All the current excitement about the excellence of the 2015 vintage reminds me of my first year working at The Society back in 2006.
The talk then was of the brilliance of the 2005 vintage, which was similarly hugely successful across much of Europe. My first few tasks were to write about this ‘Vintage of a Generation’ and my capacity for superlatives was being tested to the limit.
This was my first exposure to the concept of buying wines en primeur, ie purchasing wines that not only were nowhere near being ready to drink but not even bottled or shipped.
Persuaded no doubt by the overwhelming pulling power of my purple prose, I decided to put my money where my mouth was and take the plunge.
And all I can think now is why on earth didn’t I buy more?!
Just before Christmas I withdrew one of the mixed cases I had bought from the 2005 Rhône & Languedoc-Roussillon en primeur campaign and had been keeping in The Society’s Members’ Reserves storage facility since.
The case in question was the 2005 Languedoc First Growth Case and includes a roll-call of the great and the good of the South of France. And it provided all the wow factor I needed over the Christmas period.
• The one I was keenest to try was the Coteaux du Languedoc, Prieuré Saint Jean de Bébian and it didn’t disappoint. Deliciously à point, this thrilling blend of syrah, grenache and mourvèdre confidently treads that fine line between power and elegance.
• I may have broached the cabernet sauvignon-dominant Mas de Daumas Gassac, Vin de Pays de l’Hérault a tad early; it was still mature and delicious but I think that I’ll leave the second bottle until next Christmas.
• Conversely, the Domaine de Perdiguier, Cuvée d’en Auger, Vin de Pays des Côteaux d’Ensérune may have been better last Christmas (the initial recommended drink date was indeed for 2015) but it was still a great taste experience.
• Domaine Alquier’s Faugères Les Bastides couldn’t have been better: all velvety richness and concentration.
• Domaine Madeloc Collioure Magenca was very mature and a tad raisiny, but I mean that as a compliment. The primary fruit flavours had all but disappeared to leave a rich, mineral, spicy, earthy complexity.
• The Roc d’Anglade, Vin de Pays du Gard was extraordinarily fine and elegant, and could easily have been mistaken for a very posh northern Rhône costing many times its price.
And let’s talk about the price, as that for me was the real bonus part of the whole experience and one I hadn’t really anticipated. I paid for the wines in 2007 and the duty and VAT in 2008. So long ago that, such is my head-in-the-sand attitude to personal finances, I felt that these fine wines were now, to all intents and purposes, free.
Sure I did have to pay for their storage in the interim but even so a little research online suggests that were I able to find these wines now (no small task in itself) it would have cost me a darn sight more than I had shelled out. Furthermore, if you factor in the pleasure of the anticipation of enjoying your purchases then I’ve had more than a decade of mouthwatering expectation!
That isn’t the point, of course, and it shouldn’t matter, but it does add to the rather smug satisfaction one experiences when you pull the cork.
I did my best to hide my self-satisfaction when sharing these special bottles, but even if I failed to suppress it then I’m not sure that anyone would have noticed. They were too busy enjoying the wines! I’m delighted to see that we’re expanding the range of wines we offer en primeur. In 2016 we offered wines from Ridge in California and the Cape’s Meerlust as well as the usual suspects from the classic French regions, and we have plans to continue to look further afield in 2017.
I for one will be buying as much as I can afford, including a good chunk of our 2015 Rhône and Languedoc-Roussillon allocation and I advise you to do the same. A decade or so down the line I’m certain that you’ll be very glad you did!
Head of Content & Communications
Our en primeur offer of the 2015 Rhône and Languedoc-Roussillon vintage is available until 8pm, Tuesday 28th February.
Recently I was at my village wine club tasting (nothing to do with my job at The Wine Society) in the local parish rooms for a tasting. Our host Simon brought along some wines he’d bought en primeur, some from us and some from another merchant.
He wanted to see how the wines had developed and to see if buying them en primeur had ‘paid its way’ in terms of initial cost (including storage) vs how much the wines would cost now.
The wines were great (with just one that was ever so slightly past its best), and Simon had done his calculations and seen that, for those wines which he could still get, the prices now were much higher on almost all the wines.
It was a fascinating evening for me as I look after our en primeur offers at The Society and it was very reassuring to meet another wine drinker so interested in it and getting such satisfaction from the service; both in terms of value and, more importantly, pleasure from the experience.
I buy en primeur myself mainly for the enjoyment and delayed gratification of having it stored away – sometimes for decades – only to get them out, having long forgotten what I paid for them and slightly smug about being able to drink something so mature that not many others can!
