Jean-Michel Stéphan Cote Rotie 2008

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Terroir, wine’s most important ideal, floats somewhere between culture and science. No scientific evidence exists to support the notion that wine gains character from the mineral component in soils. Rather, the extant evidence supports only the influence of a soil’s physical properties (mainly drainage) on wine flavour.

This is further complicated by the little understood concept “typicité”. Typicité means a flavour and structural profile that is distinctive of a particular region. This concept is broader than terroir in that it can encompass common techniques of a region, which may have nothing to do with terroir (Alsatian aging in large oak barrels for example). Regional typicité also does not negate individual terroirs within that region that may challenge regional typicité and yet, with enough time and consistency, establish micro-typicité for the smaller area within the broader region. It is likely, however, that many drinkers confuse typicité for terroir, when in fact there may be little connection.

A Naturalist Challenge to Typicité

Stéphan is anti-thetical to Cote-Rotie typicité. Of the school of producers like Dard et Ribo, Thierry Allemand, Jules Chauvet, and Marcel Lapierre, Stéphan is perhaps Cote-Rotie’s most anti-establishment and radical thinking winemaker. This comes mainly in three forms: total lack of sulphur use, free embrace of carbonic maceration, and a goal to make wine with 100% massale-selected vines using organic viticulture.

Stéphan is of the naturalist camp who believes sulphur drastically interferes with fruit authenticity and purity. He seeks wines with fruit and maximum freshness. It goes without saying that he also does not add yeasts or enzymes and refuses to chaptalize.

Jean Michel is not afraid of carbonic maceration and in fact thinks it should be adopted more broadly in the Northern Rhone. He loves the purity of wines made in this method and is a passionate proponent that at least partial-carbonic should be used more widely in the Northern Rhone. Stéphan sees his approach as one focusing on fermentation rather than barrel aging. In his classic Cote Rotie he spreads his Viognier in layers in the steel vat to increase aromas, cools the crop to 5 degrees celsius and lets it sit half a day on skins before destemming. He then lets the wine sit at 14 degrees for 5 days and then lets the temperature rise to 31. For his pure carbonic wine “Coteaux de Tupin” he saturates his vats with carbonic gas until the cap rises and holds the wine at 10 degrees for 20 days. He believes the lack of any sulphur helps prevent reduction and also pumps over twice during the first week of fermentation to increase exposure to oxygen.

For Jean-Michel massale selection (meaning propagating new vines from a group of the best quality older vines as opposed to selecting clones in a nursery) is important to increasing genetic diversity. Unlike clonal selection, plants grown using massale selection are not genetically identical. Jean-Michel focuses on propagating old Serine clones and Viognier.

But the weirdest thing about Jean-Michel? His wines have made the Wine Spectator top 100 list.

Pure Wine; Terroir?

Jean-Michel makes three cuvees: a “Cote-Rotie Coteaux de Tupin”, which is made 100% using carbonic maceration; a “Cote Rotie”, which is made with a combination of carbonic-maceration and traditional fermentation; and a “Vieilles Vignes” which as far as I can tell sees no carbonic, but is also made from 100 year old vines.

His vineyards are found mostly on the Coteau de Bassenon, with other holdings in Tupin, Coteaux de Tupin, Les Bercheries and Verenay.

This, the classic “Cote-Rotie” (90% Syrah, 10% Viognier), is remarkable wine. A naturalist wine with varietal purity, it is not typical Cote-Rotie but bears a fair degree of similarity to the wines of Domaine Jamet. Bright fresh red fruits have no difficulty engulfing the bouquet, especially upon initial opening; the colour of the wine matches the aromas – a rarity in Cote-Rotie, with wines generally quite dark and purple. There is lots of minerality here and the palate is pure Syrah: pepper (white and black), earth, red and black berries. The long, pure finish and wonderful texture make this amongst both the best and most “typicité” challenging wines of Cote-Rotie. Arguably, though, Stephan is more successful at expressing a unique sense of place than many in the Northern Rhone – the question remains whether his methods are more transparent of place or whether they, simply, are a pleasurable and exciting break from the norm? Regardless of the answer, this is the sort of challenge that keeps regions from stagnating. The Northern Rhone lives!

Excellent to Excellent+
Between $50-$65 USD


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