There have been three men who shaped my understanding of viticulture, wine and the broader scape of life and its challenges, all resident in the northern Rhône. One of them, GEORGES VERNAY, has recently died aged 92. The other two are AUGUSTE CLAPE at CORNAS and GÉRARD CHAVE at HERMITAGE.
When starting my book researches in the summer of 1973, the only name mentioned to me to go and see at CONDRIEU was GEORGES VERNAY, who was then 48 years’ old, and the single person keeping the depressed appellation on its feet. At the time I wrote: “above the river the scene is more melancholy. The gently inclined slopes are now largely uncultivated, and their abandonment has left them in a pitifully disordered state. 20 acres (8 hectares) – that is all there is of Condrieu, and the contrast with the neatly delineated and well-covered hillsides of Côte-Rôtie is immediately striking.”
In those days, the average yield was also pitiful – between 1962 and 1971 it was 16 hectolitres a hectare, with the whole 1969 vintage reduced to a derisory 19 hectolitres after a disastrous July hailstorm. The wine was therefore just part of a polyculture existence, which meant that it paid growers to sell it as quickly as possible, with FERNAND POINT of the fabled three Michelin star Restaurant LA PYRAMIDE in VIENNE one of the regular takers, wine whose fermentation was stopped by all sorts of means in time for the Christmas trade, the result a demi-sec.
GEORGES entered his father’s domaine in 1944, having started to work the family vineyards when he was 16 years’ old. By the time I first met him, his role went far beyond just making the best wine in the appellation; he was the Papa of the appellation, the President of the SYNDICAT DU VIN, the man charged with defending the land against housing development, but also the man who lent equipment, such as the use of his new Vaslin press, and gave advice to his neighbours, who vinified the wine for the CHÂTEAU DU ROZAY, the man who ran the whole show almost single handedly.
As he told me at the time, “it’s impossible to use machinery in the vineyards, which really makes it a young man’s profession. What I would like to see created is something like a Protected Wine Zone, given over to viticulture and nothing else. In this way, the Wine Syndicate would rent vineyards from older growers, and pay them extra according to the size of the crop, the state of the market, and so on. I honestly think that if nothing is done France will gradually lose some of her best white wine slopes.”
While fully aware of the need to respect the past, notably in the vineyard, GEORGES was also ready to embrace the future, as was shown in his winemaking, with investment in the latest vats, presses or casks, and an awareness that CONDRIEU needed to be a fresh rather than a heavy style of white wine. This baton was truly picked up by his daughter CHRISTINE.
Thus the VERNAY story goes far beyond praising a man for the work that he conducted for his own estate and family, and for the pleasure his wines gave to so many enthusiasts around the world, as well as for the inspiration he provided for winemakers outside France. To some extent, I feel that he never actually received the full recognition he deserved, in part because his legacy in bottles was more ephemeral than those of a maker of long-lived red wine, but also because he was so self-effacing about his own role.
Big hands, with an even bigger heart, GEORGES would always patiently answer all my questions, with a sprinkling of superb, pinpoint detail anecdotes such as that of HENRI LE FUNAMBULE – HENRI THE HIGH WIRE CYCLIST, based in SAINT-ETIENNE and known across France, who came to CONDRIEU one day in 1934 to cross and re-cross the 600 metre gulch between the two slopes of the celebrated COTEAU DE VERNON. His description included naming the oak tree [LA GABERTE] to which the wire was attached on the south side of VERNON, where YVES GANGLOFF now works some of his vines.
The mainstay of the family vineyard was always the 2.5 hectares of VERNON, with its topsoil of arzelle – decomposed, fine granite with mica and occasional schist. Its production of 5,000 bottles was always eagerly snapped up. I am lucky enough to still have old bottles in my cellar, and the day before GEORGES died, I drank a still flourishing 1983 COTEAU DE VERNON, a wine that WILLI’S WINE BAR in PARIS held as its wine of the year – for two years.