So it was nice that, for the wines we had last night anyway, the numbers also made great sense…
I did come in to work the next morning feeling that what I do gives enormous amounts of pleasure to a lot of our members and it offers good value too. Oh, and none of the wines were the stellar-expensive wines you often hear about – most were in the £15-£40 bracket.
With our 2015 Rhône offer available now, it also felt like a good time to share the experience!
Fine Wine Manager
Here are some quick notes from what we tasted:
1. Three vintages of Clos Floridène Blanc, one of members’ favourite dry whites from Bordeaux.
Clos Floridène Blanc, Graves 2010
Real class here – exactly what you’d hope for from this excellent wine and vintage. The sauvignon blanc and semillon that make up the blend were in perfect balance, and this wine will still keep for some time yet.
Clos Floridène Blanc, Graves 2009
Still very good too with real class and finesse, and a long satisfying finish.
Clos Floridène Blanc, Graves 2007
Sadly this wine was just outside its drink date and should have been drunk already. It was slightly oxidised but still interesting, but its mature flavours may not be for everyone.
2. Four vintages of Vacqueyras Saint Roch from Clos de Cazaux. This family-owned southern Rhône producer is another popular name at The Society, featuring regularly in our regular and en primeur offers – not to mention being the source of our Exhibition Vacqueyras – so I was especially intrigued to taste these.
Vacqueyras Saint Roch, Clos de Cazaux 2010
From a great year, this is still muscular and would benefit from further ageing. You could certainly see its potential though. Keep for two more years: will make a fab bottle.
Vacqueyras Saint Roch, Clos de Cazaux 2009
Similarly young as per the 2010 and would be better kept for longer, although the 2009 was lighter in weight. Still highly enjoyable.
Vacqueyras Saint Roch, Clos de Cazaux 2008
Smoother and more mature, this was just about ready, and backed up by some appealing sweetness of fruit.
Vacqueyras Saint Roch, Clos de Cazaux 2007
Wonderful wine – for me, this is what what en primeur is all about. Totally à point, this is all chocolate and cream, with the freshness that demanded we try a second glass! Best wine of the night for me.
3. Three vintages of Château Dutruch Grand Poujeaux, a bit of a Bordeaux ‘insider’s tip’ gaining an increasingly large following for its excellent claret, which is offered at reasonable prices.
Château Dutruch Grand Poujeaux, Moulis-en-Médoc 2009
Lovely sweetness here, and quite tannic. Not typical of 2009, so without the heaviness I sometimes associate with the vintage. Good wine.
Château Dutruch Grand Poujeaux, Moulis-en-Médoc 2008
Leave a little longer: quite typical of 2008 (not my favourite vintage) in its austerity, but the quality was evident and there is more to come from this wine.
Château Dutruch Grand Poujeaux, Moulis-en-Médoc 2005
From a classic vintage, this is now ready but was drier than I thought. Slightly muscular, and would come into its own with food.
4. Two vintages of Château Suduiraut, Sauternes, one of the grandest sweet wines one can find in Bordeaux, and which still offers excellent value for its quality.
Château Suduiraut, Sauternes 2010
This is rich but also very fine with lovely balancing freshness, and will keep well. Marmalade nose and lemony freshness on the palate but rich too.
Château Suduiraut, Sauternes 1997
A lovely contrast to the 2010 with the aromas and flavours that come with maturity. A barley-sugar nose but rich on the palate, and again with good acidity. Needs drinking now but won’t go over the top for a few years. Very good indeed!
A few of us from around The Wine Society sat down with buyer Marcel Orford-Williams the other day to plan the forthcoming en primeur offer of the 2015 Rhône vintage. The wines will be available to order in late January.
The picture Marcel painted for us was of an excellent vintage, and our message to members is to start getting excited.
Weather patterns were complex and it’s a difficult vintage to generalise. Annoying for those of us who enjoy the simplicity of summaries, but stimulating stuff for those of us who enjoy exploring the numerous fascinating differences between wine regions. Being both of those things myself, I was unsure how to feel about it… until the wines were poured.
Each one of them was a joy. Tasting and talking with Marcel, it seems that the principal uniting factors in the 2015s are to do with generosity and pleasure. Even given the Rhône’s impressive run of form over the last few vintages, this is the sort of vintage that will delight aficionados, and would make a great first en primeur buy if you’ve yet to take the plunge. Most will be delicious throughout their drinking windows, with younger wines being gorgeously approachable but complex and fine too.
