Domaine Gramenon is a beacon of sorts for the natural wine scene. Since their 1990-founding, this pocket in the northern reaches of the Côtes du Rhone appellation has been the first place I turn to champion the best of what's arisen during this slow-building, but now explosive natural wine movement. The production is quite small, and quantities from importer Kermit Lynch don't last long.
Today, I'm happy to offer the 2017 Gramenon Poignée de Raisins and Sierra du Sud for $28 and $36, respectively.
Poignée de Raisins is solely comprised of Grenache, while Sierra du Sud is all Syrah. For the southern Rhone valley, this 100% varietal approach for bottling is very unusual. But, you'll find nothing at Gramenon to indicate they follow the path of others. This trailblazing estate has long been the darlings of the natural wine world, and deservingly so.
*While the term "natural wine" in un-defined and contentious in its use, I'm very comfortable with the phrase. For me, a natural wine must come from organically farmed vines, receive zero additives in the cellar, and go through a zero to very low sulphur regimen prior to bottling. And of course, no fining or filtering.
Gramenon's brilliance comes in harnessing the sun-baked southern Rhone and endowing their fleshy wines with a level of briskness and refreshment that's simply unrivaled. Drinkability isn't the sexiest descriptor, but damn, these epitomize that quenching trait like none other in this region. When placed on a crowded dinner table they're often the first wines emptied. Soft tannins, seamless texture, and fruit so fresh as if it were just plucked from those gnarled gobelet vines - Delicious factor: 100.
Michèle Aubèry-Laurent and her husband Philippe founded Gramenon in 1979. Eleven years later the couple bottled their very first wine. Their vision for the estate was a grand one: a place where organic farming and biodynamic principles extended beyond wine, incorporating growing their own produce and raising animals.
If the southern Rhone Valley has pulled you into Châteauneuf du Pape, or even quaffable Côtes du Rhones, you must try Gramenon to see what this most exciting whole cluster producer is turning out! And if you're in a camp that's shied away from two these appellations I suggest you use the modest pricing below to reacquaint yourself with an alternative, natural side to what you've perhaps been accustomed to.
Visit any cellar filled with Northern Rhone greats like Jamet and Chave, you're likely to find a small amount of Domaine Clusel-Roch. At 3.5 hectares. small is the critical factor as to why the domaine's wines are scarcely found. But, in quality they sit atop the scale of Northern Rhone Syrah. The highlight of their range is the Les Grandes Places, sourced from 1935-planted Serine vines.
Today, I'm happy to offer for 2012 Clusel-Roch Côte Rôtie Les Grandes Places for the lowest price in the U.S., and the 2010 Côte Rôtie, the only listing in the world.
The small berries found in bunches of Serine planted in Côte Rôtie produce wines of both immense concentration and intense perfume. Just one hectare of 84-yr-old Serine planted on iron and mica-schist form the foundation of Les Grandes Places. Looking at Clusel-Roch's tête de cuvée, one might expect a powerhouse wine as compared to their others, however it's truly the vivid floral and secondary traits that make this wine one of most celebrated of the Rhône.
Violet, smoke, bitter chocolate, and roasted meats with black pepper stand out first and foremost. Blue and black fruits with licorice tones fill the mid palate, and the persistent mineral conclusion is everything you expect to find with classic Côte Rôtie, the coolest of all the Northern Rhone appellations.
The domaine diverges from other traditionalists in their partial de-stemming and use of some new barrique. 50% for Les Grandes Places and 20% for the Côte Rôtie classique. If there was a model in the entire Northern Rhone for how best to illustrate deft incorporation of some new wood I am taken to Clusel-Roch far quicker than the other usual suspects, such as Guigal and Ogier. Clusel-Roch has really formed their following by appealing first and foremost to traditional-leaning palates, while still being admired by those who regularly chase the La La's.
With the lowest and only price offered, respectively, this is a combo not to be missed. I've also taken things down even further by offering special pricing on mixed 2-packs.
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.
There's no producer in the Northern Rhone that continues to raise the bar each vintage like Guillaume Gilles. His 2008 was a showstopper for me at the time of release, impressing for an authenticity of Syrah that grabbed ahold of me immediately - the kind that's romantically spoken of, but rarely found in bottle.
