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Day 10: From the Roasted Slope to the Hill

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Jul 9, 2008 8:54am ET

On my final day in the Rhône, I finished up with two visits in Ampuis, with two vignerons who are polar opposites.

René Rostaing is formal and restrained; his wines loaded with black fruit, violet, white pepper and garrigue notes. Patrick Jasmin on the other hand is very outgoing and casual; his wine is an elegant, minerally expression of Côte-Rôtie.

At chez Rostaing we quickly worked through his three red cuvées in 2006, a vintage that Rostaing described with a smile.

“It’s vrai Côte-Rôtie. Long and structured, but supple,” he said.

Rostaing’s 2006s are in tank, waiting for their bottling in the next couple of weeks. The 2006 Côte-Rôtie is indeed supple, with Rostaing’s telltale white pepper note on the nose followed by a long cherry- and lavender-filled palate. This wine is often overlooked when put alongside Rostaing’s two parcel selections, but it is consistently outstanding and ages well. The 1999 version was one of the surprises in my horizontal tasting earlier in the week.

The two parcel selections are the 2006 Côte-Rôtie La Landonne, which is super long and very minerally right now, along with loads of supple black cherry fruit and a great iron tang on the finish. Despite being on the lighter, granite-based soils of the southern half of Côte-Rôtie, Rostaing’s 2006 Côte-Rôtie Côte Blonde is once again surprisingly grippy and structured. It’s full of lavender, iron, white pepper and plum fruit, along with supple tannins and the densest finish of the three wines. Both it and the Landonne offer potentially classic quality.

Never one for many words, and thought of as an outsider by other vignerons in the appellation (Rostaing is not a member of the growers’ syndicate and works very much alone), he simply lets his wines do the talking for him.

Just a short walk away, located next to the train tracks that run through town, is chez Jasmin, where Patrick Jasmin, in sandals and a floral print shirt, along with his wife Arlette, give a warm greeting.

Though not widely known, Jasmin is one of the historical houses in Côte-Rôtie. Patrick, 47, is the fourth generation of his family to work vines here—his father and grandfather worked both fruit orchards and vines before eventually shifting totally to viticulture. Jasmin also proudly points out that his great-great grandfather worked in the kitchen at the Château d’Ampuis.

The domaine’s wine has been in the U.S. market since the early 1970s, Patrick worked alongside his father starting in 1978, and then took over from his father completely in the 1999 vintage. The domaine totals just 5.5 hectares and production stands at around 2,000 cases annually, but a hefty 25 percent comes to the U.S.

The wine is cofermented with 5 percent Viognier in a mix of cement and stainless steel vats, along with some remontage and only one pigeage at the end, as Jasmin prefers a gentle extraction process. The wine is then moved to barrels and demi-muids for its malo and élevage, which typically last 18 to 20 months. The barrels range from new (25 percent) up to eight years old while the demi-muids range up to 30 years of age.

Consumers should note that there are two bottlings done here. The wine is assembled and the then the first half of the production is bottled. The remainder then goes back into barrel for another month or two before being bottled due to space considerations. The U.S. market typically receives the first bottling, and Jasmin feels there is little if any difference between the two bottlings once the wine has been cellared for a few years.

We taste the 2006 Côte-Rôtie from the production that was just bottled in early May. It shows gentle black fruits with pepper and lavender notes and an elegant, minerally finish. In comparison, the 2006 Côte-Rôtie that still sits in barrels shows a touch more grip than the rounded finish of the earlier bottled version, but the general profile remains consistent.

The 2007 Côte-Rôtie is a shade less concentrated than the 2006, but shows Jasmin’s typical pepper and floral aromatics, along with an elegant palate of cherry, lavender and sanguine notes. Both vintages offer potentially outstanding quality. Jasmin has a tough time deciding between the two.

It’s always nice to stop by that other hill before leaving the Northern Rhône …

“I prefer both vintages,” said the gregarious Jasmin. “Two great vintages, just different tannins.”

