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A Week in the Rhône: Part 3

A journey of discovery reveals a memorably diverse region

Kim Marcus
Posted: December 16, 2005

In early November, I found a window of opportunity in my work schedule to spend a week in the Rhône on a journey of discovery. As I have become more and more enamored of the gutsy and pure flavors of its dominant red grape, Syrah, as well as other local stars such as Grenache and Viognier, I have looked forward to visiting this diverse region, from Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the south to the Côte-Rôtie in the north. It was a memorable trip. —K.M.

North to the Côte-Rôtie, By Way of Cornas and Condrieu

The next few days were spent working our way up to Côte-Rôtie, and visiting the diverse appellations along the way. A tasting at the headquarters of Paul Jaboulet, one of the grande dames of the Rhône, was tinged with melancholy despite the stellar quality of many of the reds and whites we tasted. Just a month prior to our visit, winery president Michel Jaboulet had announced the sale of the winery to Jean-Jacques Frey, owner of Château La Lagune in Bordeaux. The diverging interests of family members who have a stake in the winery, as well as the looming burden of French inheritance taxes, spurred the sale.

After Jaboulet, we crossed the Rhône into Cornas for a visit to the cellars of Jean-Luc Colombo. The focus of the rest of our trip soon became apparent as the western escarpment of the Rhône Valley loomed above us. We're not talking Grand Canyon here, more like the Hudson Valley—the slope is steep and punctuated by many cirques and amphitheaters. In Cornas, as in all the top districts, the grapes (in this case Syrah) are planted on terraces that can only be tended to by hand—from planting to cultivation and finally to harvest. The terraces provide optimal exposures for ripening in this northern latitude, and excellent drainage, which is key for the overall health of the vines. In addition, the roots are closer to the rocky substrates, providing them with the minerally backbone that makes the reds and whites of the Northern Rhône so special.

There's a wildness to the land here that is inspiring as well, with forested ridge tops and plateaus bisected by steep ravines filled with the thick, aromatic mix of the Mediterranean and continental ecosystems—from live oaks and herbs to fir trees and maples. The atmosphere is also more mysterious than in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, as a storm moves in, the wind picks up and the clouds begin to swirl. It's a great place to tromp amid the vines, breath in the fresh air and enjoy the view.

After a tasting of Colombo's Cornas wines, we visit some of his vineyards that cling to the precipitous hillsides. The soil is muddy and slick after a heavy rain, and I take care walking over the chunks of granite in the soil. It's a dizzying experience looking down, with the slope falling away at angles as steep as 45 degrees. The vines are individually staked, some supported by two stakes that form a simple lean-to. I haven't yet been to the vineyards of the Mosel in Germany, which are also planted on steep slopes, but tracts of the Northern Rhône clearly rank as some of the most vertiginous that I have visited.

It becomes clear to me that one of the big advantages of the Old World over the New is the centuries of labor, forced or otherwise, that originally built up and tended the terraces. Today, many are being restored after decades or centuries of neglect, but it's a slow process. Vignerons must continually haggle with the French agricultural bureaucracy, which seeks to restrain the spread and rehabilitation of vineyards in light of the overproduction of wine in France. In many cases, vignerons must cajole and bargain with neighbors for planting rights in marginal areas to enhance plantings on the slopes. It's frustrating for many quality producers because their efforts are continually hampered by bean counters who see the bottom line in the number of acres planted, ignoring the fact that an acre on flat bottomland near the river can't hold a candle to vineyards on the slopes in terms of quality.

After Cornas, we speed north to the mysterious realm of Condrieu, home to the white grape Viognier. Many vintners throughout the world pursue it for its perfumed aromas, rich, fruity flavors, impressive minerality and viscous texture. However, it's been more like the quest for the Holy Grail than a new white wine El Dorado for many of them, given the marginal quality of much of the Viognier outside the Rhône. Many are flabby or overoaked—especially the Viogniers of the Languedoc that I regularly taste.

Yet Viognier in its native habitat is a revelation. The soils, full of granite, provide the mineral base and backbone that make this exotic white excel. The slopes are not as steep in Cornas or Côte-Rôtie, but they offer just the right exposure for optimal ripening. The vineyards of Condrieu are spread along the western slope in a paternoster collection of smaller plots rather than a continuous swath, offering many excellent and varied sites. Viognier is a difficult grape to grow, and if it verges just slightly into under- or overripeness, things can quickly turn ugly. Yet when done right, Condrieu is one of the world's most magnificent white wines, though it is rare. There are only about 250 acres in the entire Condrieu appellation. If you haven't had the chance yet to try the Condrieus of Yves Cuilleron, Marcel Guigal, Georges Vernay, Vins de Vienne or Michel Gérin, make the effort to search them out. Their wines, and other Condrieus, especially from the '03 and '04 vintages, are eye-openers. But be warned: Afterwards, you might find it hard to drink Chardonnay again. (See James Molesworth's analysis of Condrieu.)

