|Guigal Vs. Chapoutier.|
Of course, geology moves much more slowly than my anxious brain would have it, and we finally find Pierre Jean Villa.
The Northern Rhone is not much like what they would have you believe in the wine books. For a long time, when I thought of Cote Rotie, I thought of 2 climats (single vineyards) : Cote Blonde and Cote Brune. And certainly Chapoutier and Guigal did a fantastic job of convincing us all to think of this glorious little region too simplistically. There are 69 separate climat in three different communes (Saint-Cyr-Sur-Le-Rhone, Ampuis & Tupin-Et-Semons) in an approximately 7 km stretch (encompassing nearly 283 ha of vines), and over 13 different strata shifts that present, sublimate and emerge throughout. The Rhone Valley is a geological grave, a graben, a tectonic rift, a result of the formation of the Swiss Alps and the Vosges Mountains. A painful protracted, evolution, this formation, that started in Precambrian days and was still going in the Cenozoic era. The Rhone Valley separates the Alps from the Massif Central (you can see Mont Blanc whilst standing in the vineyards of Cote Rotie). The west side of this steep pente forms the vineyards of Cote Rotie, Condrieu, Chateau Grillet & Saint-Joseph. There is a geological shift at Tournon (see map) and south of that clay seeps in, at Hermitage & Crozes Hermitage, then limestone at Cornas, and then, at Saint-Peray dark marl, black earth.
|The Rhone Graben|
Our first visit is with Stephane Ogier (Annie is a representative of the Robert Kacher Portfolio), in the late morning and the sun is still shining. This will change. We have come from the Lyon train station, where I picked up Annie M-G, and the Citroen. We will learn later, in a dangerous, disturbing way, that Annie cannot drive a stick shift. I had been in Avignon the night before though and already had TGV'd up the countryside, nursing a wicked Ricard hangover. Ogier's facility and family home are tucked away behind the one main road of Ampuis, a small village that boasts a castle, 2500 people and a few little shops, cafes and tabacs. And a whole lot of Syrah vines. Because we are unable to convert meters into feet very well, and there is a sign indicating that Ogier is 600m from the corner, we drive past his house 13 times. Annie starts screaming 'Stephane' into the tranquil streets and dogs begin to bark. They are barking in French.
We find Stephane, tall with a willowy, almost fragile in build, atypical for a Rhodanien, dripping with enthusiasm and energy. The man vibrates, an electric fence, and it is clear he has arranged an epic tasting for us. Plus a vineyard tour. Anne explains in her halted and grammatically-challenged French that we have another appointment in two hours. The fence looks crushed for a moment, and before we know it, we are headed up the western pente in a shitty smelling, uncovered jeep whose brakes don't seem to work. It is now raining and he takes the especially curvy sections of the road, the edges of which are composed of destabilized talus, at alarming speeds.
|Okay, not a Bouvier des Flandres but you get the point.|
I finally resort to crawling up, as they are coming down. Annie asks, "Did you fall?", and we climb back into that steamy jalopy, and the wet interior intensifies the smell of soil and reduction that seems to be a part of the jeep's personal terroir. I am hungry and irritated.
Stephane walks us through 16 barrel samples, all single 2011 climats and some of his 2010s. The thing about a barrel sample, especially when it involves oily, reductive, thick-skinned Syrah, is that a great weariness is foist upon the palate, a torrent of unresolved acids, segregated oak, and the turgid intensity of an entity who has not yet found harmony. It is important to taste wines out of barrel, to know wines in their nervous childhoods, so years later, when you taste them again in their glass bottle homes, when they have matured, and changed and improved, you can remember them as babies, and use these experiences to extrapolate their aging potentials, and optimal drinking windows.
Stephane's wines, even in this deleterious barrel state, however, are tremendously good and I am excited. The work he is doing in Seyssuel is of particular interest to me, especially the L'Ame Soeur bottling. These are wines worth buying and putting away.
With blue teeth and empty stomachs, we head up into Ampuis to get coffee and something to eat. Of course, because it is France and it is 2pm, nothing is open. We grab buttery ham and cheese sandwiches, wolf them down in the car on our way up to see Jean-Paul Jamet. It begins to rain again as we make our way up the curved and narrow lanes, through the vineyards at Ampuis, echalats surrounding us. The back tires slip on the rock strewn roads- I drive about 5 miles per hour whilst the rest of the Rhodaniens whip past us at NASCAR-esque speeds.
Mr Jamet is a small, wiry man. His agility and lower center of gravity probably give him an advantage harvesting on the steep cliffs. Mr. Jamet also speaks no English. None. And he is very insistent that we taste from every 2011 barrel (25 if you want a count). He speaks very slowly, with a strong regional accent.
Jamet does not elevage all his climats separately, but seems to have a pattern of working. For instance, for 2011, the following climat rested together in barrel:
Les Moutonnes/Fongeant/Cote Bodin
Layot/ Le Truchet/Bonnivieres
Le Plomb/ Mornachon.
In 2010, the following rested together:
Landonne/ Cote Blonde, Cote Rozier/Mouton,
and then separately Lancement which is sometimes referred to as the 'petit Musigny' of Cote Rotie, There's a fragility, an elegance to Jamet's. And then of course, the climat of Cote Brune which, out of barrel tastes thick like fruity blood, explosive and gorgeous.
