2009 Domaine Leon Barral, Faugeres

Kermit Lynch Imports… The King of Faugeres (?)

2009 Domaine Leon Barral Faugeres  (50% Carignan, 30% Grenache, 20% Cinsault)

large-Leon Barral Faugeres 09 LABUnlike the 2008 which was so delicious right off the bat, Barrals 2009 Fargeres was so tight on release that I wasn’t sure it would be ready now, only a year later. My fears were unfounded. The wine is drinking well, but will should smooth out a couple rough edges with another 6 month to a year in the cellar.  This bottle is showing a significant amount of the yeast Brettanomyces, showing loads of dusky, earthy, leathery, with notes of mushroom, refried beans, and let’s face it, baby poop. The plus side is that often Brett tends to add cohesion to a wine, and an element of complexity. (More on Brett and a Napa Valley winemaker’s fascination with it Here.) While the Brett can be almost challenging, there is a tremendous amount of fruit to this wine. This level of fruit is miraculous since Brett can bury the fruit flavors of wine it grows in. The palate is impossibly broad and deep, spreading across the palate like a tidal wave of sweet blackberries, black plum, and raspberries, with meaty roast lamb flavors, coated by cocoa powder and espresso.  There is a massive amount of fruit and structure, but the fruit has the upper hand here, with it wrapping effortlessly around the tannins. But the tannins are evident, with the Brett hanging off them with furry, musky, gamey notes being the longest lasting impression. This is a big wine by French measure, and it pulls it off with aplomb.  On the finish there is the briefest bitterness with a

Brettanomyces yeast
Brettanomyces yeast

note similar to rubbing alcohol, riding alongside the tannins. That negative flavor was absent on the second night, so it seem that medicinal note will readily resolve itself with another year of aging.  This is a particularly interesting wine, if not an intellectual one of significant complexity. Normally I would not quote a wine critic, but how to evaluate the wine with a score, leads me to quote Rosemary George a Master of Wine who lives in the Languedoc. She writes of Leon Barral in her blog Taste Languedoc: “Domaine Leon Barral – More contentious.  I have very mixed feelings about Didier Barral’s wines, and sometimes wonder if this is not a case of the Emperor’s new clothes.  I have liked some of his wines in

the past, but more recent tastings have been a less happy experience.” So that was Rosemary’s take, in true critical fashion not mentioning Brett. At the heart of the difficulty for me is how do you evaluate Brettanomyces? It is generally considered a flaw today, but historically it was not. The British critics described it as barnyard, or in French, simply merde. But today, some beer makers are intentionally introducing Brett into their beer to give it ‘character’.  I will give it two scores, the first, considering Brett is not a flaw (those who know they are intolerant of it should already know to stay away) but this is a very solid wine in all other regards, with a long life ahead of it. Score 92 points.  For those who don’t like Brett, this is something of a failure: 82 points.  The truth lies somewhere in between.   $32

Faugeres is small in this map of Languedoc, but is in yellow, just above the center of the map.
Faugeres is small in this map of Languedoc, but is in yellow, just above the center of the map.

Domaine Leon Barral

Domaine Barral is a relatively new winery, being founded by Didier Barral in 1993 but within a decade had become one of the most highly regarded estates in Languedoc.  Didier Barral has farmed his old vines biodynamically from early in his domaine’s inception. He allows his horses, cows and pigs to munch down the cover crop across his large vineyard of 30 hectares, all the while working the soil with their hooves, and fertilizing, I suppose, as they go. There is something so simple and natural about this approach.

The schist formations beneath many of Languedoc's vineyards
The schist formations beneath many of Languedoc’s vineyards

Faugeres AOC, Languedoc

Unlike most of the other wine regions of France, Faugeres was farming community centered on the production of grains and olives, not wine grapes, before the French Revolution. Once vineyards were established, most of their production was dedicated to making eau de vie (brandy). The gradual switch to wine didn’t happen until after the second World War, and  it took until 1982 to achieve AOC status. The appellation covers 1800 hectares, and some hills in the Northern part of the appellation are up to 500 meters.

