Organic Viticulture and Tradition in Cote-Rotie: Domaine Clusel-Roch

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As far as small estates go, Clusel-Roch has managed to obtain a fair degree of recognition in North America. Much of that is due to the ever-increasing trend towards ‘natural’ wines and organic or biodynamic viticulture. Yet, they still seem to go unrecognized and undiscussed by many wine lovers. Such oversight has left these wine lovers sadly unaware of one of the most subtle traditionalist estates in Cote-Rotie.

Of Personality and The Grape

Visiting with Brigitte Roch, the reserved and somewhat stern matriach of the family, reinforced the metaphor that a wine reflects the personality of its maker. With so much focus on terroir as site, soil and aspect, writers often miss the important but uncanny truth that a great wine’s terroir is born also of the choices of the farmer and vinifier. These choices emerge from a personality and its encounter with the vines. This genesis of a wine cannot be decoupled.

The wines of Clusel-Roch are upon first taste austere and stern, reflecting the use of manual plowing, a complete lack of chemical spraying, and the unique schist soils that prompt significant tannin structure. Brigitte told me that the roots dug significantly deeper since the vineyards were converted to Organic beginning in 1993 (full certification was in 2002). Organic farming became necessary when the family noticed that the soils were growing less healthy and starting to erode. It turns out that chemical fertilizers were preventing the organic weed materials from dissolving into the mica-schist soils, which were already naturally extremely poor in nutrients. After the move to organics, both the soils and vines grew far healthier. The wines also gained considerable minerality after the conversion.

From Veggies to Wine

As was the trend in the northern Rhone, Cote-Rotie was a land of vegetables more than vines in the 1960’s. What wine did exist was mostly sold in bulk. It was not until the efforts of E. Guigal successfully launched the elegant, feminine Syrah of Cote-Rotie onto the international scene in the 1980’s did other farmers begin converting from vegetable cultivation to vine growing.

Clusel-Roch started making wine in the 1950’s, but it wasn’t until the 1990’s that wine-production took prime focus and that modern wine making methods became the norm along with the change to organic growing. Located in the northern part of Cote-Rotie and with a small holding in Condrieu, this family operation has long flown under the radar of the top critics and wine collectors. Perhaps it is the initial austerity of these wines that puts tasters off. They can appear angular and iron-wrought initially. Much like Brigitte, who began opening up over the course of my visit, it is only with patience that these wines begin to reveal themselves.

Traditional Cote-Rotie

All of the wines had a stern austerity to them that opened with air, though it was evident that all of the Cote-Roties required more bottle age to soften and release their delicate aromas. These are old-school Cote-Rotie wines and drinkers should not expect bombastic flavours, strong oak influence or any sort of opulence. These are, instead, quiet, balanced wines that take time to appreciate. They play more with minerality and cool subtle fruit characteristics than with explosive violets and heady big black fruit and mocha flavours.

Coteaux du Lyonnais Cuvee Traboules 2010: Made with 100% Gamay from 20 year old vines, this interesting wine spends 1 year in barrel. This is serious Gamay. Both juicy and with stem and leaf characteristics, this wine is vinified just like Cote-Rotie and has more heft and tannin than you might expect from Gamay. Very Good.

Cote-Rotie Cuvee Classique 2008: 2008 is not a great vintage for much Cote-Rotie, despite a superb example of Maison Rouge I tasted from Georges Vernay. The Cuvee Classique is made from 20 year old vines and is a feminine wine with pretty fruit and savory herbs. The tannins were a bit harsh on this wine right now and it likely needs some time. Clusel-Roch did 3 passes in the vineyard to get enough ripe grapes in this difficult vintage. Very Good+.

Cote-Rotie La Petite Feuille 2009: This wine is Clusel-Roch’s entry level cuvee and is made from the youngest fruit (mostly under 10 years old). Fermented and aged in 2-3 year old Burgundy barrels, this is all about lighter pretty red fruits and immediate drinkability. Very Good.

Cote-Rotie Les Grandes Places 2009: One of the two top wines from Clusel-Roch, made with 70+ year old vines and 100% Syrah from the 0.7 ha Grandes Places historic vineyard at the northern reaches of Cote-Rotie around Verenay. The vineyard is planted only with “Serine” clones, the oldest form of Syrah clone, which is extremely rare. The 2009 vintage was a much warmer, riper vintage compared to 2008 and that seems to work very well with Clusel-Roch’s vinification methods. The wine retains femininity and restraint despite the year (unlike others). This has blacker fruits, with plenty of fresh ripe blackberry but also plenty of long, complex minerality that needs time to resolve. The tannin and acid add considerable structure and while you can appreciate this now, many will likely enjoy this far better with several years in the bottle. Excellent.

Cote-Rotie Cuvee Vialliere 2009: The other top wine from Clusel-Roch, the Vialliere vineyard is in the north near Les Grandes Places and shares its schist soils and extremely steep slopes. It is actually an older vineyard, though the vines harvested by Clusel-Roch are a bit younger. It is an equally outstanding wine to the Grandes Places but it is more accessible, perfumed and open at this point. This is special wine and is immediately awe-inspiring – not because of bombast or intensity, but rather because of its amazing purity, complexity and length. The fruit and mineral are balanced perfectly in an elegant refinement of Syrah not unlike a great Burgundy wine. This is exactly the sort of wine that proves the immense complexity, versatility and profundity of Syrah. In my mind, it is also proof that Syrah competes with Pinot Noir for the world’s greatest red grape. Excellent+.

Condrieu Cuvee Verchery 2009: Clusel-Roch only owns 0.5 ha of vines in Condrieu, but they do a good job with what they have. While clearly the estate’s focus is Cote-Rotie, they make a classic minerally Viognier in the traditional rather than modern style with good acidity and balance. Perhaps because I had just come from tasting the Condrieus at Georges Vernay, this wine somewhat underwhelmed me, though it is clearly a great example of traditional Condrieu. Very Good to Very Good+

Conclusion

Clusel-Roch taught me that traditional Syrah from the Cote-Rotie is unlike any other Syrah in the world. They also proved that organic viticulture is essential in highly erodable low-nutrient vineyards like you find in the northern Rhone. I can understand why a winery like this would go unnoticed – its wines are not flashy, the family is reserved and their methods highly reflect vintage (for better or worse). On the other hand, clearly the Grandes Places and Vialliere vineyards are two of the most exciting and important in Cote-Rotie, making world-class feminine Syrah. For me this is just the sort of Domaine I would like to see more of in the northern Rhone where more and more vintners are moving towards modern methods. Luckily the disease of over-extraction that has infected the southern Rhone has not yet penetrated particularly well in the north. I hope it stays that way.

Posted in: Features, France 2011

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