“The first time I tried Hervé Souhaut’s Syrah. It was one of my many awakenings to natural wine, and I remember grinning ear to ear and saying, ‘What is it that I am feeling/tasting/experiencing? Why am I so happy?!’” — Jenny Lefcourt, Importer
Though it’s a half-hour drive from St.-Jean de Muzols to Northern Ardèche, the craggy landscape makes Domaine Romaneaux-Destezet feel like it’s on the outskirts of Saint-Joseph, and the wines take on a similar lone-wolf character. Naturalist icon, Hervé Souhaut, was influenced early on by friends Marcel Lapierre in Beaujolais and Philippe Pacalet in Burgundy. He’s become a crowd favorite for his approachable, idiosyncratic Northern Rhône Syrah and Gamay.
Today, I'm happy to offer the 2019 Hervé Souhaut Syrah and La Souteronne Gamay, with rare back-vintages to 2005.
In the early 90s, Hervé and his wife, Béatrice, inherited a 16th-century fortified farmhouse surrounded by old-vine Rhône varieties and Gamay. Hervé turned to his friends Lapierre and Pacalet for guidance and adopted their practices; he farms according to organic and biodynamic principles and, in the cellar, works entirely with whole clusters, semi-carbonic maceration, and minimal sulfur. He delicately extracts the grapes to make wines with subtlety and finesse.
In Ardèche, La Souteronne Gamay comes from 60-to-80-year-old vines, and "Syrah" taps vines 10-to-100-yrs-old. The schist of Hervé's home is unlike anything in Saint-Joseph, with its sand-like granular texture falling through your hands. And, the Saint Epine Syrah comes from 100-plus-year-old vines in St.-Jean de Muzols.
All of the reds undergo long macerations at low temperatures. They're then fermented in wooden tanks and aged in old oak casks on fine lees for a minimum of eight months. Bottled with no filtration and 25ppm of sulphur.
What Hervé produces is still unashamedly Syrah, but it's shed some of its uptight inhibition. The 2019 Syrah is soft and generous, with varied hues of red fruit that interplay with cowhide, red dust, and velvety tannins. Sainte Epine is a bit more serious, though still lively as ever, and it's known for its bluer, brambly fruit, violet tones, and mineral streak. The region’s cool, rainy climate ensures their freshness over time; with some age, the grip and snap of acidity is toned down, and the fruit melds with more earth and funk.
“There’s Gamay in the Rhône?” I asked my colleague, Marc, when he poured the 2019 La Souteronne. “Beaujolais isn’t too far,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. He’s right. Actually, it’s a mere 60 km from Beaujolais to the French capital of Syrah. Wine writer Jon Bonné wrote that La Souteronne “remains a benchmark for not-Beaujolais Gamay,” just with an inflection of Rhône. The 2019 French Gamays I’ve had thus far have collectively shown a calm and collected gracefulness, and La Souteronne is no different.
A bottle of Cru Beaujolais was my epiphany red wine. It was a bottle from the cool 2008 vintage that shifted my perspective on wine, in short, because all of the vivid fruit and aroma on the nose didn't match what I expected to find on the palate. Instead of jammy, sweet fruit, I was met with an ultra-dry inflection of crispy, fresh, tart red berry fruits and a dead-serious mineral encore.
This was not my world of robust California reds or even the sun-kissed southern Rhône blends that had begun to pull me towards France. This was something entirely different, where fruit played 2nd fiddle, where the vine was just a canvas, a medium, for the sense of place (or terroir) that was the leading player.
I remember that first taste fondly, but those experiences have now become far too rare for my liking. Increasingly warmer temperatures have given a plushness and fruit-forward tone to most of Beaujolais. I can turn to a few names for that truly mineral-driven personality that sparked my interest in the region. Guy Breton's wines remind me of my past, somehow still being able to craft Cru Beaujolais founded on grace, precision, and that sense of place.
Today, I'm happy to offer four wines from Guy Breton's 2019 release.
Guy Breton, or Petit Max as his friends call him, is the member of the Gang of Four we hear about the least. Foillard, Lapierre, and Thévenet joined Breton in following Jules Chauvet's critical teachings on natural viticulture and non-interventionist winemaking. Among the four, Breton's wines show the greatest levity and fine-grained structure.
"Good unfiltered color. And the aroma? How about some pepper and spice? Aromas of pepper and spice are unusual in the Beaujolais, but Breton says the locals always spot his wines in blind tasting because his terroir typically gives such a perfume. The palate starts out lean and fine, and then you start to feel it penetrate and the flavors sink in." — Importer, Kermit Lynch
Breton's minuscule three hectares of vines focus mainly on Morgon and feature holdings in Chiroubles, Regnie, and Fleurie.
