at a higher price!) Not all wines are effected, by any means, but there has been a trend, perhaps most noticeable in Bordeaux and Napa, to make red wines “bigger”, as if size was commensurate with quality. Rich, plump fruit, BIG tannins, deep, dark colours and lashings of new oak have rarely resulted in lower scores. And where does that leave Burgundy, which majors on elegance and finesse (or at least it should do), or Beaujolais, which should be a riot of juicy, thirst-quenching fruit?

By all means buy high-scoring wines if your pocket can stretch to it. They’ll almost certainly be good, and hopefully to your taste (not always a given). But be adventurous with your wine buying, discover for yourself what you like, and remember that there are great wines with personality that don’t cost the earth.

Here’s a selection of some of my favourite everyday Rhône reds that all cost around 7€ at the cellar door. Even the winemakers themselves wouldn’t describe them as their best wines – they’re certainly not their most complex, age-worthy or serious – but they are all (in my opinion) delicious. These wines have all the personality you could wish for, but I suspect none would hit 90. And just in case, importer details are listed below.

Gabouillon 2012

Gabouillon 2012

Domaine de Gouye, “Gabouillon” 2012 – 100% unoaked syrah from a producer based in St. Joseph. The Gabouillon vineyard is up above the appellation, on the cooler plateau. Cooler means less alcohol – just 11.5%. But if you think that means weedy you’ve got another think coming. This is the essence of northern Rhône syrah – like blackcurrant leaf mixed with crushed black pepper.

La Cote. In this case the 2011.

La Côte. In this case the 2011.

Domaine Lombard, “La Côte” 2012 – another northern wine. The syrah plus a splash of viognier recipe is well-known in Côte-Rôtie, but those wines are 4-5 (and more) times the price. Pure pleasure in a glass. It doesn’t just slip down, it glides. Blackcurrant meets farmyard in the most agreeable fashion.

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Ze Pépé Red Ouaïne 2013

Domaine la Péquélette, “Ze Pépé Red Ouaïne” 2013 – Cédric Guillaume-Corbin makes serious, classic reds in the appellation of Vinsobres. This isn’t one of them. 100% caladoc (a grenache/malbec crossing) that bursts with juicy loganberry fruit. Served cool, it is the nearest thing the estate makes to a rosé. Except it’s red.

Vin de Copains 2013

Vin de Copains 2013

Domaine de Wilfried, ” Vin de Copains” 2013 – each year, Rasteau-based Wilfried and Réjane Pouzoulas select their fruitiest, most gluggable vat of wine and bottle it separately. In 2012, this “Mates Wine” was 100% carignan, the 2013 vintage is pure grenache. A lovely translucent ruby colour and the taste of fresh red summer berries.

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Le Guilleret 2013

Aurélien Chatagnier, “Le Guilleret” 2013 – back up north. Aurélien can do grand – he makes Côte-Rôtie and Condrieu, after all – but this lovely little number is from a tiny plot of gamay outside any appellation. Red cherry fruit offset by a touch of thirst-quenching acidity makes it a wine you keep coming back to for just one more glass.

You can drink any of these wines as they are, with no need for food, but they’ll all sit happily alongside a plate of sausages, a roast chicken, pasta with puttanesca – and that plate of summer charcuterie.

Santé

Paul

Where to find the wines in the UK or USA:

Domaine de Gouye – Sadly, you won’t. You’ll have to come to the Rhône.
Domaine Lombard – In the UK, Yapp Bros., who certainly deliver, and who have in fact just announced that they are selling La Côte 2012 for £10. In the USA, Lombard’s importers are Paul M Young Fine Wines in LA and Cellar to Table in NY. They should be able to point you in the direction of a local(ish) retailer.
Domaine La Péquélette – UK-wise, Vine Trail, based in Bristol but they deliver. As far as I’m aware, they only have Cédric’s “posher” wines. In the USA, the same may be true of Vin de Garde in Portland, Oregon.
Domaine de Wilfried – Nothing doing I’m afraid (but you can get the estate’s wine in Paris, Belgium and Denmark if that’s any help).
Aurélien Chatagnier – British readers can try Genesis Wines, Americans get in touch with Paris Wine Company or Fruit of the Vines

Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours. We love high-scoring wines – some of our best friends make them – but delicious comes first. If you’d like to know more about the region’s wine, feel free to browse the blog and take a look at our website – www.rhonewinetours.com. There’s also a Facebook page with lots of short pieces and photos.

