The Rhone Report

RhoneThe Northern and Southern Rhone are joined by the synonymous river, a spot of Syrah in Chateauneuf du Pape blends and, to be honest, little else.


In the north, the Rhone is one of the most impressive stretches of water one will see: a truly grand river.  By the time it gets to Chateauneuf it is more dual-carriageway than multi-lane highway, and both the climate, and the surrounding vista has changed. The north is all about gradient: few pictures can do justice to the steepness of the slopes of Cote-Rotie and much of Cornas and St Joseph. The landscape is all about the river carving its way through dramatic, almost sheer, granite drops. In the south not only is it noticeably warmer, the landscape changes to gently rolling countryside with the epic backdrop of the alps. The scenery is grandiose: the sort of scenery that can take one’s imagination back centuries.

The wines from the south and north are equally different. The 100% (or very close) Syrah wines from Cote-Rotie, Hermitage, Cornas and St Joseph are more delicate, more restrained and more subtle than their southern neighbours, whereas in Chateauneuf, the king of the southern Rhone, even the most gentle wines are bruisers. Ripeness, and therefore alcohol, could almost be seen as the enemy in the south: 15% of alcohol is relatively easy to achieve here and some of the more honest growers will happily admit “it says 14.5 on the label but what’s in the bottle is closer to 17%”.

What both areas offer are outstanding value. In the north or south one can find truly great wines, wines of great quality, character and individuality, for relatively little outlay.  This is perhaps France’s only great region that remains – at least to some extent – uncovered.

Our Fine Wine Buyer, Camilla Bowler, and I spent a week in the Rhone earlier this month.  A key objective was to taste some 2013s and make our evaluation of the vintage and, as ever, we were on the hunt for something new.

The North

Our focus here was St Joseph and Cornas.  The former appellation is arguably way too large, the latter is arguably one of France’s most under-the-radar regions as far as fine wine is concerned: Cornas can be seriously, seriously good.

Rhone Courbis

Domaine Courbis – St. Joseph, Les Royes

Domaine Courbis

A bottle of 2011 Courbis St Joseph the evening before our visit was a good sign: the typical pepperiness, a silky texture and the balance that is a sign of something well-made, had us looking forward to learning more.

Laurent Courbis is a vigneron, and arrived with grape-stained hands – the last of the 2014 harvest was coming in. This was the first box ticked. We then tasted through the selection, which impressed all the way through. Laurent warmed up as we tasted: a charming, honest man with a clear connection to his domain, his vines and his wine.

This is a family estate, the history of which dates back centuries. Laurent and his brother Dominique, took control of the estate in the 1990s and have clearly moved the estate to one of the region’s best.

The wines are very, very cleanly made. The purity is almost tangible and this is perhaps accentuated by the limestone soils prevalent in their vineyard holdings. In short, these wines are very much worth looking at and they remain fairly-priced.

Their vineyard sites, in both St Joseph and Cornas, are fantastic. St Joseph is an over-sized appellation and one has to find the producers with the best bits. In Cornas, the domain has three quite different sites, the characteristics of which are best understood up in the vines – this is quite a challenge given their steepness. And it is up in the vines where Laurent’s passion is clear, along with the fact that he lives in what is probably the finest house in St Joseph, surrounded by the vineyards of “Les Royes”  – the southern tip of St Joseph just at the edge of Cornas.

Vincent Paris

We first visited Vincent Paris in 2013, and offered his 2012s with great success. Vincent can no longer be genuinely described as “under the radar” as the secret is all but out: this is a young, thoughtful man making brilliant expessions of Syrah.

Vincent has 7.5 hectares under vine and is blessed with some outstanding parcels of very old vines which, combined with his clear gift for working with Syrah, make for some very serious wines indeed. The wines have intensity, purity, concentration and balance.  Moreover, they have a buzz: there is energy to the wines.

Vincent’s winery is based in Cornas. He is slowly expanding it, though for the moment it is packed, quite literally, to the rafters. He uses no new wood (though the cleanliness of the barrels suggests otherwise to the naked eye). There is an air of hard work about the place, and an air of competency: Vincent is a quiet man but it is clear that he knows exactly what he is doing.

Vincent makes three cuvees of Cornas. Granit 30 and Granit 60 are both from granite soils; the “30” and the “60” allude to the dizzy steepness of the slopes.  La Geynale, the heart of the domaine and a vineyard that Vincent inherited from his uncle, is a truly great vineyard: steep with granite soils and a perfect aspect. These wines have a following and buying on release is recommended.

