La renaissance de la vallée du Rhône Nord

La renaissance de la vallée du Rhône Nord: A Fresh Look at Vineyards of Crozes-Hermitage and St. Joseph
by Eric Railsback

Things have changed in the Northern Rhône.  It used to be all about the “Big Dogg” wines of ‘La Landonne’, ‘La Chapelle’ and ‘Le Meal’.  Now it is all about the little vigneron, working his small plot of land less-traveled.  Small families once worked the great terroirs of Côte Rôtie and Hermitage to produce wines of place, elegance and intrigue, but many of these great vineyards have been claimed by outsiders, who look at producing wine as a source of income, not as a passion.  A depressing outlook; however, there is a lot of life returning to the vineyards of the Northern Rhône valley in unexpected places.

On my first visit to the Northern Rhône 7 years ago, I remember entering the valley and being amazed at how steep the vineyards were.  My thoughts drifted to the difficulty of year-round work on such an incline, especially during the grueling harvest season, with a 20 kg basket on one’s back.  Upon arrival at my first appointment, Chez Chapoutier, these thoughts were confirmed.  I learned that many of the vignerons were getting old, and many small estates could not rely on a younger generation to help with laborious vineyard work.  Many had to sell their vineyards to co-operatives, or to outside families with excess cash.  In 2006, the Frey family took over the historic and highly regarded Jaboulet estate, which was family owned since 1834—a sign of the times.  After hearing many similar stories I could not help but think that the Northern Rhône was a region in decline.  Happily, I was just looking in the wrong place at the wrong time.  In a weak economy, no one was willing to undertake the expense to start up a new, quality-driven wine project in such an established area.  Instead, wine growers turned to the less established areas of St. Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage and Cornas.  Whenever I return to the Rhône, I find new producers making exciting wines, as well as older houses reinvigorated with life. Below are some of my favorite houses, each of which belongs among the great names of the Rhone Valley.

Vines on the hillside of Cornasty overlooking the village


Crozes-Hermitage is an appellation of two different terroirs.  On the east side of the great Rhône River, small parcels on granite hillsides characterize the first terroir.  The second area is located to the south, where sandy stone soils and wire-trained vines tend to yield wines that are easier to drink and less expensive to make.  I tend to find the wines of Crozes much more red-fruited, softer, less structured, and less mineral driven as the other appellations; nonetheless, they are delicious and easy to drink.

Domaine Graillot
Since 1985 Alain Graillot has been making some of the best wines of the appellation, drawing inspiration from some of the greatest vignerons in Burgundy, including Jacques Seysses of Domaine Dujac.  Unsurprisingly, Alain ferments his 30 year-old vines as whole clusters and ages them for 1-3 years in used Burgundy barrels—a technique used by other Dujac disciples, including Domaine L’Arlot in Nuits St. George.  While the wines of Alain Graillot are nothing new to the modern Sommelier, his son’s Domaine des Lises is a newer star in the region.  Max Graillot is currently working to rejuvenate a 7 ha parcel in Crozes-Hermitage, a painstaking process after years of harmful industrial farming practices.  The wines of Graillot and Lises are wines of great quality, but they also offer good value.  Although we haven’t had a chance to watch the wines of Domaine des Lises age, Graillot’s wines can last 15-20 years in better vintages.  While working harvest at Chez Domaine Dujac in 2007, I spent many lunch breaks comparing old vintages of Graillot to other wines of greater stature.  In most cases, the Graillot wines came out on top—even though they were half of the price!  From that point on I knew that I should be investing my money in wines like Domaine Graillot instead of the big name producers that do not perform.

Domaine Combier
The Combier family has been in the farming business since the early 1960s, growing apricots, peaches and grapes to sell to the local cooperative. In 1970 the family decided to convert to fully organic farming practices.  In 1990, the family took their business one step further: they left the cooperative and established a private fruit brand called Combier.  Along with their fruit brand, they decided to bottle their own wines, and they expanded their vineyard holdings to the current 20 ha.  The wines are aged in used oak and cement eggs, which help to retain delicious primary fruit.  The wine to watch from this house is the “Clos des Grives”, made from 50 year-old Syrah vines.  It drinks well above its price.  

