I’ve made quite a shift in gears following two weeks in Bordeaux as I’m now in my old stomping grounds in the Rhône Valley. Tastings here are a more casual affair, done usually in the cave, with samples drawn straight from barrel, as opposed to the more formal tasting rooms and pre-prepared samples that are typical at Bordeaux châteaus. I’m getting a good deal of teasing from the local vignerons too, about my new tasting responsibilities.
“Hopefully you’ll give them good marks and they’ll raise prices 40 percent,“ joked one Rhône vigneron. “Then we can raise ours 20 percent and look like a bargain.”
The region’s vignerons are in a good mood, that’s for sure. As I noted in my blog yesterday, both ’09 and ’10 are very strong vintages for the France's Northern Rhône Valley. The hangover from the difficult ’08 vintage, which came during a tough economic period when Americans eschewed buying fine wines in general, seems to be fading fast.
Long a reference point for its Viognier bottlings from the Condrieu appellation, Domaine Georges Vernay is now an accomplished red wine producer as well. Christine Vernay has steadily improved her reds since taking over in ’97, learning first from her legendary father and now fully on her own. Today the domaine totals 18 hectares of vines, producing about 8,000 cases annually.
My first ever official visit when I began covering the Rhône several years ago was at this domaine; it’s been a regular stop ever since. For general background on the wines you can reference my blog post from March 2010, with additional links to previous blogs therein.
“Budbreak came a full week early,” said Vernay as we drive up to the cave, located on the plateau above Condrieu. “There’s still a danger of frost until the beginning of May so we are a little concerned. But the two weeks just before you arrived were really warm and the vines pushed out quickly.”
As we scale the narrow road and its several switchbacks, green sprouts of eight to 10 inches have popped up from the vines. Spring is here and the vines are ready to go.
Meanwhile, Vernay always shows her young wines with trepidation.
“The wine doesn’t really exist yet,” she said, casting the stern eye of a former school teacher on me as she draws a Syrah sample from barrel, sourced from the Lancement parcel that will wind up being part of the Côte-Rôtie Blonde du Seigneur 2010. It’s silky and perfumy, with lovely, persistent red cherry fruit and lots of minerality on the finish. It will join the juice from the Semons parcel, which contains 10 percent Viognier and shows more vibrant black cherry and spice aromas and flavors.
“The ‘10s have really integrated quickly and calmly,” said Vernay. “The ‘09s were the opposite. It was a fight between the oak and the fruit, because the ‘09s were so large scaled.”
The St.-Joseph La Dame Brune 2010 has quietly become one of the top wines from this large, sprawling and fairly heterogeneous appellation. Sourced from a single parcel of 60-plus-year-old vines in the town of Chavanay, the wine is already showing its typically alluring sandalwood and black tea aromas, with silky cherry fruit and a long, iron spine on the finish.
The Côte-Rôtie Maison Rouge 2010 is an all-Syrah Côte-Rôtie (no Viognier) and is the only red cuvée here vinified entirely in wood, fermented in an open-top wooden vat before moving to barrel for its aging. It shows its typical grip, though stays refined, with the structure well-embedded in the core of kirsch and iron notes.
“2010 is a more terroir vintage,” said Vernay. “In comparison, ’09 is more gourmand. 2010 is longer, but with a little austerity, so most people will prefer ’09, while ’10 is more classic. Sort of like in Bordeaux,” she added, with a wink.
The Côte-Rôtie Blonde du Seigneur 2009 was blended just yesterday and it now sits assembled in tank, waiting to be bottled.
“So, it’s still early, but now it exists!” exclaimed Vernay, as opposed to the yet-to-be-blended ’10.
The wine shows the volume and flesh of the vintage, with flattering black cherry fruit and lots of anise and roasted spice notes. In contrast, the Côte-Rôtie Maison Rouge 2009 shows more obvious weight and density, with inviting blackberry fruit and a long, rich finish that glides along, despite its bigger profile.
“2009 has been rich and open all the way through the élevage. Even though it battled with the wood, it was never closed or awkward,” said Vernay.
