Shooting Stars

I recently spent three days touring some of the most famous estates in the northern Rhone Valley with a group that wanted to visit the “star” names. If nothing else, it was a change from visiting my regular producers (and made me appreciate just how good the people I work with really are). But while my group was eulogising about Guigal’s “La Turque” and the like, I was left thinking that the cheaper wines were often just as interesting, and certainly better value for money, if one was willing to look past Parker points and price tags.

Chapoutier in Tain l'Hermitage

Chapoutier in Tain l’Hermitage

We started with Chapoutier. I preferred the whites to the reds, particularly the vibrant Saint Péray “Hongrie” 2015 and the ’15 Hermitage “Chante Alouette” (great minerality underlying its richness and one of the top whites of the week). Neither is cheap but the marsanne-based, super-expensive Hermitage “Le Méal ” 2012 white is much more expensive and, while clearly excellent wine, didn’t give me any more enjoyment. The line-up of reds included another from the “Le Méal” vineyard, the 100% syrah Hermitage “Le Méal” 2012. This costs over 200€ at the winery, but you could walk five minutes to the growers co-operative, Cave de Tain, and buy their almost as good Hermitage “Grand Classique” 2010 for just over 30€. Both have excellent concentration, ripe fruit, great balance. If the Chapoutier has greater finesse, is that worth such a big price difference? (As an aside, David, our guide, was excellent. He’s a winemaker at Chapoutier and his family has its own estate in the Beaujolais region.)

At Paul Jaboulet, Lætitia, who took us up to the chapel on top of the Hermitage hill and introduced the wines, was friendly and full of enthusiasm, possibly more than I was: I thought the flagship Hermitage “La Chapelle” 2007 was just old rather than mature. I know that I like my reds younger than many, but I honestly think it has nowhere to go. The Crozes-Hermitage “Domaine de Thalabert” 2012 (possibly ’13 – I was looking after the group rather than taking notes) held more interest – just as much concentration, more black fruit and more life. As Crozes go, it’s one of the more expensive. Put beside La Chapelle, it’s like a supermarket giveaway. The white Crozes, “Mule Blanche”, was my favourite wine of the tasting – a marsanne and roussanne blend of rare precision and balance for the appellation. The significantly more expensive white Hermitage “Chevalier du Sterimberg” was slightly fuller but what it gained in weight it lost in focus.

Alberic Mazoyer, Domaine Alain Voge

Albéric Mazoyer, Domaine Alain Voge

Day 2 started at Domaine Alain Voge. This was a really lovely tasting and I would very happily drink all three of the still St. Pérays we tasted. I give the edge to the pure marsanne “Terre Boisée” 2014 for its balance of power and St. Péray’s characteristic mineral freshness. Of the four reds, Cornas “Vieilles Vignes” 2013 was the most impressive. As domaine owner  Albéric Mazoyer said, it was a cool vintage and the wine has a certain sinewy austerity about it which means that you’ll need to wait to drink it. But boy is it good. The sparkling St. Péray was the one wine that I wasn’t convinced by, going down the bitter almond route rather further than I would have liked. “My” sparkling producer, Rémy Nodin, does a better job of combining bone dryness with apple blossom fruit.

From Voge to Vernay. Every single Domaine Georges Vernay white, from the vin de pays “Pied de Samson” 2015 through to the flagship Condrieu ” Coteau de Vernon” 2014 was delicious. Drink the VdP in the next year for the purity of its fruit and wait a while for the depth of the Vernon. Both are 100% viognier, but while Pied de Samson concentrates on showing off the grape variety (and very skilfully, too) the Vernon demonstrates the best of the Condrieu terroir. It is a wine that is both subtle and powerful. But I wouldn’t spend my own money on the Côte-Rôties, Blond de Seigneur 2014 and Maison Rouge 2013, when they cost 48€ and 85€. The estate’s reds have had great reviews in the French wine press, but they’re a bit too polite, too polished, a bit too haute couture for my taste. I want them to get their hands a bit dirty.

