Travel blog by David Trafford
In May 2015 this year Simon Farr, our Sijnn partner, Madeline Mehalko, wine buyer for Cru, and I went on an intensive research trip from the north of the Northern Rhone, down the Rhone valley to Chateau Neuf du Pape, across the south of France to Riversaltes and Banyuls, before crossing into Spain and venturing straight to Priorat. Madeline had thankfully done all the hard work and set up all our appointments – the sort of thing only a charming and persuasive lady can do well! We averaged 3 or 4 visits a day, tasting 40 to 60 wines, including many barrel samples over 8 days. The best part was visiting and spending time with the growers in some of their fantastic vineyards.
SEYSSUEL – NORTHERN RHONE
This is a really interesting “new” area north of Cote Rotie and north of the town of Vienne. These abandoned vineyards were farmed since Roman times and around 25 years ago an inspired group of vignerons including Yves Cuilleron, set about restoring the vineyards and producing wines under the Vins de Vienne label. The vineyards have a similar schistous soil to the Cote Brune of Cote Rotie, but being a bit further north and facing more SW than S, a little cooler.
It seems a little uncool to rave about a big, prestigious producer like Guigal, but their wines were really spectacular. Unsurprisingly the Cote Rotie’s were particularly impressive, especially the famous La La’s – La Mouline; La Turque and La Landonne – from the excellent 2011 vintage. The La Landonne was probably the wine of the trip for me. I’ve always been amazed at how these wines can absorb 42 months in new oak and still be so gracious. It had a density and seamless structure more like a 1st Growth Bordeaux, but still with beautiful Syrah fruit and the pepper and spice of the Northern Rhone. A real treat, but still a baby, needing at least 10 years.
Phillipe Guigal who generously showed us around, is convinced the long elevage in new wood is best for their wines. Interestingly it was really only outside the Cote Rotie where some of the wines didn’t seem to absorb the oak so well. It was an observation that later became apparent that the producers best products were generally better from the nearby vineyards. It is common for a producer situated in say Condrieu, to produce anything from Cotie Rotie to Chateau Neuf du Pape. The other thing we noticed is that most of the producers we visited produce exceptional Cote du Rhone at very good prices. (A worry for SA producers!) The Guigal Cote du Rhone 2011 was exceptional, a blend of Syrah 60%; Mourvedre 30%; Grenache 10%, and considering the huge quantities produced, quite a technical feat. Widely available around the world. If unfamiliar with Rhone wines, it’s a great introduction. Available in SA from Reciprocal Wines.
I have been a fan of Jamet for a long time, perhaps because it is so different to anything in SA and so good. Happily it is a wine we can get on allocation in South Africa through The Wine Cellar. One of the things I like about the domaine is that they really focus on one wine – Cotie Rotie. (They also produce an excellent Cote du Rhone). We tasted several barrel samples, mostly because Jean Paul was battling to figure out what lots of the exceptional 2013 to put together for his Cote Rotie. He was worried about getting just the right amount of structure in a highly structured, but exciting, elegant vintage. I feel their wines are best with some age anyway. The 2004 I’ve had a few times in S.A. is drinking beautifully now and the 1991 half bottle we tasted was one of the 3 best wines of our trip. Perfect maturity.
An impressive new cellar and a rising star of the area. Stephane Ogier has quite a Burgundian approach and the different parcels he vinified separately allowed for a fascinating barrel tasting. The wines had great precision and freshness, but not quite the richness and complexity of some of the other top producers. Wine available from Reciprocal Wines.
Domaine Francois Gerard
Xavier Gerard is a passionate young producer who took over from his father, Francois, two years ago. The family own 3ha of prime vineyards in Condrieu, producing two wines and 2 ha in Cote Rotie – a mix of both Cote Blonde and Cote Brune – producing a single excellent Cote Rotie. They buy in a little fruit too, in particular, for an excellent Viognier. He has been to SA and plans to return, so we look forward to hosting him at De Trafford and Sijnn.
