Spotlight on Rhone Valley White Wine: Domaine Courbis Saint-Joseph Blanc ‘Les Royes’ 2004

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While Viognier is known for its aromatic complexity and its rich, opulent texture, as we move from Condrieu into St. Joseph, we also see a change in grapes from Viognier to Marsanne and Roussanne, known to be more elegant and restrained, often in need of a little age. We also see a move from a very small and closely demarcated wine growing zone to a very large and broad one, with multiple terroirs. St. Joseph has been so expanded over the years that it is difficult to predict the terroir and quality of a wine based simply on the appellation. Producer is what matters in St. Joseph, and if you want quality it is essential to properly research the producer whose wine you are buying.

White wine from St. Joseph is also very rare, comprising a mere 9% of the total production of the region. Marsanne, known for depth and richness, dominates the white blends in St. Joseph, but many wines also blend in Roussanne for acidity and aromatics. While there is debate over whether Marsanne and Roussanne grow best in granite (the undisputed choice for Syrah) or limestone soils, many important producers such as J.L. Chave, Domaine Coursodon and the producer of today’s wine Domaine Courbis, think that limestone produces the best white grapes.

This wine is grown in the famous Les Royes vineyard, one of the steepest in the Northern Rhone, which holds limestone and clay soils. It sits at between 200 and 270 metres above sea level and is well sheltered from the famous Mistral wind. The vines, comprising Syrah, Marsanne and Roussanne, average around 35 years of age, but the oldest are, impressively, over 60 years old. Everything produced at Courbis is hand harvested and left on the vine as long as possible. Because Courbis is so skilled at this technique, this means the white wines have incredible balance and phenollic ripeness without going too far into the realm of opulence.

Unlike the classic white St. Joseph, the Les Royes white is made with pure Marsanne dating from 1975 and is completely fermented in new Allier oak, which in the case of this wine is a very good thing. The wine also sees batonnage (lees stirring) and full malo-lactic fermentation – but that doesn’t mean it isn’t one of the most elegant St. Josephs available. Only the best casks are used and the total production is a tiny 3000 bottles or 250 cases.

The wine itself? Well, it offers a nose of apple, spice and rock and is very soft and clean – a general hallmark of this very elegant St. Joseph. The palate adds some interesting licorice and herbal/root characteristics along with apples. This has great flavour and structure and great elegance. It might lack a little in acidity, but this wine successfully combines power and elegance and a fantastic ability to pair with food. I had it with honey/tamari glazed Salmon and the pairing was extremely successful.

As rich, dense and opulent as the wines of Condrieu are, so far the wines of St. Joseph are discrete, powerful and yet very elegant.

Very Good+ to Excellent
$50 at Marquis Wine Cellars

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