Many visits along the wine route have left significant impressions on me. At the very top of the list is surely a July 2012 visit with Jean-Michel Stephan in Côte Rôtie. My friend and I had just finished taking in our first Bastille Day celebration in epic fashion at Lapierre's annual feast in Villié-Morgon. It's fitting that only days later we found ourselves atop the steep terraces of Côte Rôtie with a vigneron who remembers Marcel Lapierre as his greatest inspiration.
Today, I'm very happy to offer the truly singular Côte Rôties from Jean-Michel Stephan.
Jean-Michel takes an approach to vinification in Côte Rôtie that differs drastically from his neighbors. But, the most profound bottles hit the same mark as great traditionalists like Jamet, Benetière, and Levet. Stephan's philosophy, coming from his time in Villié-Morgon, mean that he employs full carbonic fermentation for his Syrah - a process customarily reserved for Gamay in Beaujolais.
As he explained to us, the whole clusters are placed into fermentation tanks free of sulphur additions, he pumps in some CO2, closes the hatch, and walks away. When he returns, the intracellular or "carbonic fermentation" is complete. On one hand this gives a fruitier note to Syrah, but the addition of stems counter that with spice, tannin, and freshness.
Stephan's Côte Rôtie "Classique" is comprised of 90% Syrah and 10% Viognier, sourced from various parcels throughout the appellation.
Côte Rôtie "So'Brune" is also comprised of 90% Syrah and 10% Viognier, but this comes from a high elevation parcel planted on mica schist. This very forward and plush in style. Dark and very soft-fruited in the warm 2017 vintage.
Stephan's Coteaux Bassenon is comprised of 60% Syrah, 30% Sérine, and 10% Viognier (oldest vines planted in 1896 and 1902). This parcel is on darker mica schist soils in the northern part of the appellation. This soil is more commonly found in the Côte Brune.
Stephan also stands out for his use of 100% Serine in his Coteaux du Tupin cuvée. This is remembered by vignerons as the ancient clone of Syrah. Differing with a move oval shaped berry, providing a darker take on the already wild Syrah variety, and doubling down on the violet aromatic notes. Old Serine vines here are planted on granitic gneiss with white mica schist, the same commonly found in the Côte Blonde.Finally,
En Coteaux Vieilles Vignes is produced only in select vintages and sources from the oldest Serine vines in Bassenon and is supplemented with 15% of old vine Viognier.
At first glance it may appear that Stephan's wines are Côte Rôtie through a Beaujolais prism. I don't see them like this at all. For me, they offer a mineral streak and wild aromatic range that is so very unique. However, each of the four cuvées do show an immediacy that is akin to Beaujolais. The dark and brambly fruit is unadulterated through the complete absence of sulphur additions. With a decant these young wines open up to reveal a side of Côte Rôtie that makes you feel like they are your first. They are exceptional, and they are singular.