We will soon receive our most significant shipments of the year from our producers in the Northern Rhône. Recently, we have made substantial additions to our Northern Rhône portfolio; thus, this annual offer has grown to include five growers whose holdings include almost all of the most important appellations of the region.
The Northern Rhône has always been a source for some of the most profound wines in our portfolio, as we populated our producer list from the outset with the Cote Roties from the Levet family in Ampuis, the Condrieux and St. Joes from Cuilleron and, for many years (until their respective retirements) worked with Michel Ferraton’s Hermitage and Robert Michel’s Cornas. Over the years, there has been an ebb and flow of market interest in the traditional wines of this historic region, so it is once again rewarding to notice a renewed interest in the more traditional wines that come from these steep slopes lining the Rhône River. One of the most notable observations we make about our current group of Northern Rhône vignerons is that four of them (Xavier Gerard, Guillaume Gilles, Agnes Levet, and Ludovic Izerable) represent a new generation for their respective families and the fifth member of this team, Etienne Becheras, only recently developed his domaine. While young and ambitious, all five are deeply immersed in the traditions of the region and share the objective of rendering classic wines of terroir.
The majority of the wines arriving in these shipments are reds from the strong 2014 vintage, along with a handful of 2015s in both red and white. The Northern Rhône has been graced with a succession of three outstanding vintages in the span between 2014 and 2016. This offer will be the first of a trilogy that will define this era far into the future.
The 2014 vintage begins the story with wines that are at once generous and balanced, with a classical structural expression. After a cool and rainy start to the season, the second half of the year brought favorable conditions that persisted through the fall. With harvest running into early October, this vintage has a freshness and drive that sets it apart from recent warmer vintages like 2007 and 2009. The consensus among our growers is strongly positive, with a unanimous view that the wines are impeccable vehicles for exploring the terroir of each appellation. All also agree that the 2014 reds are relatively relaxed, offering a pleasing accessibility at this early stage, as opposed to the more structured ‘13s or powerful ‘15s.
The few 2015 reds and whites arriving tell a very different story. Many vignerons are declaring 2015 to be one of the greatest vintages in recent memory. From what we have tasted, we are compelled to agree. Both the reds and whites from this vintage show a great deal of force and power. While riper, they have reliable underlying balance and superb concentration. Though we look forward to the arrival of the important 2015s next year, the 2015s in this shipment merit serious attention: exceptional on their own and a preview of what is to come.
Le Prieuré d’Arras (Etienne Becheras)
We are expecting the full lineup of 2014 reds and 2015 whites from Etienne Becheras. 2015 marks the fifth vintage that we have worked with this small Saint-Joseph domaine. Etienne is a veteran vigneron who brings an unapologetic confidence to his soulful wines. A weathered man with an imposing presence, it is clear that he spends the majority of his time working his steep vineyards that are mostly located above the village of Arras. Always generous and friendly, his humility and honesty come through in the wine. With vineyards principally situated in the Saint-Joseph appellation, supplemented with limited but well-placed holdings in Crozes-Hermitage, Becheras’s wines are an excellent example of wines from this mid-section of the Northern Rhône and offer compelling value.
Crozes-Hermitage BLANC “Le Prieuré d’Arras” 2015
2015 is the debut vintage for the Crozes-Hermitage Blanc. The grapes for this wine come from the same location as Becheras’s Crozes-Hermitage Rouge: a 1.5-hectare parcel in Mercurol. A blend of 60% Roussane and 40% Marsanne, the wine is fermented and aged in barrel. Compared to the Saint-Joseph Blanc, the Crozes carries a brighter acidity and a pleasantly bitter pear-skin finish. Even so, the richness of the 2015 vintage is evident in this wine, with warm baked-apple fruit and an underlying note of honey as well. Only 15 cases released to the US.
Saint-Joseph BLANC “Le Prieuré d’Arras” 2015
Etienne produces roughly 100 cases of this wine a year, made from a ½-hectare parcel located within the village of Arras. Composed of an equal blend of Marsanne and Roussane, the 2015 is the most powerful version of this wine that we have tasted. It is explosively rich, round and dense, with fruit flavors that lean toward ripe apricot and peach with undertones of honey and almond. NB: This wine may need a bit of time to settle into its stocky frame.
