Archive for the ‘Appellation Controlee’ Category

Saint-Péray, Going Its Own Way

Monday, February 5th, 2018

Looking across Rémy Nodin’s vineyard towards the Chateau de Crussol

Saint-Péray is a tiny wine region. And at first sight it looks like the winemakers want to keep it that way: the Rhône valley is known the world over for its red wines, but St Péray persists in only making whites. But unlike the other white-wine-only appellation of Condrieu, which makes the most expensive, most celebrated white wines of the Rhône using its fashionable signature grape, viognier, St Péray sticks to the relatively unknown marsanne and roussanne varieties. So why devote a blog to the least known of all the northern Rhône “cru”?

For a start, there are plenty of great wines available. At times St Péray has been the height of fashion, at other points it has been in the doldrums, barely clinging on to its 1,100 year old winemaking heritage, but now it’s on the rise again – new producers are arriving all the time and the vineyards are expanding. Second, it’s unique in being the one cru making sparkling wine.

Saint-Péray sparkling wine

Rémy Nodin’s St Péray “Extra Brut”

It was sparkling wine that made St Péray wine famous in the first place. Which sounds strange when it’s pretty much a constant that fizz is made in cooler areas where grapes have naturally higher acid levels; Champagne is the obvious example. But Rhône valley and cool climate aren’t words that are often linked. Added to which, marsanne, the winemakers favourite choice for making sparkling St Péray, isn’t known for its acidity.

Early harvesting (starting mid-late August in 2017) helps, but two natural factors also boost acidity in grapes destined for sparkling St Péray. The first is that the valley carrying the Mialan river through St Péray down to the Rhône funnels cool air off the surrounding hills, so the village isn’t as warm as its neighbours. The second is that many of St Péray’s vineyards sit on limestone (although there’s granite and clay too) and the grapes grown there are naturally more acidic. It’s telling that Rémy Nodin, the producer of my favourite sparkling St Péray, has his vineyards just under the ruined Château de Crussol where the limestone is most prevalent.

Fall and Rise

St Péray “méthode traditionelle” (ie champagne-method) sparkling wine was first made in the late 1820s and became such a success that it was exported around Europe. It was drunk by the Russian Tsars and Queen Victoria and was a favourite of the composer Wagner. But despite celebrity patronage, by the mid-1900s its popularity was in severe decline. With winemakers making less wine they needed less land. Vineyards were sold for housing developments, fuelled by the village’s proximity to the town of Valence. From 145 hectares (almost 360 acres) in 1936 when the appellation was created, the vineyard area had shrunk to 56ha by 1971 and just 48ha in 1982. St Péray’s decline seemed inexorable. And then things started to change…

In 1987 Robert Parker Jr. felt able to call St Péray a “dinosaur”, describing the standard of wines as “…no more than adequate…”. But around 1990 quality began to improve, which went hand-in-hand with a tentative increase in vineyard area (1991 – 62 ha). Now one can legitimately say that there has been a winemaking renaissance in the village. The vineyards are continuing to grow – up to 85 ha in 2016 and still climbing, with three winemakers I know planning new vineyards and others no doubt doing the same – while the search for higher quality is being driven by a new generation of local winemakers as well as big name “outsiders” such as Chapoutier and Yves Cuilleron, all of them benefiting from the fact that vineyard land is still relatively affordable. This time around, however, St Péray’s growing reputation rests upon its still wines.

St Péray Now

The original spark for this blog was a three day tour I organised at the end of September 2016 (I know, it’s taken a while!). At my clients’ request the tour concentrated solely on “star” names, famous producers making Côte-Rôtie, Hermitage, Condrieu and Cornas. But what stood out for me was the consistently high quality of the St Péray that many of them poured. In addition the wines had a recognisable and consistent local identity: although the same grape varieties can be found in St. Joseph and the Hermitages, thanks to its “terroir” the wines from St Péray have a fresher, nervier side to them that marries well with the natural richness of marsanne and roussanne.

Here’s what we tasted on the tour. If you can find them they should all still be drinking well…

Chapoutier‘s St Péray “Hongrie” 2015, named after a sub-region of St. Péray just to the west of the village, was superb – richness combined with citrus-like freshness. A model of minerality and precision.

