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

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