Since 1481, there have been 16 generations of unbroken lineage at the Chave estate along the Rhone River's towering granite slopes. When we look closely at the birthplace of Syrah there's no name more respected than that of Jean-Louis Chave.
Today, I'm happy to offer the 2015 & 2016 Domaine Chave Saint Joseph, along with back-vintage Hermitage Rouge and Blanc stretching through 1985.
Chave's Saint Joseph captures everything that thrills the senses from Northern Rhone Syrah, while offering an immediacy and generosity upon release that Hermitage simply cannot. Each vintage flaunts a huge spectrum of black, blue, and red fruits. Spices range from exotic Indian to cracked black pepper. And the tell-tale notes of violets, olive tapenade, and roasted meats are always on full display.
However, it's the underlying mineral component from these granite terraced slopes serving as the backbone of Chave's wines. It's this definition that allows the wines to age effortlessly, and makes reaching for another sip habitual. Examples of the Saint Joseph from the late 1990's have floored me for their sense of vivacity, freshness, and still-present regal structure.
Jean-Louis Chave joined his father Gérard in 1992, following his studies in Enology at UC Davis. Once home, he undertook his primary mission of re-planting the steep slopes of Saint Joseph, as his ancestors had done centuries ago. In fact, it was precisely on this hillside that the domaine officially started in 1481. These vineyards had remained fallow since phylloxera decimated vineyards throughout France in the late 19th century.
Along with carrying on the tradition of producing the the iconic Hermitage bottlings, Jean-Louis knew that these treacherously steep hillsides in Saint Joseph were capable of producing magnificent wines, and offered a value to consumers that Hermitage could not. 25 years have now passed since these terraces began to be re-built by hand, and vines have been re-planted among the traditional échalas stakes. Today, the results are stunning wines that remind us the root of all success in the Rhone comes from hands-on work and fastidious attention to detail, something the Chave family has personified for hundreds of years.
Since the Saint Joseph appellation was officially given AOC status in 1956 the boundaries have expanded immensely. It's these choice parcels that represent the best and most serious terroir for the zone. Slopes that the Chave's knew were capable of producing intensely concentrated, structured, and age-worthy Syrah. Land where machines were incapable of working, as everything must be done entirely by hand.
With recent additions of Giacomo Conterno's Cascina Francia Barbera d'Alba in stock, I thought today would be a great day to focus on the entire range. There's no producer in Piedmont that demands more attention or reverence than Roberto Conterno. Visiting with him in November 2012 offered a small glimpse into the genius behind the quiet and reserved exterior.
Conterno's immaculate cellar and eye for detail, specifically with cleanliness, is unlike anything I've seen in person. The wines from the Cascina Francia vineyard (Barbera, Barolo, and Barolo Riserva Monfortino) are each benchmarks of the region. While deeply traditional methods in the cellar are applied, the sophistication and suave character of the wines in glass stand apart from his contemporaries.
Vineyard practices have been called modern, in their focus on coaxing maximum ripeness from vines. I find this to be a huge element in why the customarily dark and tannic Nebbiolo of Serralunga's terroir exudes so much charm when poured.
Volnay and its high limestone content sit in rare company with Chambolle-Musigny as one of Burgundy's most ethereal and delicate examples of Pinot Noir. Looking at the duo of D'Angerville and De Montille we're at the apex of what's proven possible here over many decades. While there may be no Grand Crus in the village, savvy collectors know these top Premier Crus transform and go the long haul as well as nearly anything from the Côte de Nuits.
Pronounced structure and tightly-coiled mineral tension make D'Angerville and De Montille perfect domaines to stash in the cellar, yet each has a more open-knit style than has been standard in the past. Today's list covers 2016 through 1985.
D'Angerville's protocol on excluding punchdowns and relying solely on pumpovers for fermentation give these wines a plush and soft-fruited personality that meshes brilliantly with the chalky terroir of Volnay. This combo brings enough slight austerity to make these both delicious and supremely thought-provoking.
De Montille has always been associated with whole cluster ferments, and, in turn, that elevated exotic spice component and stemmy crunch had made these famous for their fortress-like persona of the Hubert de Montille era. As son Etienne has taken over, these past decades have been moving to round their structure out a bit and provide an earlier drinking window. The style here is not a huge shift from one generation to the next as much as it is simply keen on allowing wines to offer more joy and expression in the early-going.
Last July's visit through the Northern Rhone anxiously started in Burgundy when I hit the road at dawn on my birthday and drove south. Short on sleep from the night's festivities, but the anticipation for the next chapter on the tour was all the fuel I needed. First stop: Domaine Auguste Clape.
Today, I'm happy to offer wines from the legendary Cornas family, stretching from 1988 to 2016.
Finding adequate words to place Auguste Clape into the context of Northern Rhone's history is difficult. Eric Asimov does a much better job. Of course, being the original producer in Cornas to bottle under his own label is a notch on the belt. And, having worked exclusively by hand on these treacherously steep terraces is another. Sadly, the day after my visit with his son Pierre-Marie, Auguste Clape passed away at 93.
No domaine founded in the birthplace of Syrah captures the soul of its appellation like Clape has with Cornas. Having started with a domaine bottling in 1955 and having stopped all négociant sales in 1968, Auguste Clape is a pioneer of the Rhone joined in ranks with names like Verset, Trollat, and Juge.
