I've been traveling to the Rhône regularly for several years now. There are certain domaines that I visit on a regular basis. When I do so, I often retrace my exact steps from previous visits, seeing the same domaines together on the same day and in the same order, to be as efficient as possible. On these days, I usually know how things are going to go. I'm familiar with the personalities, the wines and, perhaps most importantly, the directions to the cellars.
And then there are days when I don't have a clue. Days like those I had on my first few trips through the region, where I did more driving than tasting, was more often late than on time and typically had no idea what I was in store for. While those days are in the minority for me now (though my wife would disagree), today was one of those days, and it was actually great to again feel that buzz of "Where the heck am I going now?" I had appointments at four domaines in St.-Joseph, all of them first-time visits for me.
The domaines I visit are chosen from the results of my always-ongoing blind tastings back in Wine Spectator's New York office. There are always lots of new wines in those tastings, but the ones that catch my eye (or is it tongue?) are more infrequent. Over the last few vintages, Domaine Faury, Laurent Betton, Domaine Monier and Eric Rocher have made some outstanding wines, so I was anxious to see the people behind them.
This property, based in the little hamlet of Ribaudy on one of the hills above Chavanay, was formerly known as Domaine Philippe Faury. When Lionel Faury took over from his father in 2005, the labels changed slightly to just Domaine Faury. Lionel, 27, is a tall, commanding figure. Like most young vignerons today, he's worked abroad (in Australia) as well as at some neighboring domaines (including Vernay in Condrieu) before starting full time on his own. He's the third generation here: His grandfather first ran an estate that farmed a mix of grapes and other fruit, before Lionel's father began to move entirely to wine production, bottling the family's first vintage in 1979.
The domaine consists of 16 hectares of vines, half of them producing reds from the St.-Joseph appellation, with the rest divided among St.-Joseph whites, Condrieu, Côte-Rôtie and Vin de Pays. The domaine currently produces more than 5,800 cases annually, with the United States being its best export market.
Since taking over his family domaine in 2005, Lionel Faury uses mostly demi-muids for aging his St.-Joseph cuvées.
The whites are fermented in a mix of stainless-steel tanks and oak barrels. The 2008 St.-Joseph White, a blend of 60 percent Marsanne and 40 percent Roussanne, is mostly in stainless steel and just 30 percent in oak, but none of it is new oak. Sourced from vines averaging 20 years of age, the white is plump and pure, with an emphasis on peach pit, bitter almond and nectarine notes.
The Condrieu is usually fermented half in tank and half in oak—a mix of barrel and demi-muid (a large, 600-liter barrel)—about 15 percent of which is new. Faury upped the percentage in tank for the 2008 Condrieu, which combines seven parcels from two lieu-dits (named vineyards) in the Ribaudy area. There are some 40-year-old vines in the mix, though the average age is 25. The wine is very clean and round, with lots of anise and peach, a touch of blanched almond and a nicely defined, green fig finish. It's easily outstanding.
Faury likes his Condrieu with just a little bit of bottle age. "After about one year and up to four, maybe five," he said. "But the '08 will probably last longer because of the acidity. The '02 is perfect now for example, and the two vintages are very similar." 2002 was also very difficult for reds, but produced excellent whites.
The reds are made simply, fermented entirely in vat with the stems left on a small percentage of grapes. They receive a relatively normal maceration time of 15 to 20 days, with lots of pigéage (punching down of the cap) and some remontage (pumping over). The wine is then moved to oak for its malolactic fermentation and élevage (the period between the end of the alcoholic fermentation and bottling, which translates literally as "raising," as in raising children).
The only changes the younger Faury has made from his father's tenure is to ferment some of the white in barrel, and age more of the red in barrel, though he tried not to overdo it in 2008. "Since the tannins were so dry, you had to be careful," he said.
From vines around Ribaudy, the 2008 St.-Joseph is light but fresh, with a slightly crisp edge to the pomegranate, cherry pit and blood orange notes, backed by an herb-tinged finish.
