If you judge a trip or tour by the amount of time you spend laughing then this went rather well! This is a blog of a trip to the Rhone that followed on from the same “squads” visits of previous years. I say squad deliberately because it was with heavy hearts that we left behind three fine men who could not make it – “Dusty”, “Vestier” and “Boycey” all succumbing to the rigors of everyday life. As we flew out to Lyon things started well with a rather splendid upgrade…had we peaked to soon or was this a sign of things to come? So the team in batting order:
“Fiscali”, “Wardy”, “Magnum”, “RAW”, “180” and myself all embarked with a minimum of fuss in “London” and got on with the crucial work at hand, seeing how many producers we could “tick off” whilst remaining just about compos mentis enough to really enjoy things, laugh a lot, eat well and actually, importantly, learn a bit.
You’ll get the general idea from the previous two trips:
|In flight entertainment!|
Back to the quest at hand and in that hand was a glass of enjoyably mellow Laurent Perrier Rose and delicious it was too, possibly the most mainstream drink we had the entire four days, from here most of us moved to a little Krug Grande Cuvee, a younger batch than Mr Magnum is used to but exceptionally good. Meanwhile one of our party, Wardy, was off at the first of many tangents, he regularly starts a meal with a Coke to ease himself in, instead “dodging” the bubbles for a few glasses of Meursault 1e Cru Narvaux 2012 from Pierre-Yves Colin-Morey. He was excused on three fronts, we had some too, it’s delicious and there was good logic as we had met P-Y on the Burgundy trip. Quite why he saw fit to donate the other bottle of this wine to the team at our first hotel later that day, we’ll never know but it was a lovely and generous touch.
Arrival in Lyon Bron was a pleasure and here we were picked up by our larger than life driver for the next four days Sebastien, little did a know what he was in for. The first destination was of course lunch and that meant the Bistrot de Serine in Ampuis. We fell straight into form, two copies of the wine list (one to me, one to Magnum to start with), get a red ordered for Wardy and a pair of whites on the go before looking at food. The dynamic was working well.
There has to be logic to the pairings and wines must come in pairs or “En Parallel” as Madame “Serine” cold us. So being in the Northern Rhone we went for two good producers and two of the big name communes – Hermitage Blanc 2014, Julien Pilon and Condrieu de Poncins 2014, Francois Villard – were the selections and a good start it was. The Pilon was the comfortable favourite though the Condrieu was not left friendless in the market, Raw being most appreciative. A few reasons; firstly the Condrieu may be needed to mellow, Viognier is not everyone’s “bag” and Hermitage is a style far nearer those we knew well. The food here was good, solid, proper bistro style. We then ventured to Cornas for the red that had already been started, it was Cornas 2013 from Clape. Delicious too, rich dark violet fruit, iron like and arterial, Wardy commented that it was “bushy” but fruity at the same time. Then back in “land of pairs” I decided we should have two blind wines with a theme. So we had Crozes-Hermitage 1996 Domaine de Thalabert from Jaboulet and Crozes-Hermitage 2012, Alain Graillot. The link being commune of course. The team did well in getting to the age gap quite quickly. The Graillot was fresh and deep whilst the Thalabert might have been “clinging” onto life a touch. Time for one more wine and after much discussion we settled on a great choice, Chateau de Fonsalette 2003, Rayas. Rayas as a producer was, rightly, to feature large on the trip. It in one of these iconic artisan names that has almost all wine lovers salivating, a little like; Coche, H.Bonneau, DRC, Chave, Leroy, Selosse. In fact I realise know we avoided the horror of a Rayas-free day on the trip. The wine, from that savagely hot vintage showed none of the singed character you might expect this was just a red fruited joy. With a coffee to follow we told ourselves it was a “marathon not a sprint” and bid fair well to the lovely, understated, team at Bistrot de Serine, go if you can.
|A first Line-up pic…|
So what next? Well this was ascension day so I had drawn the blankest of blanks on visits but dinner was only four hours away. Divide and conquer, the team saw a rare splitting of resources as Raw, Wardy and Magnum headed to the hotel leaving Fiscali, 180 (though still Leechy at this stage) and myself decided that a walk up into the vineyards of Cote Rotie would be a good idea. There are few places where a trip into a vineyard is waste of time and that is certainly not the case here. Cotie Rotie is so steep and must be so hard to work, all the vines standing alone rather than on lines. It was an eye-opener even knowing what to expect. As we walked back toward Ampuis we saw a sign for Domaine Barges but little seemed to be doing. A small walk around Ampuis predictably bore little fruit until we noticed a half open door and amazingly it was the cave for the very same Domaine Barge. We were nicely welcomed by Julien Barge a charming and understated man, a tasting began.
