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stirring the lees with james molesworth

More from Day 8 and into Day 9: Chapoutier and Rostaing

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Nov 8, 2007 9:26am ET

I waited to file my blog based on my tasting at Maison Chapoutier since, frankly, I needed to take a deep breath and clear my head afterward.

For me, after tasting such an exhilarating set of wines (several dozen in total, and not a clunker in the lot), I thought it best to see if that exhilaration would last. And if it did, then simply describe the wines as best as possible and let you the reader go from there. Formal reviews, as always, will be based on blind tasting of samples in my New York office. The remainder of Chapoutier’s '05s are heading to market now for a late December/early January release.

Well, one day and a few more visits later, that exhilaration has yet to fade, as the 2005 and 2006 duo at Maison Chapoutier is a rock 'em, sock 'em set of wines. But before you go running out to buy what you can on pure speculation, keep this in mind: The whites, not the reds, are the better of the two.

I’ve tasted the '05s on nearly the same exact date in 2005, 2006 and now 2007, and watching their progress has been very interesting, to say the least. I first tasted them during their fermentations, when even the reds still tasted of green apples, and I have followed them up to their present state of being huge, massively structured wines with amazing cores of fruit and minerality. Wine is truly an amazing beverage.

As for the '06s, this was my second tasting of them after seeing them as infants last year. They have really knit together rapidly and Chapoutier adores the vintage. "Gourmand" he keeps saying as he tastes each wine, before rattling off a series of dishes that leap to his mind to serve alongside them (which invariably include bécasses and grives).

You'll face many crossroads in the Rhône, but few as difficult as this.

As at Ferraton, Chapoutier now feels he is getting the best barrels he can, and he feels his formula of one-third new oak, one-third second-fill barrels and one-third fill barrels offers the best integration of oak and fruit possible. It’s hard to argue with him, as the 2006 Crozes-Ermitage Les Varonniers delivers a really plush attack, with suave texture and layers of mocha, currant, sweet tobacco and crème de cassis with a long, rounded finish. The 2006 St.-Joseph Les Granits is always one of the sleepers here, with dark briar, coffee and bittersweet cocoa notes around a great core of buried fruit and minerality. The 2006 Côte-Rôtie La Mordorée is a great study in terroir winning out over winemaking style (for those of you who think Chapoutier's wines are too modern), with lots of olive, briar and cassis. It’s very fresh and forward, but has a nice dark edge in reserve for cellaring.

Among the Hermitage cuvées, the 2006 Hermitage La Sizeranne contains fruit from the Greffieux, Bessards and Méal parcels, and I find it even better integrated than the '05, with supple, toasty texture and lots of dark plum, currant and bacon notes. It's rock solid. From sedimentary soils at the bottom of the hill, the 2006 Ermitage Les Greffieux offers its typically heavy bass notes of molten chocolate, mocha and sweet black licorice. The cuvée debuted in the 2003 vintage, and it has quickly caught up to its three older siblings to offer potentially classic quality in 2006. The 2006 Ermitage Le Méal is really dark and loaded, with bacony toast, mesquite, plum sauce, blackberry and blueberry confiture notes on a lush frame. The 2006 Ermitage Le Pavillon offers more of a briary texture, with blazing minerality working with the almost overripe plum and blackberry fruit. The superlush finish just goes on and on with an inky note echoing at the very end. My favorite of the bunch though is the 2006 Ermitage L'Ermite, from 100-year-old vines planted atop the hill. Just steps away from the Le Méal portion, this parcel always ripens last, three weeks later in fact than the Le Méal in 2006. The end result is a wine that is super exact already, with very direct minerality leading the boysenberry and raspberry ganache notes. It has loads of kirsch and pepper on the finish with great length and finesse. It’s the purest and most driven of the '06 red Hermitages here, and that’s saying something.

But wait. Stop. There’s more. 2006 is also a terrific vintage for the whites, even better in my opinion, than the reds. Though white wine makes up just 5 percent of the region's production and thus is often overlooked, the best Northern Rhône whites in 2006 are on a par with the best grand cru white Burgundies, offering an exotic panoply of tropical fruit notes backed by crystalline minerality.

At Maison Chapoutier, white wine is serious business, totaling 40 percent of production. And at Maison Chapoutier, there is no Roussanne—the whites are 100 percent Marsanne. Start with the 2006 Crozes-Hermitage White Les Meysonniers to get a feel for the wines. It offers the textbook profile of creamy, rich texture and notes of almond, fig, pear and golden apple. The 2006 St.-Joseph White Deschants is brighter in profile, with lemon rind, yellow apple and persimmon notes. That’s followed by the 2006 St.-Joseph White Les Granits which, like the red, is always a sleeper here, offering potentially classic quality. Sourced from 60-year-old vines, including some in the St.-Joseph lieu-dit, it displays terrific clarity already, with persimmon, heather, floral and yellow and white fruit notes. It’s really, really long.