Balthazar

Franck Balthazar is one of those men – Chave, Roumier – that sort of man, who is so intertwined with his wines that he embodies them. Genuine passion is very hard to fake, but Franck has it not only for his wines, but for Cornas, and for wine: genuine wine.

A new cuverie is being built, though we met him in the old one, and tasted his spectacularly convincing 2013s. These are not wines that taste of winemaking – they are wines that, more than anything, taste of a sense of place. They taste of Cornas.

There are two wines made: “Chaillot” and “Cuvee Casimir Balthazar”.  The former is made traditionally: no destemming and in concrete vats; Cuvee Casimir is partially destemmed to give a slightly silkier style.  Both are brilliant.

Franck is a loquacious man and a man of opinion. We’d suggest avoiding French politics, though what is clear is that he lives and breathes his wine and his mission is to make wines that speak of Cornas, that speak of Syrah and that speak of a sense of place. These are not point-chasers; these are wines of impeccable purity and character.

Cornas

Cornas

Monier

Jean-Pierre Monier is based in Brunieux, what can only be described as a sleepy village situated high-up the slopes of St Joseph. He farms just five hectares of vines, which he started bottling himself in 2001 after many years of selling his fruit to the local co-operative.

The vines have been farmed bio-dynamically since 1995 and Jean-Pierre is a genuinely artisanal vigneron. His motivation clearly isn’t wealth, more the authenticity and purity of his wines, which cost next to nothing considering their quality.

There is very little fancy winemaking here: concrete vats; very little new wood, save for his Les Sevres cuvee, and the wines speak of quality, care, and of the soil.  Excellent wines for very little outlay.

The South

Chateauneuf is one of France’s most complex regions.  It was the first appellation controlee: something that many growers are keen to note and one could argue that there are some imperfections in the appellation. What is indisputable is a wide variation in style across the region: part of this is, of course, down to winemaking styles though a great deal is down to the variation of soil throughout Chateauneuf and the variation that the thirteen permitted varieties allows for. If the appellation was mapped out today, we could well see a different picture and would almost certainly have some specific crus and vineyard sites. The political hurdles that any “re-map” would entail make this a highly unlikely proposition…

Domaine de Pegau

Laurence Feraud is one of Chateauneuf’s most charismatic producers and Domaine de Pegau, her family estate, is an outstanding example of staunchly traditional Chateauneuf.

The Pegau history is a familiar one: previously named Domaine Feraud, Laurence’s grandparents and great-grandparents sold their wines to the negociants. It was only in 1964 that Paul, Laurence’s father, decided to bottle a small amount under his own name. In 1987, Laurence joined the family business and proposed the creation of an independent, family domaine and Domaine de Pegau was born.

In a region that could be accused of lacking direction, Pegau knows exactly what it is doing in terms of style. The Cuvee Reservee is archetypal Chateauneuf and the 2012 is just fabulous. No Cuvee de Capo was made in 2012 (one gets the impression that this was a decision they regret), so the Cuvee Reservee benefits from the juice, from a 100 year-old parcel in La Crau that would have made Capo.

What Pegau wines have in spades, be it Cuvee Reservee, Cuvee Laurence or the barnstorming Cuvee de Capo, is character. Proper Chateauneuf.

Bosquet des Papes

An established FINE+RARE favourite, Bosquest des Papes is run by the charming Nicolas Boiron. Nicolas is built like a house, speaks with a seductive Provencal twang, and has a tangible energy to him.

This is another domaine that goes back for generations, and has a real family feel about it.  The estate has 32 hectares, 27 of which make the three quite different cuvees of Chateauneuf: “Tradition”, “A la Gloire de mon Grand-Pere” and “Chante le Merle”.

