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stirring the lees with james molesworth

The Rhône, Day 9: The Circus Comes to Mauves

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Mar 13, 2009 10:36am ET

There’s not much to Mauves: It’s a typical small town, located off a spur of the Route National 86 that runs down the west bank of the Rhône. Blink and you’ll miss it. But its diminutive nature belies the clutch of vignerons who are based there, a quartet of some of the best names in the St.-Joseph appellation.

And on this particular day, the circus was in town. Trucks and tents filled up the main square and a few llamas and camels were out to pasture in one of Jean-Louis Chave’s fields.

“For a couple of tickets? Sure, why not?” said Chave.

St.-Joseph is an overlooked appellation. St.-Joseph is also a sprawling appellation that covers both plateau and hillside sites, and it’s lengthy, running from north of Cornas to south of Ampuis, a nearly 30-mile stretch. This results in a few wine gems—both its top red and white wines provide the closest approximation to those from Hermitage—far more so than Crozes-Hermitage, which is similar in name more than the wine itself. You'll have to dig around, but if you know which wines to focus on however, you can build a very savvy cellar of pure, floral and mineral-driven Syrahs.

On the north end of Mauves, just on the main square, is the domaine of Pierre & Jérôme Coursodon, where in recent years Jérôme has taken over the reins from his father. The wines of St.-Joseph are an interesting contrast to Cornas, where the latter still maintains a sense of olive- and tobacco-filled rusticity despite its recent modernity, St.-Joseph produces very sleek, polished wines with lots of purple fruit and violet notes offset by a racy iron hint. The younger Coursodon is a modernist - you can reference background from an earlier visit here.

The St.-Joseph White Silice 2008 sees no oak, and the bright, stony profile of the wine is typical of this leaner-styled vintage. Yields are down up to 20 percent at this domaine in ’08. The St.-Joseph White Le Paradis St.-Pierre 2007 is mostly Marsanne with a drop of Roussanne, fermented in barrels, only 10 percent of which are new. It’s bigger and riper (as is the vintage), with melon and green fig flavors and a creamy finish.

All of the 2007 reds were bottled in November and are ready and waiting at the domaine. Like more than few domaines I visited on this trip however, Coursodon noted that the fax machine had gone cold and orders from the U.S. had all but stopped. Of the domaine’s 65,000-bottle production, only 900 bottles made it to the U.S. last year and so far nothing has been picked up for this coming year.

The St.-Joseph Silice 2007 is the young vine cuvée, sourcing fruit from 20- to 40-year-old vines. The fruit is destemmed and the wine aged in a mix of demi-muid and barrels. It’s very floral, with bright crunchy acidity and a long cherry and mineral-filled finish.

“2007 is a very fresh vintage,” said Coursodon. “You really see the granite in the acidity.”

The St.-Joseph L’Olivaie 2007 gets the same demi-muid and barrel mix for its élevage, but 15 to 20 percent of it is new. It comes from a single parcel located in St.-Jean-de-Muzols, one of the villages that makes up the heart of the appellation, located directly across from Hermitage. The 55-year-old vines provide dark cherry, currant, briar and iron notes with a long, fresh finish. The St.-Joseph Le Paradis St.-Pierre 2007 comes from 80-year-old vines, including a small amount in the famed St.-Joseph lieu-dit itself. It also sees a touch of new oak during its élevage and is really juicy, with lots of red and black cherry fruit, fresh minerality and a very long, elegant finish. There seems to be far less oak influence on the wines here in ’07 as opposed to the previous two vintages, though Coursodon said the élevage hasn’t been altered.

***

Across the square and around the corner is the cellar of Fabrice Gripa, who manages his family estate, Bernard Gripa (background on the domaine can be found here). If you haven’t heard of this domaine, don’t be surprised—it sells most of its production in the French market, sending only 5 percent of its 60,000 bottle-per-year production to the U.S. The wines are worth the search however.

Gripa is young and quietly confident, and he’s turned in a particularly strong effort in 2007. The St.-Péray Les Pins 2007 is a 70/30 Marsanne and Roussanne blend fermented in equal part barrel and stainless steel. It’s very rich and ripe, with lots of yellow apple and melon fruit flavors and a long, creamy finish.

“2007 is richer than ’06, but it has the acidity for balance,” said Gripa.

