Monday, November 17, 2008

Thoughts on a Northern Rhône Tasting

I recently participated in the Wine & Spirits Northern Rhône tasting panel. Blind tasting 12 flights totaling 39 wines, 13 producers, and lots of discussion with a panel of articulate and experienced people. Of course there is no substitute for drinking wine at home with a meal, but this was a great learning opportunity, especially since I have so little experience with these wines. For me it was like taking an intro course in college - you learn what it is that you want to learn more about.

Here are my impressions, in broad strokes:
  1. I want to drink more white Rhône wine.
  2. Most of the reds were just too enormous for me. Granted, these are young wines, but even within that framework I found most of them to be huge and unsubtle, at times candied, just beasts. There were honestly only 2 that I would seek out and buy.
  3. Could it be that I'm just not a big fan of Syrah?
  4. Where was Dard et Ribo???
Here are some of the big shots that just didn't do it for me:

2004 Chapoutier Hermitage Blanc Chante-Alouette ($90)
2005 Chapoutier Hermitage Monier de la Sizeranne ($115)
2005 Delas Frères Hermitage Les Bessards and Marquise de la Tourette ($?)
2005 Delas Frères Côte-Rôtie La Landonne ($129)
2004 Domaine Belle Hermitage Blanc ($107)
2004 Domaine Belle Hermitage ($107)
2004 Guigal Côte-Rôtie Brune et Blonde ($70)
2005 Michel & Stephane Ogier Côte-Rôtie La Rosine d'Ampuis ($129)

This was blind, mind you. I'm not saying these were bad wines. I just didn't care for them and when I learned of their price tags I felt funny inside, glad not to covet.

Here are some of the white wines that I enjoyed:

2007 Guigal Crozes-Hermitage ($22) - such a lovely perfume, and nicely balanced.
2007 Chaptoutier Crozes-Hermitage Petite Ruche ($30) - great perfume, great fruit, oily texture that retains some energy.
2007 Guigal Condrieu ($55) - my favorite of the whites. Complex and just delicious.

It's easy to fall for the nose on these whites with their luscious tropical and floral aromas. But they sometimes leave me wanting more on the palate - more acidity, more depth, more something. Particularly the Marsanne/Roussanne blends. Tasting these wines, though, renewed my interest in whites from the Rhône, and I already bought a nice bottle that I'm looking forward to drinking. Tell you more after I drink it.

There were honestly only two reds that truly excited me:

2006 Alain Graillot Crozes-Hermitage ($33) - Clean and pure fruit, herbs, olives, bacon in the background, good balance, a wine clearly meant to drink with food.
2004 Michel & Stephane Ogier Côte-Rôtie Terres de Seyssuel L'Ame Soer ($58) - This was the one wine in the whole tasting that everyone at the table agreed on. It was excellent.

Most of the reds smacked of something unnatural to me - how can a wine be that intense and punchy, how can it "jump out of the glass" like that? They were more curiosities than something that I wanted to drink with a meal. But hey...what do I know. Maybe they just need time to settle down.

I will say this:

I drank that 2006 Graillot Crozes-Hermitage in October when I had dinner at Prune with Lars Carlberg of Mosel Wine Merchants. I thought it was great back then too. At this price point, this is a wine that I would definitely recommend to anyone who is interested in the Northern Rhône.

And this:

I asked Lyle about the Graillot wine last time I was in Chambers Street. He gave it an enthusiastic thumbs up, but not the way he raved about this other wine, a 2006 St Joseph by Pierre Gonon ($30). Referring to the Gonon, he said, and I quote: "If you walk out of here with only one wine today, buy this wine." So I did (although I did not walk out with only one wine).

To make the Gonon wine feel more comfortable in my house I made a pot of real "grandmère cuisine," a stew of French green lentils and vegetables with chunks of bacon. Let me tell you that Lyle was completely and absolutely right about this wine - it was wonderful and totally compelling (I already purchased more for the cellar). Great ripe fruit, lush, dense, and very energetic. Good acidity and quite complex with pepper, herbal and animal notes - notes that become far more distinct on days 2 and 3. Incredibly pure with a real stony mineral sensation. Balanced and clean and very satisfying at 13% alcohol. Drinking beautifully now, but it's obvious that there is something lurking beneath the surface that will only come out with another 8 or so years in the cellar. This is a superstar at it's price point and well worth seeking out.

Lye recently wrote about this wine too, by the way, and the comment he received mentions Graillot's wines. Small world?


Anonymous said...

