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Day 8 in the Rhône, Part 2

Back to the flat part for two more stops before heading home
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: May 6, 2011 1:06pm ET

For my final two visits of my Northern Rhône trip, I stopped in the heart of the Crozes-Hermitage at two of the area’s most prominent family-run estates.

Alain Graillot / Equis

The dynamic here is always interesting, as Maxime Graillot has taken over for his well-respected father, Alain, to run both of their domaines, which produce wines in markedly different styles (for background, you can reference my notes from my March 2010 visit, with additional links therein). It’s even more interesting when Alain himself is around—and as ski season has ended, the "retired" senior Graillot was there.

Unlike at many other Northern Rhône domaines, the malolactics are all done on the '10s and the wines have already been barreled down. This particular stage of the winemaking process always moves fast here.

“People say it’s better to do the malo in barrel, but I’ve never gotten the chance to try, because they’re always done in November, in cuve, before we barrel down. This winery has a history of that,” said Maxime.

“When I bought the facility in ’85, it had been used by the Delas winery before that. They told me it always happened that way here for them as well,” said Alain. “There’s obviously very active yeasts already in the winery and the malos just zoom through.”

The tasting started with the wines from Maxime’s Equis. A sample of the Crozes-Hermitage Domaine des Lises 2010 from vines planted in ’08 on their own rootstock is loaded with black fruit, and sweet, lush, long structure, while a sample from vines planted in the same vineyard on 3309 rootstock show tighter violet and cherry notes without much volume.

“I remember when I planted the vineyard,” said Maxime. “It was St. Patrick’s Day.”

“It’s funny you said ‘I,'” said Alain. “I remember the ‘we’ planted the vineyard.”

Since '07 (skipping the '08 vintage), Maxime has used a small percentage (up to 20 percent) of stems in his reds, though he still feels that his style is markedly different from his father, who has always used 100 percent full bunches for his reds in every vintage.

The St.-Joseph 2010, sourced from a single grower in St.-Jean-de-Muzols, is tightly focused, with lots of racy bitter cherry and dark licorice notes.

“In ’10 the fruit is beautiful and the tannins are so fresh,” said Maxime, before leaning in and lowering his voice a touch to add. “I would even say they are nice than Domaine Alain Graillot.”

Like a schoolteacher, Alain hears everything though.

“I would agree—for today,” he said with a wink. “But let’s see how they develop over time.”

Maxime works with only one grower each in Crozes, St.-Joseph and Cornas, and quietly, the latter is the best wine here. The Cornas 2010 will spend 18 months in barrel (versus just 12 for the St.-Joseph and Crozes). Sourced from vines in the Sabarotte and Chaillot parcels, is dark and muscular with lots of briar and pastis notes. It has great, intense fruit and a long, sappy finish with lots of grip. There were just 11 barrels made and Maxime’s east coast importer unfortunately doesn’t bring it in, meaning you’ll have to scour for it on the west coast, where his other importer is based.

Production currently stands at 5,000 cases annually for Maxime’s Equis project, as it has edged up in recent years.

“Every year I grow a little and I say, ‘that’s it’. But then I grow a little more. So we’ll have to see. The winery is a bit out of space at this point,” he said.

There are just 19 barrels of Alain Graillot St.-Joseph 2010. It’s dark and winey, with lots of kirsch, pepper and tobacco notes and a gorgeous finish. Always a step up though is the Crozes-Hermitage 2010, a mouthfilling, grippy wine with lots of tobacco, pepper, olive and lavender notes surrounding a great core of blackberry fruit. As Graillot’s special La Guiraude cuvee is a barrel selection, rather than vineyard selection, it has yet to be made here.

“It’s certainly more than likely there will be a La Guiraude in ’10,” said Alain. “But I don’t know where it is right now. We haven’t chosen anything yet and I don’t want to think about it right now.”

The Equis Crozes-Hermitage Equinoxe 2010 was bottled just recently. The spring cuvée, given a short aging and meant for early consumption, is also bottled in screw cap. It’s pure and floral, with a nice snappy edge to the persistent red fruit and tobacco notes.

The Alain Graillot St.-Joseph 2009 was bottled in November and it’s showing well, with very focused, invigorating, but not dense cassis and iron notes.

The Crozes-Hermitage Domaine de Lises 2009 was also bottled at the end of last year and it too has captured a nice energy for this otherwise rich and flattering vintage, with cassis fruit offset by roasted herb, iron and an intense violet edge on the finish.

