Tasting in Tain – The 2011 vintage in the Northern Rhône

Recently I was up in Tain l’Hermitage for the local wine fair. As you’d expect, Hermitage and Crozes-Hermitage producers dominated the hall, but there were plenty of others from St. Joseph, Cornas and St. Péray, all just across the Rhône, as well as a few who had made the slightly longer jouney south from Condrieu and Côte-Rôtie.

The riverfront at Tain l’Hermitage with the Hermitage vineyards rising up behind.

Many estates had their newly released 2011 reds on show and from tasting across the regions it’s obvious that the wines are lighter and less consistent than the big, ripe 2009s and the powerful, structured 2010s. Some of the more “serious” wines – Hermitages and Côte-Rôties especially – aren’t available yet, but I can’t see my general impression changing much.

The best 2011s are delicious, with bright, precise fruit, plenty of charm and some richness. Others seem under-ripe, with a green, herbaceous edge. If I were forced to pick one vintage out of the three it would be 2010, but many 2010s are years from reaching their best and good 2011s will be ready for drinking sooner.

The notes below cover my pick of the fair. There were some estates where I thought all the wines were either poor or just boring – they don’t get a mention. Where the estate has made some things I like but others I don’t, I mention everything. And obviously, if I like everything I say so. Then again, I didn’t taste the wines of every exhibitor so if you can’t see the name of a producer you know it doesn’t always mean that I didn’t like their wine. And some big names, like Jean-Louis Chave and Alain Graillot, were absent.

So bearing all that in mind, here’s a far from comprehensive run-down of what’s going to be worth buying:

Domaine Betton

Tasting at Domaine Betton

The Espiegle Crozes-Hermitage 2011 is a more delicate style than the 2010 but fresh, juicy, lively. Red fruits and pepper spice. With Caprice 2011 the flavours are darker – black fruits, prune and fresh leather – and the palate is chunkier, richer too. In 2011 I have a preference for Caprice, but I’d very happily drink either.

Christelle Betton’s white Crozes, Cristal 2012, is essentially pure marsanne aged half in oak, half in tank.  The wine hasn’t been bottled yet, but the sample I tasted mixed flavours of patisserie, apple crumble, pear and warm spice with a touch of fresh acidity. It should be available in April and will be worth the wait.

Espiegle and Caprice are available at Theatre of Wine in London.

Jean-Pierre Lezin

The Lezins surrounded by their wines

I wasn’t wildly taken by the Lezin Condrieu 2011, feeling that 23€ (locally) is a lot of money for a wine that doesn’t have enough concentration and not much viognier (or indeed Condrieu) character. I had more time for the St. Joseph Blanc 2011, which has a more chiselled, just-ripe pear quality. I’ve noticed before with other producers from around the villages of Limony and Chavanay, down near the southern border of Condrieu, I often have a preference for the much cheaper “St. Jo”. Whether that’s because the Condrieu vines are often younger than those planted in St. Joseph and give less concentrated fruit I don’t know. And I’d have to admit that Yves Cuilleron, who is based in Chavanay, manages pretty well with his Condrieu.

Domaine Lombard

Julien Montagnon told me that his Vin de France, “La Côte 2011“, had already sold out. Which is a pity, as the 90% syrah/10% viognier blend has good meaty raspberry fruit and a mouth-watering palate. And it is, or rather would have been, amazingly cheap – 6,50€ locally.

Domaine Lombard – La Côte and Eugène de Monicault

A pre-bottling sample of Le Grand Chêne Brézème 2011 was less open and immediately flattering than the Côte, but boy was it promising. Blueberry and bramble fruit with a touch of menthol.  Another sample, this time the Eugène de Monicault Brézème 2011, was really closed in on itself. The tannins will need some time to soften but it has denser fruit to support its bigger structure. Unless you’re in for the long haul, take the Grand Chêne.

Julien Montagnon

Yapp sells Lombard wines in the UK. You never know, they may have bought some “La Côte” before it ran out.