In regard to Gonon, it's one of my favorite domaines. Over the last few years I've been buying and drinking their reds from vintages 2000-06, including a couple Les Oliviers blanc in the mix. In Paris back in Sept. '07, some of my Mosel growers and I splurged on a magnum of Gonon. Though pricier, I do like Allemand and Clape as well. Also, a friend for my birthday last year gave me a delicious bottle of '04 Clusel-Roch that had only 12% alcohol. As with you, I felt the Graillot at Prune tasted very good. The problem with wines being too big and intense is a concern even in northern climes due to factors such as climate change, harvest times, and wine-making.

Do Bianchi said...

Brooklynguy, kudos on being asked to be part of a W&S tasting panel... That's awesome... I recently tasted the Sizeranne (and have a bottle that was given to me): it was so tight, undrinkable really... did you take any notes on it?

Anonymous said...

That must have been the "modern-style Northern Rhone" tasting. See if you can wrangle an invite to the "traditional-style Northern Rhone tasting."

My verification words is "licks." Freeze those Chapoutiers and you'd have popsicles that you could lick--probably more appealing than drinking them.

Joe said...

Hey Neil. Very cool that you liked the Condrieu - I loved a different vintage of that, but i don't love it enough at that price point. I have had the generic Guigal CDR white, I have not tried that St-Joseph yet - will do - what do you suggest as a pairing? As for not wanting to drink those reds with a meal, don't you think that the meal itself could possibly drive that choice? Cheers!

Brooklynguy said...

hey Lars - I have a bottle of les oloviers blanc from gonon, a 2007. excited to drink it. hard to figure out the right food pairing though. any suggestions?

hi jeremy - it was more a case of my wheedling them into letting me participate, but i appreciate your faith in me. my notes on the sizeranne say "super intense, almost artificial fruit, unbalanced, hard to determine any secondary flavors." does not bode well. maybe 10 years from now?

hi steve - that's an awesome verification word. i don't think that the producers you;re talking about send samples to W&S, but I can't be sure.

hi joe- good question on the pairing. i hear that fois gras is good, although i don't eat that in restaurants, never mind at home. i'm stumped. let's ask around...

Anonymous said...

Hi Neil,

In Livingstone-Learmonth's "Wines of the Northern Rhône," the Gonon whites is considered long-lived, hence definitely a food wine versus an aperitif. He recommends white meats, sweetbreads with mushroom and a cream sauce, and spiced dishes.

Best, Lars

Clarke B. said...

Hey Neil,

I've recently discovered your blog, and I'm really enjoying it...

I wanted to echo what Steve said above. I can totally understand those wines striking you as "unnatural"... I think Syrah from the Northern Rhone marries very awkwardly with new oak, and tastes unpleasant when too heartily extracted. The best Northern Rhones, to me, provide the elegance and aromatic intrigue of good red Burgundy, and are similarly marred by the obvious flavors and influence of toasty oak. That's not to say they can't be extremely rich and hearty, but they shouldn't taste clunky and awkward. And I think wines from some of the producers you cite have a tendency to taste that way.

On the other hand, I do think they need quite a bit of age, regardless of my opinion on their oak treatment, etc. (But I do tend to agree with a line I've heard before, to the effect that an overoaked wine can't undo its overoakiness over time, it can only become less obviously oaky.)

Brooklynguy said...

thanks Lars.

Hey Clarke - glad you're into it. So who are the producers that you recommend?

Clarke B. said...

Hey Neil,

I'm a huge Graillot fan (I suppose I should mention that I do work for his NY distributor). I recently had a regular 1990 Crozes-Hermitage of his that was sublime, amazingly pure, and very much alive--unreal stuff. It was at the same tasting (blind) as a 1996 Chapoutier Crozes, that was hyper-extracted and barely recognizable as Syrah...

I'm a Dard and Ribo fan for sure, though I've experienced bottle variation--but the fruit on those tends to be really focused and pure, very vivid. I love that about them.

The "Le Greal" Hermitage from Sorrel can be mind-bending. I love Thierry Allemand. And if you ever get your hands on a bottle of Gentaz-Dervieux (the domaine is no longer in existence), oh man... The 1991 is maybe the most haunting Northern Rhone wine I've ever had.

Lyle Fass said...

I echo Clarke on '91 Gentaz. Lucky to have it twice and it is haunting and just the best Cote-Rotie I have ever had. Not many bottles of the '91 left in the world.

mecduvin said...

I can't help but notice that the bottle age seemed to help the wines discussed. Hermitage and Cote-Rotie are for the long-term, while Crozes-Herm, and St. Joseph tend to be softer more accessible wines. It sounds like New World Flavors are creeping into the Rhone valley, hmmm. So it goes.