Condrieu 2014 – Less overt than the lunch Condrieu, best in 2-5 years, good.
Domaine de Clairefontaine in Chonas L’Amballan turned out to be a great find. An hour or so of break and the next rendezvous was the Hotel’s one star restaurant.
One or two of our number had nodded off and looked a little sleepy but quickly pressed on as we had a good toasty, spicey bottle of St.Joseph Blanc 2014 from Pierre Gaillard to get the body and mind going again. Then catastrophe as Wardy couldn’t get into his Ipad for the, soon to start, Liverpool European semi final. Suffice to say Fiscali had to play the role of “divine IT overlord” for the rest of the trip as a series of coding calamities sought to derail Wardy. With all back in order we moved through to the restaurant. The sommelier took a little time to warm to our charms but that he did very in the end. 180’s wisdom in introducing the 180 seconds from ordering to serving deadline certainly got the idea across. We started with, yes a pair, of white Burgundies, Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru Les Combettes 2013, Domaine Jacques Prieur (DJP) and Meursault 1er Cru Perrieres 2009 from Bouchard. They played off each other well the Combettes being a little tighter and more saline whilst the Perrieres was generous with a shade of nice reduction. The food here was very good, a little fussy for some, well one, and the fish dishes especially worked very well. The was time for one more white and it was to be Condrieu 2012 Coteau de Chery from Andre Perret, I really liked this just the correct balance of extrovert Viognier fruit and a good bit of leesy minerality, very nice.
|The first Supper|
Right red wine…with a trip to see Rene Rostaing in the morning we though we’d do the correct thing and have a pair of his wines, two themes here, producer and vintage. Cote Rotie 2009 Ampodium and Cote Rotie 2009 La Landonne, this had us excited for the following days visit. The Ampodium was in a lovely place, deep fruit, balanced and with a long life ahead but oh so appreciable now. The La Landonne was another step up again, stylist but true to its origins dark but not heavy, a shade saline, I’d love to own this. 180 then produced a bottle he’d brought with him Grange 1998 from Penfolds, even with a couple of hours decanting by the time we had this, it is a powerhouse that could quite possibly outlast us all. Deliciously full fruit and spice with that oak support, nice! Time for one more red before a sweetie. Rasteau 2008, Domaine Gourt de Mautens by Jerome Bressy was selected. Now this is a producer I’d been wanting to try for some time. To think of him a “Rasteau”, however good it can be, is wrong. This was delicious and from the, largely disastrously, difficult 2008 vintage, gently elegant and focused, moreish even at this time of proceedings. To round off day one it was Condrieu Candice-Grain de Folie 2011, Domaine du Monteillet by Stephane Montez. This won Condrieu of the day by some distance, delicious energy and fruit forward sweetness…as you might imagine heads hit pillows rather easily…
With a little sadness but a good breakfast we left the lovely surrounds of Domaine de Clairefontaine and headed the 15 minutes back toward Ampuis to meet up with Rene Rostaing at Domaine Rostaing. This was a great tasting, Rene is well renowned as a softly spoken and quiet man. So he was. He introduced us via his Languedoc estate – Puech Noble.
Vassal de Puech Noble Rouge 2012, Coteaux de Languedoc – from 70% Syrah, 15% each Grenache and Mouvedre, ripe full berry fruits, open and supple and all this from a bottle that had been open 5 days, admittedly in a very cool cellar.
Les Lezardes Viognier 2014, IGP Collines Rhondaniennes – Rene apologised for not having any Condrieu to show us, “it is all sold out”, this a wine from 100% Viognier around the area of Condrieu but not inside the designated area. It had lovely opulent ripe fruit, impressive.
