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Cellar Notes from Rhône Domaines, Part 2

James Molesworth
Posted: January 7, 2005

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  • Cellar Notes from Rhône Domaines, Part 1

    Paul Jaboulet Aîné

    This family-owned and -operated business is one of the Rhône's most recognizable wineries and one of the most widely available in the United States. Of the 275,000 cases Jaboulet produces annually, 70,000 are exported here. The winery owns roughly 250 acres of vineyards in the Northern Rhône, including prime spots in Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie and extensive holdings in Crozes-Hermitage.

    As at Chapoutier and Guigal, the base of the production pyramid here is a Côtes du Rhône, the Parallèle 45, which is a consistently good value. Quality improves quickly as you move up through the portfolio, the crown jewel of which is the Hermitage La Chapelle. Named for the chapel that sits atop the hill itself and is owned by the Jaboulets, the Hermitage La Chapelle has a long track record, with the 1990, '78 and '61 among the region's legendary wines. President Michel Jaboulet is extremely enthusiastic about the prospects for 2003. "We think we have 1990 or 1961 with 2003," he says. "The color is exceptional and the density is extraordinary."

    I'm not convinced that the 2003 Hermitage La Chapelle is quite in that league, but it is clearly outstanding. It shows remarkable density and purity of fruit with a long, silky finish. That pure, ripe, dark fruit and long, supple texture is a theme running throughout the 2003 Jaboulet reds I tasted. There are other potentially outstanding bottlings of Côte-Rôtie Les Jumelles, Cornas Domaine de St.-Pierre, Crozes-Hermitage Domaine Raymond Roure, Crozes-Hermitage Domaine de Thalabert and St.-Joseph Le Grand Pompée in the works.

    As with Guigal, the white wines should not be overlooked here. The 2003 whites show fat, ripe tropical fruit flavors backed by a pleasant bitter almond edge. The Hermitage White Le Chevalier de Sterimberg is an extremely dense blend of Marsanne and Roussanne from 45-year-old vines. The Crozes-Hermitage White Domaine Raymond Roure and Crozes-Hermitage White Mule Blanche show notes of anise and star fruit, and the St.-Péray Les Sauvagères (made from 100 percent Marsanne) is a superb value, with peach and almond notes that are a textbook introduction to the region's whites.

    While Jaboulet may have drifted a bit after the 1997 death of Gerard Jaboulet, who was for decades the face of the company, the label is reinvigorated today. Michel, Gerard's cousin, works alongside his brother, Philippe, and Gerard's brother, Jacques, who are Jaboulet's longtime winemakers. While they continue to use their facility in Tain for vinification, they recently expanded into new state-of-the-art bottling and storage facilities that are housed in prehistoric caves, along with an atmospheric, by-appointment tasting room.

    Bernard Levet

    Bernard Levet's U.S. exports are wild and gamy when young, but gain elegance with age.
    There are no bells and whistles at this domaine, and even some of the locals I spoke with had not heard of it. Bernard Levet, 57, works just less than 10 acres of vineyards along with his wife, whose grandfather started the domaine in 1947, and his daughter.

    The family produces about 1,500 cases a year of Côte-Rôtie wines, and their prime holding is in the La Chavaroche lieux-dit, which is sandwiched between the Côte Blonde and Côte Brune. Levet's two portions of the steeply terraced vineyard (keeping up as he walks it is not easy), the upper and lower, are 30 and 60 years old, respectively.

    The winemaking is simple and traditional, with fermentation in concrete tanks, a three-week maceration period, and then malolactic fermentation being carried out partly in demi-muids (large oak containers) and partly in tanks. The wines are aged 24 months before bottling and on average see only 10 percent new oak, as Levet changes one or two of his demi-muids every several years.

    For the U.S. market, Levet bottles the La Chavaroche parcel separately, and it is a throwback wine--wild and gamy with dark currant, tar and mineral notes, but a supple, silky texture. It tends to lose some of its roguish nature as it ages, gaining elegance with time. The 2003 is especially dark and brawny. The 2002, which had still not been bottled at the time of my visit, showed elegant dried cherry fruit and pronounced minerality. Despite the difficulties of the vintage, Levet says he didn't do anything differently with the elevage for that wine.

