Tasting in Tain – Part 1

The annual Tain l’Hermitage wine fair is a chance for the local Hermitage and Crozes-Hermitage winemakers to get together in force, but there are plenty of brave interlopers from the other northern Rhône appellations. And me, of course.

The vineyards of Hermitage rise up behind Tain.

The vineyards of Hermitage rise up behind Tain.

Many estates had their newly released 2012 reds on show and, tasting across all the regions both in Tain and at Vinisud (more on that monster tasting in a future blog), it strikes me that although they certainly haven’t got the size or concentration of the ’09s and ’10s, the last two great vintages, they share many similarities with the bright, fruity 2011s, albeit in a chunkier, more tannic form.

The best 2012s are delicious, the flavours clear and pure. The worst are under-ripe, green and stalky, tasting hollow and under-nourished. The same happened in 2011, but the higher tannins in the ’12s only exaggerate any under-ripeness.  As usual, the good winemakers made good wine and the poor winemakers struggle whatever the vintage.

There are a lot of lovely white 2012s already on the market, where the typical Rhône weight and richness meets just enough crisp acidity, and some producers were showing pre-bottling samples of their 2013s, which promise a similar style. The buying public has already discovered viognier, from the Rhône and elsewhere, but St. Péray, white Crozes-Hermitage and St. Joseph, and Brézème for that matter, show just how good affordable marsanne-based wines can be. (Barely affordable white Hermitage is in another league.) The lighter styles work well drunk by themselves, the fuller, oaked wines are great with food – nothing is better with a buttery roast-chicken.

The tasting notes below only deal with the “southern” estates – Condrieu, Côte-Rôtie and the northern sector of St. Joseph will be covered by Part 2. And there are omissions. In a few hours I could only scratch the surface, so there were plenty of estates whose wines I didn’t get to try. And some famous names like Chave and Graillot weren’t at the fair. So if you don’t see a familiar name, don’t think it’s because I didn’t like the wine.

Finally, I apologise in advance for the quality of the indoor pictures. The light inside the tasting room is dim and yellow, meaning slow shutter speeds and lots of blurred images. Where necessary I’ve cheated with an old photo.

So bearing all that in mind, here’s a far from comprehensive run-down of what’s going to be worth buying (or not) in the order that I tasted them.

Domaine Betton

Christelle Betton

Christelle Betton

I’ll admit right now that I’m biased. I work with Christelle Betton and I love her wines. At this stage, the Crozes-Hermitage “Espiègle” 2012 is a touch more serious, a shade less obviously fruity than the ’11, but that’s only relative – Christelle’s aim is always to play up the fruit and soft tannins in her young-vine cuvée. The 2012 vintage of her old-vine cuvée, Caprice”, is the best I have tasted. Its summer berry fruit is so pure, so vibrant, the wine is a joy to drink.

The white Crozes, “Cristal” 2013, is essentially pure marsanne aged in a mixture of oak barrels and stainless steel tanks. The wine hasn’t been bottled yet, but the sample I tasted mixed flavours of ripe apple and patisserie. Her white Hermitage, Arpège 2011″, gets more barrel ageing – everything, all 600 bottles worth, goes into barrel and stays there longer. Its flavours are similar but in a more concentrated, weightier form. There’s spice from the oak ageing, almond and a mineral streak. Very good now, but it will be even better with some extra ageing.

Christelle Betton’s wines are available at Theatre of Wine in London and should soon be available in the USA. I’ll keep you informed.

Domaine Lombard par Montagnon.

Julien Montagnon (centre)

Julien Montagnon (centre)

Julien Montagnon is the best winemaker in the small appellation of Brézème and I’ve often written about those particular delicious reds and whites (now being made biodynamically). This year though I wanted to concentrate on his new range of Crozes-Hermitage and Hermitage.

The Crozes-Hermitage Blanc 2012 is 100% marsanne with no oak ageing.  A fresh style with the smell of spring blossom. The palate is clean and bright, tasting of apple compote. The Hermitage Blanc 2012 comes from one of Hermitage’s greatest vineyards, Le Méal. The small amount made was aged in a “demi-muid”, a larger barrel size that allows the wine to breathe but stops the oak from dominating the flavour. This is lovely. The smell is of apple pie (Mr. Kipling’s to be precise, for the British readers) and crème anglaise, the oak more pronounced on the palate than the nose. Great balance. It is intense without being massive.