Back in Sebastien’s chariot and south to Tain L’Hermitage for a visit at Chapoutier and then Luncheon. I always love the contrast between small artisan producer, Rostaing say, and the bigger “firms” – in the case of the Rhone; Guigal, Jaboulet and Chapoutier. I have to say this was a very good, well pitched and enjoyable visit and tasting which had been well prepared. David Large (said in your thickest French accent) took us straight to the vineyards, the foot of (H)ermitage to be precise.
First a little on Chapoutier, having started in 1808 it is one of the bigger companies in the area as stated above but by common agreement was not really performing as it might. Michel Chapoutier (all the heirs in the family have names beginning with “M”) returned to the estate in 1990 and shook things up big time. He started the conversion to Bio-dynamics in 1991/92 which was very radical at the time. Put the braille on the labels, 1996, in tribute to a member of staff/land owner who had gone blind, and really started focusing on quality bottling of different tiers of wines. If you include the negociant business and the wines in Portugal, Australia etc this a very big producer of fine wine 8-9 million bottles! David explained to us that the very top “Parcellaires” in Hermitage have no “H” on them. It is a striking site.
|Hermitage – you can just see La Chapelle, top left|
Back at the HQ in Tain we had a private room with lots of space in which to taste and ome tasting it was too, whites then reds as “the red tannins here make it hard to do it the other way around”:
Condrieu “Invitare” 2014 – Viognier or course, 50% steel and 50% big foudres, nicely balanced and less obviously Viognier in character, liked this.
Ermitage Blanc “De L’Oree” 2012 – No “H” here so we’re in top top country, 100% Marsanne, 20% new oak, this was really pretty special, rounded yellow and gold fruits but with freshness, toasty but not too much, lovely.
|A splendid Chapoutier line-up…|
We weren’t totally done here now because Magnum decided to buy a bottle (well magnum of course) for us to take to lunch. Whilst that was being done we tried two Portuguese wines from Chapoutier.
Eleivera, Douro – 100% Touriga Nacional, full fruited, almost candied fruits, good drinker.
Overall we left with a very good impression of the Chapoutier operation, they clearly know exactly what they are up to!
We popped back in the wagon, but needn’t have really as our lunch destination – La Cave du Taurobole was just around the corner. A suggestion from a colleague this was great find. It looks like a wine shop from the outside but inside there are a few seats on the ground floor and then a room upstairs with a big table for up to eight people. We had this to ourselves with a great view of the Hermitage hill out of the window. With a tasting just outside Chateauneuf lined up for 4.30 pm we had just over a couple of hours to get going.
The En Parallel whites were – Hermitage Blanc Les Rocoules 2006 from M.Sorrel and the 2008 of the same wine. I’d love to know I anyone has experience of the 2006, it was very cloudy, almost “orange wine” cloudy but regardless tasted well, fully mature with a chalky mellow grapefruit and ginger note. The 2008 was simply lovely, precise, zesty but rich at the same time, special.
|A room with a view, from the table…|
First red was the magnum bought just 10 minutes earlier – Cote Rotie la Mordoree 1999, M.Chapoutier, A lovely wine drinking perfectly right now. I agreed that it would have been “Bordeaux” tasted blind, a gently smokey nose, very grown up wine. I thought we’d just sneak in two more reds before we hit the road and they had to be two of the Northern Rhones other top producers. The pairing was: Cote Rotie 2011 from S.Ogier and Cote Rotie 2011 from Jamet, The Ogier was brisk and full, very much a black pepper wine, forceful in a way but not heavy. I found the Jamet, and a lot of people have raved about this producer, to be really refined and focused a superb, radiant Cote Rotie…very good.
One of the features of the bar restaurant was that madame did everything from serving to cooking, all delivered very well, the food was terrific, a recommended spot.
Having finally got the bluetooth to work DJ RAW took to his decks on the drive south as Wardy had another IT disaster. I had fully expected that this hours drive would be quiet with the odd break in the silence coming only from snoring. In contrast it was only as we arrived at out destination – Domaine de la Vieille Julienne – that a few people felt may be they should have used the time to have a snooze.
We were charmingly greeted by the unpretentious Jean-Paul Daumen, owner and wine maker. He ushered us to the tasting room and gave us an insight into this estate that is actually situated (as with Charvin – see below) outside of the designated Chateauneuf-du-Pape area. We tasted 4 wines:
One or two of the team did find the alcohol levels a little on the punchy side but late afternoon after a generous lunch may have emphasised that. I’ll be keeping an eye out for these wines. The strike me as decadent wines slightly in contrast to the relaxed, meditative man making them.