While the name Faugeres refers to the kind of shale found in the region, the vineyards of Faugeres are planted above the flaky schist rock formations that are prevalent in growing regions across the South of France. Schist is notable for its ability to retain water, an important feature in the warm Languedoc-Roussillon.  Faugeres proximity to the Mediterranean is mitigated by the cooler mountain influences ripening is enough of an issue that most vineyards are planted on south-facing slopes to ensure maximum exposure to the sun. Many winemakers there say that ‘the grapes ripen at night’, from the warmth retained by the schist dominated soils. But according to the Kermit Lynch website, Barral’s vineyards are pruned in the Goblet style to protect the fruit from the ‘blistering sun’. To say it’d difficult to separate the truth from the myths, and myths from the marketing efforts of the wine world, is and understatement. It seems like there is a spin on everything.

The Divergent Styles from the Northern Rhone

crozes-hermitage-80222The Rhone has been in the cross roads of style for more than two decades.  Pressure to produce riper wines of the new world has felt across Europe, but ripeness effects Syrah more profoundly than any other grape that I can think of. In terms of the Northern Rhone, very ripe Syrah loses it’s historical identity.

Tasting wines like Jaboulet‘s Crozes-Hermitage Thalabert and Hermitage La Chapelle (now made by Caroline Frey of La Lagune), or any of Guigal‘s Cote Roties or their St-Joesph Lieu Dit, you can see their density, higher alcohol, and intense flavors that more ripeness brings. These riper wines are much more fruit driven, with noses and palates of cassis and black plum. Less manipulated approaches like natural winemaker Jean-Michel Stephan, or the traditionalist approach like Domaine Jamet‘s result in wines that are much finer, have leaner structures, and have aromatics of Geraniums, Tuberose, Violets and peppercorns. Eric Asimov of the New York Times wrote an excellent piece on the style divide last year – you can read here.

In decades and in centuries past, the continental climate, which is regulated by the cold air that rolls off the Alps,  has made ripening in the Northern Rhone (and Burgundy) difficult. Even the relatively minor heat variations between vintages meant the difference between ripeness and under-ripeness in these marginally adequate growing areas. Even in ripe years, the wines across Northern Europe have traditionally had lower alcohols and the reds have often had cool, green, peppery-flowery aromas and flavors.  Croze Hermitage and Hermitage, being in the wider and more open to warmer air from the south, generally produces  slightly darker and riper wine than vineyards farther up the ever tightening Rhone Valley.  As you can see in the picture above, it is these hills above Tain-l’Hermitage help keep the famed heat of the Southern France at bay.

Global warming has been a tremendous factor in winemaking around the world, but it is felt keenly in areas like Northern Rhone. Although it is difficult to attribute changing styles to one factor or another, these three things have changed the style of wines being made in Northern Europe: global warming, vintage variation, and winemaking philosophies and techniques. Certainly all of these factors are in flux and are incredibly interactive.  Read more on factors of traditional Northern Rhone styles from my blog here.


English: Modified version of Commons image Ima...
English: Modified version of Commons image Image:Rhone transit suspension.jpg to show the major cities, rivers and wine regions of the Northern Rhone Valley (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is refreshing to see so many traditional Northern Valley Syrahs on the market these days, I suppose this in large part because of small importers who are championing these small tradition based producers.  We vote with our pocket books, and I’m happy to get to the poll booth.

 The following wine came from Garagiste.com that I had ordered in 2010 had been sitting in their warehouse for the past couple of years.  I didn’t know it was there. Oops! I normally wouldn’t review a past vintage, but they apparently still have some for sale.

2007 Domaine du Murinais, Croze-Hermitage Cuvee Vieilles Vignes. This is a 12.5 percent alcohol wine. Despite that, this seems riper than a 12.5% wine, with a surprisingly fresh, grape-y, black-raspberry nose, some appealing fennel-anise quality and black pepper. In the mouth, there remarkable ripeness, with significant sweetness to the black cherry, raspberry fruit. Again this is surprisingly ripe for such a low alcohol wine, but it has retained a bright, juicy, natural acidity. There is significant roundness and depth – without Cote Rotie’s leanness and sinew. Fresh fruit is the main attraction here, finishing with black pepper. For a 2007, this drinks remarkably fresh, like a much younger wine, and I’m sure the cold soak , giving a dark purple robe, is responsible for this. This is a delicious wine that although it is defined primarily by it black fruitiness, it narrowly holds onto its Northern Rhone Syrah roots with its peppery aromatics, with hints of flowers.  Score: 89 points

Domaine du Murinais has 15 hectares in Croze that they farm organically. This old vine cuvee comes from vines that are between 35 and 65 years in age. A week-long cold soak gives the wine its dark color give this wine a distinctive modernity. The winemaker’s desire to keep alcohols down is a nod to tradition.