The northern Rhône’s reds performed superbly overall, with Côte-Rôtie and Crozes-Hermitage looking especially successful. In the south, where the majority of wine is made, the picture is inevitably more complicated, but the successes are quite magnificent, and there are some very special wines indeed. The more mountainous areas tended to perform best: lovers of Vinsobres and Gigondas, for example, are in for a particular treat.
The white wines are rich, powerful yet balanced and rather wonderful. There will be fewer on offer than in 2014, but they will be worth looking out for.
Another exciting announcement is that Marcel has decided to feature some new faces in the forthcoming offer – more news on that very soon. Keep an eye on your letterboxes, inboxes and thewinesociety.com for the end of January!
Digital Content & Comms Editor
They say that every dog has its day.
Well, a quick browse of the web will quickly reveal that not just every dog but pretty much everything else has its day also!
For instance, did you know that September alone plays host to International One-Hit Wonder Day, Teddy Bear Day, Love Note Day (aww) and – my personal favourite – International Red Panda day (it’s the 21st for those who were wondering)?
So why should we even bat an eyelid at International Grenache Day?
International Grenache Day, or IGD, is on the third Friday in September (presumably it lost out on the first and second Friday slots to International Bring Your Manners To Work Day and those troublesome teddy bears I mentioned earlier). Why should we care?
Well, here’s what the team behind IGD have to say:
Why should you care about grenache, one of the most widely planted and least known red grapes in the world? Because you love wine; because you are bored with merlots and pinot noirs; because you are fascinated with pairing just the right wine with your foods; because you have an insatiable curiosity for the finer things in life; because your mother always said you should learn something new every day.
Maybe they have a point! It does offer the opportunity (or should that be excuse?) to try a whole load of different wines made from grenache. This is certainly something not to be sniffed at – if you’ll excuse the pun: given that grenache is so widely planted it’s still relatively low key compared to the cabernets and pinots of the wine world.
Pretty much all the major wine regions produce some decent single-varietal or grenache-blended wines. If trying to stick a pin in its spiritual home, most would aim for France’s southern Rhône valley, where it plays a big part in the wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Spain would likely be another popular choice: here garnacha, as it is known here, can produce exceptional everyday wines and provide an important ingredient in Rioja wines.
But there’s plenty of choice globally when looking for grenache. Its popularity with winemakers looks set to grow, mainly due to global warming, as it has an ability to thrive in dry, hot climates and is fairly drought resistant.
Its ability to work well in blends is simultaneously its strong suite and its Achilles heel, sometimes suffering from sharing the limelight with better-known varieties.
That’s not to say that there aren’t some cracking single-varietal wines available (check out this beauty made from old vines by specialist Domaines Lupier in Spain, for instance); but grenache’s ability to contribute to a blend is where, for many, its true genius lies.
So what does grenache add to a blend? I asked our Buying Team for their thoughts and the recurring themes were juiciness and generosity of fruit, strawberry and raspberry flavours, and a sweet, ripe character. On its own, grenache can deliver quite high levels of alcohol, so blending it with other lower-alcohol varieties can be useful in providing balance in a wine. As Rhône buyer Marcel Orford-Williams put it:
‘At its simplest grenache makes round, heartwarming wines. At its best it has real majesty.’
Whether in a blend or pure and unadulterated, we therefore feel that grenache is a grape worth exploring. So if you’re not in the mood for International Teddy Bear Day, do consider raising a glass of grenache on Friday!
We guarantee it will provide more pleasure than International One Hit Wonder Day!
Marketing Campaign Manager
Ideas for celebrating International Grenache Day:
• Indulge in some vinotherapy by covering yourself in crushed grenache grapes and honey. Very good for the skin apparently.
• The International Grenache Case features six delicious under-£10 grenache wines selected by our buyers, and is available for £48 (including UK delivery).
• Go to The Society’s Cellar Showroom in Stevenage where all the wines featured in this case will be available to taste free of charge on Friday 16th September.
• Join in the conversation on social media: use the #GrenacheDay hashtag to share any grenache highlights and see what others are enjoying.
• Enjoy some delicious grenache wines!
Think of Burgundy and, for most, whites and reds share equal interest.
Think of the Rhône, however, and invariably it’s the region’s generous spicy reds that tend to spring to mind.
I’ve been singing the praises of white Rhône for many years, particularly when asked by Society members for a white wine to serve with food. It seems my interest is shared as in recent years there has been a growth in plantings of white varieties in the region.
