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.
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 has set my eyes continually toward today's more under-the-radar producers. Allemand's 2017'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 3rd 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 '70s and '80s when alcohol levels were more modest.
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.
The Côtes de Provence appellation is vast. Finding small slices of unique terroir where artisanal domaines reside has been a career-long journey for importer Kermit Lynch. Decades ago it was names like Tempier and Trévallon. Now, it is Clos Saint-Joseph.
Today, I'm happy to offer Domaine Clos Saint-Joseph's Cuvée Syrah from the exceptional 2016 Provence vintage.
30 minutes north of Nice is where you'll find the village of Villars-sur-Var, nestled high in these limestone hills just before the Alps. Here, Roch Sassi farms his 5 hectares with extreme care (organic with biodynamic principles followed). The big diversion from what the larger Provence region produces comes from the combination of these rocky, depleted limestone soils, the abundant sunshine, and the cold air howling down from the mountains. That's why tasting Cuvée Syrah you may feel whisked away to the northern Rhone. But, alas, the elegance endowed by these limestone soils is a different beast entirely.
Of all the vintages to debut, the 2016 is simply a perfect storm. Showcased is that magic combo of high ripeness and concentration, met with superb freshness. For my palate, everything points to this as the strongest vintage from Provence and the southern Rhone since 2010.
Cuvée Syrah is what really got me to stop in my tracks. 98% Syrah supplemented by a little Cabernet Sauvignon. This holds so much kinship to favorite Syrahs of the N. Rhone, but again, the interpretation through limestone (as opposed to granite and schist) finds a way of sharpening the focus and adding a finely-woven texture that still delivers massive concentration of fruit. A jewel in its construction and reflection of terroir. Aged exclusively in larger demi-muids.
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.
Of all the discoveries for the shop there's none that have captured my attention more than the Côte Rôtie of Chambeyron-Manin. The secret is out on this tiny jewel of a domaine. At under 165 cases produced annually the Chambeyron-Manin domaine is small-production on a wildly different scale. They farm just a 0.5 hectare of a rare clone of Syrah named Serine in the decomposed granite, iron rich soils of the Côte Brune.
Today, I'm happy to offer the 2016 Chambeyron-Manin Côte Rôtie Côte Brune in both 750ml and magnums.
While Côte Rôtie is the most seductive end of the Northern Rhone Valley, the Chambeyron's expression of Serine harnesses the dark and feral characteristics of the Côte Brune. With all the brawn and scorched earth elements of this combo it's the violet and lavender that still speaks to this slice of the most sensual Syrah on the globe.
I had thought visiting the Calmont vineyard in Mosel's Bremm would surely be the most jaw-dropping site of my wine travels, it being the world's steepest. But, when I descended into Ampuis, driving along the Rhone river and gazing up I realized this was a different animal. Immediately visualizing the hands-only work required on these towering terraces that stretched completely vertical from the river to the clouds brought on a sense of anxiety. Something like when Chief Brody saw that shark up close for the first time at the back of the boat.
The Chambeyron-Manin family historically, like many here, sell meats, cheeses, and vegetables. The minuscule plot of vines they have just behind their home only supplement their "main" work operating their Les Jardins de la Côte-Rôtiemarket. Tasting their wine for the first time it's hard to imagine they would devote their lives to anything except ramping up production and getting it into as many hands as possible. But, alas, half a hectare is what it is, and I'm just so fortunate to have been introduced.
The dark expression of Serine and the Côte Brune feature smoke, bacon fat, crushed rocks, dark plum, black pepper, and black olive notes with the vivid tell-tale florality that separate Côte Rôtie from its southern neighbors. I'm always on the hunt for more bottles from this domaine's current release, but finding wines with bottle age was a huge surprise.