Here is a  nice blog piece about Domaine du Murinais is here from New York Importer, T. Edward. From the T.Edwards post is this note on the producers concern about the increasing ripeness due to global warming.
“In regard to a trend that’s appearing across the appellation, Luc used to get phenolic ripeness at around 12% abv, but with climate change the average is now 12.5%, and so he’s experimenting with even lower yields to see if he can stave off any further increase.”

Tasting Note 2010 Domaine Jamet, Syrah

A Sensational Substitute for Jamet’s $125 Cote Rotie

Domaine Jamet, is one of the old-guard, traditional Cote Rotie producers. Following in the footsteps of their father Joseph Jamet who retired in 1991, his two sons Jean-Paul and Jean-Luc have stayed very traditional to their approach to winemaking.  Their regimen is typically consists of de-stemming a portion of the grapes, while leaving a significant portion as whole clusters. The stems give spice and tannins to the wine, as it ferments in stainless tanks. After fermentation, the must is pressed, and barreled down to older, neutral oak barrels. While the brothers have worked together as co-managers  for over 20 years, it seems they have parted ways in 2013.  Jean Paul will continue to produce the wines at Domaine Jamet, while his brother will begin making wine with the family’s parcel in the Cote Rotie Lancement lieu-dit (named vineyard).  I guess, after 50 years of sharing bedrooms, toys, bikes, girlfriends, tractors, it’s just gotten to the point that they’ve just had enough of one another.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Like many Cote Rotie producers, Jamet has to look farther afield for high-quality grapes to augment their small production from Cote-Rotie. Collines Rhodaniennes is a large IGP area (the EU term for Vin de Pay), to the east of the Northern Rhone appellations of Cornas and St. Peray. Of the red grapes planted there, Syrah is the main player, just as in the Northern Rhone, but also Gamay is grown in healthy amounts – though not by Jamet. Like the Northern Rhone, the cool air rolls down off the alps, creating continental climate that so distinctly influences the Northern Rhone with its long growing season, and  just-riped Syrah grown there. 

2010 Domaine Jamet, Syrah, Collines Rhodaniennes

235565This is strikingly Cote-Rotie-like, with its beautiful floral aromas of iris, geraniums and lavender, as well as smoked beef, soy, grilled baguette, a touch of plum and black cherry wrapped up with creamy notes. In the mouth the wine is lean, a little more so than a top-flight Cote-Rotie, but its flavors are spot-on.  Not to mention, its low 12.5 percent alcohol give it that authentic Cote-Rotie cool-fruit character. It is a lean Syrah, but it’s not too sharp. Creamy notes and the well-integrated flavors of cured meats and subtle cherry-blueberry fruit broaden-up the palate, saving the back-end of the wine with a nice level of richness.  The wine culminates with a soft finish allowing the florals to float across the palate where they alcoholize and give the wine a very pretty lift. This 100 percent Syrah is aged in very neutral oak barrels, 6-10 years allowing the resulting wine to stay very pure and beautifully aromatic, with excellent balance.

The Bottom Line: 91 points for the cognoscenti. This is a very impressive wine, but certainly not for everybody. If you love Cote Rotie, or any aromatic red this is a beautiful choice. For people who understand this kind of wine. Considering Jamet’s Cote Rotie’s cost roughly $125 a bottle, this is a great insight into the Jamet-syle, and is worth the $29 price tag.

Jamet has a significantly large 17 hectare plot in Collines Rhodaniennes, (according to importer Robert Kacher’s website), so presumably there should be a fair amount in the marketplace. Winesearcher.com doesn’t reveal this to be the case however. Finding it may entail a search, or a request from a knowledgeable wine merchant to obtain it, but for Cote Rotie enthusiast, this would be well-worth the trouble. Some 2011 has already hit at least one retail shelf on the East Coast (and should be delicious), though latent bottles of the 2010 still should be out there somewhere.

