Tain-ted Love

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

Tain l'Hermitage in autumn

Tain l’Hermitage in autumn

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

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

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

Johann Michel

Chatting with Johann Michel (right)

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

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

Domaine des Bruyères

David Reynaud

David Reynaud

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

François Merlin

Francois Merlin

Francois Merlin

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

Vallée Haute Vallée Basse

Emilie

Emilie Guironnet

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

Domaine Saint Clair

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

Domaine Lombard

Crozes-Hermitage and Brezeme

Crozes-Hermitage and Brézème

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

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

Domaine de Chasselvin

Etienne Chomorat

Etienne Chomarat

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

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

Domaine de Rosiers

Maxime Gourdain

Maxime Gourdain

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

Domaine Melody

Marc Romak

Marc Romak

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

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

Alain Verset

Alain and Madame Verset

Alain and Madame Verset

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

Gilles Robin

Gilles Robin

Gilles Robin

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

André François

André François’ Côte-Rôtie

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

Paul Jaboulet Aîné

Emmanuelle Verset on the Paul Jaboulet stand

Emmanuelle Verset on the Paul Jaboulet stand

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

Rémy Nodin

Remy Nodin

Rémy Nodin

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

Domaine de Lucie 

Lucie Fourel (right)

Lucie Fourel (right)

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

Domaine Les Alexandrins

Guillaume Sorrel

Guillaume Sorrel

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

Vignobles Verzier Chante-Perdrix

Philippe Verzier

Philippe Verzier

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

Domaine Habrard

Laurent Habrard

Laurent Habrard

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

Domaine Betton

Christelle Betton

Christelle Betton

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

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

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

Importers and Retailers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Domaine de Rosiers – USA, Global Wine Company

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

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

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

André François – Nope, sorry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Domaine Betton – UK, Theatre of Wine.

Good luck with your search.

Santé

Paul

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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