On my fourth day in France's Rhône Valley I visited two young wineries. One belongs to the daughter of Bernard Chave, the other to Stéphane Ogier.
Natacha Chave isn’t much bigger than a demi-muid. She has to stretch to reach the bung when drawing a sample for me to taste. But despite her diminutive stature, she seems more than capable. With a delightful smile and sparkling eyes, the 36-year-old started her own domaine from scratch in 2004, buying 3.7 acres of vines in St.-Joseph before adding another 16 acres of Crozes-Hermitage in 2007.
Today she’s producing 1,600 cases annually (10 percent comes to the U.S. market), is planting some white varieties this year and would like to get to 25 acres and 3,300 cases in the future, enough to handle everything herself without getting too big.
Chave’s cellar is well-situated, right off the access ramp to the A7 outside of Tain, though I doubt she’ll be building any large tasting room anytime soon.
“The sign is small,” she said, laughing as she asked me if I found the place easily. Her brother Yann works next door with the family’s vines (he took over from their father, Bernard; the family is not related to the Jean-Louis Chave winery of Hermitage fame). You can reference my November 2006 notes on Yann Chave’s domaine.
Natacha was studying philosophy before she decided to make the switch to winemaking. She worked a stage at Yves Cuilleron before taking the plunge, as she realized vine growing was in her blood more than philosophy.
“It’s a family affair obviously,” she said.
Her friendship with Brigitte Roch and Gilbert Clusel in Côte-Rôtie turned her on to biodynamic farming, which she has employed since she started; the parcels she bought were formerly going into the local co-ops and had been given their fair share of pesticides and herbicides over the years. The sudden shift to biodynamics, a more holistic approach to farming, has apparently worked well though.
“The vines did not have any trouble,” she said. “The older vines had better resistance to the shift, but overall, they have responded well.”
The first few vintages here have shown a predilection for light, minerally styled wines—a style Chave openly prefers. Extraction is gentle, there’s little to no pigéage (punching down of the cap) and a very gentle rémontage (pumping over). Nonetheless, the '09s and '10s are taking a noticeable step up in dimension and ripeness, a factor of the vintages for sure, and perhaps the vineyards settling in to their new farming regime.
The St.-Joseph Aléofane 2010 is aged in 60 percent demi-muid and the rest barrel, none new. Sourced from 15-year-old vines, the demi-muid portion is tight, with a pronounced iron note and flashes of violet. The barrel portion is more generous, with upfront blackberry and plum fruit and a nicely focused, anise-tinged finish.
“The demi-muid respects the tenderness while the barrel gives some body, so I like to combine the two,” she said.
In her first few vintages, Chave fermented with a percentage of whole clusters, though in ’09 and ’10 she destemmed entirely.
“It’s not a recipe, maybe I’ll use them again in the future,” she said regarding stems. “But in '09 and ’10 there was enough concentration and freshness in the fruit, so I didn’t need to use stems.”
The extra richness shows. Sourced from 40-year-old vines over a mélange of parcels, mainly around the Roche-de-Glun area, the Crozes-Hermitage Aléofane 2010 is aged in demi-muid (with just a little new oak) and vat; it’s very juicy, with lots of spice, cassis and blackberry fruit backed by a sappy finish. We compare a sample from a used demi-muid to one from a new demi-muid (two out of her seven are new), which is even lusher, with more licorice and black fruit and a weightier finish.
“That’s too much oak for me,” said Chave with a light-hearted laugh, putting her hand up to her chest as if she’d just taken a shot of hard alcohol. “But it’s just a small percentage and in the blend it will be fine.”
The Crozes-Hermitage Aléofane 2009 was bottled in January and it shows lovely cocoa powder-framed blackberry fruit, with a fleshy but elegant feel and a long, graceful finish. It’s definitely not the black, mouthfilling, upfront style of most wines from the appellation, though it does show the richness of the vintage. Also bottled is the St.-Joseph Aléofane 2009. It’s supple and long, with lilting violet, cassis and iron notes. Again, it has the weight of the vintage, but keeps to Chave’s preference for elegance and grace.
Stéphane Ogier is also young—still in his 30s—but he’s further along the vigneron career path than Natacha Chave, as he’s been making some of the top wines in Côte-Rôtie for several years now. He’s also a father for the second time, with a newborn son. Though he finished construction on his new cellar last year, a tasting here still runs up and down a flight of stairs and in and out of three different barrel rooms. So to accommodate his growing family he’s renovating a house on the southern edge of Ampuis. And to accommodate his growing domaine, he’s planning to build a larger facility that can finally have everything efficiently under one roof.
Ogier knows though that the growth is finite. With the Côte-Rôtie appellation nearing its limit in terms of plantings, price pressure for parcels (planted or unplanted) is extremely high. Ultimately, there will be no room left to growth for a small, family-owned domaine.
“After I finish planting the parcels that I am working on now, that’s it. That’s what the domaine will be,” said Ogier matter-of-factly. “You won’t be able to buy vineyards unless you’re Guigal, or Pinault,” he said, in allusion to the French investor’s recent purchase of Château-Grillet.
This has been one of my regular stops over the years, so for additional background, you can reference my most recent blog notes from my March 2010 visit.
“2009 and 2010 remind me of 1990 and 1991,” said Ogier, who despite being young, has the benefit of still working alongside his father Michel, who started the domaine in ’83, and is thus well-versed in the region’s history. “Everyone talked about ’90 at first, it was so rich and powerful, just like with ’09. But over time, people began to realize how good the '91s were, with freshness and minerality. I think it could be that way with ’10.”