With just half a day left, I realized that it would be foolish to spend all this time in the northern Rhône and not check in on that other hill – Hermitage. Take the scenic RN 86 and drive less than an hour south from Ampuis until you hit the bustling town of Tournon, which sits across the river from the famous hill and the town of Tain.

I crossed into Tain and grabbed a quick bite at Les Mangevins, which has now been open for nearly a year. This small wine bar/bistro turns out fresh, artful cuisine from a shoebox-size kitchen, and features a wine list deep in northern Rhônes, most available in either 25cl or 50cl carafes or full bottle portions.

Just south of Tournon in the sleepy hamlet of Mauves is the cellar of Jean-Louis Chave. Chave led me through a tasting of this white and red ‘07s, which are now starting to take on definition as they sit in barrel.

Chave prefers to let his white sit on its lees longer, and with less bâtonnage. This helps the wine to keep more CO2 during its élevage and as Chave noted “With longer fermentations on lees, the wine is more mineral, longer.” Chave always stresses the fact that the minerality is the key to achieving balance in white Hermitage, as the wines do not have enough acidity for support on their own (both Roussanne and Marsanne are low-acid grapes).

“If you take away the minerality, there is nothing. They become alcoholic and flabby,” said Chave.

As usual, the wines are still in their component parts here; the 2007 Hermitage White should be in a class with recent vintages however. The Péleat portion, still on its lees as it has not yet been racked, shows gorgeous acacia and heather notes. The Rocoules portion shows more quartz and mineral notes with a super fresh finish while the Le Méal is very racy and long. The L’Ermite parcel is the class of the bunch, with piercing minerality and a rich but crackling back end.

For the estate’s reds, there is a St.-Joseph bottling that is far too often overlooked. A sample of the not-yet-blended 2007 St.-Joseph from vineyards around the town of Lemps, pulled from a barrel that was just racked, is super tangy, with violet and mineral notes but seems to have lost some of its stuffing from the racking. A barrel from the same vineyards still not-yet-racked is darker and juicier with more obvious black currant and olive note. (After comparing the two, Chave notes that he prefers to rack his St.-Joseph less frequently than his Hermitage, as he feels lighter-bodied wines become thinner with rackings.) A barrel containing wine made from parcels around Mauves combines both red and black fruits with angular minerality.

We then move on to the component parts of the 2007 Hermitage, starting with the Les Dionnières parcel, which is supple, showing a range of red and black fruit and a lilting floral note. The Péleat parcel is very fruity and elegant: “This really tastes like Burgundy to me,” said Chave, before we move on to the Les Beaumes, which is plump and forward, with a smoky, fleshy finish. The L’Ermite parcel is very much the backbone of the final bottling. It’s long and driven, with intense currant fruit and superb minerality. The Le Méal, picked in mid-October, is very tight and dark, with a sauvage touch on the grippy back end. The final wine should be a richer, more forward version, which Chave agrees with.

“2005 is really the granite of Hermitage; it’s the opposite of 2007,” said Chave. “2005 is great, but if that’s all you had in your cellar, what would you drink now? When 2007 goes into the bottle, it’s going to be a vintage to just drink.”

Chave has also finally released a small amount of his famed Cathelin cuvée in ’03 (there is no ’05 Cathelin, but maybe an ’06). Chave waited to release the wine in response to the over zealous demands of the market following the very small crop in 2003's drought-influenced vintage.

“The market is too extreme,” said Chave. “They all want the ‘good’ vintage only. But the ‘good’ vintage is always overrated—the wines all come from the same place. In 2005 it’s Hermitage, but in 2006 it’s not Hermitage?” he asked rhetorically.

