I sat down with Julie Campos this week, managing director of Cave de Tain l’Hermitage. The cave is a large cooperative, totaling 360 individual growers and over 2,700 acres of vines.
The Cave represents 58 percent of the production of Crozes-Hermitage, 49 percent of St.-Péray, a quarter of Hermitage and nearly 20 percent of St.-Joseph—this is not a small operation.
Campos was brought in to help improve quality—she’s not a winemaker by trade, but an experienced wine-industry executive. Under her guidance, the wines from the Cave de Tain have been steadily improving.
Campos began by overseeing construction of a new winery facility shortly after she joined the Cave in 1999. The initial plan was to update the winery facilities to help raise the quality of all the AOC wines. After completing that task, Campos set her eyes on introducing an upper-tier line that would be sourced from the Cave’s best parcels: one cuvée from each of five appellations the cave owns vineyards in (Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, St.-Joseph, Cornas and St.-Péray). These bottlings, including the Hermitage Gambert de Loche and Crozes-Hermitage Les Hauts du Fief offer very good to outstanding quality. The best part is the pricing—just $22 for the Crozes-Hermitage Les Hauts du Fief and less than $20 for the tasty St.-Péray Fleur de Roc. With their wallet-friendly pricing (which Campos says she intends to hold the line on, despite the current exchange rate), the wines from the Cave de Tain offer an excellent introduction to Northern Rhône wines in general.
Campos has also finished putting the final touches on a GPS-linked system that feeds information from the vineyards directly to the winery, which helps keeps tabs on the numerous parcels under the Cave’s ownership.
“I don’t like the word ‘control,’ because nature always has its say, but it does give us a measure of that,” explained Campos. “It provides a traceability and extra quality control from the vine to the bottle.”
In addition, Campos has worked out an exchange program or sorts, with Kevin Mitchell of Australia’s Kilikanoon winery. After purchasing grapes from the Cave, Mitchell then vinified them in the Cave’s facility alongside batches of grapes from the same parcels that were being vinified by the Cave’s winemaking team. The idea behind the project was to see what effect culture and winemaker have on a wine, and how they can (or can’t) influence the terroir inherent in the grapes.
Campos detailed how Mitchell vinified the wines as he would have his own warm-climate Shiraz back in Australia, using techniques for greater extraction early in the winemaking process along with shorter post-fermentation vatting, as opposed to the different (some might say "more gentle") techniques typically used on the cool-climate Syrahs of the Northern Rhône. The end results have their pluses and minuses according to Campos (the wines are not yet bottled).
“I think everyone [involved] learned something. It really helped give a deeper understanding of the winemaking process—more than you can just get from tasting a few of each other’s bottles,” said Campos.
The 2007 vintage was the first trial and the "exchange" will be done again with the 2008 harvest.
“Then we can really accumulate the experience and see what is winemaker and what is terroir,” explained Campos. [Note: Logistics haven’t been worked out yet, but the Kilikanoon Rhône wines are likely earmarked for commercial release through Kilikanoon’s U.S. importer.]
Considering the size of the operation, the Cave de Tain has a great opportunity to reap the rewards of America’s burgeoning taste for Northern Rhône reds and whites, if (there’s that word) they can continue to improve the quality in the bottle. With an increased attention to detail and a willingness to learn, Campos and her team are heading in the right direction.
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