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The Sum of Its Parts

Seeing the bits and pieces that form the whole at Delas, Maison Nicolas Perrin and Domaine Vallet
Photo by: James Molesworth
The imposing Les Bessards lieu-dit on Hermitage provides the fruit for one of Delas' top bottlings.

Posted: Nov 26, 2013 11:00am ET

Wine Spectator senior editor James Molesworth is in France, visiting select domaines of the Northern Rhône Valley, tasting the 2012 vintage and more in Côte-Rôtie, Condrieu, Hermitage and Cornas.

Delas

This modestly-sized négociant/domaine is overseen by Jacques Grange, quietly one of the most experienced winemakers in the region. He worked for both Michel Chapoutier and Jean-Luc Colombo before joining Delas in 1997.

A few years ago he was joined by Claire Darnaud-McKerrow who is now his right hand for both the winemaking and viticulture, as Delas continues to make changes, both in the winery, where they now use barrels from five different coopers instead of just one, as well as in the vineyards, where they continue to shift toward organic growing practices. For more background on Delas you can reference my blog notes starting with my 2012 visit.

For starters, Darnaud-McKerrow and I took a quick tour of the hill of Hermitage, where Delas owns a hefty 20 acres of vines. For the past few vintages the Delas team has been aiming for more precision in the wines--building a final blend from smaller, vineyard-based lots that are picked and fermented separately. Delas is also rebuilding and replanting some terraces at the top of the hill in the Les Grandes Vignes lieu-dit, just above the famed L'Ermite parcel. The hill was blessed with a stunning morning of weather--bright blue sky and fresh, breezy air; a rare treat for November when the weather is typically sullen and rainy.

In 2013, Darnaud-McKerrow noted how typically most people wanted to pick fast after the first rain in early October for fear of additional bad weather rolling in, particularly as the grape skins were fragile and susceptible to rot.

"But we waited until after the second rain because at that point we figured the vines wouldn't take up any more water and become bloated or burst. The leaves were turning so there was no photosynthesis or sugar production. We were willing to wait even if it meant we lost some volume by selecting out any rot in order to get that extra ripeness," she said.

After the quick tour of the hill we headed back to the winery in St.-Jean-de-Muzols to taste through the 2012s.

"2012 reds have a very frank start, they have presence right away. There's fruit of course. But the tannins are well-defined. There's grip. In 2011 you don't see the tannins the same way because they're round and soft," said Darnaud-McKerrow.

None of the 2012s are bottled yet.

The 2012 Crozes-Hermitage Les Launes is sleek with silky raspberry and blackberry notes and a lovely plum coulis hint on the spice-tinged finish. The 2012 Crozes-Hermitage Domaine des Grands Chemins has a lively briary edge, lots of pepper and spice and a lovely core of crushed plum and raspberry fruit. The 2012 Crozes-Hermitage Le Clos is lush but suave, with a finer minerally edge running alongside the alluring raspberry and blackberry fruit followed by a nice pebbly feel through the finish.

"It is the Crozes most unlike a Crozes I know," said Darnaud-McKerrow. "It always has lower pH than the others. The vineyard doesn't have the big galets [rolled stones] as typical and the soils are lighter. The wine is more elegant and restrained than most Crozes."

The 2012 St.-Joseph Les Challeys is briary and grippy with a charcoal hint running through the delicious loganberry and plum fruit. An anise note chimes in on the finish, which has nice tension. The 2012 St.-Joseph François de Tournon is dense, with layers of velvety fruit, smoky spice notes and a long, thoroughly tannic but integrated finish. The 2012 St.-Joseph Ste.-Épine is very refined, with delightful plum coulis and blackberry fruit, alluring anise and charcoal and a finish that really shows impressive depth.

This parcel has been fully organic since the 2012 vintage. "But I'm not concerned with a certification. Working organically is a philosophy, not something to be be used for the label or marketing," said Grange.

The 2012 Cornas Chante-Perdrix is chock full of briary grip, along with dark currant and blackberry fruit and a nice hefty tobacco-framed finish. It's full of pleasantly burly tannins with the fruit to match.

The 2012 Côte-Rôtie Seigneur de Maugiron is very tight and backward today, showing its toasty side as it's yet to fully soak up its oak (40 percent new). There's ample crushed plum and boysenberry fruit in reserve, and a lovely dark olive hint peeking in on the finish, so the pieces are in place. The 2012 Côte-Rôtie La Landonne returns (there was no '11 as it was blended into the Côte-Rôtie Seigneur de Maugiron). It's a large-scaled wine brimming with smoldering charcoal and singed iron notes and a large core of blackberry and black currant fruit. Still a bit youthfully raw at this stage, it's a bit unbridled but shows superb potential.