The St.-Joseph White 2007 is the same blend and receives the same treatment as the St.-Péray. It’s plumper and even more forward, with melon, dried pineapple and a hint of mango all backed by a juicy finish. It still shows a touch of oak, which should be absorbed with brief cellaring. The St.-Péray Les Figuiers 2007 flips the varieties—it’s 70/30 Roussanne and Marsanne, entirely barrel fermented (20 percent new). The Roussanne was planted in 1962; the Marsanne comes from 45-year-old vines. It’s also very ripe, almost showy, with mango, orange peel and toast notes but fine underlying minerality. The St.-Joseph White Le Berceau 2007, sourced from the St.-Joseph lieu-dit, is entirely Marsanne, barrel fermented (20 percent new) from a parcel planted in 1920. It keeps with the ripe trend for this domaine’s ’07 whites, but shows excellent focus, with peach, nectarine, melon, hazelnut and mineral notes all weaving through a long, alluring finish. The set of white wines here is the equal, if not a shade better than the excellent ’06 lineup.

For the reds, there’s a Vin de Table Français Cerises, made from a blend of equal parts Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. First made in the ’04 vintage, Gripa has been nursing along a vineyard on the flat, sandy soils along the river.

“I always wanted to try a Cab and the soils are good for Cab. I spend a lot of time on it and it costs more to make than sell. My dad keeps telling me to forget it, but I think we all just need some simple, easy-to-drink wine every now and then,” he said.

The wine is fermented in stainless steel and gets and modest 12 month élevage in neutral oak. It shows light cherry, cedar and tobacco notes.

The St.-Joseph 2007 was bottled in December. Aged in a mix of demi-muid and barrels, there are 27,000 bottles of this tangy, racy red currant, plum and spice filled red, with a mouthwatering finish. As with the white, the St.-Joseph Le Berceau 2007 is sourced from vines planted in the St.-Joseph lieu-dit in 1922. It’s very tightly grained, with cocoa, incense, mulled cherry, spice and mesquite notes and a long, finely tuned finish. There are just 3,330 bottles made of this easily outstanding Syrah.

In case you were about to ask, the steep, east-facing St.-Joseph lieu-dit totals 12 hectares. Gripa has an ample 3 hectares in total. The E. Guigal bottling is the only one to use the name of the lieu-dit, or named vineyard, on the label. It was technically illegal to use a vineyard name that was also the same as the appellation name for years.

“But suddenly it was OK for Guigal,” said Gripa with a wry smile. “I decided not to use it for my wines, since it would’ve meant changing the label on a wine we’d been making for 30 years.”

In addition to the Coursodon, Gripa and Guigal bottlings from the St.-Joseph lieu-dit, insiders might also want to track down the Gilles Robin St.-Joseph André Péalat as well.

***

On the southern edge of town is the cellar of Domaine Pierre Gonon, where there is no division of labor between brothers Jean and Pierre Gonon.

“We both are in the vineyards, and we’re both in the cave,” said Jean, 44, who started by working alongside his father (also named Pierre) who started the domaine in 1964. Jean has been running the domaine with his brother since 1990. This is a small estate, just 9 hectares, all in St.-Joseph, with a majority of red vines Syrah and just 2 hectares of white vines. Production totals 40,000 bottles annually, with 2,000 bottles coming to the U.S.

The domaine’s parcels are located solely on the granite slopes around Tournon and St.-Jean-de-Muzols, and following some purchases in 2004 and 2006, a total of 1.2 hectares of vines have now come from the former Raymond Trollat estate. Trollat is now retired, but along with the former Jean-Louis Grippat estate, formed the appellation’s qualitative leadership during the 1980s and early 1990s.

The Syrah grapes are fermented in a mix of open-top wood and cement vats. Parcels are typically kept separate, though in 2008, with yields so low, parcels went into the same vat just to fill them up. The grapes destemmed anywhere from zero to 100 percent, depending on the vintage. The wine is then aged in a mix of demi-muid and foudre only, with no new oak, for about 14 months. Lots are then blended together shortly before the mis.

The St.-Joseph 2007 has just been bottled, and it displays the house style here—sleek, pure, elegant red cherry fruit with perfumy aromas and a sanguine streak on the finish. A dash of minerality and a dusting of cocoa complete the picture. We also retasted the St.-Joseph 2006 (officially reviewed at 91 points in the Oct. 15, 2008, issue) that is just beginning to hits its stride. Gonon notes that he enjoys drinking his red in its first year or so of life, after which it typically shuts down for about four years before remerging.

