Continuing my annual tour of France's Rhône Valley, this time to taste the 2009 and 2008 lineups from barrel at the region's best and most exciting domaines, I finished up in Crozes-Hermitage today (for more Crozes notes, check out my Day 6 blog), and then headed to Tain to M. Chapoutier. For an overall view of these vintages' characteristics, as well as links to my recent coverage of the region, check out Tasting 2008 and 2009 Rhône Wines.
Crozes-Hermitage is an appellation on the rise. Though the large expanse of plateau that spreads south from the hill of Hermitage is not likely to ever deliver classic-quality wines in the same manner as that more famous appellation, several growers continue to improve their offerings nonetheless.
Crozes-Hermitage is booming these days because it has several advantages over the Rhône Valley's other appellations. First, labor costs are lower in Crozes than on the steep slopes of much of the rest of the Northern Rhône, as it takes less manpower to farm the land and it can be done with more mechanization. Second, with the hyphenated name of the famous hill added to the appellation (though there is no relation whatsoever), it's a fast-rising marketing success. So new domaines continue to sprout up, giving consumers more choice, and you can get a lot of bang for your buck here.
One of the more interesting newcomers in Crozes is Emmanuel Darnaud, who started his domaine in 2001 with just 1.3 hectares of vines but now has 15 hectares, all in Crozes-Hermitage (he'll add some St.-Joseph next year). Like many domaines in the area, Darnaud's family vines were first planted by his grandfather as part of a mixed farming estate, along with apricots and peaches.
"My father still handles the apricots and peaches, of course!" said Darnaud, who is now producing 45,000 bottles annually, with the potential to go to 70,000 bottles, working out of a bright, modern facility in Roche-de-Glun.
"I want to grow slowly and maintain quality," said Darnaud.
With his close-cut blonde hear, Darnaud is a youthful looking 33. He's picked up vines from Bernard Faurie's domaine in recent years as well his recouping his family plantings from lease agreements and the co-op (his uncle is also a winemaker at the Cave de Tain). Most of Darnaud's vines are around 25 to 40 years old, along with some 10-year-old parcels and a few 100-year-old vines.
"But like people, vines are best just before 40 years old," he said with a laugh.
Darnaud destems his fruit entirely and then ferments all his parcels separately, many in rather small cement vats, a detail-oriented approach that is still a relative rarity in Crozes. Darnaud's parcels are all within a few kilometers of each other, concentrated mainly in the Pont d'Isère and Roche-de-Glun areas. The maceration can last from two to three weeks depending on the vintage before eventually moving the wine, while still warm, to barrels for its malolactic fermentation.
"I prefer this for the way the wines marry with the wood. It gives more finesse to the final wine," said Darnaud.
The wine is aged in a mix of barrels and vats, with about 20 percent new oak rotated in each vintage; some barrels are kept for up to five years, maximum. The total élevage (or "raising," the time the wine spends between fermentation and bottleing) is average in length at 13 months.
"I'm looking for a wine with complexity but that's still accessible," said Darnaud.
There are two cuvées made here, though just one has been in the U.S. market so far. The top wine, accounting for 3,500 cases annually on average, is the 2009 Crozes-Hermitage Les Trois Chènes. The wine is still in its separate parts. From wooden vat the wine is very dark, with gorgeous pastis and violet notes and a long, dark finish. A low-yield parcel from barrel is sappy and delivers lots of grip and toast, but stays pure and driven with delicious blackberry fruit. From a new barrel, this wine is richly toasted, but wears it well, with plumcake and pudding notes and a supervelvety finish. A sample of his oldest vine parcel is the most muscular, with ample toast but plenty of dense fruit for balance. It looks to easily be the best vintage yet for the wine, which has set a nice track record in its previous vintages.
"I'm really happy with the '09," said Darnaud. "We got cool nights to offset the hot days, so the vineyard cooled each night and we got great phenolic maturity to match the alcohol. The vineyards on the plateau got the benefit that the vines on the hillside always get."
The second wine here is the 2009 Crozes-Hermitage Mis en Bouche, which will start appearing in the U.S. market with the '09. It averages around 1,500 cases annually and is Darnaud's spring cuvée, meant for more immediate drinking. Sourced mostly from Darnaud's young vines, including some press wine from older vines, it draws on three parcels that each makes up one-third of the final blend. The first, from Pont d'Isère, came in at a relatively low 35 hectoliters per hectare (for Crozes) in '09 and shows very fresh, ripe red confiture notes. The second parcel is from Roche-de-Glun and is on deeper soils with better water retention, so they provided a more ample 45 hl/ha in '09, along with a darker fruit profile and velvety texture. The third parcel from Mercurol is sappy and dense and very primal—this could be a spring cuvée with a bit of oomph when it's finally blended.
If you like dark, rich, smoky-styled Syrah, this is a domaine for you to try.
When I visit M. Chapoutier, I basically block the day out, as covering two vintages of Chapoutier's enormous portfolio of wines requires it. M. Chapoutier also owns the Ferraton Père & Fils operation, though it runs separately. For background on the winemaking and house style for both wineries, you can reference my cellar notes from visits in January 2005, November 2007, July 2008 and March 2009.
