Northern Rhone tidbits

Hello again!  Apologies for the extreme delay in correspondence!  As you all know… things always seem to get in the way of your hobbies and distract attention from what you really want to do.  So it is with me as between work, family, and my professional amateur athletics career there is barely enough time left to drink wine (though I do manage to squeeze that in pretty regularly still) much less write about it!  Regardless, I am going to try to be slightly more consistent with transmissions moving forward.  In order to allow me to be more consistent, I have sadly elected to shorten things up a bit.  Thus, the historical background, soil discussions, etc will be moved to the background and we will focus on what you truly need to know about these wines and how to enjoy them.  I know, I know, most of you are devastated as the geological dissertations were your favorite part… alas I think you will survive.  So, with that in mind, lets get into todays discussion!

If you recall many months ago, we did a brief overview of Northern Rhone wines with a focus on the small village of Cornas.  Today, we will look a bit beyond this tiny village at some of the other villages of renown in the area.  The Northern Rhone is truly one of my favorite regions.  It doesn’t quite get me as excited as Burgundy, but I put it without a doubt in my top 3 regional wine loves.  Part of that has to do with a personal experience that was truly unforgettable, but I have had many, many reinforcing bottles since that.  The wine that truly hooked me into this region was shared with a beautiful woman quite early in my wine career.  It was my first year having  “real” job and I was beginning to bump my consumption up from the $30-50 range a bit.  I had a date with an amazing young woman who I was head over heels for and she claimed that she liked good wine (in retrospect, probably just said to appease me).  We were heading out for our 2nd date to a swanky restaurant (well, as swanky as you can get in the town we were in) and as I perused the wine list, I noticed a bottle that caught my eye.  It was pricey and I couldn’t really remember where I had heard of it, but I vaguely recalled hearing this was great, so I decided it would probably pair well with our meals and rolled the dice.  The wine was a 1998 J.L. Chave Hermitage rouge and it was spellbinding.  The nose was incredible, too many aromas to contemplate in a few smells.  This was something you had to come back to 50 times before you could even begin to grasp it.  Beautiful red berry fruits, blackberry brambles, and even a hint of blood orange peel.  A huge melange of savory notes; smoked meat, olive tapenade, tanning leather, frying bacon, freshly ground black pepper and even a hint of thyme and rosemary.  Earthy hints of dried tobacco, sautéed mushrooms, crushed stone, and the smell of fresh earth as you dig in a forest.  Finally, there were beautiful high toned floral notes of violet and lilac.  I had never smelled a wine like it.  The palate was even better.  It was almost built like a Burgundy… almost, but the power and tension shimmering there in each sip was immense.  You could just barely sense the density, but it seemed totally weightless.  Wow.  I can still vividly remember the tastes today.  So began my love affair with the wines of the Northern Rhone.  Oh and of course with the woman that I shared it with, who is now my even more beautiful wife 🙂  We returned to that restaurant and drank every bottle they had of that wine, which sadly was only 6, one of which was corked.  Nonetheless it was a life changing wine for me and while sadly Jean Louis’ Hermitage is very expensive these days, I still try to procure a few bottles each vintage to drink with the true love of my life and remember that night when we were young.  

So, with that intro, let’s get into a bit of the specifics about the Northern Rhone!  The main villages of the region are from North to South: Cote Rotie,  Crozes-Hermitage, Saint Joseph, Hermitage, and Cornas (see map below).  Today we will focus on Hermitage and Cote Rotie which are the most famous of the villages.  We will come back to Saint Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage at a later date.  The grape for all of these is syrah, just as it was in Cornas though none of them are required to be 100% syrah like Cornas.  Hermitage can have up to 15% of marsanne or roussanne blended with syrah, though in practice very little of these grapes are blended if any.  In Cote Rotie, up to 20% viognier may be blended with Syrah, though rarely is there more than 10% blended.  You may note that all of the grapes that can be added are white, which is interesting.  The reason for this is that the white grapes generally add some interesting aromas and also can help to add a bit of acidity and tamp down the robust tannins of the syrah.  In practice though, just remember that Northern Rhone wines are syrah and you’ll be doing just fine.

