Two Northern Rhones

Amongst other wines popped for excellent friend Richard last night were two Syrahs from opposite banks of the Rhone: Cote-Rotie ‘Les Fils a Jo’ 2020 from Domaine Champet and Sotanum 2020 from Les Vins de Vienne. Both these wines deserve a little bit of context before diving into the notes.

The Cote-Rotie ‘Les Fils a Jo’ is Domaine Champet’s prestige cuvee, costing £3 more than their standard Cote-Rotie. ‘Jo’ in the name is Joel Champet, father of the two sons who currently run Domaine Champet. They named this cuvee in honour of their father who they believe made great Cote-Rotie.

I visited Joel Champet when I was a student at his Domaine in the late-1990s. He spent the event getting visibly newscasted on a bottle of Mercier Demi-Sec, whilst nibbling on a bowl of stale crisps he produced for solid sustenance whilst he popped bottle after bottle of his Cote-Rotie.

Alas, every bottle was his most recent vintage 1996. He did not speak a word of English so there was much hilarity as yet another bottle of the stuff appeared together with witticisms like, “How do you think the 1996 is showing this time”, and “I wonder what vintage of the 1996 this is”.

1996 was a really high acidity vintage in the Northern Rhone and I had a sensitive stomach even back then. Consequently, I am slightly ashamed to admit that having drank almost a bottle of it, I was in agony and had to ask him where his toilet was so I could run there to throw up. This rather put me off buying his wines in future.

We were a bit mean to mock Jo for opening loads of booze. He was just trying to get a bunch of students pissed and give them a good time after trekking all the way out there to visit. This kind of thing would never happen these days; one would be lucky to even be allowed to visit!

He had, and consequently his sons now own, a great plot of vines on the lieu-dit Le Viallieres, considered one of the best vineyards on the Cote-Rotie. Cote-Rotie ‘Les Fils a Jo’ is made from the oldest vines in this plot and so in a top vintage like 2020 we very much hope this will be bloody marvellous!

Sotanum is from further upstream of Cote-Rotie on the opposite side of the valley. It is planted on reclaimed Roman terraces near the site of the Roman city of Vienne. This gives the name to the operation set up by three great characters of the Northern Rhone scene, Cuilleron, Villard and Gaillard.

Les Vins de Vienne was specifically created to commercialise the soon-to-be Cru of Seyssuel, which these Roman terraces are the centre of. Since the wheels of wine law turn slowly, Seyssuel still is not a Cru, and so cannot put its origin on the label. Instead, Sotanum is a trademark for what is classified as a mere IGP Collines Rhodaniennes.

Les Vins de Vienne operation now farm vineyards other than Seyssuel, having a variety of plots across the Rhone that it either owns, rents or buys fruit from. I strongly suggest that if you ever see a bottle of their Cote-Rotie Les Grandes Places from a good vintage, make your debit card smoke to get it. They are one of the top sources of this extremely fine lieu-dit.

Our guest Richard is very eager that reds be served a little above cellar temperature, so I stuck both bottles in the fridge the night before our dinner party. I whipped them out two- and one-half hours before we were due to drink them and had a little taste to determine if they should be decanted.

Jesus shit they were punishingly tannic! Even given the ‘young Syrah’ frame of reference, these started to turn the inside of my mouth into leather with ferocious enthusiasm.

These wines had clearly not been filtered and I have suggested elsewhere on my organ that I think Syrah needs filtering to tame some of its frightening tannins. These two wines screamed that they should have been filtered. This would also have helped with the marked quantity of sediment that was already present in bottles only four years old.

Luckily, it was a long time before we were due to drink the wines, so I quadruple-decanted them with much sloshing in jugs and shaking in bottles. I hoped that all that oxygen I got into solution would turn these bruisers into a good time rather than a leathering.

Two- and one-half hours later…

Cote-Rotie Les Fils a Jo 2020 Domaine Champet

Cote-Rotie ‘Les Fils a Jo’ 2020, Domaine Champet

What a transformation! From a tight ball of misery to an expansive party of delicious things! I was transfixed by glorious dark berry and plummy fruit of huge love and powerful complexity.