We spent a wonderful afternoon climbing up Pierre Damuzet’s Condrieu vineyard, followed by an extensive tasting. Simon used to buy Pierre’s wine in the 80’s for Bibendum. A real hands own traditionalists tending to everything himself with the minimum of help, producing wines of real character. His Cote Fournet Condrieu 2009; 2011; 2012 and 2013 were all exceptional. Condrieu is well known for being the only “great” wine that doesn’t age well. The 2009 was delicious and Simon confirmed many Condrieu’s go through a bit of a dull phase before gaining a ginger like complexity.
Perhaps the most famous home of Syrah. It is well known that the First Growths of Bordeaux used to be Hermitaged – ie Hermitage (Syrah) added to improve the wine especially in weaker vintages.
Domaine Marc Sorrel
Another small, traditional producer Simon knew well from the 80’s, producing some excellent Hermitage. The Sorrel family have been active in Hermitage since 1893. Marc Sorrel Hermitage Rouge is produced from vines located in the Les Bessards, Les Greffieux and Les Plantiers sites. The fruit is always destemmed and aged in used French oak for 12 months. The impressive Hermitage Rouge Le Greal comes from vines planted in Le Meal (90%) and Les Greffieux. Average vine age 60 years. 92% Syrah; 8% Marsanne. This wine is whole cluster fermented and aged in used French oak for 18 to 24 months.
A big producer with some exceptional wines and happily most of their quite extensive range is available in SA through The Wine Cellar. We tasted 10 wines and the two that stood out for me were the L’Oree Ermitage Blanc 2012 (mostly Marsanne) and the Les Greffieux Hermitage 2011.
Le Mangevins Bistro
This small 20 seater wine bar in the centre of Tain L’Hermitage, just below Chapoutier was the best meal of our trip. The owner, who served us, went to a lot of trouble getting the right wines for us, hauling handfuls of bottles from his extensive cellar for us to consider. The Rostaing below was a great option. Interestingly our “best meal” was produced by a Japanese chef in a tiny kitchen! There are just two options for starter, main and dessert and even that choice was difficult. Travelling with Simon and Maddie means you eat at some of the best places, with much advance planning and booking. The duck breast main brought a tear to the eye!
This was one of the nicest regions to visit in the Rhone. Very picturesque with the vineyard sites very similar to Cote Rotie, but interspersed with more natural woodlands. Facing due south and being about 200km further south the wines are noticeably more powerful and perhaps closer to SA Syrahs than further north.
Competing with Xavier for the most modest, Trafford like, cellar of our trip. “Classic quality is on the horizon for this Northern Rhone Valley Estate”. James Molesworth, Wine Spectator. Ploughing is done with a horse and the grapes pressed without destemming. Franck Balthazar is the nephew of legendary producer, Noel Verset and bought his 97 year old vineyard in Chaillot from him when he retired. He blends it with another 46 year old parcel in Chaillot to produce an exceptional Le Chaillot Cornas. He uses only used demi-muids (600L) for ageing all his wines. No fining or filtration.
Cave Dumien Serrette
Unbeatable old world charm and another pack of delicious wines.
CHATEAU NEUF DU PAPE
An area I’ve always been fascinated with, though often with some disappointing wines.
Clos des Papes
There is no doubt that Clos des Papes is one of the top producers in Chateau Neuf du Pape. What I particularly like is that they’ve avoided the temptation to come out with a super cuvee of old vines to garner Parker points. We had their delicious 2006 Chateau Neuf du Pape and an incredible 1997 white with lunch – a blend of Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Clairrette and Picpoul. All their wines are matured in the big foudres (something I have my eye on for Sijnn) seen below. The tricky 2014 looks charming, while the 2013 exceptional. We spotted a little consignment for Great Domaines in South Africa, so the good news is the excellent 2012 vintage should be available from them.
Clos du Caillou
Still soaking up an extended lunch, this visit was rather rushed and unremarkable, but they’ve been raking in some good awards, so one to watch. I guess I was also disappointed our visit to Chateau Rayas didn’t materialise!