After the tasting, we headed out into the stubborn, blazing, late-afternoon sun to walk among the vines in Chave’s Les Bessards parcel. It’s easy to forget that working the vines by hand in Hermitage is just as arduous as those in Côte-Rôtie, thanks to the steep and crumbling hillsides. In the current 2008 season, the cool start followed by a sudden hot spurt of weather in June has led to some millerandange (a mix of large and small berries in the grape bunches), which will require some careful pruning over the latter half of the growing season. Chave shows what the clusters look like in this video:

While at chez Chave the Hermitage cuvées are a blend of parcels, at the M. Chapouter and Ferraton Père & Fils estates, the Hermitage cuvées are broken out into single-vineyard bottlings. The dynamic Michel Chapoutier was busy traveling during my visit, so I tasted with two key members of his young, energetic team—director Pierre-Henri Morel and winemaker Gregory Viennois. It was a quick visit, just to end the day (I was here in November for a more in-depth tasting, which you can reference my notes on here).

I’ve really been impressed with the way the wines at Ferraton have improved since the 2004 vintage, thanks in large part to Viennois' efforts. The house is now solely-owned by Chapoutier but operates independently. From Ferraton Père & Fils, the 2007 Ermitage Les Miaux is ripe and lush, with well-rounded structure. It’s showing lots of bass now and should pick up more definition with time. The 2007 Ermitage Les Dionnières is open-knit, with red and black fruits, a touch of briar and more definition (for now) but less power than the Miaux. From M. Chapoutier, the 2007 Ermitage Le Méal is a touch reduced, but very juicy, with racy blackberry fruit and a long graphite finish. The 2007 Ermitage Le Pavillon shows its telltale briar and sauvage notes, with grippy pepper and cassis bush hints. We finished with the 2007 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Barbe Rac, taking me full circle to where I started my trip in the south. The wine has not yet finished its fermentation nor has it been sulphured. Checking in at 16 percent alcohol it shows an enormous core of kirsch and blackberry fruit with terrific grip built around sweet, lush tannins. It’s super long on the finish and clearly a potential classic from a vintage that looks to be weighted for more in the southern Rhône’s favor than the north.

It was time for another short night’s sleep before getting up early to catch my train and then plane home. As I worked through my stack of receipts, notes and video clips, I did some simple math...

Rental car: $800

Gas: $200

Covering nearly 600 miles while tasting hundreds of wines over 10 days in the Rhône Valley? Priceless.

William Keene
North Carolina —  July 9, 2008 9:40pm ET
James: I have really enjoyed the extensive coverage. Thanks for all the great posts.

Your initial coverage on the '06 Rostaing wines had me intrigued and this post sold me on grabbing a bottle or two. Seems like something I would enjoy. I am still trying to learn more about Cote Rotie producers though, so I have tried to grab a few things here and there.

That being said, I have a single bottle of the 1998 Rostaing La Landonne. Have you tasted this since your review, and if so, do you recommend holding longer? I just don't have experience with how long I need to let these age. Sorry to bug you with that, but appreciate any advice.

By the way, I hope you can break the travel curse on your way back. Have a safe trip.
James Molesworth
July 10, 2008 9:27am ET
William: '98 is a very structured, grippy vintage that is still a bit young. I'd start drinking '99s now and hold off on the '98s for just a couple more years. I usually like Cote-Rotie at 10 to 15 years of age....
William Keene
North Carolina —  July 10, 2008 11:21am ET
Thanks as always. I am happy to wait. I just didn't know the "rule" on Cote Rotie drinking windows. A 10-15 year approximation is helpful. (I understand that this will vary with vintage, producer, etc.) Thanks agian.

By the way, it looks like you are back in the states. Did you break your streak?
James Molesworth
July 10, 2008 11:46am ET
William: Don't want to jinx it, so I'm not saying...;-).
Dominic Passanisi
Los —  July 13, 2008 11:51pm ET
Hmmmm...I'm holding onto a '99 Jasmin in the hopes that it makes it to '16. Maybe by the skin of its teeth?
James Molesworth
July 14, 2008 9:24am ET
Dominic: 17 years might be pushing it for the '99 Jasmin...

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