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stirring the lees with james molesworth

Day 4: A Little Crozes, A Little Hermitage

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Nov 3, 2007 1:16pm ET

On Friday I started in Tain, which is always a good place to start. The charming and rather busy town sits at the foot of Hermitage and enjoys terrific views across the Rhône to the ancient town of Tournon.

With his cave prominently located right on the main road through town, Marc Sorrel has some prime real estate. He also has some prime real estate on the hill, with 2.5 hectares of vines on Hermitage, including white vines in Les Rocoules and red vines in the Le Méal, Les Bessards and Greffieux parcels.

Sorrel, 59, has been at the domaine since the early ’80s, after taking over from his father. He was among the first vignerons to bottle separate cuvées from Hermitage. The "basic" white cuvée, the 2006 Hermitage White, is 100 percent Marsanne from 20-year-old vines planted in Les Greffieux. It’s entirely barrel fermented, though there is no new oak (until the ’07 vintage). The wine is honeyed but bright, with acacia and grapefruit notes. The 2006 Hermitage White Les Rocoules, made from 90 percent Marsanne and the rest Roussanne (60-year-old vines), comes from the Les Rocoules parcel further up the hill. It’s very taut and lively despite its amber color, with honeysuckle and heather notes backed by a long, minerally spine. I thought both ’06s were considerably better than their ’05 counterparts, which showed more of the waxy texture and traditional slightly nutty, marzipan notes that have typified this domaine’s whites.

As for being considered a bit of a groundbreaker when it comes to bottling separate cuvées, Sorrel just laughed it off.

“The exposition is different. The age of the vines is different. The terroir is different. They make two different wines,” he said matter-of-factly. “When the parcels are different you cannot make the same wine.”

Sorrel has two red Hermitage cuvées as well, a basic and the Le Gréal. The "basic" cuvée is sourced primarily from 30-year-old vines in Les Plantiers, the lowest portion of the Les Greffieux parcel. The grapes are destemmed, fermented in stainless steel, and punched down twice a day before being moved to barrel for an 18- to 20-month élevage. The 2006 Hermitage is a strong effort, with dark cherry, spice, earth and black tea notes. The 2006 Hermitage Le Gréal, which comes from 50-plus-year-old vines primarily in the great Le Méal parcel, is half destemmed before going through the same vinification process as the regular cuvée. Sorrel noted the fermentation didn’t finish until April of ’07, and the resulting wine is loaded with dark juicy plum and currant fruit, as well as coffee and graphite followed by a beefy finish. Neither red is a polished, modern wine à la Chave or Chapoutier – they are distinctly more traditional in profile, with an earthy edge. But as with the whites, both the ’06 red cuvées are a big step up from the ’05s, which lacked the tannic structure and stuffing of the vintage. I did like the ’04s from here quite a bit, but there was some bottle variation – not unusual for small, artisan wines, so beware.

But despite his fairly traditional approach, Sorrel isn’t stuck in his ways. The reds have seen 20 percent American oak since the 2004 vintage, as well as a dash of new oak during that same time period.

“I don’t want wines that are too oaky,” he said. “But I am experimenting.”

There is also a white and red Crozes-Hermitage bottling, sourced from an old vine parcel in Larnage, behind the hill of Hermitage. The waxy grapefruit rind and floral tinged white is a step ahead of the taut, dried cherry-filled red. You’ll have to hunt for the wines though – the domaine only produces about 1,200 cases per year.

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The history of Domaine des Hauts Châssis is long – if you’re talking about the owners – as the Faugier family has been growing grapes for several generations. In terms of the estate bottled wine however, that’s only been around since the 2003 vintage.

It was the current generation - Franck Faugier – who got the gumption to start his own domaine. His father had been selling the family grapes to the local co-op. Faugier’s grandfather probably planted the seed though – he vinified the property’s wine on the estate and used to sell it off in barrel long before Crozes-Hermitage was even an appellation.

Faugier, who has a stocky build, neatly combed white hair and a friendly smile, explains that it takes five years, due to contractual obligations, to extricate oneself from the co-op. But after that time period they hit the ground running. A new, brightly lit, modern winery now stands next to the family house and above the old cave. No foudres here – just clean, sparkling rows of uniform-sized stainless steel tanks, all small enough so that Faugier can ferment his various parcels separately.

The domaine totals 13.5-hectares, mostly in Crozes and almost entirely red grapes. The grapes are entirely destemmed, get a three to four day cold soak before fermentation, and are then aged for 12 to 14 months (for the top cuvées) before bottling – clean, simple and modern in approach.

Production is growing, from 4,500 cases in ’06 to 5,500 cases in ’07, and a solid chunk is earmarked for the U.S. In keeping with a growing trend among Crozes’ vignerons, there’s a spring cuvée here, a la Maxime Graillot’s cuvée Equinoxe. The first vintage, the 2006 Crozes Hermitage Esquisse, is only aged for six months before bottling, and shows ripe, fresh cherry fruit with a slightly structured, stony finish. It’s a bbq quaffer for the Faugiers.

