Sunday, February 07, 2010

A Mini-slew of Northern Rhône Wines

I haven't had a whole lot of northern Rhône wine. I've had some nice things at tastings, but at home with meals my experiences are mostly limited to the wines of Saint Joseph and Crozes Hermitage. Then, about a week and a half ago there was a stretch of a few days in which I had three top-notch wines from the northern Rhône. It was an interesting trio - I feel like I really learned something from these particular wines.

First, it was 1998 Paul Jaboulet Aîné Hermitage La Chapelle, at least $100 if you buy it now, imported by Frederick Wildman. Why this wine? I dropped by Deetrane's house one night and he made a very delicious western Chinese style beef noodle soup (pickled greens, pickled chilis, sesame oil, and so on). He disappeared into the cellar and returned bearing this treasure.

A few nights later my friend Adam came by, Deetrane too, as I had braised a pork shoulder with fennel and blood orange. I decided to open a bottle that I recently acquired, the 2000 Noël Verset Cornas, $60, Imported by Connoisseur Wines (usually imported by Kermit Lynch, but I bought this at Crush, who obtained it from a private collection). Noël Verset is thought by many to make the finest wines in Cornas, but he is over 90 years old now and he finally retired, and there is no one who will take over for him. So there will be no more Verset Cornas. Every time some one uncorks a bottle, that's one less bottle of Verset that will ever exist.

And then the very next evening, BrooklynLady and I had dinner with our friends Clarke and Sophie and one of the things they served was a hearty cassoulet-type stew with a 2000 Auguste Clape Cornas, about $50 but the wines cost more now, Imported by either Michael Skurnik or Kermit Lynch, perhaps by both?

Can you believe that, the weird way that things can string together sometimes?

The Jaboulet Hermitage was striking in its elegance. Deetrane decanted it and it looked as though a lot of the solid matter had fallen from the skeleton of the wine, leaving only garnet tinted water (and in fact there was a load of sediment at the bottom). Yet the wine was quite intense, with very ripe dark fruit and lovely floral and warm spicy aromatics. The horses, the skinned rabbits, the tar, the other things I think of when I think of northern Rhône Syrah - not there. This wine was all about elegance, nothing rustic whatsoever.

The 2000 Verset, however, now that wine had a rustic side. We didn't decant it, and at first the nose was all roasted soil and horse stable. The wine tasted great though, very ripe, but also layered and complex, and after about a half hour the nose blossomed, showing fruit and flowers, blood and meat, anchored by that same roasted barnyard sense. What impressed me most about this big and brawny wine though, aside from its sheer deliciousness, was that it showed great detail in its flavors - it sacrificed nothing in nuance. And in a hot year that made very ripe wines, Verset's Cornas is merely 12.5% alcohol.

The 2000 Clape is not a wine that I would call brawny, and it wasn't a rustic either. To me, it was more like the Hermitage than it was like the Verset. It built slowly over the course of an hour, showing deliciously ripe fruit, peppery and intense. We came back to it an hour after that and it had really blossomed, with expansive flavors of orange, leather, and earth. A big wine, but also a wine of clarity and poise. Clape also kept the alcohol low - a very respectable 13%.

How much can you really know from drinking three wines - very little. But I feel like I have a better understanding of the elegance of Hermitage relative to the rusticity of Cornas. And a sense of the disparate styles of Verset and Clape, both great producers, but whose wines have very different personalities, at least in the 2000 vintage.

By the way, you'll notice in the two photos that what I'm guessing is a lot number appears in the lower left of the label. It reads "L1" on the Verset, and "L4" on the Clape. Anyone know what that means, exactly?


Craig Camp said...

Do you feel the Verset had brett issues? Your comments would lean that way.

Beau said...

Did Craig set a trap here? If so I'm stepping in it. I am not an expert on the microbiology of wine at all, but a quick online refresher brought me up to speed with what I had learned some time ago. Wine Anorak has two good articles, though they are a few years old, and the Wiki is helpful though not really complete. But if we are talking Northern Rhone Syrah than I think of smoke and spice, and this is most likely a result of one of the brett compounds 4-eg. However the common stance in Craig's "Camp" which seems to include Jaime Goode and Jancis R. and based on Brooklynguy's earlier post the Wasserman's as well, is that Brett is a flaw, plain and simple. The only full-proof way I know of to get rid of Brett is the use of SO2 at crushing and elevage and throughout the winemaking process, and/or to use ultra-sterile stainless tanks. So now we bring the Natural wine camp together with Parker. In fact it seems Brett really likes toasted new oak barrels, but of course can live in ancient foudre as well. So it's not a question really of cleanliness (except ultra-sterile stainless) because immaculate cellars full of brand new barrique are just as vulnerable as a tiny little outfit in the Loire. I like natural wines and I think brett plays some role here, but I also recently tasted a 1983 Beaucastel and a 1985 Mission Haut-Brion, and to my nose both had aromas that would suggest the presence of a little brett. Same goes for Northern Rhones I like from Voge or Vincent Paris or Marc Sorrel or (of course) Dard and Ribo. But wouldn't all these domaines and winemakers deny the presence of brett? And certainly Pinot Noir suffers from brett exposure, and many of the top Burgundy producers are able to work "naturally" and still avoid brett, right? Then again where does the presence of
"sauvage" come from, terroir? Maybe terroir has something to do with the presence of natural yeasts, the best ones for the right grapes grown in the right place etc. And isn't brett a yeast? There is still a lot of confusion on my part and I think on others as well, but certainly Mr. Camp must realize that saying "brett issues" is a bit of a loaded statement.

