I am back in France's Rhône Valley, this time to taste the 2009 and 2008 lineups from the region's best domaines. For more on these vintages' characteristics and links to my recent coverage of the region, check out Tasting 2008 and 2009 Rhône Wines.
I have to admit at being a little relieved, knowing ahead of time that I wouldn't be getting my usual stomach-churning ride up into the steep slopes of Côte-Rôtie with Jean-Michel Gerin. Gerin hold told me he'd be away and that I would be tasting with his son instead.
So I was surprised when Jean-Michel came out to meet me—he was getting ready to leave for a tasting in Italy but still had a little time. Considering how slippery the road down from Chonas l'Ambellan was this morning, I suddenly got nervous all over again thinking I might be getting that ride after all. Jean-Michel winked—he'd spare me. There was a good half-inch of slick stuff around, fresh snow from overnight and too much to drive up one of those very narrow, windy roads that's nothing more than a glorified path. It's been a crazy winter in the Rhône—extra cold, extra long and extra snow. Gerin was laughing too, as he just got off the phone with a friend in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, where they just got another foot of snow ...
Gerin's son, Michael, and I headed down to the cellar. Michael, 23, has just started working alongside his father at the domaine, and he seems well-versed already. Starting with the 2009 Condrieu La Loye from barrel (which represents 60 percent of the final blend), the wine is tight but rich, with a big core of pear fruit. It will be blended with the tank portion of the wine, which is bright and crunchy, showing more starfruit and anise notes. Both the barrel and tank were just sulphured but neither wine shows any hard edges.
"It's a big vintage, but pretty with good acidity," said Michael. "And it's integrating very fast."
The 2008 Condrieu La Loye comes from the more difficult of the two vintages, one in which the malolactics took an especially long time to complete. It's bright, breezy and very floral, with good lingering hints of peach and anise.
This is primarily a red wine domaine however, with Côte-Rôtie the star. There are three cuvées, starting with the 2008 Côte-Rôtie Champin Le Seigneur, which is racy and lively, with lovely kirsch and vanilla notes and a fine-grained finish. It's perfumy but driven too.
Yields at chez Gerin ranged from 20 to 26 hectoliters per hectare (hl/hl) for the various cuvées, a result of the diminished crop and severe selection. The Gerins employed not only a selection in the vineyard, but a sorting table as well, still a relative rarity in the appellation.
"Selection was very important because, in the same bunch even, you had ripe and unripe grapes," said Michael. "But it wasn't easy because we had to work very fast as the sanitary conditions in the vineyards were changing so rapidly.
That extra level of selection has served the domaine well. The 2008 Côte-Rôtie La Landonne is tightly focused with lots of perfumed tea, black cherry and mineral notes allied to a surprisingly silky mouthfeel (for the vintage). Only five barrels were made.
The top cuvée is the 2008 Côte-Rôtie Les Grandes Places; not surprisingly it's the tightest of the three red cuvées today. There's a chalky leanness to it right now, but an impressive core of red currant and cherry pit notes as well. It's an impressive performance in this difficult vintage.
Moving to the 2009 Côte-Rôtie Champin Le Seigneur, we see the drastic difference in the two years. The wine shows a much rounder mouthfeel and is already rich and filled out, with more range of red and blue fruit flavors. There's plenty of structure, but it's integrated and even flattering already.
In the ensuing vintage, a new wine has been added to the mix. The 2009 Côte-Rôtie La Viaillère joins the lineup. Sourced from a 1.75-hectare section of this northerly located lieu-dit, the wine was vinified entirely in demi-muid. In the two previous vintages the parcel had been fermented separately, but wound up in the Champin Le Seigneur blend. From vines planted in 2002 and 2003, including a mix of both clonal and massale vines, the wine shows very ripe red berry fruit, lots of violet notes and a long olive- and iron-filled finish. For fun, we taste both the clonal and massale parts separately (the Gerins kept a barrel of each apart to watch them develop). The massale selection of Serrine vines is pungent and tangy, putting its acidity up front, while the clonal selection shows the rounded feel and ripe, flattering fruit.
Both of the top two reds are potential classics. The 2009 Côte-Rôtie La Landonne is very tight, showing hints of smoky mesquite, cassis and mineral notes, it has a roasted edge but stays very pure, with excellent grip and a very long finish. The 2009 Côte-Rôtie Les Grandes Places is sappy and vibrant, with lots of kirsch, briar and red licorice notes followed by a flicker of iron on the finish.