Chiroubles is sourced from 60-yr-old vines in the lieu-dit of Javernand, where we see a more sandy form of granite. The high elevation and soil here give a decidedly ethereal expression of Gamay.
Morgon Vieilles Vignes comes from 80-yr-old vines on granite and sand. The deepest and most concentrated wine of the domaine.
Regnie sources vines as old as 100 years from a granite and sand parcel. Located close to Morgon's famous Côte du Py, this vineyard brings a serious grip and structure, with mouth-watering acidity.
Fleurie is sourced from the famed climat, Poncie. Aged in used Burgundy barrels.
“He paved the way for all of the young winemakers in Australia who may have been brought up on the bigger style of wine to say that these wines were fine for our parents, but it’s not what we want to do or drink. He was the most important winemaker of a generation.”
— Ronnie Sanders, Importer
France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Austria, and California represent the core of the 2,000 + selections on the site, which's unlikely ever to change. However, being open-minded and continually tasting wines from outside this realm is crucial.
Much as California has gone through a transformative period recently, Australia is also in the midst of a shift towards emphasizing freshness and balance in its wines. The jammy, overly-extracted, and raisinated characteristics that plagued many are slowly falling out of fashion. There's one producer that really typifies this more contemporary terroir-driven focus. Many years ago, a tasting with the Wines of Australia in New York put Ochota Barrels on the map for me. Today we go down under and look close at the single most exciting producer from a country whose sky is the only limit for potential.
Today, I'm happy to offer the 2020 Ochota Barrels "Green Room" Grenache and "Where's the Pope" Syrah.
Tara Ochota graduated with a degree in Oenology from Adelaide University and moved to work with wineries throughout California, Italy, and his homeland. Amber Ochota, after working with wineries in Italy, selected to focus on vineyard development at home. The two knew the landscape intimately and their wealth of experiences set their eyes on showing a different side to McLaren Vale Grenache and Barossa Valley Shiraz (Syrah). Through old vines and single-vineyard bottlings, Ochota Barrels was born with aspirations of telling the true story of place. And they're now the worldwide ambassadors of the ever-changing terrain of Australian wine.
The concentration of flavor and silken texture is not always easy to achieve at lower alcohol and neutral oak aging. Still, their Green Room bottling (the first I tasted) was a massive revelation for me. This was not just mimicking a Cru Beaujolais or a carbonic fermented Southern Rhone Grenache/Syrah blend. This was completely unique and spoke to a seemingly unveiled place for the first time in front of my eyes. There were no rough edges; everything was in its right place. This was seamless in the way that top sites in Burgundy convey with ease. And ease is the most appropriate word to describe the wines from Tara and Amber. They are each integrated and composed in complete harmony without sacrificing an ounce of power. Their wines immediately conjure the adage of the iron fist in the velvet glove.
In 2016, I had the pleasure of visiting with Amélie Berthaut at her family's small domaine in Fixin. It marked a rare moment where I understood the obscurity of this vigneron was going to change at a pace as I've never witnessed before.
Today, I'm happy to offer the 2017 Domaine Berthaut-Gerbet Fixin Les Crais.
Berthaut's Clos Vougeot, Petits Monts, and Suchots are well worth your attention, but another value play (relatively speaking here) is with Amélie's Fixin Les Crais. William Kelley of The Wine Advocate captures what's so special from this lieu-dit:
"The 2017 Fixin Les Crais is lovely, wafting from the glass with aromas of blackberries, cassis, asphalt and dark chocolate. On the palate, it's medium to full-bodied, ample and fleshy, with a lavish attack, a succulent core of expressive fruit and a melting but stony finish. I have a weakness for this cuvée, which is hard to resist in its youth but which ages very dependably—in fact, I still have a few bottles of the 1988 in my cellar that are still bursting with lively fruit."
On another note, if you want to see what under-$50 Red Burgundy superstar cuvées perform like, the 2017 Domaine Berthaut-Gerbet Bourgogne Hautes Côte de Nuits for $41 per bottle is your shot. I revisited this bottle after being reawakened to the brilliance of this Fixin producer during our value Red Burgundy seminar in Temecula last year. It's rare that a producer's most entry-level wine would not only drink well on night three, but the reason this modest red Burgundy thrilled me so much is that it still delivered the same delineation and focus I've come to expect from the highest order of appellations.
Carved into stone at the domaine are the words, Ien faire vax miev que dir: “Doing right is better than talk.” Amélie proved again in 2017 her soft-spoken nature and serious commitment to viticulture informs everything that's come to be realized in bottle. This lineup is not to be missed.