    Levet's other parcels go into a basic Côte-Rôtie cuvée that is not exported to the United States. However, the domaine has a store in the center of Ampuis, so if you visit the Rhône, you can find this--or his other wines, of which less than 200 cases reach the U.S. market

    While this salt-of-the-earth domaine makes a style of wine that isn't for everyone, it certainly deserves recognition.

    R. Rostaing

    René Rostaing makes some of the best wines in the Côte-Rôtie.
    I must admit to being a bit daunted at the prospect of visiting René Rostaing's cellar. I had to temper my enthusiasm for his wines, which have been personal favorites for years, while preparing to meet someone with a reputation for reticence.

    Rostaing's go-it-alone style (he is the only Côte-Rôtie vigneron who doesn't belong to the local grower's syndicate) raises more than a few eyebrows among his peers. Yet when I meet him, Rostaing, 56, turns out to be not only very frank, but also a thoroughly affable and charming person--who happens to make some of the best wines in the appellation.

    Rostaing produces around 3,000 cases annually from just more than 20 acres of vineyards, most in Côte-Rôtie, along with small parcels in Condrieu and the Vin de Pays plateau up behind Côte-Rôtie. The majority of his holdings came from his uncle, Marius Gentaz, and his father-in-law, Albert Dervieux, who are now retired but were superb producers during the 1980s and early 1990s.

    The portfolio includes three Côte-Rôties: the regular cuvée, a Côte Blonde and a La Landonne. The regular cuvée is a textbook Côte-Rôtie, with roasted coffee, game and dark cherry flavors. The La Landonne is a silky, suave and lush wine, while the Côte Blonde is a bruiser, loaded with grip, vibrant and minerally cut. Rostaing's house style emphasizes notes of garrigue and minerals up front, backed by latent power. The 2003 trio is very precocious: Rostaing plans to bottle the wines sooner than usual to preserve their fruit because the acidities are so low. He thinks the vintage will only age well for a decade.

    For 2002, Rostaing will bottle only one Côte-Rôtie, blending his Côte Blonde and La Landonne parcels into the regular cuvée. (He did this in the 1997 vintage as well.) The wine is one of the rare successes of the vintage, showing pronounced white pepper and mineral notes.

    After the difficulty of 2002 and extreme heat of 2003, Rostaing says he is pleased with 2004, which he considers a return to normalcy.

    During my visit, Rostaing also opened an older wine to taste; it was loaded with dark, ripe fruit but was still dominated by raw, savage structure. He called it "the archetypal Côte-Rôtie." It turned out to be the '98 Côte Blonde--a not-so-subtle comment as to which type of vintage he prefers.

    Georges Vernay

    The Vernays have watched Condrieu become one of the Northern Rhône's premier white-wine appellations.
    The esteemed Georges Vernay, now 78, dominated Condrieu in the appellation's early days. During the 1950s, his domaine had the only 15 acres of Viognier in the appellation. That has all changed now. With 270 acres of vines and numerous producers, Condrieu is one of the Northern Rhône's premier white-wine appellations.

    Vernay retired in 1997 and now prefers to work his garden. (He proudly pulled up some superb-looking leeks during my visit.) His daughter, Christine, handles the winemaking, while her ebullient husband, Paul Amsellem, 50, handles the business.

    Without any formal training, Christine, 47, is quietly piloting a steady ship. A former schoolteacher, she admits that 10 years ago she never dreamed of being a vigneron. Today, she works with 42 acres of vineyards--nearly half in Condrieu and the rest in St.-Joseph, Côte-Rôtie and the Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes--and produces about 8,000 cases annually.

    Christine only employs 20 to 25 percent new wood on Vernay's whites and likes to ferment completely dry. Consequently, even when the wines have high alcohols and low acidities, they remain lithe and approachable.

    Among Vernay's several Condrieu bottlings, the top cuvée is the Coteau de Vernon, made from the estate's original vineyard, planted in the 1920s. There are also Les Chaillées de l'Enfer (from a vineyard planted in 1957) and Les Terrasses de l'Empire. All three show clean, bright, focused characters in the 2003 vintage. Their elegance is impressive, considering the opulent, tropical fruit nature of most whites in 2003.

    Though I prefer to drink most Viogniers within a year of release, Paul and Christine like theirs with some age. To demonstrate their point, they served a 1997 Coteau de Vernon, which I found similar to aged Chenin Blanc, showing rich apricot and chamomile flower notes.

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