Yields in 2009 hit 37 hl/ha, near the appellation's allowed maximum of 40. Following the small, difficult years in '07 and '08, '09 is a very welcome respite for the area's vignerons.
"A full year and good quality," said Michael with a wry grin that has an ample bit of his father in it.
The domaine has also added a St.-Joseph (it debuted in the 2007 vintage). The 2009 St.-Joseph sees no new oak, being aged in two and three year old barrels used first for the aging of the Côte-Rôties. It's potentially outstanding and shows bright violet, plum and vanilla notes.
Like most domaines in the Northern Rhône, Jean-Michel Gerin felt the tough times in the U.S. market in 2009, seeing sales drop off. Yet the wine U.S. consumers didn't take was eagerly snatched up at home and elsewhere.
"The crisis was not the same here as it was in the U.S.," said Jean-Michel, as we chat for a few minutes at the end of the tasting. "The restaurants were still always full and people were still drinking wine."
That may be good news for the domaine, but tough news for American consumers, who now may have to get back in line for a shot at these wines after the U.S. economy turns around.
For background on this domaine, you can reference my notes from my visits in July 2008.
Just up the block from chez Gerin is Clusel-Roch, run by Brigitte Clusel and Gilbert Roch. This is a very small domaine, but well worth seeking out.
The 2009 Condrieu Verchery is very pure, with lots of apple, quince and pear fruit. It smells unctuous, but doesn't come off as heavy at all. Made two-thirds in barrel and one-third in tank, it's quietly among the best Condrieu being made today.
2009, according to Roch, was "an easy vintage, with no problems, good yield and good maturity. I haven't had to do anything," he said. "They're easy to work with, even with their structure."
The 2009 Côte-Rôtie is still in its various parts, with parcels fermented separately before being blended just before the bottling. From the Champins parcel, there's dark color and lots of macerated plum and black currant fruit while the Viaillère parcel shows a sappy intensity, with succulent cherry fruit and plenty of grip. A step up from those is the single-parcel selection 2009 Côte-Rôtie Les Grandes Places, which is already showing a lot, loaded with dark berry, fig, briar and tobacco notes and flirting with classic in quality. The 2008 Côte-Rôtie is also still in barrel, with the Champins showing bright cherry and spice notes while the Viaillère parcel is richer and darker, with more length and a nice range of floral notes and bright acidity, the hallmarks of '08. The 2008 Côte-Rôtie Les Grandes Places has lots of bitter cherry, currant and briar, with a solid, peppery finish. The selection was done primarily in the vineyards at Clusel-Roch, with Roch noting they wound up cutting out about 10 percent of the crop, dropping yields to 28 hl/ha from the domaine's typical 36 hl/ha.
Jean-Paul Jamet has turned in an impressive set of vintages—no stunner in '09 where quality is excellent throughout the appellation. But the performance here in 2008 proves why this is one of the elite domaines.
Tasting here is always a crash course in that Côte-Rôtie terroir, as parcels are kept separate during vinification and élevage (with some exceptions) and there's a lot to choose from—Jamet pulls fruit from 9 hectares of vines spread over 25 different parcels in 15 different lieux-dits.
"He has really, really great terroir," said one Côte-Rôtie vigneron, whose terroir isn't too shabby itself.
It’s been an extra snowy winter in the Rhône Valley so far.
For the 2009 Côte-Rôtie, we start with a sample from the Lancement parcel, a rare parcel that Jamet destems entirely (it has shallow soils and gets stressed easily in dry years like 2009, so Jamet wants to avoid harsh tannins). It's concentrated and sappy, with lots of primal kirsch fruit. From the La Chavaroche parcel, the wine gets its more sauvage character, meat and olive notes, along with lots of stony grip. From the Gerin parcel, the wine is dark but very pure, with silky texture despite the robust flavors of charcoal and olive. The Mornachon parcel, which makes up about 15 percent of the final blend has racy graphite and licorice notes while the Les Plombs parcel is all muscle, with dark currant and tobacco notes and plenty of grip. In demi-muid, Jamet then has several parcels blended together-they are either too small to keep separate, or they ripen at the same time and are thus picked together. One demi-muid combines Les Moutonnes, Leyats and Côte-Baudin, offering very ripe, forward black fruits. The next blended demi-muid combines the top parcels of La Landonne, Côte Blonde, Moutonnes and Cote Rozier—it's super winey and concentrated, with mulled currant, tapenade and tons of charcoal-tinged grip. Last comes a mix of Le Truchet and Tartaras which, like the opening sample of Lancement, are also destemmed. It's atypical for the domaine, with almost high-toned Bing cherry fruit and very tangy acidity. Based on an assumption of the final blend, the wine should easily merit a classic rating when finished.