The winemaking here is traditional with an innovative twist. Much, though not all, of the fruit is destemmed, and Nicolas works hard for a gentle, yet complete, extraction. The results are impressive: typical yet polished Chateauneuf. Big, yet not overly so, and ageworthy.  Jeb Dunnock sums it up well:

““An estate that seems to have found another level, quality-wise, Domaine du Bosquet des Papes has been run by the Boiron family for the past six generations. Located in the northern part of the appellation, the wines are now made by the talented Nicolas Boiron and offer classic, Provencal characters that scream Southern Rhone, yet also show beautiful polish and poise. His 2010s were the best wines I’ve tasted from the estate, and these 2011s and 2012s are not far behind. They are all noteworthy and worth tracking down.”  Jeb Dunnock

RhoneBosquet

Whole bunch fermentation at Bosquet des Papes

 

Vieille Julienne

Vielle Julienne is a very special place that we first visited in 2013. Founded in 1905 right on the edge of the appellation, this is the thinking man’s Chateauneuf.  A visit to the property is as much about the philosophy of Chateauneuf as anything else. The estate is farmed biodynamically and the work here is done in the vineyard. In the cellar the attitude is absolutely non-interventionist: no fining, no filtration, and as little sulphur as is possible. As with the very best winemakers, they do their best to let the wine make itself.

An outstanding Cotes du Rhone is made here: “Lieu-dit Clavin” – the vineyards being just on the other side of the road of the Chateauneuf appellation, and three cuvees of exceptional Chateauneuf:  “Les Trois Sources”, “Les Hauts Lieux” and “Cuvee Reservee

Les Trois Sources comes from a parcel immediately opposite the domaine.  The soil is relatively sandy here and the wine has an elegance and lift which belies its power. Les Hauts Lieux comes from a more classic, higher altitude, stony Chateauneuf soil, has more Mourvedre in the blend and has a touch more richness and a hint of minerality.  A little more punchy, but elegant still.  The Cuvee Reservee, not made every year, is from an early-ripening, sandy terroir. The vines are more than 100 years old and is mostly Grenache with a touch of Syrah. This is intense, chocolatey, warm Chateauneuf, though still with an aromatic lift and a lightness to it.

Vielle Julienne release their wines a year later than most of their neighbours and they are very much worth waiting for; this is undoubtedly one of the regions greatest estates.

Clos St Jean

Vincent Maurel is one of Chateauneuf’s more opinionated characters: a man with a clear view of what is right and what is wrong, whatever the subject. That said, he is a man who vinifies by “feel” rather than by a rulebook, tweaking from year to year, though he does invariably harvest later than nearly all of his neighbours.

His three cuvees of red Chateauneuf are entirely different: “Clos St Jean” is Vincent’s interpretation of Chateauneuf – the entire appellation; Combe des Fous and Deus ex Machina are from vines in Le Crau planted in 1905 by Vincent’s grandfather (the Fous – “mad” – is what was thought of planting in this tricky to farm, steep site, one that is now considered one of the best in the appellation).

Philippe Cambie – arguably Chateauneuf’s leading oenologue – consults here and Vincent compares the arrival of Philippe with the Deus ex Machina that he names his top cuvee after.  We tasted extensively here and see the point: excellent wines which, as Jeb Dunnock exclaims: “knock it out of the park”.

Mas de Boislauzon

Another established FINE+RARE favourite, Mas de Boislauzon is a family-run domaine in the north of the appellation.  No rockstar winemakers or fancy winemaking: just very good wines.

Siblings Daniel and Christine Chaussy run the domaine, the sixth generation to do so. They farm about eight hectares of red Chateauneuf in fifteen different parcels, and do so biodynamically. They make an excellent Cotes du Rhone – this is regularly an F+R bestseller on account of its ridiculous value for money – along with a Chateauneuf “Tradition” and two supercuvees – “Quet” and “Tintot”, the latter being a very, very rare wine in that it is 100% old vine Mourvedre.

Charvin tasting

Tasting 1 week old 2014 Grenache at Charvin

Charvin

Laurent Charvin is the 6th generation of his family to farm the Charvin estate, and was the first to estate-bottle the wines, which were previously sold off to negociants (as is much of Chateauneuf even today).

The domaine is organically run, and Laurent is one of those winemakers who is deeply connected with his wines and his estate. He is also something of a contrarian in these parts in that he searches for elegance, not power, in his wines. Power, ripeness, alcohol – these are easy in Chateauneuf; the challenge is to make them graceful.

This is a feat that he manages well. A sample of his 2011 showed the typical silkiness and approachability that is a hallmark of this vintage and was a great example of, if there is such a thing, typical Chateauneuf.

The Cotes du Rhone from this estate, from the vines that surround the main buildings, is also not to be overlooked, with a depth and freshness that is particulalrly impressive.

Olivier Hillaire

Olivier owns one of the town-centre bistros, where we had an outstanding bottle of his Cotes du Rhone the day before we visited.  His winery is situated about 15 minutes’ drive from the centre, in a utilitarian warehouse-looking building on the edge of the Rhone itself. Olivier is a practical and pragmatic man: the buildings aren’t glamorous but he has plenty of space: something many a winemaker craves.

