A glance at the Northern Rhone’s best producers

On the brilliant Wine Bersekers discussion forum someone picked my brains about the Northern Rhone producers I rated. I think I may have worried him with the length of my reply. As I was pretty thorough about the producers I view as worthy I have decided that rather than just limit my vastly opinionated opinions to an audience of one it seems a good idea to tart up my email and make it into a blog post.

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I should say that the Northern Rhone was one of my first loves, I’ve had some incredible experiences with wines from that locality. Indeed, I think no cellar is complete without the odd bottle of quality Rhone Syrah. Even better these wines can enhance the quality of your collection whilst not injuring your cash-flow; it is still possible to get wines of serious quality that will not break the bank.

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Cote-Rotie seems to be made in either a heroic or minimalist style. The latter style tweaks my aesthetes most and the producer I would not hesitate to recommend who excel in this idiom are Clusel-Roch. They make a ‘basic’ wine and a named vineyard (Les Grandes Places). Both are supremely elegant and utterly refined, quite beautiful drinks that age very well. Don’t feel bad about buying just the basic Cote-Rotie as it is fabulous. When I worked for one London wine merchant I was always so happy to recommend that wine. Almost invariably people would come back to the shop after trying it, say how much they enjoyed it and purchase more. This wine shows more than any other that Syrah can make sculpted entities of minimalist beauty. Best at 7-12 years old. Shame their production is so microscopic, so do snap them up whenever you stumble across them.

Another Cote-Rotie producer to go for is Jamet. Again these are smaller-scale, beautiful wines but they are a tad more pricey than Clusel-Roch and more in demand so harder to find. If you see a good vintage on a shelf you should hand over the sponds, take it to your cellar and squirrel it away until it is 8-12. You won’t regret it.

The final Cote-Rotie producer to go for is Bernard Burgaud. His wines are a tad bolder and more tannic. When I first visited him he said he likes ‘noble tannins’ in his wines and that phrase stuck in my mind and has allowed me to guess them blind on many occasions. Really top wines, but a shade more rustic. I’d buy a bottle to try before shelling out for large quantities. Sometimes his wines show a level of Brett which makes them worth testing to see if you find it distracting. I think the [link2post id=”3828″]2001 was far too Bretty[/link2post], really stinky in not a nice way. This is a bit of a shame as it is a fine vintage and I expected to love it. I’ve got some 2005 somewhere that a chum picked up for me and I really want them to be as good as Burgaud at his best; if they are I’ll be pleased as chips but the Brett monster possibility looms across my hopes in perturbing character.

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Hermitage is reputed to be the manliest wine of France, and as I am a real man I am pleased this is the Northern Rhone appellation most heavily represented in my little collection. However, I’m sorry to say there is only one producer I’d whole-heartedly recommend: Domaine du Colombier. The wines are stylish, show profound complexity and have the manly character we want from properly post-pubescent Hermitage. My reasonably informed experience of them (from the 1996 vintage onwards) suggests they are built for the cellar – the [link2post id=”4726″]2003 I popped the other day[/link2post] really demanded a lot more time, if I may confess to committing vinous infanticide. My oldest Colombiers are 1998s and I don’t think I should really be popping them until they are 15. I love being able to recommend Colombier Hermitage because I vehemently approve of the fellow not charging the earth for his undoubtedly serious wines: well done that man!

You could try Hermitage from Yann Chave, it is keenly priced but I feel it lacks some of the class of Colombier. I don’t know it as well as I might so buy a taster bottle before committing your entire paycheck to scoring a few cases.

As far as other (more famous) producers go I disapprove of J-L Chave’s policy of using telephone numbers for price tags, even thought the wines themselves are generally fine. Perhaps my view is coloured by disapproval of his pricing policy but I feel in recent vintages they are perhaps a smidgen monolithic and somewhat lacking the elegance they used to have. To be complete I should add that should you ever see a J-L Chave from 1991, 1995 or 1996 for sale they certainly deserve the Elitistreview seal of lewdly pleasurable approval.

Jaboulet’s Hermitage La Chapelle is also too enthusiastically priced and the new winemaker is yet to demonstrate they can manage anything beyond the mundane. Sorrel’s basic and prestige cuvee Hermitages are more reasonably priced but lack aesthetic thrills and spills.

A bottle of Hermitage should be a thrilling event in itself and it is a bit of a shame that so few producers seem to be delivering at the screaming edge of quality these days. When I turned up for a 2005 comparative tasting it just seemed to me that only Colombier supplied sufficiently high-quality goods. J-L Chave’s 2005 was a gnat’s knackers away from making my fancy pulse with delight, but at the prices they command the wines should be lustfully tearing our clothes off in preparation for acts of extreme, no holds barred lubricity.

Hermitage’s smaller sibling is Crozes-Hermitage, which the wine made from the broader area around the Hermitage hill. Some can be light quaffers, but the best can easily age a decade in good vintages and provide distinctly serious drinking. Go for Alain Graillot, either basic or his top La Guiraud bottling will provide plenty of laughs. He’s probably the best producer of Crozes making sophisticated wines of high quality which age a treat; sadly much in demand so prices are a touch high and availability is low.

Domaine du Colombier’s Cuvee Gaby is another personal favourite. It’ll age for the medium term, or longer from the best vintages, but has a very accessible maturation profile so you can neck a crafty bottle at more or less any age. I’ll go as far as saying that when I’ve seen it on wine-merchant’s lists it is almost invariably an obscene bargain, just like their Hermitage.

Finally I’ve often been impressed by Yann Chave’s Tete de Cuvee. Never tried ageing one though, but they seem like they have the harmony and stuffing to be able to improve in the cellar.