Mickaël Bourg

Mickaël Bourg

I’ve only tasted Mickaël’s wines twice and been impressed on both occasions. His white, St.Péray 2011, is 100% marsanne and has a perry-ish (pear cider, if you insist) quality that I find attractive. A nice combination of zippy acidity with some weight.

His Cornas 2011 had only been bottled one week, but didn’t seem to be suffering for it. Briary, earthy and mineral with blackcurrant fruit.  The Cornas 2010 is a bit of a monster. Very dark, very structured, big and robust. It needs a couple of years, at least. At the moment, it tastes like a mix of blackcurrant and crushed rocks.

Cave Gilles

Cave Gilles were delighted to see me.

As you can probably tell from the photo, I didn’t get the warmest welcome at Cave Gilles. Which is fine, as now I don’t have the slightest twinge of regret in saying that the Crozes-Hermitage Rouge 2010 was already tasting over the hill and the St. Joseph Rouge 2009 was really quite dull. On the other hand, and to show there are no hard feelings, there was a lovely late harvest Viognier 2011, sweet but not cloying, that tastes like apricot tart in a glass.

Bernard Blachon

Bernard Blachon Cornas

M. Blachon’s Cornas 2011 smells of fresh meat and is wiry/sinewy/chewy, take your pick. It needs a couple of years to soften its edges. His Cornas 2010 is fuller but still closed and also needs time. Both are attractive wines in an old-fashioned, rustic sort of way.

Jacques Lemenicier

Jacques Lemenicier

A good range of wines here. The St.Péray Traditionelle 2012 is a blend of 90% marsanne and 10% roussanne that sees no oak at all. This feels very pure – imagine a clear mountain stream (forgive the pretentiousness). The palate is subtly buttery with French apple tart flavours. The Cuvée de l’Elegance 2011 is a 50:50 marsanne/roussanne mix that spent 11 months in barrel. At the moment, the oak is obvious without overwhelming the wine and will calm down in time. Rich and powerful (14° compared to 12.5° for the ’12 Tradition) with the flavour of creme patissière (which I love). Very good.

St. Péray – Cuvée de l’Elégance 2011 and Traditionelle 2012

His Cornas 2011 has been made in a bright, fruity style, accentuating the raspberry flavours over the structure. Tasty.

Garnet Wines in Manhatten appears to stock the 2008 vintage of the oaked St. Péray. It could be worth a try.

Domaine les Alexandrins

Guillame Sorrel and Alexandre Caso made 5,500 bottles of their Attirance Cozes-Hermitage 2011. This has plenty going for it – black fruits (cherry conserve), some weight, a juicy palate and good concentration. But for some reason I found it competent rather than exciting, like an exercise in winemaking-by-numbers. I think that might say more about me than the wine. Or at least I think I should give them the benefit of the doubt.

Le Domaine de Lucie

Lucie Fourel

Lucie Fourel’s parents belonged to a local co-operative and Lucie worked at top Côte-Rôtie estate Clusel-Roch before going her own way. 2011 was only the second vintage for her certified organic estate.

Les Pitchounettes Crozes-Hermitage 2011 comes from younger syrah vines and is aged 50:50 in tank and barrel, in this case larger demi-muids of 5 years+. This is all about juicy red berry fruit. Aux Racines de St. James 2011 is a more serious style where 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. The fruit is darker but still juicy and fresh.

Les Pitchounette and Aux Racines de St James

Lucie’s wines are available at Vinoteca in London and are worth looking out for.

Domaine Le Bel Endroit is run by Lucie Fourel’s husband, Sébastien Wiedmann. Like Lucie, he farms organically. Unlike her, he isn’t certified. Sébastien also chooses to use no sulphur at all while Lucie uses a very little. Lucie carries out a classic fermentation while Sébastien uses carbonic maceration. You suspect it’s a good idea they have seperate estates.