The two top cuvées offer terrific personality at very moderate prices. The 2006 Crozes-Hermitage Les Galets is smoky, ripe and plush, with purple fruits and notes of licorice and sweet toast. It’s hard to resist until you sample the 2006 Crozes-Hermitage Les Châssis, sourced from the domaine’s oldest vines, and aged in a mix of demi-muid and barrel. The Les Chassis cuvée has a really juicy core of blackberry, cassis and plum sauce flavors, along with well-integrated sweet toast and a long, velvety finish. Both of these ‘06s are very flattering and seem to have a touch more depth over the ‘05s, despite the ‘05s more structured personas.

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Just a stone’s throw away from Domaine des Hauts Châssis is the domaine of Gilles Robin, a tall, energetic young vigneron who’s making structured, age-worthy Crozes-Hermitage and St.-Joseph. Robin is a fourth generation vigneron who has been running his domaine since 1996. He greets me in baggy camouflage pants and a sweatshirt and has a self-deprecating sense of humor – but takes his wines very seriously.

The barrel cellar is new (built in ’96) and features uplit vaults and plenty of space. It’s also got a large painting of a female matador on the wall, taunting a large bull.

“Wife, daughter,” said Robin. “My importer is a woman. I am surrounded. Guess who the bull is,” he said laughing.

With 15 hectares of vines, Robin produces nearly 6,000 cases per year – but coming off a change in importers, he’s only currently sending 200 to the U.S. I hope that changes soon.

Robin’s 2006 Crozes-Hermitage Papillon was added in the 2001 vintage, after the birth of his daughter. It’s another spring cuvée that’s entirely destemmed, vinified in tank and bottled quickly, so that it displays sweet kirsch and pepper notes and an uncomplicated structure.

The main cuvée here though is the 2006 Crozes-Hermitage Cuvée Albéric Bouvet, which is made from a blend of three distinct terroirs. The first, from the nearby Chênes Verts area, has deep clay soils that provide a spicy aroma and bright minerality. The grapes from the Chassis commune are on red clay soils that give a sappy, black fruit profile and intense acidity. The bass notes comes from the Monico terroir, which is a dense but shallow brown clay soil that delivers plump, juicy black fruits and spice. The three terroirs are vinified separately, half destemmed and then blended together after a year’s élevage in barrel and demi-muid. The resulting blend is a richly structured, dark fruited Crozes with tingling minerality. It’s a rock solid wine for those who like a gutsy style that needs a few years of cellaring to show its best.

The hidden gem here though is Robin’s St.-Joseph, sourced from a scant .25-hectare parcel in the top notch St.-Joseph lieu-dit. Robin only has enough grapes to vinify a single demi-muid – just 850 bottles of wine. That makes it scarcer than hen’s teeth, but wow, what a wine. The 2006 St.-Joseph Cuvée André Péalat is super long, with a gorgeous silky texture and nearly endless minerality. Well integrated and very suave, it offers a very tantalizing glimpse of the heights the best St.-Joseph vineyards can achieve.

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Jot this down – at Maison Delas, winemaker Jacques Grange has hit a home run in 2006. The vintage’s silky texture and showy fruit plays right into in his hands. The house style here – velvety texture, beguiling mocha and spice-driven aromatics, lush fruit and mouthwatering mineral notes - is in full force in 2006.

There are nearly a dozen red Northern Rhônes produced here, including a trio each from Crozes-Hermitage and St.-Joseph. Any of these half dozen will easily introduce you to Grange’s signature winemaking style, while also displaying their own distinctive terroir. The Crozes bottlings, led by the single parcel 2006 Crozes-Hermitage Le Clos, are very fine-grained, with black fruits and surprisingly (for the vintage) grippy finishes. The three St.-Joseph reds are led by the 2006 St.-Joseph Ste.-Épine bottling, sourced from a steep vineyard located just behind the cellar. It’s dark and structured almost like an ’05, but delivers wave after wave of fruit with well-imbedded iron notes.

In the midst of the red portfolio is the 2006 Cornas Chante Perdrix – don’t overlook it. It has steadily improved since the 2003 vintage thanks to new grape sources, according to assistant director Bruno Gonnet, and it now shows the appellation’s telltale olive and iron notes along with a sleek texture.

The crown jewels here though are the Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie bottlings. There are a pair of each, with the 2006 Côte-Rôtie Seigneur de Maugiron showing lots of sanguine, mocha, sage and black currant notes that are a shade less powerful than the graphite- and iron-driven 2006 Côte-Rôtie La Landonne, which sports an utterly gorgeous mouthfeel. The Hermitage duo has the compact, ganache, currant paste and loamy 2006 Hermitage Marquise de la Tourette batting leadoff, followed by the sensational 2006 Hermitage Les Bessards, which has stunning layers of fig and currant confiture, loam and smoke all backed by serious latent power.

Modern, and perhaps a bit flashy – but not top-heavy at all – this is a gorgeous, flattering set of wines that will make the vast majority of wine lovers swoon. As authoritative and well-balanced as the structured ‘05s are here, this is one estate that actually performed better in ’06. Thankfully the majority of Delas’ exports are earmarked for the U.S, market.

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