Alain Voge Saint-Peray “Terres Boisées”

The Alain Voge estate makes three different still St Péray as well as a sparkling version. The sparkling wine isn’t a favourite of mine but the still wines are all excellent – there’s real substance on the palate but the wines’ natural freshness stops fatigue setting in. You can’t go wrong, but out of preference I would take Saint-Péray “Terre Boisée”.

Yves Cuilleron‘s St. Péray “Biousse” 2014 had structure and clarity with the oak ageing beautifully managed.

Pierre Gaillard’s Saint Peray 2015

Pierre Gaillard‘s St Péray has a certain lushness, common to all of his whites. Roussanne gives it its yellow plum fruit and its slightly oily texture, marsanne lends it its patisserie-like flavours. On the tour we tasted the 2014. The 2015 and ’16 are in the same mould, although fuller-bodied.

Since then I’ve been tasting St. Péray whenever I’ve had the chance. Not every wine has been a roaring success, but many of them have been delicious…

When it comes to the few remaining sparkling St Péray producers, Rémy Nodin is the star. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he’s determined to keep the bubbly alive. His St Péray “Extra Brut” is officially non-vintage but always comes from a single harvest and is actually a brut zero. It’s pure marsanne and bone dry but there’s ripe Cox’s apple fruit to balance the chalky minerality. His still wines are also excellent, although the old vine cuvées, “La Beylesse” and “Le Suchard” (80 y.o. vines) have tended to be for lovers of lushly-oaked whites (not the ’15’s though, which are more restrained).

Mika Bourg in his cellar

Cornas-based Mickaël Bourg has very little land in St. Péray and produces just the one still wine. Until 2012 it was based on young vines growing on limestone but then Mika added a plot of 60 year old marsanne growing on granite near the St. Péray/Cornas border. Whether it was the granite influence or the vine age, the St. Péray 2013 showed a major step up in concentration and richness. The ’15 was in a similar vein. The ’16, which Mika prefers, is slightly lighter and fresher.

Jacques Leménicier

Jacques Leménicier is another winemaker whose winery is in Cornas. He makes two St Péray, the “Tradition” (80% marsanne, 20% roussanne) and the oak-aged “Elégance” (90% marsanne, 10% roussanne according to his website, but I was told that the ’15 was a 50/50 blend). The Elégance 2015 is a lovely wine with poise and clarity. Its weight is balanced by fresh acidity, the fruit mixes yellow plum and ripe pear.

Chatting with Johann Michel (right)

The first of Johann Michel‘s two wines is a 50:50 marsanne/roussanne blend. The “Classique” 2016 is soft, round, ripe and instantly appealing. Cuveé M” comes from a tiny plot of young marsanne. Despite the vines’ youth, this is the flagship wine. It’s the soil that makes the difference – this is one of the very few parts of St Péray where you will find the same “galet” stones that you find in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The wine is broad, rich and powerful – there’s a solid core to it – but the wines’ minerality stops it tipping over into clumsiness. While some St Péray can be drunk as an aperitif, Cuvée M is a food wine. A fellow winemaker called it a future classic.

Eric Durand

I very much like Eric and Joel Durand‘s St Péray. Both the 2015 and 2016 have been bright, zesty wines with a hint of grapefruit-like bitterness on the finish.

25-ish year old Cyril Milochevitch runs Domaine de la Sarbèche. His St Péray 2014 was bone dry but with a touch of honey on the mineral palate.

Stéphane Robert’s Domaine du Tunnel makes three different St Péray, all still: a pure marsanne, a marsanne/roussanne Cuvée Prestige and, my favourite, a pure roussanne. The St Péray “Roussanne” 2014 was a delight, combining excellent richness, plum/apricot/floral fruit and the freshness characteristic of the year.

Julien Pilon in his cellar

Julien Pilon makes a whole range of stunning white wines, including his St Péray “Les Maisons de Victor”. The 2015 has exquisite balance with the barrel ageing (including a little use of acacia wood) being particularly well-handled.

Domaine du Biguet “Terres Rouilles”

Jean-Louis Thiers is one of the other sparkling wine producers, but my favourite of his is the roussanne-heavy St Péray “Terres Rouilles”.

The added bonus is that in relative terms these wines are still cheap. No northern Rhône wine is a giveaway, but many St. Pérays retail at under 20€ at the winery, putting them in the white St. Joseph/Crozes-Hermitage bracket rather than on a par with Condrieu/Hermitage. Of course they are more expensive on the export markets, but still they are classy wines that are worth seeking out. And you’ll be helping with the revival of a once (and future) great winemaking region.