Let’s start with a brief focus on Hermitage since this is generally considered to be the starting point and “spiritual home” of syrah.  The hill of Hermitage is beautiful.  It is a large, bowl shaped hill with perfect southwest exposure and seems like it was custom designed to ripen grapes for big red wines.  The soils are complex for sure, but generally there is a granite subsoil with decomposed granite on top.  The hillside is split into many different smaller vineyards, but the wines are rarely labeled as single vineyards.  In fact, most Hermitage is a blend of grapes from the different lieux dits (“little vineyards”) on the hillside.  Hermitage is small.  There are only about 130 hectares total planted.  So unfortunately there isn’t a ton of it to go around.  For comparison, a single estate in Bordeaux can often be 80-100 hectares!  It also has a long and lauded history.  The hill of Hermitage was initially cultivated under vine by Romans in 600 BC.  Yes, that is a long history of grape growing!  The Chave family previously mentioned has been growing grapes on the Hermitage hill since the 1400s!!!  The wines have been served to kings, queens, and dignitaries for centuries and has long been considered one of the great red wines of France.  So due to small volume and high demand, the prices of Hermitage are not cheap.  The wines age very well and generally need 8-10 years minimum to begin to show well.  The wines from the best producers and vintages can easily age 30-40+.  I gave you a nice tasting note on Hermitage above, so I’ll skip a second.  The wines pair well with a wide range of meals, but they are full bodied with moderate to high alcohol and generally high tannins.  So don’t pair it with halibut.  I personally love lamb chops with Hermitage.  A red wine sauce with mushrooms on top just makes it exquisite.  Beef, game, hearty stews, even hearty pastas (tagliatelle with a mushroom and lamb ragout for example) can be excellent.  The addition of bacon, pancetta, or other savory meats is also nice as the wines generally have some of these notes.  

The hill of Hermitage seen from the bridge over the Rhone at Tain l’Hermitage

Ok, lets briefly talk about the best producers of Hermitage.  I am certainly biased, and I have not had loads of Hermitage to do comparative tastings (I did mention it was expensive), but for me the true class of Hermitage is Domaine Jean Louis Chave.  Chave’s wines have become more expensive in my brief tenure of trying to buy them, but they are incredible, traditional, and worth the $ to experience at least once.  Also, one way to try Chave’s style slightly cheaper is to sample his negociant arm called JL Chave Selection.  He does produce a Hermitage under this label that is about 1/3 the cost of his Domaine wine.  It is very good and a very solid value for Hermitage.  Michel Chapoutier is another big producer of Hermitage who makes a range of wines including an entry level blend to very $$$ single vineyard Hermitage.  I have tasted a few Chapoutier Hermitage wines and while they are definitely good, and potentially even excellent, I didn’t find they quite hit the heights of Chave.  Paul Jaboulet Aine is another big producer of Hermitage and makes one of the more famous examples called Hermitage “La Chappelle”.  This is made from the vineyard surrounding the small chapel at the top of the hill and in great vintages can often give even Chave a run for his money for the best wine of the year.  The entry level wines from here are also very good.  Guigal also produces high quality Hermitage with both a reasonably priced cuvee and a high $$$ bottling called “Ex Voto“.  Some smaller producers that I have tried and enjoyed very much are Bernard Faurie and Yann Chave (no relation to Jean Louis).  I have heard good things about Domaine Colombier, Marc Sorrel, and Maison Ferraton, but I have never tasted any of them.   

Syrah grapes in Jaboulet’s famed La Chapelle vineyard

Moving on to Cote Rotie.  This is the northernmost area of the Rhone valley, just to the south of Lyon.  Cote Rotie literally translates to “roasted slope”, so as with Hermitage this is an area with good sun exposure for ripening tannic grapes.  It is actually on the opposite side of the river from Hermitage so has a little bit more eastern aspect, though overall, it is mostly south facing where the grapes are planted.  While syrah is generally known as a grape that produces powerful and big wines, Cote Rotie is known for producing probably the most elegant form of syrah.  Cote Rotie is also mostly on granite soils and the vineyards are literally cut into the granite hillsides.  Some of them are at treacherous gradients of 60 degrees!  Some vignerons even harness up when they are working their vineyards.  So, suffice it to say this is not easy farming with machines doing all the work!  We actually drove by Cote Rotie during the 2016 harvest and on one plot, the workers had to use ladders to get from one row down to the next.  As I mentioned, Cote Rotie can have viognier blended in with the syrah, but there are many 100% syrah wines made here.  Cote Rotie is larger than Hermitage at around 200 hectares, but still overall quite small in the scheme of wine production.  The Cote is split into two sub-regions, the Cote Blonde and the Cote Brune.  The lore surrounding the names is that one of the original lords of the area (this was also planted by Romans!) had a blond daughter and a brunette daughter.  The blonde was elegant, racy, and sensual while the brunette was a bit stern and austere.  He named the slopes after them because their personalities fit the wines.  The wines from the Cote Blonde are generally more approachable, forward, and elegant.  While the wines from the Cote Brune are bigger, more tannic, and require more bottle age.  Often, wines are blends of both areas to incorporate the tannic structure of the Brune with the elegant floral and fruit notes of the Blonde, but there are also lots of wines made from one or the other.  Cote Rotie went through some trying times despite its long history of viticulture.  In the time when wine was becoming a transported good in the mid-1800s, wines of elegance did not travel well.  You needed big, burly, even fortified wines to stand up to ocean voyages with no temperature control!  So after the devastation of phylloxera and then the world wars, much of Cote Rotie was in disrepair.  In fact, most vignerons had to grow other crops to survive, because the prices of the wines were so low!  If you have tried to buy a bottle of Cote Rotie recently, you will know that they are no longer cheap… this is largely attributable to Etienne Guigal and his son Marcel.  They helped to revitalize the image of Cote Rotie and started to modernize the wine making a bit.  When Guigal’s wines began to take off, the region came along with it and now they are prized wines in many cellars.  

