Châteauneuf-du-Pape – Pick of the Year

December 9th, 2014

If there’s one name in Rhône wine that immediately strikes a chord with the public it’s Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Other wines from the region may be more expensive, but it’s Châteauneuf that the visitors most want to see.

High Street, Chateaueuf-du-Pape

High Street, Châteauneuf-du-Pape. On a busy day.

I’m in the fortunate position of working with four excellent estates in Châteauneuf-du-Pape – in alphabetical order, Domaine Galévan, Domaine de la Janasse, Domaine Roger Sabon and Domaine de Saint Siffrein. Janasse and Sabon are the most famous – if you look at Wine Spectator’s list of the best CdP’s, they’re always there – but I’m happy to say that all “my” estates make great wine. (After all, why else would I want to work with them?)

I also taste wines from lots of other producers. And that’s how I know that, sadly, not every bottle with a Châteauneuf-du-Pape label is worthy of the name or its price. In too many cases, you would be better off spending less and buying a top quality Côtes-du-Rhône. But when it’s good, there’s not much that can compare with a CdP, so here’s my pick of what I tasted this year.

Let’s start with the producers I work with. Here are my selections from their ranges:

Domaine Galévan – the white Côtes du Rhône 2013 and red Côtes du Rhône Villages 2011 are amazing value for money, but the two red CdPs and the one white are exceptional.

Coralie Goumarre in the doorway of her cellar at Domaine Galevan.

Coralie Goumarre in the doorway of her cellar at Domaine Galévan.

The Tradition 2012 is dark, inky, rich and voluptuous. Delicious pure fruit. The first time I tasted the Saint-George 2011 my tasting note said “bloody lovely” (excuse my French). 100% old-vine grenache, it has richness, complexity, waves of flavour. The Blanc 2013 has already sold out, but believe me it was fantastic. Hardly traditional – it tastes like a southern Meursault – but great nonetheless.

Just a small part of the Janasse range.

Just a small part of the Janasse range.

Domaine de la Janasse – My vote, if I had the money, would go to the Vieilles Vignes 2012. Deep, dark and dense but lifted by its freshness. Despite its power, it’s remarkably elegant. As I don’t have the money, I buy the Côtes du Rhône Villages Terres d’Argile 2012. It has 25% carignan in the blend (which is always a good thing in my book), beats many a CdP and costs me 15€.

In the cellar with Gibert Sabon

In the cellar with Gilbert Sabon

Domaine Roger Sabon – The fact that this estate is world-famous doesn’t mean the prices are ridiculous – you can buy a bottle of the Olivets CdP for less than 20€ at the cellar door. The cuvée Prestige 2011 and 2012 are twice the price, but for the depth and concentration you get that can hardly be begrudged. But my money goes on the Cuvée Réserve. It falls between the other two in price, but has much of the Prestige’s class. Sweet red fruits, a bit of spice and a lithe, supple palate. (And they make a very good Lirac, too.)

Domaine de Saint Siffrein – my longest standing CdP partner. Saint Siffrein makes one of the best white CdPs I know and two red CdPs that are quite different in style.

Cyril and Patricia Chastan who lead the Siffrein estate.

Cyril and Patricia Chastan who lead the Siffrein estate.

Because of small harvests in 2012 and ’13, the latest vintage of white is the Blanc 2011 (although I’m told that there will be a ’14). It’s a lovely wine that’s still going strong (and, judging from a 2006 I tasted this year, is likely to have plenty of life in it). More traditional than Galévan’s white, it has the subtle fruit and creaminess of grenache blanc.

The red Tradition 2011 got great reviews in the French and English wine press – it’s a soft, up-front wine that you can happily drink now – but I reckon the 2012 is going to be even better. It has more structure and brighter fruit. Wine Advocate called it an “outstanding Provençal effort”.

Terre d’Abel 2009 is the estate’s special cuvée. Its high mourvedre content makes it far more meaty, far more tannic and gives it darker fruit. It also gets slightly high scores from the critics, but I have to admit to a preference for the cheaper, more classic Tradition.

Now for the other estates. I’d be very happy indeed drinking wines from any of them. Again, they’re listed alphabetically:

Domaine du Banneret – The estate only has 3ha (about 7½ acres) of vines and make just 10,000 bottles of a single cuvée, but boy is it good. Whole bunches are used during the fermentation, so stems and all go into the tank.

Tasting Domaine du Banneret's wine in Chateauneuf-du-Pape

Tasting Domaine du Banneret’s wine in Châteauneuf-du-Pape

The Banneret 2011 has an old-fashioned feel (in the best possible sense) with sweet, strawberry-ish grenache fruit. The 2010 is sleeker, more structured, with plenty of spice.

Domaine de la Biscarelle – I tasted two different CdPs here – the Classique 2011 and Les Anglaises 2011. It’s the Anglaises which has really been grabbing the critics’ attention, but the Classique is delicious too.

Christelle and Jerome Grieco, Domaine de la Biscarelle

Christelle and Jérôme Grieco, Domaine de la Biscarelle

Classique 2011 – Aromas of ripe fruit, dark cherry and animal fur (warm dog). Lovely texture – starts off round, soft and then the tannins start to kick in. On the palate there’s raspberry, mulberry and black olive.

Les Anglaises 2011 is in a similar mould but with the volume turned up. More red fruits on the nose. Still young and needs a bit more time.

Château La Nerthe – Very highly rated in France. The 2011 is made in a big, ripe style, mixing plum, clove, pepper and licorice. A real crowd-pleaser.

La Nerthe

La Nerthe

The 2013 white is also going to be good. Stony, mineral, weighty. Broad and long, rather than fat.

Domaine du Pegau – Like Banneret, Pegau likes to use whole bunch fermentation. They also like big old barrels (“foudres”) for ageing. The results can be funky, dare I say a little rustic, but with bags of personality and appeal. Unfortunately I wasn’t taking notes when I tasted the Cuvée Réservée and the Cuvée Laurence in July. So now I can’t even tell you which vintages I tasted. But it’s enough to say that the Réservée must be one of the best value buys in CdP (around 30€ at the cellar door) and the Laurence (about twice the price) is simply great wine.

Domaine Pierre Usseglio – Frankly, the Cuvée Traditionalle 2011 isn’t my favourite vintage of PU, but still it’s very good. Plummy and rich, maybe just a bit too “porty” for my taste. But like the La Nerthe, a crowd-pleaser.

Pierre Usseglio

Pierre Usseglio, white on the left, red on the right

Domaine Vieux Télégraphe – One of the most celebrated names in CdP. The La Crau 2011 didn’t get a great rating when Decanter magazine reviewed 100+ CdP’s from the 2011 vintage, but what does it know? Sweet, ripe fruit but with structure and finesse. Ignoring the producers I work with (I wouldn’t want to spoil a beautiful friendship), the best, classiest CdP I tasted all year. A brilliant balancing act.

The slightly cheaper (or should that be less expensive?) Piedlong 2011 doesn’t hit the same heights, but still it’s excellent, punchy and full of fruit.

The Vieux Télégraphe white 2012 was also a delicious, subtle glass.

The stony vineyard soils of Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

The stony vineyard soils of Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

You may be asking where’s Château de Beaucastel in this line up. Well I tasted the 2011 twice this year, once in April and again in July, and despite excellent reviews elsewhere I just can’t get excited by it. In April it was tasted straight after the Banneret wines and, I thought, simply didn’t match up. My tasting note from the day describes it as being a “so what?” wine. In July, it had the misfortune to be tasted on the same day as the Vieux Télégraphe. For me, there’s no contest.

The almost-as-famous Clos des Papes also disappointed. Not that the wine was bad, not by any means, it just didn’t strike me as great. Rich and powerful, certainly, but when I tasted it at the estate I thought the wine lacked freshness (I wonder how long the bottle had been open?).

Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator love both wines, so feel free to ignore me.

Tasting room in the village.

Tasting room in the village.

Every one of the producers listed exports their wine. So if you want to get hold of a bottle or two check out the internet for your nearest supplier – www.wine-searcher.com isn’t a bad place to start. Happy hunting and even happier drinking.

Santé

Paul

Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours. We don’t drink Châteauneuf-du-Pape every day, so when we do it had  better be good. There’s plenty to more to read on the blog, so browse away. There are also more photos and short pieces on the Facebook page. Last but not least – we have to earn a crust, you know – there’s also the website, full of suggestions for wine tours and tastings in the Rhône valley.

 

 

Points Mean Prizes

November 29th, 2014

We all want to drink great wine. And marking wine out of 100 (or 20, or whatever) certainly makes it easy for consumers to find the “best”. But should we be judging wine in that way and does the pursuit of high-scoring wines mean that we’re missing out on wines that are enjoyable, fun, delicious even?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m delighted when Rhône Wine Tours’ producers get good scores – if nothing else, it helps them sell their wines – but that doesn’t stop me having issues with the system. First off, who says what makes a wine good? A deep colour and massive concentration will earn your red a bucketful of points and yet one of my favourite wines of the last year has been Alain Verset’s Cornas 2008, a lighter wine from a “difficult” vintage that never was opaque purple and is now fading gracefully towards brick red. It does, however, have the advantage of smelling like the contents of a spice rack. (The last time I drank it was alongside an octopus stew flavoured with tomato, orange zest, chilli and fennel. That red with that meal sounds an awful combination. It was fantastic.)

Alain Verset with his Cornas in hand.

Alain Verset with his Cornas in hand.

And “best”? Best for what? Señor X’s Mendoza malbec may be worthy of 95/100 if you believe the critics, but it’s going to swamp a selection of charcuterie chosen for a summer lunch. On the other hand, a leafy cabernet franc from the Loire valley or even Señor X’s bonarda might just be perfect. But the malbec has the higher score, it must be better! So everyone sips the impressive, full-bodied (15%!) malbec vaguely aware that solid food is passing their lips but not really able to taste it. Except to notice that it really doesn’t go with that lemony young goats cheese from the farmers’ market.