The Crozes-Hermitage Rouge 2012 sees no oak and comes from a mixture of de-stemmed and whole bunches. It has clear, bright, almost crunchy fruit, with the flavours of damsons and sloes. The Hermitage Rouge 2012 is in a similar style, but a real step up (after all, it is roughly 3 times more expensive at the cellar door). Like the white, it is pure Le Méal fruit. As you’d expect, the flavours are riper, more concentrated, than the Crozes red although the alcohol is the same 12.5°. There’s lots of black fruit, especially bramble, and the wine feels alive and vibrant. It’s very impressive, but one to put away for three or four years at least.

Yapp in the UK lists a couple of Domaine Lombard’s 2010 red Brézème wines as well as the 2012 white, one of my favourite wines of last year.

Domaine Habrard

Laurent Habrard

Laurent Habrard

Laurent Habrard’s organic Crozes-Hermitage Rouge 2012 is in a softer style than Lombard’s with a touch of chocolate, although it’s still bright and juicy. The St. Joseph Rouge 2012 has higher acidity and tighter tannins. At this stage in its life, it feels a bit grumpy. Come back in six months.

Lincoln Fine Wines in Venice, CA and Le Du’s in New York have the 2009 vintage of the red Crozes-Hermitage and white Hermitage respectively.

Domaine Johann Michel

Johann and Emmanuelle Michel

Johann and Emmanuelle Michel (taken 2013)

Johann’s wines are always worth waiting for, I just wish I didn’t have to wait as long for his emails. His Cornas 2012 is beautifully put together. Young and dark, it has juicy raspberry and plum fruit, a silky texture and great length. Anyone who still thinks Cornas is the rustic cousin of Hermitage or a Côte-Rôtie should think again.

I believe Johann’s wines are available from Flint Wines in the UK (although they’re not listed on the Flint website) and Uncorked in London has Johann’s delicious “Grain Noir” Syrah 2011. Wine Exchange in Orange, CA, Timeless Wines in Winchester, VA and MacArthur Beverages in DC all have a good range of Johann’s wines.

Gilles Bied

This estate has vineyards in the southern sector of St. Joseph and in Hermitage. They were only showing older vintages. The St. Joseph Rouge 2007 was browning in colour and tired out. Very rustic. I didn’t taste the Hermitage 2006, but I hope it was better because there are plenty of talented Crozes winemakers out there who would kill to get their hands on land in Hermitage.

Domaine JC and N Fayolle

JC & N Fayolle

JC & N Fayolle

I tasted here more out of hope than expectation. There are three branches of the Fayolle family in the small village of Gervans, all making Crozes-Hermitage and Hermitage. And it seems from repeated tastings that none of them do it terribly well. I only tasted the “La Rochette” Crozes-Hermitage Rouge 2011 and I will quote directly from my tasting notes: “Smells stalky and unripe. No – it is stalky and unripe. Disappointing.”

Domaine des Martinelles

This estate is run by another branch of the Fayolle clan. Their more basic Crozes-Hermitage Rouge 2012 has an easy-going, simple style with not much to say for itself. The local co-operative does something similar at a lower price. The Hermitage Rouge 2009 was big, dense and dark, but clunky and clumsy. It is still young, but I suspect it will never have any finesse or lift.

Mickaël Bourg

Mika Bourg

Mika Bourg

Mika’s St. Péray 2012 is 100% marsanne aged in a mixture of oak (grapes from very old vines on granite soils) and tank (young vines on limestone). Delicious. The ’12 has greater breadth and spice than the ’11, but keeps its juiciness and minerality. A hint of marsanne’s almond-like bitterness adds complexity and interest. This is the sort of roast chicken wine I was talking about.

A vin de table, “La Démarrante” 2012 comes from young syrah vines within the Cornas appellation. Despite its lowly status, it is, frankly, better than most reds I tasted that day. Fresh and vital, there’s a bit of graininess and ripe raspberry and cherry fruit. And it’s only 8€ (£6.50ish, roughly 10$). An absolute bargain. The vrai Cornas, “Les P’tits Bouts” 2012, had been bottled only days before and Mika was apologising for it being a bit shaken up. Unnecessarily, as it happens. It has certainly closed up between barrel and bottle and it needs a bit of time to relax, but it’s clearly concentrated and powerful without being unduly heavy. I know from tasting a barrel-sample that it’s going to be very good indeed.

