My last stop in the Southern Rhône before heading north was with Louis Barruol at Château de St.-Cosme in Gigondas. I wanted to reconfirm the impressions I had based on my November 2011 visit, when I initially thought his 2010 lineup was the best yet from this dynamic estate.
In addition, Barruol also makes some Northern Rhônes, so it would serve as a good transition before making the drive up to Tain l'Hermitage. And as an added bonus, Barruol's good friend Rodolphe de Pins from Château de Montfaucon would also be there to show me his latest wines. For Montfaucon, you can reference background from my November 2010 visit at de Pins' estate, located just across the river from Châteauneuf-du-Pape in Lirac.
The Château de Montfaucon 2011 Viognier Vin de Pays d'Oc is a light, almost crunchy style, with floral and stone notes that are atypical for the usually lusher variety. De Pins picks early to emphasize the grape's minerality and freshness on purpose, noting. "With whites I am always afraid of losing acidity. So I pick earlier than later. For the '11, I picked on August 19, and ruined my vacation," he said with a laugh.
In contrast, the 2011 Côtes du Rhône White Comtesse Madeleine, which blends Marsanne, Viognier, Clairette and Picpoul shows a round, creamier profile (it's barrel fermented, but no new oak, as opposed to concrete vat for the Pays d'Oc Viognier). It has tasty nectarine and apricot notes but isn't broad, staying fresh with a melon rind edge through the finish.
The 2011 Côtes du Rhône was just bottled, and the blend of Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault and Carignane (all co-fermented) is racy, with pomegranate and cherry skin notes at first, followed by plum pit, iron and savory herb with lovely cut on the finish. The 2011 Lirac Baron Louis is the first vintage that will carry its true appellation on the label (de Pins had labeled it as Côtes du Rhône previously out of concern that Lirac did not have a strong reputation).
"But all the Châteauneuf guys are coming over to Lirac and buying up everything. The vineyards are one-tenth the price and they see the potential it has," he said. The blend of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Carignane and Counoise is dark and fleshy, with a lovely smoldering charcoal feel and lots of steeped black currant fruit and tobacco notes and a flash of chestnut leaf on the finish.
"The key with '10 was to wait, as the sugars [indicating ripeness] were slow. But there was no pressure. Not like '09 where the end of August had a heat wave. I much prefer that slow ripening, which is why I really prefer '10 to '09," said de Pins.
The 2010 Vin de Pays du Gard Vin de Monsieur Le Baron de Montfaucon saw a longer than usual élevage, as de Pins stretched out the aging for this blend to 18 months. The melange of now 17 varieties (Vaccarèse has been added in 2010) is one of the most unique wines in the region, with a gorgeous creamy mouthfeel, but layers of sappy, dense kirsch, blackberry, plum cake, pastis and red licorice flavors intertwined with singed bay and chestnut leaf and a twinge of savory herb.
Château de St.-Cosme
The St.-Cosme Côtes du Rhône White blends Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier and Picpoul and comes off as brisk, with jicama, white peach and mâche notes with a lively finish. The 2011 Côtes du Rhône White Le Poste, sourced from a single parcel of old-vine Clairette within the Gigondas appellation is one of the great overlooked whites in the Southern Rhône. It's mouthfeel is like porcelain, and it delivers a panoply of lemon curd, crème fraîche, green fig and green almond notes with a long, stone-tinged finish.
The 2011 St.-Cosme Condrieu was just bottled a week ago, and it shows taut peach pit, honeysuckle and mineral notes in a vivacious style that stands apart from most Condrieu.
"2011 in general is a little lighter," said Barruol. "But probably more interesting in Condrieu than for the reds in general in the north, because this is the profile that I like. I like to tune the wines to the lower alcohol style more than the tropical style."
And then to finish, Barruol pulls out a long, slender bottle—an atypical bottle shape for a Rhône wine. He smiles and hands me a small piece of paper. It's the just-finalized label for his debut Riesling from the Finger Lakes of upstate New York (a region I also cover for Wine Spectator). Sourced from four different vineyards all on the east side of Seneca lake, the wine is fermented in used barrels and was fermented with some natural yeasts. Barruol also selected out 30 percent of the crop—envelope-pushing methods and a very strict selection for the region. Aged on its lees until it was bottled in June, the 2011 Forge Cellars Riesling Finger Lakes is bone-dry, with crackling green apple and pear skin notes, a slate edge and a long thread of quinine through the finish.
"It's a bit broken from the bottling," said Barruol. "But this is the style I want to produce. I want to balance acidity with ripeness. Acidity with sweetness is a false battle. There are just 350 cases of the wine which will be released this summer. Production will increase to 1,000 in the 2012 vintage. As for his experience with Riesling, Barruol puts his thumb and forefinger together in a circle.