Secondly, even if we do all agree what makes a great wine, I simply don’t believe that it’s possible to give a wine a definitive score. Wines change, or at least our reaction to them changes, sometimes from one week to the next. One time a wine can seem headily aromatic, full of fruit, the next, more reserved, less expressive. It may be the surroundings, it may be the weather, it may just be our mood. Whatever the reason, the wine tastes different, yet the score – the result of a single tasting – is set in stone.

Thirdly – sadly, the list goes on – are critics’ tastebuds so highly attuned that they can say that wine X is clearly worthy of 93/100 rather than 94 or 92? (And it takes just a moment on google to see that not all reviewers give the same score to the same wine.) More importantly, as drinkers can we tell the difference? I think the short answer is no. Of course the critics, and most wine lovers, can tell the difference between dud and delicious, and hopefully many stages inbetween. But a 1% difference? We’re not marking a maths paper here where there’s a right and a wrong answer, we’re talking about a subjective opinion on somebody’s hard work.

Problem 4. The points system distorts the market. If a wine gets 90/100 it’s home and dry. A 90-point wine can be easily advertised, easily sold. A wine scoring 89 – and remember what I said about our ability to taste a 1 point difference – sits pathetically on the shelf. So lazy wine merchants gravitate towards selling 90+ wines. That, admittedly, is a problem with merchants who use headline scores as a means of marketing rather than a problem with the concept of scoring wine, but the result is reduced choice for the buyer.  (Of course for the poor, overworked merchant it is so much easier than getting to know their customers, finding out their likes and dislikes and selling them a wine that night actually might suit them.)

5. Distorting the market is one thing, but wines themselves have changed to cater to certain influential critics’ tastes. (Remember winemakers, a higher score makes a wine easier to sell. And at a higher price!) Not all wines are effected, by any means, but there has been a trend, perhaps most noticeable in Bordeaux and Napa, to make red wines “bigger”, as if size was commensurate with quality. Rich, plump fruit, BIG tannins, deep, dark colours and lashings of new oak have rarely resulted in lower scores. And where does that leave Burgundy, which majors on elegance and finesse (or at least it should do), or Beaujolais, which should be a riot of juicy, thirst-quenching fruit?

By all means buy high-scoring wines if your pocket can stretch to it. They’ll almost certainly be good, and hopefully to your taste (not always a given). But be adventurous with your wine buying, discover for yourself what you like, and remember that there are great wines with personality that don’t cost the earth.

Here’s a selection of some of my favourite everyday Rhône reds that all cost around 7€ at the cellar door. Even the winemakers themselves wouldn’t describe them as their best wines – they’re certainly not their most complex, age-worthy or serious – but they are all (in my opinion) delicious. These wines have all the personality you could wish for, but I suspect none would hit 90. And just in case, importer details are listed below.

Gabouillon 2012

Gabouillon 2012

Domaine de Gouye, “Gabouillon” 2012 – 100% unoaked syrah from a producer based in St. Joseph. The Gabouillon vineyard is up above the appellation, on the cooler plateau. Cooler means less alcohol – just 11.5%. But if you think that means weedy you’ve got another think coming. This is the essence of northern Rhône syrah – like blackcurrant leaf mixed with crushed black pepper.

La Cote. In this case the 2011.

La Côte. In this case the 2011.

Domaine Lombard, “La Côte” 2012 – another northern wine. The syrah plus a splash of viognier recipe is well-known in Côte-Rôtie, but those wines are 4-5 (and more) times the price. Pure pleasure in a glass. It doesn’t just slip down, it glides. Blackcurrant meets farmyard in the most agreeable fashion.

DSCF5657

Ze Pépé Red Ouaïne 2013

Domaine la Péquélette, “Ze Pépé Red Ouaïne” 2013 – Cédric Guillaume-Corbin makes serious, classic reds in the appellation of Vinsobres. This isn’t one of them. 100% caladoc (a grenache/malbec crossing) that bursts with juicy loganberry fruit. Served cool, it is the nearest thing the estate makes to a rosé. Except it’s red.

Vin de Copains 2013

Vin de Copains 2013

Domaine de Wilfried, ” Vin de Copains” 2013 – each year, Rasteau-based Wilfried and Réjane Pouzoulas select their fruitiest, most gluggable vat of wine and bottle it separately. In 2012, this “Mates Wine” was 100% carignan, the 2013 vintage is pure grenache. A lovely translucent ruby colour and the taste of fresh red summer berries.

DSCF5791

Le Guilleret 2013

Aurélien Chatagnier, “Le Guilleret” 2013 – back up north. Aurélien can do grand – he makes Côte-Rôtie and Condrieu, after all – but this lovely little number is from a tiny plot of gamay outside any appellation. Red cherry fruit offset by a touch of thirst-quenching acidity makes it a wine you keep coming back to for just one more glass.

You can drink any of these wines as they are, with no need for food, but they’ll all sit happily alongside a plate of sausages, a roast chicken, pasta with puttanesca – and that plate of summer charcuterie.

Santé

Paul

Where to find the wines in the UK or USA:

Domaine de Gouye – Sadly, you won’t. You’ll have to come to the Rhône.
Domaine Lombard – In the UK, Yapp Bros., who certainly deliver, and who have in fact just announced that they are selling La Côte 2012 for £10. In the USA, Lombard’s importers are Paul M Young Fine Wines in LA and Cellar to Table in NY. They should be able to point you in the direction of a local(ish) retailer.
Domaine La Péquélette – UK-wise, Vine Trail, based in Bristol but they deliver. As far as I’m aware, they only have Cédric’s “posher” wines. In the USA, the same may be true of Vin de Garde in Portland, Oregon.
Domaine de Wilfried – Nothing doing I’m afraid (but you can get the estate’s wine in Paris, Belgium and Denmark if that’s any help).
Aurélien Chatagnier – British readers can try Genesis Wines, Americans get in touch with Paris Wine Company or Fruit of the Vines

Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours. We love high-scoring wines – some of our best friends make them – but delicious comes first. If you’d like to know more about the region’s wine, feel free to browse the blog and take a look at our website – www.rhonewinetours.com. There’s also a Facebook page with lots of short pieces and photos.

 

Seyssuel, C’est Swell

October 23rd, 2014

Very few people know about the wines of Seyssuel. I suspect even fewer have tasted them. But this small wine region has a history as long as any other in the Rhône valley and the potential to rival its neighbour Côte-Rôtie.

Looking out over the vineyards of Seyssuel with the Rhone flowing past.

Looking out over the vineyards of Seyssuel with the Rhone flowing past. This vineyard belongs to the Cuilleron, Gaillard and Villard “Vins de Vienne” team.

The Seyssuel vineyards face south and southwest looking out over the river on a steep hillside just north of the town of Vienne. Traffic on the Paris-Marseille autoroute roars by at the foot of the slope. Côte-Rôtie and Condrieu lie a little to the south on the opposite bank.

Vienne was an important town in Roman Gaul (you can still see the remains of their occupation today, 2,000 years later) and according to Pliny the Elder the Romans enjoyed the local wines – apparently, there were three types of Seyssuel called Sotanum, Taburnum and Heluicum. And despite the odd hiccough –  in the harsh winter of 1563 the vines were ripped up by fighting soldiers to use as fuel – winemaking carried on in Seyssuel for the next 1,800 years. In the mid-19th century there were some 100ha (250 acres) of hillside vineyards. Then, in 1883, the phylloxera aphid arrived and within a few short years the vineyards were decimated. Although there was replanting, the First World War and the industrialisation of Vienne brought their own problems, causing a shortage of the manpower vital for working such steep slopes. It was all too much to bear – the vineyards were all but abandoned. Anybody who could still be bothered to grow grapes did so on the plateau above the river where the vineyard work was so much easier. The fact that the plateau growers chose to make bulk wine from poor-quality hybrid vines didn’t matter – the wine was destined only for the workers in the nearby factories. But in time even these vineyards disappeared as growers were encouraged to pull up hybrids and French drinking patterns changed.

Chapoutier's vineyard on the hillside above the village of Chasse-sur-Rhone. Taken on a cool, grey October day as the light was fading.

Chapoutier’s vineyard on the hillside above the village of Chasse-sur-Rhône. Taken on a cool, grey October day as the light was fading.

Skip forward to the 1990s. Three celebrated northern Rhône winemakers, Yves Cuilleron, Pierre Gaillard and François Villard, decided that the time had come to resurrect the overgrown vineyards that they would pass regularly on the drive north to Lyon. A first inspection of the site in 1995 was followed by clearing of trees and scrub and the first vines were planted in ’96. The trio were soon joined by others – Condrieu grower Louis Chèze; Alain Paret , who produces St. Joseph and Condrieu; Pierre-Jean Villa, who has vineyards in St. Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie; and more besides. Christophe Billon, who is part of the Rhône Wine Tours stable, is a member of Seyssuel winemakers’ association Vitis Vienna (although he says that his vineyard is in Vienne itself not Seyssuel), as is the famous house of Chapoutier, which has planted vines around 2 kilometres north of Seyssuel, above the village of Chasse-sur-Rhône. In the space of 20 years, Seyssuel’s vineyards have recovered from nothing to over 30ha (75 acres) farmed by 13 estates. I went to meet Vitis Vienna member Domaine Les Serines d’Or to find out more.

Damien Robelet (left) and Jerome Ogier in the fermentation cellar of Domaine Serines d'Or.

Damien Robelet (left) and Jérôme Ogier in the fermentation cellar of Domaine Les Serines d’Or.