While the reds here are now the equal of the whites in quality, the domaine still earns its reputation on its Condrieu bottlings. Vernay draws a sample of the Condrieu Les Terrasses de l'Empire 2010 from one of the few vats that has finished its malolactic. It’s bright, with lots of starfruit, plantain and floral notes and crunchy acidity. The 2010 fermentations have taken a long time here though, with numerous vats and barrels still going through malo or even still digesting their sugars. Vernay pulls the bung from one barrel after another, drawing a small sample to try, before saying "No!” “No!” “No!” after each one. “These really do not exist yet,” she said matter-of-factly, and so from there we move to the ’09 whites.
The Condrieu Les Terrasses de l'Empire 2009 offers a beam of pure acacia honey with a flash of salted butter on the finish. It has length and depth, but not quite the flash of minerality it typically has. In contrast, the Condrieu Les Chaillées de l'Enfer 2009 also shows the density of the vintage, but with superb freshness, as verbena, honeysuckle and creamed melon notes sail through the finish.
The top cuvée is the Condrieu Coteau de Vernon 2009, which shows its usual powerful core of green melon, anise and green plum, along with lush texture and flashes of yellow apple, chamomile and mineral. It’s in the league of the ’05 in terms of its style—deep and powerful, while the Chaillées ’09 is more like the ’06, with more pronounced freshness and precision.
Not to be overlooked, the Viognier Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes Le Pied de Samson 2009 delivers textbook melon, acacia and honeysuckle flavors with a round, enticing finish. It’s an ideal introduction to northern Rhône Viognier and a relative value as well.
Pierre-Jean Villa is experienced, but he’s also just getting started. After working for the large Boisset company in Burgundy, and then for several years with his friends at Vins de Vienne, Villa has now started his own eponymous domaine. (For background, see notes from my March 2010 visit here.)
Villa has 22 acres in the Northern Rhône (15 currently in production with the rest coming on line soon). In 2010 he produced about 1,600 cases but that will soon grow to more than 4,000. In addition, he’s partnered in a Burgundy project aiming at an additional 4,000 cases annually.
“I love big wineries—you have the resources to do many things,” said Villa. “But now, with just [8,000 cases] annually, I can really control everything without ever having to rush to do anything. I’m making wine at the artisan level, which is what I really want to do.”
Villa has just renovated an old warehouse for his vinification and élevage facility. The building next door is next in line for a renovation to house the bottling and storage parts of the winery. As he’s started his domaine from scratch, Villa has had to adapt on the fly.
“We built the facility here and in December, the '10s hadn’t started malo yet,” said Villa. “I wasn’t worried though, as I figured they would start in January. Then January, nothing. February, nothing. March, nothing. And I realized that the new facility did not have a build up of native yeasts to help the fermentations start on their own. So, when April came, we turned up the heat a little, and boom!, off they went,” he said about the malos.
Consequently, the young ‘10s here are in an awkward stage as they haven’t been racked or sulphured yet, with many still going through their malos. So while they show lots of dark, primal fruit notes and plenty of structure, I’d prefer to hold off on commenting on them directly. Nonetheless, Villa is pleased with the vintage.
“It’s a very typical Northern Rhône vintage,” he said. “The wines have richness but are fresh. And normally, the first few months after the vinification, you can feel the wood in the wines, but with the ‘10s, you don’t feel the wood at all. They integrated so fast.”
For the ‘09s, the debut vintage for the domaine, the St.-Joseph Préface 2009 is the lone ’09 to have been bottled already and a nice 15 percent of its 800-plus case production is already on the way to the U.S. market. It’s tangy and bright, with lovely kirsch and pepper notes and rather fresh acidity for the vintage.
“It’s exactly the style that I want,” said Villa. Fruit, but fresh too. I prefer a lighter finish that goes up,” he said, gesturing with his hand. “Rather than a big finish that falls off.”
Drawing from his experience at Vins de Vienne, Villa has a Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes Esprit d’Antan 2009, sourced from vines around Vienne on the left bank of the Rhône, on schist soils. It’s floral and racy, with the telltale sanguine and mesquite notes of wines from the area (Stéphane Ogier, Michel Chapoutier, Alain Paret and others have been developing vineyards here as well). This cuvée is aged entirely in demi-muid, a 600-liter wood vessel as opposed to a typical 225-liter barrel. “Demi-muids bring the minerality out, because the volume of wine inside is different. You get the feel of wood but not the taste,” he said.
