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Day 7: From Small to Big, and in Between

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Nov 5, 2007 12:16pm ET

Today I started in Condrieu with a stop at the domaine of Remi & Roberto Niero. This small domaine totals just 5 hectares and was started by Robert in 1986 with some vines from his father-in-law. Niero produces just 1,600 cases a year and sends only about 40 to the U.S.

Why write about a domaine that sends so little to the U.S.? Well, for one, the wines are good. In addition, if I write about a large number of small domaines, then you the consumers are more likely to find one of them at retail or in a restaurant. And besides, Roberto Niero doesn’t exactly have the time or resources to come and educate the U.S. market about his wines, and being the deliverer of that information is why I started this blog.

Niero is thin and a touch shy at first, but he’s affable and quickly opens up when talking about his wines. He produces just three cuvées here, two from Condrieu and one from Côte-Rôtie. The Condrieu cuvées are fermented in a combination of stainless steel and barrel, with about 20 percent new oak. The 2006 Condrieu Les Ravines, made from a blend of three parcels, is very expressive, with bright peach and anise flavors. The 2006 Condrieu Cuvée de Chery, sourced from the Coteau de Chery parcel is really concentrated, with lots of pineapple, grapefruit rind and fennel notes and a lengthy dense finish. Both have been bottled and will be released soon.

The 2006 Côte-Rôtie is fermented in a combination of stainless steel and cement vat, with 100 percent destemmed grapes. Niero punches down and then moves the juice to barrel for its malolactic. The wine contains about five percent Viognier. We tasted the same parcel from three different barrels: the same cooper but three different levels of toast (called blond, average and medium-plus). The difference is amazing to taste side by side, with a supple lacy sample from the light toast barrel, a plumper, black cherry filled sample from the medium toast, and a sauvage, plum and tobacco flavor from the third. The final blend should be outstanding.

From a 30-minute visit to taste three wines I drove to Ampuis where I met with Philippe and Marcel Guigal. They have more than three wines, more than just 5 hectares, and a tasting here usually takes longer than 30 minutes.

The fall colors of the Rhône Valley aren't too shabby at E. Guigal.

As always, things are very busy at chez E. Guigal. They recently put the finishing touches on their huge new cellar facility across the street. They’re also busy bottling a number of cuvées and were racking the 2004 Côte-Rôtie Brune et Blonde during my visit. The racking process at Guigal is impressive, not only for the fact that they’re racking dozens upon dozens of barrels for a specific cuvée, but because either Marcel or Philippe tastes each lot during the racking to check for consistency. In addition, the Guigals have a new etched bottle for the estate wines starting with the 2004 Côte-Rôtie Château d'Ampuis. Philippe also notes that business is up, even in the U.S., where the dollar to euro exchange is not favorable. All in all, it’s going well at chez Guigal.

As for the latest vintages, “2006 offers gorgeous fruit and it’s easy to see the vintage just on the nose,” said Philippe. “I’m convinced though that ’05 is a great vintage, but some people may be a bit shocked when they try the wines, because of the tannins.”

2005 is a real collector’s vintage since it will require cellaring, and it’s a type of vintage the Rhône hasn’t seen in some time—probably not since ’98 or ’88 in the north—so consumers new to the region since those vintages will have to recalibrate their palates a bit.

Of course, everyone wants to know about the La La wines, but white wine here is serious business here—it accounts for one-quarter of the production, which is holding steady at 6 million bottles annually. I recently reviewed the finished 2006 Condrieu bottlings, which are the best I’ve tasted yet from Guigal. In addition, the 2004 Hermitage White contains the Ex Voto parcel in this vintage, as the Guigals did not feel there was a sufficient quality difference between the two to merit the separate cuvée. That’s surprising considering ’04 is a superb vintage for the whites. The good news its that the regular Hermitage cuvée benefits: It’s really impressive. With lots of volume to its apricot, almond, orange, quince and paraffin notes, and should age well. The 2005 Hermitage White Ex Voto is tight, but stunning for its purity and length, with younger notes of green fig, blanched almond and chamomile.

