Rhône 2017: Inside Châteauneuf-du-Pape with Stéphane Usseglio

Stéphane Usseglio is the man at the helm of Domaine Raymond Usseglio in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Understandably he has gained an unrivalled insight into the area surrounding the historic village at the heart of the southern Rhône. Speaking with FINE+RARE, he shares his interpretation of the nuances of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, an appellation so often considered a place of homogeneity, when it is in fact one of the most varied and vibrant fine wine regions in the world. We caught up with Stéphane so that he could bring us up to speed on the 2017 vintage, and tell us more about his latest releases which strive to express the great diversity within the region.

 

How was the 2017 vintage for you? How does it compare with the recent string of exceptional vintages in the Southern Rhône?

2017 is an extremely low yield vintage with the conjunction of two factors : first a very strong “coulure/millerandage” on the Grenache affecting the fruit set, hence a low yield per vine.  There was also a severe drought during the summer of 2017, however the low grape load induced by the coulure allowed to reduce the hydric stress on the vines and enabled an optimum ripening.  The fear was another 2003 with blocked maturation and harsh tannins.

We are biodynamic certified and are using herbal teas in the vineyard : in 2017 chamomile was used.  Also the use of 501 (silicate) which is used to stimulate photosynthesis was reduced in the plots. Prep 500 (cow horn manure) was used as it helps among other things to dissolve the minerals in the soils and balance the soils pH.

Although it is difficult to compare with other vintages, it looks like a 2009 with more elegance, somehow a cross between 2009 and 2010.

In the cellar, minimal intervention was the rule with perfectly ripe grape and the need to favour soft diffusion.

 

Is the Rhône valley getting warmer? How do you combat the hot weather in the vineyard and winery?

Over the years, we have certainly seen ever hotter summers, with peaks in 2003, 2007, 2011, 2015 and 2017.  We had to adapt both on the viticultural and the winemaking plan to maintain a good level of acidity in our wines but more importantly a good level of mineral salts in the wines that are transmitted from the soils to the berry through the water circulation.

As described above, biodynamic practices are helping to address these extreme conditions, we are spraying decoctions in the vineyard of stinging nettle and valerian which are helping to activate the decomposition of the soils and improve its inner life.  This has a direct effect on the plant overall balance hence on the grape quality.

Canopy management is also important, most of our vines are trained in traditional gobelet which is already in its bush like shape creating a natural shadow for the grapes, besides, in hot summers like 2017 we are avoiding the topping of the vines (cutting the apex). When you top the vines you stimulate the growth of secondary buds in the vines bringing an unnecessary consumption of sap and water.

Grapes are mostly harvested very early morning and when we have for time reason to harvest in the afternoon they spend a night in cold chamber to cool them down before processing.

Fermentation is certainly carried out at a lower temperature than 10 years ago to preserve the fruit freshness, we used to ferment at 32°C some years ago, now we ferment around 26°C to preserve the fruit, while we want to avoid going any colder as this would narrow down the activity of certain yeast and affect the true expression of terroir.

 

You have moved to using more cement tanks for fermentation and away from old oak – can you outline why you made this decision?

(Laughter) Well, the old foudre we had were contaminated by Brettanomyces, so getting rid of them was the only option. It was a long discussion with my father at the time, they are part of the family heritage, my grandfather arrived from Italy and created the estate from scratch, working as an agricultural worker and then through sharecropping.

I remain a big fan of concrete tanks and love the fruit / terroir purity that they bring and they help to maintain the freshness.

I also prefer them to stainless steel, as we have the Mistral winds almost continuously blowing through the valley, which create static electricity in the stainless steel tanks that affects the wine. Concrete is pretty much neutral in these conditions and preserves the wine the best in my humble opinion.

 

Have you made any other distinct changes either in the winery or in the vineyard over the years? What have been the most influential changes you have made and how has this affected the wines’ style and flavour profile?

The biggest change has certainly been the shift to biodynamic practices, which I started in 2010 and completed the integration of the estate in 2015. Even though my father and my grandfather have always been very respectful of their lands and worked in the vineyard with basically only copper and sulphur, the shift to biodynamics certainly brought the vineyard into a new dimension.  It is a continuous learning process and each plot is different but we see the payoff: vines are reaching a better balance; the grapes’ pH is increasing as well as their mineral salt content.  If I had to say how it translates into the wines, I would say we get better purity in the wines.

 

Can you outline what you think are the distinct soil types in your various plots of Châteauneuf and how they individually affect the flavour profile and structure of those wines?

