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stirring the lees with james molesworth

Day 3: More Than Just Cornas

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Nov 1, 2007 5:52pm ET

If you think Cornas is a sleepy town, try Mauves. That is, if you don’t miss the quick turn off of the RN 86 to find it—it comes and goes quickly.

Despite its diminutive size, several top-notch cellars are in the town, including Bernard Gripa’s. Bernard retired after the 1998 vintage, and his son, Fabrice, 34, is now in charge. Fabrice is typical of the current generation of vignerons: He has a good grasp of the tradition he inherits (the family history dates back to the 15th century), but his travels have taken him from Crozes-Hermitage to the Languedoc and Australia (where he worked at Leeuwin Estate), giving him a well-rounded sense of the modern wine world.

The wines at Bernard Gripa are fresh, clean and forward, with racy profiles and bright fruit flavors. If you’re new to the Northern Rhône and its wines, this is a great domaine to start with. With 14 hectares, the domaine produces an ample 4,500 cases a year, and is slowly starting to send more and more to the U.S. (they are very popular in restaurants within the Rhône region). The domaine is split almost evenly with white and red wine production.

“2006 is a really surprising vintage,” said Fabrice. “We knew in tank we had something special, but we didn’t think it was going to be that concentrated. Then after the malolactics, the wines really put on volume.”

Among the whites, the 2006 St.-Péray, made from predominantly Marsanne, is fermented half in stainless steel and half in barrel. It’s plump in feel with fresh stone fruit flavors. The 2006 St.-Péray Les Figuiers, which contains 75 percent Marsanne, is sourced from 60-year-old vines and fermented entirely in barrel. It’s round and creamy, with lush melon and peach flavors. The 2006 St.-Joseph White is three-quarters Marsanne and vinified like the basic St.-Péray. It’s also round and forward, but shows more of a mango hint to go with its melon flavor. The 2006 St.-Joseph White Le Berceau is sourced entirely from the St.-Joseph lieu-dit vineyard (which Guigal has helped bring some attention to via their bottling). It’s 100 percent Marsanne, including some vines planted in 1921. Taut and concentrated, it offers stone fruit, anise and fennel notes with a very long finish. It’s clearly a step up from the other three white cuvées.

For their reds, there is only St.-Joseph. The parcels are all located in a 3 kilometer stretch from Tournon to Mauves, and the grapes are entirely destemmed before fermentation in stainless steel. Punching down is done by hand, and the wine is then moved to a mix of demi-muid and barrel for aging. The 2006 St.-Joseph, which is now assembled in tank and ready to be bottled, is fleshy and broad, with a mix of red and black fruits and a touch of smoke on the finish. The 2006 St.-Joseph Le Berceau (again sourced from the St.-Joseph lieu-dit), is quite rich, with dark plum, fig, fruitcake and sweet toast notes backed by a long finish with very good grip.

The lineup here is very consistent from vintage to vintage, and prices are very fair. If the trophy wines elude you, this is your domaine.

I then drove down to St.-Péray to visit with Stéphane Robert at Domaine du Tunnel. Another of the young vignerons beginning to make a name for himself with his Cornas wines, Robert formerly worked at the J.L. Grippat estate before it was bought by Guigal. He then purchased some of his own vineyards and began his domaine in 1996. Robert, 37, now has 8 hectares of vines spread over Cornas, St.-Péray and St.-Joseph.

Nearly all the wines, white and red, are vinified in stainless steel (a small amount of white is barrel fermented). He keeps about half the stems on his Cornas grapes, but destems the majority of his other reds. Typical for the region, the wines are pressed directly into barrel for a 14 month élevage.

The 2006 St.-Péray is uncommon for its makeup: It’s 100 percent Roussanne (Marsanne is the preferred grape in the appellation). It’s very clean in style (Roussanne can easily oxidize), with ripe pear and mango notes. In contrast, the 2006 St.-Péray Cuvée Prestige is 80 percent Marsanne with the rest Roussanne, sourced from 70-year-old vines and all barrel fermented (20 percent new barrels).

The 2006 St.-Joseph starts the portfolio of three red cuvées. From 30-year-old vines spread over three parcels in Mauves, Tournon and Chateaubourg, it offer fresh floral and red berry notes followed by a dusty finish. The Cornas cuvées are worth the effort of tracking down. The 2006 Cornas offers a fresh texture, with lots of briar, cassis bush and sage notes that gain steam on the finish, while the 2006 Cornas Vin Noir, from his older vines (60 years old) is really racy, with almost edgy structure, loads of red and black fruits and a mouthwatering finish. Both are outstanding and just a step behind this domaine’s excellent ‘05s. Another new domaine to watch.