For some time in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was uncertainty over the domaine. Son LUC attended the BEAUNE WINE SCHOOL, but his heart was not really in it, and he subsequently left to set up his own flying school, while his brother DANIEL was a horseman who went to live in the United States, raising and breaking in horses in Colorado.
It was in 1996 that daughter CHRISTINE returned south from a full and artistic life in PARIS with her bubbly husband PAUL AMSELLEM, her first vintage being the 1997. When I see CHRISTINE at work in the cellars on the slope of SAINTE AGATHE high above the Rhône, I see GEORGES smiling with contentment at his daughter’s assured, accomplished presence, her keen eye for detail, and her commitment to any task in hand, with no distractions. She has also fought off ill health, and when her father died, the domaine’s standing had never been higher.
I therefore salute the man I called LE GRAND PATRON, whose vision and labour enlightened the RHÔNE and well beyond, and send my deepest condolences to his loving family.
The first vigneron that ROBIN YAPP encountered in the RHÔNE was the late ÉMILE CHAMPET. ROBIN had tasted the CHAMPET wine at the Paris Wine Fair in the late 1960s, and, fired by enthusiasm, he drove south to CÔTE-RÔTIE to essay (a very Yappian word) a purchase of his wine for the British market. There were gestures of drinking elbows and thumbs up to illustrate the fact that ROBIN had much enjoyed ÉMILE’s wine, and the deal was done.
YAPP still import the CHAMPET CÔTE-RÔTIE, and it was sad to hear that ÉMILE’s son JOËL had died in May 2017, after a protracted fight against cancer that he valiantly fought off for many years longer than was expected.
The style has remained consistent throughout, with what I would call a good countryman’s take on CÔTE-RÔTIE, a wine with a brambly fruit content and noticeable, sometimes puckish tannins in attendance. But always the classic violets and floral tones of a true RÔTIE, delivered at very reasonable prices.
JOËL was what the French call a Bricoleur – a handy DIY man – who liked to repair machines and do much of his own house building. He lived beyond the confines of life as a vigneron, so it is good news that his son ROMAIN has been active for some years now, with the wine in good form. JOËL’s legacy is therefore secure.
My condolences go to the CHAMPET family, who can be proud of what JOËL achieved under the greatest of duress.
In the panoramic lee of SAINT PAUL’S CATHEDRAL, MICHEL CHAPOUTIER made his annual pilgrimage on the iron horse known as Eurostar to display his 2016s in the last week of April 2017. The event was held at the TATE MODERN. As ever with MICHEL, he sailed in, spoke largely on message, had some lunch, then whizzed back to Gallic shores. He is much in demand these days for all sorts of committees and bodies that oversee the world of wine in France.
He is happy with the vintage, although his company was badly hit by the April 2016 hail on the hill of HERMITAGE, which reduced yields on the prized L’HERMITE and LES BESSARDS to a miniscule 10 hl/ha. The effect has been to concentrate those wines beyond the more cool features naturally found in this vintage, which stands in contrast to the copious, rich depth and size of the 2015s.
Prices have risen substantially between 2015 and 2016; 14%, even with the lowering in the GB£-€ rate, is going it somewhat, and it remains to be seen whether the recent momentum in popularity of the NORTHERN RHÔNE will be left behind, as buyers re-discover the classical joys of BORDEAUX in a good vintage there.
Full tasting notes on the upper end of MICHEL’s range have been entered under M CHAPOUTIER; please log in to see those, including his two very good 2016 CHÂTEAUNEUF-DU-PAPE reds, CROIX DE BOIS and BARBE RAC.
As opposed to the plastic surgeon, muy rico plunge of investment in the NAPA in the 1970s that heralded a slavish planting of the varieties that the surgeons and the ricos knew best – CABERNET [BORDEAUX] and CHARDONNAY [BURGUNDY], the development of RHÔNE influences in the USA was much more of a counter culture event.
