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 wineries, I continued my tastings in Tain and then headed to Philippe and Vincent Jaboulet's new domaine, followed by a tasting at Maison Nicolas Perrin. For an overall view of these two vintages' characteristics, as well as links to all of my recent coverage of the region, check out "Tasting 2008 and 2009 Rhône Wines."
My day began at the Cave de Tain, located just on the southern edge of town, where I met with managing director Julie Campos and her winemaking team. Campos herself had just gotten back from a two-week trip through various Asian markets and had an interesting perspective on the potential for wine consumerism there. You can read more about the Cave de Tain in my December 2006 cellar notes.
"Asia is very interesting," she said. "The Rhône is way behind there though. They're just getting used to a bottle that isn't Bordeaux-shaped and they're getting used to tannins too. There are also a lot of label drinkers as well as those looking for wine at 1 euro a bottle. We, and basically all the Rhône, are clearly in the middle there. We're not looked at as first-growth Bordeaux, nor are we cheap and cheerful varietals. It's going to be a lot of work there. But it's a fascinating market. From the palate point of view, we're going to have to be educators."
Campos has a lot going on. The Cave de Tain has begun satellite mapping of its vineyard parcels as it continues to try and home in on details despite having such a large vineyard base. Sustainability is also an issue for the Cave de Tain, which has reduced its water usage and lightened the weight of the bottles it uses. The old manor house of Gambert de Loche (the Cave de Tain's founder in 1933) has been renovated and leased to the husband-and-wife chef team of Frédéric and Rika Bau for their new Restaurant Umia. And starting with the '09 vintage, the Cave de Tain began offering a financial incentive to growers who converted to organic farming methods.
The Cave de Tain's members each sign a contract for five years at a time. During that time, the Cave is not obligated to pay for the fruit if it doesn't meet quality standards, however.
"We do declassify and also sometimes distill," said Campos. "I've had to make some unpopular decisions in recent years, and sometimes people do leave [the co-op]. But we can't pretend the fruit is worth money and waste resources vinifying it when it's not up to the quality we're looking for. But that [the number of times fruit is declassified] has also decreased in recent years as we've improved the vineyards."
The Cave de Tain has not skimped on investment in recent years, however, as it has upgraded its wine-production facility. Each year there are more than 2,000 barrels in the winery, including 220-liter, 400-liter and 600-liter vessels, which are kept for up to five years maximum. In addition to rotating in new oak, the Cave de Tain has also added 16 wooden vats for the Crozes-Hermitage red.
"That's a 275,000 euro investment in new wood every year," said Campos. "And I know what they're going to ask me to invest in next: more small tanks," she said as Xavier Frouen, 41, senior winemaker since 2005, and Olivier Ciosi, 28, winemaker and quality control manager since 2009, looked on with smiles.
The 2009 whites are still in their élevage (or "raising," the time the wine spends in barrel between fermentation and bottling), and we tasted samples that will approximate the blends from the selected lots for the specific cuvées. The parcel selections represent blends of anywhere from four to 12 parcels, which are selected first at harvest time and then again during the élevage, though all the parcels are not fermented separately. All the white wines have their malolactic fermentations blocked at the Cave de Tain, resulting in a crisper, lighter profile that isn't in line with most other producers in the region. That may change—Frouen and Ciosi will start doing malolactic fermentation on some white wine lots in the coming 2010 vintage.
The 2009 Marsanne Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes is fermented and aged in tank, set to be bottled in July. It's a bright, clean, fresh example of the grape, with good citrus and orchard fruit notes and a peach pit finish. The 2009 Crozes-Hermitage White Les Hauts d'Eole is a blend of equal parts Marsanne and Roussanne and it's bright and fresh, with a good streak of citrus weaving through the brisk melon rind and white peach notes. The 2009 St.-Péray Fleur de Roc is a blend of 60 percent Marsanne and 40 percent Roussanne, fermented and aged in barrel with a small amount of new oak used. It's youthfully firm but has delicious lemon zest and verbena notes and a bright, floral edge. It should be another solid value ($25 or less depending on the market) after it's bottled.
Restaurant Umia occupies the renovated estate of Cave de Tain founder Gambert de Loche, sitting on the hill of Hermitage.
There is a new 2009 St.-Joseph White that is a parcel selection and is yet unnamed. Made from 100 percent Marsanne, it's tight and stony now, with good verbena, honeysuckle and melon rind notes that should unfold a bit more during the élevage. The 2009 Hermitage White Au Coeur des Siècles is a selection of old-vine parcels of Marsanne in the Beaumes, Méal and Le Croix lieux-dits (named vineyards). It's nice and racy, with green and yellow apple notes and a nice, subtle figgy hint. The 2008 Hermitage White Au Coeur des Siècles is bottled and set for release in the next few months; it's stony and pure, with good melon rind and heather notes and a lingering blanched almond finish.