Sébastien Wiedmann in his SYRAH T-shirt

I’ll say straight away that Sebastien’s St Joseph 2011 is hardly classic, but it is delicious. In some ways the methods used are very traditional – foot treading, no fining, no filtration – but fermentation by carbonic maceration certainly isn’t, at least in this part of the world. The carbon dioxide produced helps protect the wine in the absence of sulphur but it can leave a little prickle of gas in the wine and it does mean the wine is all about fruit. That prickle also means that Sébastien can come perilously close to not being granted the appellation. Anyway, the wine is bursting with strawberry fruit, in fact it tastes like a strawberry mivi. If you like Dard & Ribo’s wines I think you’d get along famously with this.

Sébastien’s wine – there’s just the one – is available at Vinoteca and The Sampler in London.

Domaine du Tunnel

Martin, who works at Domaine du Tunnel. As they say, “Save Water, Drink Wine”

Tunnel was definitely one of the stars of the show. The St. Joseph 2011 has been in bottle 2 or 3 months and has unusual ripeness and weight for the vintage. Martin (pictured) suggested that the Cornas 2011 is already more open than the St. Joseph. I can’t say I agree. It’s certainly bigger and richer, with black fruit, cured meat and violet flavours. But the St Jo has a wilder, more mineral side and I lean slightly that way. You pays your money…

At the moment, I can’t see past the Vin Noir Cornas 2011‘s immense structure. Come back in 5 years maybe. Or buy the St. Joseph at half the price.

Domaine du Tunnel’s wines are available at Wine House, Los Angeles; Artisan Wine Depot, near Palo Alto; Saratoga Wine Exchange, New York and Berry Bros. in London.

Johann Michel

Johann and Mrs. Michel

Johann said that his Cornas 2011 was about elegance, which is true. While it doesn’t have the weight of the ’09 and ’10, it has lovely black cherry fruit and well-handled tannins. Cuvée Jana Cornas 2011 is from steeper vineyards and is darker, more plummy, fuller than the regular bottling. It’s also a bit wild and exciting, always a good thing in my book. It has power without feeling heavy and lumpen. Excellent.

Cornas and Cuvée Jana (centre)

I believe Johann’s wines are/will be available from Flint Wines in the UK (although they’re not listed on the Flint website) and, like Tunnel’s, Artisan Wine Depot and Wine House in California (do they like Cornas, I wonder?). Mad Wine in Seattle and Calvert Woodley in Washington have them too.

Alain Verset

And finally an oddity to show that you shouldn’t worry too much about vintage charts.

Alain Verset and his line-up of Cornas vintages

Alain Verset had four vintages of Cornas available to taste. The Cornas 2010 is slightly rustic and old-fashioned with flavours of bramble, coffee bean and roast meat. With another year under its belt, the Cornas 2009 is more open and aromatic. But these aren’t easy-going, immediate wines and the ’09 still needs time for its tannins to soften. The sample of Cornas 2006 wasn’t, frankly, as good as the bottle I raved about at the St. Péray fair, being less aromatic, less intense. (By the way, this is one of the reasons I hate to see wines being awarded points out of 20 or 100, as if it’s possible to pin a definitive score on something that can change from day-to-day according to mood, food, surroundings, weather even, and that’s before we start talking about personal preferences.)

The last wine Alain poured was his Cornas 2008, which the experts tell us was an average vintage at best. It’s a (relatively) pale brick red and certainly isn’t in the same league as the ’09 and ’10 when it comes to weight and power, but it smells like ripe blackberries that have been picked straight off the bush and mixed with the contents of a spice box. It is silky, soft and delicious.

Alain’s wines are sold by the Wine Society.

So I hope you can see that, yes, 2011 is a lighter vintage in the northern Rhône. And yes, the best 2011s won’t reach the heights of the best ’09s and ’10s. But that doesn’t mean that delicious wines aren’t available and they’ll be drinking beautifully before the earlier vintages get into their stride. Happy hunting.



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