It's an old-school barrel cellar at Domaine Perrie Gonon, one of the top producers in St.-Joseph.

“The ’05 will be closed longer than that,” he said, in deference to the hefty structure of that year.

To demonstrate, he opens a bottle of the St.-Joseph 2001, which pushes its minerality to the front, along with shaved cedar, tobacco, incense and dried cherry fruit that lingers elegantly on the finish. All three vintages shows remarkably consistent quality and style, a result of having a small amount of well-tended, tightly grouped vineyard parcels and attention to detail in the winery.

The St.-Joseph White Les Oliviers 2007 was officially reviewed at 92 points in the March 31 issue. The 80/20 Marsanne and Roussanne blend is sourced from vines averaging 35 to 50 years of age. The two varieties are fermented separately, then blended in July following the harvest and bottled just before the ensuing vintage. The wine is fermented entirely in barrel (none new) with bâtonnage (stirring of the lees), which results in a superpure, creamy yellow apple, melon rind and floral-filled white with a long, resonant finish. As with the red, Gonon notes there is a shut down period for the white.

“It shows an oxidative side for about three or four years, then reemerges,” said Gonon, as he opens a bottle of the St.-Joseph White Les Oliviers 2001. The wine shows delightful heather honey, beeswax, white truffle, white chocolate and citrus peel notes with a gorgeous mouthfeel.

This is one of those "insider" domaines, quietly producing superelegant, unadorned wines, fans of whom hope word doesn't break out to the masses. As one of their neighbors described them, “The Gonons are real vignerons.”

***

Along with the trio of young vignerons I visited this morning, Jean-Louis Chave is also working to improve the reputation of St.-Joseph. Better known for his Hermitage bottlings, Chave produces arguably the best St.-Joseph in the appellation, a supersleek, refined and mineral-filled Syrah that has steadily improved in recent vintages. For more on Chave, as well as his burgeoning négociant lineup of wines (bottled under the Jean-Louis Chave Selection label) you can reference my Cellar Notes on the 2003 and 2005 vintages.

Chave is a busy man these days. He’s starting to expand his underground cellar and also has a burgeoning négociant business. In addition, he has just bought 4 hectares of vines located within a stone wall, or clos, on the southern end of town.

The parcel is the former property of the Ozier family, a wealthy 19th-century family that built Mauves into the center of the wine business for St.-Joseph when it was a popular bistro wine drunk literally by the barrel full. The parcel includes some 100-year-old vines and the plot has never seen pesticides. They are planted on the same loose, fine-grained pebble, decomposed granite and sand soils that comprise the hillside above the town, having washed down over the years. A break in the hillsides allows the setting sun to cast a longer dose of sunlight on the crescent-shaped vineyard.

Chave thinks it may be the only true clos in the Northern Rhône, and he’ll use the planting rights of the former domaine that have collected over the years to increase his vineyard base in St.-Joseph.

“I’m really excited about this,” said the passionate Chave, adding with a bit of dry wit, “I can’t wait to tell my guys they have four more hectares to prune. They thought they were done.”

2009 will mark the first vintage for Chave from the newly acquired clos, which will be kept separate from the estate wine for now.

Chave, best known for his Hermitage bottlings, is equally passionate about St.-Joseph, but he admits to struggling with the wine’s identity.

“We lost Trollat. We lost Grippat,” he said, referring to the two former leaders of the appellation. “So what is St.-Joseph today?”

In an effort to bring new definition to the appellation, Chave is considering producing separate vineyard-specific bottlings of St.-Joseph, an idea that runs completely against his concept of Hermitage, where he blends his parcels into a single bottling.

"That’s because Hermitage is one site. There are differences within the site, but it still needs to be an expression of one whole place,” said Chave, explaining the conflicting opinions. “But St.-Joseph is so spread out, and so the differences between sites are so much greater. We need to figure out what the best sites in St.-Joseph are.”

Chave, like his colleagues in Mauves, tend to favor the granite slopes around the towns of Mauves, Tournon and St.-Jean-de-Muzols, some of which face due east, directly at the hill of Hermitage to which they were once connected before the Rhône river cut the area in two.