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The final Northern Rhone appellation worth proper investigation is Cornas. These wines are a tad more rustic and spiky than those listed above, but they can display profound class and definite beauty with age. Look for Jean Lionnet’s Domaine de Rochepertuis. Sadly he retired after the 2005 vintage (which is a staggeringly good wine) so only old stock will be lurking around; buy what you can find unless it has been subjected to injurious storage. It has always struck me as a stupendous bargain for the serious class it delivers.

If you can find it then Domaine de Tunnel’s (aka Stephane Robert) Cornas Cuvee Prestige ‘Vin Noir’ is a really exciting drink, thick and tannic but charged with earthy sophistication. Clape are great but pretty pricy, their wines also need at least 8 years age before they show well. If you ever see any older bottles of Verset Cornas around you should leap on them and claim them as your own. He made the Platonic ideal of rustic but charm-engorged Cornas from ancient vines grown on a petrifyingly vertiginous vineyard (it nearly killed me when I tried follow Noel ‘Papa’ Verset up it). 2001 was his final vintage, he is greatly missed.

Allemand is another producer worth trying, both his Chaillots and Raynard cuvees providing class drinking. Approach these after they are 6-7 years old. Vincent Paris makes good, but slightly soul-less Cornas.

The final appellation in the Northern Rhone pantheon of brilliance is the one I rarely bother with: St. Joseph. Most of these are rather simple drinks with little to commend them but should you see Louis Cheze’s St Joseph Cuvee des Anges then you should give it a try, its a serious wine that ages with real interest. Alain Graillot’s St Joseph is nice enough, but clearly for drinking young and not as interest infused as his brilliant, distinguished Crozes.

I think it is worth warning you about a few producers worth avoiding like dysentery. For some reason Chapoutier do not get the press they deserve. They deserve to be panned for making piss-boring wines of utter tedium and yet no one seems brave enough to stand up and say this. At the 2005 Hermitage tasting I mentioned I tried their range of hair-curlingly pricey prestige cuvees and was staggered by their barefaced cheek at charging such bonkers amounts of money for markedly tedious, depressingly dimensionless wines. I was so appalled I’m afraid I suggested to one of the Chapoutier brothers that it was a shame his wine-making skills were so utterly eclipsed by his marketing ability.

Tardieu-Laurent are another producer of boring monsters who get far too easy a ride, their wines are just monolithic and devoid of beauty or class. Much the same is true of Jean-Luc Colombo’s efforts, much too much like hard work to drink and totally lacking charm, harmony and sophistication. I hate Colombo wines with a furious passion.

There are no lengths you can go to that are too far to avoid drinking Rene Rostaing’s Cote-Roties. They are insultingly expensive and made in a manner shockingly unsympathetic to the Cote-Rotie terroir. Him squandering the potential of the brilliant vineyard sites he owns is something that causes me very real discomposure. Moreover, the man is an unspeakable shit and we don’t like giving money to such people[ref]The last time I met Rostaing at was at the great Freddie Mugnier’s in Chambolle-Musigny. He spent half the time loudly denouncing Freddie’s gorgeous wines and the other half droning on in the most tiresomely ego-maniacal terms about what an amazingly brilliant winemaker he is and how fortunate we all should feel to hear his pronouncements. Freddie’s right hand lady, the superlatively scrumptious, decidedly desirable and normally quite unflappable Audrey looked utterly scandalised by this boorish oaf. Freddie himself is so cool he skilfully paid the arse polite but unimpressed attention and after the tasting apologised for the presence of “that boring, loud man”. I felt compelled to add suggestions about his twisted aesthetic ideal and doubtful ability to tell good from bad, although I suppose such views were transparently clear to all apart from Rostaing himself.[/ref].

I’m afraid to say I have a bit of the same view about the much-praised producer Guigal; the fellow irks me but irritatingly his wines are not so bad. His most famous single vineyard Cote-Roties are over-priced to a stunningly cheeky degree (and despite being very impressive wines of powerful character, I do find myself questioning if they are completely honest and flattering interpretations of the terroir), but his generic ‘Brune et Blonde’ Cote-Rotie is quite vexatiously good when given long enough in the cellar – I’ve had 20 year old plus bottles of this that I’ve loved. Good stuff, yes, but perhaps a bit on the pricey side these days. However, do you really want to give your hard-earned fun tokens to someone so smug you wouldn’t want to meet him over dinner? Get your Cote-Rotie elsewhere.

These appellations are all fairly close to each other so I can provide you with a single list of vintages to look for, which are: 2007 (reasonably ripe but nicely structured), 2006 (structured, refined wines for the lover of restrained beauty), 2005 (brilliant vintage of ripe, attractive wines well worth cellaring), 2004 (leaner, less ripe wines but lovely from the producers I list), 2003 (hilariously silly and ripe wines but buy with care as some are too over-blown), 2001 (a wonderful vintage of poised, refined wines), 1999 (brilliantly structured wines with plenty of ripe fruit), 1998 (a fleshier, fun vintage), 1997 (good fun but not great, up for drinking), 1995 (brilliant, like 2005), 1994 (like 2004), 1991 (stunningly lascivious wines of unabashed enjoyment value). The only recent vintage to avoid like the plague is 2002.

Finally, a warning. Like Burgundy serious Northern Rhone Syrah can go through an un-attractive middle-aged period. Either drink them young or give them more than six years in the cellar. Wines between about 3-6 years old can seem a tad spiky, tough and beetroot-like in character, having lost the vigorous attraction of youth and not yet fully gained the refined, soft sophistication of maturity.

I hope this provides some pointers to set you up for good times. Enjoy those marvels of the Northern Rhone!