The final blend set to be bottled is the 2012 Hermitage Domaine des Tourettes. It represents a blend of nine lots as parcels, and microvinified and press lots are separate as well. It's also grippy, with a loamy feel, thick plum skin, currant paste and fig notes and a brooding feel through the finish. The 2012 Hermitage Les Bessards represents a culling of the best small parcels (maybe 3.5 acres' worth) within the 20 acres of Bessards that Delas farms. It's very refined and detailed already, with a gorgeously silky feel and enticing raspberry and boysenberry fruit. There's a mouthwatering anise note and a nice underpinning of iron through the finish.

For fun, we then tasted through the separate lots that make up the two Hermitage cuvées, to see how the bits and pieces make up the whole.

Lot 647 is from the bottom of the hill, on flatter, deeper soils. It delivers fleshy fruit, but slightly unrefined tannins on the finish. Lot 646 is from the top of the Les Tourettes parcel, just below the La Chapelle. It bursts with succulent plum and blackberry fruit, with silky tannins that stay in the background. Lot 655 is from the Les Grandes Vignes lieu-dit at the very top of the hill, above L'Ermite. It's bracing in its iron profile, with brisk cherry skin and plum pit notes; it's a rapier. Lot 654 is from Oncle, same elevation as and to the left of Les Tourettes when looking at the hill. It shows lighter, bright damson plum and blood orange fruit and a lightly firm edge through the finish. Lot 657 is also from Les Grandes Vignes, but below the top of the hill, sitting in a terraced amphitheater. It's lush, with fig and boysenberry flavors and a light charcoal dusting on the finish. It's among the ripest of the lots but with a slightly rustic edge to the structure. Lot 649 is another portion of Oncle, lower on the slope, which has been worked organically for two vintages. The color is remarkable--saturated purple--along with sleek tannins, gorgeous plum eau de vie and raspberry coulis notes and a long, suave finish. It's the lot that is the most fully formed as a stand-alone wine of the group but we finish with Lot 648, sourced from the heart of the Les Bessards section that typically forms the majority of the single-parcel bottling. It's a succulent, fruit-driven sample, bursting with plum, blackberry and boysenberry notes lined with toasted anise and carried by silky but substantial tannins. In tasting the lots it's interesting to see how each of them gives an impression of Hermitage, some more than others, but save for the Bessards lot, they all need a little piece of each other in order to form a fully rendered and complex wine.

All of the 2012 whites were bottled in July. The style of the whites has changed here in recent vintages, with the wines being put only through partial malo, aged on lees and no racking after fermentation. The result is a brighter, fresher profile without sacrificing the ripe orchard and tropical fruit flavors typical of Northern Rhône whites (which are made from Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier).

The 2012 Crozes-Hermitage White Les Launes is all Marsanne. It delivers delightful pear and green fig flavors, with a bright, floral racy finish. The 2012 Hermitage White Domaine des Tourettes (formerly called Marquise de la Tourette) is also all Marsanne. It is very caressing in feel, with creamed peach, green apple and white ginger notes that carry through a nicely tuned finish.

The 2012 Condrieu Clos Boucher is sourced from the 5-acre lieu-dit on the first hill behind Château-Grillet. It has four different expositions (east, southeast, south and southwest) which are picked separately. It shows Viognier at its finest, with intense apricot, fennel, green melon and pear notes backed by a long, bitter almond note. It's tight still, but has loads of purity in reserve and should be a very expressive wine when it opens up fully. It is among the rare Condrieu bottlings (for me) that will benefit from some bottle aging.

Granges has been making superb wines at Delas since 1997. He has slowly and methodically refined the portfolio and brought a distinctive style to the wines. Now with Darnaud-McKerrow, the winemaking team seems reenergized, focused further on smaller and smaller details, willing to experiment, and has a distinct idea of what the wines should be. They are making wines with a distinct house style that doesn't force the issue, allowing the terroir to still shine. I can confidently say Delas has ascended to be among the elite reference-point wineries in the Northern Rhône.

Maison Nicolas Perrin

This micro-négociant label started as Jaboulet-Perrin before switching its name due to a conflict with Paul Jaboulet Aîné. A partnership between the Perrin family of Chateau de Beaucastel and Nicolas Jaboulet, this project currently only owns some vines in Crozes-Hermitage while sourcing everything else from purchased fruit. For more background on this winery, you can reference my blog notes from my 2011 visit here.

"There are two sides to everything of course. One side is you can say we don't control our sourcing perfectly because we don't own vineyards," said Marc Perrin. "But we are also not constrained by just having certain vineyards, which allows us to go out and find different things. Plus, since starting five years ago, we have built relationships with the growers we are buying from and we can now have specific parcels vinified in specific ways."