As always, there's a lot going on here. Michel Chapoutier himself has just returned from Australia, where he has a joint venture, and was able to chat for a few minutes before dashing off to Paris for a meeting—he never seems to stop moving.
In addition, the new winery facility just outside of Tain is finished. "Well, technically finished," said Pierre-Henri Morel, director at M. Chapoutier. "But every time Michel walks in he wants to change something, so it will probably be another 20 years."
There's also new construction at the main office in Tain, which is expanding to add a wine school and small restaurant.
In-house winemaker Gregory Viennois oversees the winemaking at both wineries, whose vineyards, production, inventory and company structure are all separate. Since the '04/'05 vintages Viennois has reduced the amount of new oak used here with excellent results: The whites are purer and fresher now, while the reds show more integrated and finer-grained structure.
Ferraton's vineyards have been worked biodynamically since 1998 but they weren't fully certified until the 2009 harvest. There are just 7.7 hectares of estate vines here, along with additional purchased fruit. As with Chapoutier, the whites are all Marsanne. For the tasting, I was joined by Morel and Viennois, as well as an in-and-out Michel Chapoutier. We started with the Ferraton lineup, working through the remaining portion of yet-to-be-released '08s and the still aging '09s.
The 2009 Crozes-Hermitage White La Matinière starts off richly right away, showing lush Cavaillon melon, white peach and quince notes and a long, honeyed finish that stays bright and pure and should be the best vintage yet for this wine.
The 2009 St.-Péray Le Mialan is a new addition to the lineup. Another all-Marsanne cuvée from this small, limestone dominated appellation, the wine is aged half in tank and half in demi-muid (600-liter oak barrels), just a drop new. Sourced from two growers, it shows piercing lime, orange blossom and melon rind notes that will need to stretch out a bit more during the élevage, as a hint of celery from a little reduction weaves in for now as well.
The 2009 St.-Joseph White La Source is also aged in a mix of tank and demi-muid. A sample drawn of the approximate blend also shows a touch of reduction, but bright, piercing orchard fruit and mineral notes are ample in reserve and should develop nicely as the wine stretches out during the élevage.
The 2008 Hermitage White Les Miaux shows a broader apricot and peach profile, laced with sweet butter and macadamia nut hints. It's really lush and long. Sadly, there is just a single 600-liter demi-muid of the 2009 Hermitage White Les Miaux, which is very intense, with creamed peach, apricot and nectarine notes, backed by lively tangerine and orange zest hints. There's a lovely mouthfeel already, with a long, lush finish.
The 2009 Condrieu Les Mandouls is aged in one-third demi-muid and the rest in tank, and it's very well-defined already, showing delightful lime, quince and mango notes that glide along, framed by hints of melon rind and green almond.
The 2008 St.-Joseph White Les Oliviers was bottled in December and already it's very expressive, with high-toned white peach, green almond and pâte de fruit notes that race along mouthwatering acidity. The 2009 St.-Joseph White Les Oliviers has finished its malo and now sits in just one 600-liter demi-muid. It's tight, with more stony notes up front for now, along with blanched almond, peach pit and melon rind, while the fleshy peach and bright floral hints are being held in reserve.
The 2008 Ermitage White Le Reverdy is lushly layered for the vintage, though the '08 profile of bright honeysuckle, orange blossom and tangerine notes are there, along with extra melon and yellow apple fruit flavors. The finish is long and suave and it could flirt with classic quality. Next to it, the 2009 Ermitage White Le Reverdy shows remarkable precision already, with stunning purity to its Jonagold apple, Cavaillon melon and persimmon notes, layered with hints of macadamia nut and crème fraiche. It could very likely be the first classic-rated wine for this steadily improving estate.
For the reds, the 2008 Crozes-Hermitage La Matinière is floral and stylish, with lingering cherry pit, spice and vanilla notes that stay tender through the finish, without any hard edges. In contrast, the 2009 Crozes-Hermitage La Matinière offers significantly darker fruit along with hints of bacon, pastis and violets, all while staying fresh and elegant through the finish. The tank and barrel/demi-muid parts are set to be blended in the spring and then bottled just before the next vintage.
Malo for the lower level reds is done in both tank and barrel, a mix that Viennois uses "just to pick up a little toast and graphite, but not overbearing. We want the minerality to stay present," he said. "Keeping a majority [of the wine] in cement helps the structure to loosen up a bit, instead of adding to it in barrel."
The 2008 Crozes-Ermitage Le Grand Courtil offers good ripeness for the vintage, with red currant and plum notes laced with a hint of green olive and tobacco. The finish has a touch of briar before ending on a lighter mineral note. The 2009 Crozes-Ermitage Le Grand Courtil is sappy and vibrant, with lots of delicious plum, raspberry and blackberry fruit that races along, while violet and briar notes chime in on the finish. Though very expressive, is laced with mouthwatering acidity and should fill out a bit more in time.
