Four days of hard work…days 3 & 5

ely’s adventures in the Rhone…

by Ian Brosnan

Day 3

The next morning took us to the Northern Rhone, away from Grenache and into Syrah territory.
As Simon is happy to tell (anyone who will listen!), the Rhone should really be thought of as two separate regions, such are the differences in climate, soils, vines and viticulture. The wines of the southern Rhone have far more in common with those of the Languedoc, while the Northern Rhone wines increasingly share qualities with those of Burgundy. Our first, fateful visit was to Yann Chave, a wine maker based in Crozes Hermitage who is both massively talented and a bit of a rogue. This property could be described as ‘rustic’ – no fancy tasting rooms, just us in the cellar with a glass in hand and a bucket on the floor. Yann produces red and white Crozes Hermitage, and red Hermitage, and we tasted several vintages from bottle, and the most recent from barrel. Neither the red nor white Crozes see any oak, and as a result, both wines possess wonderfully precise, clean fruit. The white is a 70/30 Marsanne Roussane blend, elegantly perfumed with hints of peach and almond, and a rich yet minerally texture. Most white Rhone wines get lost among their red counterparts, and that is especially true of white Crozes, but it really is worth seeking out for something a little bit different and a little bit special. The Crozes Hermitage red 2011 is a stunner – intense dark berry fruit, that lip-smacking acidity that you only get from great Northern Rhone Syrah, and lovely smoky, savoury flavours starting to come through – this should be compulsory tasting for anyone interested in Rhone wines. We then moved on to the Hermitage (and stopped using the bucket!). Up first was the 2011. We were quickly realising that the quality of that vintage was not limited to the south. In ‘Hermitage years’ 2011 is a baby, and theory would have it far too young to drink or enjoy. In fact, it was nothing less than stunning, one of the finest wines I have tasted in this, or any year. Despite its relative youth it was immediately expressive, its greatness coming from concentration of flavour, not extraction, from its supple elegance rather than massive power. He then opened the now-legendary 2007, a wine which some of us have had the pleasure of tasting before. It was better than I remembered, aging slowly and gracefully, softening slightly and gaining in fragrance. Hermitage is expensive –no question- but relative to the astronomical prices commanded by some Bordeaux Chateaux it appears a bargain. I know which I’d rather drink.

Tasting at Yann Chave- Ronan, Anthony and the bucket

Tasting at Yann Chave- Ronan, Anthony and the bucket

Tasting at Yann Chave- Ronan, Anthony and the bucket
We reluctantly left the cellars and headed to a local restaurant for lunch. On the way, Simon gently reminded us of our next visit, and the need to be finished and gone by 1.30 AT THE LATEST! It was only 11.45, how long could lunch take? We arrived at the restaurant to be greeted again by Yann, with beers poured and a glint of mischief in his eye. Simon had one eye on the clock, and one in the kitchen, where there was a solitary lady at the stove. The menu was on the wall and was uniquely ‘local’ – lambs brains, tripe, or liver. Yann meanwhile was in the cellar, choosing suitable bottles for us to sample over lunch. A few beers later we sat (12.45 and counting) and awaited our food, while Yann talked us through some wines from fellow Crozes producers. Our starters arrived somewhat erratically – this was the sort of restaurant where everything happens on their terms, we ate quickly and awaited our mains. The unexplained delay with our food – chef was sitting at the next table having a glass of wine -was punctuated by Yann continuously opening more bottles, commenting that we didn’t have to finish them. 1.50pm. Chef finished her wine and returned to the kitchen, and slowly our food started to appear. We ate what we could and prepared to leave. Simon made his exit and went to get the car, but such an easy escape would elude us. Yann opened another red; Chef appeared at the table in all her formidable glory with some bread and a massive board of cheese. We were eating cheese and that was that. Simon appeared at the door, and signalled for us to leave. I tried to stand up and was abruptly told to sit and finish my cheese, Yann was at the bar ordering Chartreuse. It was all getting a little crazy, and there was only one way out – a mouthful of cheese, down a shot of Chartreuse and express our utmost gratitude as we ran for the door. 2.30pm.
Our next visit was in Condrieu, just under an hour away and just enough time for a nap…