 

Seyssuel, C’est Swell

Thursday, October 23rd, 2014

Very few people know about the wines of Seyssuel. I suspect even fewer have tasted them. But this small wine region has a history as long as any other in the Rhône valley and the potential to rival its neighbour Côte-Rôtie.

Looking out over the vineyards of Seyssuel with the Rhone flowing past.

Looking out over the vineyards of Seyssuel with the Rhone flowing past. This vineyard belongs to the Cuilleron, Gaillard and Villard “Vins de Vienne” team.

The Seyssuel vineyards face south and southwest looking out over the river on a steep hillside just north of the town of Vienne. Traffic on the Paris-Marseille autoroute roars by at the foot of the slope. Côte-Rôtie and Condrieu lie a little to the south on the opposite bank.

Vienne was an important town in Roman Gaul (you can still see the remains of their occupation today, 2,000 years later) and according to Pliny the Elder the Romans enjoyed the local wines – apparently, there were three types of Seyssuel called Sotanum, Taburnum and Heluicum. And despite the odd hiccough –  in the harsh winter of 1563 the vines were ripped up by fighting soldiers to use as fuel – winemaking carried on in Seyssuel for the next 1,800 years. In the mid-19th century there were some 100ha (250 acres) of hillside vineyards. Then, in 1883, the phylloxera aphid arrived and within a few short years the vineyards were decimated. Although there was replanting, the First World War and the industrialisation of Vienne brought their own problems, causing a shortage of the manpower vital for working such steep slopes. It was all too much to bear – the vineyards were all but abandoned. Anybody who could still be bothered to grow grapes did so on the plateau above the river where the vineyard work was so much easier. The fact that the plateau growers chose to make bulk wine from poor-quality hybrid vines didn’t matter – the wine was destined only for the workers in the nearby factories. But in time even these vineyards disappeared as growers were encouraged to pull up hybrids and French drinking patterns changed.

Chapoutier's vineyard on the hillside above the village of Chasse-sur-Rhone. Taken on a cool, grey October day as the light was fading.

Chapoutier’s vineyard on the hillside above the village of Chasse-sur-Rhône. Taken on a cool, grey October day as the light was fading.

Skip forward to the 1990s. Three celebrated northern Rhône winemakers, Yves Cuilleron, Pierre Gaillard and François Villard, decided that the time had come to resurrect the overgrown vineyards that they would pass regularly on the drive north to Lyon. A first inspection of the site in 1995 was followed by clearing of trees and scrub and the first vines were planted in ’96. The trio were soon joined by others – Condrieu grower Louis Chèze; Alain Paret , who produces St. Joseph and Condrieu; Pierre-Jean Villa, who has vineyards in St. Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie; and more besides. Christophe Billon, who is part of the Rhône Wine Tours stable, is a member of Seyssuel winemakers’ association Vitis Vienna (although he says that his vineyard is in Vienne itself not Seyssuel), as is the famous house of Chapoutier, which has planted vines around 2 kilometres north of Seyssuel, above the village of Chasse-sur-Rhône. In the space of 20 years, Seyssuel’s vineyards have recovered from nothing to over 30ha (75 acres) farmed by 13 estates. I went to meet Vitis Vienna member Domaine Les Serines d’Or to find out more.

Damien Robelet (left) and Jerome Ogier in the fermentation cellar of Domaine Serines d'Or.

Damien Robelet (left) and Jérôme Ogier in the fermentation cellar of Domaine Les Serines d’Or.

