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stirring the lees with james molesworth

St.-Joseph by the Ton

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Jun 2, 2008 11:32am ET

“Like it?” I asked, my standard question to Nancy when I pour her a wine. I always serve the wines blind, not as trickery, but to ensure an honest opinion.

“A lot,” she said, with a big smile before issuing her usual response: “How much?”

“Under $30 when you buy by the case,” I said.

“Well, why don’t we just buy a ton of it and make it our new house wine? It’s not white Burgundy, but it’s the next best thing.”

The wine was a Pierre Gonon St.-Joseph White Les Oliviers 2006. I’ve liked the Gonon wines for years, but they’re not imported into the U.S.—at least that’s what I thought until I received an e-mail offering for them last week. Surprised, I grabbed a half-case of both the 2006 white and the red. Seems the retailer got the gumption to have the wines brought in just for them. Good call.

And Nancy made a good call too: White Northern Rhônes are the next best thing to white Burgundies, and at far more palatable prices. The Marsanne/Roussanne blends (percentages can vary widely from producer to producer, while some are 100 percent of one or the other variety) from St.-Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage and St.-Péray have a creamy, seductive mouthfeel and offer a range of bright floral, stone and tropical fruit flavors, all backed by a bright minerality.

Though some of the top producers, such as M. Chapoutier, E. Guigal, Yves Cuilleron, André Perret and François Villard tend to hit upwards of $50 a bottle for their wares, there are numerous outstanding versions in the $30 range. Look for Domaine Chèze, Ferraton Père & Fils, Les Vins de Vienne and Bernard Gripa among others (and yes, Gonon too if you can find it).

As for making it the new house wine, I’m already way ahead of Nancy. St.-Josephs in particular have become my buy-by-the-case wine for short- and medium-term consumption. The 2006 Gonon red shows textbook Northern Rhône Syrah notes of violet, cocoa powder and plum fruit with a silky finish while the white is round and pure, with white peach and chamomile notes followed by a stony finish. Both are easily outstanding in quality and match well with a range of food (flank steak grilled over bourbon barrel wood chips with the red; soft-shell crabs pan-roasted with a red pepper and jalapeño sauce with the white).

Stylistically, the Gonon wines are traditional in vein, but enlivened with a modern sense of freshness and purity. Versions from Gilles Robin (his 2006 St.-Joseph Cuvée André Péalat is a beauty), Eric & Joël Durand, Domaine Courbis, Philippe Faury, Vincent Paris and Jean-Louis Chave are in the same school, while more hypermodern-style bottlings, with fleshier, riper fruit flavors and darker, toasty nuances, are made by Tardieu-Laurent, Pierre et Jérôme Coursodon, Pierre Gaillard and St.-Cosme.

Of course name recognition plays a large part in pricing. Expect to see the $40 to $50 tag on the better-known producers, while the $30-and-under range can offer some great cherry picking options for savvy buyers less concerned with whose name is on the label.

While the 2005 Northern Rhônes reds offer density and structure for cellaring, the 2006 vintage offers even more immediate, up-front appeal. For the whites, 2006 is a superb vintage, with the density of 2005 and the aromatic complexity of 2004. In general, I find most St.-Josephs (and Crozes-Hermitage) can be drunk in their first three to five years of life, though fans of older wines can always hold on to them longer assuming a proper cellar environment.

Now, when Nancy said "a ton," I wonder exactly how many cases she meant ...

Richard Horvath
June 2, 2008 1:47pm ET
James,I had a quick question -- how do the Northern Rhone whites compare to the same varietals as they are grown in California? My exposure to those varietals has been through California producers, and I have been very disappointed by them. Obviously, that makes me a little gun shy to go out and purchase a $40+ bottle of a Northern Rhone white.
Brad Kanipe
Atlanta —  June 2, 2008 1:59pm ET
I always enjoy your wine stories involving your home life. It's sounds like you two have a great relationship. Congrats! I'll have to keep an eye out at my LWS for good deals on white Rhones.
James Molesworth
June 2, 2008 2:10pm ET
Richard: I'm guessing you've found them to be a bit too soft and broad? Maybe a bit diffuse in terms of flavors, but heavy on the palate?