Pierre-Jean Villa is relatively new producer, both for Simon and for us (hence the desire to be on time!) and is without doubt one of the most exciting. Pierre-Jean has his own property in Condrieu, and co-runs one in Burgundy, so we had the pleasure to taste wines from both. So, while I’m not really here to talk about Burgundies, I’ll just say that his Bourgogne Rouge (in all 3 elys) is perfect, and his soon-to-be-with-us white Saint Aubin, sublime. His Rhone wines are even more impressive, all with the subtlety and finesse that only a great winemaker can achieve. And that he is – over the years I’ve been fortunate to meet many winemakers from many different regions, and I would honestly say that Pierre-Jean is one of the most interesting. His love of wine and wine-making is infectious, his wealth of knowledge seemingly limitless, but it was the ease with which he could share this knowledge and inspire interest in others which was most remarkable. We were in awe. His St. Joseph ‘Preface’ is a beauty- pure Syrah fruit, exceptional balance and a long, elegant finish.
Our final visit for the day was to Stéphane Montez at Domaine de Monteillet, in his new winery and tasting rooms, perched atop a hill overlooking the river, and resembling a Bond- villain’s lair more than a traditional winery. We joined Stéphane in the cellars, along with some (over-eager) Sommelier-types from Lyon. Domaine de Monteillet is justly renowned for Condrieu, St. Joseph and Cote-Rotie, along with some fantastic IGP wines from nearby vineyards. We started by tasting the St. Joseph 2012, from barrel, plot by plot. His St. Joseph is composed of many different vineyard selections and this was a unique opportunity to taste the subtle differences that each brings to the final blend. Stéphane is also someone who likes to have fun, and dotted around the cellars are single barrels of ‘experiments’ that he keeps for his own amusement – St. Joseph still in barrel after four years !!
We then headed into the ultra modern tasting room (with the fanciest bathrooms I’ve ever seen in a winery!) for some bottle tastings. The range is pretty big, and we worked our way through them all. Some of the standouts were the white IGP – a Marsanne/Roussane/Viognier blend, and reminder that simple white Rhone can be a really wonderful drink. He produces a couple of different Condrieu, but my favourite is ‘Les Grand Chaillées’- fantastically rich, with apricot, honey and toast on the nose, but held together by pitch perfect acidity and very long minerally finish. His St. Joseph ‘Cuvée du Papy’ is the wine that first got me excited about the Northern Rhone many years ago, and it was wonderful to see the vineyards first-hand. I like to say that 2 hours in a winery is better than 200 hours of study- you can read all the books and taste all the wines you want, but to get a real understanding of a wine, or wine in general, nothing beats seeing it for yourself. Being able to see the grapes grow and ripen, or the difference between the vines growing on the slopes to those in the valley. Smelling the difference between old and new barrels, or the different levels of toasting on each provides a far greater understanding of the influence it has on a wine than you could ever learn from a book. If you are interested in wine you should do your best to visit a winery, it is an eye-opening and very rewarding experience. The 2010 ‘Cuvée du Papy’ as good as ever- deep, dark garnet in colour with intense, fragrant cassis on the nose. The wine is full but never heavy, with dark fruit and an abundance of spice –nutmeg, pepper, licorice and vanilla, and a fantastically long, savoury finish. It is a wine that I would happily drink any time of year, but with game season almost upon us, I expect to be opening quite a few more. I can’t think of a more perfect combination.
It also goes down very well with steak, frites and béarnaise as we learned that night!

Day 4

Believe it or not, but a four day wine trip can be a very tiring experience, what with all that eating and drinking, but we awoke bright and early, refreshed and ready for our last visit. There is a lot to be said for taking it easy for at least one of the nights. We were heading to the heart of Côte Rôtie to meet Stéphane Ogier. Was it just a matter of planning and schedules, or did Simon intend to leave the best for last?? Either way, we were all really looking forward to this one. As fate would have it, Stéphane was away, selling his wares in the States. But, a greater fate was at work, because in his place was the charming, knowledgeable and utterly radiant Julie. She is Stéphane’s assistant and was our host for the afternoon. Trying our best to focus on the wines, we tasted our way through Stéphane’s range of reds and whites, from IGP and Côtes du Rhône to Côte Rôtie and Condrieu. The wines –at every level- are exceptional, exuding elegance, finesse and definition. Stéphane fine-tuned his winemaking craft in Burgundy and it shows. I could argue a case for everything we tasted as being my favourites, but I’ll just mention three- Viognier de Rosine 2011 is a beautiful example of what this grape can do, but with lightness of touch and a freshness not often found in these parts. La Rosine Syrah comes from the same place, literally and metaphorically – an area just to the north of Côte Rôtie that was long ignored but in which Stéphane could see massive potential. Deeply flavoured and wonderfully textured, it has the silkiness of a fine Pinot with the flavours of a great Syrah. And despite international acclaim and a devoted following, it remains remarkable value for money. Lastly, Côte Rôtie ‘La Belle Helene’ 2009. Sometimes it’s hard to find the right words, or maybe some things just can’t be described in words, they have to be experienced. La Belle Helene is a small plot of 90 year old Syrah vines on one of the steepest slopes in Côte Rôtie –all of the slopes are steep, it is back-breaking, agonising work harvesting grapes in this region and I would like to express my sincerest thanks to those who do it on all of our behalf !- and the only way I can describe the wine is to say that it is the purest, most perfect expression of Syrah that I have ever tasted. Of all the wines that I have tasted through the years, and there have been many, a very select few stand out clearly, like little “Ian’s spiritual moments”. It is not just the very expensive wines, but more like “perfect wine moments” – enjoying 1971 Billecart-Salmon Champagne (from magnum) over dinner with Mr. Billecart, a 2 hour tasting in the cellars of Domaine de la Romanee Conti (a place of pilgrimage for wine lovers) or magnums of Flaccianello della Pieve in the Tuscan sun with good friends and great beef! These are the wines and the moments that stick in the mind. Drinking ‘La Belle Helene’, looking out over the vineyard from which it came, is certainly up there.
A fine way to finish – good planning Simon! All that was left to do was have one more lunch, obviously, open a nice bottle and then head to the airport for a long sleep home. We arrived home, a little tired, a little fatter, but with a renewed enthusiasm for what we do and why we do it. I, Anthony and Ronan want to say a massive thanks to Simon and all of the winemakers we met for their incredible hospitality and generosity, and we are looking forward to repaying it when they come to Dublin!

