Animal Silk: The Pleasures of Cote-Rotie
The qualities of great wine may find general agreement amongst experts, but the pleasures of great wine are protean. Consensus on balance, complexity, typicity, age-worthiness and elegance can only take analysis so far. The greatness of a pleasure is highly context dependent: social, psychological, historical and biological. Food and flavour memory play a significant role: one person’s ratatouille is another’s cafeteria goulash. These imprints are potent channels for the experience of pleasure.
Syrah is one of those grapes that regularly engages contrary imprints. This is particularly true of Northern Rhone syrah, with its animality and heavy umami funk. Syrah can be juicy and fruit filled, but it can also be feral and dirty (both intentionally and unintentionally). The Northern Rhone has far more contrasts than the New World, which has a much easier time ripening Syrah and which regularly uses clones that push towards greater extract and power.
It is only within these contrasts that one may begin to sketch the parameters for ‘greatness’ in the Northern Rhone.
Birthplace of Modern North Rhone
The Cote-Rotie tasting that inspired this article is the first part of a series of events looking in depth at the major appellations of the Northern Rhone, with old wines and top producers. It was an appropriate pier from which to depart, being the fastest growing appellation in the Northern Rhone in the last fifteen years. It has also come to embody the new Northern Rhone, with a massive increase in quality and a revival of prestige and pricing. For many, Cote-Rotie is the most exciting appellation because it marries Syrah’s pungency and power with its fruit and elegance. It is perhaps the most Burgundian expression of Syrah in the world.
Average temperature may play the strongest role differentiating Cote-Rotie from its neighbours, being a couple degrees lower than Hermitage’s average of 14 degrees. Viognier inclusion adds to the natural softness and florality of the wines. The steep slopes up to 60 degrees in aspect and poor soils of the Massif Central geological formation that runs through Cote-Rotie give characterful fruit that changes as the soils move from predominantly schist in the north to predominantly granite in the south. Schist soils anchor the top vineyards of Cote Brune, Cote Blonde and Landonne. Vines grown on schist produce heavier, more tannic and longer living Syrah. Once you reach Tupin, granite dominates and the wines become more mid-weight and more immediately charming and accessible.
As Cote-Rotie’s popularity grew in the 70 and 80’s after Guigal made it famous again, so did expansion extend beyond the slopes and up onto the plateau. Plateau Cote-Rotie is inevitably inferior as it lacks the heat retaining qualities of the ‘roasted slope’ that ensure Syrah reaches appropriate ripeness in this northerly appellation. The plateau wines can thus suffer from greenness and lack of depth and character. Luckily, the best producers also hold the best sites, so it is easy to avoid this unfortunate misstep.
Style Meets Terroir
The best producers in Cote-Rotie are all terroir focused. However, they often differ in style and philosophy, which results in considerable diversity within the wines, with a consistent theme of site expression. The varied wines offer different truths, creating the paradox that pleasure and displeasure validly coexist not just as subjective reaction, but as the terroir’s inherent tension.
Until Guigal introduced his hyper-modern approach of extended aging in new oak (Guigal ages the ‘La’ wines for 42 months in cask), heating vats to increase extraction, and at least partial de-stemming, Cote-Rotie was a land of mostly vegetable/grape farmers, whole cluster ferments, and a few classic producers. Now whole cluster is practiced by fewer and fewer growers, though some, such as Jean-Paul Jamet, believe stems are necessary to prevent overly reductive wines (Jamet has 50% stem inclusion) and one source of the ‘funk’ of certain Cote-Roties (a natural tendency of Syrah when destalked). To keep perspective, even Guigal includes stems when they are ripe, though the trend now is decidedly away from whole cluster, and even classicists such as Jamet and Clusel-Roch use some new oak.
The challenge comes down to skill and deep knowledge. It’s easy to decry oak aging, but hard to fully understand the complexity of oak and how to use it to maximum effect. Hence Guigal’s heavy use of oak in the ‘La’ wines still produces incredible terroir driven Cote-Rotie while sometimes oak aging by brilliant classicists such as Clusel-Roch can lead to somewhat clumsy wines, especially while young (a fate that sometimes befalls the Les Grandes Places bottling in less ripe vintages such as 2008). Others such as Gilles Barges eschew new oak altogether, but produce wines with tremendous elegance and structure.
Clones pose a further question. What are the best plantings? The original Serine vine is quite distinct from modern clones, with smaller clusters and much thinner skins. Domaines like Clusel-Roch use massale selection and original Serine vines for their wines, with superb results (the Serine in the Les Grandes Places bottling dates from the 1930’s). On the other hand, clones offer distinct advantages, as noted by Jamet who says preferring Serine is too simplistic. The thicker skins of clones offer advantages, such as better structure and clones can produce fewer clusters so as to avoid the need for green harvesting. It seems a question of site as Clusel-Roch once compared Serine to clones in trials and found the former far superior in its plots near Verenay.
Cote-Rotie’s uniqueness lies in its ability to answer these questions with diversity. The terroir is protean in its ability to meld with style and remain true and authentic. This multi-valence is rare in the wine world and even contrasts with Cote-Rotie’s neighbours such as Hermitage, where blending and focus on a unity of expression seems to render the greatest wines. In Cote-Rotie, preference marries terroir, and diversity requires exploration for full understanding and to discover the intersection of site and psychic imprint that leads to pleasure. Cote-Rotie’s greatness is uniquely its own.