"Zero," he said with a smile. "I love Riesling. I've tasted lots of Rieslings. But I've never made one before. So this is going to be fun."
The 2011 St.-Cosme Côtes du Rhône is an all-Syrah bottling that delivers its usual pure graphite, pastis and violet profile, with a note of dried plum (but not prune) on the finish. The 2010 Côtes du Rhône Les Deux Albion will be a terrific buy (it's usually around $20), as the gutsy, mouthfilling blend of Syrah, Grenache, Carignane, Mourvèdre and Clairette adds extra sage, bay leaf, tobacco and mulled currant fruit while sporting lots of character through the finish.
The 2010 Gigondas drips with mouthfilling pastis-soaked black currant and plum fruit, enlivened with bay leaf, juniper and iron. Authoritative tannins pound through the muscular finish and bode well for the cellar, as well as heralding the style of the vintage that Barruol seems to have captured perfectly.
"The wines don't lack for concentration, so that tannic feeling is not a false perception. There's lots of tannin," said Barruol. "But remember the acidity drives all that too, just like in '05. That vintage didn't show well young, but now …" he raised an eyebrow for emphasis.
The 2010 Gigondas Valbelle is intense, with violet, more pastis-soaked fruit and lots of singed bay leaf and tar on the finish. It's longer and denser than the regular bottling, with a superb tannic spine. The 2010 Gigondas Le Claux is simply stunning, with warm currant confiture and macerated plum allied to a vibrant, chalky cut. It's minerality is almost searing, but it has loads of flesh in reserve. It's surprisingly backward for Le Claux. And in turn, the 2010 Gigondas Hominis Fides is surprisingly open (the two wines often reverse these profiles when young.
"You're right," said Barruol. "But I have no explanation why. We ferment the same wines in the same vats every year. We age them the same time. The winemaking is a very stable parameter. The difference I want in the wine is the vintage itself, not me."
The Hominis Fides is rich and inviting, with lush, dark Valrhona chocolate and gorgeous plum sauce, currant paste and melted black licorice. It's almost velvety in feel but then the graphite and espresso notes kick in on the finish to lend it noticeable grip and spine, taking the finish for a long ride.
Topping them all though, in a stunning display of power and length, weight and precision, is the 2010 Gigondas Le Poste, which delivers a fantastic medley of pure blackberry, linzer and cassis aromas and flavors, along with raspberry ganache and blueberry coulis hints which flicker throughout. The finish is captivating, with charcoal, Black Forest cake and smoldering Maduro tobacco. The wine is as lengthy, complex and character-filled as Isabel Ferrando's 2010 Charles Giraud cuvée which I tasted earlier in the week. It seems destined for long life as it sets a new high-water mark for the appellation.
At its best, Gigondas is as good as the best Châteauneuf-du-Pape. But the appellation is smaller and has fewer producers, so the critical mass of great wines from the appellation is far less than what you can find from Châteauneuf-du-Pape. But Louis Barruol has cemented himself as the appellation's top producer and his portfolio of 2010 reds is clearly his best effort to date: All offer potentially classic quality and the Le Poste bottling could conceivably challenge for wine of the vintage. Barruol's estate Gigondas bottlings are wines for serious Rhône aficionados to cellar and savor.
Rather than stop there though, we finished with a superb range of Northern Rhône reds from Barruol's négoce operation. The 2010 St.-Cosme Crozes-Hermitage shows singed balsa wood, olive, iron and mulled cherry notes with a long, sanguine edge on the finish. The 2010 St.-Cosme St.-Joseph is pure violet and blackberry coulis notes, with a long, singed iron note on its beautiful finish.
"In the north, 2009 seemed concentrated, meaty, showy and impressive right away," said Barruol. "The '10s seemed leaner in the beginning, but they have gained that meatiness and really become classic in style too. At first I thought it was no contest between the two vintages, but now I'm not so sure '10 isn't as good as '09 in the north."
The 2010 St.-Cosme Côte-Rôtie delivers a piercing sanguine note, with bay leaf, olive and iron notes weaving through the core of brambly cherry fruit. It's racy and tight-grained, but also perfumy and stylish, with a well-toned, lithe finish that just sings.
Also from the négoce lineup, but back in the south, the 2009 St.-Cosme Châteauneuf-du-Pape (typically a year behind, as Barruol does a longer élevage on this bottling) is sourced from the La Crau sector and blends a majority of Grenache with one-third Mourvèdre and drops of Cinsault and Syrah. It pumps garrigue, chestnut leaf, tobacco, baker's chocolate, herb-infused plum and blackberry notes through a warm stone-filled finish. It's probably no surprise that the best producer in Gigondas can keep pace with the best wines from his colleagues next door as well.
