By Eric Asimov
Sept. 3, 2020
This month we’re going to try something a little different.
Ordinarily, I suggest three bottles of the same type of wine. Instead, I want to compare three wines that are closely related but come from different appellations within a larger region, the Northern Rhône Valley of France.
Each is made with the syrah grape. But what if anything distinguishes one from the others? That’s what we are going to examine.
The French appellation system suggests that each place will have its own distinctive characteristics. It’s one thing, say, to compare a Chambolle-Musigny from Burgundy with a Chinon from the Loire Valley. One is made from pinot noir, the other with cabernet franc. You would expect that they would differ for that reason alone.
But if wines are made with the same grape, other factors come into play. In the case of the Northern Rhône, the French authorities concluded long ago that the wines made in St.-Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage and Cornas were all sufficiently distinctive to warrant separate appellations….
We have not covered Cornas previously, so if you cannot find the Granit 30, please consider bottles from Franck Balthazar, Alain Voge, Guillaume Gilles, Mickaël Bourg, Domaine Lionnet and Jean-Baptiste Souillard. I’m not suggesting legendary producers like Thierry Allemand and Auguste Clape, but if you have a spare bottle, by all means go ahead and drink it.
Domaine Levet in Côte-Rôtie has been a cornerstone of our portfolio since the 1983 vintage—the first they ever produced. Bernard and Nicole Levet began their domaine with three and a half hectares of enviable holdings around Ampuis, passed down through Nicole’s father Marius Chambeyron, a legendarily brazen vigneron who planted a coarsely hand-painted “CHAMBEYRON” sign high on his parcel of Côte-Brune to compete with those of his more famous and moneyed négociant neighbors. (It remains there to this day.) Today, their daughter Agnès is at the helm, though Bernard is still intimately involved, and they work their vertiginous, unforgiving terrain with bred-in-bone skill. Labor in this appellation is necessarily manual and unavoidably treacherous, with many terraces so narrow as to accommodate but a single row of vines, which plunge for scarce water through miserly topsoil and meters of pure schist. The wines today are produced in the same doggedly old-school manner as they have always been: minimal de-stemming, natural fermentations, long macerations, élévage in old foudres and tonneaux, and no filtration. Perhaps in the ‘90s and early ‘00s, such unpolished wines were out of step with the times, not offering a gentle enough entryway into Côte-Rôtie’s innate wildness. Today, however, when even many a well-meaning risk-embracing wine displays a certain eagerness to please, Levet Côte-Rôtie stands as a beacon of elemental authenticity.
Agnès Levet describes the 2017 vintage as “classic”—less intense in character than 2018, with more obvious minerality and less overall heft. She and her team began harvesting on September 6th, a full three weeks ahead of 2016, and she reported normal yields: in the vicinity of 40 hectoliters per hectare. The below 2017s were bottled in September of 2019, just prior to harvest.
Comprised of vines from throughout the family’s holdings, Levet’s basic Côte-Rôtie is de-stemmed 50%, and spends two years in 600-liter barrels, less than 10% of which are new. The primary vineyard sources are Les Craies and Mollard in the Côte Blonde, with younger vines from Moulin and Fontgent in the Côte Brune. This 2017 is rich but balanced, with spice-inflected tannins and an impression of slowly unfolding layers—alternatingly elegant and authoritative.
2017 Côte-Rôtie “Les Journaries”
The Levets own a third of a hectare of forty-year-old vines in the fabled vineyard La Landonne, and this cuvée is built around that holding, augmented by small parcels of old vines in other crus. No de-stemming is done here, which allows for that intoxicating spice signature to reach even greater heights. Compared to the ferocious “La Chavaroche” below, “Les Journaries” shows greater refinement and elegance, though in no sense is it tame. The 2017 is explosively aromatic, with a high-toned but enveloping sense of Indian spices that is something of a Levet signature. It enters silkily and finishes with notable grip, its black, brooding fruits completely saturating the palate.
2017 Côte-Rôtie “La Chavaroche”
The crown jewel of the Levet family’s holdings is a 1.2-hectare parcel of old vines at the very summit of the great La Chavaroche vineyard, and the wine they summon from this dizzying slope is among the most iconic in our entire portfolio. Always arrestingly wild, “La Chavaroche” possesses an unmistakable musk: a warm-animal profile that feels somehow ancient and unknowable, a sort of profound riddle of terroir. In typical fashion, this 2017 is more punchily mineral than “Les Journaries,” although it is no more obviously structured; in fact, its tannins are remarkably well-distributed across the palate, and the wine shows surprising poise for such a heat-marked vintage.
