Buyer Jessica Bryans reports back from FINE+RARE trip to Rhone, with producer profiles and a very early look at what could be a phenomenal vintage…
The Rhone Valley’s Wines From the Epic 2015 Harvest Could be Excellent…
If you take one thing away from this report, it should be this – 2015 could be one of the great vintages of the history of the Rhone Valley. Producers across the region are thrilled; when I spoke to Rene Rostaing he said he has only seen a vintage like this 2-3 times in 40+ years of making wine. Other producers, such as Jean-Paul Jamet and Stéphane Ogier seemed equally impressed with the results, as did their counterparts in the south. Optimism is in the air.
The Magic of the Rhone Valley, A Region That Always Delights and Surprises
There is something about the Rhone Valley. All over the region, from North to South, there is always the feeling that incredible wine is hidden nearby, waiting to be discovered.
Saying the region is untapped would be incorrect. There are several great producers who have been on the radar of collectors and restaurateurs for a long time. Nevertheless, this is a region of hidden gems, where new discoveries never fail to surprise and delight, all with relatively modest prices.
The Rhone is a region to pay attention to – perhaps now more than ever.
Read on for the key takeaways from our trip….
Côte Rôtie – Power, Elegance and Finesse in Perfect Balance
Côte Rôtie, also known as “the roasted slope” is truly one of the most exciting red wine appellations I have ever visited. Nestled in the far North of the Rhone against some of the country’s steepest slopes, the terrain here is very unique. The steep, south-eastern facing vineyards consist of mainly dark, iron-rich schist in the Côte Brune and pale granite and schist in the Côte Blonde.
Syrah is king of grapes in Côte Rôtie, though up to 20% Viognier is allowed in blends. We found that most of the top producers we visited were not using Viognier in their reds at all, with the exception of Guigal who uses it consistently in most of his wines.
This was my first visit to the appellation and I was blown away by the quality and overall elegance of the wines. There are notable parallels with Burgundy; top producers in the appellation are making Syrah in a way that manages to perfect the balance of density and lightness, carrying all the concentration of the grape deep into the wine but keeping a certain freshness and finesse that rings of Burgundian style.
Our best visits were to the domaines of Jean-Paul Jamet, Rene Rostaing and Stéphane Ogier – who are all producing world class wines with incredible depth and elegance, while managing to be some of the friendliest producers around, taking the time to talk to us about their wines and taste through the vintages.
Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Powerhouse Appellation of the Southern Rhone
Not wanting to neglect the Southern Rhone, we drove 1.5 hours to Chateauneuf-du-Pape. The near-perfect 2015 harvest seemed to have been a region-wide phenomenon, as Chateauneuf producers also raved about the quality and health of the grapes. It seems 2015 could be a great vintage for both the north and south of the Rhone Valley.
Xavier Vignon – A Remarkable Talent
One highlight was our trip to Xavier Vins, owned by Xavier Vignon, a renowned consulting winemaker who works with some of the top estates in CDP. Xavier started his own business in 2002 after being urged by wine merchant friends to make his own blends.
Xavier Vins had been on my radar for the last few months. The Chateauneuf-du-Pape range always scores well with Parker and I couldn’t curb the curiosity of what the wines of such a renowned oenologist might taste like.
I was was not disappointed. From the entry level Rasteau to the multi-vintage Chateauneuf-du-Pape, the range is fantastic. Xavier’s wines are stylistically mindful of what Chateauneuf should be – complex with layers of black and red fruit framed with structured tannins; however, they maintain this freshness and elegance without compromising the concentration of fruit. This is what separates the good from great CDP.
Clos St Jean – One of Chateauneuf’s Premier Producers, Full-Throttle Brilliance
Next, I would be remiss not to dedicate some space on the page to the wines of Clos Saint Jean – a 41 hectare estate run by Vincent Maurel. A true powerhouse making mghty wines that will forever change your perception of Grenache, the estate is widely acknowledged as one of the premier producers of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, with plantings in one of the most iconic terroirs in CDP – a plateau of iron rich red clay and galets.
During our visit, Vincent told me the story of his grandparents who first planted the vines in 1905 – 1/3 of which are still producing the fruit that makes up the old vines cuvée that is only available to buy in the US. Maurel’s grandfather was a tailor; however, on weekends he worked unpaid in a restaurant that enjoyed frequent visits from prestigious clientele – his only payment for his work was the opportunity to put his winery business card on the tables of the patrons.
Eventually, this hard work paid off – Vincent still has letters from the 1920’s addressed to his grandfather from royalty, requesting the wines of Clos Saint Jean.
Today, the wines are nothing short of brilliant, full throttle examples of Chateauneuf-du-Pape. The reds are mostly destemmed with small amounts of whole clusters retained and long maceration periods of 30+ days. The wines are consistently great across all vintages, though the classic Chateauneuf 2008 and 2012 were highlights for me. If you have the chance to taste Deus Ex Machina make sure you do. This is a bombastic wine made of 60% old vines Grenache and 40% Mourvedre made in a style that is so structured and dense the bottles need to be aged at least 6-8 years before you even think about drinking them.
If you like big, rich and intense reds, put Clos Saint Jean on your “to drink list”.
Compagnie de l’Hermitage – A Real Insider Tip
Finally, a wine store that should not be missed if you are travelling through the Rhone: Compagnie de l’Hermitage, address: 7 Place du Taurobole 26600 Tain l’Hermitage – France
I accidentally came across this “blink and you’ll miss it” store of treasures while waiting for an appointment in the centre of Tain. Inside you’ll find a hand-picked collection of wines from some of the most revered producers in the region, along with a few that are still flying under the radar.
The company is a small family run business owned by George Lelektsoglou who also makes his own wines. Insider tip: his wines are very good and you won’t find them anywhere else.
We tasted his Chateauneuf-du-Pape Lieu dit “Pignan” and it was the real deal with great complexity and elegance – it was up there with some of the best CDP I have tasted.
Look out for 2015 Rhone – the whites and the reds. In the North: Hermitage, Cote Rotie, Cornas and St Joseph. In the South: Chateauneuf du Pape. These are potentially fine wines to get excited about.
Stayed tuned for our next posts on Brunello 2011 while we travel through Tuscany to uncover the best of the region.