Tasting Note: A Burgundian Minervois? Anne Gros

From the author: "THe vinyards are all ar...
The vineyards are all around the village of Minerve. Minerve gave its name to the Minervois, a region and a wine appellation” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here is a wine from the formidable Burgundian husband and wife team of Anne Gros and Jean-Paul Tollot. But this wine isn’t from Burgundy, it’s from the Languedoc’s Minervois appellation. I suspect that a Minervois has never tasted like this before.

There are so many pieces to this puzzle of a wine, that I suppose I should just deal with the tasting notes first. Later, I can talk about all of the perplexing peripheral issues this Minervois presents. I have to say right up front, this is a wine that raises many more questions than it can possibly answer.

2009 Domaine Anne Gros & Jean-Paul Tollot, “Les Fontanilles” Minervois 

This blend of  GrenacheSyrah, Carignan and Cinsault is dark, almost black in color. On the nose, there is some liqueur of cherry and raspberry fruit, but this wine isn’t giving off much in aroma. In the mouth, the wine is soft, very soft, much softer than anything I’ve tasted in quite some time. But the there is considerable fresh, red cherry fruit, and deeper black fruits, particularly the deep black cherry I associate with a riper premier cru, or grand cru Burgundy. The significant fruit of Les Fontanilles is accented with faint notes of smoke, thyme and a touch of black pepper. The mouth-feel is round and supple, but not the slightest bit heavy, and it has a very creamy texture. This wine has a remarkable delicacy, and I keep getting a watermelon-like fruit, right on the surface of this wine. It’s pretty, very pretty in fact, and surprisingly it has tremendous balance. It is really quite delicious, and just calls out for a second glass.  $32   86-92 points

And that is it.  That is all I could find in the wine. It was delicious. It was very pretty. But without much acidity, it’s range of flavors was limited. I really can’t explain how the wine had so much fruit, with virtually no acidity or tannin, yet somehow it remained so remarkably balanced. It had good richness, and it never once approached being flabby.

“Did I kill this metaphor?  No, I don’t think you can really understand the dichotomy of this wine.”

This wine was like a beautiful, delicate young girl, with really nothing to say. Very nice to be around, but you can’t talk politics or philosophy with her – maybe the most basic current events, but not much more. Did I kill this metaphor?  No, I don’t think you can really understand the dichotomy of this wine. This is a wine of great finesse, balance and elegance, with really lovely fruit. It’s like a beautiful top-flight Burgundy without the nose, or any complexity, really at all.

The 2009 Les Fontainilles is a very difficult wine to judge.  You can’t really throw a number at it, and say this is an 86 or a 92.  It is both of those scores depending on which angle you look at the wine.  It does some things magnificently well, and almost fails in other areas. It is both fascinating and perplexing.  I guess the bottom line is, would I buy this for $32?  The answer is yes; not only is it really elegant and finessed, it delicious. And most importantly, all this rigorous head scratching makes it well worth the price.

The Winemaker, Anne Gros

anne Gros pic   For those not familiar with Anne Gros, she is one of the real succ ess stories of Burgundy. In 1988, at 22 years old, she took over her father’s failing Domaine Francois Gros. He had health issues, but really, he had never made the quality of wines his brother, the famed Jean Gros, produced. She was almost instantly a star. By the mid-nineties, her tiny production of Richebourg, Echezeaux and Clos Vougeot were highly sought after, and prices were going up. That was twenty years ago, now she is married to another vigneron, Jean-Paul Tollot, of Domaine Tollot-Beaut in Chorey-Les-Beaune, and together they have three children.  Anne now wanted a new challenge.  So they began a long search for a new project. It had to be somewhere else, and it had to have soil similar to Burgundy’s marl and limestone. The search lead them to Minervois, and a property with very old vines.

The Vineyard, “Les Fontainilles”

This vineyard, Les Fontainilles, is a north-facing, bowl-shaped, 7 acre vineyard of flaky, grey sediment-soil, the French refer to as Gres. The vines were planted between the 1960s and the 1980s, predominately to Grenache, although Syrah, Carignan and Cinsault are grown there also. Half the wine is aged in wood, the other half in stainless, preserving all that fresh cherry and raspberry fruit. A good description (by Robert Parker) of the project can be found here. The property is in the far South of Minervois, right on the St Chinian border in a tiny village called Cazelles.

And All of the Unanswered Questions….