Xavier Gérard is an up-and-coming force to be reckoned with in the Northern Rhône. Having assumed control of his family’s impressive holdings in Côte-Rôtie and Condrieu with the 2013 vintage, Xavier has been steadily honing his craft over the ensuing years; today, his svelte, pure, classicist renderings of Côte-Rôtie’s unique terroir rival anything produced in the appellation. Furthermore, his nimble, acid-prizing touch with Viognier yields Condrieu of appealing restraint and foregrounded minerality. Xavier is steering his viticulture toward the fully organic—a particularly arduous feat on these brutally steep terraced slopes—aiming for certification over the next several years, and he has refined his touch in the cellar to allow for sensitive rather than systematic whole-cluster usage, natural fermentations, and minimal handling of the wines during their élévage. His emphasis on elegance and precision provides a wonderful counterpoint to the beloved Côte-Rôtie of the Levet family (who introduced us to Xavier ten years ago), while offering an equally profound glimpse into these slopes’ prized schist. The just-arrived 2017 Côte-Rôtie is perhaps Xavier’s highest achievement to date—an elegant, poised wine of tremendous drive and tight-knit concentration, and one with remarkable future promise as well.
2017 Xavier Gérard Côte-Rôtie
The Gérard family owns 3.2 hectares worth of old vines in Côte-Rôtie, spread among four notable vineyards: Mollard (comprising two-thirds of their holdings), Viallière (planted in 1922), La Brosse, and the fabled La Ladonne. Tailoring his de-stemming regimen to each harvest’s particular character yet never wanting the stems to dominate the wine, Xavier included around one-third whole clusters in the 2017 vintage, and the wine spent two years in well-used 600-liter demi-muids after a natural fermentation in concrete. This type of traditional, unfussy élévage is a tried-and-true method of harnessing maximum expression from the Syrah of Côte-Rôtie, yet it too often gets tinkered with; thankfully, Xavier sees no benefit to such attempts at sculpture, and his 2017 is as precise and pure as they come. Furthermore, his prices have remained remarkably reasonable in the context of the appellation, and while to call a wine in this echelon “inexpensive” is a stretch, it is undeniably a phenomenal value.
Guillaume Gilles, now in his late-30s (but looking ten years younger), is a force to be reckoned with, and his wines have deservedly garnered progressively more acclaim with each vintage since his debut in 2007. A local, Guillaume learned the ropes through stages with Jean-Louis Chave and Robert Michel between 2000 and 2004, and in fact he makes his wines in Michel’s old underground cellar in the heart of the village. Furthermore, his flagship Cornas is produced primarily from vineyards in Chaillot which were the source of Michel’s “Cuvée des Coteaux” back when he was active. A brilliant farmer, Guillaume eschews chemicals in the vineyards, working his three hectares completely by hand. He vinifies in concrete, uses only naturally occurring yeasts, and—critically—employs only whole clusters with no bunch-destemming, a vital contributing factor to his wines’ intoxicating aromatics and a resounding statement of his old-school values. He ages his wines in 600-liter demi-muids of considerable age, racking minimally and employing never more than 60 milligrams of total sulfur, and bottling without fining or filtration. Guillaume’s Cornas is unfailingly expressive, deep, powerful, and spicy, humming with terroir and easily rivaling the greatest creations of the appellation’s old masters.
Guillaume reported a hot, extremely dry 2017 growing season. Between a touch of frost in late April and intense hydric-stress pressure during the scorching summer, his yields were down 30% below average, with younger vines suffering more acutely. Despite these challenges—rapidly becoming the “new normal” in this era of climate change—the 2017s here are hugely impressive, carrying their ample flesh with agility and never sacrificing the energy which always marks Guillaume’s wines.
NOTE: With this release, we introduce two new cuvées, both from the 2018 vintage: a luscious Marsanne-Roussanne blend from his beloved Les Peyrouses vineyard, and a riveting old-vines Gamay planted high on the Ardeche plain to the west of Cornas. Both are available in painfully small quantities.