Fuelling it often was the element of surprise. Given that RHÔNE wines were poorly known across Europe in the 1970s, in America, they were beyond sub fusc. But wait – who is this I see galloping towards me with a guitar on his back and home grown cigarette in his mouth – why, it’s my very old friend KERMIT LYNCH.
KERMIT, a hippy musician at the time, travelled to Europe in 1971 and opened his store in BERKELEY the following year. RUTH REICHL wrote in her memoir “Tender at the Bone: “in the back of the store a slight man with curly brown hair and a scruffy beard stood by a make-shift desk, watching me. I could feel his eyes on my back as I went up and down the aisles looking at the wine in the cartons and repeating the names to myself. The words were beautiful. I reached for a bottle, picked it up, and stroked the label. “It’s not fruit,” said the man. “You can’t tell anything by squeezing it.”
And away he went, with his good chum ALICE WATERS just down the road framing the new American cuisine at CHEZ PANISSE, around a commitment to cooking with local produce in season, and honouring all contracts to buy fruit or vegetables even when crops were poor or damaged. For ALICE, like KERMIT, the reference point, the start point, was FRANCE.
Importing the likes of CHAVE HERMITAGE, TROLLAT SAINT-JOSEPH, CLAPE CORNAS and SAINT-JOSEPH JEAN-LOUIS GRIPPAT, KERMIT spread the word about the RHÔNE through these magic, unknown bottles and through a fervent advocacy of their virtues. Always an accomplished story teller and a shrewd marketeer, he lit many a fuse for future American experimenters and individualists.
I can recall JOSH JENSEN [of CALERA] talking about his discovery of VIOGNIER when drinking a bottle at the HOTEL BEAU RIVAGE in CONDRIEU in 1969, which led him to return the next year to harvest the grapes at CHÂTEAU-GRILLET, his payment for which was three bottles of that noble wine [with the 1969, he was in very good shape indeed]. From there he went on to be one of the first to plant VIOGNIER. I took a bottle of early 1970s VERNAY CONDRIEU to drink with him in SAN FRANCISCO in the early 1990s – the oldest bottle he had ever tasted, since the custom was to drink it up pretty rapidly.
It is said that my publisher, the UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS, BERKELEY, is quitting publishing wine books, which isn’t a great surprise given how poor the state’s finances are. If that is indeed the case, they have signed out with a real winner in the form of AMERICAN RHÔNE by PATRICK J COMISKEY. PATRICK has done a superb job at capturing the straggling RHÔNE movement with a picture of vibrant anecdotes, humour and detail across nearly 50 years of development, setbacks, dawns and false dawns.
The subtitle is “How Maverick Winemakers changed the way Americans drink”, and I can thoroughly recommend the book with its cast of characters, several of whom I know well. RANDALL GRAHM still owes me a royalty for CIGARE VOLANT, and I still haven’t made my road trip with STEVE EDMUNDS, but I suggest you get to know these racy pioneers via the pages of this delightful, well researched and well written book. Its ISBN [for the book] is 978-0-520-25666-8, and for the e-book it is 978-0-520-96514-0.
This year we have said goodbye to two people whom I have known since the early 1970s, both of whom in their separate ways helped to lay the foundations for the flourishing, successful region that exists today. I feel it is important to recognise these often unsung heroes in a world hellbent on knowing the NEXT GREATEST THING, rather than taking time to pause, look back, ponder, and appreciate.
In the northern Rhône, HENRIETTE CLAPE, wife of AUGUSTE, died recently. Born in CORNAS in September 1924, she was nine months older than AUGUSTE. Her nom de jeune fille was ROUSSET, a family with extended local roots in those days, but, after losses in the Second World War, there are no close relations left there today.
HENRIETTE’s family owned four and a bit hectares of land, which included about three hectares of vineyards. The plots were those that are the spine of the DOMAINE CLAPE, notably LA CÔTE and PETITE CÔTE, but also PIED LA VIGNE, where there are 1890s SYRAH, and LES MAZARDS. Their vineyard on COMBE gave a CÔTES DU RHÔNE red.
