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Monsieur Gassier Goes to Washington

The Rhône vintner's Tenet partnership with Chateau Ste. Michelle is off to a good start
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Feb 3, 2017 3:30pm ET

I caught up with Michel Gassier this week, the Rhône vigneron who's quietly turned his family estate in Costières de Nîmes into a powerhouse of excellent values and distinctive wines. He wanted to get me up to speed on his latest efforts with his combined 296-acre estate and négoce operation now producing around 130,000 cases annually. He also has a new joint venture with Washington state's Chateau Ste. Michelle that has released its second vintage.

First, in the Rhône, Gassier is beaming over the 2016 harvest, a vintage that is starting to generate serious buzz.

"It was consistently warm, but not hot. Nights were cool. Water was restricted but the ripening kept going and acidities were maintained," says Gassier. "The wines have lots of concentration of fruit and tannins, but ripe tannins and fresh fruit—no cooked notes. It's a lot like '05, but with a little better acidity."

I happen to like that description, a lot. I was a big fan of the 2005s when they came out. They shut down quickly and only now have started to reemerge, but they are "wow" wines today, with terrific spine to match their serious levels of fruit. Many 2005s I've tried from the Northern and Southern Rhône have been just superb, including a Côte-Rôtie from Clusel-Roch and the Fonsalette bottling from Château Rayas in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

Gassier's joint venture with Ste. Michelle is under the Tenet label; my colleague Harvey Steiman introduced the project from the Washington side of the ledger when it debuted in the 2013 vintage. Gassier had worked with current Ste. Michelle CEO Ted Baseler 20-plus years ago. When they crossed paths at a recent Vinexpo in Bordeaux, they rekindled their friendship and eventually started working together again. Syrah is the third-most widely planted grape in Washington state (behind Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot) yet Syrah sales have flagged in the U.S. market. Gassier brought a different approach to some of Ste. Michelle's fruit, aiming for more freshness, using a small amount of stems, cofermenting with Viognier and ratcheting back the new oak.

The Tenet Syrah Columbia Valley The Pundit 2014 ($25, 9,658 cases made) marries a plush texture with smoky black cherry and fig fruit and a lingering echo of white pepper, marrying a sense of power with some finesse and elegance nicely. In contrast, from the French side the Tenet Costières de Nîmes Le Fervent 2014 ($22, 5,000 cases made) delivers a solid blast of fruit, but with one-third whole cluster, as well as two-thirds aging in concrete, there's a brighter pepper and violet side and a lingering brambly energy on the finish.

I'm sometimes leery of joint ventures—they often wind up being compromise wines, without a true sense of self. There are notable exceptions though, and the Tenet wines are getting off on the right foot. Both bottlings keep a distinct sense of place while neither exaggerates a style just to make a point.

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

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