Cote Rotie vineyards with signs noting the owners

Cote Rotie wines as mentioned are known for their elegance.  These are syrah wines with no doubt, but they generally have a little lower tannin and higher acidity with velvety fruit that is suave and delicious.  The nose is often very floral and filled with delicious red fruits.  The savory aspects of syrah are definitely there with bacon and black pepper, olives, and leather. There are also often very mineral notes of crushed stone.  The palate here is definitely more elegant (generalization) than Hermitage and generally approachable younger.  Pairing food with Cote Rotie, I think you can get away with a little bit lighter fare.  Roasted chicken or other fowl, pork chops or loin, especially if paired with some bacon or pancetta in a sauce or wrap.  It will also stand up to bigger meals of game and beef as well.  Elk tenderloin would be delightful.  

There are more producers in Cote Rotie with a wide variety of styles.  The wines are still in general pretty expensive, but there are some relative values out there.  My favorite two producers in Cote Rotie are Rene Rostaing and Domaine Jamet.  These are both very traditionally styled domaines with the classic elegance of Cote Rotie in spades.  Domaine Rostaing makes a couple different cuvees; his Cote Rotie Ampodium is a blend of vineyard sites and is a traditional, delicious wine that is approachable a bit younger.  He also makes a Cote Blonde and a single vineyard wine from La Landonne which is on the Cote Brune.  The top two wines are a bit on the high end, but the Ampodium is still quite a solid value and can often be found for $50-60 if you look.  Domaine Jamet is a darling of sommeliers and has a bit of a cult following, so their wines are fairly expensive.  The Jamet wines are once again classic, elegant, beautiful Cote Rotie.  Their Cote Rotie is a blend of sites and shows the best of both Cotes.  The domaine was formerly run by two brothers, Jean Paul and Jean Luc.  They elected to split and do their own things, so there is now Domaine Jamet which is run by Jean Paul and his daughter and Domaine Jean Luc Jamet.  I have never tasted one of the solo Jean Luc Jamet wines and while I’m sure they are high quality, I stick with Jean Paul as he was the winemaker when the brothers were together.  Domaine Jamet also makes a very small bottling of Cote Brune which I have never tasted as it is rare and pricey.  The other name that must be mentioned when talking about Cote Rotie is that of Guigal.  I have already alluded to this family as the driver of the renaissance that led to the now thriving wine town that is Cote Rotie.  In many opinions, Guigal produces the finest Cote Rotie and some of the finest wines in all the world.  I have been very impressed with some of the Guigal I have tasted and while I have not tasted all of his flagship wines, I look forward to doing so one day.  Guigal makes three of the most, if not the most, expensive Cote Roties that are generally referred to as the “La La wines”.  These are his single vineyard bottlings of La Landonne, La Turque, and La Mouline.  These are epic wines that are epically priced.  I was fortunate enough to taste a 1995 Guigal La Landonne at a wine dinner I attended and it was phenomenally good.  Guigal is a bit more of a modernist with more new oak and later harvesting to achieve maximal ripeness.  While I have had one or two of his wines that seemed a touch oaky and didn’t have as much transparency of place, in general, if you can cellar the wines, the oak is absorbed and the wines are stellar.  He makes multiple cuvees each year in addition to the very high end La La’s.  His Cote Rotie Brune et Blonde is a blend of multiple sites from both Cotes and is excellent.  This wine also contains some purchased grapes.  His Cote Rotie Chateau d’Ampuis is a blend of 7 sites, 3 on the Cote Blonde and 4 on the Cote Brune.  This is a bigger, richer wine than the Brune et Blonde and for me is probably the best value in his range.  It is more expensive than the entry cuvee, but no where near as expensive as the La La’s and qualitatively I think it is a definite step up.

A steep vineyard in Cote Rotie

Other excellent producers of Cote Rotie include: Michel and Stephan Ogier, Domaine Faury, Jean-Michel Gerin, Domaine Gilles Barge, Patrick Jasmin, Yves Cuilleron, Bonneford, and Bernard Levet.  

With that, I think I will go ahead and close.  I have probably still exceeded what most people would consider to be “short” and have almost certainly spouted off more information about syrah than most of you care to remember.  I hope that you can get out and try some of these Northern Rhone syrahs as they are excellent.  If you are having a prime rib for Christmas dinner, a bottle of Hermitage would be great alongside it!  Until next time…

J. “La La” Newman, CSW

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