Condrieu is well-known, and the white wines of Saint-Péray continue to garner deserved recognition. White Hermitage and Châteauneuf-du-Pape can take on a sherry-like nuttiness with age. The white wines of these four crus provide a rich palette of options for food.
However, perhaps the most exciting of my own recent finds have been younger white Rhônes, which offer more accessible appeal, freshness and fragrance, alongside that same generosity you get from their red cousins.
There really is no such thing as a typical white Rhône, due in no small part to the fact that so many grape varieties can be used. For me, this just adds to their charm: with such diversity available, there is a wine to suit nearly every occasion.
Furthermore, recent vintages have been very impressive, including the remarkable 2014s.
Some white Rhônes (and food matches) to try:
• Grignan-les-Adhémar Blanc Cuvée Gourmandise, Domaine de Montine 2015 (£7.50) offers a very respectable introduction. The perfumed viognier grape stands proud in the blend, providing a fruit-driven framework that would suit a multitude of salad options; my favourite would be a chargrilled chicken breast salad with a touch of Caesar salad sauce.
• Vacqueyras Blanc Les Clefs d’Or, Clos des Cazaux 2013 (£11.95) is a bone-dry white but with a touch of roundness and fruit from grenache blanc and roussanne. A tried and tested pan-fried prawn favourite!
• Lirac Blanc La Fermade, Domaine Maby 2014 (£8.95) shows off the charms of this underrated southern village. The base is grenache blanc, but the ingenious addition of some early-picked picpoul introduces a vivacious, almost Burgundian feel, which works beautifully with smoked salmon.
• Laudun Blanc, Domaine Pélaquié 2014 (£9.50) is a full-flavoured herb-infused gem with a delicate sweet nuttiness to the flavour. Great with roasted squash.
• Côtes-du-Rhône Blanc, Guigal 2014 (£9.95) is a fragrant generous gastronomic delight, the viognier grape lending its aromatic qualities to the blend and making it a good partner with mild curry.
• Viognier, Grignan-les-Adhémar, Domaine de Montine 2015 (£9.50) employs oak subtly, creating a creamy-textured background for the characteristic apricot notes of viognier. Try with fish pie.
So whether it’s salad, seafood, squash, curry or pie on the menu, the Rhône’s white wines offer a multitude of matches. I do hope you’ll give one a go.
The Cellar Showroom
Once upon a time, Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Tavel were the only two named ‘crus’ of the southern Rhône.
But of course it is the ambition of every village to aspire to cru status.
Making it happen can be a long process and has to involve a Paris-based body called INAO which stands for the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine. It alone can decree that Brie de Meaux can be called Brie de Meaux or that Chambertin can be called Chambertin.
In the case of Cairanne, that process seemed interminable.
The case for Cru Cairanne began when the appellations were first created back in the 1930s. Growers then were far-seeing, and even then had begun by insisting on low yields and that only a certain number of grape varieties could be used.
There were geological surveys, an infinite number of tastings and meetings, and plenty of politics and negotiations to determine which could be crus and which vineyards couldn’t.
What makes a good Cairanne?
With a majority of grenache in the blend, Cairanne is never going to be anything less than a full-bodied, generous wine with a certain fruity charm and tannins that should always be well integrated and soft.
The upshot is that Cairanne is now the 17th cru of the Côtes-du-Rhône, joining the likes of Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Hermitage; and it applies to both red and white wine though red is by far the more important.
As far as we are concerned, it means that from the 2015 vintage just ‘Cairanne’ need appear on the label. Goodbye ‘Côtes-du-Rhône Villages’!
Quality won’t change that much as most growers have been making such brilliant wine anyway. Yields are a little lower which will mean that the wines should have more substance and greater concentration.
Cairanne itself is a delightful place to visit. It’s an old village, typically laid out, Provence style, on a hill with a church at the top, lots of winding lanes and plenty of character.
These days there are some good places to eat with the choice possibly headed by the Tourne au Verre. This is very central and has an excellent wine list with most if not all Cairanne producers represented. The food is good and simple, and one can eat outside in the summer.
The 2015 vintage is looking very promising, and some of the wines will soon be in bottle.
As for the 2016 vintage, flowering is still a little way off but so far so good…
So, roll on Cairanne, the Rhône’s newest cru!
Around a year ago, a small party of lucky members, random winners of our Buyers’ Tour competition, met up one morning in Saint Pancras.
Six hours or so later, we were in the Rhône valley tasting our first wine. The highlight of the trip was a safari-style excursion in Gigondas, aboard two Land Rovers, one coming from Clos de Cazaux, the other generously on loan from the Beaumes de Venise co-op.