Lambs brains

Lambs brains

Some of the finest from Domaine Ogier

Some of the finest from Domaine Ogier

…four days of hard work!

ely’s adventures in the Rhone…

by Ian Brosnan

Here at ely we have always placed a huge importance on staff knowledge, be it menu items, food provenance, local knowledge, or most importantly, wine knowledge. With that in mind, we sent three of our staff –myself included- off to the Rhone Valley for four days of hard work!
The idea was to meet the producers that we have been working with over the last few years, and introduce ourselves to some new ones. It was also an opportunity to taste the last several vintages and get a better understanding of each. We were joined on our trip by the one-and–only Simon Tyrrell, a man with an almost obscene knowledge of both the Northern and Southern Rhone regions and producers, and who quickly earned the title ‘Professor Tyrrell’.

Day 1

Grape bunch

Almost ripe, perfectly healthy Syrah in the Southern Rhone

After a 4.30am start and quick flight to Marseille, we headed north to Avignon, in the heart of the Southern Rhone. The first thing you notice is the wind – Le Mistral – the famous wind which blows through the valley for 120 days of the year. There is no escaping it, and it lends the vineyards a slightly wind-blown appearance. But more importantly, it keeps the vines clean, cool and free of disease.
Our first visit was to Les Vignerons D’Estezargues, a fantastically forward thinking and dynamic Co-op. Composed of just ten growers, all practising natural winemaking and with a definite focus on quality, this Co-op differs from most in that each grower vinifies separately, and produces cuvees from their best plots. We were fortunate to spend the morning with Denis, the Director of the Co-op, in the vineyards, tasting the grapes straight from the vine, and comparing the ripeness of the various plots and vines. It really serves to show how the slightest difference in vineyard location – on the slope or on the plateau, south-east or south-west facing – can have such an impact on when and how well the grapes eventually ripen.

wine decanter

Our kind of glass!

The other unavoidable aspect of life in the Rhone, other than the wind, is the food –and we had to contend with a lot of it. Our first lunch set the scene for the rest of the trip perfectly. We sat outside a tiny restaurant, with the menu on a chalkboard and surrounded by broken down tractors, shaded from the midday sun. The food was fresh, local and delicious- brandade of cod with roasted peppers, sautéed sweetbreads and some great local cheese, all washed down with some “tastings” from nearby wineries. It was going to be a long few days….
That afternoon, with any lingering memories of our early start nicely washed away, we headed north-east, through Avignon to the tiny village of Gigondas, one of the prettiest wine villages you are likely to see. We were here to meet Thierry from Domaine la Bouïssiere, an outstanding producer with vineyards in both Gigondas and Vacqueyras. His Gigondas is a master class in elegant Southern Rhone – 70% Grenache and 30% Syrah from wind ravaged vineyards 350m up the side of the hills of Montmirail. He also owns 5 hectares in Beaumes de Venise, an area long known for sweet wines but with its own appellation for reds. The wine he produces there is sold to a Co-op, but shows wonderful potential –a fresh, vibrant and juicy red worthy of its AC status.
Dinner that evening was at a beautiful little restaurant in Avignon, in a tranquil, candle-lit courtyard- all terribly romantic – and consisted of truffles, duck and lots of old Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Just to get us in the right frame of mind for the morning…….

Day 2

Simon and Ian

Simon patiently explaining, again.