After all this, which has been trying through the primitive translations and the sheer amounts of wine, even though spat, remaining in our bodies, Jamet brings us upstairs. The skies outside the window are dark, foreboding and the rain is intimidating. With dark lips and teeth that need brushed, we try the 2009 Cote Rotie. Jamet's smile is darkened with rivulets of dry, blue extract, and he explains that all this work, the batched fermenting, the racking, the re-tasting of barrel after barrel- it all leads to one wine. He tells us that the heart of Cote-Rotie is the final blend, and knowing intimately what each climat will contribute to the final bottling. One wine. I am very touched by this lesson, and I tell Jamet so. I speak to his generosity and sharing nature. He touches my arm and disappears, emerging with a bottle. It is the 1997 Cote Rotie 'Cote Brune'- the only climat he bottles separately. And, I kid you not, as he pulls the cork from the bottle, the rain stops, sun glistens through the windows and A RAINBOW FORMS OVER THE HORIZON, disappearing into Mont Blanc. Jamet smiles wryly, because he knows the power of the wine, he tells us "God agrees".
The 1997 tastes like blood oranges and cloves, with moss and forest floor. The feint scent of tobacco and truffles wafts throughout. It is harmonious and wonderful. This is a wine made in tiny enough quantities that not even Parker (Par-Kay, in French) gets to taste. We thank Jamet profusely and exit the cuverie.
I am filled with a peaceful happiness and look forward to driving to Vienne, finding the hotel, eating something and going to sleep. But oh, no no no no no. Annie M-G has other plans for us two. Apparently, Stephane Ogier has set up yet another appointment for us, with a guy called Pierre Jean Villa and this is where the disharmony begins. I tell her she should drive, because I am tired and getting freaked out. We get in and she disengages the emergency brake and we begin immediately to slip down the side of the pente. This is where I learn that Annie M-G has rather delayed reactions to emergent situations (a week later I am almost killed by a box of Domaine Lecheneaut samples on an escalator in the Dijon train station that she watches tumble down an entire flight yet does not even manage to utter a warning call) and I rip the emergency brake up. We switch places because clearly she has no idea how to drive a stick shift. She promises thirty minutes tops, quick taste and back to Vienne.
Two hours later, we find ourselves in Chavannay, at the above mentioned cafe. We were instructed to drive past the church, and that Villa would be directly behind, but every building seems to be adorned with religious materials and when we ask about the 'eglise' vague pointing towards the horizon ensues. We have driven the same stretch of road again and again, passing a solar panel manufacturing firm which seems to indicate the end of the town. After Chavannay, a dark forested stretch that looks medieval and scary looms. Our American phones are not working, and violence is rising up in me. Since I have no biological connection to Annie, it seems reasonable to kill her right now. But then I look at her big, doe-like eyes and realize I am not a killer. Everyone seems to know Villa, but no-one seems to know where his offices are. We get him on the phone, and ask him to stand in the road so we know which hill to drive up. We get in the car again, and drive out of Chavannay. Just as we get to the solar panel manufacturing firm (again for the 90th time), a man appears in the road. It is Villa. We wonder if it might have been easier to get here if someone had fucking told us it was OPPOSITE A SOLAR PANEL MANUFACTURING FIRM!!!!!!
As is the trend in weather, the sun immediately shines as soon as we are out of the car. Villa's facility is a bright, lofty building that sits directly upon the physical line that separates Condrieu from Saint-Joseph. Viognier to the right, Syrah to the left. I scan the hillside for some significant geological shift, but it looks homogenous. The change is underneath the top soil, and inside the hearts and minds of these vignerons.
Thankfully, and mainly because we are 2 hours late, there is no barrel tasting Chez Villa. Instead we are treated to a delight of finished bottles.
2010 Espirit d'Antan (Syrah from Seyssuel, a very ineresting vineyard site that was mentioned in the writings of Pliny, and possibly the first recorded mention of single vineyard wines. The area had lain fallow for centuries, but now Villa, Ogier and these three guys are bringing the region back to life. Currently, it falls under the VDP of Collines Rhodadiennes ( which positively slips off the tongue) but the vignerons here have applied for AOP status. Stay tuned. The wine had a lovely ABV of 12.5% and tasted creamy and fruity, with dried flowers,
2010 Cote Rotie 'Carmina' (named after the opera). I realize here that I was unable to extract which climat he uses for his Cote Rotie, but he mentioned the vines were planted in 1955. He makes a less extracted, elegant style of Cote Rotie, highly perfumed with roses, violets, and conifer notes. he de-stems about 70% of the fruit.
2010 Saint-Joseph Rouge 'Tilde', from soils of decomposed granitic sand, 20 cm underneath of which is mother rock. Vines planted in 1963, partially de-stemmed. Again, perfumed, elegant.
2011 Saint-Joseph Blanc (100% Roussanne) 20-25 year old vines. Just racked and siphoned from the tank. Peach pit, spice ginger- great exture (probably from the recent racking)
2011 Condrieu (but bottled under VDP Collines Rhodadiennes due to the youthful vine age). No battonage/very little racking on his Viognier. Tastes like a grassy pineapple. I write 'palate fatiguee' on my notes.
Thankfully, the sun continues shining as we make up way north, through now familiar towns. We reach the town of Vienne, ancient, bustling, strange. Make our way up two flights of narrow stairs with too many suitcases. We learn from the British concierge that we will need to move our car due to the presence of an early morning market (4am). There is no parking to be found. About 2 miles (3.22 km) away from the hotel I spy a tiny opening in the street and maneuver the Citroen into said spot, scraping the bumpers of the car in back and in front. I don't care. We will have to walk our suitcases and maps, and bottles of wine back to the car in the morning, but now all we want to do is eat and drink something light, white and acidic. We end up in a busy Applebee's-like restaurant (except there are oysters, house smoked salmon, salads and Sancerre available). We then pass out in haunted hotel rooms, specters of Rhodadiens past skimming over our heads, white veils, clouds, Roman conquest, salt trails, the Allobroges, Celtic warriors hoarding bags of salt, waiting for their Mondeuse/Teroldego/Syrah to ripen, heady and entrenched in that marvelous, ancient place called the Northern Rhone.