Day 8: On the Roasted Slope
Posted: Jul 3, 2008 7:42am ET
“L'été est arrivé,” was the joyous refrain of every vigneron I visited. With sunny, dry, hot weather helping to make up for the cold, wet spring, folks in Cote-Rôtie were just as happy as those down in Chateauneuf. Jean-Michel Gerin was no exception.
We began our morning visit with the usual exhilarating drive up into the vineyards. Gerin’s vintage Renault was in the shop this time "Being painted—it’s going to look like new!” he proudly exclaimed, so we took a more stable Jeep up the precipitous, gravelly slope.
We started in his La Viaillère lieu-dit, a particularly steep area located above the famous La Landonne lieu-dit, where Gerin has been working hard in recent years, not only planting new vines, but also rebuilding the retaining walls and new drainage ditches to help offset erosion. It’s the same spot I was in just last November, so seeing it in its verdant splendor in contrast to its autumnal decline was instructive. Among other things, we looked at how the canopy on this season’s vines has been affected by the hailstorm that hit them last season. We also looked at the difference between the Serrine and clonal selections of Syrah—Gerin is slowly working to replace his vines with Serrine, a smaller berry that produces more aromas and mineral flavors in the wine. The down side of Serrine (the local name for the sélection massale of ancient Syrah vines in the appellation), according to Gerin, is that it is very susceptible to weather and thus yields can bounce up and down dramatically from one year to the next, as opposed to the clones that are generally favored for their consistency. You can see Serrine in the video below:
Gerin is one of the leaders in Côte-Rôtie. Though his domaine is small, he’s been bottling his own wine for 20 vintages now, which makes him a senior member of this rapidly developing appellation. His wines are tight, sleek and racy when young; velvety and full of minerality after aging. This is a very "northern" domaine, with 95 percent of its vines located in Côte Brune soils (schist and iron oxide) that dominate the northern end of Côte-Rôtie, producing darker, richer, more structured wines as opposed to those from the lighter, granite-based soils (referred to as the Côte Blonde) in the southern end.
There’s a small amount of white produced here: The 2007 Condrieu has finished its malolactic and offers crunchy acidity with refreshing starfruit and heather notes. Among the reds, the 2007 Côte-Rôtie Champin Le Seigneur contains 10 percent Viognier, and it shows bright floral and red cherry notes that are piercing in profile. It’s not dense, but balanced and long. The 2007 Côte-Rôtie La Landonne is generally my favorite of Gerin’s reds. It’s loaded with dark cherry fruit and a pure beam of minerality runs from start to finish, along with the vineyard’s telltale lingering hint of mesquite. Gerin’s 2007 Côte-Rôtie Les Grandes Places is, as usual, the most structured of his cuvées, with lots of spice and briar. There’s also a new cuvée potentially in the works here in 2007, sourced solely from the La Viaillère parcel. It offers a mini-Landonne experience, with similar notes of black cherry and iron, and a sauvage hint on the finish. Qualitatively, I’d put it between the Champin Le Seigneur and Landonne bottlings.
|Workers in Côte-Rôtie are busy tying the vines' new shoots to their stakes after a warm-weather induced growth spurt.
The 2006 reds are due to be bottled at the end of next month, and they have turned out very strong. The 2006 Côte-Rôtie Champin Le Seigneur
is fine, supple and long, with delightful cherry and mineral notes.
“2006 is like 2005,” said Gerin, in comparing the fruit profiles of the two vintages. “But it’s so much easier to drink,” he added, comparing the vintage to the more tannin-driven 2005.
The 2006 Côte-Rôtie La Landonne
should be among the top wines in the appellation again, with its superb minerality and a silky finish that just sails on and on. It checks in at a slightly higher than normal 15 percent alcohol, but it's seamless and pure. The 2006 Côte-Rôtie Les Grandes Places
is loaded with black cherry and plum fruit and crunchy, briary structure. It will need some bottle aging to knit together fully. Both it and the Landonne flirt with classic quality.