Heading for the Hills With Jean-Michel Gérin and a Pilgrimage to Hermitage

The Rhône is full of characters. They talk about their craft with a candor that is refreshing in contrast to the sometimes inward-looking Burgundians or haughty Bordelais. While many Rhône vintners come from families who can draw on centuries of winemaking tradition, many others are relative newcomers, having launched their wineries in the 1980s when the modern boom in the Rhône really took off.

One of the most energetic and engaging personalities is Jean-Michel Gérin, who works out of his winery at the base of the Côte-Rôtie. Opinionated and lively, he's a spark plug who brings boundless energy to his endeavors. He has a different artistic design for every one of his labels (to make them stand out) and has a competitive drive that has been honed by competition on the local rugby squad.

Molesworth and I find ourselves riding up the slopes in Gérin's Renault truck. Gérin is taking us to his plots on the northern edge of the Côte-Rôtie. We round a curve, and I hold my stomach. Gérin punches the clutch as we climb, rounding a bend perilously close to the edge. There's nothing to do but trust Gérin's driving abilities. But as we drive along, I'm struck by how small the Côte-Rôtie actually is—just more than 500 acres of vineyards. There are medium-sized wineries in California with more land under vine.

Gérin stops near a terrace that is being rebuilt, stone by stone: The masons are taking a smoke when we first come upon them, but they soon get back to work. Everything is done by hand here, as in much of Cornas and Condrieu. Gérin points to a channel that disappears into the slope. "That helps direct water so it doesn't cut into the slope. It's to help the vineyard drain."

We're back in the truck again, rounding the curves, down to the highway, and then up another steep slope. It's La Landonne, one of the most famous of Côte-Rôtie vineyard parcels. Gérin pulls up hard on the brake. "The soil is schist, but the big difference here is the amount of iron oxide in the rock. There's a lot here, so it gives the wines a more minerally composition, with bigger flavors." He picks up a piece, pointing to the rust-colored streaks. I like a man who knows his geology. It's a treat to visit this vineyard with him; the La Landonnes I tasted here and earlier at Marcel Guigal are among my favorite reds of the trip. A piece of La Landonne now rests on my office desk, next to a chunk of limestone from Puligny-Montrachet.

Later that night at a dinner with local vintners at the Hotel Beau Rivage in Condrieu, Gérin becomes animated when the waitress serves a set of small water goblets for a bottle of Condrieu. Gérin rolls his eyes, shakes his head and asks for better glasses. No luck. This is the same restaurant that the day before had abruptly turned down our request for a short lunch with a terse, "There is only one menu." Bad service in France apparently isn't reserved for the foreigners.

The next day, Molesworth and I stop at the cellars of Yves Cuilleron on the southern outskirts of Condrieu. Cuilleron's cellar is one of the tidiest I have ever visited. Each barrel had its grape content, vineyard and vintage typed out in big, bold letters. His '03 Condrieu Vertige, which spent 18 months in oak, is the best white of the trip: An ethereal white, it's very smoky and rich, with delicious cream, vanilla, ripe peach and spice flavors.

Cuilleron and Gérin, among others, are looking forward to visiting California in the coming year. They know many of California's Rhône Rangers as friends, including John Alban, who had just passed through the Rhône before our visit. The French and Americans are planning to trade notes and wines in May at the Hospice du Rhône in Paso Robles, Calif., a celebration of Rhône-style wines from around the world, which have become wildly popular in recent years.

Molesworth and I will soon head south to our railhead in the city of Valence for the train back to Paris. There is still one more site to see, however—the hill of Hermitage. The sun is low in the west, but there was enough light to see the great bend in the Rhône that marks Hermitage. I look up at the famed shrine of La Chapelle as the twilight begins to descend. A group has just come down from a hike to it, through some of the most famous Syrah vineyards in the world, but time (and light) is running out. An excursion to La Chapelle will have to wait for another trip.

We end the adventure with a meal at the sumptuous Michelin two-star restaurant Pic. It turns out to be a fitting coda to our adventures. Molesworth is primed, and I'm ready to indulge a bit. Once again, there's plenty of foie gras on the menu, and neither Molesworth nor myself can resist. The pièce de résistance is a decadent main course called le boeuf en strate, in which slices of filet are alternated with slices of foie gras.

There are other courses as well, but the wines are the real stars of the evening. We begin the meal with a half bottle of Condrieu Le Grand Vallon 2003 by Francois Villard (93 points) followed by M. Chapoutier Hermitage La Sizeranne 1995 (95) and R. Rostaing Côte-Rôtie La Landonne 1998 (96), all in perfect condition and properly decanted. Condrieu, Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie: All we are missing is a Châteauneuf-du-Pape to finish up a tour of the Rhône's greatest appellations. Instead, we finish up with a sentimental choice on my part, a Port from a vintner I know in the Douro, João Nicolau de Almeida; his Ramos-Pinto Vintage Port 1983 (94) is a chocolaty dessert.

Our time in the Rhône is over, and I feel inspired and fulfilled. I've come a long way since Avignon. But no more foie gras for a while, at least until a cold winter's night in New York.

For more on the region, see also:

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