Jean-Michel Vache bought the Cazaux land rover ex-United Nations, where it had seen service in Bosnia and Kossovo. But that’s another story!
The trip had been hugely successful and it got me thinking:
Why not bring Gigondas to the UK?
The Land Rovers were left behind.
Instead five Gigondas producers came over, first to London and then the following day to Newcastle, and they gave an hour-long masterclass on Gigondas as part of our annual Rhône event.
There were eight vintages shown, from the youthful fruit of a 2014 to the majesty of 2007.
Gigondas itself was represented by the aforementioned Jean-Michel Vache, showing a mighty 2009, Thierry Faravel of Domaine la Bouïssière, Jean-Baptiste Meunier of Moulin de la Gardette, Louis Barruol of Chateau Saint-Cosme and Henri-Claude Amadieu of Domaine Amadieu.
A reason why it worked so well is that the growers are all mates, some very close, so there was no infighting and no jealousies.
Gigondas is a not an especially large appellation and all of it pulls well together. It is heartening to see members’ enthusiasm for the wines on the rise, and perhaps we’ll do it again sometime!
In the meantime, our current offering of affordable pleasures from the excellent Rhône 2014 vintage features a delicious juicy red from Moulin de Gardette (£13.50), as well as what would be a blueprint for white Gigondas, if such a wine legally existed, from Amadieu (£9.95).
Below is one of the recent additions, from one of the Rhône’s brightest winemaking talents, Richard Maby of Domaine Maby.
The Wine Society has championed the wines of Domaine Maby for almost 40 years. Situated in Lirac, across the river from Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the soil here is also scattered with the famous ‘galets’ or pudding stones that litter the vineyards of its better-known neighbour.
The property has vineyards in the Lirac, Tavel and Côtes-du-Rhône appellations and the wines, in red, white and rosé, feature regularly on our Lists and en primeur offers and continue to offer excellent value for money.
Richard Maby took over the running of the estate from his father in 2005, re-energising the business and taking it to new heights, together with his wife Natasha.
Before returning to take up the role of vigneron, Richard worked in the French Stock Exchange in Paris. Alongside wine, Richard is also a lover of opera, as members may have gathered from the names of some of his cuvées (Nessun Dorma, Cast Diva, Prima Donna)!
1. When did you know that you wanted to work in the family business?
I always knew that I would work in the family business. I just needed to wait for my father to retire!
2. What’s the most memorable bottle you’ve drunk?
Cheval Blanc 1964, the same age as me!
3. Do you swap wine with other producers? If so with whom?
I swap wine regularly with other producers and especially with very good and friendly producers like Gilles Ferand and Marcel Richaud.
4. Your cellar is about to be flooded. What bottle would you save?
Some bottles of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti that I bought went I worked for the Stock Exchange.
5. Who would you most like to share a bottle with?
With my wife, as I do almost every evening!
6. If you could travel back in time and redo one vintage which one would it be?
2005, because it was a wonderful vintage and my first one. I think that if I would manage it as I do today, the wines would be extraordinary.
8. If your winemaking philosophy could be described in three words what would they be?
Respect of the terroir, respect of the grapes, respect of the wine
9. What is your most memorable food and wine match?
Escalope of foie gras with oranges and a three year-old Tavel Prima Donna.
10. What would be your desert-island wine?
Château Rayas (Châteauneuf-du-Pape).
11. If you weren’t a winemaker, what would you be?
I suppose I would still work for the Stock Exchange…
12. If you could only work with one grape variety, what would it be and why?
Normally trade tastings in Paris are to be avoided. So often they are overcrowded with dozens if not hundreds of tasters packed into small spaces, pushing and shoving along with scribblers, sommeliers and merchants representing the dozens of small independent Parisian wine shops. But this was no ordinary tasting.
As for Paris, with all that has happened, it was not quite business as usual. The Tuesday felt more like a Sunday with maybe a few more frantic police cars about, and the Eurostar was maybe half full with so many business meetings put on hold or cancelled.
I walked from Pont Saint-Michel to the Avenue Montaigne and was struck by the beauty of the place. It felt good to back.The event itself, possibly a first, reunited a majority of producers from two neighbouring and complementary appellations, Cornas and Saint-Péray.
It was a rare opportunity to taste from practically every producer.
If nothing else it showed the increasing confidence that seems to be there. They are probably not the best-known appellations of the northern Rhône, lagging behind Crozes-Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie, but they make up for that with youthful enthusiasm and obvious talent.