Clape's 5.5 hectares of vines in Cornas cover over 10 parcels, such as Reynard and Chaillot from Allemand fame, as well as Nöel Verset's cherished, Sabarotte. This dizzying array of Cornas terroir plays a huge role in the success that's spanned so many decades here. The wines are produced in the most traditional fashion with 100% whole cluster fermentation and aging in old barrels, with the two Cornas cuvées seeing 22 months in large foudre.The style of the domaine has always been one that's pushed for maximum ripeness, choosing to pick at the last moment before the ominous fall rains begin. This style of fruit-forward Cornas coming from porous granite soils endow the wines with tremendous structure, but with a pleasurable side of lusciousness. Unlike Hermitage and Côte Rôtie, the argument is often made that of the Big 3, Cornas offers an up-front approachability thanks to its southern and warm amphitheater setting. However, the typical savage scorched earth quality where Cornas derives its name is the foundation of the wines from this fabled domaine.
Tasting through each parcel and visiting the vines with Pierre-Marie was a window into a time long ago. Methods and settings have remained unaltered. There hadn't been rain for some time, and just maintaining footing on these steep slopes was a challenge, as both of us used a grasp on the échelas stakes for support.
In the cellar, tasting 2017 in foudre back through bottles from the 90's was a great lesson in the transformation of the wines. The highlight may have been that 2017 barrel sample of the isolated 80-yr-old, 1.2 hectare Reynard parcel. A concentrated and chiseled beast from the robust 2017 Northern Rhone vintage.Côtes du Rhone is 100% Syrah from 30-50-yr-old vines. 100% whole cluster fermented. Aged 6 months in cement, and another 6 months in foudre. 2% is comprised of free fun juice from young vine Cornas.
Cornas is sourced from 30-60 yr-old vines. 100% whole cluster fermented. Aged 22 months in 6 or 22 hl-foudres.
Cornas Renaissance is sourced from younger vines. Fermentation and aging is the same as the Cornas.
The highlight through eight days in Burgundy in July 2018 was undoubtedly visiting for the first time with Frédéric Lafarge in Volnay. The village is synonymous with grace and delicacy, but ardent collectors know in the traditional realm they can be among the most long-lived in Burgundy. The wines of Domaine Michel Lafarge are models for this tightrope act of finesse and tension, and they are among my favorites for this reason precisely.
Today, I'm happy to offer a deep lineup from Domaine Michel Lafarge, highlighted by one of the regions's greatest value Pinot Noir, the Bourgogne Rouge from 2015 & 2014.
The Bourgogne Rouge is sourced from one hectare of 41-52 yr-old vines in the lieu dit, Petit Pré. Within the context of this most humble Burgundy appellation, Lafarge's example is the stuff I simply dream to drink on a nightly basis. It's highlighted by a purity and ethereal lift that's almost never realized at this level in Burgundy.Domaine Michel Lafarge was founded in the early 1800's, and today is managed by Michel, with his son Frédéric, and granddaughter Clothilde. The trio has seen dramatic trends sweep through Burgundy in their time. During the 1950's, vignerons started incorporating chemicals in the vineyard, but Lafarge never considered it. In the mid to late 80's when the practice of elevated extraction was rampant this domaine continued their own path founded on transparency. And then in 1995, Lafarge was one of the very first to begin biodynamic practices in the vineyard.Tradition can mean so many things in Burgundy, but the use of hand-destemming and reliance on nearly all older barrels for aging places the domaine in a very specific position.It may be unfair to jump in categorizing Volnay as feminine and ethereal, leading one to believe the wines lack the rigid structure required for serious aging. Michel Lafarge touched on this really eloquently in his terrific interview with Levi Dalton on I'll Drink to That! Wine Podcast:"It's difficult to achieve the silkiness in tannins, but in Volnay it's unacceptable to have hardness. It's the silkiness of the tannins that define the overriding definition of Volnay."Domaine Lafarge holds vineyards primarily in Volnay, with plots in Pommard, Beaune, and Meursault. All wines have a regal frame met with the translucent qualities that put terroir firmly in the crosshairs. Volnay may not have Grand Cru vineyards, but if given the opportunity to drink any Côte de Beaune reds, my first choice is always Volnay.Volnay Vendanges Sélectionnées comes from multiple parcels in the middle of Volnay adjacent to Premier Cru vineyards. 1.25 hectares of 50-yr-old vines. Aged in 7% new wood.
Beaune 1er Cru Clos des Aigrots comes from a 0.88 hectare parcel of vines planted as far back as 1949. Soil here is limestone and clay, but with a mix of gravel and red clay.
Beaune 1er Cru Grèves comes from a 0.38 hectare parcel of vines planted in 1951 on light gravel soils over limestone.
Volnay 1er Cru Les Caillerets comes from a 0.28 hectare parcel planted in 1957 on red and brown clay soils over limestone. Aged in 15% new wood.
Volnay 1er Cru Clos du Château des Ducs (Monopole) comes from a 0.57 hectare parcel planted as far back as 1946 on deep brown clay soils over limestone. This vineyard is owned exclusively by Lafarge and located next to their home garden. Aged in neutral oak.
Volnay 1er Cru Clos des Chênes comes from a 0.9 hectare parcel planted as far back as 1951 on shallow red clay soils over limestone on the lower portion of the vineyard.