The 2008 St.-Joseph Vieilles Vignes is a cuvée made since the 1997 vintage from the domaine's Serine vines of 40-plus years of age. The vines are on a rare east/northeast exposure, where more wind results in a cooler spot with a wider temperature swing from day to night. "So the maturity is still good, but it's more gentle in feel as the tannins are really fine," said Faury. Aged entirely in demi-muid, the wine is almost lacy in feel, but persistent, with lots of currant and tobacco notes and a long iron-filled finish.
The 2008 Côte-Rôtie is sourced from two parcels in the Côte Brune half of the appellation, including Les Plantes. It's also a bit of an oddity, since it contains 10 percent Viognier, rare on the schist soils of the northern Côte-Rôtie. Viognier-influenced cuvées are standing out from the pack in 2008, and Faury's version shows supple texture along with succulent cherry, Damson plum and licorice notes with good drive on the mulled spice-filled finish.
The 2009 reds are still aging in barrel and demi-muid, which Faury sources from several coopers. We taste from a range of demi-muids for the 2009 St.-Joseph; one lot with southern exposure shows tangy iron and red berry notes, another with southeast exposure shows fuller body, blacker fruits and more tannins. Yet another parcel from higher altitude shows a full range of fruit, round, pure tannins and lots of drive, proving François Villard's point from yesterday's visit that higher-altitude vineyards had more even ripening, as the cooler spots offset the hot August weather nicely.
"2009 is a little strict right now," said Faury, noting that the cold winter has slowed the wine's evolution down. Nonetheless, the tannins come off as rich and rounded, despite the cold temperature, a good sign for the wine's ultimate evolution.
For the 2009 St.-Joseph Vieilles Vignes, we taste from both new and used barrels. Their malolactic fermentation is just finishing, so there's a touch of snap, but the range of red, black and blue fruits is impressive, along with lush tannins. When racking the wine, Faury racks from used barrels to new, and vice versa, to keep the amount of oak the wine sees as consistent as possible; that way, one new barrel doesn't wind up dominating by delivering an overtly toasty profile to any portion of the wine.
The 2009 Côte-Rôtie is also still in its component parts, which range from stylish red currant to those with more power, including one parcel that came in at 14.5 alcohol (at which Faury raises his eyebrows in mock surprise). The wine has just been racked but shows no signs of fatigue from the process. "Not 2009," he said. "It just eats the racking up."
Laurent Betton's vines are located up above the town of Chavanay, on a hill that had no vines just 25 years ago.
Laurent Betton, 44, has a true do-it-yourself domaine. After working at some other domaines in the area, he bought his own land, planted vines from 1988 through 1990 and began bottling his own production in 1998. He now has just under 10 acres of vines from which he's producing just under 1,100 cases a year.
In keeping with his recent history, Betton's winery isn't in a 150-year-old renovated farmhouse. Instead Betton is finishing the construction himself on a new facility using prefabricated red cinder blocks. He's not looking to grow much beyond what he has now, though he admits he would like to add a little white St.-Joseph to his modest holdings of red St.-Joseph and Condrieu.
Betton runs a fairly bare-bones operation with no vinification tricks. The 2008 Condrieu is very peachy and forward, with lush quince fruit and a very friendly finish. The vines are all grown in the excellent La Côte lieu-dit, and the wine is fermented in a mix of one-third stainless steel, one-third new oak and one-third used oak.
The 2008 vintage was admittedly "difficult" for Betton, who typically destems up to 80 percent of his Syrah, ferments in tank and then moves the majority of the wine to barrel for aging. He destemmed entirely in 2008 and managed to coax a 2008 St.-Joseph with lots of pepper, tobacco, green olive and red currant fruit from the vintage, bottling it last September.
Though Betton uses just a drop of new oak used here, he turned to five different coopers to source the 13 barrels he has lined up for the 2009 St.-Joseph. Tasting through nearly all of them shows not only the effect of terroir, but also of élevage on the wine—the wines in the new and second-fill barrels show darker, winey profiles of plum cake, beef and spice, while the barrels up to five years old allow more elegant minerality and red fruits to develop in the wine.
Betton has three parcels of vines, all located near each other on a hill above Chavanay, opposite from where Faury is located. "My old vines," he said with a chuckle as we taste his oldest parcel—vines that are just 19 years old-from one of his very few new oak barrels. Despite the new barrel, the wine shows nice integration and great fleshy structure.