Damien Robelet and Jérôme Ogier started the Les Serines d’Or estate in 2001, planting their first vines in 2002 and harvesting their first vintage in 2004. Unlike many of the Vitis Vienna members, they concentrate on Seyssuel, albeit with a tiny holding of just over 3 ha (around 8 acres). But like the other Seyssuel growers, they grow syrah for their two red cuvées, Les Serines d’Or (serine is the old local name for syrah) and EncOr, and viognier for their white Jad’Or. They’ve also taken over a small plot of 60 year old merlot – a grape rarely grown in the Rhône valley – situated near the small town of Roussillon, south of Vienne. Although the estate is small, it’s already had recognition – La Revue du Vin de France, the main French wine magazine, has given them very good reviews and they won gold for the best Seyssuel wine with their 2011 Serines d’Or, beating the celebrated Yves Cuilleron into second place in the process. (You can read more about the estate – in French only, I’m afraid – on the estate’s website by clicking here. You can also read my tasting notes on their wines from my recent blog on the St. Péray wine fair by clicking on the link here.)

Les Serines d'Or line-up. The rocks show the make up of the vineyard soils, while the certificate at the bottom was awarded to Encore 2011 by the Un Vin Presque Parfait  ("An Almost Perfect Wine") Wine Guide 2014.

Les Serines d’Or line-up. The rocks show the make up of the vineyard soils, while the certificate you can just see at the bottom was awarded to Encore 2011 by the Un Vin Presque Parfait (“An Almost Perfect Wine”) Wine Guide 2014.

Both their  families made wine in the past – various parents and grandparents made wine on the plateau and even kept a tiny plot of hillside vines to boost the strength of the more feeble plateau product. Now Jérôme’s main business is fruit and fruit products (including a range of fruit flavoured eaux-de-vie – follow this link for more information) but there is a workman-like fermentation cellar attached to his house as well as a cunningly hidden barrel-ageing cellar underneath, which was where we tasted the maturing reds.

We all know that ageing wine in oak barrels affects the flavour of the finished product. But did you know how great an impact even the source of the barrel can have? With Damien and Jérôme, I tasted 7 or 8 samples of 2013 syrah lifted straight from barrels made by different coopers. While the source of wine inside was the same, one barrel gave the syrah rich plum and chocolate fruit, another aromas of blueberry, yet others bright red berry fruit flavours. My favourite wine, which came from a barrel called “Seduction” made by Tonnellerie Vernou in the Cognac region, was sleek, well-defined, graceful. But Damien and Jérôme’s skill is in blending these different elements to give the wine its final balance. A bottle of the Les Serines d’Or 2010 drunk that evening with friends proved how good they are at that – black cherry and blackcurrant were supported by (but not dominated by) toasty oak, the tannins had begun to soften and the wine had great length. (In passing, I should say that the merlot was very tasty too, direct from the barrel – as much about Rhône terroir as grape variety.) 

Damien at the St. Peray wine fair.

Damien at the St. Peray wine fair.

And what about the Côte-Rôtie comparisons? They are perhaps inevitable given Seyssuel’s close proximity and their shared use of syrah (and viognier, for that matter). Not only that, the two regions share the same mica-schist soils. Facing south-southeast, Côte-Rôtie catches the morning sun while Seyssuel, on the other bank of the Rhône, enjoys a warmer end to the day. (In its sheltered position with its warm micro-climate, ripeness is rarely a problem. Indeed, Barbary figs, which normally appear much further south, also grow here.) In short, when you taste the wines there is a clear family resemblance. But I would go further and argue that wines like Les Serines d’Or or Yves Cuilleron’s Ripa Sinistra shame many C-R’s. And it’s worth noting that Damien and Jérôme’s Jad’Or viognier trumps many a Condrieu.

This is Côte-Rôtie, snapped on a grey day in Spring. Notice how the vines are grown up crossed poles, as in Seyssuel. Other than the lack of foliage, the scene is similar to the one above.

This is Cote-Rotie, snapped on a grey day in Spring. Notice how the vines are grown up crossed poles, as in Seyssuel. Other than the lack of foliage, the scene is very similar to the one above.

So what are the downsides? Well, even the oldest vineyard in Seyssuel hasn’t yet hit 20, so some of the wines can lack a bit of old vine stuffing (although you could equally argue that this shows how great the potential is once the vines are older, given the quality that’s already being achieved). And, if you’re worried about such things, Seyssuel wines don’t have an Appellation Contrôlée label. Because the vineyards didn’t exist when the appellations were being handed out, they are classified as Vin de Pays (or IGP) wines under catch-all Collines Rhodaniennes heading, which can cause problems for the winemakers, especially in their home market.

Christophe Billon's "La Batie" sitting alongside his Condrieu and Cote-Rotie.

Christophe Billon’s “La Bâtie” sitting alongside his Condrieu and Côte-Rôtie.

Like Côte-Rôtie, like Condrieu or Hermitage for that matter, Seyssuel is a hillside vineyard region where mechanisation is all but impossible, meaning labour costs are high. In addition, the Vitis Vienna members have made a conscious decision to go all out for quality, working with very low yields and expensive, high-quality oak. All these things push up the price of the wine. Serines d’Or is priced in the mid-20€ bracket and EncOr around 17€; when I was a wine merchant in London selling Ripa Sinistra it was around £35 a bottle, and that was several years ago. However, much of the French public won’t even consider paying those sorts of prices for something  classified as a “country wine”. The winemakers are struggling to get out of this hole and have collectively submitted a dossier requesting appellation status, initially as a part of the Côtes du Rhône family (thus turning the most expensive Vin de Pays into the most expensive CdR – marketing-wise, not great progress in my opinion), with the intention of being granted “Cru” status, like its neighbours, in the long term. Damien suggested that a Rhône satellite appellation – like that given to the Ventoux region – might be the solution. A response to the submission should come before the year end, according to press reports.

I imagine that English-speaking countries care much less about the niceties of appellation status and are more concerned with quality, but that forces small-scale winemakers like Damien and Jérôme into exploring the export market. I certainly wish them all the best as their wines deserve a wider audience.

Santé

Paul

Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours. If you’d like to go and see what makes Seyssuel special, get in touch and we can see if Damien and Jérôme are free. They would especially like to meet you if you are a wine importer with a love of fantastic syrah from obscure Rhône wine regions. In the meantime, you can explore the rest of the blogs and check out our Facebook page where most of our photos and short pieces get posted.

Hip, Hip, Péray

September 17th, 2014

Once a year the small town of St Péray wakes from its slumber. At the start of September the local winemakers gather for the annual wine fair and then, within days, the grape harvest begins. By mid-October, everything is back to sleepy normality.

St. Péray is a white wine-only appellation making still and sparkling wines from the local marsanne and roussanne grapes, but the wine fair welcomes plenty of winemakers from neighbouring Cornas, Crozes-Hermitage and St Joseph, as well as a few who have travelled from further afield, so there’s no lack of choice if you prefer reds.

This year there were more than 70 producers present and hundreds of different wines. It’s impossible to list them all, so here are a few of my favourites.

Domaine Gérard Courbis

Gérard Courbis

Gérard Courbis

There’s another, better-known estate called simply Domaine Courbis, also making St. Joseph. But I liked Gérard’s chalky, brambly, mid-weight St. Joseph Tradition 2012.

Domaine de Fontavin

Hélène Chouvet

Hélène Chouvet

Hélène Chouvet, based on the outskirts of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, has vineyards there and at Vacqueyras and Gigondas, too. But it was her Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise 2011 that I particularly enjoyed – rich and sweet, tasting of honey and apricot jam, with a bright, pineapple-like acidity.

Domaine de Rosiers

Maxime Gourdain

Maxime Gourdain

Maxime Gourdain’s Côte-Rôtie Classique 2011 is highly enjoyable and at 30€ good value (sorry, that’s just the way it is when it comes to C-R pricing). Mid-weight, with a subtle richness and flavours of black cherry, hedgerow fruit and a touch of coffee bean. It’s still young though, so a bit of patience is going to be required (and even more so for the 2012).

Rémy Nodin

This is Madame Naudin - Rémy is her husband.

This is Madame Naudin – Rémy is her husband.

Rémy Nodin’s St. Péray Mousseaux Extra Brut is the best St. Péray fizz I have ever tasted. The purity and almost chalky dryness are delicious.

The still St. Péray “La Beylesse” 2012 is 100% marsanne from 30 year old+ vines. 11 months oak ageing has left its mark without masking the crème anglaise and yellow plum fruit.

His Crozes Hermitage “Le Mazet” 2013 and St. Joseph “Guilherand” 2013 were my first chance to taste serious(ish) northern reds from a challenging vintage. Because of cool, wet spring weather, the vines flowered late, the grapes’ development was delayed and harvest didn’t start until October. There was always a chance that the northern reds especially would feel thin and under-ripe. But there was no need to worry, at least if Rémy’s wines are anything to go by – his Crozes is dark, creamy and ripe. Black cherry meets flowers and licorice. The St. Jo, as it should, has more angular tannins and more noticeable acidity, and is a really good example of northern Rhône syrah. The two wines are proper reflections of their different terroirs.

Johann Michel

Johann Michel in his tasting room.

Johann Michel in his tasting room.

Johann’s St. Péray 2013 isn’t as rich as the 2012, but even so the fresh acidity is nicely balanced by classic marsanne creaminess. It’s dry but makes me think of toffee apples (plus a hint of fennel leaf). “Not terrible” was Johann’s joking comment.

Domaine les Serines d’Or

Damien Robelet

Damien Robelet

Jérôme Ogier and Damien Robelet have their vines in Seyssuel, a vineyard area that could be even older than nearby Côte-Rôtie (so let’s say 2,000 years+) but one that has only been resurrected in the last twenty years after almost a century of post-phylloxera abandonment.

Jad’Or 2013 is 100% viognier. Powerful violet aromas come through after initial stone fruit. Oak doesn’t dominate at all, just lends a bit of breadth to the mid-palate. It’s 25€ at the cellar door, but I’d have to say worth it – many Condrieus (what is the plural of Condrieu?) would fall far short of this.

For me, the EncOr cuvée has too much oak ageing to allow the syrah fruit to really sing. Serines d’Or 2010, on the other hand, despite spending 30 months in barrel, can handle it. The style is modern, rich and velvety, with deep, dark fruit, but it certainly still tastes like a northern Rhône red. And better than many Côte-Rôties.

