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Day 8: Frédéric Engerer's Northern Rhône Mystery

Reviewing the whites (and some reds) at Château-Grillet, Georges Vernay and Pierre-Jean Villa
Photo by: James Molesworth
Château Latour's Frédéric Engerer hopes to finally fulfill the potential of the steep terraces of Château-Grillet.

Posted: Jul 11, 2012 3:00pm ET

Today was a white wine day, with stops at Château-Grillet and then Georges Vernay, two domaines where the Viognier grape reigns...


To the outside world, things have been quiet at Château-Grillet since its purchase by Château Latour owner Francois Pinault in  summer 2011. And that probably doesn't seem any different than how things were before the sale—Château-Grillet has long been a mystery to many folks, both novices and wine insiders.

The micro-appellation totals just 8.6 acres, sitting like an island within the boundaries of the Condrieu appellation. The steep, dramatic, terraced vineyards enjoy an ideal exposition and fine, decomposed granitic soils and it has always been revered for its potential. But there is perhaps no estate with such a legendary reputation based on absolutely zero results as Château-Grillet. There is no single vintage that anyone has ever told me provided them with a transcendent experience. There has been nothing even remotely resembling consistent quality or style from the estate in over a generation. The wines have at times been either oxidized or dilute, lightly sweet or underripe. Château-Grillet has always been a dream for everyone who knows Northern Rhône whites. You just need to drive by the estate and its potential seems so obvious, but its reality has been so puzzling. It was a ghost wine, with bottles rarely making any impact in the marketplace and little to no distribution to speak off.

But now, following the change in ownership, director Frédéric Engerer has brought his intense, laserlike focus to bear on the estate. The 2011 vintage was the first vinified under the new regime and I was genuinely excited to see what was being done, albeit in its very early stages.

"Our first focus was the harvest, since we took over midway through the growing season," said Engerer as we walked up old stone steps amidst the labyrinthian complex of mini-terraces that rise up behind the small jewel box château. "We had to get the wine done first and in a short period of time. We got that done and so we can focus on a new cuverie as well."

The property is a construction site now, as a temperature-controlled press area is being installed and the barrel room renovated as well. The plan is to have everything done in time for the 2012 harvest and the blur of activity seems well on its way to that goal. Meanwhile, in the vineyards, even Engerer's attention to micro-detail is being pressed.

"There were several things I didn't understand when I got here, the vigor being one. Many of the vines looked tired, which didn't seem right for 35-year-old vines. So I figured it was a soil issue, and maybe we need to add some organic material," he said, noting that the estate has been farmed biodynamically since it was purchased. "But the soil test came back fine, so it had to be something else. I think the soil needs to be worked more, to get the vines deeper. Some of these terraces are so narrow, we can't even do them with a winch, let alone a horse, so we'll have to go by hand. I wasn't prepared for that. In Burgundy [where Engerer runs Domaine Eugenie], I need x number of workers for [15 acres] of vines. So for Château-Grillet, at [8.6 acres], I figured maybe half that would do. But now I see I may need twice that."

"We also looked at the winter pruning, and I think they were leaving too long a cane," said Engerer. "We had bunches ripening right by the main trunk, and then sometimes two feet further out, more additional bunches hanging at the end of the vine, often bigger in size but hanging off a thin part of the vine. That didn't seem right."

To that end, Engerer harvested the bunches from the different areas of the vine days apart and then vinified them separately. The results led him to believe that the pruning needed to be shorter. Engerer also took an exacting approach to harvesting the parcels throughout the estate, breaking the property in 76 different spots and spending 15 days to bring all the fruit in, from Aug. 29 to Sept. 12.

"In the past, the harvest was done in three, maybe four days, as they just moved along the slope and brought everything in as fast as they could. Obviously we can't get bogged down in every detail over just [8.6 acres], but you still have to think of the harvest as going by ripeness, or by soil type, or something. There has to be a key to unlock the site. It makes no sense to just bring it all in together."