The Hermitage cuvées are a class apart again, led by the 2006 Hermitage White Chante-Alouette, which is really bold, with bright orchard fruit notes and a gorgeous mouthfeel. The 2006 Ermitage White de l'Orée has stunning richness, with chamomile, macadamia nut, green melon and caramel notes backed by a long, clear finish that would put some Montrachets to shame. Keeping with the Montrachet comparison, the 2006 Ermitage White Le Méal is immediately mouthfilling with gorgeous melon, Jonagold apple, white peach and green almond flavors all followed by a fleur de sel note. It’s really intense but perfectly assembled, with no sharp edges. Is it the Bâtard-Montrachet of the Rhône? Or better yet, maybe Bâtard is the Le Méal of Burgundy? When it comes to combining precision and richness however, the 2006 Ermitage White L'Ermite is all alone, offering a porcelainlike texture and notes of heather, chamomile, salted butter, quince, Jonagold apple and glazed pear. Think of the best Chevalier-Montrachet, but plugged into the amp used by Spinal Tap, you know, the one that goes to 11.

With the vines planted on precarious slopes and production for the top cuvées averaging just a few hundred cases each, these are among the most intensely hand-crafted wines in the world (and that of course makes them very expensive). Though I’ll probably never own any of the Ermitage cuvées myself, one of the great thrills of my job is to taste through the entire range each year.

---

René Rostaing is formal and punctual, and a visit here is very matter-of-fact. Though he has a reputation as being a bit of an iconoclast among the town’s vignerons, he’s always been affable and down to earth with me. This morning was no different.
 
The camera is straight—it's the vineyard that's crooked. The slopes of Côte-Rôtie can be quite precipitous.

On this visit, he was taking in a delivery of new demi-muids, which when he realized I saw them, he quickly said "But I don’t use new oak!" with a half smile. He uses demi-muids for seven or eight years before rotating them out so each year he brings in a few new ones, yet the overall percentage of them in the cellar is minimal. Monsieur Rostaing does not like the taste of new wood in his wines.

Rostaing seems particularly pleased with his '06s, calling the vintage "a pure, classic style of Côte-Rôtie, with structure, but elegance and balance as well."

Rostaing produces a classic, pure, racy style of red, and the vintage seems to suit him accordingly. His wines always have a telltale aroma of freshly ground white pepper. In 2006, he has a trio of excellent wines. For the 2006 Côte-Rôtie, Rostaing drew a few cask samples of what should be the approximate final blend, which includes grapes from La Viaillère, Fontgeant, Tupin and other parcels. Along with the white pepper note, it offers notes of dried rose petals, firm red and black cherry fruit, and a long, iron-tinged finish. It has the elegance of the house style, along with the added richness of the vintage. The 2006 Côte-Rôtie La Landonne is really fine, with a mix of red and black fruit, latent richness and a long minerally finish. The 2006 Côte-Rôtie Côte Blonde, which comes from 45-year-old vines, is noticeably smokier on the nose and darker on the palate, offering more plum and currant fruit, a strong spine and a kirsch- and iron-filled finish. Though I personally prefer the style of the La Landonne, the Côte Blonde is clearly the superior of the two wines in 2006.

There is also a 2006 Condrieu La Bonette here as well, and its one of the overlooked cuvées in the appellation. It offers rich, forward notes of pineapple, melon and star fruit, with a fresh, fennel-tinged finish. When I asked him what he serves with a Condrieu, Rostaing immediately solved one of the long-standing food and wine quandaries in the world: "It goes perfectly with asparagus!" he said emphatically. He also said he uses it in place of Champagne, serving it with simple charcuterie, fresh chevre cheeses and pâté.

In the afternoon, it was on to more addresses in Ampuis, including Jean-Michel Gerin and Stéphane Ogier.

Ray Barnes
Surrey BC Canada —  October 27, 2012 2:23pm ET
I realize this comment is very late in relation to when the article was written, I just came across it today. To the best of my recollection, I have never before heard a Grand Cru white burgundy described as a northern expression of a top drawer white Rhone, as opposed to the other way around. Considering the top prices for Grand Cru white burgundy and for white Bordeauxs, it makes me wonder if consumers may be missing out on what may arguably be the finest dry white wines of France, regardless of price. Excellent article, thank you very much.

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