Domaine Georges Vernay

Domaine Georges Vernay (photo taken in 2015)

The day finished at Yves Cuilleron’s estate. As elsewhere, there was an excellent St. Péray, “Biousse” 2015, but the Condrieu “Les Chaillets”, which I normally love, didn’t seem to be on top form. The reds, particularly the Cornas “Village” 2013 and the St. Joseph “Les Serines” 2012, were excellent. Contrary to their reputations, the Cornas was the friendlier of the two, the St. Jo dark and brooding. Raspberry compared to wild plum. Both were preferable to the pricier Côte-Rôtie “Madinière” 2014, which, in common with many ’14s, has a slightly hollow mid-palate. In fact, I would rather drink either the Cornas or the St. Jo than just about any of the C-Rs we tasted over the three days, (although admittedly most were again 2014s).

Day 3 and Guigal. We started with a well-made white St. Jo and then the “regular” Condrieu 2015, which was so overwhelmed by bitter, charred flavours it was actively unpleasant. Frankly, it left me slightly confused about what they were trying to achieve. The white Hermitage “Ex-Voto” 2012 was good, but still I preferred Chapoutier’s white Hermitages, which carry a greater sense of immediacy and life.

The reds started with the Côte-Rôtie “Brune et Blonde” 2010, which has the largest production of any wine from the appellation. That it was better than many of the Côte-Rôties we tasted during the three days is perhaps no surprise given its relative maturity and the fact that 2010 is supposed to be a stand-out vintage; I would have been interested in tasting more wines from the same vintage to make a fairer comparison. (You may argue that a better wine is a better wine regardless of circumstance and, in that case, why not buy it over the others? Except I would say buy Cuilleron’s Cornas or St. Joseph, enjoy a better, or at least more interesting wine and save yourself a pile.) The C-R “Château d’Ampuis” 2011 was significantly more concentrated, richer on the palate, a lot more tannic. It’s a serious wine in need of time.

We finished with the famous “La Turque” from the 2012 vintage. It’s great wine, but given the price of a single bottle – 200+€ in France, $300 plus tax in the US, £200 or thereabouts  in the UK – I think I’m allowed to be hyper-critical. Robert Parker gave it 98/100, but I can honestly say that just from within my own Côte-Rôtie producers I would rather drink Xavier Gérard’s suave, dark-fruited “La Landonne” 2013 or Maxime Gourdain’s lush but structured “Besset” 2013, both from a supposedly lesser vintage. (Interestingly, the biggest French wine guide, Hachette, gave the Besset a better review too. It costs 45€. Let’s be generous to Guigal and say that the Besset is one quarter of the price.) Ignoring people I work with, just in case you think I’m biased, there are several other producers whose wines I would rather drink – the top end of Stéphane Ogier’s range has fantastic precision and depth; Jean-Michel Stéphan’s 2014 (a “difficult” vintage) has more joy, purity and life in its little finger. I could go on. They do run a fascinating tour through the cellars, though.

After lunch we hit Delas Frères. For consistency, I’d say star of the week. The simple white Crozes-Hermitage “Les Launes” was well made, the lushly-textured, richly-fruited single vineyard Condrieu “Clos Boucher” 2014 massively better than the Guigal Condrieu, if not at Vernay standards. In the reds, the Crozes-Hermitage “Domaine des Grands Chemins” 2013 was a wine I’d take any day over Jaboulet’s “La Chapelle” 2007. It has dark fruit, richness, proper concentration. The red Hermitage “Domaine des Tourettes” 2012 isn’t cheap but it’s better, and cheaper, than the Jaboulet and Chapoutier equivalents. At 138€ Hermitage “Les Bessards” 2012 is in another price league again. The wine is dripping with dark fruit; the confidence and skill in the winemaking are obvious. But while it’s a step up from the regular bottle, and was my standout red Hermitage of the week (one of the standout wines full stop) I don’t think I’d pay the extra 90€ given the quality of the “Tourettes”. (By the way, if you plan on visiting Delas, Bruno, our host, was knowledgeable, friendly and speaks fluent English.)