Damien Robelet and Jérôme Ogier started the Les Serines d’Or estate in 2001, planting their first vines in 2002 and harvesting their first vintage in 2004. Unlike many of the Vitis Vienna members, they concentrate on Seyssuel, albeit with a tiny holding of just over 3 ha (around 8 acres). But like the other Seyssuel growers, they grow syrah for their two red cuvées, Les Serines d’Or (serine is the old local name for syrah) and EncOr, and viognier for their white Jad’Or. They’ve also taken over a small plot of 60 year old merlot – a grape rarely grown in the Rhône valley – situated near the small town of Roussillon, south of Vienne. Although the estate is small, it’s already had recognition – La Revue du Vin de France, the main French wine magazine, has given them very good reviews and they won gold for the best Seyssuel wine with their 2011 Serines d’Or, beating the celebrated Yves Cuilleron into second place in the process. (You can read more about the estate – in French only, I’m afraid – on the estate’s website by clicking here. You can also read my tasting notes on their wines from my recent blog on the St. Péray wine fair by clicking on the link here.)

Les Serines d'Or line-up. The rocks show the make up of the vineyard soils, while the certificate at the bottom was awarded to Encore 2011 by the Un Vin Presque Parfait  ("An Almost Perfect Wine") Wine Guide 2014.

Les Serines d’Or line-up. The rocks show the make up of the vineyard soils, while the certificate you can just see at the bottom was awarded to Encore 2011 by the Un Vin Presque Parfait (“An Almost Perfect Wine”) Wine Guide 2014.

Both their  families made wine in the past – various parents and grandparents made wine on the plateau and even kept a tiny plot of hillside vines to boost the strength of the more feeble plateau product. Now Jérôme’s main business is fruit and fruit products (including a range of fruit flavoured eaux-de-vie – follow this link for more information) but there is a workman-like fermentation cellar attached to his house as well as a cunningly hidden barrel-ageing cellar underneath, which was where we tasted the maturing reds.

We all know that ageing wine in oak barrels affects the flavour of the finished product. But did you know how great an impact even the source of the barrel can have? With Damien and Jérôme, I tasted 7 or 8 samples of 2013 syrah lifted straight from barrels made by different coopers. While the source of wine inside was the same, one barrel gave the syrah rich plum and chocolate fruit, another aromas of blueberry, yet others bright red berry fruit flavours. My favourite wine, which came from a barrel called “Seduction” made by Tonnellerie Vernou in the Cognac region, was sleek, well-defined, graceful. But Damien and Jérôme’s skill is in blending these different elements to give the wine its final balance. A bottle of the Les Serines d’Or 2010 drunk that evening with friends proved how good they are at that – black cherry and blackcurrant were supported by (but not dominated by) toasty oak, the tannins had begun to soften and the wine had great length. (In passing, I should say that the merlot was very tasty too, direct from the barrel – as much about Rhône terroir as grape variety.) 

Damien at the St. Peray wine fair.

Damien at the St. Peray wine fair.

And what about the Côte-Rôtie comparisons? They are perhaps inevitable given Seyssuel’s close proximity and their shared use of syrah (and viognier, for that matter). Not only that, the two regions share the same mica-schist soils. Facing south-southeast, Côte-Rôtie catches the morning sun while Seyssuel, on the other bank of the Rhône, enjoys a warmer end to the day. (In its sheltered position with its warm micro-climate, ripeness is rarely a problem. Indeed, Barbary figs, which normally appear much further south, also grow here.) In short, when you taste the wines there is a clear family resemblance. But I would go further and argue that wines like Les Serines d’Or or Yves Cuilleron’s Ripa Sinistra shame many C-R’s. And it’s worth noting that Damien and Jérôme’s Jad’Or viognier trumps many a Condrieu.

This is Côte-Rôtie, snapped on a grey day in Spring. Notice how the vines are grown up crossed poles, as in Seyssuel. Other than the lack of foliage, the scene is similar to the one above.

This is Cote-Rotie, snapped on a grey day in Spring. Notice how the vines are grown up crossed poles, as in Seyssuel. Other than the lack of foliage, the scene is very similar to the one above.