Mika’s wines are available in the USA from WineMC². They’re based in New York but deliver. I can’t believe that no-one in the UK has picked up on him.

Cave Babics/Luyton

Michele Luyton

Michele Luyton

I was told that the estate has just over 1ha (2½ acres) in one of Hermitage’s greatest vineyards, Les Bessards (although I read later that the plot is actually at the foot of that slope, which is a slightly different thing).

The Hermitage Blanc 2011 comes from a small patch of limestone. It’s a restrained style with a typical marsanne soft, low acid palate. Pleasant without scaling any heights. The Hermitage Rouge 2011 comes from granite soils. It’s not super-powerful, but it’s decently constructed and preferable to anything from the various Fayolles. There’s some weight and plumpness and dark berry fruit. And the price, 28€ locally, is very reasonable for a red Hermitage.

The St. Joseph 2012 has a warmer, softer feel than St. Jo’s from further north in the appellation. The plump fruit (again) helps cover the tannins.

Lucie Fourel

Lucie Fourel

Lucie Fourel

Lucie’s parents belonged to a local co-operative and Lucie worked at top Côte-Rôtie estate Clusel-Roch before going her own, organic way. This is a very classy range of wines.“Les Pitchounettes” Crozes-Hermitage 2012 comes from younger syrah vines and is aged 50:50 in tank and barrel, in this case larger demi-muids of 5 years+. Masses of juicy red berry/cherry fruit, but no lack of depth.

Three more red Crozes were on show: “L’Insoumise” 2011 spent 18 months in demi-muids. The vines are around 30 years old and the vineyard is stony. It’s fuller than, but similar in style to, Pitchounettes – juicy, spicy, peppery. Les Saviaux 2012 comes from a vineyard covered in round stones (galets roulés) similar to those at Châteauneuf-du-Pape. It spends six months in barrels and six months in tanks before being bottled, but here the bunches are fermented whole, with no de-stemming. It’s more closed than Insoumise and needs a year or so before it’ll be ready to drink. Black fruits mix with more medicinal tones (germolene, menthol) before pepper and spice kick in again. Finally, Aux Racines de St. James 2012 is from old vines – average 50 years – planted in sandier soils nearer the river. Again, whole bunches of syrah, stems and all, were fermented and the wine then spent a year in demi-muids before being bottled unfined and unfiltered. You’ll need to wait a little while to get it at its best, but even now the fruit is lovely, with an incredibly more-ish morello cherry character.

Lucie’s wines are available at Vinoteca in London and are worth looking out for. Lucie said that you could also try Carte Blanche Wines in Hampshire. Wine Traditions in Virginia is her USA agent and they ship around the country.

Jacques Lemenicier

Jacques Lemencier

Jacques Lemencier (taken 2013)

I always like Jacques’ whites. The St.Péray Traditionelle 2013 is an unoaked blend of 90% marsanne and 10% roussanne. It has a similar feel to the 2012 – imagine a clear mountain stream (forgive the pretentiousness) and the purity that suggests. The palate mixes frangipane with French apple tart flavours.

Many of Jacques’ Cornas vines are at relatively high altitude, which shows in the house style – his red isn’t the biggest, but it has real elegance. The Cornas 2012 has a bright, cherry and mulberry fruit style and a silky texture. Good length too.

Quaff Fine Wine in Brighton is listing Jacques’ Cornas 2009, a great, fuller-bodied vintage which should be hitting its stride about now.

Summary

In short, 2012 is a classic rather than superlative northern Rhône vintage with good, sometimes very good, wines available from all the appellations.

The whites, already generally available, are especially good, particularly the marsanne-based whites of St. Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage and St. Péray, which can tip over into heaviness in riper years. The reds are more patchy, although on this evidence Cornas seems particularly successful. But stick with the right producers and there are good things everywhere.

In Part 2 we’ll look at Condrieu and Côte-Rôtie, as well as the northern end of St. Joseph. In the meantime, happy hunting and santé.

Paul

Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours. Be brave, Part 2 should be a little shorter. And there are plenty of other pieces, so why not take a browse. You can also like us on Facebook. Even better, cut straight to chase and book yourself a fantastic wine tour or private tasting by going to www.RhoneWineTours.com. Then you too can get to meet the winemakers.

 

 

 

 

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