Crozes-Hermitage ROUGE “Le Prieuré d’Arras” 2015
The Crozes-Hermiage Rouge is one of three red 2015s scheduled to arrive this month. 2015 is looking to be a sensational vintage in the Northern Rhône, and this bottling is an excellent preview of what’s to come. Sourced from a steep hillside parcel in Mercurol, this wine is raised in demi-muid and is aged for only one year before bottling, half the aging time practiced for the Saint-Joseph bottlings of the domaine. Etienne typically produces about 500 cases of this wine annually, half of which is reserved for us for the US market. The 2015 is voluminous with sweet blackberry fruit and an undercurrent of licorice, game, and a firm, sweet tannic structure – a wine of exquisite value.
Saint-Joseph Rouge “Le Prieuré d’Arras” 2014
In our minds, there could not be a more classical expression of Saint-Joseph than this cuvee. The “Le Prieuré d’Arras” is the principal wine of the domaine, sourced from Etienne’s steep, terraced parcels scattered around the village of Arras. The 2014 is very balanced and open, with flattering sweet-cherry fruit lifted by a bright mineral backbone. Not especially tannic, this wine is open and ready for consumption.
Saint-Joseph Rouge “Tour Joviac” 2014
The “Tour Joviac” is produced from two steep and rocky terraced parcels (La Tour and Serlan) that hang perilously above the small village of Arras. Compared to the “le Prieure d’Arras”, this cuvee is more broad-shouldered and restrained with a darker tonality that leans toward black cherry and blackberry. This wine is warm and generous and structured with an undercurrent of minerality and firm tannins to support its weight.
2017 marks the tenth year that we have worked with Ludovic and Corinne Izerable of Domaine Lionnet. It has been fascinating to see the positive evolution at this small domaine. We are confident that they are making some of the most compelling wines in the small village of Cornas. Ludovic and Corinne have an old-fashioned sensibility; i.e., making wines that are concentrated and structured leaving no room for compromise. These wines do not pander, and in the beginning of their life they can be unapologetically austere. Now working four hectares in Cornas and Saint-Joseph, the Izerables do all of the work in the vineyards organically (they were officially certified “ecocert” in 2009). In the cellar, the wines are vinified and aged according to the most traditional of methods with stem inclusion and long macerations. These rugged and honest wines deserve to be cellared. Given a few years’ time, the Lionnet Cornas will reveal the true glories of the appellation.
Saint-Joseph Rouge “Terre Neuve” 2015
It is only the second year that we have imported this new bottling which is made from a ½-hectare parcel planted in 2008. The vineyards are located just north of Cornas in Chateaubourg, in the lieu-dit “Giraud, les Côtes”, which sits about 300 meters in altitude above the village. Dark and brooding, the ’15 is quite powerful and serious, with ripe black fruit and a considerable tannic backbone. The structure and power of this wine are reminiscent of Cornas – which is not surprising, since the vineyards are just on the border between Saint-Joseph and Cornas.
Cornas “Terre Brulee” 2014
Growing in a combination of parcels in four lieu-dits (Pied la vigne, Combes, Mazards and Chaillot), the vines are between 40 and 100 years old. The 2014 “Terre Brulee” is a prime example of the virtue of this vintage. Compared to recent vintages, it is has some softer edges, with juicy red fruits and hints of licorice that cover more wild, smoky and dried-herb notes. This wine is firm and savory, with a softness to its tannins you don’t always find here. Still, there is structure, dimension and length that are sure to allow this wine to develop for years to come.
The increased recognition that the Levet family has received over the last few years has been a long time coming. Since we first brought in the 1983 vintage many years ago, their singular Côte-Rôtie “La Chavaroche” has stayed securely among the top wines in the RWM portfolio. There are few wines that balance ferocity with elegance as well as the scintillating, traditional wines that issue from the Levet family cellar in Ampuis. In all the years that we have opened older bottles at the dinner table, they have never disappointed. Interestingly enough, for many years these wines were largely overlooked. The wine world’s fascination with more modern examples of Syrah from the New World left little room for understanding the typical wild, animal notes that emanate from a glass of Levet Côte-Rôtie. Not that long ago we had a treasure trove of almost a decade’s worth of vintages in stock and available for sale! Our stocks are now largely depleted; so, let’s enjoy these new releases.