As if that weren't enough on the to-do list, Engerer is also clearing land on both edges of the existing vineyards, and he has unearthed abandoned terraces and old stone walls.

"Surely this could potentially be AOC," he said. "And some of this is probably better than what we have down at the very bottom of the hill, where the soil is deeper. But that is a longer-term project. Right now, we have to see what direction we want to go with the wine. The truth lies in what the real expression of Château-Grillet is. I think it is something with tension, with real minerality and that can age a long time. And so in '11, we are looking for that."

We head into the barrel room to taste the various lots, starting with the first harvest date, Aug. 29, and the bunches clipped from close to the trunks of the vine. The wine shows a crunchy kafir lime note, along with chamomile and a brisk edge on the finish. Engerer notes it came in at 14.5 degrees of potential alcohol, a full degree higher than the bunches at the end of the vine on the same date. So, four days later, he harvested those end bunches and they were still only at 14.1 degrees. A sample of the wine from that lot shows a noticeably rounder feel, with friendly plantain and honeysuckle notes. It seems longer, but it's a false length, as it's very soft.

"There are interesting flavors there, but not the tension we want," he said flatly.

A lot picked on Sept. 2, from the top of the hill is still slowly finishing its malolactic fermentation, giving off a hint of crème fraîche, along with lime curd and a more layered feel. The same lot from a new demi-muid has obvious heft, with a lightly toasted pineapple note, but on its own Engerer feels it's too powerful.

"That really shows the oak. In the final wine, I don't think we would ever have more than 20 percent new oak," he said.

A sample harvested later, from the middle of the slope, shows very fragrant talc, lime and honeysuckle notes, with very vivacious acidity. A sample harvested Sept. 9 shows a richer profile, with creamed pear and plantain notes, offering more flesh than spine, but it should be a very interesting component of the final blend. And then, from a sample harvested off the top part, the wine shows taut pear and green apple skin notes with a slightly attenuated feel.

"That I think we picked too soon," said Engerer. "A touch underripe. The analysis said 15 degrees and so we went ahead. But sometimes when you are in the first year, you are anxious about making a mistake and so you move too soon. We were stressed by the analysis. We won't make that mistake again," he said, in a serious self-critical tone.

The previous ownership had hired Denis Dubourdieu out of Bordeaux for the past few vintages before the sale, but things were often done in secret, without any outside advice from other Rhône vignerons or much contact with the outside world. Engerer has taken a different approach, continuing to listen to Dubourdieu's thoughts, while also taking counsel with some of the region's vignerons, though none are officially paid consultants and Engerer asks not to name them on the record.

"I may be listening to people who have completely different ideas about Château-Grillet, so it will be impossible to use all the advice. And in the end, we ultimately have to find our own way. But it would be silly not to listen to the advice," he said.

The 2010 Château-Grillet was bottled, but not vinified, by Engerer's team, and as such he doesn't consider it the real start of the project (and rightly so). It's rounded and friendly in feel, with plump lemon curd, chamomile, quince, creamed pear and pastry dough notes that all hang gently through the finish. It has solid range, but is shy on drive, and without the minerally tension that Engerer is seeking. It's a very good wine. But in the context of the vintage—a great one for the Northern Rhône—and considering the site itself, it is once again a little disappointing.

"But frankly, with no temperature control and a fast débourbage [allowing sediments to settle out of the wine before racking], that's the result. There is something there, but the wine is still a bit brutal in the end," said Engerer. "So we still have to see."

There are just 660 cases of the 2010, with the 2011 vintage totaling just 550 cases.

And though the 2010 isn't a wine of his making, technically, nonetheless, Engerer has inventory to sell, along with remaining stocks of the 2008 and '09, which are now coming to market. The two older vintages will be distributed through the existing channels the estate has, but with the 2010, Engerer will move to place the wine solely in restaurants.