The best value here is the Syrah Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes La Rosine 2010, which continues to improve in its most recent vintages. From barrel, it’s sleek and still a touch taut, but very pure with mouthwatering bitter cherry and mineral notes that should flesh out a bit more with the élevage. Sourced from vines on the plateau above Côte-Rôtie, it delivers a mini-Côte-Rôtie experience and has a track record for aging nicely in bottle for a few years as well.
From his vines across the river around Vienne the Syrah Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes L'Âme Soeur Terres de Viennae ad Seyssuel 2010 is almost as much of a mouthful as the formal name of the wine, with nice cut and lots of tangy mineral and mouthwatering bitter cherry and red plum fruit.
The Côte-Rôtie 2010 is fashioned from a blend of parcels, and as Ogier practices a long élevage, things are still very much in their component parts here. The Besset parcel delivers tangy acidity and vibrant red fruit while the Buts de Monts parcel shows more cassis and flesh. Neither has been sulphured yet, but Ogier will make that adjustment soon rather than wait until the end as he has done in the past.
“I used to just try and wait as long as possible and then do one sulphur adjustment right before the bottling,” said Ogier. “But then the sulphur just dropped out anyway and it was like I did nothing. So now, I make an adjustment after the racking and then I only need to make a smaller one before bottling and it’s more effective. It protects the fruit and I can use less sulphur overall than I did before.”
Additional samples of the 2010 Côte-Rôtie come from the Leyats parcel, brisk and pure with a racy iron edge, while the Champons is sappy, round and full of black fruit. The Côte Budin parcel, in the northern half of the appellation, was fermented with one-third whole cluster and it shows the darkest profile, with brawny licorice and black currant fruit.
“I always destem Lancement and other parcels in the Côte Blonde, as well as the Seysseul and Vin de Pays fruit,” said Ogier. “But for some vintages, the fruit in the Côte Brune can keep stems. I don’t really like the old school style with all stems, but just some can really add freshness and minerality to the wine.”
Of the two parcel selections, the Côte-Rôtie La Belle Hélène Côte Rozier 2010 is the darker in profile of the two, with dense currant and fig notes backed by racy graphite and black tea. It has a lot of youthful power but is showing remarkable definition already.
“When I taste that,” said Ogier, taking a pause. “That’s when I think ’10 might be better than ’09.”
In contrast the Côte-Rôtie Lancement Terroir de Blonde 2010 shows a more graceful profile, with long, supple structure and loads of sleek minerality running through the crushed plum, blackberry and black cherry fruit. Both it and the La Belle Hélène Côte Rozier shows the terrific structure of the vintage, with ample fruit in reserve, and they are likely to compete among the top wines of the vintage.
Ogier is quietly proving just as adept with whites too. His Viognier Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes de Rosine 2010 sits in tank and barrel; the tank portion harvested earlier to maintain acidity; it shows crunchy white peach, jicama and chamomile notes. The barrel portion, harvested later, offers rounder plantain, fig and pear.
The Condrieu 2010 was in full-blown malo, bubbling along vivaciously, so it was impossible to taste. Starting with the ’09 vintage, there will be two bottlings, as Ogier will start to separate out his old vine parcel for a separate bottling, now that he has an ample 6 acres in Condrieu.
The Syrah Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes La Rosine 2009 was bottled in December and it shows the flattering, ripe, lush feel of the vintage, but stays focused, with a sanguine edge framing the finish. The Syrah Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes L'Âme Soeur Terres de Viennae ad Seyssuel 2009 is even more delicious, with a bit more spice, mulled currant and iron notes that give it additional focus and length.
As we start to move through the separate parcels for the Côte-Rôtie 2009, Ogier mulls the continuing élevage, which always stretches for 18 months, if not longer.
“I think maybe just a slightly longer élevage than usual, to tighten them up a bit. Not as long as ’05, which was really long because the tannins needed to be tamed, but just a little longer, because they are so ripe,” he said. “The problem with ’09 is that the yields were high naturally. I did a lot of green harvesting to keep it down. You could have made an excellent wine at 60 hectoliters per hectare (well above the appellation’s allowed limit) because the vintage was so ripe. But you’ll see in bottle that those are the wines that that don’t last. It’s like that every year though. In ’07 you had to control yields just to make a good wine. In ’09 you had to control yields to make a great wine.”
The But de Monts parcel is silky and relatively reserved for the vintage, while a barrel containing Côte Brune, Besset and more (the blending has begun) lets the house style of smoky black tea and alluring cassis fruit shine forth. The Côte Budin is darker still, with nice tight, racy structure, while the Champon again shows its rounded, corpulent profile.
The Côte-Rôtie La Belle Hélène Côte Rozier 2009 is a stunning wine in the making, with sleek, very driven dark cassis and graphite notes that are really starting to stretch out. The Côte-Rôtie Lancement Terroir de Blonde 2009 is all suave cherry confiture, black tea, incense and iron, with a gorgeous, silky mouthfeel. They are noticeably more flattering than the ‘10s, in line with the vintage profile, but it is going to be a close race between the two sets of wines at chez Ogier.
“It’s going to be very difficult to choose between ’09 and ’10,” said Ogier pensively. “I like purity and finesse like we have in ’10. The ’09 is powerful, not what I usually prefer, but the balance is there. It’s a very ripe vintage, but not like ’03 for example. So, what makes a better vintage? The one that everyone will like (the ’09) right away, or the one the connoisseurs will appreciate for aging (the ’10)?,” he asks rhetorically.
Hospice Du Rhone — San Luis Obispo, CA USA — April 20, 2011 4:24pm ET
Connie Allen — Columbus, Ohio — April 21, 2011 1:10pm ET
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