2018 “Les Peyrouses” Blanc (Vin de France)
From the vineyard of Les Peyrouses, a site just east of Cornas in which Gilles also owns 150-year-old Syrah (see below), this new cuvée comprises two-thirds Marsanne and one-third Roussanne, from a third of a hectare’s worth of vines planted between 2009 and 2013. Its soils of sand, clay, and large galets render a white wine of formidable amplitude but excellent focus, given shape by a touch of appealing bitterness on the finish. This 2018 underwent alcoholic and malolactic fermentation in well-used 500-liter barrels, and was bottled without fining of filtration.
2018 “Combeaux Massardières” Gamay de la Vallée du Doux (Vin de France)
A few years ago, Guillaume acquired a 0.3-hectare plot of 40-year-old Gamay planted in pure granite at 600 meters altitude in the Ardeche, and he produces a mere 800 bottles per vintage on average. As with his Cornas, he refrains from de-stemming his Gamay, but he allows fermentation to proceed semi-carbonically. Any kinship with its Beaujolais brethren, however, is purely varietal, as this 2018 is powerfully structured and inky-fruited, with wild aromas of sandalwood and potpourri, and mouthwatering concentration.
2017 Cornas “R”
The “R” in this wine’s name stands for Les Rieux, a vineyard situated up above the main amphitheater of Cornas at a lofty 400-450 meters altitude. Guillaume acquired acreage here in 2010, immediately planting vines on its soils of white granite which had never before borne wine. Whereas before the turn of the century there was really nothing planted above 300 meters in Cornas, today’s warmer climate allows for wines from plots like this one to reach full maturity at modest alcohol. Robert Michel, upon tasting “R” (formerly known as “Nouvelle R” but changed due to a copyright issue) for the first time, remarked that it reminded him of the Cornas he and his village-mates made in the ‘70s and ’80s; certainly, the bright, spice-saturated red character of the fruit here provides a fascinating contrast to Gilles’ more brooding flagship Cornas. Clocking in at just 13% alcohol, this 2017 “R” sizzles across the palate with uncanny focus, presenting a lithe take on Cornas that nonetheless displays classic black-olive and smoke character, as well as ample concentration.
Guillaume’s flagship Cornas comprises three separate parcels, all within the renowned vineyard of Chaillot, planted between the early-1950s and the mid-1970s: lower-lying Combe de Chaillot, with its sandier soils, offers more straightforward fruit; steep Les Terrasses, high up on the slope and poor of topsoil, contributes granitic punch and intense spiciness; and the also-terraced Grandes Mures, with its sun-soaking southward exposition, provides sumptuously dark-fruited contrabass notes and enhances the final blend’s overall structure. Guillaume vinifies and ages each parcel separately, blending them after an eighteen-month élévage in a blend of 400-liter and 600-liter oak casks of between five and fifteen years of age. This 2017 is a dense, brooding old-school powerhouse of a Cornas, with rugged structure and bottomless depth; it beckons to be cellared a bit but should unfurl slowly and majestically.
2017 “Les Peyrouses” Côtes-du-Rhône Rouge
Hailing from the flats just to the east of the Cornas appellation, the “Les Peyrouses” Rouge is a remarkable and unique wine: pure Syrah planted in the 1870s, during phylloxera’s initial outbreak, and constituting the very first grafted vines in the area. The soil in this vineyard is a mix of sand and clay, with loads of large limestone galets, and the wine Guillaume coaxes from these astonishingly old vines is so powerful in its fruit that he gives it twelve months élévage instead of eighteen. (Also, as a testament to its sheer power, he always presents it after his Cornas during visits to his cellar.) The 2017 vintage is remarkably spicy, with typically powerful tannins but a slightly more subdued sense of wildness than other vintages have shown, bringing it closer to his Cornas stylistically.
The Lionnet family has been farming in Cornas since 1575, and the four-hectare domaine today comprises an impressive array of very old vines in some of the area’s greatest sites. In 2003, Corinne Lionnet and her husband Ludovic Izerable—originally from Grenoble—assumed control of the family holdings, and we have witnessed with great delight a steady and remarkable improvement over the ensuing vintages. They obtained organic certification with the 2012 vintage, and, like Guillaume Gilles, they have recently acquired new holdings in Cornas’ higher-altitude reaches, pointing a way forward both for the domaine and the appellation itself. Ludovic and Corinne are great friends with Guillaume, and the constant dialogue among them about their craft benefits everyone involved. Although Lionnet’s practices are quite close to that of Gilles—natural fermentations, no de-stemming, neutral 600-liter barrels for ageing—the wines are more chiseled, leaner and slightly sterner in their youth, yet equally classic in personality and revelatory with proper bottle age.