"The wine has really married with the oak well in 2009," said Betton. "You have to watch the details in a domaine this small though. One [new] barrel can wind up dominating the cuvée if it's too much."
As we head outside, the knifing winter air blows and a flurry of snow falls. "The vines like this," said Betton. "They're asleep, and there will be good water for the coming year."
We stand at the edge of a terrace just in front of his house, looking down on the hillside, where just one more bare patch waits to be planted. "Twenty-five years ago, there was nothing here," he said, with a smile. "Now, it's all vines."
Although this domaine is very new, it had already changed into two domaines before I got a chance to visit it. Jean-Pierre Monier has been redeveloping the family farm started by his father, who had the usual mix of cows, apricots and grapes. His father bottled wine, but not the kind most folks are used to today.
"He wasn't in the co-op, but he was just making wine at 9 percent alcohol, back when people were drinking five liters a day," said the affable Monier. "He didn't really have the passion to do the work in the vineyards that you need to do to make wine. You don't need to do much to make 9 percent alcohol wines."
Eventually the family grapes did make their way to the co-op, but when Monier's turn to start handling things came along in 1996, he chose to leave the co-op. Self-taught as a winemaker, he began to bottle his own production with the 2001 vintage, starting with 500 bottles. Today he has nearly 14 acres of vines.
In the small town of Brunieux, Domaine Monier is producing some powerful but pure red St.-Joseph.
Then in 2008 he created a partnership with a neighboring grower in the small hamlet of Brunieux, located in the hills above St.-Désirat. ("I can still trade some apricots for a little electrical work," said Monier. "Brunieux is a small town.") Philippe Perréol, 50, also broke free from the co-op, with his 27 acres of vines. He is also primarily self-taught. "And a little from him too," Perréol said, with a wink toward Monier.
The two partners only produce red wine from the St.-Joseph appellation, and combined, their two labels now account for about 2,500 cases annually.
Monier and Perréol, who have housed their winemaking operation in a converted 150-year-old farmhouse, work organically. They harvest the reds in the afternoon, rather than in the mornings, which are particularly cool at altitude. The fruit rests overnight before 80 percent is destemmed; the grapes are then fermented in open-top cement tanks. They use minimal sulfur "for the purity," said Monier, and the wines are then moved to all barrel for malolactic fermentation and aging. The élevage lasts 15 months before the parcels are blended and then moved back to barrel for another 6 months before bottling.
Yields were surprisingly low here in the bountiful 2009 vintage—averaging just 2.1 tons per acre for Monier and 1.6 tons per acre for Perréol's vines. "The young vines were really affected by the drought," said Monier.
The 2009 St.-Joseph from the Monier-Perréol estate is fresh and sappy, with nice intense red currant fruit. It's evolving slowly during the cold winter months, but Monier said that in the spring, "when things warm up a little, the wine will really expand."
Under the Monier label, then 2009 St.-Joseph Terre Blanche comes from Monier's single parcel in the Terre Blance lieu-dit, where he has 30-year-old vines on granite soils. Aged in all new oak, the red is really saturated, in color, fruit and aroma, offering lots of grip and a great racy underpinning. It's easily outstanding.
In contrast, the 2009 St.-Joseph Les Serves is the more elegant of the two, coming from 33-year-old vines on granite soils that are more decomposed and finer than the Terre Blanche. The wine doesn't stint on depth though, as it shows gorgeous cassis fruit with its fine-grained structure that just sails along. It could be a step ahead of the impressive Terre Blanche for its better poise and elegance, but the cuvées are more stylistically apart, than qualitatively.
While it's rare to see an older generation in the Rhône start a new domaine on their own, the partners clearly have an open mindset. Likewise, Monier isn't afraid to try modern aspects of winemaking—100 percent new oak for example. "The two vineyard selections [Terre Blanche and Les Serves] really need it," said Monier. "And after just a year or two, you don't really taste the flavor of vanilla or new wood, which we don't want of course."
The 2008 vintage was really tricky, said Monier. "On Sept. 30, the seeds in the grapes were still soft. Three days later, they were crystallizing-the tannins were hardening before the fruit was really ripe. You had to pick fast."