The Côte-Rôtie Carmina 2009 is sourced from young vines in the Fongeant parcel (in 2010, Villa will switch to old vine parcels in the same Fontgeant lieu-dit for this cuvée), and the wine is plump and open, with friendly cherry, spice and toast notes. The St.-Joseph Tildé 2009 is bigger though, drawing on old vine parcels from the southern portion of the appellation near Sarras. It’s dark and racy, with mouthwatering mesquite, tobacco and pepper. It’s still a touch tight too, but it shows plenty of length and should unwind nicely.
Villa is also producing a white, the St.-Joseph White Sant de l’Ange 2010, made entirely from Roussanne and vinified in a combination of stainless steel and demi-muid. It’s very solid, with a large core of melon and peach, but backed by fresh acidity.
After tasting, Villa leads me outside, passing through a door from the renovated building that leads directly out onto the bottom of a steep terrace where he has some young vines. The last time I was here, we had to scramble up a crumbling stone staircase and the vines had not yet been planted. Today, the ankle high vines have popped, with green shoots stretching up, but not yet able to grasp hold of the classic triangle wooden trellis that waits for them (see the accompanying video). Villa is beaming with pride—when I see a crumbling terrace wall just a few yards away.
“Ah!” he said. I finally get my vines in the ground and my winery built, and then the 100-year-old wall decides to fall down over the winter. There’s always something to do!”
Pierre-Jean Villa introduce me to perhaps the region’s newest vigneron, Julien Pilon, just 34. Pilon is a Chavanay native who spent the past 10 years working in the Languedoc at Olivier Decelle’s Mas Amiel and Pierre Gaillard’s winery. He joined Villa’s domaine in April, while he’s also setting up his own small operation.
Pilon plans to produce only white wines; he’s currently buying fruit for his cuvées, which will debut in the 2010 vintage. Pilon is using his parent’s garage as his vinification space and he has a total of just 600 to 700 cases to start (he’s looking for an importer). The blends here are set, though Pilon said the cuvée names might change.
The Crozes-Hermitage White Gouttes d’Or 2010 is made from 100 percent Roussanne that displays very fresh honeysuckle and heather notes with a hint of peach. The St.-Péray Pluie Fine 2010 is made entirely from Marsanne, and it shows a brighter profile, with green melon and Jonagold apple notes backed by a salted butter hint on the finish.
“Since it’s my first vintage, I’m trying new things,” said Pilon, noting that he is trying just one new oak barrel for each cuvée, with the rest used barrels, to see how the wine behaves. “Also, I’m keeping the ferments cool, only 65° to 68° F and using only natural yeasts. I want the longest ferments possible for complexity and body,” he said, adding, “The main question these days, is to try and produce white wines that are rich, but still drinkable and express their terroir.”
The St.-Joseph White Lône 2010 is three-quarters Marsanne, the rest Roussanne, sourced from vineyards around Malleval and Chavanay. It’s really enticing, with a mix of melon rind, peach, honeysuckle and yellow apple backed by racy acidity.
Switching to his Viognier cuvées, the portfolio starts with a Viognier Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes 2010, which draws on fruit from around Malleval, as well as further south of Tournon. It’s road and friendly, with lots of apricot and white peach notes offset nicely by a bright green plum edge on the finish.
“For Viognier, it’s difficult to decide when to pick, because the acidity goes up and down [during the ripening] and then you go from underripe to overripe like that,” said Pilon, snapping his fingers. “So I like to combine the freshness of the parcels from Malleval to the richer ones from Tournon, as a way to get balance.”
Pilon is sourcing just a single parcel of 30-year-old vines in Chavanay for his Condrieu Nuit Blanche 2010. It’s rich, but very pure, with a rounded creamy feel to the expressive melon and anise notes.
Soft-spoken, but serious, Pilon seems wise, wine-wise, beyond his years. Many young vignerons I meet as they start out often put a lot of themselves into their wines, with overt extractions and ambitious oak, before often pulling back as they evolve to fashion wines that emphasize balance and finesse. Pilon is seemingly at that evolved stage already though and with his debut ‘10s, this is a new domaine worth keeping an eye on.