Land near the N86 road to SAINT-PÉRAY was used for growing cereals and apricot trees, while HENRIETTE was dedicated to her cows, milking them morning and evening, and making fresh cheese for her young family of one boy, PIERRE-MARIE, and two girls, MARIE-LAURE and BERNADETTE, into the mid-1970s.
“I especially remember her work with the cows – you had to be assiduous, twice a day, every day,” relates PIERRE-MARIE. “We would eat fresh cheese nearly every day, while the milk she would deliver every day to the Épicerie in SAINT-PÉRAY. The hay was stored in the attic next to the house, along with the horse who was used to work the vineyards.”
After her marriage to AUGUSTE in December 1949, HENRIETTE set about raising her three children, but she also continued to do what she knew - work the vines. “LES MAZARDS was virtually her own little vineyard,” recalls PIERRE. “She pruned it all, she took out excess buds, she tied the young vines, she harvested it,” he says. “As well as preparing all the sales paperwork and the accounts.” [And receiving visitors such as me].
That is a full life lived fully, and, while HENRIETTE wasn’t known to many of those who clambered through the small grey metal door on the N86, before going downstairs to taste, she was the veritable engine room behind AUGUSTE, and her contribution, never showy, was immense. I recall her as a true Ardechoise, capable of gruff humour, and not given to talking out of turn. Her friendships were firm and true, and I salute her and send my condolences to the family, content to know that she had met her great-grandson RUBEN before her passing.
In the southern Rhône, HENRI BARRUOL, as true a child of Provençal lands as you could find, also died recently. In my first book on the Rhône, researched in 1973-74, I wrote “one of the most interesting of the small and old domaines is DOMAINE SAINT COSME. Its present owner, M.HENRI BARRUOL, is a small, energetic and entertaining character who stumbled into being a vigneron through marriage – and has no regrets at all in either department: “I used to be a full-time wood carver,” he explained, “and after marrying and moving to Gigondas, I learnt a lot about wine from an old school friend who is a local oenologist. That was ten years ago, and now with the benefit of hindsight I’m really glad I kept up wine-making at Saint Cosme.”
The reality was that HENRI had already lived a full life for such a young man when he arrived at Gigondas. Born in APT, his schooling at the Catholic College of AIX-EN-PROVENCE had stopped at 15 years due to the Second World War, and by August 1944 he was living on his own, away from his parents, in AVIGNON, learning his trade as a cabinet maker, with bombs falling as the liberation of France took place.
HENRI set himself up as a cabinet maker and restorer in MAZAN, a VENTOUX village, in 1950, with the help of his best friend’s family - the oenologist JEAN-PAUL LAVAL, whose cousin CLAUDE ROLLAND had previously caught HENRI’s eye. CLAUDE's family owned seven hectares at GIGONDAS, and the couple were married in 1957. Thereafter HENRI threw himself into planting vines wherever he could, also putting in a garden at SAINT COSME, taking out cherry trees, investing his project to revitalise a tired vineyard with his customary whirlwind zeal. Having worked on the land on a family property in the TARN as a young man, HENRI held some preparation for these tasks.
Not so the winemaking. By the early 1960s, his great friend JEAN-PAUL LAVAL was a complete rarity - a man who took a scientific approach to winemaking. He had a cabinet of oenology - a word little employed in those days - at CARPENTRAS, and “that’s where my Papa learnt about all the mistakes and howlers that people were making when vinifying their crop,” recalls LOUIS BARRUOL. “But Papa also emphasized to me that wine starts with discipline and hard work, but that one should never lose sight of the aesthetic side that the maker should want to present. As a man intensely interested in music, opera, archaeology, history, sculpture, cinema – all those influences helped to make and craft his wine,” says LOUIS.