"And we do everything in our own barrels, which we provide to the growers," said Nicolas Jaboulet. "So we have control over aspects of the winemaking which helps us to create the style we are looking for."

"The idea is to be a micro-négociant working in a very specific way, with only Northern Rhône wines. The model would be something like Lucien Le Moine or Dominique Laurent in a way," said Perrin.

The style here emphasizes ripe fruit and mouthfilling textures without being overextracted or heavily reliant on oak. The wines are juicy, with lots of graphite and violet notes that are classic for Northern Rhône reds; the whites are flattering and creamy in feel. The project started with 2,500 cases of just a few bottlings but now covers all the major appellations in the region, with production in the 2012 vintage reaching 15,000 cases.

The 2012 Hermitage White is a 70/30 Marsanne and Roussanne blend. It's lush and round, with toasted macadamia nut, brioche and melon flavors that glide wonderfully through the creamy finish. The wine is barrel-fermented (no new oak) and there were just eight barrels made.

None of the reds from 2012 are bottled yet. Jaboulet and Perrin wanted to show some component parts as well as some approximate final blends.

For the 2012 Crozes-Hermitage we tasted three samples. The first blends lots from growers in the Chassis area which forms the bulk of the final wine. It's lively, with anise and plum notes backed by a bright iron edge. The second blends lots from a single grower whose vines represent the oldest in the final bottling. It was fermented in wooden vat and it shows a fleshier feel, with plum paste and bramble notes. The third is from Coteaux Le Pends, a rare hill in this mostly flat appellation featuring granite soils in a slightly cooler spot. It's very floral, with a strong violet note and very refined tannins. It relies primarily on minerality and helps add definition and length to the final blend which is then created from the three samples.

The 2012 St.-Joseph also draws from three main lots. The first is sourced from vines around Chavanay and St.-Pierre-de-Bœuf at the northern end of the appellation. It's floral at first, but has a fleshy core of plum fruit and a toothy plum skin finish. The second lot, from Mauves in the southern part of St.-Joseph, shows fresh red currant and a pure, minerally finish. The third is a blend of a few small grower's fruit from both ends of the appellation, which has a lively, briary feel and enticing anise and plum fruit flavors. A blend of the three samples pulls the range of flavors together, letting the briary feel meld nicely with the plum core, while the iron edge sits in reserve on the finish. The wine is aged in a mix of 3- and 4-year-old barrels.

"Another way we have freedom is we don't approach any appellation or cuvée saying, 'We need to produce this much,'" said Perrin. "Anything that doesn't make a final blend from one of the AOC cuvées is just declassified into the Syrah-Viognier Vin de France bottling."

The 2012 Côte-Rôtie is broken out over three terroirs, starting with the Rozier lieu-dit. It delivers a nice graphite spine and mouthfilling, almost gutsy blackberry fruit. The second comes from loess soils at the northern end of Ampuis, which is very feminine in style, showing lacy texture and lilting floral notes. The last is from Les Grandes Places (back to schist soils) which shows intense bay, iron and black currant fruit and a tight finish. Filling a beaker once again with a mix of the three in their approximate percentages for the final blend results in a sample that shows layers of plum paste and currant preserve while harnessing the briary edge, leaving a silky but persistent feel through the finish.

For the 2012 Cornas, the first sample is primarily from Les Eygats, which shows mouthwatering pomegranate and red currant fruit and a piercing violet note. The second, from the Sabarotte lieu-dit is darker and a little wilder in feel, with briar, bay and lavender notes studding the core of loganberry and blackberry fruit. The approximate blend is equal parts of each and it tames the wild side of the Sabarotte, giving a a fleshy, broad plum- and cassis-filled wine where the bay and wild herb notes just flicker through the finish. Perrin and Jaboulet think they may eventually lessen the Les Eygats portion a touch, just to let the wilder side of Sabarotte come out more in the final blend.

Finally, the 2012 Ermitage features three parts. The first, from the stony soils in Roucoules and Les Murets, shows a savory hint (it was fermented whole cluster, atypical for the wines here), along with bright violet and iron hints and a peppery edge to go with modest plum fruit. The second lot is from Les Grandes Vines at the top of the hill and it is more open and generous, with soft, caressing plum and blackberry fruit and a light graphite shading on the finish. The third is from Les Greffieux and it shows its typically broad, fleshy, loamy feel with dark fruit flavors but a slightly drying edge that may be a hint of a bad cork. For the blend, Perrin and Jaboulet leave out the third component because of the light whiff of cork, and the wine shows fresh delineation and pure iron and red fruit flavors but misses the bass notes of the Greffieux.