So, there are a multitude of questions that revolve around how to judge such a wine.  The winemaking style clearly has transformed what we expect from these varietals, and from the region in general.  That said, the style is non-interventionist, and done with a much more delicate hand. Clearly, this wine was not acidulated or manipulated in any way. Presumably Anne and Jean-Paul believe acidification of grape must is a tremendous mistake (as many top winemakers do), this is intended to be a true expression of the vintage and the terroir. Has it succeeded in this?

The key question, I suppose, is should you treat the grapes of the Sud (Southern France) as you would Pinot Noir? Is Anne Gros revealing the true nature of the grapes and the vineyard? Is she really getting everything out of these grapes that she should in order to tell the whole story of the land and the grapes? This is a beautiful wine, with a lovely finesse, but it doesn’t really have much in the way of complexity or verve, and these are serious nagging issues. Is she leaving those qualities in the must? The alcohol is 14.5 percent, so these grapes were ripe.  Did they pick them too late, forsaking the grape’s natural acidity?  It wouldn’t seem so, since there were no signs of over-ripeness to the fruit character. But the fact remains, that with Grand Cru Burgundy vineyards needing attention five hours away, these Minervois vines may not get that minute-by-minute attention they might need in a hot year like 2009. The winemakers simply can’t be in two places at once.

And then, there is this question: if you break the mold of a regional wines typicity, such as Gros and Tollot have done, will others realize it as brilliance and embrace the approach, or will they walk away? This is always a risk that the visionaries and the rule-breakers contend with. These are great gambles, that pay off for some like Piero Antinori when he bottled Tiganello as a Vino di Tavola and so many others who have done things the way they think is best, regardless of convention. These are risks that make reputations and change the industry. But for every maverick that succeeds brilliantly, and are vindicated by their position, there a countless others who fail quietly.

Anne Gros and Jean-Paul have staked a significant energy and money into this project, and are relying on their position as great Burgundy producers to help sell their wines, which are definately Burgundian in style.  It is a tough road for sure, one that a fellow Burgundian has traveled. According to an article by Jancis Robinson MW, the well-regarded Jean-Marie Fourrier from Gevrey-Chambertin, had bought a winery in Faugerers, nearer the coast. His experiment resulted in having to walk away from the venture after just a few years. Advice he would give to other Anne and Jean-Paul, whom he had never met?

Spend lots of time with local people from the Languedoc as they can be very helpful – or they can make your life much harder. When you run two businesses 400 miles from each other, the temptation is to work, work and work with the obligation of success. But don’t forget that you are considered a foreigner by the local people. 

This is not to say that Anne Gros is on the wrong course. But as delicious as this wine is, it raises more questions than tasting it can answer. I am interested to see if the 2010s will have better retained their structure, being a year that was cooler, and the wines from 2010 generally had much brighter acids.  For me, that would be the deciding factor. But when a wine is this delicate in a hot, fruit driven year that is marked by most wines being massively concentrated and heavily structured, it’s hard to imagine what will come next.  I may get to taste a couple of the 2010’s in a couple of weeks time. We’ll see then.  I personally can’t wait to read the next chapter.   Dean

Syrahs of the Northern Rhone: a Showdown of Aromatics

In a recent tasting of the Syrahs of the Northern Rhones, an overriding theme stood out: these wines have significantly lower-alcohols and finer features  than the Rhones from the South.

Terraces of vineyards in the French wine regio...
Terraces of vineyards in the French wine region of Cote Rotie in the northern Rhone Valley. (Photo credit: Wikipe.

Despite its name, the wines of Cote Rotie (translation -“roasted hillside”) have uniformly low alcohols even in ripe years. This suggests, at least circumstantially, that these grapes are grown on marginally-ripening sites.  This is only partially true however.  The vineyards of Cote Rotie are perched on precipitous hillsides that drop 1000 feet down to the banks of Rhone River. The extreme angle of the slope is a dizzying 55%. This gives the vines tremendously long exposure to the sun… when it is not blocked out by fog that forms up from the river below. In the late spring and early fall, fog often blankets the vineyards, making full-ripening of the Syrah difficult. This is not a bad thing. In fact it gives Cote Rotie it’s regal, and fine featured character.