NOTE: Some of the credit for the recent success for the Levet wines can be directly attributed to the hard work of Agnes, daughter of Bernard and the recently deceased Nicole. She has now worked beside her parents for many years and has slowly taken the lead over the last few. Intelligent, soft-spoken and diligent, she has been the perfect successor. For the most part this change has been seamless; she understands and honors the vision of her parents. Still, her delicate sensibility lends a touch of elegance and refinement to the recent releases that adds a seductive allure to these singular wines.
Côte-Rôtie “Les Journaries” 2014
The majority of this cuvee comes from old vines planted in Landonne while the remaining portion comes from Côte Blonde. The ’14 is quite open, showing a beautiful smoky aroma that hints towards olive, with blackberry and blueberry fruit. Healthy and balanced, the combination of ripe fruit, vibrant acidity, and robust tannins gives the fruit an amazing texture and length. While not as dark and rich as “La Chavaroche”, “Les Journaries” is savory and carries plenty of punch while remaining airy and composed.
Côte-Rôtie “La Chavaroche” 2014
This steeply-terraced 1.2-hectare holding always delivers a wine of great power and elegance. The 2014 “La Chavaroche” has an intensely spicy aroma, leaning toward smoked cumin and pepper. The black, small-berry fruit is quite sweet and concentrated and carries a silky texture. A mineral core adds lift and structure. Underneath, there are plenty of smoky and earthy elements of dried herbs and tapenade. This wine shows some early appeal but do not be deceived … patience will be amply rewarded.
One of our great disappointments is the occasional dissolution of a domaine with which we have worked for many years. More often than not, succession is the main issue: either the vigneron has no children to whom to pass the domaine, or their offspring have no interest in taking on the often-backbreaking life that goes with making wine. Over the last few years we have seen great domains like Domaine Ferret in Pouilly-Fuisse, Domaine Monpertuis in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and Domaine Ferraton in Hermitage close their doors. Robert Michel in Cornas, who made his last wine in 2006, is unfortunately one of these stories. He was undeniably one of the great producers of his village and worked his incredibly well placed vineyards with precision and confidence to make one of the stalwart wines of the Northern Rhône. Annually, his astonishing wines stood proudly beside Levet as some of the greatest in our portfolio.
Fortunately, the end of Robert Michel’s career marked the beginning of another: that of Guillaume Gilles. We were introduced to the young Guillaume by Robert, as he was shutting down his operation. Even though Guillaume was not technically taking over the domaine, it certainly has turned into something close to that. He is now renting a prime parcel of Michel’s Chaillot vineyard and Robert has also opened his charmed cellar for Guillaume’s use and has, most importantly, taken Guillaume under his wing, imparting his decades of knowledge to his new protégé. During our visits to the cellar, it is quite common for Robert to be present to taste through the new vintages with us.
The progression of Guillaume’s wines since our first offering of the 2007 Cornas has been a positive one. The first vintages we saw from him showed a youthful exuberance. They were fruit-forward and blessed with power and presence but lacking perhaps a touch of complexity. The subsequent years reveal a new refinement and expression. Today the wines are dynamic with a full range of tonalities, still ripe and powerful but with additional layers of subtlety and a sophisticated texture.
The 2014 vintage from Gilles is the strongest we have seen to date. All three wines show balance and grace. All three cuvees present incredibly well at this early stage. For those of you who have not experienced these wines, 2014 is the ideal vintage in which to take the plunge.
“Les Peyrouses” Vin de France 2014
Made from an incredibly old parcel in the flats of Cornas, this wine sits just outside the official appellation of Cornas. But, do not be fooled by its simple designation as “Vin de France” – this wine easily sits in the same class as Guillaume’s bottlings in Cornas. The 2014 is an idyllic version of this often wild wine. Tamed by the balance of the vintage, the earthy aromatics of animal fur and dried meats are complimented by a fresh underpinning of sweet cherry fruit and a clean, mineral core that cool the wine’s warmer elements. There can be no mistaking that it is northern Rhône, but its location off the main hill of Cornas lends this wine an absolutely unique character.