Among the reds, there’s been excellent progress with the St.-Joseph cuvées, and this appellation is overdue for recognition in the U.S. Philippe admits that while the Crozes-Hermitage bottling sells well, he’s disappointed with the performance of the St.-Joseph in the market, “and anyone who would taste them side by side would probably agree the St.-Joseph is the better wine,” said Philippe. The 2005 St.-Joseph Lieu-Dit St.-Joseph is remarkably supple and lush for the vintage, with the telltale Guigal aromatics of mocha and sweet spice. It’s got great spine and grip on the finish though. As for the 2005 St.-Joseph Vignes de l’Hospice, due to be bottled in February, it has already outgrown its barrel and seems ready to explode, as its loaded with stunning charcoal, cocoa powder, plum sauce and graphite notes. Both ’05 St.-Joseph reds here are arguably the best yet.

As with the white, the 2004 Hermitage will contain the Ex Voto parcels. We tasted the Ex Voto parcels while Marcel tried to find a sample of the regular Hermitage. It’s lush, with a beautiful beam of roasted currants. Eventually Marcel gave up looking around the cellar for the regular Hermitage “Not the first time he lost a wine down here,” quipped Philippe. The 2005 Hermitage Ex Voto will be bottled however, an easy decision to make considering it offers very dark loam, charcoal, fig paste and currant notes along with a superlong finish that just pounds out the tannins.

Among the Côte-Rôtie cuvées, the 2004 Côte-Rôtie Brune et Blonde should knit together after the blend is finalized: Two different lots shows a mix of pepper, tobacco and dark cherry fruit. The 2004 Côte-Rôtie Château d'Ampuis offers lush bacon, smoke and plum notes with a gorgeous mouthfeel.

We then moved to the final stage of the tasting, which here is always a vertical of the not-yet-released La La wines. The 2004 Côte-Rôtie La Mouline is its typically silky self, with a lush core of alluring raspberry fruit. The 2004 Côte-Rôtie La Turque offers lots of spice cake, raspberry and game notes, along with a (for la Turque) supple texture. The 2004 Côte-Rôtie La Landonne was a touch reduced, showing its telltale iron, mesquite and blackberry fruit notes. At this point, I’d give the edge to the La Mouline, and put this class on a level with the ‘01s and ‘00s.

The 2005s are a serious step up, and considering their impressive spines, I’d put them a notch ahead of the super exotic ‘03s. The 2005 Côte-Rôtie La Mouline has a raspberry core quickly shrouded by its tannins, while the 2005 Côte-Rôtie La Turque is loaded with spice box, fig, hoisin sauce and a truckload of tannin. The 2005 Côte-Rôtie La Landonne has well-defined aromas of iron, brick dust and warm chocolate, along with layers of incense, black tea and balsam wood. It gets my nod for the leading cuvée in this vintage. All the ‘05s had a four-and-a-half week extended maceration, as the Guigals like to work in opposites: Rather than being gentle with well-endowed fruit so as not to exacerbate tannins, they go full bore, and try to get as much out of it as possible. So far, who’s to argue?

The 2006 trio is very youthful, with the 2006 Côte-Rôtie La Mouline really tight lipped with hints of sweet spice and a taut finish. The 2006 Côte-Rôtie La Turque is also packed in tight, with its fig and Turkish coffee notes waiting in reserve. The 2006 Côte-Rôtie La Landonne is totally brutish now, with the iron and rust notes up front backed by layers of pepper and tobacco. All three have a long way to go, but handicapping them, I’d put the La Turque ahead in ’06. Overall these should fall between the '04s and '05s in quality.

We also tasted the ’07 La Las, which are still in their malolactic fermentations, It was fun though, as Marcel Guigal explained the barrels they were experimenting with. For just 1000 euros a pop, the Guigals’ bought a few barrels that were air-dried for five years, instead of the customary three, and that came from an outside cooper as opposed to their in-house cooper. The new T5 casks clearly had a different profile, offering tighter grained tannins and more closed aromatics than the Guigal’s own barrels. The juice that starts out in these new barrels will be kept separate after rackings and then be returned to these barrels so the Guigals can watch them all the way through. Once again, the leaders of the region keep trying new things...

At Georges Vernay, I was informed ahead of time that I would get to taste from barrel – which I had never done before. Christine Vernay has always tasted me on finished, bottled samples at her office, so I was curious as to why we had the change in venue.

“When the wine is in the cellar, it is just an idea—it hasn’t fully formed yet,” she said. “I’d rather be graded on the finished product in the bottle.” Being a former schoolteacher, I can understand her penchant for grades. But presumably, since I don’t score wines from barrel, and since I’ve been now been visiting here annually for a few years, I’d passed some sort of test.