Just steps around the corner and up the hill from Gerin’s cellar is Domaine Clusel-Roch
, owned by Gilbert Clusel, 52, and Brigitte Roch, 49. This salt-of-the earth couple farms just 5 hectares (1 hectare equals 2.47 acres) of vines, which have been in Gilbert’s family for a few generations. The elder Clusel was among the first to domaine bottle in the appellation, dating back to 1969, making him a contemporary of Marius Gentaz and Marcel Guigal. Gilbert manages the vineyards (he was prepping the tractor during my visit) while Brigitte handles the winemaking. The couple has been running the domaine since 1992 and their vineyards are planted entirely to the Serrine variety. They churn out a whopping 1,600 cases a year, of which only 10 percent comes to the U.S.
Since 2005, the vinification here is done entirely in small, stainless steel tanks, and quality has really zoomed up since then, with the wines showing more vivid fruit and crackling acidity. Up to one-third stems are retained, depending on the vintage, and both pigeage
(punching down) and remontage
(pumping over) are used during the vatting, which lasts three to four weeks. The wine is then moved to barrel (with a touch of new oak) for the malo and élevage
There’s a drop of Condrieu bottled here as well. The 2007 Condrieu Verchery
(just six barrels made, from the top-flight Chéry lieu-dit
) offers lots of fresh, tingling lime and mineral notes. The final blend for the 2007 Côte-Rôtie
has not yet been assembled, so we tasted through the various components. The blend is made from grapes predominantly in the La Viaillère and Le Champin parcels, which are vinified separately (as are the older and younger vine portions). As at chez Gerin, the La Viaillère portions show tangy iron and taut cherry notes with piercing cut, while the Champin shows more kirsch, pepper and grip. Clusel-Roch also bottles a single-vineyard cuvée: The 2007 Côte-Rôtie Les Grandes Places
is really intense, with cassis bush and pepper notes, solid grip and an invigorating finish. Because of is size, Clusel-Roch, has long been an insider-only secret. But Clusel-Roch is fashioning dynamic wines that reward cellaring and merit a thorough scouring of the marketplace to find. Consider yourself an "insider" now.Jean-Paul Jamet is one of Côte-Rôtie’s iconoclasts
. Located up on the plateau above town, Jamet, like Gerin, now counts 20+ vintages under his belt. He produces just two cuvées, one of which is rarely, if ever seen. Both are distinctive for their captivating fresh blood sausage, olive, tobacco and garrigue
profile, along with rich fruit and blazing minerality. When you poll vignerons (very unofficially) as to which wine they think is the best in the appellation, it’s Jamet’s burly, traditional Côte-Rôtie.
Jamet is forthright and succinct with his opinions and he’s already got one for the 2008 growing season: “It’s a complicated vintage already. Maybe later, if summer is good, then no problem,” he said.
Jamet vinifies some parcels separately, while also keeping others that reach maturity at the same time together. He then has his wine spread over numerous barrels and demi-muids
(ranging from new up to 12 years old) prior to blending the final wine. Production is down about 20 percent in 2007 following last year’s hailstorm.
Tasting here is an advanced course in Côte-Rôtie terroir
as we move through up to a dozen different lots destined for the 2007 Côte-Rôtie
. Parcels around Champin, which are higher in elevation, provide the domaine’s distinctive olive note and crisp acidity, while lots from La Gerine and Landonne lower on the slopes offer loads of spice and mineral with very expressive fruit. The Chavaroche parcel (perhaps best known for the cuvée made by Bernard Levet
) is full of black currant fruit and wild nervosité
on the finish. A demi-muid
of Lancement and Les Plantes is packed with fig, currant and briar.
Jamet’s small-production, single-vineyard cuvée is sourced from the famed Côte Brune lieu-dit
. There are just 200 cases produced each year of this wine, which is in the house style but offers an extra dimension of dark, rugged fruit and structure. Though he tends to shy away from talking about it, Jamet divulges that when he took over the domaine from his father, there was the Côte Brune cuvée and the blended cuvée already in existence. As he added parcels and built up the domaine, he added the new parcels to the blend. Jamet is a proponent of the one domaine/one wine theory as opposed to the recent proliferation of single-vineyard or barrel-selection cuvées. While building up the blended cuvée, he simply kept the Côte Brune separate in honor of his father (and its production level stayed the same, steadily falling behind the 2,000 case level of the blended cuvée). From demi-muid
the 2007 Côte-Rôtie Côte Brune
is very dark and driven, with impressive flesh and density for the vintage, which is typically in a more floral, acid-driven style (like 2001). Both it and the blended cuvée should merit a high-outstanding/potentially classic rating when in bottle.