Paul Jaboulet Aîné
After finishing in the south, it was time to head north. A quick 90-minute drive up the autoroute, with my iPod plugged in at full tilt, and I was in Tain l'Hermitage for the afternoon. I was overdue for a visit at Paul Jaboulet Aîné, the historic Hermitage-based domaine and négoce, where I had not visited since 2007.
Since being purchased by the Frey family of Bordeaux's La Lagune, Jaboulet has had a bit of a slog, frankly. The reds have lacked the dimension and drive they had during the '70s, '80s and first half of the '90s, though whether that was a function of the change that came with the Freys or a malaise that began before they took over is a matter for debate. In any event, the company's new history started with the Freys' purchase, and any major transition in the wine industry deserves some take before passing judgment.
The new owners are showing their commitment. Caroline Frey has moved to the area full time to focus on Jaboulet, though she is still in charge of Château La Lagune back in Bordeaux. A new tasting room and shop on the place de Taurobole in the center of town has just been opened. The young Jacques Desvernois, 36, who started at Jaboulet in 2006, remains the maître de chai. A new winery facility in Roche-de-Glun was finished in time for the 2010 vintage, and the well-respected Denis Dubourdieu of Château Doisy-Daëne in Bordeaux is also a consultant here.
It would seem the pieces are in place for Jaboulet to finally make a move forward. And I thought the 2009 red lineup here showed signs of life for the first time under the Freys' ownership, with the Hermitage la Chapelle bottling earning a classic rating for the first time since the 2003 vintage. I had found the reds from the Freys' previous vintages to be plagued by disappointing austerity, overly dusty tannins and a scarf of cedar more reminiscent of Cabernet Sauvignon than Syrah. But the 2009s in general here were plusher, fuller and more true to their terroir, and so I thought "OK, here we go."
Desvernois is enthusiastic abut the newest wines as well. "We're really happy with 2010, because it has better freshness and acidity than 2009," said Desvernois. "The wines are still showing the oak, but they won't be released until the end of the year anyway, and they will absorb that."
"The big change was in 2010, when we finished the new winery in Roche-de-Glun," said Desvernois. "Now we can do everything in one place, from vinification to bottling, so the wine hasn't been moved around. In terms of what we do during the vinification though, there have been no major changes."
All the 2010 reds have been bottled over the past several weeks. Since the label change in 2008, the way to decipher the négoce bottlings from the estate wines at Jaboulet is to note the color of the cuvée name: red for négoce, gold for estate.
"It's difficult to taste these right after the bottling," noted Desvernois. "Because '10 is a rather strict vintage compared to '09. They are slowly starting to open and expand. The '10s are more intense and I like the vintage better than the '09 because of the acidity. It's like the comparison between '90 and '91."
Alas, I did not wind up sharing the same enthusiasm as Desvernois, as I felt the '10 lineup here seems to have taken a step back from the '09s, with the scarf of cedar and dull-edged fruit prevailing once again. Granted the wines are not yet released and therefore still have some stretching out to do, but for them not to have soaked up the effects of their élevage at this point is a concern.
The 2010 Côtes du Rhône Parallèle 45 is soft and friendly, with plum and grilled herb notes and a hint of mineral on the finish but is a bit disappointing in the context of the vintage. A new addition, the 2010 Côtes du Rhône-Villages Plan de Dieu De Père en Filles is in its second vintage. The 80/10/10 Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre blend is co-fermented and aged in foudre. It's nicely focused, with a good beam of red cherry and licorice and a light tobacco shading on the open-knit finish.
The 2010 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Domaine de Terre Ferme is an 80/20 Grenache and Mourvèdre blend, co-fermented, from vines on sandy soils behind La Nerthe in Bédarrides.
"The quantity of Mourvèdre is small and we don't want to overextract it, so we like to blend it with the Grenache at the beginning, which we have been doing since 2007," said Desvernois.
The wine is dusty, with plum skin and cherry pit notes and a hint of grilled herb hanging on the finish, but lacks the vibrant tannic drive of the top bottlings in 2010.
Back to the northern part of the portfolio, the 2010 Crozes-Hermitage Domaine de Thalabert offers solid dark plum skin and dark currant fruit with a good tarry lacing and roasted tobacco leaf on the finish. It shows a good gutsy edge with solid tannins. A step up is the 2010 Crozes-Hermitage Domaine de Roure, which shows a firm coating of toast, with cocoa powder and coffee lending a muscular feel to the crushed plum and blackberry fruit. The chewy finish has a touch more depth than the Thalabert and is also a little more closed today, but there is potentially outstanding quality here.