The 2008 St.-Joseph from Monier-Perréol shows the vintage's lighter profile, with notes of bay leaf, tobacco and mulled spice.
The 2008 St.-Joseph Terre Blanche manages to show supple texture, with a juicy, direct beam of blackberry fruit. There's a chalky hint on the finish, but it stays vibrant and could flirt with outstanding.
"2008 has delicate fruit, but it also needs to be decanted," said Monier, recounting how a bottle of '08 he left open for several days stayed lively, as the vintage offers so much acidity.
Though it's a new estate, nearly everything here exudes old-school Gallic charm. It's the opposite feel from Laurent Betton but the end result is similar-vibrant, pure, delicious wines that drip with fruit and minerality.
Eric Rocher's domaine is in the cool Champal section of St.-Joseph, as evidenced by the stubborn snow cover in March.
Eric Rocher, 50, is stocky and slightly weathered. He looks like he may have played his share of rugby games, though a more likely explanation is his domaine's location in the cool hills of the Champal section of the St.-Joseph appellation. At 330 meters in altitude, this sector is the latest in the appellation to harvest, typically in mid-October. The stubborn snow cover that clings in mid-March is further evidence of the area's cool microclimate.
Rocher now has a litte more than 64 acres of vines—44.5 of them in St.-Joseph and the rest divided in small amounts among Crozes-Hermitage, Condrieu and Vin de Pays. He's the third generation in his family to grow grapes, though prior to buying the property in Champal in 1987, he was working as a négociant in Tavel and other areas of the southern Rhône. "And then I fell in love with Syrah," he said, his eyes glinting with delight.
Rocher planted his property from 1987 through 1989 and was bottling his own production by 1991, though the estate's wines didn't reach the U.S. market until the 2000 vintage. He keeps about 80 percent of his production to fashion around 8,300 cases annually for his label and sells off the rest.
His Condrieu and his St.-Joseph White are fermented primarily in tank with less than one-third in oak. The 2009 Condrieu, still sitting in its separate parts, will combine a plump peachy portion with a brisker, steelier side that features green apple and kiwi notes. The 2009 St.-Joseph White Mayane, made from a blend of 75 percent Roussanne and 25 percent Marsanne, is open knit with friendly apricot, almond and paraffin notes. There's also a tasty little 2009 Viognier Vin de Pays de l'Ardeche, with peach pit, banana and apricot notes that would be a nice summer sipper.
Since ripening is late at Rocher's property, the red wines are more elegant in style, with floral and pepper notes. Rocher destems the grapes entirely before fermentation since the stems never get fully ripe and he wants to avoid any harshness in the wines. The reds are fermented in stainless steel, then moved to barrel for 12 to 14 months of aging; the St.-Joseph gets some extra time in foudre (wooden vats significantly larger than typical oak barrels) as well.
The 2009 Crozes-Hermitage Chaubayou is crisp and tight for now-thanks to the cold weather and stainless-steel tank-but there's good black cherry fruit and solid grip. The 2009 St.-Joseph Terroir de Champal is showing better definition, with the juice in tank offering fresh acidity and lots of tobacco, spice and Campari notes, while a separate parcel in another tank shows even darker fruit and a rounder edge.
Like all the area's vignerons, Rocher was tested in 2008. He chose to make a severe selection, keeping only 20 percent of his crop for his own wine. The 2008 St.-Joseph Terroir de Champal has been blended and is waiting to be bottled after the cold weather breaks. It's light-bodied but friendly, without any overt sharp edges, showing tangy mineral and herb hints.
This was a long day, with a fair amount of driving. But frankly it felt good to get a little lost on backcountry roads again (my GPS likes to take the long way sometimes). By the time the day was over, I'd seen four domaines with a common thread—all small, family-run estates, each in their own way helping to define an overlooked corner of the wine world. Getting to share my visits to these domaines and my meetings with the vignerons behind the wines is exactly why I started this blog back in April 2006.
Tomorrow is "old-school day," with a few stops in the Cornas appellation as I move down the Rhône's rive droite.
[You can now follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at http://twitter.com/jmolesworth1]
Sips & Tips | Wine & Healthy Living
Video Theater | Collecting & Auctions