Châteauneuf-du-Pape is a patchwork of terroirs in the largest sense of the terms; not only the soils but the exposure and the influence of the Rhône on one side, and the Ventoux on the other side. If we had to schematize, the estate is comprised of two kinds of soils the famous galets roules (pebbles) and the sands.

Their impact on the vines is very vintage sensitive, as many have heard, the pebbles are reflecting the light during day time and reconstituting heat at night time offering rather hedonic wines a lush fruit expression and some roundness brought by the clay marls located under the pebbles. In a hot vintage you have to be cautious about early ripening to avoid overripe wines.

The sands are way less sensitive to drought, offering more finesse in the wines and at the same time less color/alcohol. In damp years it can be more difficult to achieve a good ripeness in these areas. It is a privilege to have both of these terroirs as it allows me to blend them and reach a nice balance in the wines. We also own plots in some of the most singular lieux dit of the appellation that offer unique expression: la Crau and le Pialong, for example.

 

Do you vinify your different grape varieties together or separately? Why do you do this?

I employ two types of co-fermentation: first a co-fermentation of terroirs with the same grape, this is helping to get away from the pure varietal expression and get more complexity from the different terroirs. Also we do co-fermentation of grapes which are bringing more complexity in the wines; this also helps the different grapes to combine quicker in a blend.

We recently made an experiment on a new wine called la Creation. It is declassified as a Vin de France but coming from very nice terroirs and old vines on each side of the Rhône; sandy on one side and pebble on the other. For this we used a co-fermentation and ageing in a very specific terracotta vessel, I have to say I am pretty happy with the result!

I am lucky enough to own some plots of collection vines (some are centenary) where mostly all varieties allowed in the appellation Châteauneuf-du-Pape are present.

 

Do you believe there are different styles being produced within Châteauneuf-du-Pape? Is this to do with different terroirs within the region or to do with vigneron techniques in the winery or both?

Although Châteauneuf-du-Pape looks from the outside like a very traditional appellation, it is indeed very free. Each appellation in France is ruled by a “requirement book”, Châteauneuf-du-Pape is one of the sole appellations in the Rhône were you can use any of the 13 varietals – pure Mourvedre, pure Grenache, 13 grape blends or a classic GSM – these are only a few of the many options. If you add up the incredible diversity of the terroirs (soils, micro-climate, exposures), the freedom of each vintner, and our great patrimony of genomas in the vines (most of the vintners are only working with massal selection), then you can see that we have the opportunity to create something truly unique here. That is really the beauty of Châteauneuf-du-Pape although we share a common DNA, we are all unique.

 

When do you feel your Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines reach their peak in terms of drinking window and how long do they age for typically?

I like them around 5/6 years, when you still get the fruit expression and start to see more spices coming up. Although I have to say we are tasting regularly some old vintages from my father and grandfather’s time and some are stunning; their work is always an inspiration to me.

 

With which cuisine do you recommend drinking your wines?

I would naturally go for a Mediterranean style cuisine: simple, fresh ingredients, well-seasoned and perfectly cooked. I love a nice Châteauneuf with a seven hours braised leg of lamb or a dried aged beef. I also like to taste my Châteauneuf-du-Pape with local cuisine when I travel to represent my wines.

 

Can you outline the four different Châteauneuf-du-Pape rouge cuvées you make (Tradition, Imperiale, Les Apotres, Parts des Anges) and what differentiates them from one another?

Our Châteauneuf Tradition is a blend of our different plots, fully aged in concrete. My goal for this wine is to offer the best possible fruit and terroir purity.

Imperiale is made from a small plot with collection vineyards of centenary wines, its fully aged in concrete. With this wine we always get an higher pH and a strong vertebral spine, it is more a vertical wine than a horizontal wine, if you see what I mean, and offers an outstanding ageing capacity.

As it’s name points out, La Part des Anges is fully aged in new barrels. It is made from a larger share of Mourvedre complemented by a smaller amount of Grenache and Syrah. Here I am looking more for a broader, bigger style. We work with a combination of Stockinger (Austrian barrels) and Chassin, Nadalié high-end French barrels. With this wine, after a few years, when the oak gets really well integrated, we start to see the magic in action.

Les Apotres was initially an experiment, selecting all the varietals of Châteauneuf-du-Pape in my different plots, picking only perfect grapes, then bringing them back to the cellar for a careful hand de-stemming and a very long maceration in amphoras. The density obtained with these techniques, combined with the freshness brought from the use of this well, makes a really age worthy wine.