Pierre Gaillard

Pierre Gaillard

We finished the week at Pierre Gaillard‘s estate above the village of Malleval, certainly the prettiest spot of the week. As at Chapoutier, the whites came out on top, especially the 100% roussanne St. Joseph blanc (’14 or ’15 – sorry, it was getting near the end of a long week) with the Condrieu coming in second. Both have lush, opulent textures lent relief by a streak of minerality. I also liked the sweet table wine, “Grapillage”, a 50:50 viognier/roussanne blend which has a great sweet/acid balance.

And with that final wine we set off to Lyon.

It would be unfair to leave you with the impression that any of these star estates is bad: there’s a reason these producers are highly-regarded and in general we drank very good, sometimes even brilliant, wines. In fact, I was so impressed that I finished the week having made arrangements to carry on working with Delas and Gaillard on a more regular basis. But if I’m paying big bucks for a bottle I expect fireworks, possibly even a life-changing experience. At the very least. So it was interesting to me that none of the super-premium wines we tasted offered significantly greater rewards than their cheaper stable-mates (and in some cases, Jaboulet being the most obvious example, I would have deliberately chosen the less expensive wines). And if you’re so rich that value for money is irrelevant and you just want the best (or as someone, depressingly, said to me, “I’ve got enough 94 and 95 point wines at home, I’m looking for 98+”)? Well I think I’ve already made it clear that there are often other wines available that match (at least) the star names without the price tag. In short, these producers are good, but they’re not the be all and end all.

4 Responses to “Shooting Stars”

  1. Bob Rossi says:

    A very interesting roundup of producers. I spent a week in the northern Rhone a few years ago, and didn’t visit Guigal, Jaboulet, Chapoutier or Delas Freres. I’ve had wines from all of them, and while I can’t say that I’ve always been disappointed, I often was. I know they all make some outstanding wines (I had the Guigal La Moulin and La Landonne 30+ years ago when they were somewhat affordable, and they were superb), but there are plenty of mediocre and/or overpriced wines. On the other hand, I’m glad you made it to Pierre Gaillard. We stopped there several times and bought a bunch of his wines. And the Cave de Sarras was surprisingly excellent. The Cave de Tain, however, disappointed me. And Domaine Belle was absolutely outstanding.

    • admin says:

      I’ve often been left underwhelmed by Chapoutier’s wines (the visit was a client request) but the whites we tasted were excellent. Having said that, none of them were part of the “everyday” range. Delas has come on in leaps and bounds in the last five years, as has the Cave de Tain (look for Andrew Jefford’s recent review of the Cave for more comprehensive coverage). Jaboulet’s “Thalabert” Crozes was my “go to” wine in the mid-90s, before they went through a slump and the family sold up. Even tasting wines made under the new leadership, quality was patchy with the Crozes-Hermitages outperforming the “real thing”, especially on a value for money scale. Guigal disappointed not because the wines were bad (although I was REALLY no fan of the Condrieu) but I just didn’t think that they lived up to their stellar reputation and price.

      Generally, I prefer the smaller guys – the visits are more intimate and the wines can be as good if not better. I was back at Gaillard on Monday and we tasted half a dozen wines including his 2015 St. Joseph white and the top Condrieu, L’Octroi, also in 2015. Delicious by any standards. I used to sell Domaine Belle’s wines in my wine merchant days. It’s a style I like a lot.

      • Bob Rossi says:

        If I get back to that area, I’ll have to try the Dave de Tain again. As to Domaine Belle, it was a morning tasting arranged by their US importer. The owner/winemaker was very professional, but not in a snooty way. I remember that he started with a white Hermitage, and although the glasses were perfectly clean, he poured in an ounce or so to each to rinse, and then poured them down the drain. I wanted to tell him to stop, I’ll drink it! All the wines were excellent, but the red Hermitage really stood out. We bought a bottle, and on our last night of the trip, at our apartment in Annecy, we decided to drink it, because I couldn’t bear the thought of it breaking in the airplane’s hold. I knew it was very young, so I opened it about 4 hours before we had dinner. It was spectacular; still one of the best wines I’ve ever had.

  2. Bob Rossi says:

    Too bad that this blog format doesn’t allow edits. I saw “Dave de Tain” as soon as it was posted.