I don't know if you want or care to tackle this here, Brooklynguy, but since you often skillfully bridge the "natural" wine world with the "traditional" one it seems as good a place as any.

Brooklynguy said...

hey Craig - without having much understanding of the chemistry of wine, it's hard for me to say for sure. I will say this: the wine was most certainly not flawed. it had a lot of roasted earth which, given the latin meaning of 'Cornas,' probably indicates that it showed a definite sense of place. it had some barnyard smells too, which may or may not have been brett, but after a half hour the wine achieved great balance, and those aromas were part of that balance, to my palate. so i guess what i'm saying is, whether or not it was brett is not as important to me as whether or not the wine was great, balanced, evocative of Cornas. and it was all of those things. it very well may have been brett, but i personally don't care. if i were making and trying to sell wine, i'm sure i'd have a different feeling...

beau - interesting stuff, thanks for your comments. i very highly doubt that Craig was trying to spark anything with his question, by the way. i read his question at face value.

why, is brett an issue to argue about outside of wine making circles?

Anonymous said...

Brett has always been an element of Beaucastel as a famous study shows us. A little brett can go a long way in adding a little complexity to wine, although there are people who will fight this opinion. Brett is interesting because there is a definite point where it becomes the dominant force in the wine, rather than a complimentary element. take 2006 dard et Ribo for instance. Some bottles are great, and others are bretty soup.

When someone says "brett issues" it implies that the wine was somehow unclean, which i don't get from your notes at all. I've had enough unclean wine to know the difference.

Cr said...

Ah, the tiresome weight of being politically correct at all times with wine these days. There is a world between Parker and Feiring filled with wonderful wines neither one of them likes. I've loved many a wine with some brett over the years and still can, but with experience I have also come to a point in my life when I realize that brett can obliterate terroir. That would be my only question here - can you taste where the wine came from. That question should be the only one as far as I'm concerned - then you like that terroir or you don't. I am not interested in squeaky clean wines - just interesting ones. However, I don't want to waste my time drinking wines where the only character is brett. I love the wines of Verset, but not having had this vintage just posed the question.

JonathanNYC said...

BrooklynGuy: yes, that is indeed the lot number. As I work in "production" (not wine), I've always found it interesting that folks don't think to reference lot numbers when wondering about conflicting perceptions of wine flaws between bottles.

See this link for a chart showing lot number:

Also, the brett question is a fascinating one, and I'm glad to see such a vivid interest/wrangling with this nebulous concept in this forum, esp. given what seems like its ubiquity.

I've often assumed the posture of "bit o' brett = seasoning"; "mouth full o' brett = suffering"... because who wants a mouthful of pepper, after all?

I've had an old Certan Giraud bottle that tasted like an old, olive-y, leathery nightmare, that I was persuaded was affected by brett. No one could enjoy that much brett; so the debate is invariably a question of degree.

Also, thanks for the spotlight on one of mine and my girlfriend's all-time favorite wines: Cornas. Clape is king from my experience, and Chambers St Wines actually has an interesting new upstart: Matthieu Barrett, whose Cornas flowers into a fruity, wondrous wine. Definitely worth a go, if a tad pricey--especially since they've run out of the entry level wine a few months back.

Unknown said...

Lot 1 and Lot 4
Clape makes a lot more juice, just checked all my Verset of various vintages say L1...

Pop'd an 00 Verset Monday also from Crush, lovely brett or not....


Beau said...

I just don't think this is a simple topic. Does "tasting where the wine comes from" translate to blind tasting a wine and correctly pinpointing its local? Doesn't the cellar work, especially when done "naturally" or "traditionally" affect "terroir"? This includes yeast, in fact yeast is a(the) crucial component and brett is a yeast, and it seems to manifest differently w/ different grapes grown in different soils made in different cellars . . . terroir?

I don't think it's as simple as seasoning, from what I know it is not easily controllable, if at all.

It is fascinating and somewhat controversial and if we throw out political correctness and assumptions of real knowledge than we can continue this interesting and maybe somehow useful conversation.

Steve L. said...

You owe it to yourself to try a bottle of Thierry Allemand's Cornas.