Since this is the first of a series I am rolling out, here’s my game plan when I report on wine regions:
- Part 1: The region demystified. Some find wines intimidating. There’s absolutely no need for this. Wine is supposed to be fun and enjoyed. I think it’s critical to know what’s behind the curtain in order to establish a base understanding. For some, this section might be too much information (and might have the same effect as listening to Charlie Brown’s teacher prattle on). All good- just skip down to the tasting notes or flash forward to the tasting party.
- Parts 2-4: Wineries and Tasting Notes (length will vary based on the visits)
- Part 5: A Tasting Party (at your home, suggestions for a few budgets)
Côte-Rôtie, Condrieu, Saint-Joseph, Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage and Cornas
Part 1 –
The Vintages – Great Expectations?
- 2007: “Sunny vintage, rich and fat wines, with an interesting roundness, medium keeping potential,” said Stéphane Croxet, Head of the Export Department at E. Guigal. “2007 was cloudy but not rainy. We had a wonderful month of September with a 3 week period of sunny and hot weather.” commented Lionel Faury, who works side-by-side with his father Philippe at Domaine Faury.
- 2008: “A gourmand vintage of fruit-laden wines with silky tannins,” noted Yves Cuilleron, Domaine Yves Cuilleron. Lionel Faury elaborated, “Lots of pleasure for the reds now, but not a vintage to keep years and years. 2008 was pretty difficult, but saved by September with a very windy period and 3 weeks of dry. A vintage for good viticulturist.” Stéphane Croxet added “fresh vintage wines with a nice minerality that should be enjoyed young.”
- 2009: Yves Cuilleron shared with me, “I just finished the 2009 harvest, this vintage looks like it will be a beautiful year, thanks to the favourable weather since spring with record sunshine and a beautiful month of September, which enabled an optimal maturity of the grapes. This vintage will give rich and balanced wines, with colourful reds.” “Seems exceptional at the moment: complex fruit and structure, supple tannins, very good keeping potential,” commented Stéphane Croxet. Lionel Faury stated, “2009 had dry, beautiful weather… The reds should rock our world… A vintage for winemakers.” He expects “whites to be high in alcohol (14-14.3%).” Although it was a little too early to tell, he added his concerns about “the possibility of not enough acidity for the balance in the whites.”
Terroir – What is it and why do we care?
It’s not Falcon Crest. Sorry to destroy your fantasy, but you won’t see a slew of women dressed up in cocktail dresses running around wine country. It’s a bunch of farmers who are immensely passionate about their craft. What matters the most with farming? Location, location and the critical variables….So
terroir = location + climate + varietal(s).
It is the primary impetus for the performance of the wine. Therefore, it makes sense that the French would name their wines after the terroir.
In Côte-Rôtie, two terroirs dominate – Côte Blonde and Côte Brune – and they are divided by a volcanic fault line. Legend has it that “The master of these two premises had two daughters, one with deep chestnut hair, the other as fair as a cornfield. He offered to each a large dowry upon their marriage, one of the best hillsides he possessed. These he named – the brown and blond slopes – La Côte Brune et La Côte Blonde.” (E.Guigal marketing literature)
In Côte Blonde, the southern vineyards, Viognier dominates. The sandy, schist and calcareous soil on top of its granite base produces elegant and feminine wines with a great deal of finesse. In Côte Brune, the northern vineyards, Syrah dominates. The schist and iron rich soils along with the different micro-climates produce powerful and more tannic wines.
The terrain is precipitously steep, so hand harvesting is mandatory (and required for AOC regulations). Vines produce their finest offspring when they think they are dying; therefore, the best grapes for wine grow in poor soil (rather than fertile soil). In order to achieve the finest grapes, proper pruning is essential. They use Single Guygot and Gobelet pruning in the Northern Rhône. Vines are then generally trained into a tepee shape to provide stability from the strong winds.
Continental with a Mediterranean impact. Translation: warmer summers and cooler winters
- Condrieu is 100% Viognier. No doubt, she is the fair maiden of the land. As such, many producers proudly stake signs along the mountainside claiming their territories. Viognier is a difficult grape to work with because it can rapidly build up high sugar levels. These wines continue to evolve immensely as soon as the bottle is opened, metamorphosizing into many life forms. I believe the only way to truly experience the potential for this wine is to consume it over the course of an hour or so. It is elegantly perfumed with scents of violets, honeysuckle, peaches and apricots. At first, the wine screams, “I am a dainty lady;” however, you quickly realize how cerebral this dainty lady can be. She is no shrinking violet and is a force to reckon with.
- Côte-Rôtie (literally translates to roasted slope) is predominately Syrah based. Producers are allowed to add up to 20% Viognier. Some are starting to stick closer to 100% Syrah for their Côte-Rôtie and most of the producers I met keep the Viognier allocation below 10%. The producers we visited actually grow the Viognier for their Côte-Rôtie directly alongside the Syrah, which I found interesting. Stéphane Croxet elaborated, “That is to say that the Viognier vines are scattered within that Syrah ones and the wine-makers work as if they had only one kind of grape planted. Both varieties are harvested at the same time and co-fermented. That is something traditional here in Côte-Rôtie, used to soften and give a more feminine touch to the Syrah.” It is a beautiful, elegant and sophisticated red which, in my opinion, people don’t take enough notice of – OR – if they do, they drink too young. Typically, a Côte-Rôtie will have notes of violets and spice. These wines can stand toe-to-toe in a food pairing with foods similar to what you’d pair with a premier cru from Bordeaux.
Since we were in the areas of Condrieu and Ampuis, my focus this time around was on Condrieu and Côte-Rôtie. However, we had quite a sampling of the other wines from the Northern Rhône and they were very yummy. I’ve included those in my tasting notes. Here is a cursory overview of the others we tasted –
- Saint-Joseph: Syrah based with up to 10% Marsanne and Roussanne. The southeast facing slope soil is sandy, granite, shale and gneiss, with some clay. Typically, it has scents of black fruit.
- Hermitage Rouge: Syrah based with up to 15% Marsanne and Roussanne. The soil is primarily granite. It tends to be silky, spicy and plummy, with scents of black fruits.
- Crozes-Hermitage: Syrah based with up to 15% Marsanne and Roussanne. The soil has some bits of clay, is pebbled and well filtered. It covers 11 communes. In most cases smoky, raspberry aromas linger.
- Cornas: This is a sought after, sun trapped, small parcel of land. It is 100% Syrah, dark and inky in color, with scents of black currants and black fruit.