Out of bed and in the car at 9.00 am as promised  and we headed off to Domaine de la Janasse. This Domaine is undoubtedly one of the finest now operating in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and has long been a favourite in ely. They produce everything from Vin de Pays to old vine Chateauneuf-du Pape. Everything in the range we tasted was outstanding- probably the most consistently impressive of all of the wineries we visited. The 2011 Cote du Rhone was superb- the peppery, savouriness was perfectly balanced by pure, clean, dark fruit. The Chateauneuf Cuvee prestige white – 70% Roussane – was wonderfully rich and with an almost Meursault-like nuttiness. There are 3 variations on the red Chateauneuf – a Vieilles Vignes, the ‘Chaupin’ – 100% Grenache- both of which were superb, but the standout for me was the Cuvee Tradition. Put simply, it reminds me of why Chateauneuf-du-Pape is held in such high esteem. A blend of 80% Grenache with 10% each of Syrah and Mourvédre, its defining characteristics are elegance, purity and concentration. There are more famous names and more expensive wines produced in this region, but none match Janasse for quality, consistency and value. These wines should probably be more expensive – and that’s not something you’ll hear me say very often!

How do you follow a tasting like that?
We went to the village of Cairanne, to meet with Domaine Alary, another long-time ely favourite. Over the years we have listed his Cote du Rhone, the ‘La Brunotte’, la Font d’Estévenas, Cuvee Jean de Verde and Le Gerbaude, and they are just the ones we remember. The tasting confirmed two things – 1, that we’ve been right all these years- all of his wines are imbued with a softness which makes them effortlessly drinkable –and 2, that 2011 in the Southern Rhone is, as of yet, an unheralded star! There is a purity of fruit and vibrant freshness running through all of the wines that teases the palate…..and makes you ready for lunch.


Slowly ripening Grenache

If you every happen to find yourself passing through Cairanne, and have an hour or three to spare you really should visit Côteaux et Fourchettes – seriously good food and a great wine list, not to mention a charmingly eager Sommelier on hand to help with your selections. You could lose hours…
However, we had work to do, and a 2.5 hour lunch is plenty long enough when you’re on the clock.
Domaine le Sang des Cailloux, one of the most respected properties in Vacqueyras was taken over in 1990 by Serge Ferigoule. Serge is one of those characters who make the world of wine even more fun than it already is, in trademark blue overalls and sporting the most remarkable handlebar moustache. As it turned out, Serge’s English was limited, and myself and Ronan’s French, while sober anyway, was fairly limited as well so the ever charming Marie-Carmen came to the rescue. We started by tasting from the barrels – very young wines, not yet bottled. This can be one of the most difficult aspects of wine tasting- trying to see past the immature traits in the wine – harsh tannins, imposing wood influence or astringency –and see the potential qualities in the wine. It’s not always easy, and it takes practice. And practice we did! It wasn’t necessary for these wines though – even in the barrel the quality shone bright – lovely fresh yet intense fruit, with the beginnings of a spicy edge coming through on the finish. We could have drunk them straight from the barrel, but Marie-Carmen insisted we taste a few bottles too. It can be hard to just choose one wine as a favourite, so I’ll just say that the 2010 Sang de Cailloux ‘Cuvee Floureto’ deserves your utmost attention.

Ronan and Ian

Ronan and Ian in Sang de Cailloux

Another day’s work done, we headed for the hills – well, a tiny village called La Begude de Mazenc, about 20kms east of Montelimar, and our home for the night – Hotel Le Jabron. The hotel is owned by Nathalie & Julien Hennebert, old friends of ours who are fondly remembered by everyone in the restaurant business in Dublin. Natalie was head Sommelier in Chapter One and then ran the Louis Abrouze wine shop on Lesson Street, while Julien was Sommelier in both Thornton’s and Pearl Brasserie. They moved back to France several years ago and took over this charming hotel and restaurant. They welcomed us in the best possible way – with a cold glass of beer! Ironically, after a period of sustained wine tasting, you develop an intense appreciation for cold beer, and as two former sommeliers, they understood this. We sat outside the hotel, drank some beers, made some friends and prepared ourselves for dinner. The food is outstanding – snails in garlic, caillette –a local pork speciality- foie gras, beef, cheese and possibly more foie gras. The wine list –as you’d expect- is exceptional, but with the sort of prices that make you wonder why we don’t all up and move to France. One of the most interesting wines we tasted over dinner was a little Cotes du Rhone called Les Deux Col 2012 – made by none other than Professor Tyrrell himself! Simon sources the fruit from some of the best growers in the region and then blends and vinifies the wine himself. The result is a classic Cotes du Rhone, full of flavour yet wonderfully soft, and perfect with food- you can expect to see it in ely soon.

Day 3 and 4 to follow next week…follow and

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