"I think this is the best way to get back to the market. With the low production and the image deficit the wine has, on premise is the best way. Besides, with food, there are places you can go with this wine that you can't go with reds," said Engerer. "Down the road, inevitably we will take it back to retailers and private clients, but I would guess 60 percent of the production will still go to restaurants.

Engerer then comes back to the thought of the 2011, and the burgeoning reality of the first wine under his stewardship clearly excites him.

"I am starting to see the light now with the '11. I'm getting a feel for the parcels. I'm getting a feel for the soul of the property," he said, with an almost wistful air.

It's a soul that has never had a chance to express itself fully before. Engerer has a blank slate to work with, as there is little tangible history, wine-wise, for the new Château-Grillet to be compared with. "I'm giving myself three to four years to get it right," he said, quickly returning to his succinct, matter-of-fact style.

As one prominent Northern Rhône vigneron said to me earlier this week in regard to Engerer and his team, when I mentioned I was visiting the estate, "If there really is something there at Château-Grillet, they will be the ones to find it. For sure."

Georges Vernay

While Frédéric Engerer is just starting with his efforts at Château-Grillet, Christine Vernay has now fully established herself. She is not just a top Condrieu vigneron, but a top Northern Rhône vigneron, period.

As always, a stop here means a crosscutting of vintages, as Vernay is often reticent to show wines that aren't finished yet. Check out my blog from my most recent stop here in April 2011 for more notes and background.

The just-bottled 2011 Syrah Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes De Mirbaudie is sourced from young vines on the plateau above Condrieu and fermented and aged only in stainless steel. It's very floral, with violet and rose petal notes and pretty strawberry and light red cherry fruit. From older vines on the plateau and aged in used barrels, the 2011 Syrah Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes Fleurs de Mai shows a fuller feel, with alluring tobacco and cocoa notes and a nice supple core of crushed plum and blackberry fruit. It turns more floral on the finish and keeps an elegant feel. Both of these offer potentially very good quality and are often well-priced in the low- to mid-$20 range.

Moving back a vintage, the 2010 Côtes du Rhône Ste.-Agathe shows the house style that has really been refined here in recent vintages, with an alluring incense note giving way to supple, pure cassis and black currant fruit followed by flickers of black tea and singed iron. It has a very graceful mouthfeel and latent length.

"I haven't changed anything in the last several vintages," said Vernay, when I queried her about the more confidently-rendered reds. "But I think consumers are looking for wines of minerality and freshness more."

From 40-year-old parcels around Chavanay, the 2010 St.-Joseph Terres d'Encre shows even more substantial perfumy black tea and sanguine notes, which take the lead over enticing mulled spice and blackberry fruit that in turn mingles with fine-grained tannins. The long and refined finish lets the perfumy edge linger as this shows easily outstanding potential. The 2009 St.-Joseph La Dame Brune is the single-parcel selection, sourced from a 60-year-old vineyard. This is very plush in feel, but focused, too, with a sanguine edge framing the gorgeously pure cassis and raspberry fruit. A long, singed mesquite note and very fine acidity weave through the finish. This is in the upper end of the outstanding range.

"2009 is a vintage of sun and you can really feel that in the wine," said Vernay. "2010 wasn't as precocious though. It's a vintage of terroir. It's more discrete and proper," she added, mentioning her preference for the 2010s overall.

The 2009 Côte-Rôtie Blonde du Seigneur is very focused, with bergamot and blood orange hints along the edges of the dark plum and cassis fruit. Once again, the texture is very supple, but very persistent, with gorgeous toasted spice and mesquite aromatics gliding through the finish as it flirts with potentially classic quality. The 2009 Côte-Rôtie Maison Rouge shows more structure, with a more obvious iron edge and tightly wound apple wood, black currant and plum paste notes. A lovely black tea edge waits in reserve on the finish but this will need some time to unwind fully. It shows admirable minerality and tension in this generally fleshy vintage and could easily earn a classic rating (as always, formal reviews, based on blind-tasted samples in my New York office, will appear in the future).