The 2008 St.-Joseph La Source is darker in profile than the Crozes bottlings, with good tangy black currant and loganberry notes, laced with a streak of mesquite. The 2009 St.-Joseph La Source seems to be developing quickly, with pastis and violet notes racing in front of a core of dark raspberry and blueberry fruit. The finish is toasty and just a bit tight still but it should flesh out well enough, as it gets just a touch longer élevage than the Crozes.
The 2008 Côte-Rôtie L'Eglantine comes from the Montmain, Champons and Côte Rôzier parcels, vinified in cement tank, then moved all to barrel and demi-muid for malo, aged for 18 months. It shows the slightly piquant olive and herb side of the vintage, with good smoky, mulled currant and spice notes and modest, integrated toast.
The 2008 Cornas Les Grands Mûriers is nicely ripe for the vintage, with a juicy, open-knit core of red cherry and raspberry laced with hints of violet and pomegranate. A touch of chalk defines the finish. The 2009 Cornas Les Grands Mûriers is deliciously ripe, with a range of loganberry, Linzer and black cherry notes spiked with lots of briar and pastis hints.
The 2008 Hermitage Les Miaux blends from the Dionnières and Méal portions of the hill and shows good, tangy red and black currant fruit and nice racy iron-filled grip. A lingering note of black tea stretches it out. The 2009 Hermitage Les Miaux is compact and nicely loaded with dark raspberry ganache, mesquite and boysenberry notes that are waiting to stretch out, with lots of graphite framing it all.
The 2008 Ermitage Les Dionnières is plump and friendly, with good plum cake, spice and melted licorice notes that stay fleshy through the toast-tinged finish that ultimately stays less powerful and more elegant than the Les Miaux. The 2008 Ermitage Le Méal is brighter, with tangier red currant and violet notes and a lively Maduro tobacco edge that helps add length on the finish, showing a little more personality than the Dionnières today.
The 2009 Ermitage Les Dionnières shows the vintage's depth, with dark mulled plum and black currant notes that are wrapped in a velvety texture. It sails on until eventually the tannic grip takes over, ending with a toasty hint. The 2009 Ermitage Le Méal is the most backward of the '09s, with the grippy, slightly tarry structure up front, backed by a large core of crushed blueberry, briar and blackberry fruit. It's youthfully raw, but the pieces are in place for the ensuing élevage and it could also flirt with classic quality.
The 2009 Crozes-Ermitage Les Pichères is a new addition to the reds that starts a new tier of the portfolio here, called the lieu-dit wines (though the Pichères is not labeled as a lieu-dit). These are wines that are single-parcel selections but are not considered at the level of the estate's top wines—yet—because they are either new vineyards under contract or have yet to prove themselves fully over time. The wine, sourced from 10- to 15-year-old vines in Beaumont-Monteux, a very gravelly spot that delivers tiny berries and "very exuberant violet notes" said Viennois. Previously the small 1.7-hectare parcel was blended into the Matinière; on its own it delivers a superfresh blackberry and Bing cherry fruit profile, with a long, spice-filled finish. Not as overly minerally as others, this relies more on its fruit and suave structure.
The 2009 St.-Joseph lieu-dit St.-Joseph is sourced from a 0.2-hectare parcel of the appellation's prized vineyard. New as a single bottling in '09, there are just 1,500 bottles made and it shows excellent potential, with a backward yet sappy core of raspberry and kirsch fruit backed with stony precision on the full-bodied finish. It sees just 20 percent new oak, letting the wine's pure, pastis-driven power shine through.
From a parcel with full southern exposure, the 2009 Cornas lieu-dit Patou is from a new fruit source starting in the vintage and there are just 1,200 bottles made. It's a strapping young wine, loaded with blackberry and plum notes, along with hints of graphite and hoisin sauce. Very grippy and youthful with a strong chalky edge, it's a clearly outstanding young Cornas that will need some time. Ferraton only started making Cornas in 2007, but it's an appellation that still has places to be discovered and terroir to be exploited. The 2009 Cornas lieu-dit Les Eygats is from a parcel with eastern exposure and more mistral blowing over it, offering a fresher, more floral expression of Syrah, with white pepper, rosemary and mineral notes taking over on the lacy finish.
Though the '09 reds clearly stand apart from the '08s here, it's a very successful effort overall in the tougher vintage.
"Yes, 2008 was a difficult vintage," said Viennois. "But if you have some experience you could work with it."
Chapoutier himself stopped by at the end of the Ferraton tasting and offerred his thoughts on the difficult '08. "It's good to have a year like '08 every now and then," he said. 'We used to have vintages like them all the time 20 years ago. Vintages with a little less fruit and slightly firmer tannins help to defend the idea of a 'vintage' as something that changes from year to year. It keeps us from making the fruit-driven vintages all the time, which gives people the mistaken idea that that is the true expression of the region."
[You can now follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at http://twitter.com/jmolesworth1]
Sips & Tips | Wine & Healthy Living
Video Theater | Collecting & Auctions