As at most domaines I visited in the north on this trip, the 2006 reds are the stronger of the two vintages. The various parcels that will make up the 2006 Côte-Rôtie
show their distinct personalities: One barrel which combines three of the appellation’s premier parcels in La Landonne, Côte Blonde and Côte Rozier is superb enough to be bottled alone, but it will go into the final blend, which is not yet assembled but offers potentially classic quality.
“2006 is very expressive Syrah, with balance and freshness. It has very dense tannins, but they are very ripe, supple tannins,” explained Jamet, who seems to have gotten a touch more backbone out of the vintage than most of his colleagues.
The 2006 Côte-Rôtie Côte Brune
is loaded with warm black fig, olive and iron notes, with almost chewy (for now) ironclad grip on the finish. With its distinctive house style and track record for wines that age very well, this is a domaine for serious Rhône lovers to stock in their cellars.
Though they are both located on the plateau above Ampuis, to get from Jamet's cellar to the domaine of Patrick & Christophe Bonnefond
you have to drive back down to town, then take a different winding road back up, which is fitting since the style at chez Bonnefond is totally different from the one at chez Jamet.
Christophe Bonnefond is one of the appellation’s best young vignerons, fashioning wines in a modern, fruit-forward approach, though the wines stay grounded in their terroir
and also reward cellaring. It’s an example of the broadening diversity in today’s Côte-Rôtie.
Bonnefond destems his grapes entirely before a three-day cold soak, then he ferments the wine in stainless steel, with pigeage
mostly (some remontage
) before moving to barrel for the malo and élevage
“I want a good but gentle extraction since the tannins from schist soils are bigger,” said Bonnefond of his approach.
As per INAO regulations, Bonnefond gets to plant a whopping 0.15 hectares each year (one-third of an acre) and he showed me his newest vines in the Rochains parcel, which you can see in this video:
The domaine now totals 7 hectares, six of which are in Côte-Rôtie and the majority of those in the Côte Rozier and Rozier parcels. Twenty percent of the domaine's vines are in the southern lieu-dit of Semons, which features lighter, granite soils.
|Christophe Bonnefond is planting new vines in the Rochains parcel of Côte-Rôtie, at the whopping rate of 0.37 acres per year.
There are three red cuvées produced here, the first of which is the 2006 Côte-Rôtie
, which sees one-third new oak. Bottled at the beginning of May, it shows ripe black and purple fruit, a sleek profile, and a long, pure finish. The 2006 Côte-Rôtie Côte Rozier
, which debuted in the 2001 vintage and sees an ample 80 percent new oak, is always one of the appellation’s most vivid example of the modern style, with a racy palate and intense licorice, violet and raspberry notes. It’s very lush, but the grip is there, buried on the finish. It’s the more forward of the two vineyard-designated cuvées, thanks to its southeastern exposure. In contrast, the southwestern exposure of the 2006 Côte-Rôtie Les Rochains
(which debuted in the 1995 vintage) produces a bigger, more tannic profile in the wine, with more fig and cocoa notes (it too sees 80 percent new oak).
There’s less variation here qualitatively between the 2006 and 2007 vintages than at most domaines. The 2007 Côte-Rôtie Côte Rozier
shows equally delicious, velvety fruit and a long, cassis-filled finish, while the 2007 Côte-Rôtie Les Rochains
shows more mouthfilling fig, currant and smoke notes.
One of the common complaints about modern-styled wines is that they don’t age as well as more traditionally vinified versions (such as the one at Jamet). This is a falsehood in the wine world though: If a wine is balanced and concentrated, then style has no bearing on its ageability. We tasted a 2000 Côte-Rôtie Les Rochains that has settled in nicely, dropping its more obvious toasty personality in favor of dark cherry, currant and mesquite notes, with both cocoa and mineral hints on the finish.
With frequent visits to the vineyards throughout the day, I had started to develop a nice farmer’s tan (nothing like that line right over the bicep separating white from lobster red). There’s still plenty of light here into the late evening, and it wasn’t until 10:30 p.m. that I was unable to see my handwritten notes outside without a light, as I worked on the terrace at the Hôtellerie Beau Rivage in Condrieu. With a flight of 1999 Côte-Rôties waiting for me in the morning, Mother Nature was telling me it was time to recharge the batteries.