The 2021 vintage is the last year when the current SAINT-JOSEPH vineyard area will be allowed to produce SAINT-JOSEPH. After that date, there will be a ban on vineyards above 300 to 320 metres, and on low level ones on the plain, whose soil is alluvial derived from the RHÔNE rather than from the higher streams that supply the RHÔNE. Too cold in one zone, too rich in the other.
When the legislation was put in place in 1996, all seemed acceptable. As PRESIDENT of the GROWERS’ UNION, JOËL DURAND, describes it, “there was the risk of industrialised ST JO alongside the true hillside wine, easy to produce and therefore cheap wine that would undercut the image of the genuine granite slope wines. At height, the windy plateau was the problem, while down below, the soils were too fertile to produce elegant wine.”
Wine dismissed from the very low or very high vineyards will be reduced to VIN DE PAYS. M.DURAND is aware that there will be difficulties for some, so the annual planting allowance in 2018 and 2019 for the whole appellation was increased from 20 hectares to 40 hectares – around 3% of the total. This is intended to allow growers to re-site excluded vineyards elsewhere within the main frame of the SAINT-JOSEPH appellation.
Of course, they have to own land or have access to land to allow this. In some cases, there has to be clearing of scrubland – starting from scratch, effectively, with all the costs implied. One of the most unfortunate domaines involved is DOMAINE MICHELAS-SAINT JEMMS based outside TAIN L’HERMITAGE. The MICHELAS family have been renting a vineyard on the first-class hillside of SAINTE-ÉPINE for years now. Its SYRAH is nicely mature, planted in 1985-86, while a little MARSANNE is equally old.
There are two problems. The first is that the vineyard stands at 390 metres, and the second is that the owner possesses no other land, so there is no trade-off taking that vineyard area and slotting it elsewhere into the post-2021 appellation zone. A perfectly good, even very good, wine from an acclaimed granite slope site, will disappear.
When assessing the 2017 vintage at GIGONDAS, it was clear that the vineyards at height – from 300 metres up to 500 metres – had dealt much better with the hot, drought conditions of the 2017 summer than those lower down on the garrigue plain around the village. Their later flowering date had meant larger crop [the reverse was the case in 2016], but the all-important GIGONDAS thread of freshness was present in the leading wines from estates such as DOMAINE DE LONGUE TOQUE, CHÂTEAU REDORTIER and PIERRE AMADIEU.
Today, if you were to ask a grower – would you like some high altitude hillside vines? - the answer would be a quickfire YES. It wouldn’t have been the reflex back in 1996.
So as the well-meaning legislation trundles on through its irreversible 25 years span, perhaps it’s time for legislators to reduce the duration of such projects, or, better still, allow re-appraisal during their tenure.