“Thank you James,” joked her husband, Paul, who joined us for the tasting. “It’s my first time getting in here too. I usually get stuck out at the table de tri.”

The whites here are vinified in foudre, with the top two cuvées moved to barrel for their élevage. New oak has always been kept at a minimum here , with none for the Terrasses de l’Empire and just 25 percent for the Chaillées de l'Enfer and Coteau de Vernon bottlings. We tasted the 2006 Condrieu Les Chaillées de l'Enfer from a number of different barrels – new and used, different toast levels, different coopers. It’s amazing to see how supple and pure the sample is from a used barrel, compared to how aggressive the wine is when drawn from a new oak barrel. The end result – the blend of all these components, is a complicated and often-overlooked aspect of how great wine is made. Both the Chaillées and the 2006 Condrieu Coteau de Vernon should be superb bottlings, and potentially better than the superb ‘04/’05 duo here. The fruit in both is scintillatingly pure and driven, with quince, persimmon and Clementine notes, and the acidity and minerality is mouthwatering. (Note: the 2006 Condrieu Les Terrasses de l’Empire has already been released and I have tasted it officially from bottle in a blind tasting in my New York office. Its review is due out soon.)

Most people consider Vernay a white wine domaine – and rightly so since the name Georges Vernay is synonymous with Condrieu (he helped save the appellation from extinction in the 1950’s and was the long time de facto "mayor" of the town itself. But Christine Vernay has developed a deft hand with the reds here as well, including a beautifully bright and pure 2006 Côtes du Rhône Sainte-Agathe that sits in tanks waiting to be bottled. The 2006 St.-Joseph offers lots of pepper and kirsch flavors, while the old vine parcel that goes into the 2006 St.-Joseph La Dame Brune offers dark, silky plum and loganberry fruit, with a long, suave finish. The 2006 Côte-Rôtie Blonde du Seigneur offers racy blackberry and boysenberry fruit (it’s a blend of the Lancement and Coteau du Bassenon parcels). The 2006 Côte-Rôtie Maison Rouge, from the parcel of the same name, shows more grip, pepper and briar flavors with a sweet earth-filled finish. Both cuvées see just one-third new oak, which really lets the purity shine through.

In addition to the wines, Christine has overseen the renovation of the ancient terraces behind the family house. These terraces, in the Coteau du Vernon parcel, had everything from tobacco, Syrah and orchard fruit on them under her grandfather’s tenure, but fell abandoned during her father’s tenure. It’s taken three years to clear the land, pulls out all the old roots and prepare for planting Viognier vines. Of course, with AOC regulations limited the pace you can plant vines, it will take them another 10 years to fill in the parcel. By then, the Coteau du Vernon will be a total of 3.5 hectares, just like Château-Grillet. Some things are worth the wait.

Zachary Ross
Brooklyn, NY —  November 5, 2007 7:54pm ET
Thanks so much for these awesome reports.
Jon C Martinez Dds
Overland —  November 5, 2007 10:55pm ET
Nice report Mr. Molesworth. By the way my fiance and I will be visting friends in the southern Rhone area this coming weekend. Any interesting recommendations? Will you be in the CDP area as well? We are visting with Jean-Paul Autard this coming Sunday. Hope you have a good trip. Sounds like you are.Jon Martinez
James Molesworth
November 6, 2007 2:04am ET
Jon: No - I keep Cdp and the north to separate trips. You'll have a nice time with Autard though, nice new cellar. Don't forget to eat at La Mere Germaine - you might luck out and get a sunny day where you can sit on the back patio...
Eric Yates
Geneve, Switzerland —  November 6, 2007 10:54am ET
Jon - I was just in Cdp this past weekend. The sun was shining and a light to moderate wind was blowing. We had lunch at La Mere Germaine which I would also recommend. Even with the sun shining bright on Monday afternoon the back patio had the winter awning is in place. Still the view is quite nice.
David Smith
Austin, TX —  November 6, 2007 1:32pm ET
Thanks for the Northern Rhone updates. Back to the southern Rhone, in your CDP trip you mentioned in a note in the blog back to me about how you felt that Ch Valdieu was getting much better etc. However, when I received my Rhone issue this week, there was no review of the wines. Can you make any comments here?Thanks
James Molesworth
November 6, 2007 2:02pm ET
David: Their '05s didn't make it to me in time for the report, but I did wind up getting them and they have been tasted (reviews to appear soon). The wines are much improved, and Philippe Cambie deserves some of the credit, as he is consulting there.

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