In part 2 of The Buyer’s wine odyssey through the Rhône Valley, Dr Bart Feys concentrates on the Northern Rhône and the appellations of Cornas, Crozes-Hermitage, Hermitage, Côte-Rôtie and Condrieu and picks out a selection of the top wines he tasted during the four-day travelling wine fair that is the Découvertes en Vallée du Rhône 2017.
Although the top single lieu-dit wines from the Northern Rhône now command high prices, you don’t have to look far to find top quality wines where you won’t have to remortgage the house.
The 2015 vintage in the Northern Rhône has been widely acknowledged as having produced some of the best wines of the last 50 years. The growing season was exemplary and for most vignerons this was an easy vintage to make as the raw materials were impeccable.
Overall the red wines show a ripeness and density, allied to a fresh but deeply concentrated palate with ripe velvety tannins. The consistency and quality of the 2015 Northern Rhône vintage expresses itself from humble Côtes du Rhône Syrah to the top tier Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie cuvées.
Luckily, a number of top growers whose small production and highly-rated wines are now outside the reach of most wine lovers, produce Syrah-based wines from just outside Côte-Rôtie including Domaine Jean-Michel Gerin’s 2015 La Champine, Domaine Stephane Ogier’s 2015 La Rosine or Domaine Jamet’s 2015 Côtes du Rhône. These wines are worth seeking out as they offer a glimpse of the quality of the top Côte-Rôtie wines produced at these domaines.
Cornas – no longer the poor man’s Hermitage
At around 136 hectares, Cornas is by far the smallest of the Northern Rhône AOCs, producing just over 50,000 cases of red wine, the output of a few large Bordeaux cru classés put together.
Traditionally described as a vigorous and virile expression of pure Syrah, hewn out of the steep terraced vineyards facing the Rhône river, and sometimes referred to as the poor man’s Hermitage, these days Cornas produces wines that can easily hold up their heads amongst their more illustrious brethren from Côte-Rôtie and Hermitage, especially in a quality vintage such as 2015.
The best examples from producers such as Alain Voge, Vincent Paris, Domaine Courbis and Domaine Clape show a wonderful aromatic mélange of herbs, blue fruits and meaty notes allied to an energetic, fresh and deeply concentrated palate with rounded, velvety tannins.
These are wines that will age gracefully and are unmistakenly rooted to the granite soils of Cornas.
The Buyer’s recommended Cornas wines
Domaine Vincent Paris 2015 Cornas La Geynale
A quality range of wines from this small 7ha domaine
Domaine Courbis 2015 Cornas Les Eygats
Impressive range that also includes a classic 2015 Saint-Joseph Les Royes
Domaine Alain Voge 2014/2015 Cornas Vieilles Vignes
Great success in both vintages at this address
Domaine Clape 2015 Cornas
Masterful example of traditional Cornas; assembled from various lieu-dits to make single Cornas cuvée
Domaine Jean-Luc Colombo 2014 Cornas Les Ruchets
Crozes-Hermitage from better addresses well worth seeking out
Moving further north and on the Eastern bank of the Rhône river, we find the large AOC of Crozes-Hermitage which produces 90% red wine, and whites made from Marsanne and Rousanne.
When conditions are as optimal as they were in 2015, overall quality is very high and producers such as Domaine du Colombier, Domaine Pierre Gaillard, Domaine Alain Graillot and Domaine Michelas Saint Jemms fashion intense, wonderfully concentrated wines that are typified by balance and freshness.
The 2015 Crozes-Hermitage La Guiraude, a barrel selection in the cellar of Alain Graillot, is a standout wine in 2015, showing a mineral intensity married to pure blue fruits and a spice note.
Another highlight was the 2014 vintage of Crozes-Hermitage rouge Domaine de Roure from Jaboulet, a testament to the potential of this vineyard on granite soil which was bought by Jaboulet in the 1990s, and proof that 2014 Northern reds produced at the better addresses are certainly worth seeking out.
I came across many examples of 2014 bottled reds in Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie which were exquisitely terroir-driven and beautifully made, and proudly presented by the winemaker no doubt because of the skill and hard work involved.
Hermitage from individual lieu-dits are some of the best wines in the Northern Rhône if not France
The venue for the Hermitage leg of the Découvertes en Vallée du Rhône 2017 fair was situated at the bottom of the spectacular Hermitage hill that rises majestically from and follows the curving river Rhône. It brings into sharp focus how the 136 hectares currently under vines in the Hermitage AOC are draped over this iconic granite outcrop which first harboured vines in Roman times.
Total wine production is similar to Cornas, but approximately 25% is white wine made from Marsanne and Rousanne. Both white and red Hermitage can be assembled or blended from several individual lieu-dits – for example, Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle, Guigal Hermitage Ex-Voto, Chave Hermitage and Sorrel Hermitage Le Greal.