Savage, spicy, purple-hued, and filled with crushed granite, Gilles' Syrah from the famed Chaillot vineyard encapsulates everything that habitually points me to Cornas. Last July's visit with Guillaume was a great opportunity to learn more about the young vigneron who highlights this new generation.
Today, I'm happy to offer the 2016 Guillaume Gilles Cornas for $87 per bottle, complete with special pricing on vertical packs.
Guillaume trained under Jean-Louis Chave and the now-retired Cornas legend, Robert Michel. If Michel's wines were known for their uncommon transparency and light-handed touch, Gilles are darker, more ferocious, and packed with a concentration that's quite different. However, like Robert Michel, the soul of the wines from Gilles are founded on a sense of place that's undoubtedly pure granite and 100% whole cluster fermentation - just the way we like our Cornas!
Personally, falling hard for the wines of Thierry Allemand have set my eyes continually toward today's more under-the-radar producers. Allemand's 2016's will easily fetch $250+ per bottle - at less than half the price there's simply no producer deserving of more attention now than Guillaume Gilles. Today, Gilles farms just 2.5 hectares, working by hand the famed Chaillot vineyard (pictured below) that he leased from Robert Michel. His traditional approach means zero de-stemming, aging in large neutral barrels, and no fining or filtering. That quintessential combination of roasted meats, violets, blackberries, smoke, black pepper, and the granitic "scorched earth" that Cornas derives its name from is always front and center.
One of the secret wines in the range that only sees 30 cases arrive to the US annually is his Les Peyrouses VDF, which was served last at our tasting. Les Peyrouses is a small parcel containing vines planted over 100 years ago. Unlike the granitic soils of the terraced slopes of Cornas above, this lower portion is planted on sandy and clay soils scattered with the iconic galet stones from the plain of the river. Peyrouses is akin to the more rustic country cousin of Gilles' Cornas cuvée - But, these extremely old vines create an intensely concentrated wine that leads Guillaume to pour as the finalé during visits.
And, for the first time I'm able to offer Gilles' Cornas "Nouvelle R". The name comes from the vineyard Les Rieux, situated at a very high altitude in Cornas at 450 meters above the amphitheater. The soil here is very unusual, a white granite. Prior to the 21st century nobody had planted vines here, fearing they would not ripen properly. Of course, warming temperatures have winemakers everywhere looking for higher altitude land. At 12.5% alcohol this was a stunner when I tasted with Guillaume, and his mentor Robert Michel remarked this is what Cornas used to taste like in the 70's and 80's when alcohol levels were more modest.
Alain Graillot is to Crozes Hermitage as the Peyraud's are to Bandol: Benchmark and definitive representations of their appellations. Alain's journey to starting his domaine in 1985 began, of all places, in Burgundy alongside Jacques Seysses at Domaine Dujac. And, as one might imagine with Alain's Syrahs, there will be stems.
Today, I'm happy to offer the 2017 Alain Graillot Crozes Hermitage and 2016 Crozes Hermitage La Guiraude.
Additionally, featured below is a very special joint project between Antoine Graillot and Raul Perez, the 2017 Encinas Bierzo Tinto for just $30 per bottle.
Prior to founding his domaine in 1985, Alain's work with Jacques imparted two key traits. He wanted his wines to be both supremely fresh and spicy. Certainly elegance is part of this equation too, and as temperatures have warmed in the last 34 years, Graillot continues to be a beacon for Rhône enthusiasts passionate about terroir-driven wines that are steeped in an unwavering traditionalist approach.
Alain's two sons both produce Syrah under their own labels, but the eponymous domaine is still unwavering in their use of 100% whole clusters for fermentation and aging only in older wood - divided between barrique and foudre.
La Guirade is not a single vineyard, but rather a selection of the best barrels, as Alain tastes through these personally each vintage.
Crozes Hermitage has long been a great appellation for those looking for value when it comes to the best producers working in the most esteemed parcels. But, even as Graillot's wines nail the value element, they stand out from the pack, as he is undoubtedly the benchmark name in this zone of the Northern Rhône valley.