Cornas “La Combe de Chaillot” 2014
Coming from the lower portion of the Chaillot vineyard, this is typically the most charming wine out of Guillaume’s cellar. Lacking some of the ripeness and power of his main Cornas, this wine is typically more relaxed and approachable. The 2014 is gorgeous, loaded with pure red fruits of cherry and raspberry delicately seasoned with a fine, smoky quality. This wine is not particularly heavy on the palate, showing an elegance and dynamism that is reminiscent of Pinot Noir. Sadly, production is tiny here. Only 15 released to the US!
The flagship wine of the domaine, made with grapes selected from Gilles’ best parcels located in the higher part of Chaillot, exposes a completely different animal. More powerful and ripe than “La Combe de Chaillot”, the fruit has a dark tonality with a distinctly medicinal accent. The fruit here is more layered, with a glycerol texture marked by firm and slightly bitter tannins, and an iron mineral core. Big, tannic and rustic, this wine displays the essence and grandeur of Cornas … wild, forceful and age-worthy.
The 2014 Côte-Rôtie and the 2015 Condrieu and Saint-Joseph Rouge from Xavier Gerard will arrive stateside around July 1st with the Gilles wines. Our visits with Xavier have been some of our favorites from recent years. We have been thrilled with what we have seen from this young vigneron who took over the family domaine from his father in 2013. Serious and determined to improve the stature of this already respected domaine, he has already made dramatic changes to the more conservative tendencies of his father. We have noticed that by investing more time and energy in the vineyard work and taking more risks in the cellar, he has given an extra level of character and depth to his offerings. Xavier is a very warm and generous soul, happy to show off his work and also to dip into his extensive library of older vintages from the family’s cellar. Our last visits have concluded with multiple old vintages of Condrieu and Côte-Rotie that clearly show the enormous potential of his excellently placed vineyards.
Condrieu “L’Arbuel” 2015
is a blend of Xavier’s “Marmouzin” with a new parcel of in the lieu-dit “Corbery”, a .18-hectare parcel located slightly higher than Marmouzin. Both parcels are too small to bottle individually (Marmouzin is only .32-hectare) and will be blended together. Both vineyards sit high on the slope overlooking the majestic Rhone and display a more mineral and cool character compared with the richer “La Côte Chatillon”. Even so, the power of the 2015 comes through. It is rich on the palate, floral and sweet with an oily texture. Underneath, there is an electric current of acidity that holds the wine together nicely.
Condrieu “La Côte Chatillon” 2015
From the family’s most significant parcel of Condrieu, “La Côte Chatillon” is superbly placed on the steep slopes just below the domaine. As is usually the case, this cuvee shows even more richness than the “L’Arbuel”. The fruit here has a more sun-kissed warmth, a wild spice of white pepper and a tinge of orange rind. Dense and powerful, the wine has a good underpinning of acidity and material that gives it a bright tonic quality. At this early stage, the primary fruit drives the wine. Formidably concentrated, the wine finishes with a slightly bitter quinine edge backed by a hint of tannin. Gerard is convinced of the grandeur of this wine in this vintage: a Condrieu of compelling quality.
Saint-Joseph Rouge “Le Blanchard” 2015
Gerard works a small parcel of Saint-Joseph located in Chavanay, just south of Condrieu. Because of its size, Xavier produces roughly 2000 bottles of “Le Blanchard” a year, which provides us with a mere 20 cases for the United States. The 2015 is quite elegant and open compared with other reds in this powerful vintage. The fruit is fresh, with a pure cherry and slight cranberry tinge. Digging deeper, there is a delicate layer of smoke and black licorice spice that adds a serious mien to this delightful wine. Xavier is working with 25% stem inclusion, and therefore there is a lovely trace of acidity running though the fruit along with firm, grounding tannins.
This 2014 is the best Côte-Rôtie we have seen from the domaine. The wine is produced principally from their holding in “Mollard” with some components coming also from Font-Jean, Vialliere, and La Landonne. The fruit is clean and fresh, starkly different in style from the wines of Levet, for example, which revel in animal elements; here, there is a charm that marries beautifully to subtle hints of dark blueberry fruit and a touch of game. Elegant and clean, this wine is a prime example of the more feminine side of Côte-Rôtie and a harbinger of the greatness we shall see from this young vigneron (who, by the way, did an apprenticeship with Levet!).