Domaine Lombard

Julien Montagnon and his wines. And me making notes.

Julien Montagnon and his wines. And me making notes.

Interesting to taste the Croze-Hermitage 2012 and Brézème “Eugène de Monicault” 2012 side by side – same vintage, same grape (syrah) and same alcohol level (just 12.5% – hurrah!). C-H is the better known wine region and Julien Montagnon’s is bright, pure and floral. Lovely wine. The Brézème is fuller, richer and more structured. It, too, is excellent. There’s just a one euro difference in price, so it all comes down to personal preference.

Domaine de Gouye

Sylvie Desbos. Not the best photo ever. Sorry Sylvie.

Sylvie Desbos. Not the best photo ever. Sorry Sylvie.

I know these wines well, but that didn’t stop me from stopping by to taste Sylvie and Philippe Desbos’ St. Joseph Blanc 2012. 100% unoaked marsanne, it’s a lovely combination of apple turnover and acacia flower. As sweet as that may sound, it’s absolutely dry.

Domaine Wilfried

Réjane leads the estate with her brother Wilfried, but at the fair she was with her husband.

Réjane Pouzoulas leads the estate with her brother Wilfried, but at the fair she was with her husband.

Again I know Wilfried’s wines, but I don’t get to taste the Rasteau Vin Doux 2003 very often. And what a treat – deliberate oxidation gives the wine its walnut-like character, while there’s plenty of confit orange rind in there too. Like Christmas in a glass, it would be amazing with a piece of Stilton.

Elie Bancel

Elie

Elie Bancel

Elie makes just one wine. His Cornas 2012 is very traditional – a bit rustic, slightly grainy with spicy hedgerow fruit. It reminds me of a dusty country lane in summer. It runs against almost everything that modern wine is supposed to be. So I liked it a lot.

Alain Verset

Emmanuelle with two blokes with not much hair - Alain on the left and me on the right.

Emmanuelle with two blokes with not much hair – Alain on the left and me on the right.

Alain’s daughter Emmanuelle had been named St. Péray Wine Queen and was dressed for the occasion while Alain was busy showing off his Cornas 2009 and 2010. In some ways the style is similar to Elie Bancel’s – Alain makes traditional tannic Cornas – but the wines are darker fruited and spicier, more exotic on the nose. Both vintages are still young, so for now I’ll carry on drinking my dwindling stock of ’06, ’07 and ’08. (Yes, I do like his wines).

Jacques Lemenicier

Jacques Lemencier

Jacques Lemencier

For one reason and another I hadn’t managed to meet up with Jacques all year, but we bumped into each other in the café at the wine fair and I did at least get to taste his wines.

St. Péray Cuvée de l’Elégance 2013 was my favourite St. P of the day. It really is elegant, with great balance and expertly judged oak. Creamy with ripe pear fruit and just a hint of bitter almond. Delicious.

Jacques’ Cornas 2012 isn’t the biggest, and in style is as far removed from Elie Bancel’s as possible. Silky, refined, subtly rich with red berry fruit.

Domaine Betton

Christelle and her mum

Christelle Betton and her mum

Christelle Betton’s white Crozes-Hermitage “Crystal” 2013 has a creamy texture and a spicy, mineral finish that reminds me of Hatzidakis’s Santorini whites. Very good, but her Hermitage “Arpège” 2012 is something else again. Stunning wine, with greengage, yellow plum, acacia, toast and smoke. The palate is rich, powerful and structured. You can drink it now with pleasure, but I suspect it’s got a ten year life, and then some. 40€ and worth every penny (or cent).

Domaine J-C Raspail

St Peray 2014 050

Frédéric Raspail

There is no need to analyse Frédéric Raspail’s Clairette-de-Die Tradition too closely. Just enjoy it for what it is – a delicious, smile-inducing sparkling wine that tastes of apples and elderflowers. Fred is the best producer of Clairette there is. End of discussion.

Not all of these producers export their wines to the UK and/or USA (Domaine de Gouye, for example) but many of them do. If you want to find the wines near you I would suggest looking at www.wine-searcher.com or googling the producer’s name.

Santé and happy hunting.

Paul

Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours, where I try to give unbiased views about wines I’ve tasted (although enthusiasm often gets in the way of professional distance). If you’d like to see more blogs just browse away. You could also take a peek at the Facebook page, which has lots more photos and a lot less text. You could even contact us to arrange a tour or a wine tasting at info@rhonewinetours.com

 

Two for One

August 13th, 2014

For the fourth blog in my short (and very occasional) series on favourite wine writing you get two for the price of one because, uniquely, Rosemary George has multiple books on the list. Both are there for the same reason – they take lesser known wine regions and make you want to explore them.

French Country Wines by Rosemary George (or maybe you'd worked that out already)

French Country Wines by Rosemary George (or maybe you’d worked that out already)

French Country Wines was just one of a fantastic series of wine books published by Faber and Faber in the 1980s and 90s, but this is the one I go back to more often than any other. It includes detailed information on all of France’s lesser-known wine appellations while ignoring completely the likes of Bordeaux and Burgundy. While that appeals to the inverted snob in me, what makes the book a pleasure to read is the quality of Rosemary George’s writing. This isn’t a dry collection of facts or a list of scores out of 100 but a lovingly rendered description of the regions and their winemakers.

Of course, in wine terms it’s largely out of date, harking back to a time when wines like Marcillac were barely surviving and the wine revolution in the Languedoc had hardly started. Now you can find Marcillac on the shelves of adventurous UK wine merchants and supermarket shelves are awash with Pays d’Oc. Even so, there are wines mentioned that you will struggle to find outside their local regions and if you’re travelling in France the book still serves as a useful reference guide. And it’s still a good read.

The Wines of Chablis spends most of its time discussing, well, Chablis, but it’s the small section on the other vineyards of the Yonne region that makes this book special. When George writes about the northern Burgundies made in the villages of Irancy, St. Bris or Coulanges, or around the towns of Tonnerre, Joigny and Auxerre, there is an element of social history and nostalgia that I find attractive – frequently it feels like she is penning the obituaries of dying wines, that without her writing they would disappear without a trace.

The Wines of Chablis

The Wines of Chablis

At the time (the book was published in 1984), Irancy was already recovering from its post-war low, but elsewhere there were a often just a few acres of vines planted here, another patch there, while many winemakers were old, with nobody destined to replace them. The book contains reprints of detailed maps from the early 1900s showing once famous vineyards like (the unfortunately named) Migraines or Quétards that by the 1980s had disappeared, often swallowed by urban expansion.

An updated version, The Wines of Chablis and the Grand Auxerrois, printed in 2007, still devotes most of its pages to Chablis but it paints a far rosier picture of the rest of region. A new generation of winemakers has come along, in the process replanting some of the long lost vineyards, while Yonne wines, although hardly common outside their immediate locality, are available in the UK and USA. But while the new edition has plenty of colour photos that the original lacks and is the more up to date as a reference guide, it has lost the maps and (naturally) the sense of nostalgia for better times, which for me made up a lot of the book’s charm.

Both books, or three if you count the updated version, should be available with a bit of searching on Amazon. Happy hunting and happy reading, perhaps with a glass of Marcillac or chilled St. Bris at your side.

Santé

Paul

Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours, where I have the nerve to comment on other people’s writing. I also write about anything else Rhône food and wine-related that takes my fancy. Feel free to have a look around. There’s also a Facebook page with plenty of shorter bits and pieces and, last but by no means least, the Rhône Wine Tours website, which you’re only allowed to look at if you promise to book a tour or a tasting.

We Do More Than Tours

July 24th, 2014

Rhône Wine Tours has had a fantastic year so far, and the bookings just keep rolling in (which is why this is my first blog in a long time). But one nagging question remains: why don’t more people want wine tastings?

Preparing for a tasting.

Preparing for a tasting.

I can easily understand that most people contacting us want to visit the vineyards and meet the winemakers that produce the famous wines that they’ve drunk at home. I’d want to do that, too. But while the wine tastings can’t hope to offer the same experience, they have one distinct advantage: when you’re touring you’re restricted to visiting either the northern or the southern vineyards because the distances mean it’s too difficult to do both in one day. But with a wine tasting we can flit about as much as we like, meaning that a white Crozes-Hermitage can be followed by a white Châteauneuf-du-Pape and a hearty Gigondas can sit happily alongside a tannic Cornas.

Left to Right: The fizz has been opened and there are nine wines left, including whites from Rasteau, St. Peray and Brezeme and reds from Crozes-Hermitage, Cornas, Cairanne and Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Not to mention a bit of sweet Beaumes-de-Venise.

Same venue, different tasting. From right to left: The fizz has been opened and there are nine wines left, with whites from Rasteau, St. Peray and Brezeme and reds from Crozes-Hermitage, Cornas, Cairanne, Ste. Cecile-les-Vignes and Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Not to mention a bit of sweet Beaumes-de-Venise.

In many ways you learn more than you do from touring. That said, the aim isn’t to present a lecture; it’s all about tasting great wines from the Rhône in a relaxed atmosphere and if a bit of info sinks in at the same time, well that’s great. There’s a tasting for everyone, from the enthusiastic wine drinker who knows simply that they like Côtes-du-Rhône all the way through to those of you who know the name of every vineyard in Hermitage.

There is another advantage that tastings have, and one not to be sniffed at – price. The starting price for a tour for two people is 240€, whereas we offer tastings for up to ten people from 120€. That’s as little as 12€ per head for a tasting that could include say Châteauneuf, Gigondas and St. Joseph as well as great Côtes-du-Rhône and CdR Villages. And if you want to taste only the most exclusive wines (although not at 120€, sadly) well we can lay on a tasting of Côte-Rôtie, Hermitage and Châteauneuf  (or just about anything else you fancy) that will please the most demanding of palates. One recent tasting of northern Rhone wines included a comparison of two Condrieu, red and white St. Joseph, red and white Hermitage, Côte-Rôtie, Cornas, Crozes-Hermitage and St. Péray. Not a bad little line-up.