A trio of Vin de Pay Syrah bottlings was introduced in the 2008 vintage. The tank- and concrete-fermented wines offer good value in 2009, starting with the 2009 Syrah Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes at $9 as the entry-level wine, which receives a short three-day cold soak and 10-day maceration before fermentation. It is a light cherry pit- and Campari-edged wine with a slightly dusty finish. The 2009 Syrah Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes Queen of Syrah gets a slightly longer maceration for more weight but it's still made in a softer style, offering friendly plum and dark cherry notes with a dash of roasted vanilla for a modest $12. The 2009 Syrah Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes Queen of Syrah Reserve has between 8 and 10 grams of residual sugar and is sourced from Crozes-Hermitage vines that are declassified. It will carry a $19 price tag, delivering good value with its juicy bramble, plum and spice notes without being overtly jammy. All three are good to very good, qualitywise.
There are no parcel selection reds in 2008, so the 2008 Crozes-Hermitage contains the lots that would normally have gone into the Les Hauts du Fief cuvée. It shows elegant plum and cherry fruit with a noticeable vanilla streak. The 2008 St.-Joseph has better definition, with floral and mineral hints guiding the light cherry fruit. The 2008 Cornas is quite juicy, showing darker macerated plum and currant fruit and good sweet spice notes. The Cornas looks to be the top red here in '08, as the 2008 Hermitage is bit lean, with red currant and pomegranate notes and a lightly chalky finish.
The parcel selection lineup returns in the much stronger 2009 vintage. The 2009 Crozes-Hermitage Les Hauts du Fief is fresh and bright, with good perfume and bright cherry fruit. The 2009 St.-Joseph Esprit de Granit has nice violet and plum notes with good focus and a lingering mineral note. The 2009 Cornas Arènes Sauvages is plump and juicy, with briar, fruitcake and licorice notes and a dash of olive to keep it honest. The 2009 Hermitage Gambert de Loche offers solid length, velvety tannins and fresh plum, currant and blackberry fruit, woven with a subtle vanilla note that should be as good as the '07 version. All are potentially outstanding.
Lastly, the 2007 Hermitage Epsilon is the top cuvée here, selected from the best barrels of the Gambert de Loche lots, aged for 18 months in all new oak. It shows its oak prominently, with cocoa and fruitcake aromas and toasty grip, along with good plum and black currant fruit. I find it a bit amped up, stylistically, and wonder if the Cave shouldn't simply focus on the Gambert de Loche bottling for now, which could really help introduce people to Hermitage, as it carries a sub-$100 price tag for an appellation whose wines are typically well north of that mark.
The Cave de Tain is in a position to really help drive the region. Combining its estate fruit with its several hundred member growers, the cooperative encompasses large swaths of all the Northern Rhone appellations, including 31 hectares in Hermitage, over 600 hectares in Crozes-Hermitage (half the appellation) and 18 percent of the St.-Joseph appellation. By the same token, however, the co-op can also hold the region back, with middling quality helping to dampen the Rhône's reputation as a whole. With hundreds of growers to manage and a board to answer to, managing director Julie Campos has a tough job, but she's doing it well. It's not easy steering a ship this big, but Campos and her team have slowly but surely gotten the Cave de Tain going in the right direction.
From the Cave de Tain, my next two stops were at the newest Jaboulet-named operations in town. Following the sale of the venerable Paul Jaboulet Aîné house to Jean-Jacques Frey, several of the family's members have moved on to start their own smaller operations.
I introduced you to this domaine back in May 2008 when they debuted their first wines in the U.S. market. The father-and-son team of Philippe, 59, and Vincent, 27, purchased an old winery and some Crozes-Hermitage vineyards in Mercurol at the end of 2005 and combined them with some family vines they kept after the sale of Paul Jaboulet Aîné. The domaine totals 30 hectares of vines (12 in Crozes) and production has now increased to 10,000 cases annually, with 3,000 going to the U.S.
Winemaking here is fairly traditional—red grapes are fermented mostly in cement vat, along with some stainless steel and wooden vat. The lots in stainless steel vats receive rémontage (pumping over), the rest manual pigéage (punching down of the cap). The only modern hint is that all red grapes are destemmed. Whites are fermented in a mix of vat and barrel.
The 2009 Crozes-Hermitage White is fermented mostly in vat, with about 20 percent in barrel and the malolactic then blocked. The all-Marsanne cuvée (from a sample drawn from the vat portion) shows plump peach pit and melon notes with a racy, full-bodied finish. The 2008 Hermitage White is also all Marsanne, sourced from the Maison Blanche and Beaumes parcels, fermented and aged in barrel (half new) and the malolactic fermentation is allowed to go through. It's very pure, with lush green fig, macadamia nut and almond cream notes and a round, lush finish.