On the drive to our hotel – Chateau de Varenne – Sebastien reached into the glove compartment and reached out his disco ball…The Chateau was charming, shabby-ish chic with good rooms.
We had an hour to check in and the re-group for the drive Northest to Gigondas. This was a restaurant – Oustalet – that, again I had been recommended but also one I had seen, though not eaten at. It is owned by the Perrin Family of Chateau Beaucastel fame. I was worried it may have been style over substance but far from it. A very good wine list at good prices, a welcoming attitude to opening a bottle or two we had taken with us, an excellent sommelier and very good food, I will be returning for sure. We were sightly man down for the first hour with Fiscali fighting a lull in energy but back he came stronger than ever as the reds got going.
Magnum had challenged me earlier that he just didn’t really like Chateauneuf-du-Pape Blanc so with the Chablis 1er Cru Les Forest 2012 from V.Dauvissat that we just had to have at a silly price we also took the Chateauneuf-du-Pape Blanc 2012 from Clos des Papes. Both did exactly as they should the stoney, waxy Chablis contrasting the richly fruited but mineral Chateauneuf.
From here the “pairing programme” slightly broke down. Wardy had already started on the Gigondas 2005 from local legends St.Cosme, which was full of iron and decadent warm fruited Grenache and Raw was “of on one” in Beaujolais land with the lovely, gentle and fruited Morgon 2015 from M.Lapierre. We next ordered up the Corton Grand Cru 2000 from Bonneau du Martray which begged to be bought. It was moreish and gritty the way it should be, delicious. At this stage a chap who reads this blog (rather flatteringly) appeared and offered us a taste of his rather lovely sweetly degrading (in a good way!) Nuits-St-Georges 1er Cru Clos des Corvees 2000 from Domaine Prieure-Roch. He sat with us again towards the end of the evening.
Now it was time to re-focus on the Rhone and the pairing of choice was – Chateau de Fonsalette 2005, Rayas alongside Chateauneuf-du-Pape 2007 from H.Bonneau. This was heaven to me and a “battle”, totally the wrong word, that we were to re-enact the following day. Henri Bonneau was a legend. He has been on the list of producer I wanted to drink for a very long time. His 2007 Chateauneuf was at the limit of where freshness goes and where ripeness becomes overripe. This is such a good portrayal of a vintage of excess…super wine. The Fonsalette 2005 was more classically reserved than the 2003 of the previous day. Momentarily conversation tuned to the following years trip and the possibility of Tuscany, we had a bottle of Biserno 2010 from Tenuta di Biserno which the sommelier (how I wish I could remember his name) very sensibly put outside for a while. It drank as it always does, almost too easily.
We promptly realise we hadn’t had our fill of Bonneau (is it even possible?). Chateauneuf-du-Pape 2005 Cuvee Marie Beurrier was ordered. My little book of notes simply says “Superb”, no need to say anymore. I have no Bonneau in my cellar, I’m not sure it’d ever stay there anyhow.
The music blared on the way home as the realisation of a 8am first tasting was being routinely ignored.
Day three dawned, “180” marked it’s arrival with not one, not two but three poached eggs! The rest of us tucked in and re-hydrated. The wheels rolled only a few minutes late as we headed for the early tasting at Domaine de La Janasse where we were greeted by the very generous, 8am on a Saturday in France is not usual, Isabelle Sabon. We certainly didn’t get a slimmed down tasting:
|8am tasting…and a Saturday to boot|
Chateauneuf-du-Pape Blanc 2013 – This is a Roussane heavy blend with a nice bit of decadence, they clearly know what they are doing with whites.
Rose IGP 2014 – This is literally from the “wrong side of the tracks” and hence not a Cotes du Rhone. Nicely elegant.
Terre de Bussiere IGP 2014 – This is a blend of Syrah and Merlot that was quite heady, not really my style but decadent and generous.
Cotes du Rhone Villages Terre d’Argile 2013 – Four varieties in here in equal splits – Grenache, Syrah, Mouvedre and Counoise – more savoury than the last, rich but not too much.