By the time afternoon rolled around, the crisp, cool spring air had given way to a sunny, summer-like warmth. I pulled up at Yves Gangloff’s place and he’s sitting in the doorway, trimming the roots off some new Viognier vines he’s just gotten from the appellation’s nursery. Just as in Côte-Rôtie, the Condrieu growers have their own nursery to propagate vines cuttings, keeping the genetic diversity within the appellation while culling for quality. Gangloff will be planting the new Condrieu vines in a few days; like Villa earlier this morning, he’s renovating old terraces for his new plantings, spending an amount of effort and energy inversely proportional for the quantitative returns (see the accompanying video). But that’s the price of quality.
Gangloff remains deeply entrenched in his rock-star persona, with a Robin Trower cd blaring from the stereo inside the ramshackle, cramped cave. With just 20 acres and a maximum of 2,500 cases produced annually, this remains one of the toughest wine finds in the U.S. market, thought the wines are some of the most distinctive and compelling in the region, particularly the two Côte-Rôtie cuvées. (For background on the domaine, see my notes from my last visit in April of 2006.)
Gangloff added some St.-Joseph to his portfolio starting in the ’07 vintage, 6.1 acres total (3.7 of which are white, the rest red). Made from Marsanne, the St.-Joseph White 2010 is juicy and still compact, with snappy melon and anise notes and a lively finish. The Condrieu 2010 blends 60 percent from the La Bonette parcel with the rest from the Chéry lieu-dit, the former giving rich, spiced apple and vanilla notes, the latter lending crunchy acidity and mineral notes to the blend, which usually is one of the more opulently styled wines in the appellation. As at other stop so far, Gangloff’s malos and ferments are running long on the ‘10s. “Winter came quickly and it was really cold,” he said, which led to the wines to slow down or stop their evolution, though things have kicked back in now that spring has arrived. As he pulls the bung off one barrel, it makes a distinctive hiss, like a soda can opening, and putting an ear to the opening you can hear the lively bubbling of the malolactic fermentation taking off again.
The St.-Joseph White 2009 shows the rounder, ripe edges of the vintage, with apple and pear fruit framed by a melon rind note on the finish. Moving to the reds; the St.-Joseph 2009 sits in 300-liter barrels, which Gangloff has been steadily switching to since he started making the wine in ’07. There’s just one new barrel in the lot of six, and the wine shows Gangloff’s distinctive smoky, spice and mesquite aromas with macerated black cherry fruit and a long, still-tight finish.
The Côte-Rôtie La Barbarine 2009 is Gangloff’s young vine selection, combining fruit from three different parcels in the southern Côte Blonde portion of the appellation (for background on Côte-Rôtie terroir, as well as a map and profiles of numerous domaines, you can reference Syrah’s North Star and Côte-Rôtie at a Glance).
The Lombard lieu-dit (20 percent of the blend) delivers the ripe, succulent black cherry and licorice notes; the Coteaux Tupin parcel (40 percent) more perfumy, sanguine hints, while the Mollard parcel (40 percent), with vines planted in ’95, displays finesse and minerality.
Continuing the house style of exotic black fruit and roasted wood aromas, the Côte-Rôtie La Sereine Noire 2009 is a step up in density and length, sourced from two parcels of old vines. The first, also from Mollard, still delivers the minerality, but with a plusher feel, while the Côte Rozier portion (from the northern Côte-Brune half of the appellation) is dense, but lithe, with gorgeous black tea and melted black licorice notes.
“The ‘09s were concentrated naturally, so I did less pigéage during the ferment. The wines just filled out by themselves,” said Gangloff.
In contrast, the ‘10s show racier, more structured profiles. Starting with the Côte-Rôtie La Barbarine 2010, we taste through the three parcels again. Lombard is dark and smoky, Coteaux Tupin even brawnier and the Mollard rich, round and open. The Côte-Rôtie La Sereine Noire 2010 should be a dynamite wine when finally put together; the old vine Mollard juice is loaded with black and purple fruit flavors and a great graphite edge, with the Côte Rozier is all iron and muscle now, with a chewy finish.
“2009 is flattering and rich while the '10s are more direct and a touch more concentrated, since yields were a little lower,” said Gangloff. “The alcohol is a little higher in ’10, but the balance is better because you don’t feel it.”
I finished my day at Jean-Michel Gerin’s domaine, at the northern edge of the appellation in the commune of Vérenay. Gerin, still wry and fit, has nonetheless hung up his rugby cleats.
“Not even coaching?” I asked, surprised.
“No. Just waving for support from the stands now,” said Gerin with his distinctive impish grin.