"That's why I destem it, because it's about its acidity and is an important part of the blend," said the always-serious Jamet.
Insiders know that Jamet, while publicly espousing the one domaine, one wine philosophy, does produce a small amount of a single-parcel cuvée called Côte Brune. It's a hold over from when his father first started the domaine and thus Jamet has never changed it. He does make it every year, but production is so small, it doesn't get into the market every year.
"When my dad made the wine, it was the domaine," said Jamet. "But now, it's just 5 percent of the total production."
There is only one row of barrels for some cuvées in the cellar at chez Gerin, as yields were very low in 2008.
The 2009 Côte-Rôtie Côte Brune is extremely dense, with the ample structure of the vintage and lots of brawny tapenade, tobacco, roasted coffee and dark currant notes. Very muscular but showing good delineation already, it seems primed for a long life and should easily rate classic as well.
In 2008, there are more parcels already combined, a result of the small crop and the need to harvest quickly in face of impending disease pressures.
"The sanitary conditions in the vineyard were changing very fast," said Jamet.
Nonetheless, the effort here is a terrific one. The 2008 Côte-Rôtie clocks in at just 28 hl/ha (versus the limit of 40 hl/ha for the '09). From a barrel combining the Gerin parcel with others, the wine shows lively acidity and a range of red and black fruits. The Tartaras and Le Truchet parcels show their typical bright, floral notes and mouthwatering acidity, while the Mournachon parcel is sappy, with lots of pepper and cassis.
"There's a rigidity in 2008, but it's complex and long too. Fresh and agreeable without being severe," said Jamet as we move along to a barrel containing La Chavaroche, Fontgeant and others, which shows a bright, nervy profile but good solid red currant, floral and mineral notes. The flesh of the bottling will likely come from the two final samples we taste. The first blends Leyats, Côte-Baudin and Moutonnes and shows its dark cherry and cocoa notes, while the final sample, which blends La Landonne, Côte Rozier, Côte Blonde and Moutonnes delivers the darkest fruit, most muscle and the domaine's telltale charcoal hint. The final blend could flirt with classic despite the difficulties of the harvest.
Also in the same potential quality range is the 2008 Côte-Rôtie Côte Brune, which shows the vintage's austere hint, with a chalky minerality and lots of edgy tobacco notes, but is also dense, long and powerful with ample dark currant and fig fruit.
Heading back down the hill and into Ampuis, it's time for a stop at chez Ogier, where young Stéphane Ogier has a lot going on. First and foremost, he's a proud daddy to his 3-month-old daughter, Iris. Then, there's the recently completed expansion of the cellar, which allows Ogier the room he needs to efficiently handle his burgeoning profile—he's picked up some more vines in Côte-Rôtie, has just signed a contract to handle another 1.5 hectares in Condrieu, and finally has all the vines he planted in Seyssuel for his L'Âme Sœur bottling production.
This domaine practices a long, slow élevage and the 200 reds have not been touched since they went into barrel following their alcoholic fermentation.
"No sulphur and I don't even know which ones have started or may have finished their malo," said Ogier. "It's been a cold winter so evolution has been slow, plus I keep a cold cellar. I'm not trying to control things, but if I get a long, slow malo and evolution, then I'm happy."
The 2009 Syrah Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes La Rosine is two parts now, the free-run juice and press wine. The free-run segment is very pure and fresh while the press portion shows more cherry pit and grip. Always a mini Côte-Rôtie (and sourced from vines just outside the appellation atop the hillsides), the wine is among the best values in Northern Rhône Syrah—don't let the basic Vin de Pays designation fool you. In contrast, the 2009 Syrah Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes L'Âme Sœur, sourced from schist soils on the other side of the river around Vienne, is really gorgeous, with piercing black tea and incense aromas followed by pure, silky, long black cherry fruit flavors.
Why they call it the roasted slope—only a few hours after waking to a nice dusting, the roasted slope is dried off.
For the basic 2009 Côte-Rôtie cuvée, Ogier has a blend of the But de Mont and Maison Rouge parcels in barrel. It's silky and long, with the domaine's typical black tea note and even in Ogier's cold cellar, it show great mouthfeel without any hard edges. A sample of Leyat is loaded with intense, primal cherry fruit, while the newest parcel for Ogier, the Côte-Baudin, is very expressive with black and blue fruits and a lush, inviting mouthfeel.