Cotes du Rhone Villages Les Garrigues 2013 – This I really liked, more mellow and spiced, good wine.
Chateauneuf-du-Pape Tradition 2014 – Bottled just a month ago, fresh as you’d expect but full with dark fruits, one for the cellar you’d think.
Chateauneuf-du-Pape Chaupin 2014 – 100% Grenache, 80year old vines on average, spiced fruits, lighter colour and redder fruit character…superb!
Chateauneuf-du-Pape Vieilles Vignes 2014 – Creamier richer, more “gourmand” more generous possibly, from the four oldest parcels, 80% Grenache, 10% Syrah and 10% Mouvedre.
Chateauneuf-du-Pape Chaupin 2011 – Very generous of Isabelle to gig us a glimpse of two wine sin older vintages. This was all about the berry fruit and intensity, added to my view that 2011 is serious.
Chateauneuf-du-Pape Vieilles Vignes 2011 – This too was heady and full with real grip and presence, a wine for the long haul.
A very enjoyable tasting – thanks again Isabelle.
We now only had one full tasting to go now as we headed briefly across to Domaine Charvin. This was the estate that we visited whose wines I certainly knew best. I have been drinking and enjoying the Charvin Cotes du Rhone for years.
Laurent Charvin is a real character and we spent 45 minutes to an hour outside in the vineyard looking at the vines and talking about how he was the 6th generation at the estate, 26 hectares (17 Cotes du Rhone and 9 in Chateauneuf) in size, inside and outside of Chateauneuf territory. He was the man who came into the estate in 1990 and decided to stop selling in bulk, to make Domaine bottled wines, to turn the estate to Bio-dynamics, to make wine with whole bunches and not use oak. The average age of vines here are 45-50 for Cotes du Rhone and 60 for Chateauneuf du Pape. He is a great balanced of thinker and pragmatist.
Cotes du Rhone Blanc 2015 – Unctuous, herbal, very good, not a wine I even knew he did but then he does very little.
Cotes du Rhone Rose 2014 – Another wine I didn’t know about, easy drinking with some ripe fruited sweetness, nice.
Cotes du Rhone 2014 – I’ve bought this so was delighted to see how good it is! Fresh, red fruited, some spice but more herbs and raspberries, lovely.
Laurent sells half of his wine in France and sees the domestic market as very important, very different from others we’d seen. We mentioned that we were lunching at La Beaugraviere and he was visibly quite emotional about how important places like that are…I was excited enough as it was…
I left here in the full knowledge that I will do all I can to buy these wines every year. When you look at prices he’s seriously under appreciated.
One quick drive into Chateauneuf to visit the Pegau Cave and we’d be on our way to La Beaugraviere, nice and early as Wardy and Magnum had to get a cab at 2.30 which might be just when lunch was warning up…we needed to give them a fair crack.
I am pleased we didn’t skip the Domaine Pegau tasting as this is a famous, high profile, very Parker-adored winery. The style is fuller to my tasting. I didn’t realise quite how many wines they made. 95% of production is exported and I imagine the US of A takes the lions share of that. Cuvee de Capo is arguably their most famous wine and was last made in 2010, 2015 will be next.
Chateauneuf-du-Pape Blanc 2014, Domaine Pegau – This was easy to appreciate, elegant and refined, very nice indeed.I didn’t realise that there was a white version of the Capo called “Tempo”
We arrived at La Beaugraviere at 11.59am with palpable excitement, we were very sensibly given a table outside in the lovely weather with another table to store the wines and hopefully a bit of space for other diners to get some peace. I was put in charge of the white pair as Magnum went red wine hunting!! I had heard so much of this places relaxed surroundings, good service, nice food and stellar wine list. No disappointments!!
Once we had explained that whilst two of our number had to go at 2.15 or so the rest of would be leaving before, but not long before, dinner.
Back on track the first red pair was settled on. Chambolle-Musigny 1er Cru Les Cras 2007 from Domaine Roumier and Morey-Saint-Denis 1er Cru Clos de la Bussiere 2007 also from Domaine Roumier was something of a no-brainer with the 2007’s drinking so well. This was a bit of a miss-match oddly with the good Morey slightly wasted alongside the superb Chambolle.