Vernay does wind up pouring one unfinished red, a sample of the 2010 Côte-Rôtie Blonde du Seigneur.

"But it doesn't exist yet," she said with a shy smile. "Just to give you an idea of the vintage."

It is tight and pure, very long, and shows a superb core of cassis and perfectly melded wood notes. There are lingering red licorice and spice notes on the finish, with a lovely mouthfeel, despite there being greater structure than in the 2009.

The Viogniers are where Vernay first achieved prominence, and the reds have caught up to them, rather than the whites taking a step down. These are still among the most pure and compelling Viogniers made in all of the Rhône, and the just-released 2010s are among Vernay's best efforts since she assumed control of the domaine from her father.

We started with the 2011 Viognier Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes Le Pied de Samson, which was bottled mid-April. It's a textbook introduction to the grapes, with a fresh and friendly profile and a nice, juicy feel to the anise, peach and green melon notes that have just enough of a green almond twinge to keep them honest.

I retasted the 2010 Condrieu Les Terrasses de l'Empire, which was reviewed in the June 30 issue of Wine Spectator (93 points, $96, 1,665 cases made). It shows lovely freshness stitching together apricot and anise notes, with more richness than the '06 and better definition than the '09. The 2010 Condrieu Les Chaillées de l'Enfer offers delicious creamy Bosc pear, melon, heather and almond notes and a long finish that is both lush and refined, making a more defined presentation in contrast to the richly layered 2009. The top bottling is the 2010 Condrieu Coteau de Vernon, which is powerfully rendered, with dense lemon cream, Cavaillon melon, quince and mango notes, but also very pure, with bright chamomile and honeysuckle stretching from start to finish. It has fresh acidity well-buried on the lengthy finish and is still rather tight, but should reward mid-term cellaring and rank among the best vintages yet, combining the power of the '05 and '09 with the delineation of the stunning '06.

Pierre-Jean Villa

Pierre-Jean Villa's new domaine is off to a very good start. The 2009 reds were excellent, and the 2010s look even better. Villa is a close friend of Christine Vernay and her husband, Paul Amsellem, so as he was out of town, he left his wines for me to taste at their domaine. For background on Villa, see my blog notes from my last visit with him.

The 2010 St.-Joseph Préface is brisk, racy and very floral with iron and violet notes up front and a pure, silky, cassis core. It's not big, but very pure, persistent and mouthwatering. The 2010 St.-Joseph Tildé, from older vines, is darker and fuller in profile, but with no less drive and cut as the blackberry and cassis notes stretch out over more cocoa and anise, while the iron edge stays buried through the finish. It's a lovely combination of dark fruit and elegance. The 2010 Côte-Rôtie Carmina is the first vintage for the wine to include an old-vine parcel in the Fongeant lieu-dit. It's darker and smokier than the 2009, but still subtle overall, with a dark fruit core melded perfectly with velvety structure. There are lingering charcoal and anise notes that glide through the finish, with a sanguine hint chiming in at the very end.

Lastly, the 2010 Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes Esprit d'Antan is yet another of the compelling wines to be sourced from vineyards developed around Vienne, on schist soils. It's dark and winey, with blackberry and plum sauce notes and a plush, velvety feel. But then the pungent minerality that marks these wines kicks in on the finish, where fine tannins and lively acidity let everything stretch out nicely.

Production will remain small at this domaine, only 8,000 cases at its maximum output as Villa's new plantings come on line and join his existing parcels, but this is a domaine whose wines are definitely worth tracking down.

My Northern Rhône march continues unabated tomorrow, as I head back over to Jean-Louis Chave's domaine to taste the 2010 and '11 vintages, with a stop at Delas as well, to taste the latest efforts from winemaker Jacques Grange.

You can follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at http://twitter.com/jmolesworth1.

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