St. Joseph

When I first started reading about St. Joseph I remember believing that this appellation had to be at the bottom of the Northern Rhône in terms of overall quality.  It is the Northern Rhône’s largest appellation, running 65 km from north to south, with a broad range of soils and topography.  However, after visiting these vineyards and putting down the Wine Bible, I find it to be the most exciting area in the Rhône today.  With such a large area being classified under the appellation, there is a large variance in terroir; however, this presents an opportunity to expand the vineyards into areas that show greater potential for quality.  While some of the vineyards are similar to those of Crozes-Hermitage, the better sites resemble the great slopes of Côte Rôtie.  The same phenomenon occurs in the wines. Just like Crozes, St. Joseph is divided into two zones. The classic area, spanning six villages near Cornas and Hermitage, was established in 1956.  In 1969, the AOC added a northern area, including 19 more villages. The soils between these two locations may vary, but a granite base from the Massif Central runs underneath the entire appellation.  In my opinion, the closure of the Cave Sarras co-op was one of the primary factors leading to the emergence of many exciting new producers.  Many of the farmers took on the challenge of making their own wines after finding difficulty in selling off their fruit.  Of course, in order to be able to sell their wines, vignerons would have to create a superior product to all the bulk juice that had crashed the market after the fall the Cave Sarras in 2004.  As in the Austrian wine crisis of the 1980s, when things got tough, winemakers stepped up their work and improved their product above and beyond what was expected.

Domaine Philippe Faury
Some of the best quality wines for the price are coming out of this small estate.  With Philippe’s son Lionel taking over the estate, the wines only seem to be getting better. I asked Lionel on my visit a few weeks ago about new trends in the Rhône Valley.  I was excited to hear that many wineries are returning to more elegant styles with less oak and less extraction.  As one means to achieve more elegance, Domaine Faury is experimenting with large foudres of low toast.  To impart a barrel with low toast, the inside is heated with a flame confined inside a steel tube. Since the flame never comes into contact with the barrel, a much lower level of char impacts the barrel, allowing the terroir to show through more clearly in the wines.  Wines to look for from Domaine Faury are the St. Joseph “Vieilles Vignes” and the Côte Rôtie.  The old vines in the St. Joseph bottling are 45-65 years old, planted on granite soils with a high proportion of limestone at an altitude of up to 260 meters.  For me, this is a great house wine that comes in at less than $20 cost and drinks like a baby Côte Rôtie.  The estate sources the actual Côte Rôtie from two lieux-dits on the Côte Brune, and co-ferments with 10% of Viognier.  Typically, Faury incorporates 20% whole clusters and manual punch downs to produce intriguing aromatics.

Old vines from Domaine Faury in St. Joseph

Domaine Gonon
In my opinion, the wines of Gonon are the best-­kept secret in the Rhône Valley.  In fact, I was almost hesitant to include them in this article!  Located in the town of Mauves, this 9.5 ha estate is the benchmark of St. Joseph.  The domaine was founded in 1956, the same year that the INAO granted St. Joseph AOC status.  At this time most of the appellation’s vineyards were located around Mauves, St. Joseph, and Tournon—the latter village is home to Gonon’s parcels.  Pierre Gonon campaigned for the addition of white wine in the St. Joseph AOC, and the pride of this estate is its small parcel of Marsanne, planted in 1958 by massale selection.  From this vineyard, planted long before its wines could be sold under the appellation, came the Vin des Oliviers. The quality of this blanc wine is so high it sells out well before the rouge and has made the estate famous—a rare circumstance for a St. Joseph house.  Pierre’s sons Pierre and Jean took over operation of the estate in 1989, and they continue the elder Pierre’s work.