With the veal about to hit the table and the clock ticking it was time to look at Mr Charvin’s work when it has a little age – Chateauneuf-du-Pape 2011, Domaine Charvin En Magnum. This was just delicious and shows the merits of both age and format. there was a lovely development to it but still that Grenache character. The last two bottles that Magnum and Wardy would taste were on their way and or so appropriately it was to be two of the greats Chateauneuf-du-Pape 2003, Rayas and Chateauneuf-du-Pape 2003 Cuvee Marie Beurrier, H.Bonneau. They tussled with each other like two great boxers, Bonneau taking the early rounds and quietening the crowd but as the Bonneau eased the Rayas upped the tempo and looked the victor on points…either way two splendid bottles with which to bid farewell, for this year, to two friends.
There was one name that was most notable by its absence thus far and that was Chave. So we sorted that with a pairing – Hermitage La Chapelle 1999, Jaboulet and Hermitage 1999, Chave. My notes are sparse by this stage but the Jaboulet gets a “Lovely, iron, deep, classical” while the Chave gets “Saline, supple sweetness, SUPERB” and from memory that wasn’t actually a bad summary. The cheese trolley had been turned away a few times but now we needed to keep the food intake going…our bottle line up was starting to get a few nice comments and admiring looks but we were far from done yet and dinner wasn’t booked until 8pm. I snuck in a blind wine that whilst not a classical Rhone wine would have been a poor omission. Domaine de Trevallon 1998, a wine that perplexed and performed well, no idea what I would have guessed!
A couple more reds were clearly needed now before the Tarte Tatin. We realised we hadn’t had a Beaucastel as yet so had to do that and it seemed appropriate to have it paired to Clos des Papes Rouge, having only had the white so far. We tried for an exact vintage comparison but settled on Chateauneuf-du-Pape 2005, Clos des Papes with Chateauneuf-du-Pape 1999, Beaucastel. The Beaucastel was lovely, rich but not OTT, very balanced and probably spot on now, the Clos de Papes a little more pungent but refined with it. From the few we have had I would say the 2005’s are worth seeking out from the top estates.
We stayed with this vintage for the sweetie and despite spending ages trying to go somewhere else we went for Sauternes with Climens 2005. This was delicious, full but with good acidity, decades ahead of it but not a waste with the superb tatin. Our waiter served us coffee having changed into “home clothes” so that he might get home before returning for the evening.
La Beaugraviere is an institution and rightly so, worth the trip alone!
The music was even louder now as we had to keep momentum up and not lapse before dinner. The drive back was 25 inutes or so but now we had a dangerous 30 minutes before heeding to dinner so we settled for a bottle of the zesty, refreshing Champagne Le Brun de Neuville Blanc de Blancs NV at the Hotel and agreed that any lying down would be “fatal”.
Dinner at La Table de Sorgues was enjoyable, we managed to add three producers to the list and the food was very good. It was a little more modern as a setting than we might have needed but the lobster starter was a real star. For whites we copied the previous nights pairing of Chablis and Chateauneuf by having Chateauneuf-du-Pape Blanc 2012, Vieux Telegraph with Chablis 1er Cru Montee de Tonnerre, Raveneau. Both were good examples of their types with again decadent fruit against leaner minerality.
For reds I finally managed to bring to the party the producer I know best by getting a bottle of Chateauneuf-du-Pape Cuvee Speciale 2007 from Tardieu-Laurent to go with the Chateauneuf-du-Pape 1998, Vieux Telegraph. It was such a shame that both Bastien and Michel Tardieu were away…it would have been great if they could have joined us at a meal. I fully plan to go and see them in Lourmarin in the summer. We left La Table de Sorgues as weariness set in…
Back at the hotel Raw’s bottle of Palmer Merlot 2000 from Margaret River was slurped alongside a cigar…we had singularly managed not to see through the final meal task of nailing the destination for next year…Tuscany got a lot of votes with Germany and Ribera getting a shout…dinner soon then chaps.
So, what did we learn?
-The Rhone as region is as diverse in styles as any region anywhere.
-2015 is an exciting vintage, no winemaker managed to hide that, North or South.
-There are many great restaurants with cracking prices.
-Rayas and Bonneau have reputations for a reason.
-Wine is rather fun and laughing is good for you.