Very Notable: Over the course of several hours, wines that had shown very floral, and green-peppercorn, notes much-like peppery-floral tuberose, or perhaps geranium-like aromas, would suddenly switch gears, and begin to smell like bacon fat and black pepper.  Then, without explanation, they would flip back again, to its earlier, peppery, floral personality.

“The source bacon fat and smoked meat aromas has always been something of a mystery”

The source of bacon fat and smoked meat aromas has always been something of a mystery. Some have suggested it is the strain of yeast, cellar funk, or maybe even a strain of brettanomyces. But this switching of profiles from green to meaty suggests, at least to me, that these are different faces of the same element: under-ripeness, or marginal ripeness of the Syrah fruit that is being harvested.  

Structurally and aromatically, these Syrahs from the farthest, Northern regions of the Rhone Valley, reminded me much more of  Pinot Noir from Burgundy, Nebbiolo from Barolo, or even the Aglianico grown in Campagnia and Basilicata, than Syrah, grown anywhere else in the world.

Then there was the Hermitage.  Hermitage is a small, fairly homogenous appellation, of only 345 acres that covers three hills. Given Hermitage’s reputation, this was predictably much more powerful, significantly riper, and had a full-degree higher in alcohol. However, this special bottling, cannot be counted on accurately representing the Appellation, since it hails from Hermitages greatest sites (largely from the Le Meal vineyard with a small patch from Les Greffieux). 

The Cornas of the flight was something of a ringer too.  Mattieu Barret is a biodynamic, and almost a natural winemaker. Despite Cornas being geographically the farthest south, and warmest of all the Northern Rhone regions, Barret’s wines are much more Cote Rotie-like.  I believe this to be a conscious, stylistic difference, by picking early, in order to counter the tannic clunky characteristic wines Cornas is reputed to have.  I will meet him this coming week, and ask him about this issue of Syrah and ripeness in the Northern Rhone.

St Joseph and Croze Hermitage are much larger areas than Cote Rotie, Hermitage and Cornas, and much less homogenous. All of the wines from these two regions also had lower alcohols. This is due to, it is said, the cool Continental climate of the appellations. These lower alcohols are also possibly due to longstanding winemaking traditions there. In any case, there was great uniformity to the wines in the tasting, save the Sorrel Le Greal

For the tasting notes below, I have listed the stated alcohol levels, which are among the lowest  from any major red wine region, that I have seen in recent years.


2010 Texier Cote-du-Rhone 12% alc.  A fantastic spicy nose, with fresh grapefruit rind and cream. Meduim-light in weight, with good richness and meaty tannins.  None-the-less, I do not believe this wine will age well. Texier is a producer that is part of the natural winemaking movement, meaning nothing is added to the grapes in the vineyard, nor during their production. No yeast, no SO2, no sugar, no acid, no nutrients, nothing.  $21.99

2008 Bernard Burgaud, Cote Rotie 12.5% alc.   Pretty nose of flowers, grapefruit, and red cherries.  Medium-light, with very fine tannins, but still good breadth of flavors across the palate. Finely textured, this is a very feminine styled Cote Rotie.   $37.99

2010 Domaine Faury, Saint-Joseph  13% alc. Great nose. Ripe apples, loam, smoked meat and plums. Rich and soft on the palate with meat and spice. Medium-light in weight, although it gained some weight after three hours. $26.99

2008 Domaine de Coulet, Cornas, “Bris Cailloux” 13% alc. Almost black in color. This exotic wine showed  high-toned red fruits on the nose along with a wildly changing cornucopia of anise, geraniums, bacon fat (alternately), and fresh black peppercorns. Medium weight, with long, fine, acid that was much more black-fruited on the palate than the nose was. Bacon, coffee, and leather flavors, along with the green floral components of geraniums and tuberose appeared and disappeard each time I tried it. I found this to be very similar to the 2010 Bris Cailloux in weight, not to mention in it’s stunningly aromatic, elusive personality.   Mathieu Barret is a master of Cornas, and this wine proves it beyond a doubt. Why was the 2008 vintage so (wrongly) overlooked? $41.99

2010 Domaine Des Grands Chamins (Delas) Croze-Hermitage  13% alc. Rich and spicy, but softer than the previous wines.  With this ripeness, this also does not have the earlier wines aromatics. Plum, cocoa powder, oak… This wine is comparatively powerful, but ultimately a bit simple because of it. $29.99