Today, the brothers work their soils in a very traditional manner. They never treat their land with chemicals, and they fertilize with their own natural treatments and composts.  Since 2004 the domaine has been certified organic.  Vinification occurs with partially de-stemmed fruit in open vats, with light foot-pressing for soft extraction.  The greatest addition to this domaine came in 2005, when Gonon purchased an old vine parcel of Syrah planted in pre-World War I times from the great producer Trollat.  The fruit from this vineyard is blended into the rouge, as the brothers do not believe in the single vineyard bottling concept.  When tasting with the brothers, one immediately feels their passion for their wines, stoked and flamed with every further question and inquiry.  After only a few minutes, Jean opened up bottles of 1998 Blanc and Rouge.  This was not a great year for the domaine, as there was a bad frost, and much of the fruit for both wines came from young vines; however, both drank beautifully.  If a wine from such an unremarkable vintage can age so gracefully, what can one expect from the great years?  Though the amount of Gonon coming into the states is microscopic, each year I make an effort to shove as many bottles as I can into my personal cellar.

M. Gonon passing out precious tastes of his St. Joseph Rouge en Cave


The Outsiders

Louis Barruol and Kermit Lynch
When outsiders come into a foreign region to make wines it is rarely a good thing.  However, when one joins the palate of Kermit Lynch and the resources of M. Barruol, the proprietor of Chateau de Saint Cosme in Gigondas, great wines result.  Kermit, for many years an importer of esteemed wines from the Rhône valley, and Louis, owner of the historic 16th century Gigondas, have created a brilliant micro-negociant brand.  Both Kermit and Louis find inspiration for this project in the wines of Marius Gentaz, which are almost impossible to find.  If you have had the pleasure to taste a Syrah from Gentaz you know there is nothing else like it in the world.  If this project can even come close to the quality of Gentaz, then it should be considered a complete success.  Louis finds the best barrels and the best fruit from the greatest sites in the Northern Rhône, and he completes the wines’ élevage in his ancient cellar, whereas Kermit makes the final, unfiltered blend for the United States.  100% whole cluster fermentation characterizes many of the wines, and they show very much like the wines of Jamet, but at a much lower price.  Louis is lucky enough to work with an ancient, rare version of Syrah, la Vieille Serine.  Last month, I was in the cellar with Louis, where I tasted the full line-up of Crozes-Hermitage, Hermitage and all three cuvées of Côte Rôtie.  The Crozes Hermitage ‘Tiercerolles’ is very stemmy on the nose and shows much greater structure then a typical Crozes.  Louis told us that the wine compared to the style of Raymond Roure, an old school Kermit Lynch import. Moving on to the Hermitage, I was fairly impressed but not nearly to the extent that I was with the Côte Rôtie bottlings.  The best of all three cuvées was the Côte-Rôtie ‘La Doree’.  The vines were grown on granite soil coming from the La Viallière parcel. Not only does it display great aromatics, but the texture of this wine is remarkable. Only a few barrels of this wine exist, but it is truly a great new project and a must-have for the wine list.

Though none of these wines will be receiving 100 points from top critics any time soon, they represent a true, pure form of what Syrah should taste like.

About the author:
Eric Railsback was recruited by the Mina Group in 2009, while his talents as a sommelier caught the eye of Rajat Parr.  Though only 26 years old, he brings over a decade of restaurant experience with him as a wine professional, spanning such programs as the Wine Cask in Santa Barbara, as well as Gordon Ramsay and Mozza in L.A.  Eric’s particular affection for the wine and culture of the old World has led to multiple trips abroad, where he has honed his command of the French language, while working harvests for such illustrious producers as Domaine Dujac in Burgundy, and Weingut Emmerich Knoll in Austria.  He currently heads a team of talented sommeliers at the renowned, Burdundian hot spot, RN 74, in San Francisco.