One of the better-showing wines today was the 2010 St.-Joseph Domaine de la Croix des Vignes. From a 3.7-acre parcel just below the lieu-dit St.-Joseph, this debuted in the 2009 vintage. It has good tangy focus, with red currant and damson plum fruit allied to tobacco, roasted cedar and iron notes. It's purer and uncloaked by the burdensome toast of the other cuvées and feels truer to its terroir.
The 2010 Côte-Rôtie Domaine des Pierrelles is sourced from a 5-acre parcel next to the Maison Rouge lieu-dit. It's a very fresh, pure style, with good violet, cassis and red licorice notes and brighter acidity, with a good lingering sanguine edge. Along with the St.-Joseph, it also stands apart from the other Jaboulet reds for its cut and minerality, offering clearly outstanding potential. But then the 2010 Cornas Domaine de St.-Pierre returns to the frankly dusty, woodsy profile though, with cocoa and plum sauce notes layered with roasted cedar and singed balsa wood. It's taut through the finish and a touch shy on brightness and purity.
The 2010 Hermitage La Petite Chapelle is the young-vine selection, as well as softer, fruitier lots culled in the winery. It has a strong singed bay leaf edge, with a lightly chalk hint as well running through the black currant and dark plum fruit. It has the substantial but fine-grained tannins of Hermitage but still clings a bit to the Cabernet-like profile that pervades most of the reds here. The 2010 Hermitage La Chapelle is the estate's flagship bottling. It's shrouded in dark, toasty cocoa powder and lightly bitter espresso notes but there's a large core of plum, blackberry and black currant fruit in reserve. Tobacco, baker's chocolate and tar stride in on the muscular finish, giving it a slightly austere feel, but the power of this great terroir pushes through in the end and this should eventually meld well enough to give the 2009 a run for its money. Still, it feels like a wine where the terroir wins out despite the winemaking.
All the 2011 whites are bottled and, unlike the reds, this part of the portfolio has been strong since the ownership change, with the whites showing solid purity and clearly defined finishes. Since 2009, Desvernois has used more egg-shaped cement vats for vinification, ranging from 10 to 20 percent of the cuvée, with the remaining percentage still vinified in stainless steel and barrel.
"I like the cement vats because we get natural bâtonnage but no oxidation," said Desvernois. "Since '09 we have taken fruit from the same plot and done a portion stainless, barrel and egg, and we have preferred the egg vat every time so far."
The 2011 Châteauneuf-du-Pape White Domaine de Terre Ferme is from 2.5 acres of Grenache Blanc and Clairette on the estate. The blanched almond, macadamia nut and white ginger notes are fresh and bright, backed by a solid core of melon and a focused finish. The 2011 Crozes-Hermitage White Domaine Mule Blanche is its usual 50/50 Marsanne and Roussanne blend, from the warm Chassis plateau. It shows lively plantain, yellow apple and fresh pear skin notes with a pure, stone-tinged finish. The 2011 Crozes-Hermitage White Domaine de Roure, is made entirely from Marsanne sourced from loess soils (decomposed, sandy granite). It is very ripe, but very pure, with delicious Jonagold apple, chamomile, creamed melon and white ginger notes that all ripple through a lengthy, focused finish.
The 2011 Hermitage White Le Chevalier de Sterimberg is a 70/30 Marsanne and Roussanne blend. It's tightly wound, with pear skin, blanched almond and crème fraiche notes that have yet to meld fully, along with an intensely stony edge on the finish. Salted butter and white peach hints are hanging in the background now and should emerge more as this knits. It's very solid and flirts with classic potential. The lone Viognier in the lineup is the 2011 Condrieu Domaine des Grands Amandiers, from a parcel in Limony that features full south exposure. The naturally low-yielding vineyard ripens quickly before the end of August. The result is a good balance between plump star fruit, pineapple and yellow apple notes with tangier chamomile and quinine hints and a flash of fennel.
As good as the whites are here, though, I continue to scratch my head as to why the reds lag behind, especially considering the flicker of hope they gave in 2009. It has been six vintages since the Frey family took over and I always feel that to affect real change at a winery can take up to 10 years, from vineyard to end result in the marketplace. I've waited patiently to see Jaboulet return to prominence. The clock is now officially ticking …
Tomorrow I split my day between Cornas and Côte-Rôtie. Before that though, I needed a restorative dinner at one of my favorite spots in all the region, Le Mangevins. Owner Vincent Dollat works the front of the house at this 20-seat jewel-box bar à vins, while his wife, Keiko, handles a kitchen that turns out delicious plates of food that are French in origin, but fresher and better-defined than most others in the area. The wine list has grown steadily since it opened in 2008.
You can follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at http://twitter.com/jmolesworth1.