Ludovic and Corinne suffered even more than Guillaume in the punishingly dry 2017 growing season, reporting a 40% reduction in crop size. Given the extremes of the vintage, however, their 2017s are startling in their elegance, with chiseled fruit, lifted aromatics, and hyper-focused minerality. There is arguably no domaine in Cornas performing above the level of Lionnet, and we highly encourage you to get on board before the wines become significantly more difficult to access.
2018 Saint-Joseph Rouge “Terre Neuve”
Ten years ago, Ludovic and Corinne acquired a 0.4-hectare parcel in Châteaubourg, the southernmost village in the Saint-Joseph appellation (and thus the nearest to Cornas). They planted Syrah in its soils of clay and large-stoned limestone, and in 2018 they wrested a mere three 500-liter barrels from these relatively young vines. Bottled after one year of élévage, the 2018 “Terre Neuve” offers explosive aromas of licorice, fresh-ground pepper, and violet-tinged black fruits, and its scrumptious and juicy palate provides a wonderful in-house contrast to the domaine’s more formidably structured Cornas cuvées. Of note, most Saint-Joseph is from granitic soils; this site’s limestone lends the wine a less thunderous, more restrained mineral character that allows the remarkably pure fruit to shine clearly.
2017 Cornas “Pur Granit”
2017 is only the second vintage of Ludovic and Corinne’s “Pur Granit”—from a southeast-facing one-hectare parcel of massale-selection Syrah, planted between 2008 and 2011, in the vineyard of Saint-Pierre at around 380 meters altitude. The combination of high altitude and pure-granite soil (hence the name) yields a taut, racy Cornas of remarkable mineral articulation; somewhat in the vein of Gilles’ “R,” it offers a slightly more easygoing counterpart to the “Terre Brûlée” below. This 2017 is stunning in its purity and depth, with intoxicating aromas of smoky leather and incense, and a blatantly stony palate of greater concentration and intensity than its 2016 counterpart.
2017 Cornas “Terre Brûlée”
Ludovic and Corinne farm very old vines (between 40 to 100 years of age) in several notable Cornas vineyards, which are all blended into their flagship cuvée “Terre Brulée”: Mazards, with 50-year-old vines in granite-inflected soils of clay-limestone, is dark and powerful; Chaillot contributes classic granitic heft and dusty spice; clay-limestone Pied de la Vigne, which flanks Chaillot’s eastern edge, provides structural rigor; and Combe, the southernmost lieu-dit in the appellation, comprises sandy granite soils which give rounder fruit and more overtly floral aromas. Aged entirely in used 600-liter demi-muids, the 2017 “Terre Brulée” is rivetingly aromatic, with notable tension between its dense drought-vintage fruit and its spice-route fireworks. A sense of forbidding concentration beckons patience, but this is potentially a legend in the making.
2016s from Guillaume Gilles and Domaine Lionnet.
The whole of Cornas comprises 145 hectares of vines—smaller than many individual mid-sized estates in a region like Bordeaux or Tuscany—and its punishingly steep slopes ensure, in Darwinian fashion, that only the most committed growers will forge wine here. We at Rosenthal Wine Merchant have always had a penchant for the gutsy, wild Syrah that issues forth from this southernmost Northern Rhône hamlet, and our long relationship with the legendary Robert Michel (who retired after the 2006 vintage) provided us a succession of ruggedly traditional wines which still dazzle to this day.
I had quite a few wines open in Philadelphia this past week as part of a portfolio tasting we did with our distributor there. I’ll send more detailed notes on some of the other wines under separate cover, but I wanted to take a minute to spotlight a wine that was an absolute show-stopper: the
Late last week, Neal spent time visiting producers in the Northern Rhone. Here is his report on Guillaume Gilles: September 20, 2013 “On Friday Sept 20, I visited with each of our five producers in the northern Rhone. I am pleased to report that the wines from both the 2011 and 2012 vintages are exceptionally