The main town in the area is Valence and its growth has threatened the existence of both these appellations. Indeed Saint-Péray, now more a small town rather than a village, nearly did disappear under the concrete of developers. It took the concerted work of growers, negociants and the local co-op to keep it alive.
It probably explains some of the dynamism that clearly exists here. There is a real pioneering spirit which of course is essential here of all places: this is, after all, not an easy place to grown grapes. The cost of labour involved in these hillside vineyards, with their terracing and dry stone walls, is huge.Cornas
Of the two, Cornas is the better known, and the largest. With recent expansion, Cornas is now slightly larger than Hermitage but with twice as many growers and more of them are involved in making and selling wine. Cornas itself has a real village feel to it with the old buildings huddled around the church, mostly along the Grand Rue. The community is close knit and is mostly involved in wine in some way. The cemetery and war memorial are full of the same names.
Cornas still has the image of an old-fashioned, rustic wine with fearful tannins, a cross maybe between Rhône and Madiran or Cahors. The wines always needed keeping often at least ten years before they had softened enough. These were manly wines to go with manly dishes, invariably the result of a day’s shoot. But why should the wines of Cornas be any less elegant than Hermitage?
The reason is winemaking. It should be remembered that being a vigneron in Cornas was never considered a full-time occupation. Even today, there is often a day job as an electrician or mechanic. So there was never much time for cellar work and wines were left to fend for themselves. Wines were traditionally left on the skins for weeks, and the practice of removing stems was unheard of. Moreover, syrah here ripens well and quite naturally produces a wine with a good deal of tannin. The revolution came in the 1980s and 90s with growers like Alain Voge who were determined to change the style and that perception of rusticity.
Cornas is said to be granite and that is largely true, but in places there is some limestone mixed in, and some clay too, and these differences have an effect on the wine. There are also different expositions and more importantly still, wide differences in altitude. Many of the best producers have parcels in different plots.
Cornas: the main plots
• Saint-Pierre: altitude, freshness and elegance. Saint-Pierre and the heights above is where Cornas was extended (overextended some say as the grapes don’t always ripen, as was the case in 2013).
• Chaillots: northern slope. Steep with lots of old vines. Chalk mixed in with clay. Big structured wines for long-term keeping.
• Les Eygats: colour and structure, often with quite high acidity. Here too, the wines invariably need keeping.
• Reynards: a very well-exposed granite slope. Perfect exposition. Full-bodied wines, big ripeness levels.
• Southern slopes, including La Côte, Sabarotte and Patou: granite too but with clay. Weighty, fat wines, which are very rich and complex.
A few growers are making single-vineyard wines but most do not, preferring instead to achieve complexity by blending. It should be said too that vineyard holdings tend to be very small.
Effectively rescued from a building site, Saint-Péray has real potential to make exciting white wine.
Curiously its call to fame was sparkling wine, and indeed at one time these wines fetched better prices than Champagne. Richard Wagner was a fan: he wrote Parsifal while drinking it. Must have been a sizeable bottle!
The reputation suffered and quality tumbled, and other wines improved. The raison d’être was simple enough; the largely limestone soils were perfect for growing white grapes, and somehow the wines kept their freshness. Today less than 10% of Saint-Péray is sparkling though growers are keen to develop it. The rest is still. Made from marsanne, often on its own but sometimes with roussanne, the wines have Rhône-like flavours of honey and lemon, but with more grip.
• Frank Balthazar: a nephew of the great Noël Verset. Good Chaillots here in an elegant style. Makes two wines: the first, from young vines, is of no interest but the old-vines Chaillots is different and we occasionally buy it.
• Domaine Mickaël Bourg: new to me. Mostly Saint-Pierre. Fairly elegant 2012. Quite good. Better than the frankly uninspiring Saint-Péray.
• Domaine Clape: traditional style. No destemming, so the wines are often a little austere when young. Two wines: Cuvée Renaissance is made from younger vines. The 2013 was a bit tetchy. The top wine, which has no cuvée name, also 2013, was quite splendid: thick and rich and wonderful. Tiny quantities, not enough for us sadly.
• Domaine du Coulet: new-wave Cornas and the antithesis of Clape. Expression of very ripe fruit. All destemmed. Very black, concentrated and ultra smooth. Would love to see how well the wine lasts. Certainly impressive.
• Chapoutier: better known for Hermitage. Fairly modern approach to Cornas. Elegant and refined but maybe a little lacking in personality. A second cuvée, made in conjuncture with 3 Michelin star chef Anne-Sophie Pic seemed more rewarding with better length. I was less keen on the Saint-Péray, which seemed dull.
