Up North (of the Rhône, that is) – Part 1

As much as I love the wines of the southern Rhône, those from the north have a special place in my heart. So, after a solid two months of touring Gigondas, Chateauneuf-du-Pape and the rest, it was good to be heading back up the A7 to Lyon, where my clients for the day were staying.

Despite the best efforts of the autoroute authorities, who had closed one of the main entrances onto the road, thus forcing the whole of Lyon into a convoluted detour towards Geneva (due east and, well, in a different country) and around the périphérique in order to go south, a good time was had by all. And the thanks for that rests squarely with a lovely set of winemakers – Xavier Gérard in Condrieu, Johann Michel in St. Péray and Christelle Betton in Roche de Glun.

Xavier Gérard with Côte-Rôtie in the background

(A quick note on the photos: I forgot to bring my camera with me so the photos used here were taken last winter. Just in case you think that winemakers in the Rhône are so insensitive to heat – around 33°C on the day of the tour – that they wear sweaters or padded jackets all year round.)

Xavier tends his own small vineyard planted with viognier and works with his father to make Côte-Rôtie (syrah with a  few percent of viognier in the mix) and Condrieu (100% viognier). His english is good enough to make my french redundant and he patiently showed us the vineyards, explained the different soils, the making of the wines and how those different soils influenced them. And then we put theory into practice.

Xavier’s own viognier is bottled as a Vin de Pays rather than a Condrieu (although the vineyard is within the appellation, between Chéry and Château Grillet). With this wine (currently 2011 vintage) he’s looking for fresher, more obvious fruit so no oak barrels are used in making it and he blocks the malolactic fermentation (the part of the process that turns crisp malic acid – like that in an apple – into softer lactic – milk – acid). Being viognier, the result is still a rich wine – after all, we are dealing with a low acid grape grown in a relatively hot climate – but it has a yellow plum and ripe pear freshness.

Next onto the Condrieu. All the grapes come from a single, very steep vineyard, Côte Chatillon, up above the town with fantastic views of the river snaking below.

From the top of Côte Chatillon looking over the river

The view over Condrieu. This gives some idea of how the vineyard drops away and the steepness of the slope

The first vines are essentially an extension of the family’s garden but then drop out of view down the terraced slope. It’s a vineyard shared with Guigal, which apparently uses its crop in its Doriane cuvée – currently anywhere between $60-120 excluding sales tax in America and £55-75 in the UK. The Domaine François Gérard Condrieu 2010 (22€ locally – so the equivalent of about  $27 and £18-19, including taxes) is magnificently opulent, even more so than at my last tasting here. Partly that’s because there is some use of oak (5-10 year old, 580 litre “demi-muids”), in part because the softening malolactic fermentation is allowed to happen, and partly, Xavier explained, because in 2010 the grapes became super-ripe, with very high sugar levels. But because that ripeness came not just from the sun but through a combination of sun and a grape-shriveling, drying south wind the high alcohol (let’s call it 15.5% for form’s sake) is combined with decent acidity levels so everything stays in balance. When you taste the wine you don’t notice the alcohol just an almost glycerol-like richness coating the mouth, an exotic nose and flavours of ripe stone fruit.

Looking toward the Côte-Rôtie vineyards from Condrieu

The estate’s Côte-Rôtie 2009 (96% syrah, 4% viognier) is slowly starting to open up. I love this wine for what I see as its unashamedly traditional approach – 20% of the stems kept in the fermentation, no new barriques, just previously used barrels that give less oak flavour. Xavier argues that techniques and the wine’s style are a reflection of the “terroir” – that he shouldn’t impose a style that wouldn’t suit what nature gives. Either way, the result is not at all showy. In fact, it seems rather reticent. But it’s all there – structure, length, emerging notes of raspberry and flowers, some darker fruit, too – the wine just needs a little patience from the buyer. I bought half a case for future “research”.

The welcome news is that the estate’s wines will soon be available in the UK from A&B Vintners.

Les Sens'Ciel in Tournon

Then onto lunch at Les Sens’Ciel in Tournon, in the heart of the St.Joseph appellation. Marie-Jo runs a lovely wine bar/restaurant that just happens to have a great wine shop attached. She also actively supports a women winemakers organisation, Femmes Vignes Rhône, so we work with some of the same people and it’s clear therefore (ahem) that she must have excellent taste. (Vignes Rhône is a play on words and the sound is like that of vigneronne, the French word for a female winemaker.)

Women winemakers unite

If you’re ever near Tournon, I’d highly recommend it. My clients said that they had the best meal of their stay there. And given that they were staying in Lyon, supposedly the gastronomic heart of France, that’s saying something. And the prices are ridiculously reasonable.

Vineyards come right into the heart of Tournon

And that’s it for now. We leave our plucky travelers heading south from Tournon, with barely a backward glance at the vineyards of St. Joseph, on the road to St. Péray. Which is where we’ll meet again…

Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours where we chat about food and wine and make a half-hearted attempt to use the blog as a means of generating business. If by any chance you would like to tour the Rhône Valley, or you like the sound of a private Rhône wine tasting at a place to suit you, or even if you just want to know more about the region and its wines, you can get more details on the website – www.RhoneWineTours.com – or you can contact us directly at info@rhonewinetours.com.

Santé

Paul

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