Alternatively, Hermitage can be an expression of individual terroirs or lieu-dits – such as Chapoutier Ermitage Le Meal, Delas Hermitage Les Bessard and Sorrel Hermitage blanc Les Rocoules. These wines are indisputably some of the greatest made in the Rhône Valley, indeed the whole of France, and have deservedly developed a cult following across the world.
Producers preferred to show their bottled 2014 wines as the 2015 wines were still going through their élevage.
The Buyer’s recommended Hermitage wines
Domaine M. Sorrel 2014 Hermitage rouge Le Gréal
Domaine M. Sorrel 2014 Hermitage blanc Les Rocoules
Very concentrated 90% Marsanne with remarkable freshness.
Delas 2014/2015 Hermitage Les Bessards
Grand vin in both vintages
Jaboulet 2014 Hermitage La Chapelle
Jaboulet 2014 Hermitage blanc Le Chevalier de Sterimberg
Domaine du Colombier 2014 Hermitage
A classic fresh example; grapes were sold to Guigal until the early 1990s
Chapoutier 2014 Hermitage Le Méal
Some of the most exquisite and thrilling expressions of Syrah today are produced in Côte-Rôtie
And so our vinous journey continues meandering northwards along the Rhône River to reach the town of Ampuis, home of the Côte-Rôtie AOC producing some of the most unique Northern Rhône wines, albeit in minuscule quantities.
Up to 20% of the white grape variety Viognier may be added to the Syrah grown on sometimes impossibly steep slopes of 60% gradients, which were mostly carved out and terraced during Roman times. The Viognier tends to soften the impact of the Syrah and impart a degree of floral perfume to the wine.
Today’s frantic worldwide clamour for the wines of Côte-Rôtie, with vineyards totaling less than 300 hectares in size, is in stark contrast to the situation in the late 1960s when it was at times more profitable to grow apricots, rather than farm the vineyards. This was due to the low prices generally achieved for Côte-Rôtie wine and the labour involved to work the steep vineyards, resulting in the total area under vines dropping to below 70 hectares by the early 1970s.
How times have changed! Some of the most exquisite and thrilling expressions of Syrah today are produced in Côte-Rôtie. The fractured nature of the granite rock beneath the vineyards on the ‘Roasted Slope’ ensures that the vine roots have access to water during hot periods thereby avoiding hydric stress and retaining freshness in the grapes.
The 2015 vintage has produced some stellar wines in Côte-Rôtie characterised by power and freshness coupled to aromatic complexity, resulting in balanced terroir-specific wines of real depth and complexity. Some of the best on taste are highlighted in
The Buyer’s recommended Côte-Rôtie wines
Domaine Corinne, Jean-Paul et Loïc Jamet 2014/2015 Côte-Rôtie
Masterfully crafted elegant wines in both vintages
Domaine de Bonserine 2014 Côte-Rôtie La Viallière
Outstanding range ranging from the humble 2015 La Champine Vin de France to the majestic 2015 Côte Rôtie La Landonne.
Delas 2015 Côte-Rôtie La Randonne
Domaine Jasmin 2015 Côte-Rôtie
Single cuvee made at small family domaine
Vignobles Verzier 2015 Côte-Rôtie Indiscrète
2015 produced intense but balanced Condrieu
The true home of Viognier in the Northern Rhône lies in the AOC Condrieu where it is the only permitted grape variety, currently covering around 190 hectares at an altitude of approximately 250m.
Viognier is particularly suited to the acid granite soils of Condrieu and produces wines that are generous, with complex aromatics that may include floral honeysuckle notes, sometimes mango, peach or apricot overtones, but above all are capable of retaining freshness.
The 2015 vintage produced successful wines in Condrieu with intense, rich and rounded wines with good freshness and a touch of minerality.
The Buyer’s recommended Condrieu wines
Julien Pilon 2015/2016 Condrieu Vernon
Top wine from eclectic range made by talented white wine maker
Domaine Pierre Gaillard 2015 Condrieu and
Domaine Pierre Gaillard 2016 Condrieu L’Octroi
Domaine Andre Perret 2015 Condrieu Chery
Domaine Georges Vernay 2015 Condrieu Coteau de Vernon
Fresh and complex example from one of the top vineyards in Condrieu
Domaine Jean-Michel Gerin 2015 Condrieu La Loye
Some thoughts after 600 producers and four days of tasting
One of the most satisfying aspects of a week long tasting across the whole spectrum of Rhône wines, both geographically and in monetary terms, is the realisation that quality, typicité and individuality can be had in all the AOCs without having to remortgage the house.
Tremendous value can be had at all price levels, and indeed, compared to current market prices for top Bordeaux and Burgundy, one can easily argue that some of the very best Rhône wines are remarkably good value in today’s fine wine market.
Another bonus is that many of the excellent value Côtes du Rhône, Gigondas, Crozes-Hermitage and Saint-Joseph wines age beautifully and deliver a top pleasure per pound ratio ten or more years down the line. And for any newcomers, what better time to start than with the currently offered 2015 vintage and the highly anticipated 2016 vintage in the southern Rhône!