• Domaine Courbis: generous yet stylish, these are all lovely wines in a modern style, polished and presentable. Champelrose is the entry-level wine and very good value; approachable when young. Lovely 2013 Les Eygats: tight, sinewy and dark. Needing time, especially the 2013. The 2012 Sabarotte was immense, plump and fat. Outstanding.
• Yves Cuilleron: to be honest, he is better known for Condrieu and Côte-Rôtie. Neither his Cornas or Saint-Péray seem to click.
• Durand: two very talented brothers, Eric and Joël. Lovely white which we don’t yet do, but made in small quantities. Two Cornas: ‘Les Prémices’ is a young-vines cuvée for the restaurant market. Very easy but probably not very Cornas like. ‘Les Empreintes is made with old vines from lots of small plots. Modern style, elegant yet concentrated. Brilliant value for money.
• Guy Farge: Saint-Péray was 90% roussanne but was 2013 vintage and maybe a little tired. Cornas from Reynards was pretty sound.
• Ferraton: small house run by Chapoutier, but independent, and always impressive. Didn’t disappoint. Cornas blend called Grands Muriers was good. Single vineyard ‘Patou’ was stunning as was Les Eygats. White somewhat dull.
• Paul Jaboulet Ainé: authoritative. Gorgeous Saint-Péray 2014: fine, bright and clean. Cornas 2011 was just perfect to drink now: soft and fleshy with a sweet, spicy finish. 1996 Saint-Pierre stole the show. Outstanding. Essence of truffle and spice. Lovely weight and length.
• Domaine Lionnet: related to Jean Lionnet and one of the Cornas families. Workmanlike Cornas in 2014 & 2013. Lacked finesse – hard act to follow after Jaboulet though!
• Leménicier: had always wanted to taste his wines but was frankly disappointed. Not helped by oxidised sample of 2014.
• Domaine des Lises: new to me. Grower from Pont-de-l’Isère so presumably also a Crozes producer. Disappointing. Not fine.
• Johann Michel: Saint-Péray based. Two Cornas wines: first is light and easy but not really interesting. Second, called ‘Jana’, altogether different and much more interesting: both 2014 & 2013 were brilliant. Weighty white which I liked less.
• Rémy Nodin: new to me – new guy and ex-Tain co-op member. Still learning and has some way to go yet.
• Julien Pilon: like Cuilleron, more of a Condrieu-based producer. I did not like his offerings from down here.
• François Villard: he too is better known for Condrieu but in this case his Saint-Péray were perfectly good, especially the rich and fat ‘Version’. Modern take on Cornas. Attractive but un-Cornas like maybe.
• Tain Co-operative: such a big player with so many aces up its sleeves and yet… The Saint-Péray was sound but no more than that and the Cornas from 2011 and 2013 vintages seem to suffer from excessive and unintegrated oak. Overall disappointing. But I know things are changing there so one lives in hope.
• Nicolas Perrin: lovely Cornas. Modern style with poise but also depth. 2013 fab. Still learning about Saint-Péray and not there quite yet. Worth keeping a look out for.
• Laure Colombo: her father is enologist and negociant. She is talented grower in Saint-Péray and Cornas. White 2014 was floral and attractive. Cornas ‘Terres Brûlées’ is a blend with part Eygats and Chaillots. Gorgeous 2013. ‘La louvee’ is from well-exposed La Côte. Very impressive 2013. ‘Ruchets’ from Chaillots is the top wine and also very impressive. Lovely wines indeed.
• Dumien-Serrette: favourite grower with old vines, especially in Patou. Just the one wine, 2013 Cornas. A real joy: packed with blackcurrant fruit, full and complex, slightly wild and exuberant and untamed. Will need a few years yet.
• Vins de Vienne: a negociant company set up by Yves Cuilleron, François Villard and Pierre Gaillard. Has been in the doldrums but now back on form. Stunning Saint-Péray, especially ‘Bialères’, in a flattering, oaky style. ‘Archeveque’ oaky and needs time but very good. Cornas was sound enough.
• Domaine Du Tunnel: this is named because there really is a disused railway tunnel on the estate in Saint-Péray which has now been converted into a spectacular and effective cellar. Spectacular for a railway enthusiast, that is! Stéphane Robert is the winemaker and owner of what is without doubt the top estate in Saint-Péray. He makes four wines from different ages of vine and different plots and including one full-flavoured cuvée of pure roussanne. The best wine is the Cuvée Prestige, made from 80% marsanne and 20% roussanne raised in barrel. It’s a wonderful wine, fine with clarity, precision and pleasure. The Cornas is equally polished and assured.
