COLLINES RHODANIENNES VIN DE PAYS are the secret weapons of the NORTHERN RHÔNE, especially as prices for the main names continue to rise at pace. I receive numerous emails these days from readers wanting tips on travel and visits in the NORTHERN RHÔNE: for 40 years, there was complete radio silence!
The VIN NATURE movement has eschewed categories such as VIN DE PAYS – COTEAUX DE L’ARDÈCHE or COLLINES RHODANIENNES – in favour of VIN DE FRANCE, which allows greater liberty of grape variety use and mix. Their wines, and those of so-called conventional growers, ones who work organically and/or biodynamically, are closer together than once they might have been. Judging by domaines whose wines I have tasted recently – most based in the SOUTHERN ARDÈCHE - fruit quality is good, and it’s an old canard to say that these wines may come at you all faults blazing. More on them will follow.
For now, I want to focus on an unusual wine that stirred my interest due to its composition. It is an IGP COLLINES RHODANIENNES from the DOMAINE DES AMPHORES, called DÉTOUR. This is a domaine that I visited a few times between 2000 and 2007 – fair quality, perhaps wines a bit pushed along - then it rather fell off my radar.
I bumped into the patron, PHILIPPE GRENIER, when out on my wanderings in 2018, and managed to see him late last year. The domaine and its wines have mightily grown up, the whites presenting a rocking good range, from VIN DE PAYS via SAINT-JOSEPH on to CONDRIEU. Son RÉMI is the winemaker at CHÂTEAU-GRILLET, while the GRENIERs’ other son, SYLVAIN, works at DOMAINE MICHEL LAFARGE in VOLNAY. These are good portents.
Until 1994 it was a mixed farm, notably fruit with the raising of chickens and goats, before the switch to a vine and wine enterprise. The vineyards have been organic since 2002, and officially biodynamic since 2016 (although biodynamie has been practiced years before that). The prime soil type is granite, muscovite [mica] and biotite [white quartz, feldspar], hard, rocky granite above CHAVANAY.
The main AMPHORES vineyard is on RICHAGNIEUX, which is home to none other than the SOUTHERN RHÔNE’s very own CLAIRETTE BLANCHE, vines dating from 1970 to 1972 that PHILIPPE took over in 2006. “My grandfather worked with CLAIRETTE in the day, as did many of his neighbours” says PHILIPPE.
Indeed, there used to be a tradition around CHAVANAY of growing CLAIRETTE. JEAN CHOL, the father of DIDIER CHOL, who sold his vineyard to OLIVIER DÉCELLE and his winemaker buddy PIERRE-JEAN VILLA in late 2017, used to produce two different CLAIRETTE wines, a semi-sweet and a méthode champenoise. JEAN had learnt how to make the latter in CHAMPAGNE, and started it in 1947, the domaine continuing it into recent times, satisfying a local market, particularly around Christmas time.
The DOMAINE DES AMPHORES COLLINES RHODANIENNES DÉTOUR BLANC is composed of 60% CLAIRETTE BLANCHE, topped up with 30% MARSANNE (2010) and 10% ROUSSANNE (1997). It is vat fermented at up to 20°C, vat raised, and bottled in May after the harvest, the malo completed. There are around 4,000 bottles.
“The CLAIRETTE from the granite leans towards the MARSANNE and ROUSSANNE’s aromas, typically giving a floral, white flowers such as acacia, and white peach presence to the wine,” comments PHILIPPE.
“The CLAIRETTE is harvested 15 to 20 days after the other two, often around mid-October. Its ripening comes along very quietly, so it brings freshness, while CLAIRETTE at 11° reins back the ROUSSANNE at 14°.”
For it is true – the ROUSSANNE may in theory contribute elegance to local whites, but as summer sunshine intensity grows, so it lurches into high degree zones, jeopardising balance. It’s a heaven-sent gift, therefore, to be able to temper it with nearly 50 year-old vine fruit from such an interesting, valid source that normally struts its stuff at CHÂTEAUNEUF-DU-PAPE.
The 2017 DÉTOUR expressed white flowers on the bouquet, and a touch of aniseed which I often associate with CLAIRETTE. It was well founded on the palate, held stylish, joli gras, with verve on the inside. There was then the bonus of the CLAIRETTE taking care of any typically bitter notes from the MARSANNE on the finish. “Rocking good VIN DE PAYS”, I wrote. This can be yours for a meagre €8. Go long!