It had aromas of flowers, I would guess violets but as flowers are attached to green things, I try to avoid them, a plungingly involute earthiness and rich, generous old vines depth and style.

Despite this being a 2020, a very ripe vintage that has produced many wines with approximate alcohol contents of an Oliver Reed challenging squaddies to arm wrestling contests, the unreserved, extroverted aromas here are not given an alcohol boost to blast them up one’s nose. This clocks in at 12.5%. Do not worry if you like them big, though, despite the intricate convolution of this nose, it smells of a lot of highly attractive things.

The palate still had a lot of tannin, but they now seemed more silken to me, more in balance with the delicious, scrumptious fruit suffused throughout this lovely, poised flavour fest. Such multifarious sophistication that excites with myriad layers grandure.

It tastes as deep and composed as its nose with exquisite berry flavours, a good, energetic drive and a long, squeaky-clean finish. No Brett here!

This definitely seemed nowhere near ready to drink, but it also seemed like the perfect Cote-Rotie from a vintage like 2020; ripe and comely, certainly, but not overblown or hot. It did not have its splendid complexity baked out of it. Absolutely gorgeous, with visceral charm but also perfect balance and intellectual thrills.

The one thing it needs to make it perfect is bottle age. I would not touch this before it is ten and it will probably be going strong when it is twenty or even older. What a magnificent expression of bravura this will undoubtedly become.

The seven bottles of this I purchased (now six as this has gone) represent one of the very best northern Rhone purchases I have ever made. It is not expensive for a Cote-Rotie from such a celebrated lieu-dit, it is dirt cheap for a prestige cuvee, and in a general sense one is just not supposed to be able to buy wines of this quality for under fifty coins. Sure, you’ve got to keep it (or quadruple decant it three hours before you drink it), but shitting fuck what class, distinction and excellence this superlative wine is charged with. Buy! Buy!! BUY!!!

Get it at Yapp whilst they have stock.

The one thing I would caution with this wine is that you have to keep it in perfect conditions. The picture below is of the Champet cork next to the Sotanum cork (a Diam 30). The Champet cork is terribly short for a wine that demands age. Keep it in unfavourable conditions and I am not totally sure this cork will be up to the job.

Sotanum and Cote-Rotie Les Fils a Jo 2020 corks

Sotanum 2020, Les Vins de Vienne

Sotanum IGP Collines Rhodaniennes 2020, Les Vins de Viennes

If you look at the picture of the long Diam 30 cork that Sotanum is sealed with you will probably guess that wine is intended to be aged. This is certainly the impression I get.

It is a modish, well-groomed Syrah that does not seem ready yet. I can detect sappy oak on the nose that nicely frames the precise, structured berry and plum fruit. If you were given this blind you could easily mistake this for a first order Californian Syrah.

There is some earthiness, an array of roast coffee flavours, perfect alcohol levels (13.5%) and again it is as clean as a whistle. It is great that more and more producers in the Rhone can manage to avoid Brett taint.

I think this has undoubted panache, but it is tightly controlled and waiting to blossom into a stylish, measured Syrah when it is 10-13 years old. The sappy oak on the palate currently seems to stand out a little and needs time to integrate with the whole structure of the wine.

It is currently very structured, with a smart fruit character that seems like it will become very well supported by the tannins and acidity when it is mature. This is a much more structured, age-worthy wine than the last Seyssuel I had – Kāmaka from G&J Bott. That may be a very attractive, easy drinker, this wine is for people who like modern, more internationally styled Syrah.

I do not mean ‘internationally styled’ in a pejorative sense, this is very dashing, but it is not the classical Northern Rhone style that the Cote-Rotie ‘Les Fils a Jo’ was charged with.

A very good wine, I am pleased to have six bottles that I will start drinking with friends who like chic wines in ten years. Well worth buying. I have not seen this available in the UK, but there’s always Wine-Searcher.

Two excellent Syrahs of very different aspect, I am pleased to own both. However, when it is time to start drinking, I am betting it is the Cote-Rotie ‘Les Fils a Jo’ 2020 that gives me aesthetic-induced goosebumps.