2009 Saint Cosme, Cote Rotie 13% alc. Very aromatic, with a  nose of grapefruit rind, earth  blackberry, toasty oak, brettanomyces, and bacon. This wine was decidedly earthy compared to the others. In th mouth, blackberries and plum were more evident on the palate. This was very rich and soft, earthy, much fuller bodied, and very complex.  $57.99

2009 Marc Sorrel, Hermitage Le Greal, 14%  Deep and powerful in nose and flavor.  Very modern in terms of the other wines tasted, with much more ripeness, thickness, and correspondingly, it had higher alcohol. Deep berry fruit, with a slight reduction. This wine was very complete, with a solid, and obvious core of fruit. Well integrated tannins. Satisfying, and even an exciting wine, if not as thought provoking, as the lighter, more aromatic, Cote Roties that they are routinely compared with.  $119.99

Saint-Joseph (Photo credit: Renée S.)

The Rhone Decisions

Yesterday I tasted at least 100 wines. I’m the first to tell you that it got a bit out of hand, but I had known that a dozen wine reps have been waiting to see me, and I had been putting them off. I really did taste some fantastic wines in all price ranges.

One of the standouts was a collaboration of Yves Cuilleron, and Francois Villard, and Pierre Gaillard, all noted Northern Rhone producers. It began as a project in Vienne, the northern-most city in the Rhone Valley, with a population of around 30,000. Vienne was established in 47 AD, after Julius Caesar, defeated the the Helvetii tribe north of the Rhone a few years before.  As good Romans do, they planted vineyards, and began a nearly two thousand year history of viticulture in Vienne.  But when phylloxera wiped out most of the vineyards in France in the late 19th century, Vienne was one of the few regions that did not make a comeback.

For over a century, Vienne became farmland until wine makers in the 1990’s began to look there for inexpensive land to grow grapes.  Yves Cuilleron, the great Condrieu producer, takes credit for “having a feeling” that the area could make great wine. But high quality clearly should not have been a surprise. Vienne, with its long history of wine making, had its fame chronicled by the Roman scholar Pliny (23AD to 79 AD) who is still widely read today. As late as 1789, Rhone historian N.F. Cochard wrote, “The so famed Vienne’s wine under the Romans were harvested in Seyssuel.”   In Cochard’s time, Seyssuel, Vienne’s most famous vineyard, was planted on more than 100 ha (247 acres).  It is amazing, but here sat a historic wine region, laying fallow as pastureland.

Vienne sits on the east side of the Rhone river from Cote Rotie, in a narrow valley, where the hot winds accelerate as the hills come together. What was to become Les Vins de Vienne started there, specifically in the Seyssuel Vineyard, with 30 ha of Syrah and Viognier planted in Cote Rotie-like, schist soil. These vines have been tended organically, something that is favored by the region’s low humidity, and lack of vine disease, since few vines have existed there for the previous 130 years. Additionally, Les Vins de Vienne has purchased land as it has become available.   But in classic irony, none of the wines shown that day by the Angeles Wine Company,and Yves Cuilleron  himself, were from Vienne.  Here is this fascinating story of a forgotten wine region, and a modern winery built to revive

English: Modified version of Commons image Ima...
English: Modified version of Commons image Image:Rhone transit suspension.jpg to show the major cities, rivers and wine regions of the Northern Rhone Valley (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 it, and the  sales pitch ends up like this:  Three well regarded winemakers started making negociant wines together.  Not so romantic.  The project had grown now to include selection from across the Rhone Valley. But let’s face it, people work to make money; it’s not about romance.

But all is not lost, because the whole line- up was stellar, negoc or not.  A non-appellated Rhone Viognier was lovely,  and beautifully fit the niche of a French Viognier that people can afford. At $21.99 this is a perfect wine; not Condrieu, but tasty nonetheless. Another white from a little known Northern Rhone village called “St Peray” had tremendous verve, singing with minerality, and rich Roussanne fruit. I ordered both. The reds were excellent. The Cote du Rhone Rouge, being 60% Grenache, was surprisingly cool in its fruit, with the 30% Syrah dominating. My sales floor has too many Cote du Rhones, but this was particularly unique. There were a pair of Croze Hermitages and St Josephs, one from each a blend of vineyards, and the other a single estate wine called Les Archevêques (the Archbishop) all excellent. The Croze and St Joseph were similar, the Croze was all spice, some meatiness, and subtle fruit, where the St Joseph had a blanket of fruit over its bones. Which one to buy was a toss-up, both were superb, but I try to offer more producers in a given price category, and Croze and St Joseph cost the same (around $25), and both all Syrah, from neighboring appellations in the Northern Rhone. I opted for the fruitier St Joseph since my customers, with their predominantly California palates, might not like such a cool fruited, briary, meaty, wine like this savory, Croze-Hermitage.