The theme this time was wines from the Drome. Starting from the left: Clairette-de-Die, Coteaux des Baronnies, Brezeme, Coteaux des Baronnies, two Crozes-Hermitage, Brezeme, two Vinsobres. The interloper, a sweet red Rasteau, was served with Valrhone chocolate, also from the Drome.

The theme this time was wines from the Drome. Starting from the left: Clairette-de-Die, Coteaux des Baronnies, Brezeme, Coteaux des Baronnies, two Crozes-Hermitage, Brezeme, two Vinsobres. The interloper, a sweet red Rasteau (not in shot), was served with Valrhona chocolate, also from the Drome.

We even leave the opened bottles with you. So you’re not just paying for the teeny samples that most tastings supply, you’re getting whole bottles for your money. I did the maths recently on one of the tastings: 130€ had paid for ten different wines, 10 bottles, for an English group and that if those wines, or their nearest available equivalents, had been bought in the UK the cost would have been more than the just-over £100 we were charging. In other words, the group had bought ten lovely wines and my services were essentially a free added bonus.

Ah, you may say, but I don’t have the facilities to run a tasting. That’s why we turn up with everything you need – the wines, obviously; proper tasting glasses; tasting sheets; pens; maps; a decanter and spittoon; even our own corkscrew, just in case (although the thought of a wine drinker not having a corkscrew on hand is, admittedly, a bit remote). And if you want to do a bit of cheese and wine matching, we’ll bring along artisan bread and fromage. And plates, knives and napkins.

Sadly, I have to spit.

Sadly, I have to spit.

The only thing we don’t supply is the space. It doesn’t take a lot – this year we’ve sat around tables under trees, by the sides of pools, in dining rooms, in living rooms – but it probably does require a holiday home or some form of rented accommodation rather than a hotel room.

I would invite you round to my place but that would mean you drinking and driving, which is never a good idea. So hopefully see you soon at yours.

Santé,

Paul

Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours. Maybe if we’d called ourselves Rhône Wine Tastings the take-up might be better. You can read all about our tours and TASTINGS! on our website – www.RhoneWineTours.com – and you can follow us on Facebook, where there are lots of photographs and shorter pieces. Just click on the links.

 

 

Vinsobres – A Little-Known Treasure in the Southern Rhône

June 5th, 2014

In the Rhône wine hierarchy, Vinsobres sits alongside Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas, one of the eight southern “Cru” wines with its own appellation. But regardless of the official ranking, it’s fair to say that its fame is nowhere near that of its neighbours. And the great news is that means that you can find some delicious wines at affordable prices.

The village of Vinsobres in late autumn, after the leaves on the vines have turned golden.

The village of Vinsobres in late autumn, after the leaves on the vines have turned golden.

The appellation of Vinsobres is named after a small, hilltop village in the south of the Drôme departement, which makes it near the northern limit of the southern Côtes du Rhône region. Compared to the other southern Cru – Gigondas and CdP included – Vinsobres is a touch cooler, a result partly of the (very) slightly more northerly latitude, but more importantly due to a marked mountain influence. Indeed the village looks across the valley of the Eygues river to the Baronnies hills, which are effectively the first foothills of the Alps. In Vinsobres itself the vineyards climb up to 450m, about 1450 feet.

The typical "terroir" of Vinsobres - clay and limestone soils with lots of stones.

The typical “terroir” of Vinsobres – clay and limestone soils with lots of stones.

Without wanting to stretch the point, after all the vineyards can be extremely hot in summer, the cooler climate means that wines are recognisably different to those of their neighbours, with higher acidity levels than, say, the typical Châteauneuf. That brings a fresher feel to the wine and clear definition to the flavours, which tend towards blackcurrant, black cherry and peppery spice. Syrah does particularly well in Vinsobres.

The extra acidity combines with the tannins to produce reds that can age amazingly well: although I’ve read on a number of occasions that Vinsobres should be drunk young, I’ve tasted wines with Cédric Guillaume-Corbin of Domaine La Péquélette that were still in good form after 20 years. His 2010s are magnificent but still young – dense, dark and brooding, concentrated but not heavy.

Cedric Guillaume-Corbin

Cédric Guillaume-Corbin

You notice that I talk about the red wines of Vinsobres. There are some extremely attractive whites and rosés made around the village, but none of them have the right to the Vinsobres appellation. When the red wines were granted their own appellation contrôlée  in 2005, backdated to the 2004 vintage, the rest were “relegated” from their former status of “Côtes du Rhône Villages Vinsobres” and are sold as simple Côtes-du-Rhône or CdR Villages without the village name appearing. That seems particularly hard on producers like Domaine Chaume-Arnaud and Domaine du Moulin, which both make lovely whites, but says more about French politics than it does about the quality of the wine – what the French wine authorities give with one hand they take away with another. The producers have applied for the whites also to be given the Vinsobres appellation, which would right matters, but as ever with French bureaucracy, these things take time.

The Vinson family run Domaine du Moulin

The Vinson family run Domaine du Moulin

One factor helping put Vinsobres on the wine map is the fact that the Perrin family, owners of world-famous Châteauneuf-du-Pape estate,  Château de Beaucastel, have bought 60 hectares (150 acres) of land within the appellation. If that raises the profile of the appellation, well that’s great, but I have to say that I’ve not been blown away by the Perrin wine I’ve tasted and still prefer the Vinsobres of some of the less high-profile producers. Here’s my shortlist of names to look out for:

Domaine La Péquélette – available from Vine Trail in the UK and in Selfridges wine section (now there’s posh for you), and through Vin de Garde in the USA.

Domaine Chaume-Arnaud – Berry Brothers & Rudd sell their wines in the UK (which is, if anything, even posher than Selfridges), Woodland Hills Wine Co in LA is listing their delicious Vinsobres 2011.

Domaine du Moulin – Bestvaluewines.com in NY state has the Vinsons’ top cuvée.

Richard Jaume

Richard Jaume

Domaine Jaume – Anconas Wines and West Side Wines, both in Conneticut, are listing Jaume wines. In the UK, try L’Assemblage in Sussex or the Wine Society.

But really, if you find any Vinsobres, give it a try. They’re southern Rhône wines with their own je ne sais quoi.

Happy hunting and santé,

Paul

Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours. If you’d like to see for yourself why we like Vinsobres so much, just get in touch – all our contact details are on the website – www.RhoneWineTours.com.

And, finally, no article on Vinsobres is allowed to get away without mentioning the following quote: “Vin Sobre ou Sobre Vin, Prenez le Sobrement” (“Sober Wine or Wine of Sobriety, Drink it Soberly”)

That comes from Monseigneur de Suarès who was the local Bishop of Vaison-la-Romaine in 1633. I guess it was the way he said it.

Cornas – The Northern Rhône’s Best Kept Secret

May 8th, 2014

There are more famous wine regions in the Rhône Valley. There are wine regions with greater reputations. But it’s the little village of Cornas that makes some of the best value red wines in the northern Rhône.

The steep terraced vineyards of Cornas.

The steep terraced vineyards of Cornas in winter.

While you’ll be lucky to see any change from 30€ for a bottle of Côte-Rôtie bought at the cellar door, and red Hermitage tends to start somewhat north of that, good, often great Cornas can be had for less than 20€. Even the top cuvée from a fabulous winemaker like Johann Michel will set you back only 35€. Hardly cheap, I grant you, but a bargain when put up against the wines of its neighbours. And as Cornas, Côte-Rôtie and red Hermitage share the same grape variety – syrah – and similar steep hillside vineyards (up to 60º slopes in Cornas) with similar granite soils, it’s hardly surprising that there’s a family resemblance. All of which may explain why I work with four Cornas “vignerons”, as many as in any other appellation, and why there is more Cornas in my cellar than any other northern Rhône red. (You could argue that the vineyards of St. Joseph share all those attributes and its wines are even cheaper, and you’d be right, but there the vines face more east than south so, as much as I love a good St. Jo rouge, the wines are less ripe and less grand. Their qualities are different.)

The typical granite soil.

The typical granite soil. It’s spring and the young vines have just started to produce leaves.

It’s not even as if the wines of Côte-Rôtie and Hermitage are rarer. The Cornas vineyards cover 130 ha (about 320 acres), almost exactly the same area as Hermitage. And given the boundaries of the appellation and the nature of the terrain there’s little room for growth. In comparison, Côte-Rôtie is more than twice the size. And if we’re talking about history, well Cornas has that too: the Romans probably had vines in Cornas 2,000 years ago. By the 10th century, the Canon of Viviers was writing that the church in Cornas was “surrounded by vines”.

One thing Cornas hasn’t got is a long history of bottling and exporting its wines. Until the 1950s, much of the wine was still being sold by the winemakers “en vrac”, that’s to say in bulk, to local restaurants who would sell by the glass or by the carafe straight from the barrel, or to private individuals who would carry out their own bottling. It was only once a small number of merchant houses, particularly Paul Jaboulet and Delas Frères, started buying and blending wines from smaller producers and bottling the results under their own labels that Cornas started to be seen outside the immediate region.

Mika outside his cellar

Cornas winemaker Mickaël Bourg outside his cellar

Cornas’s reputation is as a full, burly wine, the country cousin of the more civilised Hermitage, a wine that needs many years for its fierce tannins to soften before becoming drinkable. That may have been true at one time, but that reputation is certainly exaggerated now – there’s a whole generation of producers making wines that lack nothing in concentration but which can be enjoyed in their relative youth: Mickaël Bourg’s 2011 “Les P’tits Bouts” has been delicious almost from the day it was bottled and the 2012 is promising to be almost as precocious (admittedly, his 2009 is still a bit of a monster); I tasted (and bought) Johann Michel’s 2012 “Classique” recently and although it would be a shame to drink it so young – it will only get better with age – it’s very easy to enjoy right now.