The tasting is an instructive look at the complexities of sourcing fruit from various terroirs and assembling blends--no less complicated when doing it on a small scale, as Maison Nicolas Perrin does, than on a larger scale when a house such as E. Guigal does. And the efforts here easily debunk the old argument that négociants just make indifferent blends and less dynamic wines because they don't own vineyards and source from a broader range of wines.

There are plans to eventually build their own vinification cellar to centralize the logistics of the operation. In the meantime, Maison Nicolas Perrin has quickly established itself as a consistent source for top-flight, deliciously rendered Northern Rhône reds and whites.

Domaine Vallet

This was my first visit to this relative newcomer, located on the Route National 86 just north of the town of Serrières. This location gives it a unique aspect—it's the southernmost area of the northern half of the appellation, so the wines are marked both by the pronounced minerality and floral notes typical of the north, while leaning slightly to darker fruit cores often associated with the south of St.-Joseph.

Anthony Vallet, 38, has helped create this domaine, following his father and grandfather who planted the family vineyards. They originally had been selling the fruit off to the local cooperative. The property featured quince, apricot and peach production as well, but has gradually shifted to a majority of vineyards. The Vallets left the co-op, started bottling their own wine in 1998 and built their own cellar in 2002. The domaine now totals 32 acres of vines, mostly in the St.-Joseph appellation along with some Condrieu and Vin de Pays (the whites are currently not exported).

The wines are made in a straightforward manner—both reds and whites are fermented in stainless steel vats, with the various vineyard parcels kept separate. The wines are then barrel aged for up to a year, with no new oak, before the final blend is made and then bottled. Production now stands at about 4,500 cases annually.

Continuing the theme of the day, we tasted through the bits and pieces set to be blended for the final wines from the 2012 vintage. For the 2012 St.-Joseph Méribets, the lot that represents the majority of the final blend shows lively pastis and plum paste flavors. Another lot, from the Moure lieu-dit on pure granite soils, provides earlier-ripening fruit. It gives the structure to the blend, with some cherry and red currant notes but decidedly strident tannins its prominent feature. A lot from the Charamelan lieu-dit, south of Serrières and planted in 1989 is very floral, with a strong iron note and a nice sappy core of plum fruit. It is often split partially between the Méribets and Muletiers cuvée (see below).

"In 2012 you had to wait," said Vallet, slight of build and always moving gently as he speaks. "The maturity came at the end, after the first rain in early October. It's a cool vintage, but ripe. It's tannic, but fresh."

The 2012 St.-Joseph Muletiers is made from a selection of the family's older vine parcels as well as better-performing lots when the vintage allows. The bulk of the cuvée comes from the Joubert lieu-dit, a west-facing, gravelly site that produces wine with a solid core of dark currant but also a decidedly peppery edge and briary tannins. An old-vine lot, from granite soils featuring a south/southwest exposure on the plateau around Serrières, is fermented partially whole cluster (just 10 to 20 percent). It delivers the bass line for the wine, with a dark, winey core, lots of plum and anise and almost tarry grip on the finish. A lot from a rare northeast-facing parcel adds the treble, with high-pitched damson plum fruit, racy structure and a long, minerally edge.

The 2011 St.-Joseph Méribets was bottled in December 2012 and should be on its way to the U.S. market. It gives its typical mouthfilling blackberry core, with tar and briar notes and a gutsy finish that has a nice buried iron note for balance. The 2011 St.-Joseph Muletiers was bottled this past March. It's darker in profile, with a plusher feel, mulled plum and black currant fruit and a long charcoal finish that opens steadily with air. As with both the '09 and '10 vintages, I find the wines essentially of the same quality, just slightly different in style—the Méribets a touch more forward and fleshy; the Muletiers a bit darker and grippier.

There is also a special cuvée bottled only in some vintages. The 2011 St.-Joseph Secret d'Antoine was bottled in September after a two-year élevage, 80 percent of it in new oak. Previously made in '03, '07, '09 and '10, it is sourced from vines planted by Vallet's grandfather (when the cuvée isn't merited, the fruit goes into the Muletiers bottling). It is very fleshy and smoky in profile, with a big core of mulled plum, a very toasty edge and lots of charcoal on the grippy, muscular finish.

The St.-Joseph appellation is steadily taking form. A long spread of vineyards that cover both flat and hillside areas from south of Ampuis to north of Cornas, the appellation is sometimes maddeningly heterogenous in quality and style. And its better-quality hillside sites are more difficult and costly to farm than Crozes-Hermitage. But the best wines are deliciously ripe yet distinctively minerally Syrahs. As the region develops, expect more family-run domaines like this to emerge from the struggling co-ops and start on their own, bringing more depth and diversity to the marketplace.

You can follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at twitter.com/jmolesworth1, and Instagram, at instagram.com/jmolesworth1.

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