The Alain Graillot Crozes-Hermitage 2009 is terrifically built for the vintage, with ripe but nicely rigid structure all around the racy cassis and red licorice-filled core, all backed by spice, pepper and grilled herb notes and a long sanguine finish. It’s long, but has great tension for the vintage.

“For me, everything came at the right moment in ’09,” said Alain. “We needed rain, we got rain. We needed sun, we got sun. Always at the ideal time.”

The Alain Graillot Crozes-Hermitage La Guiraude 2009, which shows a similar profile, is tighter, with roasted plum, dark spice and tobacco notes that zoom through the dense, grippy finish.

The hens’ teeth cuvée here is the Alain Graillot Hermitage 2009, of which there are only 50 cases produced. Sourced from vines in Les Greffieux from vines planted in ’99 that replaced the parcel Graillot has been renting. It’s plush and very long, with gorgeous espresso, cocoa and roasted fig notes supported by lots of graphite on the smoldering finish.

The Cornas 2009, set to be bottled in June, I a dense, mouthfilling wine with great tarry grip ad lots of hot stone and crushed plum notes woven with melted black licorice. It’s roasted but stays fresh with a super dense finish.

Gilles Robin

Just a stone’s throw away is the domaine of Gilles Robin, who I last visited in March 2007.

Robin, tall and affable, has his domaine amidst fields of both vines as well as cherry, peach and apricot trees. He was just back from a motorcycle trip through California, including San Francisco.

“The streets of San Francisco were, exciting,” said Robin, with a pause for dry wit.

New to the lineup is the Crozes-Hermitage White Les Marelles 2009, a 60/40 blend of Roussanne and Marsanne. It’s in a round, lush style, with lots of Cavaillon melon and sweetened butter notes and great mouthfeel through the creamy, bright finish. Despite the ripe, rounded profile, Robin uses just a touch of new oak and little bâtonnage (stirring of the lees).

“The bâtonnage adds roundness and richness which the grapes already have, so I don’t want to put too much into the wine. I prefer a fresher style,” he said.

The Crozes-Hermitage Papillon 2009 is Robin’s spring cuvée, sourced from 15-year-old vines and offering roasted plum, herb and sweet spice notes with an open, friendly finish for immediate consumption. The Crozes-Hermitage Albéric Bouvet 2009 is sourced from the domaine’s older vines, planted by Robin’s father and grandfather in the ‘50s and ’60 on mostly red clay and rolled stone terroir of the Les Chassis plateau as well as the Les Chênes Verts area where Graillot is located. It sees just a touch (15 percent) of new oak and is a big, mouthfilling wine, with lots of enticing mesquite, roasted plum and mulled spice notes backed by a broad finish. Vinified with 70 percent steams, it was aged in a mix of barrel and demi-muid.

Bottled in March was the Crozes-Hermitage 2009 1920, named for when his grandfather founded the estate and made only in the ’05 vintage previously. It’s sourced from the same parcels as the Albéric Bouvet but given a different élevage with half of it seeing new oak—the Les Chênes Verts in barrel and the Les Chassis in demi-muid. It’s very broad, with more tar, smoked alder wood and fleshy tobacco and plum fruit notes.

Robin has slowly increased production on his St.-Joseph André Péalat 2009, as new plantings from ’00 have come on line. Sourced from the famed St.-Joseph lieu-dit, Robin now has three demi-muids of the cuvée, which is one of the overlooked wines in the appellation, offering gorgeous perfume and velvety texture with alluring mesquite, singed iron and espresso notes woven with sleek black cherry and cassis fruit. As rich as it is, it shows better minerality than many other bottlings in the rich, fruit-driven ’09 vintage.

There are just 3,000 bottles of the Hermitage 2009, Robin’s first vintage producing the wine from purchased fruit in the Les Bessards parcel (the vines were planted in 1970). It’s very dark, with macerated fig, coffee, loam and anise notes and a long, suave, well-toasted but not heavy finish that lets a Lapsang Souchong tea note flash through.

The young 2010s are still rather raw, though there’s clearly excellent potential. A sample of the Crozes-Hermitage Albéric Bouvet 2010 from the Les Chassis area shows fleshy mouthfeel and dark fruit while the Les Chênes Verts parcel shows more tobacco, spice and crunchy acidity. The St.-Joseph André Péalat 2010 is dark but racy, with the graphite edge showing right away, along with currant paste and cocoa notes. It’s dense, but racy and with great cut—the essence of this vintage and a perfect wine to finally close my notepad for the trip home. (After a dinner at Le Mangevins, of course!)

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