Silk Pleasures, Animal Impulse
Across nine wines we discovered the full range of Cote-Rotie terroir, from modern, oak inflected wines to funky old-school wines. We tasted one of the classic Guigal ‘La’ wines, negociant bottlings, and a trio of tremendous Syrahs from classicist Domaine Jamet. The consensus was for an impressive set of wines. Some questioned whether Syrah from the Northern Rhone could be truly great, with the same level of elegance and complexity as Burgundy or Bordeaux (perhaps Syrah is more about power and juicy fruit), but several wines proved that theory too limited. Guigal’s La Mouline from 1994 (a good but not great vintage) was impressive in its sophistication, while the mini-vertical of Jamet (2004, 1998, 1996) was equal to a great flight of Burgundy in finesse and elegance. The duo of Champet Vialliere (a highly traditional producer) from 2000 and 1999 was a study in contrasts: ‘99 power v. ‘00 acidity and freshness, with some preferring the former and some the latter. I scored most of the wines Excellent or higher, with the lowest ratings being Very Good+. That consistency of quality is rare and was persuasive in favour of Cote-Rotie’s potential for greatness. For comparison we ended the tasting with a blind sample of one of the icons of Hermitage: Jaboulet La Chapelle from 1982 – a modern, potent Syrah. My notes for all the wines are below.
Yves Cuilleron Bassenon 2004: Bacon fat and game on the sweet fruited nose. The smoky bacon fat notes are intense, with integrated oak on the palate, but clear influence. A fruity Syrah, with hickory/pancetta character. It is a modern wine drinking well. Very Good+ to Excellent.
Domaine Guigal La Mouline 1994: This wine is a huge step up in elegance from the Cuilleron. Modern, but sophisticated in style. It is not particularly complex on the nose at this point, but it is silky and elegant with subtle fruit on the palate. An impressive wine and the most sophisticated of the first flight of three wines. The La Mouline is known to be the most open of the three ‘La’ wines (grown in the Cote Blonde v. the longer aging Cote Brune), and has a high percentage of Viognier (around 11%) that adds alcohol and softness. Excellent.
Domaine Vidal-Fleury 1988: A funkier wine that many described as somewhat dirty (not ‘pristine’ as one of our group put it). Some greenness on the palate as well. However, the coffee and earth notes, along with dried florals made this a very enjoyable wine and it was still quite together even though clearly past its prime. A fairly traditional house. Very Good+ to Excellent.
Domaine Champet La Vialliere 2000: Champet is a classicist producer with holdings around Cote-Rotie. The “La Vialliere” is a northern vineyard on schist soils and one of the second level vineyards rising to join Cote Brune, Cote Blonde and La Landonne. The nose of this had lots of black currant, and the palate was softly textured but elegant and vibrant. Long, elegant, pretty and quite together. There is definitely stem inclusion in this wine, and so its personality has the distinct spice that whole cluster brings. I thought it worked very well in this wine. Excellent.
Domaine Champet La Vialliere 1999: 1999 is the more storied and epic vintage compared to 2000’s good but not great status. Most in my group preferred the 2000, but my ‘imprint’ aligned better with the fruit and power of the 1999. A richer nose than the 2000, with lots of black olive and dark berry fruit. This is delicious wine on the palate that is powerful but clean, again with stem elements, but in this vintage the powerful fruit ensures the stem character does not dominate, and plays more of a background role. I found this less balanced than the 2000 at this point, but clearly more able to age. Excellent to Excellent+.
Domaine Jamet 2004: In good vintages, Jamet is one of my personal top producers in Cote-Rotie. The house style is decidedly restraint and classicism. They produce floral, pretty wines, but the fruit is also incredibly pure. Partial stem inclusion never dominates. This wine was drinking very well, but its true self probably needed a few more years. With plenty of plums, blackberries, and coffee notes this was delicious, with a hint of oak. Jamet’s regular Cote-Rotie bottling is a blend from various of their 25 plots, which are spread across 17 lieu-dits (most are on schist soils). The Jamet brothers do not include every plot each year, but rather choose the best make-up for their blend. This diversity of holdings is thus one of the Jamet’s key to success. Excellent.
Domaine Jamet 1998: Age shows just how good Jamet becomes. The 1998 was an incredible wine, with all sorts of complexity. The ‘98’s elegance was unparallelled, and the flavours tipped toward animality and funkiness – embodying the animal silk I find the core contrast of Cote-Rotie and, often, the mark of the greatest classical wines. Excellent+.
Domaine Jamet 1996: The 1996 was fully open. Upon tasting it I wrote “this is nuts”: iron, blood, very long finish. This wine is super dialed in and was a brilliant pairing with prosciutto, trumpet mushroom risotto. Excellent+.
Paul Jaboulet Aine “Les Jumelles” 1982: There is stem inclusion in this wine. Some may find this vintage past prime, but this wine was showing well, and was quite aromatic and pretty. Long, elegant and light, but nice flavours, including a fascinating ‘Lagavulin’-like peat note. Excellent.
Paul Jaboulet Aine “Les Chapelle” Hermitage 1982: The segue into the Hermitage dinner (which I unfortunately missed while in Japan), the La Chapelle was more modern than most of the Cote-Rotie, and had interesting notes of curry spice. It was tasty and forward, but less interesting than the Cote-Roties at this point. Some volatility. Excellent.