Johann Michel in his tasting room.

Johann Michel in his tasting room.

Jacques Lemenicier has a large part of his vines sited high up in the appellation, at around 300 metres. The slightly cooler temperature up towards the top of the hillside helps give his wines real finesse and elegance, rivaling many a Côte-Rôtie, without any sense that his wines are green or unripe. Of the producers I work with, only Alain Verset makes a wine that is determinedly traditional: no destemming of the bunches, a basket press for squeezing the handpicked grapes, maximum extraction, old rather than new barrels. His wine is equally delicious in its own way but does require a little more patience. Even so, the 2006, ’07 and, especially, ’08 are perfect for drinking now, less for the fruit (typically blackcurranty when the wine is young) and more for a whole host of spice flavours including cinnamon, clove and sandalwood. And that 2008 is available right now for just 17€, that’s about £14 or 22$.

Alain and Emmanuelle Verset with the vineyards of Cornas behind them.

Alain and Emmanuelle Verset with the vineyards of Cornas behind them.

It would be remiss of me to not mention a few other producers – even if I don’t work with them, I’m not that biased. Auguste Clape is the star name in the region, although his wines aren’t cheap in anybody’s book; Stéphane Robert’s Domaine de Tunnel and Vincent Paris both make some delicious wines; I’ve never been disappointed by Alain Voge’s Vieilles Vignes wine; and Delas is also making very good Cornas at the moment. But whoever’s name you come across at your nearest wine merchant, the wine will be worth a try. It won’t be Hermitage or Côte-Rôtie, but it will be proudly Cornas.

Santé

Paul

Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours. If you’d like to visit the region to see for yourself why we love Cornas you know who to contact. We also have a Facebook page with an ever-growing list of likes where you can keep in touch with what’s going on. Just follow the links.

Tasting in Tain – Part 2

April 3rd, 2014

The annual wine fair in Tain l’Hermitage brings out the great and the good of Hermitage and Crozes-Hermitage, as you might expect, but there are lots of hardy souls who make slightly longer journeys to show off their wines. So while Part 1 of this round-up was all about the locals, Part 2 looks at the producers who came from Condrieu, Côte-Rôtie and northern St. Joseph.

The Tain Salon was 30 years old this year

The Tain Salon was 30 years old this year

Most producers were showing off their 2012s, with a few still pushing their 2011s. Although the two vintages have certain similarities, in general the 2011s are more upfront, more obviously fruity, while the 2012s have more structure, more backbone and will need longer to reach their best.

2012 has generally been kind to the whites of the northern Rhône – the best wines have depth and power but aren’t flabby or overblown. This isn’t always an easy balance to strike with naturally low-acid grapes like marsanne and, especially, viognier, where it is possible to have too much of a good thing. My ideal Condrieu certainly has viognier’s expressive, even exotic fruit – apricot, roses, violet, orange blossom – and the suggestion of oak is no bad thing (just not lots of toasty new oak, thank you), but what I’m looking for more than anything is a rich, full palate – creamy rather than buttery – underscored by something mineral, as if you can taste the granite soils in which the vines grow. The marsannes of St. Joseph may not be as exotic, with apple and almond being the typical flavours, but they can be every bit as mineral. And they can age well, too.

The 2012 reds are more patchy than the whites. I have no problem with a St. Jo with a bit of bite, a suggestion that the grapes were only just ripe when they were picked. I love the light, aromatic leafiness of certain northern Rhône syrahs (Domaine de Gouye’s simple Vin de Table  2012 being a perfect 11.7° alcohol example) just as I’m happy to drink big leathery Barossa shiraz, but some of the 2012s I tasted were downright stalky and green. And the higher tannins and less immediate fruit of the ’12s compared to the ’11s accentuate any under-ripeness. Happily, though, there are plenty of delicious reds if you shop around. Côte-Rôtie in particular has produced some great wines, as it should at those prices.

So without further ado, here are the wines from the Lyon end of the northern Rhône.

Domaine Boissonnet

Domaine Boissonet

Domaine Boissonnet

The St. Joseph Blanc 2012 (80% marsanne, 20% roussanne) is hardly shy in its use of oak, but alongside that there’s an attractive yellow plum nose. At the moment, the palate can’t quite match the nose for intensity, but certainly very pleasant drinking. The Condrieu 2012 also has oak, but there’s lots of ripe fruit there too, with flavours of apricot and orange flower water. Not the fullest or richest Condrieu, but the balance is good.

Mad Wines in Seattle and AOC Wines in LA are both listing Boissonnet wines on www.wine-searcher.com

Domaine Barou

Domaine Barou

Domaine Barou

The estate covers 10ha (about 25 acres) and has been organic for “about 40 years”. The St. Joseph Rouge 2012, “Un Autre Monde” is on the stalkier end of St. Jo, typical of many of the 2012s from the northern end of the appellation. It mixes raspberry and briar fruit. It’s a style that I find very easy to get on with, but I suspect some people would want a bit more flesh. Given a year to soften, I think it will have wider appeal. The Condrieu 2012 is highly perfumed but lacks a little definition.

Chambers Street Wines in NY has a good range of Barou wines.

Domaine Eliane et Sandrine Bonnefond

Domaine Bonnefond

Domaine Eliane et Sandrine Bonnefond

A tiny 2 hectare (5 acre) estate run by mother and daughter team of Eliane and Sandrine Bonnefond. Their one wine, a Côte-Rôtie 2011, is a blend of 92% syrah, 8% viognier. By any normal standards of wine appreciation, you would have to say that the wine isn’t anywhere near the best in the appellation. For a start it’s rustic, with a nose that mixes a chalky, dusty earthiness with stalky, slightly under-ripe bramble fruit. But it also has an honesty about it, a juicy, tasty country wine-ness I like. The problem is that being a Côte-Rôtie it costs 23€.

Domaine François Merlin

Domaine Francois Merlin

Domaine François Merlin

The St. Joseph Rouge 2012 spent a year in a mixture of demi-muid barrels and smaller barriques. I was left with the impression that the wine had been worked hard to push forward the inky fruit. That said, John Livingstone-Learmonth, the Rhône expert whose opinion is worth taking note of, thinks that this is a laid-back wine that’s easy to appreciate (I paraphrase). Hmmm.

The Côte-Rôtie 2012, 100% syrah, also came across as rather forced. Admittedly, it’s very young and closed up, which never makes tasting a wine easy, but I’m not convinced this will gain finesse or a silky texture with age. It certainly has power, but it isn’t carried lightly.

François Corompt

Francois Corompt

François Corompt

A delight. François Corompt has only 2 ha of vineyard, almost all given over to white grapes. He seems a shy young man (there isn’t even an email address on his business card) and his wines don’t scream for attention either. His Côtes-du-Rhône Blanc 2012 is pure viognier, from a vineyard outside the Condrieu appellation. It has classic viognier aromas of stone fruit and flowers; it’s fresh, lively, well-balanced (although naturally more delicate than a Condrieu) and has a creamy texture. And all for 9€. The Condrieu 2012 has the same unforced, easy-going style -its richness comes across as natural rather than imposed through cellar manipulation and showy winemaking. It’s less floral than the CdR, but gains in weight and concentration. And at 21€ it’s right at the bottom end of Condrieu pricing.

Both wines are bargains, but sadly I can’t find anybody who stocks his wine. 

Domaine Louis Clerc 

The Condrieu 2011 had weight, texture, aromatics and even a certain freshness, all the things you would look for in a Condrieu. But I was left with a strong sense of “so what?”. I thought the same when I tasted the wine in Lyon last November. It may be me.

Domaine Grangier

Domaine Grangier

Domaine Grangier

Their Condrieu “Les Terraces” 2012 is over-oaked for my taste, but the wine underneath is pretty good. There’s a fine balance of weight and freshness and like all good Condrieu, it’s powerfully aromatic – in this case the wine plays up viognier’s floral side with rose petal and violet. If you like your wines with a full compliment of oak, drink it now, otherwise leave it a few months for the oak to integrate.

The St. Joseph Rouge 2012 was rather overwhelmed by the Condrieu that came before it. There’s briary red fruit, but this is a northern sector St. Jo that’s a bit green around the edges.

Nicolas Badel, Les Grandes Vignes

Domaine Nicolas badel

Domaine Nicolas Badel

I so wanted to like these wines as Monsieur Badel seems such a passionate man, but in the end I just couldn’t give them an unreserved thumbs up. The Condrieu 2012 is a relatively delicate style, floral more than stone fruity with a pleasant creamy texture. But its lack of real depth suggests that the vines are young. His IGP syrah 2012 was very reduced, leaving it smelling like burning tyres. Frankly, it was difficult to see beyond that. The St. Joseph Rouge 2012 has nice juicy blueberry and black cherry fruit in a simple, easy-going style. Despite its supposedly lower status, another IGP syrah, “Intuition 2011” was the best of the lot. It’s modern, with plenty of oak, but has more weight, richness and darker fruit than the St. Jo, as well as a touch of roast coffee on the nose.

Domaine Facchin

The one red wine from Domaine Facchin, an IGP syrah

The one red wine from Domaine Facchin, an IGP syrah

A small estate that grows mainly white grapes.

The Viognier 2011 is quite delicate and doesn’t make a big play of being viognier. Initially, you might even mistake its subtlety for diluteness. But then comes an impression of drinking from a clear, bright mountain stream. There’s lovely purity to the wine.

The Condrieu “Les Grandes Maisons” 2011 comes from a single vineyard of the same name. It’s clearly Condrieu, but again subtlety is the key. The wine is a model of clarity and poise. Sophisticated stuff. Condrieu “Vernon” 2011 comes from one of the appellation’s great vineyards, on a steep south-facing hillside that captures as much sun as possible. In comparison, this is a big, booming wine, fuller and more powerful than the Grandes Maisons. The rich, more obviously oaked palate mixes confit fruits with violets and there’s a profound mineral core. Impressive and delicious. That said, for reasons I find hard to explain, I have a sneaking preference for the Grandes Maisons.