The 2008 Crozes-Hermitage is sourced from the 20- to 30-year-old Mercurol vines around the winery that were purchased when they started the domaine. Fermented and aged in cement tank, it's fresh and friendly, with cherry pit and floral notes and an open-knit finish spiked with a little chalky hint. The 2008 Crozes-Hermitage Nouvelère is from the 40-year-old family vines, aged in two-thirds barrel, along with vat. It shows good ripeness for the vintage, with red and black cherry fruit and a tangy licorice snap note; it flirts with outstanding. The 2008 Hermitage is sourced from the Dionnières lieu-dit, which lends a more stylish profile to the wooden vat-fermented wine. It's velvety for the vintage, with nice Damson plum and raspberry notes and a nice streak of spice. The Jaboulets also operate on the other side of the river, with a 2008 Cornas sourced from the Chaban parcel at the top of the hill, which results in a fresher style, with tangy red currant and sanguine notes.
Old Italian-made cement vats came with the old winery that Philippe and Vincent Jaboulet bought for their new domaine.
The 2009 reds we tasted were samples from representative lots of the likely final wines, though of course it is still early. The 2009 Crozes-Hermitage is several shades darker in color and fruit profile than the '08, with sappy cassis and pastis notes and a sweet spice-filled finish. It's potentially outstanding. The 2009 Crozes-Hermitage Nouvelère is still soaking up its oak, with a bread dough hint on the nose and a prominent vanilla note up front, followed by lush pastis, fig paste and macerated currant fruit. The acidity is buried for now, but should emerge more as the oak recedes. The 2009 Hermitage was just racked to barrel last week, so it's tight and spiny now, but with excellent red and black currant fruit in reserve. The finish is all acidity now as it's awkward from the move, but the pieces are in place for the élevage and it should be as good as the '06 version here (and I hope the problems I encountered with the '07 Hermitage here were just a blip). The 2009 Cornas is quite lush already, with some oak still to be digested into the ripe plum and boysenberry fruit. It's very primal, with a long, toast-driven finish for now. Like the Hermitage, it's fermented in wooden vat and then aged in barrel, nearly two-thirds new.
Located on the other side of the river in Tournon, the other new Jaboulet operation is a joint venture between Nicolas Jaboulet, 38, and the Perrin family of the Southern Rhône's Château de Beaucastel (and represented by Marc Perrin, 39). The two benefit from a rather dramatic view of the hill of Hermitage across the river which, on this first spring-like day, could be seen in all its pre-verdant splendor. For background, you can reference my introduction to this new label from June 2009.
[Note: the operation started with the name Nicolas Jaboulet-Perrin Frères but changed to Maison Nicolas Perrin after the new owners of Paul Jaboulet Aîné objected to the use of the Jaboulet name.]
"We have been looking for a long time to do something in the north," said Perrin of his family's move up from the south. "It's the Rhône of course, but it's totally separate from the south. It's a varietal for the reds, instead of blends. It's slopes instead of plateau. And even the cuisine is different—it's Lyon-based and butter-based instead of the olive oil in the south."
The operation is a négociant, buying juice from top growers in the area who may not be bottling all their own production.
"But we're trying to do it a Burgundian way," said Perrin of the buying process. "So we're not looking to buy large quantities of wines in bulk, but rather to work with small growers individually, bring our barrels to the growers and get the wines into barrel when they are still warm, during the malo and then only take them out after the malo is done."
From there, blending, as well as the ensuing élevage and bottling is being done at the Perrin facility in the south. Jaboulet and Perrin are looking for a small cave to handle the élevage in Tain, but will always bottle in the south.
"We also need to work with growers where we can blend parcels that are harmonious," said Jaboulet. "That is really a fun challenge, to work on blends that have the best harmony."
The pair is aiming to work in all the red wine appellations in the north and will start with just one cuvée per appellation, though that might change in the future. For whites, they're working with just Condrieu and Hermitage to start.
Despite the artisanal approach, starting a new winery these days is not easy.
"Starting this business during the crisis has been good and bad," acknowledged Perrin. "It was great because we were able to buy wines from vignerons who might not usually be selling wine. But on the other hand it's still hard to sell wines in the U.S. above $25. But still, once you are in at these vineyards, you have a yearly allocation with them, so we're not worried about losing our place in line with them once the economy turns around."
Nicolas Jaboulet and Marc Perrin enjoy a striking skyline from the front door of their new Nicolas-Perrin négociant business.