"2009 was a year you really had to cut grapes," said Ogier of the vintage's tendency toward high yields. "I cut a lot of grapes trying to get to 30 or 35 (hl/ha) but they still gave me 40. Of course, some people didn't cut back and that will be the difference in the long run. It was easy to make a good wine with high yields in 2009. But after aging, only the vignerons who tried to control yields will have the wines that really last."
For Ogier's parcel selections, the 2009 Côte-Rôtie Lancement Terroir de Blonde is currently in two halves; wine made from the bottom portion of the parcel is piercing but suave at the same time with ripe black cherry fruit and a hint of young tobacco.
"Lancement always has a little green hint, which I like," said Ogier. "That's why I destem it."
From the top of the parcel, the wine shows more grip, with a slightly raisined hint. It flirts with being too ripe but keeps its poise and should benefit from blending with the brighter segment from the bottom of the hill.
"It was so hot in August, the ripening just stopped," said Ogier. "But we still wound up picking at normal times because the ripening started up again after it cooled a bit for September. Plus, a nice little rain that month helped too."
As with the Lancement cuvées, Ogier has his 2009 Côte-Rôtie La Belle Hélène Côte Rozier in two parts now as well. The first, picked earlier and coming in at 13.5 percent alcohol and with 50 percent stems is very primal, with a wide range of dark plum, currant, blackberry fruit but excellent grip. Very different, is a section of the Côte Rozier that Ogier picked later on and destemmed entirely. It sports a full degree of alcohol more and should boast very opulent blueberry and boysenberry confiture notes. It teeters on the edge for me, but should be an intriguing blend component for Ogier to play with, as he plans to do.
"I like it, but I prefer the balance of the first [Côte Rozier] sample. The other will be the main part of the Belle Hélène and we'll have to see where this goes."
It's clear Ogier likes the 2009 vintage.
"It's still too early to really say. But 2009 reminds me of 2005, but with more suaveness," he said.
Ogier made the hard decision to not make the top two cuvées in 2008, so everything will go into the basic 2008 Côte-Rôtie.
"It was hard for me to do it, because I've made the cuvées every year since 2004, but I had to be strict," he said.
The wine has been preblended, with the parcels from the southern Côte Blonde portion of the appellation now together, showing that side's elegant mineral, red currant and sanguine notes, while the parcels from the northern Côte Brune portion of the appellation have been put together and show darker black tea, currant and macerated cherry notes.
While 2008 is a difficult year for reds, it is proving to be an excellent year for whites.
"It was perfect for the whites, really," said Ogier. "We got great freshness in varietals that are usually low in acidity."
The 2008 Viognier Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes de Rosine offers flattering apricot and peach flavors but stays light on its feet, while the 2008 Condrieu (only 1,500 bottles produced due to hail in July) is superfocused and mouthwatering, with lots of peach, yellow apple and melon flavors.
In contrast, the 2009 whites show more rounded feels. In particular, from tank, the 2009 Viognier Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes de Rosine is very plump, with more honey, peach and melon notes but is also light on its feet, despite it's very flattering profile.
"The vines there are amazing," said Ogier. "I picked them after my Côte-Rôtie yet they still only have 12.5 percent alcohol."
The 2009 Condrieu is the first vintage that includes the new portion, though the two sections Ogier has are fermented and kept separate until the bottling. From the Veauvignère parcel that Ogier started with in 2007, the wine shows plump pear and anise notes, while from the new La Combe parcel, the wine is still rich in mouthfeel, but shows more minerality, with a pleasant hint of pear skin as well. The final blend should easily be outstanding as it completes an impressive set of wines in the pipeline at chez Ogier.
Stéphane Montez is a good friend of Ogier's and I had a little time to spare at the end of the day. So Ogier called over for me and Montez was gracious enough to take a last-minute appointment.
I've had a few of Montez' wines over the years while in the Rhône, but his production is small and his presence in the U.S. market is almost nonexistent (he currently sends only 600 bottles of his 20,000 bottle-per-year production), a situation he would like to rectify. The domaine totals 20 hectares of vines spread amidst Côte-Rôtie, Condrieu and St.-Joseph, but Montez, 37, is currently in the midst of replanting a large portion of the domaine—when he's finished and it's all in production, he'll be aiming for 50,000 bottles per year. This was my first visit to the domaine, which is located on the plateau above the town of St.-Michel-sur-Rhône, overlooking a very windy valley between two hillsides. In addition to a major replanting, Montez is also building a new cellar.