Henri continued with projects of restoration on the Chapel of SAINT COSME, including sculpting its altar, while restoring the estate cellars and guiding the vineyard from seven hectares up to 15 hectares in 1992, when son LOUIS started full-time. From the mid-1960s, he spent twenty years involved with the Syndicat of Growers, their Union, bearing a strong sense of collective responsibility. Throughout, HENRI encouraged those around him to appreciate the beauties of life, which could range from a piece of choral music to a rare bird. His mind would whizz along, right up to his end. “He didn’t see himself as an owner, but as a guardian whose mission was to embellish and pass on what he received,” concludes LOUIS. My thoughts and condolences go to all the extended members of the BARRUOL family.
I first met LOUIS GENIEST (1909-1990) in the mid-1970s. I recall a visit, perhaps with STEVEN SPURRIER, to this domaine with high iron gates down at the bottom of the road running from the fountain, on the way to the route de BÉDARRIDES.
Then the domaine disappeared off my radar, with much of the wine sold in bulk. I must have walked past it hundreds of times, but signs of life were rare. LOUIS’ son JEAN was a lawyer until his death in December 2008, and the domaine is now run with increased passion and commitment by his widow MONIQUE, a lady in her eighties, with a cellar chief called MATTHIEU FAURIE-GRÉPAN present since 2011.
The remarkable thing about this estate is that their 30 hectares, average age 40 years, are all in one extended plot in the south-east of the appellation, on the adjacent sites called CROUSROUTE and LA LIONNE, the latter close to an offshoot branch of the main RHÔNE RIVER. That is a very large single vineyard, more usually found with the big Château properties. There are three red wines, and, since 2013, one white. About 30% is sold in bulk, down from 50% in 2011.
The style from these sandy, galet stone covered soils is for perfumed wines, with a gentle take that is found in the southern sector. They unfurl gradually, and, after eight years or more, the bouquets become varied and interesting. There are still old vintages available, going back to the **** 2004 MAS SAINT-LOUIS. There are two smaller production wines, both very sound ***(*) to **** wines in 2013 and 2014. The ARPENTS DE CONTREBANDIERS RED was a most harmonious **** wine, like a feather in the wind, in 2014. This is a style that will slowly regain favour as the promoters of BIG wines at Châteauneuf lose influence. Raise your glass to that, dear reader.
I have been fielding questions and enquiries about the history of the northern Rhône recently, and it appears that there is a welling up of interest in the region, with the USA and Britain two of the driving forces behind this. People what to know if there was a 1961 CHAVE HERMITAGE ROUGE bottled – answer very little – or what my impressions were of retired or deceased growers such as – in probable order of interest – NOËL VERSET at CORNAS, MARIUS GENTAZ-DERVIEUX at CÔTE-RÔTIE, RAYMOND TROLLAT at SAINT-JOSEPH and JEAN-LOUIS GRIPPAT at SAINT-JOSEPH and HERMITAGE.
Prices of wines from these producers have taken off - £300 is certainly involved in a VERSET wine, for example. Meanwhile, there is price pressure on the current wines due to the much heralded 2015 vintage. Such a thrust forward for the northern Rhône reminds me of the impact of the mighty 1978 vintage, which was the first one in modern times that allowed discovery of the true worth of these noble SYRAH wines. The export figures for Rhône wines make interesting reading if one compares 1976 to 1981.
By far the leading market in those days was SWITZERLAND, with some of the wines shipped there in cask or bulk for bottling on the spot. The vineyards of the Rhône were downstream from Lake Geneva, and there was a connection that crossed both cuisine – sauced dishes, robust flavours – and wine. In 1976 Switzerland imported 137,974 hectolitres of Rhône wines; in 1981 177,303 hl, a rise of 28%.
Runners-up were BELGIUM and LUXEMBOURG – 1976 49,685 hl v 104,351 hl in 1981 (+110%), then BRITAIN (24,213 v 55,043 hl, +127%, the NETHERLANDS (26,409 v 61,327 hl, +132%), and WEST GERMANY (31,365 v 68,235 hl, +118%). A curiosity, if one takes its current high profile, is that the USA imports actually fell – 24,049 v 24,005 hl. Those were the days before the imposing influences of wine journalists with 100 point scoring indices. Nowadays the USA accounts for the highest value per bottle of Rhône imports, by the way.