• Domaine Voge: Alain Voge was an important figurehead in the story of both appellations and was one of those who broke away from the past to create a modern style of wine. Alain has been unwell for some time and has taken a back seat leaving the running of his business to the very dynamic Alberic Mazoyer, who used to be chef de cave at Chapoutier. Brilliant wines across the range. Three Saint-Péray, the best coming from old vines and called ‘Fleur de Crussol’, and three Cornas: Vieille Fontaine is the top wine and only rarely produced. Cuvée Vieilles Vignes though is very impressive. Outstanding 2013 with 2014 also looking very promising.
There were a few absentees like Thierry Allemand, who very rarely ever leaves his vines.
But this was an exceptional tasting.
I visited the Rhône recently for a week to begin tasting the 2014s, taking in the northern whites in particular.
Growers were in the middle of picking the 2015 fruit and cellars were busy. Wellington boots were much in evidence, essential footwear for cellar work during this time. It is often said that to make wine you need to use a lot of water. Very true. After a busy day everything gets hosed down from floors, tanks and wine presses; everything needs to be spotless for the next truckload of grapes. Good hygiene is every bit as important as the quality of the grapes.Distances are not much of an issue so going from one cellar to the other: around six or seven in a day is quite possible. The first two days centred on the two small towns of Ampuis and Condrieu. Such is their proximity and fragmented ownership of vineyard, that most growers make wines from at least two appellations and often three.
First was Christophe Pichon, who has clearly benefited from having sent his son to make wine in Australia. New ideas such as sulphur-free vinification have given this estate a real boost. Theyhave made lovely 2014s, especially the Condrieu which I thought was one of the best.
The next two meetings were up the hill, on the plateau were temperatures in winter can be significantly lower than down in the valley and were wines often age just a little more slowly. Emmanuel Barou was delighted with 2014, as he was with 2015 which he was still picking. For once, his yields were normal. ‘My banker will be pleased,’ he said. So will members, because both his Condrieu and Viognier vin de Pays are clearly outstanding.Highlights in the afternoon continued with Côte-Rôtie from two top estates: Domaines Duclaux and Barge. Gorgeous reds from both. I’ll try to encapsulate the style of 2014 a little later, save to say that this is a vintage for pleasure.
There was more from Condrieu the following day, from three iconic growers, François Villard, André Perret and Robert Niéro. All made delicious whites and these will be available to members in the January en primeur offer.
And so the tour progressed, ending up in Saint-Péray and Cornas, a couple of days after the great Noël Verset had been laid to rest. In some ways the best was served up last. This was a visit to Domaine de Tunnel and for the first time actually visiting the tunnel which Stephanne bought several years ago. In fact his interest then were fore the old marsanne vines that happened to grow on top of a disused railway tunnel. The railway closed in 1930 and so the tunnel came cheap. A couple of years ago, Stephanne took the plunge and built a new cellar within the tunnel. I thought his were among the classiest tasted during the week, both white and red.
I go back to the Rhône in a fortnight and undoubtedly will have more so to say on both the 2015 and 2014 vintages.
But there already things that can be said about 2014:Firstly, it is clearly exceptional for whites from all grape varieties. In some ways the whites are similar to 2013. There is the same precision, freshness and grip but with a little more roundness and flesh. These are really winning wines that will give pleasure early. For fine drinking next summer, the 2014 Condrieus will be outstanding.
The reds too are delicious. There the accent is on fruit and charm. The wines have plenty of colour and vibrancy and have sweet-tasting tannins. I was very pleased by the way the 2013s are turning out but the best of these will need keeping a while. The 2014s will be more immediate and give pleasure much sooner.
One always tries to talk vintage comparison with growers but such discussion seems to get harder as every vintage seems so different to anything that might have happened before. And so it is the case with 2014, where there was enough heat to ripen the grapes. Spring had been especially hot and summer relatively cool and sometimes wet.
And then there was the unwelcome visit of Drosophila Suzukii, a pesty little fruit fly with a predilection for ripe, healthy black grapes. So growers spent agonising extra hours in the vineyard, getting rid of affected bunches, even berries. Hard work often pays and it has done so in this 2014 vintage.
Wines of the week?
Condrieu from Domaine Pichon and Saint-Péray from Domaine de Tunnel for the whites. As for the reds, Cornas Vieilles Vignes from Domaine Voge.
And I can’t wait to get back.