Saint-Péray, Going Its Own Way

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

 

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