The estate St.-Joseph is started out in barrel, none new and then moved to small 12 hectoliter foudres, "so it doesn’t dry out,” according to Chave. He starts the wine in barrel first in order to give it time on its lees without risking reduction. The St.-Joseph 2007 is not yet blended, so we sampled various parcels from their respective foudres. From the Les Oliviers lieu-dit, a parcel Chave bought three years ago, the wine showed bright high-toned floral, rose petal and mineral notes. From the Darduilles parcel the wine was noticeably blacker in profile, with spice and cocoa notes, and from the Bachesson parcel, the wine struck a balance between the first two samples, with a mix of red and black berry fruit and a racy finish. The wine will be blended at the end of June. The estate bottling can be a little hard to track down—there are only about 8,000 bottles produced annually. As a backup plan, look for the négociant bottling from Chave, the St.-Joseph Offerus, where production has grown to 35,000 bottles annually as Chave has drawn a few more growers from the local co-op, assuming they decide to work their vineyards the way he requests.

Jean-Louis Chave has added this crescent-shaped clos to his St.-Joseph holdings.

Moving to the Hermitage bottlings for which the domaine is famous, the 2007 white is still in its various parts as well, though they have now been moved to stainless tank after receiving their initial élevage in barrel.

“I like the way they taste now, so we move them to tank where they don’t change. They just get more precise and from there we can start blending,” he explained. “White Hermitage is big by nature, so we want to make them lighter, balanced, but without taking away from the wine.”

The Hermitage White 2007 looks to be a large wine in the making. The Rocoules lieu-dit is very intense, with honey and peach pit notes. The Méal lieu-dit is almost meaty in mouthfeel, with dense honey and melon notes, The Péleat is intensely racy and super pure. It’s yet another ample supply of pieces from which to assemble the final wine. The Hermitage White 2006 was bottled in July, and in a vintage that favored whites from the northern Rhône, Chave admits to having difficulty with the final blend.

“2006 was tough to blend, because the quality of each parcel was so high, they were trying to dominate each other, but couldn’t. They had a problem integrating for a while,” he said.

The end result, which is heading to market now, is a thoroughly captivating white, loaded with honeysuckle, heather honey, melon, peach, pear and dried citrus peel notes off backed by a blazing minerality and great length. It’s clearly classic in quality and should be among the top white wines produced in the vintage.

The sign will change soon—this walled vineyard in Mauves has been bought by Jean-Louis Chave.

The Hermitage 2007 is sits in various parts, all in barrel. The Péleat offers a velvety texture and smoky, dark currant notes. The Beaumes parcel is very fresh and floral, with deceptive depth. The L’Ermite portion, always a dominate part of the blend, delivers its tight, very driven iron and taut black fruit spine, while the Méal portion shows its typically weighty, powerful loam, fig, briar and olive notes. The wine has put on weight following my tasting here in June of last year but surprisingly, it’s the Bessards parcel that is showing strongest today. One barrel, from a more granite-dominant part of the lieu-dit is dark and racy, with very lively acidity, while a sample from a portion of the lieu-dit with more clay shows a racy edge, with bigger and more vibrant fruit. Each year I find one parcel to be the defining character of the wine—L’Ermite in ’06, Méal in ’05—but the Bessards jumping to the fore is a bit of a surprise.

“Drier years favor Méal,” explained Chave when I asked him if the Bessards surprises him in '07. “But in more humid years like ’07, Bessards really does well. In dry years it gets skinny and dried out, but ’07 is very Bessards,” he said.

The final blend for the ’07 red should be on the cusp of classic, and just a half-step behind the Hermitage 2006 in quality. Now bottled, the ’06 is very tightly focused, with currant, cocoa, loam, fig, tobacco and toast notes backed by a surprisingly dense finish (for the vintage) that really stretches out slowly as it airs.

Being a relatively small, high-quality domaine, there is constant market pressure to release wines earlier, as well as a secondary market for the wines. Chave resists both of these trends. He only releases the wine when he want to—see the ’03 Cathelin for an example in how he turned the market down repeatedly—and he keeps tabs on the secondary market by using serial numbers on the wines for traceability. The numbers were put on labels starting with the 2003 vintage, and with a waiting list for the wines that has become almost unmanageable, Chave often looks on the secondary market (sometimes buying bottles at Internet auction himself) to see where the wines have come from. Private clients that are flipping the wines are summarily removed from the private client list of the domaine, a move Chave is not shy about publicizing.

“We want to be selling to the right people,” said Chave. “The wine doesn’t exist until it is drunk.”

***

Jean-Louis Chave is a big name. The family Darnaud-McKerrow is not. But that doesn’t mean there is any less passion in what they do.