“One more vigneron who has counted for CORNAS leaves us” were the words of OLIVIER CLAPE to me in early February, 2019. He was referring to RENÉ BALTHAZAR, the father of FRANCK, 93 years’ old, a man of the generation of AUGUSTE CLAPE and MARCEL JUGE, a decade behind the VERSET brothers NOËL and LOUIS.
In that handful of names resides much of the patrimony of CORNAS, men who stuck at it in the difficult decades, men who got up and went back for more toil each year on the steep, slippery hillsides, men who mostly worked away without being sure a child or family successor would take over the reins from them. Imagine all that effort, with no guarantee that one’s work would lead somewhere.
When I first researched my book THE WINES OF THE RHÔNE in 1973 and 1974, I didn’t meet RENÉ: his wine was sold to merchants, notably DELAS. I knew he cultivated 1910s SYRAH – SÉRINE – on the CHAILLOT vineyard, which his father had bought in 1930 after coming down off the plateau at ST ROMAIN-DE-LERPS to the more worldly delights of CORNAS.
The family had existed on a combination of cereal and vine. “My father was a corn thresher, and made his wine, too, with half the three hectares rented, the other half owned,” RENÉ told me. “My father would sell the wine in the spring after the harvest to cafés, especially a big one at ANNONAY [home of the hot air balloon, which lies north-west further into the MASSIF CENTRAL]. I started a little bottling in the mid-1970s.”
I placed RENÉ in the band of traditionalists, since he never destemmed [unlike colleagues such as GUY DE BARJAC, JEAN LIONNET, ALAIN VOGE], while raising was in demi-muids – 600-litres, all old – rather than the 12 hl foudres of CLAPE, or the 225-litre or 228-litre casks [pièces] of the VERSETs and MARCEL JUGE. Raising would run for around 18 months. He favoured the 600-litre casks since “they keep the wine’s perfume better than the pièces.” He would ultimately make about 3,000 bottles a year.
Over one hectare was on CHAILLOT, with 0.36 hectare near the village on MAZARDS, which held 1959 and 1961 SYRAH. This was indeed old vines’ wine. In my book of 1991, I wrote: “a stiffer style of CORNAS than M. DE BARJAC’s, very much the dark impulse wine of yore, is made by NOËL VERSET and RENÉ BALTHAZAR.” This would always be presented to me in the stone-clad, tiny cellar near the Church, RENÉ one of the old generation of growers who let you taste in silence, proffering only an occasional observation.
By the 1990s, I knew of his fretting about whether son FRANCK would leave his engineering post in nearby VALENCE. FRANCK's arrival on the domaine in 2002 was therefore a cause of deep-seated pleasure for Dad - nothing spoken, just a glow of satisfaction would emanate from him.
The fact that FRANCK has made very good wine from an enlarged vineyard will have furnished him with much contentment, as well as the fact that FRANCK’s CHAILLOT cuvée bears the classic floral airs of the CHAILLOT vineyard - a successful transfer of the baton from Père to Fils.
Quiet and retiring as he was, RENÉ made wines that I considered to hold a solid structure, with the development of an interesting complexity as they aged. He was a pillar of CORNAS through the dark days, and I salute both him and his family for their tenacity and achievement, allied to his enduring sense of modesty. ADIEU, RENÉ.
The vineyard challenges faced by growers have multiplied during the second decade of this millennium. Back in the good old twentieth century, a grower could rely on a rule of thumb that 100 days after flowering, harvesting would take place. The crop would average around 13° if it were SYRAH in the NORTHERN RHÔNE, and around 14° if it were GRENACHE in the SOUTHERN RHÔNE.
If 2018 is a precursor of a more regular pattern of events, that rule book can be scrapped immediately. The boundaries have enlarged enormously. Now SYRAH at over 15° is occurring at HERMITAGE and CROZES-HERMITAGE, while at CHÂTEAUNEUF-DU-PAPE growers are looking for options such as COUNOISE, reverting to CINSAULT that was encouraged in the 1960s, or banking on MOURVÈDRE to tone down GRENACHE NOIR crop coming in at 16°.