So what are the downsides? Well, even the oldest vineyard in Seyssuel hasn’t yet hit 20, so some of the wines can lack a bit of old vine stuffing (although you could equally argue that this shows how great the potential is once the vines are older, given the quality that’s already being achieved). And, if you’re worried about such things, Seyssuel wines don’t have an Appellation Contrôlée label. Because the vineyards didn’t exist when the appellations were being handed out, they are classified as Vin de Pays (or IGP) wines under catch-all Collines Rhodaniennes heading, which can cause problems for the winemakers, especially in their home market.

Christophe Billon's "La Batie" sitting alongside his Condrieu and Cote-Rotie.

Christophe Billon’s “La Bâtie” sitting alongside his Condrieu and Côte-Rôtie.

Like Côte-Rôtie, like Condrieu or Hermitage for that matter, Seyssuel is a hillside vineyard region where mechanisation is all but impossible, meaning labour costs are high. In addition, the Vitis Vienna members have made a conscious decision to go all out for quality, working with very low yields and expensive, high-quality oak. All these things push up the price of the wine. Serines d’Or is priced in the mid-20€ bracket and EncOr around 17€; when I was a wine merchant in London selling Ripa Sinistra it was around £35 a bottle, and that was several years ago. However, much of the French public won’t even consider paying those sorts of prices for something  classified as a “country wine”. The winemakers are struggling to get out of this hole and have collectively submitted a dossier requesting appellation status, initially as a part of the Côtes du Rhône family (thus turning the most expensive Vin de Pays into the most expensive CdR – marketing-wise, not great progress in my opinion), with the intention of being granted “Cru” status, like its neighbours, in the long term. Damien suggested that a Rhône satellite appellation – like that given to the Ventoux region – might be the solution. A response to the submission should come before the year end, according to press reports.

I imagine that English-speaking countries care much less about the niceties of appellation status and are more concerned with quality, but that forces small-scale winemakers like Damien and Jérôme into exploring the export market. I certainly wish them all the best as their wines deserve a wider audience.

Santé

Paul

Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours. If you’d like to go and see what makes Seyssuel special, get in touch and we can see if Damien and Jérôme are free. They would especially like to meet you if you are a wine importer with a love of fantastic syrah from obscure Rhône wine regions. In the meantime, you can explore the rest of the blogs and check out our Facebook page where most of our photos and short pieces get posted.

We Do More Than Tours

Thursday, July 24th, 2014

Rhône Wine Tours has had a fantastic year so far, and the bookings just keep rolling in (which is why this is my first blog in a long time). But one nagging question remains: why don’t more people want wine tastings?

Preparing for a tasting.

Preparing for a tasting.

I can easily understand that most people contacting us want to visit the vineyards and meet the winemakers that produce the famous wines that they’ve drunk at home. I’d want to do that, too. But while the wine tastings can’t hope to offer the same experience, they have one distinct advantage: when you’re touring you’re restricted to visiting either the northern or the southern vineyards because the distances mean it’s too difficult to do both in one day. But with a wine tasting we can flit about as much as we like, meaning that a white Crozes-Hermitage can be followed by a white Châteauneuf-du-Pape and a hearty Gigondas can sit happily alongside a tannic Cornas.

Left to Right: The fizz has been opened and there are nine wines left, including whites from Rasteau, St. Peray and Brezeme and reds from Crozes-Hermitage, Cornas, Cairanne and Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Not to mention a bit of sweet Beaumes-de-Venise.

Same venue, different tasting. From right to left: The fizz has been opened and there are nine wines left, with whites from Rasteau, St. Peray and Brezeme and reds from Crozes-Hermitage, Cornas, Cairanne, Ste. Cecile-les-Vignes and Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Not to mention a bit of sweet Beaumes-de-Venise.

In many ways you learn more than you do from touring. That said, the aim isn’t to present a lecture; it’s all about tasting great wines from the Rhône in a relaxed atmosphere and if a bit of info sinks in at the same time, well that’s great. There’s a tasting for everyone, from the enthusiastic wine drinker who knows simply that they like Côtes-du-Rhône all the way through to those of you who know the name of every vineyard in Hermitage.