Le Du’s in NY are listing the 2010 vintage of the Grandes Maisons on wine-searcher. It has to be worth a punt.

Domaine André François

Andre Francois

André François

This is a good source for those who like traditional wines with a local feel. There’s a classic Condrieu “Maladiere” 2012, with plenty of richness and apricot fruit. The ripeness and low acidity combine to give a slight suggestion of sweetness in the manner of a plump Alsace pinot gris. Less mineral than the wines from Domaine Facchin, but good. The Côte-Rôtie “Gerine” 2011 really is quite trad., with stony, gravelly raspberry fruit and a whiff of sticking plaster. If you like big, pumped up, oaky C-R’s, look elsewhere. Me, I like it.

Domaine Verzier Chante-Perdrix

Philippe Verzier in his cellar. It was his 2012 Viognier that I used for the Big Event.

Philippe Verzier in his cellar.

Philippe Verzier’s St. Joseph Blanc “Granit” 2012 has a lovely balance between weight and freshness, cream and lime zest. The Condrieu “Authentic” 2012 isn’t the fullest, but has plenty of peach and apricot and a sleek mineral undertow. It’s very good, but I still prefer the St. Jo.

Philippe was also showing his first zero-added-sulphur wine – St. Joseph Rouge “Vibration” 2012. He reckoned that it was relatively easy to make an unsulphured wine in 2012 as the grapes were so healthy, but that 2013 will be more difficult. Pure syrah, aged in larger 500 litre barrels, half new, half one year old. Very friendly, very outgoing and very cassis-y, verging towards blackcurrant jam. The rich velvety texture easily absorbs the light tannins. It’s ready to drink now.

Philippe’s wines can be bought in the USA from Voix de la Terre, NY, and The Wine Country, Long Beach, and The Wine Club, Santa Ana, CA. Christopher Piper in Devon sells his wines in the UK.

——–

One day later  I was at the huge, trade-only Vinisud wine fair in Montpellier where I caught up with several more producers from the northern Rhône. It seems only sensible to cover them here.

Vidal-Fleury

A brief stop to taste their Condrieu 2011. V-F are unusual in ageing their Condrieu for some time before its release -it was in September 2012 that I bought the remarkably good 2008, four years after the harvest. The relatively adolescent ’11 isn’t at that level right now, but its silky texture and soft fruit have appeal.

Total Wine & More have branches all over the east and west coasts of America and stock a wide range of Vidal-Fleury wines. Majestic and Oddbins sell their more basic wines in the UK.

Christophe Pichon

I’m afraid that in the rush of Vinisud, Christophe Pichon’s Condrieu 2012 didn’t make a strong impression. My minimalist notes say merely “so-so”.

Christophe Blanc

Christophe B certainly liked going into the technical details of his winemaking, some of which I pass on here.

St. Joseph “Brayonnette” 2012 is 80% marsanne, 20% roussanne. About 20% of the barrels are new and there was 30% botrytis on the roussanne. That certainly made it rich, but maybe a bit more tension in the wine wouldn’t have gone amiss. The Condrieu 2012 had 10% botrytis. Half was fermented at low temperatures for freshness, half at higher temperatures for richness. This has a good texture and stone fruit aromatics. It’s not profound, but it’s nicely done.

The red, St. Joseph “Les Chênes” 2012, is 100% syrah, although in some years a little marsanne ends up in the blend. A mixture of de-stemmed grapes and whole bunches (25%). A very easy-going, super-fruity style. Ready to drink now with masses of cherry fruit.

Vinetrail sells Blanc’s wines in the UK.

Christophe Semaska

Yet another Christophe, but the pick of the bunch. The Condrieu 2012 has proper depth, displaying mineral power more than any overt fruit. Good broad palate and rich texture. The St. Joseph 2012 was one of the few I tasted from the northern sector that had real richness and weight too. Spicy, peppery, with plummy dark fruit.

A sea of vines (and their supporting posts) stretch up the hillside at Verenay, Cote-Rotie

A sea of pruned vines (and their supporting posts) stretch up the hillside at Verenay, Côte-Rôtie

Côte-Rôtie “Château de Montlys” 2012 is excellent. My tasting notes say “this is what I’m talking about”, which is hardly literate, but sums it up nicely. 100% syrah. Rich, dense without being forced, smoky, meaty. The weight of fruit easily handles the wine’s structure. Côte-Rôtie “La Fleur de Montlys” 2012 has 10% viognier blended with the syrah. I’d drink it any day of the week (I should be so lucky), but although it has pretty, lifted fruit, it’s shaded by the pure syrah, which is more exciting and animal.

Robeson and Decorum Vintners, both in London, list Semaska’s wines, as do Best Wines Online in Santa Ana, CA.

Domaine Mouton

Jean-Claude Mouton comes across as a careful, considered winemaker. He makes two very good Condrieu – Condrieu “Côte Bonnette” 2012 is aged in a mixture of tanks (30%) and 2-3 year old barrels. It’s a pretty, floral wine with a creamy texture and a certain freshness, almost liveliness. The Condrieu “Côte Châtillon” 2012 is more expressive, a bigger wine that is aged purely in oak barrels, of which some 25% are new. It has lifted stone fruit aromas and a real flow from start to finish – everything is all of a piece. Excellent.

The top of Condrieu's Cote Chatillon vineyard on a misty day

The top of Condrieu’s Côte Châtillon vineyard on a misty day in November. This gives some impression of the slope. Condrieu is far below.

The two Côte-Rôties are also very good, although you get the impression that M. Mouton wishes he had some vines in the Côte-Brune sector to give his elegant wines a bit more oomph. The wines are very much in the lighter Côte-Blonde in style, but he has no need to apologise. The Côte-Rôtie “Classique” 2012 is very pretty, soft, silky and red fruited. The Côte-Rôtie “Maison Rouge” 2012 is more vigourous, more animal, but in a similar vein. The Côte-Rôtie “Classique” 2011, with another year in bottle, has really started to blossom. It can certainly be kept for a few years, but it’s very enjoyable right now.

Berry Brothers sells the Mouton wines in the UK.

And finally, as a point of comparison, a few days later I shared a bottle of Rhône superstar Yves Cuilleron‘s IGP Viognier 2012. This mightn’t be Condrieu, but it could teach many Condrieu producers a few lessons. And it’s a relative bargain, costing about half the price. Green gold colour. Highly aromatic, with violets and cream soda on the nose. Violets again on the slightly oily palate, tangerine too. It all fits together well with no dis-jointed elements. Breadth and length are very good, even exceptional for a simple vin de pays.

Theatre of Wine in London sells the full range of Cuilleron’s affordable varietal wines. The 2012 is available at lots of places in the USA (particularly Conneticut, for some reason) – a quick search will tell you where.

Yves Cuilleron's Viognier 2012

Yves Cuilleron’s Viognier 2012

It would be interesting to put Cuilleron’s wine alongside the viogniers of Facchin or Corompt to see how they compare. Cuilleron would make the biggest splash, but which would you end up drinking? As ever, you pays your money…

Santé

Paul

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Tasting in Tain – Part 1

March 12th, 2014

The annual Tain l’Hermitage wine fair is a chance for the local Hermitage and Crozes-Hermitage winemakers to get together in force, but there are plenty of brave interlopers from the other northern Rhône appellations. And me, of course.

The vineyards of Hermitage rise up behind Tain.

The vineyards of Hermitage rise up behind Tain.

Many estates had their newly released 2012 reds on show and, tasting across all the regions both in Tain and at Vinisud (more on that monster tasting in a future blog), it strikes me that although they certainly haven’t got the size or concentration of the ’09s and ’10s, the last two great vintages, they share many similarities with the bright, fruity 2011s, albeit in a chunkier, more tannic form.

The best 2012s are delicious, the flavours clear and pure. The worst are under-ripe, green and stalky, tasting hollow and under-nourished. The same happened in 2011, but the higher tannins in the ’12s only exaggerate any under-ripeness.  As usual, the good winemakers made good wine and the poor winemakers struggle whatever the vintage.

There are a lot of lovely white 2012s already on the market, where the typical Rhône weight and richness meets just enough crisp acidity, and some producers were showing pre-bottling samples of their 2013s, which promise a similar style. The buying public has already discovered viognier, from the Rhône and elsewhere, but St. Péray, white Crozes-Hermitage and St. Joseph, and Brézème for that matter, show just how good affordable marsanne-based wines can be. (Barely affordable white Hermitage is in another league.) The lighter styles work well drunk by themselves, the fuller, oaked wines are great with food – nothing is better with a buttery roast-chicken.

The tasting notes below only deal with the “southern” estates – Condrieu, Côte-Rôtie and the northern sector of St. Joseph will be covered by Part 2. And there are omissions. In a few hours I could only scratch the surface, so there were plenty of estates whose wines I didn’t get to try. And some famous names like Chave and Graillot weren’t at the fair. So if you don’t see a familiar name, don’t think it’s because I didn’t like the wine.

Finally, I apologise in advance for the quality of the indoor pictures. The light inside the tasting room is dim and yellow, meaning slow shutter speeds and lots of blurred images. Where necessary I’ve cheated with an old photo.

So bearing all that in mind, here’s a far from comprehensive run-down of what’s going to be worth buying (or not) in the order that I tasted them.

Domaine Betton

Christelle Betton

Christelle Betton

I’ll admit right now that I’m biased. I work with Christelle Betton and I love her wines. At this stage, the Crozes-Hermitage “Espiègle” 2012 is a touch more serious, a shade less obviously fruity than the ’11, but that’s only relative – Christelle’s aim is always to play up the fruit and soft tannins in her young-vine cuvée. The 2012 vintage of her old-vine cuvée, Caprice”, is the best I have tasted. Its summer berry fruit is so pure, so vibrant, the wine is a joy to drink.