Santé

Paul

 

Village People

Tuesday, 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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Head for the Hills

Friday, 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

Friday, 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

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.

 

 

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.

Hip, Hip, Péray

Wednesday, September 17th, 2014

Once a year the small town of St Péray wakes from its slumber. At the start of September the local winemakers gather for the annual wine fair and then, within days, the grape harvest begins. By mid-October, everything is back to sleepy normality.

St. Péray is a white wine-only appellation making still and sparkling wines from the local marsanne and roussanne grapes, but the wine fair welcomes plenty of winemakers from neighbouring Cornas, Crozes-Hermitage and St Joseph, as well as a few who have travelled from further afield, so there’s no lack of choice if you prefer reds.

This year there were more than 70 producers present and hundreds of different wines. It’s impossible to list them all, so here are a few of my favourites.

Domaine Gérard Courbis

Gérard Courbis

Gérard Courbis

There’s another, better-known estate called simply Domaine Courbis, also making St. Joseph. But I liked Gérard’s chalky, brambly, mid-weight St. Joseph Tradition 2012.

Domaine de Fontavin

Hélène Chouvet

Hélène Chouvet

Hélène Chouvet, based on the outskirts of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, has vineyards there and at Vacqueyras and Gigondas, too. But it was her Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise 2011 that I particularly enjoyed – rich and sweet, tasting of honey and apricot jam, with a bright, pineapple-like acidity.

Domaine de Rosiers

Maxime Gourdain

Maxime Gourdain

Maxime Gourdain’s Côte-Rôtie Classique 2011 is highly enjoyable and at 30€ good value (sorry, that’s just the way it is when it comes to C-R pricing). Mid-weight, with a subtle richness and flavours of black cherry, hedgerow fruit and a touch of coffee bean. It’s still young though, so a bit of patience is going to be required (and even more so for the 2012).

Rémy Nodin

This is Madame Naudin - Rémy is her husband.

This is Madame Naudin – Rémy is her husband.

Rémy Nodin’s St. Péray Mousseaux Extra Brut is the best St. Péray fizz I have ever tasted. The purity and almost chalky dryness are delicious.

The still St. Péray “La Beylesse” 2012 is 100% marsanne from 30 year old+ vines. 11 months oak ageing has left its mark without masking the crème anglaise and yellow plum fruit.

His Crozes Hermitage “Le Mazet” 2013 and St. Joseph “Guilherand” 2013 were my first chance to taste serious(ish) northern reds from a challenging vintage. Because of cool, wet spring weather, the vines flowered late, the grapes’ development was delayed and harvest didn’t start until October. There was always a chance that the northern reds especially would feel thin and under-ripe. But there was no need to worry, at least if Rémy’s wines are anything to go by – his Crozes is dark, creamy and ripe. Black cherry meets flowers and licorice. The St. Jo, as it should, has more angular tannins and more noticeable acidity, and is a really good example of northern Rhône syrah. The two wines are proper reflections of their different terroirs.

Johann Michel

Johann Michel in his tasting room.

Johann Michel in his tasting room.

Johann’s St. Péray 2013 isn’t as rich as the 2012, but even so the fresh acidity is nicely balanced by classic marsanne creaminess. It’s dry but makes me think of toffee apples (plus a hint of fennel leaf). “Not terrible” was Johann’s joking comment.

Domaine les Serines d’Or

Damien Robelet

Damien Robelet

Jérôme Ogier and Damien Robelet have their vines in Seyssuel, a vineyard area that could be even older than nearby Côte-Rôtie (so let’s say 2,000 years+) but one that has only been resurrected in the last twenty years after almost a century of post-phylloxera abandonment.

Jad’Or 2013 is 100% viognier. Powerful violet aromas come through after initial stone fruit. Oak doesn’t dominate at all, just lends a bit of breadth to the mid-palate. It’s 25€ at the cellar door, but I’d have to say worth it – many Condrieus (what is the plural of Condrieu?) would fall far short of this.

For me, the EncOr cuvée has too much oak ageing to allow the syrah fruit to really sing. Serines d’Or 2010, on the other hand, despite spending 30 months in barrel, can handle it. The style is modern, rich and velvety, with deep, dark fruit, but it certainly still tastes like a northern Rhône red. And better than many Côte-Rôties.

Domaine Lombard

Julien Montagnon and his wines. And me making notes.