Obviously the warmer climes of California aren't ideal spots for Viognier/Marsanne/Roussanne - but I have found pockets of success in the Golden State. I like what Tablas Creek is doing...I've also enjoyed the Roussanne from Alban and the Viognier from Failla.

And I've also really liked what I've had from Cold Heaven Cellars - a small winery that doesn't get a lot of play, but winemaker Morgan Clendenen does a nice job. She has a joint venture wine with Yves Cuilleron (Viognier from Cali and Condrieu mixed together)...and a bottle of her 2006 Viognier Santa Ynez Valley Vogelzang Vineyard I had recently was delicious, ideal with some spring asparagus...

Brad: No doubt a little wine goes a long way to keeping a marriage healthy, especially when only one of two people involved is a golfer. We'll be celebrating a 10th wedding anniversary this week, no doubt over some good Rhone or Burgundy...
Richard Horvath
June 2, 2008 4:45pm ET
James: You hit the nail right on the head, though I would also add a little pungent or off-balance -- like having the string section of a symphony out of tune.If Cali is not the right place in the U.S. for Viognier/Marsanne/Roussanne, where do you think the climate in the U.S. would be good for those grapes?
James Molesworth
June 2, 2008 5:05pm ET
Richard: I didn't say Cali isn't the right place - just the warmer spots in Cali are better served for other grapes (Cab, Chard, etc).

In contrast, vineyards at higher elevations or in cooler, coastal-influenced areas could be promising spots, as well as areas featuring low vigor, granite-based soils...there's no reason why with proper site selection, Cali can't make good Rhone white varieties...
Richard Horvath
June 2, 2008 7:46pm ET
Thanks, James!
Laura L Marquez
Scottsdale, AZ —  June 2, 2008 8:01pm ET
[John Maar via Laura Marquez]James: I had the good fortune to meet one of the two owners of Cass Wines and try their 2006 Viognier. Cass is in the outer reaches, northeast of Paso Robles. They harvested the grapes before sunrise, cold fermented them in stainless, and 100% blocked the malolactic fermentation. The resulting wine is crisp, clean, with nice minerality, very much northern Rhone in style. We retail it for $26, so it fits in your under $30 category. I loved it. Have you had a chance to try it?
James Molesworth
June 2, 2008 8:05pm ET
Laura: Don't know that one - I will keep an eye out for it, thanks...
David Williams
Carlsbad, CA —  June 5, 2008 2:34pm ET
This just happened with my wife and the 2006 Treana White Mer Soleil Vineyard. I gave it to her blind and she felt the same way has your wife--I had to double up and I'm glad we did. Thanks to WS for this recommendation.
Tablas Creek Vineyard
Paso Robles, CA —  June 10, 2008 6:53pm ET
Thank you for the nice comments about Tablas Creek, James.

I have two points in response to Richard's comment (as well as your answer) about the extent to which California is a good match for these Rhone whites. Obviously, we think that where we are in western Paso Robles is a great spot for particularly the warmer-climate Rhone whites, namely Roussanne and Grenache Blanc. The earlier-ripening Viognier and Marsanne seem to like it a little cooler, and might be better suited to cooler parts of Paso Robles or to areas in Santa Barbara or Monterey Counties with a little more ocean influence.

But, I think that the largest thing holding back Rhone whites in California is just that they're so new to everyone that people are still figuring out what to plant where and how to farm them. Only ten years ago, most of California was still confusing Roussanne and Viognier, Grenache Blanc was just being harvested in California for the first time, and the general consensus was that Viognier benefited from new oak. Total acreage of Rhone whites in California has nearly doubled from 1343 to 2564 acres in the last 10 years, with the biggest percentage increases coming from what we feel are the two most promising grapes: Grenache Blanc (+206%) and Roussanne (+302%).

That means that most of these vineyards have very young vines, and most winemakers do not have long experience working with the grapes.

In the long run, I think that the longer growing season, more reliable climate, and higher day-night temperature differential in California will allow it to produce some of the best examples in the world with these Rhone whites.

Just give us a few years to work out the kinks :>

Thanks,
-Jason

Jason Haas
General Manager
Tablas Creek Vineyard
James Molesworth
June 11, 2008 9:20am ET
Jason: Don't worry - the wine business is a marathon, not a sprint...

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