Day 8: Hiding Out in the Beaujolais

Nov 6, 2007

As I looked back on yesterday's tasting at Guigal, I realized that the most exciting wines for me were the Condrieu, white Hermitage and red and white St.-Joseph bottlings. Yes, I love the La La wines, but they have already set themselves up as benchmark bottlings. Meanwhile, Marcel and Philippe Guigal continue to improve their Hermitage, Condrieu and St.-Josephs each year, and for me, watching that improvement is exciting.

Note how I smoothly segue into the wines of Ferraton Père & Fils, which are also improving from year to year. Michel Chapoutier, who bought out Michel Ferraton last year, now solely owns the winery. Chapoutier then installed Gregory Viennois, 32, as Ferraton's head winemaker and general director. Viennois, after studying with Stéphane Derenoncourt in Bordeaux, joined Ferraton for the 2004 vintage. He has done a terrific job since taking over.

I thought the wines at Ferraton were a little too woody in previous vintages under the Chapoutier/Ferraton joint ownership. But since 2005, Viennois has ratcheted down the use of new oak, down from 100 percent on some cuvées to only 30 percent maximum.

"Syrah doesn't need new wood," said Chapoutier. "It was a fashionable mistake," he added, noting that he stopped using 100 percent new oak on his own reds after the '95 vintage.

In addition, Chapoutier feels the barrels being used are much better than before—they've stopped using François Frères and instead are using more barrels from the Dargaud & Daegle and Damy coopers, and he feels the oak is better integrated into the wines now.

As for the whites, they are now being made in what Chapoutier called a "more Coche-Dury" style, with extended lees contact and bâtonnage. The change in the whites is perhaps even more dramatic than with the reds, and with the anti-oxidative quality of the extended lees contact, Chapoutier also feels the white Hermitage and other cuvées will not go into such a deep and prolonged dumb phase as in the past but will rather age on a more linear tract.

"White Rhônes were originally much more oxidative because people didn't know how to work them, and they used too much sulfur," said Chapoutier. The new result is wines with greater clarity and focus and brighter, longer finishes.

Among the standouts at Ferraton are the 2006 Hermitage White Les Miaux and 2006 Ermitage White Le Reverdy (Chapoutier and Ferraton drop the 'H' from Hermitage and use the ancient spelling instead to designate their single-vineyard wines). The Les Miaux is a blend of two-thirds Marsanne and one-third Roussanne, sourced from the Le Méal, Dionnières and Beaumes parcels. It's bold and forward, with creamed peach, melon, and hazelnut. The Le Reverdy is from the Beaumes parcel, and it's very rich, with chamomile and honeysuckle notes leading the way for driven melon, bitter almond, sweetened butter and creamed peach flavors. The long, pure finish is impressive. The 2006 St.-Joseph White Les Oliviers is half Marsanne and half Roussanne, and it too is rich, but bright and pure, with leesy notes of brioche, lemon verbena and melon.

Of the reds, the grapes for the 2006 Côtes du Rhône-Villages Plan de Dieu were once blended into the basic Côtes du Rhône. But this 1,000-hectare area located next to Gigondas was elevated to Villages level in the 2006 vintage, and Ferraton is bottling it separately now. It's a dynamite value, with rich, mouthfilling dark fruit and smoke notes.

Sourced from 30- to 35-year-old vines, the 2006 Crozes-Ermitage Le Grand Courtil offers a very licorice and violet profile up front, with a sweet kirsch core and a deliciously long, peppery finish. From vines planted in 1962, the 2006 Ermitage Les Dionnières is very dark, with cocoa, loam and plum sauce notes, but more violet and graphite on the finish. It's long and powerful but also fine-grained. Both it and the 2006 Ermitage Le Méal offer potentially classic quality, with the Le Méal showing terrific richness and purity, with velvety plum, currant, fig and loam notes. It's long and smoky on the finish, but the fruit and minerality shines through as well. This is easily the best wine made here in some time.

For some reason though, the wines of Ferraton Père & Fils have yet to establish solid distribution in the U.S. (They're currently available in only about 11 states, including Virginia, Texas and California.) That's amazing to me: The quality is improving rapidly and the prices are ridiculously low for their relative quality. Can't afford bottlings from Guigal, J.L. Chave or Chapoutier? The top Ferraton cuvées, such as the Les Miaux bottling, retail in the $70 to $80 per bottle range. The Crozes-Ermitage Le Grand Courtil retails for under $30. Need I say more?

I also tasted through the full range of Chapoutier's own offerings from 2005 and 2006. I'll file that as a separate blog entry shortly.

After the extended morning session with Michel and company, I made the nearly two hour drive up to Charnay, in the Beaujolais region. Hiding out amongst the beautiful rolling hills here is Éric Texier, a former nuclear engineer turned winemaker. Why the switch?

"I like to drink wine, so why not make it?" said the cherubic looking Texier in a measured tone.

Though he makes Rhône wines, Éric Texier's cave is in Charnay, in the Beaujolais region.

Texier owns just 2.5 hectares in the Côtes du Rhône appellation of Brézème, which is the southern most part of the Northern Rhône. In addition, he contracts for grapes from Condrieu, Côte-Rôtie and Châteauneuf-du-Pape to coddle together an annual production of about 6,000 cases (and a hefty 40 percent makes its way to the U.S. market).

Texier describes himself as "old school"—he prefers the elegance of Burgundy. But since creating a company and sourcing grapes in Burgundy was too difficult, he turned his light-handed winemaking style to the Rhône.

But then why base himself in Beaujolais, a good 45 minutes north of Ampuis, you ask? Well, I asked that question and got a simple answer: "Because you can't find this in the Rhône," he said, gesturing to the beautiful late-17th century stone farmhouse that houses his cellar. Made from the local pierres dorées (golden stones), Texier's cave easily wins a beauty contest among most of the wineries I've seen.

The wines, which are vinified at a facility in Brézème before being brought up to the cave at Charnay for their élevage, are pure and steely in profile. The 2006 Côtes du Rhône Brézème, made from 100 percent Syrah, gets a four to five day cold soak and a short maceration period. Fermented in cement vat, it's then moved to barrels with a touch of residual sugar for its malolactic. The result is a piercing violet and mineral driven red that begs for food.

Among the whites, the 2006 Viognier Côtes du Rhône is sourced from schist soils in St.-Pierre-de-Boeuf, above the appellation of Condrieu. It sees no oak and doesn't go through malolactic, resulting in a stony, pure white with a long, blanched almond finish. The 2006 Condrieu Janrode is an intriguing wine, fermented in acacia wood barrels (as opposed to oak). Texier explains that acacia is a blonder wood with a loose grain that allows the staves to be formed into the barrel shape without being toasted, so you get the support of the oak in terms of structure, but none of the taste. Unlike most Condrieus, the Janrode is not rich at all, offering pippin apple and green plum notes instead, with a very minerally finish.

Despite their angular profiles however, Texier's wines aren't at all severe—they're balanced and fresh. His approach to winemaking may be a bit esoteric, but the added diversity is always welcome in the wine world.

France Rhône Valley

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