The wines are fermented in old style plastic cuves: again this is pragmatism – Olivier doesn’t believe in fancy new stainless steel and concrete and one rather gets his point. No new oak is used either: the philosophy here is simple: lots of hard work in the vineyards then de-stemming, crushing and a lot of attention in the winery. Philippe Cambie consults, which is generally a sign of quality, and the wines here certainly come up to scratch and more.

Two cuvees of Chateauneuf are made and both impressed. The “village” Chateauneuf is from two separate plots, and is a big, boisterous, spicy, Chateauneuf. The vines here are old, and it shows in the depth. The “Petits Pieds d’Armand”, Olivier’s supercuvee, is from a parcel of 110 year old Grenache vines in one of the steepest plots. This is rich and almost oleaginous in its concentration, yet retains balance, and is an exceptional Chateauneuf in what is undeniably a more modern style.

Ch Simian

Ch. Simian

Chateau Simian is probably the best-signposted winery in Europe. Buying trips invariably include at least 30 minutes a day of being lost; if we had more winemakers like the Serguiers then life would be easier…

More importantly, the estate makes some highly individual, graceful and complete Chateauneuf du Pape.  Jean-Pierre is in charge here, aided by father Yves and son Florian. The estate is run biodynamically and Jean-Pierre cites Domaine Lafarge as a key influence. Only the whites see any oak, and the vinification is un-intrusive and gentle.

The work here is done in the vines – the Simian vines stand-out from the road as being particularly healthy – and are picked by hand. The grapes are de-stemmed then have what might be described as a gentle vinification and elevage. The results are very impressive, particularly for those that appreciate elegance.

The quality is very, very, high and if the juice is not considered up to scratch then it is sold off in bulk. Both the “Les Traversiers”, the traditional cuvee, and “Les Grandes Grenaches” are highly impressive wines with a purity and lift that is highly impressive. This is an excellent estate with a style all of its own.

Ch. de Vaudieu

The remarkable Ch. de Vaudieu is somewhere you won’t find unless you know where it is, or if you get lost on your way to Rayas. Just as you’re questioning the satnav, a chateau – one that would look more at home in Bordeaux than the southern Rhone – pops up.

Situated in the hidden and tranquil Val de Dieu – from which the estate takes its name – Ch. Vaudieu is quite possibly the most important estate in Chateauneuf that you have never heard of.

The vines: 70 hectares of them, are situated in one complete block – this is a rarity in Chateauneuf, where most estates own a hotch-potch parcels around the appellation. Most of the vineyards are on sandy soil, ideal for an elegant Grenache, with a distinct plot of clay soils on the border with Rayas and a touch of limestone.

Laurent Brechet is the man in charge, and he is a man with both a passion for the property and its wines and, notably, the cash to make the most of it. There is no shortage of investment going on here, with equipment that is rarely seen outside Bordeaux on show (Laurent is particularly proud of his cement “tulip” vats – slightly larger versions of which can be seen at Cheval Blanc).

The attention starts first in the vineyard, which is biodynamically farmed, though there is no doubt that Laurent is a man who believes in the power of the winemaker as well as the viticulturist. The end results are exceptional.

The wines, quite simply, make you smile. The gloss of precision winemaking is evident, though there is no shortage whatsoever of class or character in the wines. Even the unashamedly modern “Amiral G”, has a core of typicity running through it, and there is an air of the Rayas about them (Rayas is the neighbouring property and Jacques Reynaud was Laurent’s mentor and the estate’s Syrah came from massal selection from Reynaud). These are brilliant and exciting wines.

Chateau de Vaudieu

Chateau de Vaudieu

Summary:

The Rhone is France’s third most important wine region after Bordeaux and Burgundy.  We perhaps know it best for the value that it offers: the climate is such that it is easy to grow grapes pretty much anywhere, certainly in the south. What is over-looked, maybe, is the sheer quality of some of the wines here and the remarkably diverse styles, particularly in Chateauneuf. And even at the top, value can be found, and found easily. There are few other regions where the wines at the top of the hierarchy remain so affordable, and have so much individuality.

If you’d like to speak to us about this article, or any of the wines or producers mentioned, please get in touch, we’d love to hear from you.

Joss Fowler, Director of Fine Wine