Running a little ahead of schedule, I rang up Alain Graillot to see if he could take me on short notice, and he graciously agreed. Graillot is the dean of the Crozes-Hermitage appellation, and his two red ‘05s are among his best wines yet. Graillot produces wines in a more traditional style, using all the stems when healthy to produce a gravelly textured, herb-inflected wine. The 2006 Crozes-Hermitage is really pure nonetheless, with mashed cherry fruit, lots of spice and terrific acidity. Barrels being selected for the La Guiraude cuvée had just been racked back into tank, and were too severe to taste.

“We definitely under rated it at first, probably because it came after 2005. But it got a lot more serious as it aged,” says Graillot who compares 2006 to the 1991 vintage. Graillot also opened his son Maxime’s wines, including the 2006 Crozes-Hermitage Domaine des Lises Equinoxe, which is a stainless steel, early-bottled version that offers bright pepper and garrigue notes designed for immediate consumption. The 2006 Crozes-Hermitage Domaine des Lises which is destemmed entirely, offers a fleshier profile, with a kiss of toast on the dark blackberry fruit.

Graillot is also now working with Thalvin, a small Moroccan winery producing a Syrah called Syrocco that is on the way to the American market. It’s soft and forward, with a hint of prune and fig and a smoky, vanilla-tinged finish. It should carry a very user-friendly price tag when it hits retail shelves.

For my last visit of the day, I went back to Mauves to see Jean-Louis Chave. Tasting at chez Chave is a lengthy process, as we typically taste through the various parcels that he vinifies separately for his red and white Hermitage cuvées. In 2006, in order to keep the freshness that defines the vintage, Chave has racked some parcels back to tank from barrel (he’ll assemble the final blend next year), a trick he used in both 1996 and 2001. From the acacia and quince filled Peleat parcel to the mango and creamed peach Rocoules parcel; the spiny, tannic L’Ermite and nervy, persimmon-filled Maison Blanche, the final blend of the 2006 Hermitage White should be another classic. Meanwhile, the bottled but not-yet-released 2005 Hermitage White is intensely focused, with firm white peach and marzipan notes framing honeysuckle, persimmon, grapefruit peel and acacia notes, all over a superstony background. Like the vintage, it’s very structured and has a nearly dehydrating effect on the finish.

“In 2005 I bottled less white than usual, as I kept some parcels out of the final blend that I thought were too alcoholic,” said Chave, who noted the white checks in at 15 percent as is.

We also tasted the extremely ripe but poised 2003 Hermitage White (“This hasn’t budged since it was bottled,” said Chave) as well as a lithe, elegant, honey-infused 1991 Hermitage White.

For the 2006 red parcels, Chave enjoyed a large crop, a fairly normal 36 hectoliters per hectare, up from a minuscule 22 in 2005. Consequently, with more grapes to play with, Chave was able to break his parcels down into even smaller than usual lots. Le Méal for example, which has both clay and limestone soils, was broken apart; the clay portion showing more richness and bass notes, the limestone showing blazing acidity and a range of red and black fruit. Both the Les Beaumes and L’Ermite parcels showed tell-tale Chave like aromatics of lilacs, rose petals and beef intertwined with dark fruit, but the parcel that stood out this year for me was the Les Bessards, with rich tannins and intense black fruit. When finally assembled next year, the 2006 Hermitage should be surprisingly structured for the vintage as well as once again being among the top wines in the region. The 2005 Hermitage, as expected, has turned out to be a very large-scaled wine. It’s dense but driven, with the graphite and loam notes up front for now, pushed by a wall of tannins. Fig paste, cocoa and Christmas pudding notes flitter on the finish, which is very tight.

“In 2005 the question was 'Were the tannins going to dry out or not?'” said Chave. “The tannins were both the quality and the problem for the vintage. If you did too long an élevage, you got dry tannins. People might be disappointed [when they try the 2005] because these wines are going to shut down, big time.”

For comparison, Chave opened a 1995 Hermitage, another tannic year which evolved slowly. It's now fine and supple, with hints of raisin, incense, plum cake and mineral gliding through a very stylish finish. I rated it 94 points, non-blind, and I think the '05 clearly has more stuffing and better tannin structure …

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