There is another advantage that tastings have, and one not to be sniffed at – price. The starting price for a tour for two people is 240€, whereas we offer tastings for up to ten people from 120€. That’s as little as 12€ per head for a tasting that could include say Châteauneuf, Gigondas and St. Joseph as well as great Côtes-du-Rhône and CdR Villages. And if you want to taste only the most exclusive wines (although not at 120€, sadly) well we can lay on a tasting of Côte-Rôtie, Hermitage and Châteauneuf  (or just about anything else you fancy) that will please the most demanding of palates. One recent tasting of northern Rhone wines included a comparison of two Condrieu, red and white St. Joseph, red and white Hermitage, Côte-Rôtie, Cornas, Crozes-Hermitage and St. Péray. Not a bad little line-up.

The theme this time was wines from the Drome. Starting from the left: Clairette-de-Die, Coteaux des Baronnies, Brezeme, Coteaux des Baronnies, two Crozes-Hermitage, Brezeme, two Vinsobres. The interloper, a sweet red Rasteau, was served with Valrhone chocolate, also from the Drome.

The theme this time was wines from the Drome. Starting from the left: Clairette-de-Die, Coteaux des Baronnies, Brezeme, Coteaux des Baronnies, two Crozes-Hermitage, Brezeme, two Vinsobres. The interloper, a sweet red Rasteau (not in shot), was served with Valrhona chocolate, also from the Drome.

We even leave the opened bottles with you. So you’re not just paying for the teeny samples that most tastings supply, you’re getting whole bottles for your money. I did the maths recently on one of the tastings: 130€ had paid for ten different wines, 10 bottles, for an English group and that if those wines, or their nearest available equivalents, had been bought in the UK the cost would have been more than the just-over £100 we were charging. In other words, the group had bought ten lovely wines and my services were essentially a free added bonus.

Ah, you may say, but I don’t have the facilities to run a tasting. That’s why we turn up with everything you need – the wines, obviously; proper tasting glasses; tasting sheets; pens; maps; a decanter and spittoon; even our own corkscrew, just in case (although the thought of a wine drinker not having a corkscrew on hand is, admittedly, a bit remote). And if you want to do a bit of cheese and wine matching, we’ll bring along artisan bread and fromage. And plates, knives and napkins.

Sadly, I have to spit.

Sadly, I have to spit.

The only thing we don’t supply is the space. It doesn’t take a lot – this year we’ve sat around tables under trees, by the sides of pools, in dining rooms, in living rooms – but it probably does require a holiday home or some form of rented accommodation rather than a hotel room.

I would invite you round to my place but that would mean you drinking and driving, which is never a good idea. So hopefully see you soon at yours.

Santé,

Paul

Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours. Maybe if we’d called ourselves Rhône Wine Tastings the take-up might be better. You can read all about our tours and TASTINGS! on our website – www.RhoneWineTours.com – and you can follow us on Facebook, where there are lots of photographs and shorter pieces. Just click on the links.

 

 

Vinsobres – A Little-Known Treasure in the Southern Rhône

Thursday, June 5th, 2014

In the Rhône wine hierarchy, Vinsobres sits alongside Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas, one of the eight southern “Cru” wines with its own appellation. But regardless of the official ranking, it’s fair to say that its fame is nowhere near that of its neighbours. And the great news is that means that you can find some delicious wines at affordable prices.

The village of Vinsobres in late autumn, after the leaves on the vines have turned golden.

The village of Vinsobres in late autumn, after the leaves on the vines have turned golden.

The appellation of Vinsobres is named after a small, hilltop village in the south of the Drôme departement, which makes it near the northern limit of the southern Côtes du Rhône region. Compared to the other southern Cru – Gigondas and CdP included – Vinsobres is a touch cooler, a result partly of the (very) slightly more northerly latitude, but more importantly due to a marked mountain influence. Indeed the village looks across the valley of the Eygues river to the Baronnies hills, which are effectively the first foothills of the Alps. In Vinsobres itself the vineyards climb up to 450m, about 1450 feet.

The typical "terroir" of Vinsobres - clay and limestone soils with lots of stones.

The typical “terroir” of Vinsobres – clay and limestone soils with lots of stones.