Julien Montagnon and his wines. And me making notes.

Interesting to taste the Croze-Hermitage 2012 and Brézème “Eugène de Monicault” 2012 side by side – same vintage, same grape (syrah) and same alcohol level (just 12.5% – hurrah!). C-H is the better known wine region and Julien Montagnon’s is bright, pure and floral. Lovely wine. The Brézème is fuller, richer and more structured. It, too, is excellent. There’s just a one euro difference in price, so it all comes down to personal preference.

Domaine de Gouye

Sylvie Desbos. Not the best photo ever. Sorry Sylvie.

Sylvie Desbos. Not the best photo ever. Sorry Sylvie.

I know these wines well, but that didn’t stop me from stopping by to taste Sylvie and Philippe Desbos’ St. Joseph Blanc 2012. 100% unoaked marsanne, it’s a lovely combination of apple turnover and acacia flower. As sweet as that may sound, it’s absolutely dry.

Domaine Wilfried

Réjane leads the estate with her brother Wilfried, but at the fair she was with her husband.

Réjane Pouzoulas leads the estate with her brother Wilfried, but at the fair she was with her husband.

Again I know Wilfried’s wines, but I don’t get to taste the Rasteau Vin Doux 2003 very often. And what a treat – deliberate oxidation gives the wine its walnut-like character, while there’s plenty of confit orange rind in there too. Like Christmas in a glass, it would be amazing with a piece of Stilton.

Elie Bancel

Elie

Elie Bancel

Elie makes just one wine. His Cornas 2012 is very traditional – a bit rustic, slightly grainy with spicy hedgerow fruit. It reminds me of a dusty country lane in summer. It runs against almost everything that modern wine is supposed to be. So I liked it a lot.

Alain Verset

Emmanuelle with two blokes with not much hair - Alain on the left and me on the right.

Emmanuelle with two blokes with not much hair – Alain on the left and me on the right.

Alain’s daughter Emmanuelle had been named St. Péray Wine Queen and was dressed for the occasion while Alain was busy showing off his Cornas 2009 and 2010. In some ways the style is similar to Elie Bancel’s – Alain makes traditional tannic Cornas – but the wines are darker fruited and spicier, more exotic on the nose. Both vintages are still young, so for now I’ll carry on drinking my dwindling stock of ’06, ’07 and ’08. (Yes, I do like his wines).

Jacques Lemenicier

Jacques Lemencier

Jacques Lemencier

For one reason and another I hadn’t managed to meet up with Jacques all year, but we bumped into each other in the café at the wine fair and I did at least get to taste his wines.

St. Péray Cuvée de l’Elégance 2013 was my favourite St. P of the day. It really is elegant, with great balance and expertly judged oak. Creamy with ripe pear fruit and just a hint of bitter almond. Delicious.

Jacques’ Cornas 2012 isn’t the biggest, and in style is as far removed from Elie Bancel’s as possible. Silky, refined, subtly rich with red berry fruit.

Domaine Betton

Christelle and her mum

Christelle Betton and her mum

Christelle Betton’s white Crozes-Hermitage “Crystal” 2013 has a creamy texture and a spicy, mineral finish that reminds me of Hatzidakis’s Santorini whites. Very good, but her Hermitage “Arpège” 2012 is something else again. Stunning wine, with greengage, yellow plum, acacia, toast and smoke. The palate is rich, powerful and structured. You can drink it now with pleasure, but I suspect it’s got a ten year life, and then some. 40€ and worth every penny (or cent).

Domaine J-C Raspail

St Peray 2014 050

Frédéric Raspail

There is no need to analyse Frédéric Raspail’s Clairette-de-Die Tradition too closely. Just enjoy it for what it is – a delicious, smile-inducing sparkling wine that tastes of apples and elderflowers. Fred is the best producer of Clairette there is. End of discussion.

Not all of these producers export their wines to the UK and/or USA (Domaine de Gouye, for example) but many of them do. If you want to find the wines near you I would suggest looking at www.wine-searcher.com or googling the producer’s name.

Santé and happy hunting.

Paul

Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours, where I try to give unbiased views about wines I’ve tasted (although enthusiasm often gets in the way of professional distance). If you’d like to see more blogs just browse away. You could also take a peek at the Facebook page, which has lots more photos and a lot less text. You could even contact us to arrange a tour or a wine tasting at info@rhonewinetours.com

 

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.