The white Crozes, “Cristal” 2013, is essentially pure marsanne aged in a mixture of oak barrels and stainless steel tanks. The wine hasn’t been bottled yet, but the sample I tasted mixed flavours of ripe apple and patisserie. Her white Hermitage, Arpège 2011″, gets more barrel ageing – everything, all 600 bottles worth, goes into barrel and stays there longer. Its flavours are similar but in a more concentrated, weightier form. There’s spice from the oak ageing, almond and a mineral streak. Very good now, but it will be even better with some extra ageing.

Christelle Betton’s wines are available at Theatre of Wine in London and should soon be available in the USA. I’ll keep you informed.

Domaine Lombard par Montagnon.

Julien Montagnon (centre)

Julien Montagnon (centre)

Julien Montagnon is the best winemaker in the small appellation of Brézème and I’ve often written about those particular delicious reds and whites (now being made biodynamically). This year though I wanted to concentrate on his new range of Crozes-Hermitage and Hermitage.

The Crozes-Hermitage Blanc 2012 is 100% marsanne with no oak ageing.  A fresh style with the smell of spring blossom. The palate is clean and bright, tasting of apple compote. The Hermitage Blanc 2012 comes from one of Hermitage’s greatest vineyards, Le Méal. The small amount made was aged in a “demi-muid”, a larger barrel size that allows the wine to breathe but stops the oak from dominating the flavour. This is lovely. The smell is of apple pie (Mr. Kipling’s to be precise, for the British readers) and crème anglaise, the oak more pronounced on the palate than the nose. Great balance. It is intense without being massive.

The Crozes-Hermitage Rouge 2012 sees no oak and comes from a mixture of de-stemmed and whole bunches. It has clear, bright, almost crunchy fruit, with the flavours of damsons and sloes. The Hermitage Rouge 2012 is in a similar style, but a real step up (after all, it is roughly 3 times more expensive at the cellar door). Like the white, it is pure Le Méal fruit. As you’d expect, the flavours are riper, more concentrated, than the Crozes red although the alcohol is the same 12.5°. There’s lots of black fruit, especially bramble, and the wine feels alive and vibrant. It’s very impressive, but one to put away for three or four years at least.

Yapp in the UK lists a couple of Domaine Lombard’s 2010 red Brézème wines as well as the 2012 white, one of my favourite wines of last year.

Domaine Habrard

Laurent Habrard

Laurent Habrard

Laurent Habrard’s organic Crozes-Hermitage Rouge 2012 is in a softer style than Lombard’s with a touch of chocolate, although it’s still bright and juicy. The St. Joseph Rouge 2012 has higher acidity and tighter tannins. At this stage in its life, it feels a bit grumpy. Come back in six months.

Lincoln Fine Wines in Venice, CA and Le Du’s in New York have the 2009 vintage of the red Crozes-Hermitage and white Hermitage respectively.

Domaine Johann Michel

Johann and Emmanuelle Michel

Johann and Emmanuelle Michel (taken 2013)

Johann’s wines are always worth waiting for, I just wish I didn’t have to wait as long for his emails. His Cornas 2012 is beautifully put together. Young and dark, it has juicy raspberry and plum fruit, a silky texture and great length. Anyone who still thinks Cornas is the rustic cousin of Hermitage or a Côte-Rôtie should think again.

I believe Johann’s wines are available from Flint Wines in the UK (although they’re not listed on the Flint website) and Uncorked in London has Johann’s delicious “Grain Noir” Syrah 2011. Wine Exchange in Orange, CA, Timeless Wines in Winchester, VA and MacArthur Beverages in DC all have a good range of Johann’s wines.

Gilles Bied

This estate has vineyards in the southern sector of St. Joseph and in Hermitage. They were only showing older vintages. The St. Joseph Rouge 2007 was browning in colour and tired out. Very rustic. I didn’t taste the Hermitage 2006, but I hope it was better because there are plenty of talented Crozes winemakers out there who would kill to get their hands on land in Hermitage.

Domaine JC and N Fayolle

JC & N Fayolle

JC & N Fayolle

I tasted here more out of hope than expectation. There are three branches of the Fayolle family in the small village of Gervans, all making Crozes-Hermitage and Hermitage. And it seems from repeated tastings that none of them do it terribly well. I only tasted the “La Rochette” Crozes-Hermitage Rouge 2011 and I will quote directly from my tasting notes: “Smells stalky and unripe. No – it is stalky and unripe. Disappointing.”

Domaine des Martinelles

This estate is run by another branch of the Fayolle clan. Their more basic Crozes-Hermitage Rouge 2012 has an easy-going, simple style with not much to say for itself. The local co-operative does something similar at a lower price. The Hermitage Rouge 2009 was big, dense and dark, but clunky and clumsy. It is still young, but I suspect it will never have any finesse or lift.

Mickaël Bourg

Mika Bourg

Mika Bourg

Mika’s St. Péray 2012 is 100% marsanne aged in a mixture of oak (grapes from very old vines on granite soils) and tank (young vines on limestone). Delicious. The ’12 has greater breadth and spice than the ’11, but keeps its juiciness and minerality. A hint of marsanne’s almond-like bitterness adds complexity and interest. This is the sort of roast chicken wine I was talking about.

A vin de table, “La Démarrante” 2012 comes from young syrah vines within the Cornas appellation. Despite its lowly status, it is, frankly, better than most reds I tasted that day. Fresh and vital, there’s a bit of graininess and ripe raspberry and cherry fruit. And it’s only 8€ (£6.50ish, roughly 10$). An absolute bargain. The vrai Cornas, “Les P’tits Bouts” 2012, had been bottled only days before and Mika was apologising for it being a bit shaken up. Unnecessarily, as it happens. It has certainly closed up between barrel and bottle and it needs a bit of time to relax, but it’s clearly concentrated and powerful without being unduly heavy. I know from tasting a barrel-sample that it’s going to be very good indeed.

Mika’s wines are available in the USA from WineMC². They’re based in New York but deliver. I can’t believe that no-one in the UK has picked up on him.

Cave Babics/Luyton

Michele Luyton

Michele Luyton

I was told that the estate has just over 1ha (2½ acres) in one of Hermitage’s greatest vineyards, Les Bessards (although I read later that the plot is actually at the foot of that slope, which is a slightly different thing).

The Hermitage Blanc 2011 comes from a small patch of limestone. It’s a restrained style with a typical marsanne soft, low acid palate. Pleasant without scaling any heights. The Hermitage Rouge 2011 comes from granite soils. It’s not super-powerful, but it’s decently constructed and preferable to anything from the various Fayolles. There’s some weight and plumpness and dark berry fruit. And the price, 28€ locally, is very reasonable for a red Hermitage.

The St. Joseph 2012 has a warmer, softer feel than St. Jo’s from further north in the appellation. The plump fruit (again) helps cover the tannins.

Lucie Fourel

Lucie Fourel

Lucie Fourel

Lucie’s parents belonged to a local co-operative and Lucie worked at top Côte-Rôtie estate Clusel-Roch before going her own, organic way. This is a very classy range of wines.“Les Pitchounettes” Crozes-Hermitage 2012 comes from younger syrah vines and is aged 50:50 in tank and barrel, in this case larger demi-muids of 5 years+. Masses of juicy red berry/cherry fruit, but no lack of depth.

Three more red Crozes were on show: “L’Insoumise” 2011 spent 18 months in demi-muids. The vines are around 30 years old and the vineyard is stony. It’s fuller than, but similar in style to, Pitchounettes – juicy, spicy, peppery. Les Saviaux 2012 comes from a vineyard covered in round stones (galets roulés) similar to those at Châteauneuf-du-Pape. It spends six months in barrels and six months in tanks before being bottled, but here the bunches are fermented whole, with no de-stemming. It’s more closed than Insoumise and needs a year or so before it’ll be ready to drink. Black fruits mix with more medicinal tones (germolene, menthol) before pepper and spice kick in again. Finally, Aux Racines de St. James 2012 is from old vines – average 50 years – planted in sandier soils nearer the river. Again, 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. You’ll need to wait a little while to get it at its best, but even now the fruit is lovely, with an incredibly more-ish morello cherry character.

Lucie’s wines are available at Vinoteca in London and are worth looking out for. Lucie said that you could also try Carte Blanche Wines in Hampshire. Wine Traditions in Virginia is her USA agent and they ship around the country.

Jacques Lemenicier

Jacques Lemencier

Jacques Lemencier (taken 2013)

I always like Jacques’ whites. The St.Péray Traditionelle 2013 is an unoaked blend of 90% marsanne and 10% roussanne. It has a similar feel to the 2012 – imagine a clear mountain stream (forgive the pretentiousness) and the purity that suggests. The palate mixes frangipane with French apple tart flavours.

Many of Jacques’ Cornas vines are at relatively high altitude, which shows in the house style – his red isn’t the biggest, but it has real elegance. The Cornas 2012 has a bright, cherry and mulberry fruit style and a silky texture. Good length too.

Quaff Fine Wine in Brighton is listing Jacques’ Cornas 2009, a great, fuller-bodied vintage which should be hitting its stride about now.

Summary

In short, 2012 is a classic rather than superlative northern Rhône vintage with good, sometimes very good, wines available from all the appellations.

The whites, already generally available, are especially good, particularly the marsanne-based whites of St. Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage and St. Péray, which can tip over into heaviness in riper years. The reds are more patchy, although on this evidence Cornas seems particularly successful. But stick with the right producers and there are good things everywhere.

In Part 2 we’ll look at Condrieu and Côte-Rôtie, as well as the northern end of St. Joseph. In the meantime, happy hunting and santé.

Paul

Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours. Be brave, Part 2 should be a little shorter. And there are plenty of other pieces, so why not take a browse. You can also like us on Facebook. Even better, cut straight to chase and book yourself a fantastic wine tour or private tasting by going to www.RhoneWineTours.com. Then you too can get to meet the winemakers.