However, the accepted norms in the vineyards are having to change – and fast. It is no longer an easy option to avoid soil working. PHILIPPE GRENIER has worked biodynamically at the DOMAINE DES AMPHORES for his SAINT-JOSEPH and CONDRIEU since 2002. Referring to the extraordinary “game of two halves” of 2018 - a lot of rain, then a lot of heat - he recounted: “there was rot pressure in 2018 in June because of all the rain, but we were on top of the mildew. Then, our working of the soils avoided evaporation later in the summer when the heat really rose.”
Far away from the RHÔNE in distance, but not in spirit, CHRISTOPHE BARON of CAYUSE vineyards [and HORSEPOWER, BIONIC FROG and others] spotted basalt lands on the OREGON-WASHINGTON STATE border in 1996, and planted SYRAH and GRENACHE on what had been hillside orchards before. He, too, has adapted his working methods in the intervening time.
“You have to work the soils. We have no rain during the summer. It’s so hot that things can’t grow, but if you don’t work the soils, you have a crust that leads to more evaporation. With 10-15 cm of loose soil, you create an insulating pad. I use a pulley system to work the soils that I bought in AMPUIS at CÔTE-RÔTIE. What I have changed from around 2005-06 is to keep the leaf canopy, since the bunches must be in the shade, and I also harvest a bit earlier.”
Even grass between the rows can be problematic, XAVIER GÉRARD at CONDRIEU pointing out that “in 2017 we had so much rain in the form of storms that it became very tricky for growers in late summer, those with grass growing rampantly between the rows.”
GAYLORD MACHON, a young and promising grower on the flat land vineyards of BEAUMONT-MONTEUX at CROZES-HERMITAGE, is questing for the right path, and gave me his take on vineyard practices: “I grow grasses one row in two. I had tried organic for half the vineyard in 2017, and wanted to be fully organic in 2018, but found that I was treating the vineyards every two to three days in the wet spring-early summer, which left a poor carbon footprint.
As a result, I am now going to be HVE – HAUTE VALEUR ENVIRONNEMENTALE, which calculates the big picture of treating the vines, along with the impact for flora and the fauna. That means that I hope to be able to use just one synthetic treatment a year, and go through the vineyards with a treatment every two to three weeks, not every two to three days.”
Working organically since 2009 and biodynamically since 2015, SÉBASTIEN GIRARD of DOMAINE DE LA VILLE ROUGE at CROZES-HERMITAGE has also changed his approach to growing grass between the rows on his LES CHASSIS vineyards. “Before 2008, I grew grasses along every row, but since then I have cut back to one row in three – it was too wet to get into the vines after any significant rain, and I was finding you no longer had a smooth lawn of grass effect.
That’s why I now sow different clovers that serve to nourish the plants with nitrogen through the year, while barley helps to dry the soils. As for the harvest dates, 100 days doesn’t really apply now – flowering in the first week of June and harvest starting early September in 2017 and 2018 comes out at around 90 days, and nearer 115 days for 2016 when the harvest was in late September.”
Other respected growers are changing their approach to harvesting dates. JEAN-LOUIS CHAVE from HERMITAGE tells me that “the best decision I took in 2018 was to harvest early on my whites. People looked at me with amazement, as I was harvesting before the CAVE DE TAIN! I had a pH of 3.6 and a degree of 13.5°; that would have changed to 3.8 pH and 15.5° in a few days. We even harvested on a Sunday, the DAY of the SEIGNEUR. We’d only done that once before, in 1994, which was in effect a reaction to the 1993 experience [torrential rains].”
THIÉRRY ALLEMAND has for long been one of the first to harvest at CORNAS [along with the CLAPE family]. He tells me: “I want to revert to wines at 13.5°, instead of 14° to 14.5° which is so usual these days – so I am harvesting earlier.” THIÉRRY started his 2018 harvest on 3 September.
An observation from MAXIME GRAILLOT on the plain of LES CHASSIS at CROZES-HERMITAGE was also revealing in the longer context. “Since my Dad arrived in 1985, we had never harvested in August [the white crop] until 2009; since then we have harvested in August as well in 2011, 2015, 2017 and 2018.”
The old rule book of wines averaging around 12.5° to 13.5°, with pH levels at 3.5, has been thrown out of the window recently, and the race will be won by those who are flexible in spirit, mind and practice. The juggernauts of the wine industry will be the losers, except that they will add water, adjust acidities and mess around with the “product” in the cellar, much to the detriment of drinkers who do not stick to trusted family domaines.