Montez is energetic and talkative. He also seems intent on pushing the boundaries of winemaking; his style could be seen as extreme by some. He started working at the domaine in '97, following his studies in Burgundy and then travel to California and South Africa.
"I wanted to taste and see as many different wines as I could," said Montez.
There are now two cuvées of Condrieu here, as Montez is adding bottlings as parcels come on line and mature. He chose not to show the '09 whites because they were in the midst of their malos. We started with the 2007 Condrieu Les Grandes Chaillées, which combines fruit from Chavanay ("for the apricot fruit"), St.-Michel-sur-Rhône ("for minerality") and Verin ("for the richness"). It's richness that Montez seems to prefer, as the wine is very plump, thanks to its fermentation in 100 percent new oak, which results in sweet butter, heather and melon notes. The 2007 Condrieu Chanson, which blends 10- to 30-year-old vines from the Chanson lieu-dit, is vinified two-thirds in demi-muid, the rest barrel, and all new oak. It's very ripe but stays balanced, offering flashy creamed melon, verbena, apricot and honey notes.
In contrast, the 2008 Condrieu Les Grandes Chaillées shows a little more snap than the '07 version, with a twinge of green apple framing the quince and apricot notes, though it still has a very open and inviting finish. The 2008 Condrieu Chanson has an almost botrytis note to it, with very ripe apricot, blood orange and quince notes, with a juicy, fat yet still lively finish. Montez pushed the envelop by picking in late September for his Condrieu bottlings.
"It's personal preference," he said. "I like ripeness, but of course you still need to have acidity too."
The 2008 St.-Joseph, which is nearly entirely destemmed, fermented in tank and then aged in used demi-muids, is sourced from young vines, and shows fresh, uncomplicated violet, cherry and pepper notes, with just a slight dusting of toast around the edges. A step up is the 2008 St.-Joseph Cuvée du Papy, made from 25-year-old vines and vinified primarily in demi-muid, one-third of which is new. It gets a long 20-month élevage and shows plusher texture, with cocoa powder, plum and black currant notes. There's a dusty edge that helps extend the finish too.
The 2007 Côte-Rôtie Fortis is made from parcels in the sandy, granite soils at the southern end of the appellation, primarily the Le Combard parcel. Cofermented with 8 to 10 percent Viognier, Montez said, "I make a sandwich in the tank—Syrah first, then Viognier, then more Syrah on top. This prevents the Viognier from getting too much oxygen."
It's an outstanding effort, with notes of violet, red cherry and mineral, as well as Montez' telltale dusty feel on the finish.
Montez likes colder, longer ferments for more gentle extraction and he's also begun using barrels that were toasted with less flame, but for longer duration, during the cooperage, to accentuate the spicy aromas.
His style really shows in his 2008 Côte-Rôtie Grandes Places, which really shows his ambitious style as it receives nearly complete destemming and 36 months of barrel aging in all new oak. The wine has anise, plum cake and spice box notes, but isn't overbearing with its toast. The 2007 Côte-Rôtie Grandes Places is taking on a darker plum sauce profile as it continues to age, with the dusty edge beginning to emerge on the finish. The 2006 Côte-Rôtie Grandes Places was bottled in September and it shows already-mature hints of clove, fruitcake, plum sauce and its telltale cocoa powder edge on the finish. In contrast, the 2005 Côte-Rôtie Grandes Places is still youthful—it has its dusty, cocoa edge but the core is very dark, with more black currant, black tea and roasted vanilla bean notes. We finish by coming back to present day, with a taste of the 2009 Côte-Rôtie Grandes Places, which is very primal and shows a slightly pruny hint to go with its plum, currant paste and cocoa notes. The dusty edge isn't as evident yet here, though it's just starting out in its lengthy élevage.
This domaine is hardly traditional, but it's not a flashy, modern one either. Rather, it's more extroverted in style, like its owner, and while its wines may not appeal to everyone, there's quality here. It should be interesting in the following year to watch Montez develop as his additional vineyards come on line.
Tomorrow, more visits in Côte-Rôtie and Condrieu, including E. Guigal and Georges Vernay, as well as some new faces ...
[You can now follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at http://twitter.com/jmolesworth1]
Luc Provencher — Montreal, Canada — March 10, 2010 10:48am ET
James Molesworth — Senior Editor, Wine Spectator — March 10, 2010 12:55pm ET
Terkel Tolstrup — Denmark — March 10, 2010 2:59pm ET
Hospice Du Rhone — San Luis Obispo, CA USA — March 10, 2010 4:27pm ET
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