The Consumer is Trying to Tell Us Something

The single-estate wines from Vin de Vienne were simply too expensive for my store at close to $50. In fact, there seems to have been an unspoken revolt among wine drinkers, that $35 and above is too expensive for Rhone wine in general. I have heard this now from importers as well. I have 10 Chateauneuf-du-Papes, none of which are selling more than a couple bottles per month. What do you do, not have a selection of Chateauneuf?  Cote Roties like Jean Michel Stephan at $50 to $60 aren’t selling well, even with their high scores. That Rostaing and Jasmin are asking $80 wholesale for their entry-level wholesale for around $80 putting a full retail at $100 for discounters and full retail at $120, makes me wonder if they are selling at all.

Enter the Rhone Super Cuvees

There is no contesting that the wines coming from the Rhone are better than they ever have been. Not only are the wines better than they were 15 years ago, but producers are now separating out their best blocks, particularly of old vine Grenache and making super-cuvees. These bottlings can be sought after by collectors, but this gambit was most successful when there were only a few of these reserve wines, like the Beaucastel Hommage de Perrin, the Les Cailloux Cuvee Centennaire, and the perhaps the most rare, Henri Bonneau’s Cuvee Celestine. Today, every good Domaine makes a grand cuvee, and invariably they are superb and get great scores. But simply the multitude of them, all with 93 to 95 points, makes them inherently less special, and can be quite expensive. Where does this leave the regular Chateauneuf-du-Papes with their $40 price tags and their 90-92 point scores? Certainly they have had some of the best wine removed from them, and ultimately for what?

The glut of great vintages, 2005 (a big vintage,) 2007 (a big vintage) 2009 (a big vintage) 2010, (a smaller vintage) has left a glut of overpriced wines. At the wholesale level there was a lot of hype about the 2009 vintage. The importers were saying they were selling out, and if we, the retailers didn’t commit early, we were going to get left out in the cold. The wines were poured, and indeed they were of great intensity, maybe too intense. But I was buying well scored 2007 Chateauneufs at reduced prices (below the prices of the 2009’s that were being offered) and 2007 is, I believ, to be the better of the two vintages.  I felt pressured. I didn’t want to miss out, but my gut was telling me to be careful. I ordered lightly, just a couple of cases of a few well-known, or undeniably delicious wines. I ordered too much, which just didn’t seem possible. The fact was that while importers were selling out of everything they could get, the retailers were, for the most part, just sitting on the wines. The public didn’t seem to know about the hype at all.

For the 2010s, I felt the wines were for the most part, stronger, with their leaner frames and purer fruit. I was still sitting on at least half of the 2009s I had bought, and really didn’t need any more.  The beauty of the pre-sale is it forces the buyer to project not only how much of a vintage they think they can sell, but how much floor-space will be available when the wine finally arrives three to six months later. It is rare that a buyer under-buys. Because the fear of missing the next big public need for a particular wine, a buyer almost always overestimates how quickly stock on the floor will sell, and over-estimates how much of the new vintage they will need to meet demand.

For 2010, I ordered less than half than the small amount of 2009 I had ordered. I think this time I might have gotten it right. Demand was light, but there was a little demand, or should I say interest.The reality is, with the exception of a couple of wines that always are sought after by at least a few diehards, there is more than enough excellent wine available locally to fill any need a retailer might have.

Bill Clinton said it best, “The Economy, Stupid.”

 Most people just don’t have as much money to spend on high-end wine anymore. Everything else is so expensive: Gas has doubled, food has doubled, health care has exploded in price, while it covers less and less. Something has to give, and the first thing on the list is wine. When wine with a limited base of enthusiasts like Chateauneuf-du-Pape doubles in price in a decade, people turn to more affordable options. Something has to give, and there is no more glaring example than Rhone wines above $40.