Without wanting to stretch the point, after all the vineyards can be extremely hot in summer, the cooler climate means that wines are recognisably different to those of their neighbours, with higher acidity levels than, say, the typical Châteauneuf. That brings a fresher feel to the wine and clear definition to the flavours, which tend towards blackcurrant, black cherry and peppery spice. Syrah does particularly well in Vinsobres.

The extra acidity combines with the tannins to produce reds that can age amazingly well: although I’ve read on a number of occasions that Vinsobres should be drunk young, I’ve tasted wines with Cédric Guillaume-Corbin of Domaine La Péquélette that were still in good form after 20 years. His 2010s are magnificent but still young – dense, dark and brooding, concentrated but not heavy.

Cedric Guillaume-Corbin

Cédric Guillaume-Corbin

You notice that I talk about the red wines of Vinsobres. There are some extremely attractive whites and rosés made around the village, but none of them have the right to the Vinsobres appellation. When the red wines were granted their own appellation contrôlée  in 2005, backdated to the 2004 vintage, the rest were “relegated” from their former status of “Côtes du Rhône Villages Vinsobres” and are sold as simple Côtes-du-Rhône or CdR Villages without the village name appearing. That seems particularly hard on producers like Domaine Chaume-Arnaud and Domaine du Moulin, which both make lovely whites, but says more about French politics than it does about the quality of the wine – what the French wine authorities give with one hand they take away with another. The producers have applied for the whites also to be given the Vinsobres appellation, which would right matters, but as ever with French bureaucracy, these things take time.

The Vinson family run Domaine du Moulin

The Vinson family run Domaine du Moulin

One factor helping put Vinsobres on the wine map is the fact that the Perrin family, owners of world-famous Châteauneuf-du-Pape estate,  Château de Beaucastel, have bought 60 hectares (150 acres) of land within the appellation. If that raises the profile of the appellation, well that’s great, but I have to say that I’ve not been blown away by the Perrin wine I’ve tasted and still prefer the Vinsobres of some of the less high-profile producers. Here’s my shortlist of names to look out for:

Domaine La Péquélette – available from Vine Trail in the UK and in Selfridges wine section (now there’s posh for you), and through Vin de Garde in the USA.

Domaine Chaume-Arnaud – Berry Brothers & Rudd sell their wines in the UK (which is, if anything, even posher than Selfridges), Woodland Hills Wine Co in LA is listing their delicious Vinsobres 2011.

Domaine du Moulin – Bestvaluewines.com in NY state has the Vinsons’ top cuvée.

Richard Jaume

Richard Jaume

Domaine Jaume – Anconas Wines and West Side Wines, both in Conneticut, are listing Jaume wines. In the UK, try L’Assemblage in Sussex or the Wine Society.

But really, if you find any Vinsobres, give it a try. They’re southern Rhône wines with their own je ne sais quoi.

Happy hunting and santé,

Paul

Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours. If you’d like to see for yourself why we like Vinsobres so much, just get in touch – all our contact details are on the website – www.RhoneWineTours.com.

And, finally, no article on Vinsobres is allowed to get away without mentioning the following quote: “Vin Sobre ou Sobre Vin, Prenez le Sobrement” (“Sober Wine or Wine of Sobriety, Drink it Soberly”)

That comes from Monseigneur de Suarès who was the local Bishop of Vaison-la-Romaine in 1633. I guess it was the way he said it.

Cornas – The Northern Rhône’s Best Kept Secret

Thursday, May 8th, 2014

There are more famous wine regions in the Rhône Valley. There are wine regions with greater reputations. But it’s the little village of Cornas that makes some of the best value red wines in the northern Rhône.

The steep terraced vineyards of Cornas.

The steep terraced vineyards of Cornas in winter.

While you’ll be lucky to see any change from 30€ for a bottle of Côte-Rôtie bought at the cellar door, and red Hermitage tends to start somewhat north of that, good, often great Cornas can be had for less than 20€. Even the top cuvée from a fabulous winemaker like Johann Michel will set you back only 35€. Hardly cheap, I grant you, but a bargain when put up against the wines of its neighbours. And as Cornas, Côte-Rôtie and red Hermitage share the same grape variety – syrah – and similar steep hillside vineyards (up to 60º slopes in Cornas) with similar granite soils, it’s hardly surprising that there’s a family resemblance. All of which may explain why I work with four Cornas “vignerons”, as many as in any other appellation, and why there is more Cornas in my cellar than any other northern Rhône red. (You could argue that the vineyards of St. Joseph share all those attributes and its wines are even cheaper, and you’d be right, but there the vines face more east than south so, as much as I love a good St. Jo rouge, the wines are less ripe and less grand. Their qualities are different.)