Another spur to export sales I should mention was actually the publication of my first book The Wines of the Rhône (Faber & Faber). I delivered the manuscript to Fabers in March 1975, but the oil shortage crisis and a three day working week meant that it didn’t appear until early 1978. As the only work on the region, it was taken to the Rhône by wine importers looking for names and domaines.
One of the first cases was The Wine Society in Britain, who visited DOMAINE JAUME at VINSOBRES on the basis of my writing “One of the best private domaines belongs to M.Claude Jaume. M.Jaume’s wine is rich and strongly coloured, and compares very favourably with the Vinsobres of either Co-operative [there were two Co-ops and only four or five domaines bottling their wine in those days]. A wine of good balance and long finish, it can live for up to eight years, but should be carefully drunk: its alcohol degree can rise as high as 14°, this resulting largely from the abnormally temperate climate of the whole Eygues Valley, which for wine purposes extends from Saint-Maurice as far as Nyons.”
A very happy footnote to this is that The Wine Society still works with DOMAINE JAUME today, something that we toast when I visit the Jaumes.
The biggest volume of Rhone wines these days go to GB (21% of bottled wines), followed by BELGIUM and LUXEMBOURG (16%), USA (15%), CANADA (10%), GERMANY (8%), SCANDINAVIA (8%) and SWITZERLAND (6%). I expect export figures over the next two years to be robust and on the rise given the very high quality of 2015, and the at least good to very good 2016 vintage.
While the NORTHERN RHÔNE is a hot spot for wine enthusiasts, I detect a certain drift in the SOUTHERN RHÔNE. Talking to importers in BRITAIN, it I clear that appetite for CHÂTEAUNEUF-DU-PAPE is weak compared to what it used to be. The wines are considered expensive, never more so than if featuring on a wine list in LONDON, and there are image problems, as well: high degree, overblown wines, with the special Prestige cuvées targeted at an American clientele more than suiting the evolving tastes of a European set of drinkers.
When tasting the 2015s in September 2016, there was an immediate step change in degree when I moved from the TRADITION wines to the PRESTIGE wines – 13° to 14.5° became 14° to 15.5°, or higher here and there. I continue to bang my tinny drum in insisting that the unique CHÂTEAUNEUF terroir and climate are made for wines of finesse, and not power. As a good deal, therefore, the grossly overlooked 2014 vintage lines up some real good buys, one of the favourites being the totally pleasurable 2014 CLOS DES PAPES, a wine of ace finesse, described by VINCENT AVRIL as “very Burgundian.” Or take the 2014 TARDIEU-LAURENT CUVÉE SPÉCIALE, a wine of harmony, class and grand elegance.
Elsewhere in the SOUTHERN RHÔNE, GIGONDAS continues to give good wines, although prices are edging upwards. The longevity of GIGONDAS is frequently underestimated, by the way, including in lesser vintages which would include 2008 or 2014. Then there is CAIRANNE, home to 25 domaines full of confidence and generally accomplished winemaking, that will soon slot in as the third most important appellation of the SOUTHERN RHÔNE.
For sparks of interest, much of the rest of the SOUTHERN RHÔNE comes down to following domaines rather than appellations. However, there is a well-entrenched commitment to organic practices in VILLAGES such as VISAN and VALRÉAS; the vintages of 2015 and 2016, with high quality crop, have aided those working organically after 2014 pushed the limits due to attacks of acid rot.
As a final New Year observation, WHITE RHÔNE continues to gain in popularity, even if there is also a tendency towards lighter wines, which I term New Wave, and also an annoying over-use of carbonic gas, which I regard as a big distraction when tasting and drinking the wines. However, there are plenty that are rightly well suited to la table, and you can do no worse than buy some SOUTHERN RHÔNE white 2014s and 2015s and tuck them away until they are five years’ old, when they will be complex and stimulating.