Chateau de St Cosme
What a charming place and energetic owner, Louis Barroul! The estate has been in the family since 1570 with a fascinating history stretching back to Roman times. Original Roman fermentation tanks cut into the limestone rock can be seen in the winery. Once again, the most convincing products were their home grown Gigondas, especially the single vineyard offerings from 90 year old Grenache. Definitely a highlight. We particularly enjoyed the “Le Claux” and the “Le Post” (vineyard below), however the regular Gigondas and the Cote du Rhone were also excellent and offer great value. Happily the wines are available through Great Domaines in SA and Cru internationally.
A new and exciting project in the Roussillon hills, an old bull wine area. A lot of new vineyards planted on some great sites to compliment some really old blocks. I was especially interested in quite a bit of Roussanne being planted and doing really well. The wines were very good, but we felt were a little rushed to bottle and deserved more careful elevage.
Domaine des Clos des Fees
We didn’t visit any vineyards, which are spread over quite a vast area. We tasted some exceptional wines with owner/winemaker Herve Bizeul recently buoyed by a 97 point Parker score, which has done much to the recognition of their wines and the region. A very thoughtful line up with some delightful “little” wines, though to the predictably big and powerful, impressive 97 point Le Clos des Fees 2009, which I’ll include in a tasting one of these days.
At the forefront of organic and biodynamic viticulture and winemaking. An amazing collection of vineyard blocks scattered around the mountains above the Maury valley. The focus is on two blended wines – a white and a red. Both delicious, complex and very individual. Available from Cru World Wine.
BANYULS and COLLIOURE
Cazes & Clos de Pauililles
Lionel Lavail went through an impressive line-up with us. The area is famous for its Port like fortified wines, but much like in the Duoro, they’re also focusing on the more fashionable dry wines. I’m always rather envious of wineries that have their own beach and the ability to open a bottle of your birth year – if you’re old enough!
Domaine de la Rectorie
This was undoubtedly one of our nicest visits and certainly the most spectacular vineyard we visited. The wines were surprisingly fine, especially the white, but all with real complexity and length. I will try and get some to SA to share with friends and customers.
According to Simon a trip to this part of Spain would be scandalous not to include a long lunch at Garbet, rated one of the best seafood restaurants in Spain. The meal didn’t disappoint. We enjoyed one platter after another, which we shared, until it got to dessert and we each had something special!
I’ve always wanted to visit Priorat. In 1994 Rita and I got as far as the coastal town of Sitges, an hour away, but after a camp site of earthworms headed off to Rioja instead. I am glad our visit was short, because I’ll definitely be back with Rita. It’s an awesome place with magic old vineyards on steep hillsides and a natural dry woodland tapestry with medieval towns here and there. A little like the hilltop towns of Tuscany, but much more rustic and practically no tourists – just the odd wine geek! A little like the Duoro, but less intensely farmed. Do visit.
Terroir al Limit
We tried to fit in an appointment before our 11.00am appointment with Dominik Huber, owner of Terroir al Limit, but no one seemed awake before 10.00am. Never the less we spent the rest of the day exploring the extraordinary wines of this producer. The winery based right in the medieval village of Torroja del Priorat, with various vineyard parcels scattered around the hills above. A project started by SA’s very own stellar vigneron, Eben Sadie, who has now relinquished his shareholding.
The pillar of strength single vineyard Les Tosses 2012 (below) 100% must be one of the greatest Carignans in the world, while my favourite the 100% Grenache Les Manyes was one of my 3 wine highlights of the trip. At €150 a bottle they’re not cheap, but for a third of the price both the Dits del Terra wines are more approachable and only slightly less compelling. Soon to be available from Cru. Check out Madeline’s excellent blog: Terroir al Limit – Slated for Success.
TASTE THE RESEARCH
I managed to drag a few wines back with me, but am planning to get some of my favourite wines, so we can host a tasting in Stellenbosch and Malgas in the not too distant future. We’ll keep those on our mailing list informed.