The typical granite soil.

The typical granite soil. It’s spring and the young vines have just started to produce leaves.

It’s not even as if the wines of Côte-Rôtie and Hermitage are rarer. The Cornas vineyards cover 130 ha (about 320 acres), almost exactly the same area as Hermitage. And given the boundaries of the appellation and the nature of the terrain there’s little room for growth. In comparison, Côte-Rôtie is more than twice the size. And if we’re talking about history, well Cornas has that too: the Romans probably had vines in Cornas 2,000 years ago. By the 10th century, the Canon of Viviers was writing that the church in Cornas was “surrounded by vines”.

One thing Cornas hasn’t got is a long history of bottling and exporting its wines. Until the 1950s, much of the wine was still being sold by the winemakers “en vrac”, that’s to say in bulk, to local restaurants who would sell by the glass or by the carafe straight from the barrel, or to private individuals who would carry out their own bottling. It was only once a small number of merchant houses, particularly Paul Jaboulet and Delas Frères, started buying and blending wines from smaller producers and bottling the results under their own labels that Cornas started to be seen outside the immediate region.

Mika outside his cellar

Cornas winemaker Mickaël Bourg outside his cellar

Cornas’s reputation is as a full, burly wine, the country cousin of the more civilised Hermitage, a wine that needs many years for its fierce tannins to soften before becoming drinkable. That may have been true at one time, but that reputation is certainly exaggerated now – there’s a whole generation of producers making wines that lack nothing in concentration but which can be enjoyed in their relative youth: Mickaël Bourg’s 2011 “Les P’tits Bouts” has been delicious almost from the day it was bottled and the 2012 is promising to be almost as precocious (admittedly, his 2009 is still a bit of a monster); I tasted (and bought) Johann Michel’s 2012 “Classique” recently and although it would be a shame to drink it so young – it will only get better with age – it’s very easy to enjoy right now.

Johann Michel in his tasting room.

Johann Michel in his tasting room.

Jacques Lemenicier has a large part of his vines sited high up in the appellation, at around 300 metres. The slightly cooler temperature up towards the top of the hillside helps give his wines real finesse and elegance, rivaling many a Côte-Rôtie, without any sense that his wines are green or unripe. Of the producers I work with, only Alain Verset makes a wine that is determinedly traditional: no destemming of the bunches, a basket press for squeezing the handpicked grapes, maximum extraction, old rather than new barrels. His wine is equally delicious in its own way but does require a little more patience. Even so, the 2006, ’07 and, especially, ’08 are perfect for drinking now, less for the fruit (typically blackcurranty when the wine is young) and more for a whole host of spice flavours including cinnamon, clove and sandalwood. And that 2008 is available right now for just 17€, that’s about £14 or 22$.

Alain and Emmanuelle Verset with the vineyards of Cornas behind them.

Alain and Emmanuelle Verset with the vineyards of Cornas behind them.

It would be remiss of me to not mention a few other producers – even if I don’t work with them, I’m not that biased. Auguste Clape is the star name in the region, although his wines aren’t cheap in anybody’s book; Stéphane Robert’s Domaine de Tunnel and Vincent Paris both make some delicious wines; I’ve never been disappointed by Alain Voge’s Vieilles Vignes wine; and Delas is also making very good Cornas at the moment. But whoever’s name you come across at your nearest wine merchant, the wine will be worth a try. It won’t be Hermitage or Côte-Rôtie, but it will be proudly Cornas.

Santé

Paul

Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours. If you’d like to visit the region to see for yourself why we love Cornas you know who to contact. We also have a Facebook page with an ever-growing list of likes where you can keep in touch with what’s going on. Just follow the links.