Gerin is one of many vignerons in the area happy to see ’08 fading from memory. While the vintage was not a disaster qualitatively, it was a difficult sell.
“Not a single bottle of ’08 in the U.S.,” he said. “But now, ’09 and ’10—with quality and quantity,” he added, breaking into a smile.
For background on the wines here, you can reference my notes from my March 2010 visit.
Always a tasty value, Gerin has changed the approach for his Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes La Champine 2009, a Syrah bottling sourced from vines on the plateau above Côte-Rôtie (the label is new starting with the ’09 vintage)
“Before it was trying to be a mini-Côte-Rôtie,” said Gerin. “Now, I’m destemming entirely, it sees only half wood, none new and spends just 12 months before bottling.”
The wine delivers plump black cherry fruit, a dash of toast and a nice sanguine flash on the open-knit finish, delivering a textbook introduction to Northern Rhône Syrah.
Gerin has also added a St.-Joseph to the lineup starting in ‘09, and the St.-Joseph 2009 is sleek, with lovely anise and violet notes and a long, velvety finish. Gerin sources fruit from parcels in the north, middle and south end of the appellation, to balance darker fruit with fresher acidity, as the parcels can ripen 10 to 12 days apart. The wine is aged in a mix of demi-muids and barrels, but none new.
“Overripeness came quickly in ’09 and you had to pick fast,” said Gerin. “So if you were waiting, you could get jammy wines very, very easily. My preference is for freshness, so I didn’t gamble. But in ’10, it was the opposite. You had to wait for ripeness and pick slowly, because the parcels were heterogenous. Analytically, the wines are very similar, but in reality, they are totally different. There is no rosetta stone for when to pick—you have to figure it out every year, in the vineyards.”
The Côte-Rôtie Champin Le Seigneur 2009 shows the supple, polished profile of the vintage, with lovely cassis and black tea notes. It’s rich, but pure and balanced, a style that Gerin has been steadily moving towards.
“That’s what’s so special about Côte-Rôtie,” said gerin. “You have [Yves] Cuilleron or Gangloff for example, making rich wines, and then you have a style like this, or at Clusel-Roch, with minerality. The appellation is so diverse.”
A new wine makes it debut in ’09, as Gerin will now bottle the Côte-Rôtie La Vallière 2009—the fruit had been going into the Champin Le Seigneur cuvée. From just 5 acres of vines planted seven years ago, the wine is aged entirely in demi-muid and it’s very stylish, with perfumy cherry and currant fruit and flashes of iodine and iron on the finish, without being angular or severe.
“That’s what the demi-muid does,” said Gerin, echoing the sentiments of Pierre-Jean Villa earlier today. “It bring that iodine note to the wine. It lifts the minerality without adding the taste of wood to the wine.”
Gerin’s Côte-Rôtie La Landonne 2009 is always one of the quiet stars of the appellation and it doesn’t disappoint in ’09. It’s superlong, with a gorgeous mouthfeel as the roasted apple wood, cassis and iron notes cruise through the velvety finish. It should easily rival the classic ’99 and ’05 vintages.
Showing more obvious grip, the Côte-Rôtie Les Grandes Places 2009 displays more tobacco, iron and peppery notes along with its core of dark cherry and blackberry fruit. Also potentially classic, it will probably take longer to unwind than the La Landonne as it ages for up to two decades.
[Note: Gerin did not show his ‘10s as they were still going through their ferments.]
While Christine Vernay is known for her whites, but had steadily improved her reds, Gerin is known for his reds, but has steadily improved his whites. The Viognier Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes La Champine 2010 was just recently bottled and it delivers bright plantain, green plum and bitter almond notes with a clean, rounded finish. For his Condrieu La Loye 2010, Gerin has slowly shifted to a larger percentage of stainless steel for the fermentation, with the rest in barrel but no new oak. The shift has resulted in a brighter, more delineated wine delivering almond, honeysuckle and white peach notes that are pure and lengthy.
All in all, I’d consider a day with tastings at five domaines a good start. Luckily I’ve got tomorrow morning free to get some writing done. Then in the afternoon on Day 2, I’ll stop in at Alain Paret and Jean-Paul Jamet.
James Molesworth — Senior Editor, Wine Spectator — April 28, 2011 9:58am ET
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