"And while it may not be easy to set up a business and distribution network starting from zero, having the two names has helped us to be well-received in markets and make the introduction easier," said Jaboulet.
In the 2007 vintage, there were just 30,000 bottles produced; that could increase to 60,000 bottles maximum in '09 depending on final blends, and ultimately 90,000 bottles. Perrin and Jaboulet do not have direct control over viticulture, but they are working with growers whom they know and that farm their vineyards in the way Jaboulet and Perrin are looking for. The project is using some used barrels from Perrin wines as well as trying new coopers for trials. Jaboulet and Perrin are only controlling some vinifications, not all.
"There are some growers who are experienced and they do what they do, so there we choose lots afterward. But some growers we choose to oversee the vinification process," said Jaboulet.
"The people we are working with are people we know and share the same values with. But it's a new project, so everything is open for change and trial," said Perrin. "It's a fabulous game though. It reminds me of Tablas Creek in that's it's a totally different world. In the south, we're looking for acidity to balance the ripeness but here in the north we're looking for ripeness to balance the acidity."
The 2009 Condrieu is barrel fermented (none new) and has finished its malo. It comes from two growers with parcels in Condrieu and Limony and there are just over 100 cases of the wine, which shows ripe, unctuous glazed pear, fig and melon flavors and a long, creamy finish. There are just 3,200 bottles of the 2008 Hermitage White, made from a 65/35 blend of Marsanne and Roussanne sourced from two growers with parcels in the Maison Blanche and Roucoules lieux-dits. Also fermented in barrel, less than one-third new and now in bottle, it shows very lush white peach, tart tartine and green melon flavors with a long finish that lets a grilled nut note linger. Both whites are potentially outstanding.
Among the reds, the 2008 Crozes-Hermitage (just 125 cases) shows good briary blackberry and raspberry fruit with lively acidity. Sourced from the Chassis parcel that is the heart of the appellation, from 25-year-old vines, it's fermented all in cement vat and aged 10 months in a mix of new, second and third fill barrels. It has a nice smoky, mesquite edge on the finish, with solid length. The 2009 Crozes-Hermitage adds fruit from one additional grower to the mix, upping the quantity to 830 cases. The new grower also doesn't destem, and the new source accounts for 80 percent of the final blend, which shows mouthfilling blackberry and currant fruit with alluring mesquite and bacon notes and a long, tobacco-filled finish. Though it relies on its ripe, fleshy fruit, the wine has enough tobacco and olive snap to keep it fresh.
The 2007 St.-Joseph was sourced from vineyards in the northern end of the appellation, but in 2008 the wine adds a grower from Mauves in the southern end, where more minerality tends to be displayed (the '07 St.-Joseph has already been reviewed; the '08 was not shown as Jaboulet felt it was "unfinished" at this point). Both Jaboulet and Perrin tick off the names Gonon, Chave, Coursodon and Montez when talking about the St.-Joseph producers they've appreciated over the years, so it will be interesting to see if they eventually shift to more fruit from the southern portion of St.-Joseph.
There are just 7,000 bottles of the 2007 Côte-Rôtie, sourced from a single grower with vines mostly in the Tartaras lieu-dit in the southern portion of the appellation and at slightly higher altitude above the Côte Blonde lieu-dit. The wine contains a drop of Viognier and shows vibrant blackberry, olive and iron notes with a racy, roasted mesquite-filled finish. The wine will skip the difficult '08 vintage and then resume in '09.
The 2007 Ermitage comes from two growers with parcels in Murets, Greffieux and Dionnières. It's very juicy and lush, with lots of blackberry fruit and sweet spice, but just lacks a touch of the verve and drive that the other reds here are showing (the wine was officially reviewed at 89 points). A third grower will be added to the blend in 2008 and 2009.
There is also some 2006 Ermitage, sourced from a single grower who had some backed up inventory following the economic slowdown. There are just 1,200 bottles of it, sourced from the Greffieux lieu-dit (the grower's wine has stayed in the blend in ensuing vintages). It's broader and smokier than the '07, with a meaty edge to the roasted fig and currant fruit notes, and shows more depth and muscle through the finish.
"It's normally not what we want to do, just put a label on one grower's wine," said Jaboulet. "But it was an opportunity."
There is a distinctive house style here—rich and fleshy, but not overpowering, with nice smoky aromatics and good typicity from appellation to appellation. The wines are mostly accessibly right out of the gate, but should reward additional short- to mid-term cellaring of three to five years.
"And that's exactly the style we're looking for," said Perrin.
[You can now follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at http://twitter.com/jmolesworth1]
Fcr Phillips — South Africa — March 25, 2010 10:57am ET
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