In the late afternoon, I caught up with Claire Darnaud-McKerrow, a local who spent several years abroad before returning to start her own domaine with her Australian husband, Shane (who is also currently a cellar worker at Jean-Louis Chave).

Situated on a hillside estate called Bergeron, above the town of St.-Jean-de-Muzols, the Darnaud-Mckerrows have 4 hectares of ancient terraces that they are planning to resurrect. The terraces are full south facing, and contain the same fine, pebbly decomposed granite soils called "gore" that are prized in the area.

For now, the couple is working with a quarter-hectare parcel of 100-year-old vines purchased from the now retired Raymond Trollat. When I first stumbled across Claire Darnaud-McKerrow in 2007, she and her husband had just vinified their first harvest a month before and so there really wasn't anything to taste. Now there’s at least a little something to taste.

Production of the St.-Joseph 2007 totals all of two barrels. The wine is not destemmed, receives a cold soak, a rather warm fermentation at 30° Celsius along with punching down of the cap during fermentation and a six-week maceration period. No new oak is used. The wine is dark and fleshy, but not overwhelming, with velvety tannins carrying cocoa and cherry notes, following by a subtle mineral tang on the finish.

“We’re not trying to make a Hermitage,” said Shane. “Nor are we trying to make a ‘light’ wine. We’re trying to make a Syrah that’s more about length than power.”

The potentially outstanding ’07 is set to be bottled this month, and the couple is now facing the economic realities of starting a domaine, trying to both find customers and an importer.

With yields drastically reduced in 2008 by the difficult growing season, the couple has only a half-barrel of red. Because of the container size, they had to purchase a new half-barrel, as they were unable to find a used one.

“It goes against everything we want to do,” said Claire in regard to the new oak. “But we had no choice.”

The St.-Joseph 2008 is crisp and floral, wit violet and cassis notes and a long, almost bracing finish. It’s an admirable effort in this difficult year.

From the same vineyard, the couple is also producing a white, but for various reasons, including the assortment of varieties, it has to be declassified from St.-Joseph ‘down’ to Côtes du Rhône. There are four barrels of the Côtes du Rhône White La Vendeima 2007, which includes the area’s typical Marsanne and Roussanne grapes, along with Ugni Blanc and Chasselas, all co-fermented, whole bunch, in used barrels with bâtonnage. The wine is not filtered and receives only a light fining before bottling. It’s also potentially outstanding, with a plump mouthfeel and very pure, well-delineated flavors of green fig, almond, honeysuckle and brioche. The Côtes du Rhône White La Vendeima 2008, which drops to just a single barrel’s worth of production has just finished its malolactic fermentation, unlike many ‘08s I tasted during this trip which were struggling to even start their malolactic.

“When people have diseased vineyards, the malos are always a problem,” said Shane. “But we shoot thin and prune hard, taking off all lateral shoot and leaving only one bunch per shoot, with a canopy that lets in dappled sunlight. The yield is lower, but the vines were healthy despite the problems in ’08.”

The wine is lighter in body compared to the ’07, with a touch of CO2 still, while floral, stone and white peach notes linger on the graceful finish.

The name La Vendeima comes from the local patois dialect and means "I harvest," according to Claire.

“Using patois is an homage to the history of the area,” she explained. “This was clearly a barrel room at one time,” she said, gesturing at the room they’re currently using for their barrel storage. “The terraces have been here for so long. There’s so much wine history here and we’re trying to keep a little bit of it going.”

 

Arnaud Tronche
Chicago —  March 13, 2009 8:37pm ET
Thanks James, as always, for your excellent blog.I'm a big fan of Bernard gripa and everytime I go back home I make sure to buy a few. As you mentioned, it is too hard to find any here!I met Gilles Robin at a tasting 2 days ago and was impressed. He's such a passionated man and his St Joseph and white Crozes are a treat.Thanks again for all the info you share with us.
Daniel Moritz
New York, NY —  March 17, 2009 12:40pm ET
James, I've really enjoyed reading your blog. I'm leaving Friday for Paris and then about a week in the Rhone (North and South), visiting many of the same producers that you visited (though couldn't get into Chave). Needless to say, your posts have gotten me very excited for the trip! Love the videos, especially the truffle action shots! All the best.
James Molesworth
March 17, 2009 12:42pm ET
Daniel: Enjoy - spring should be sprung there by now. Unfortunately I didn't leave too many truffles for you...

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