Since Saint-Joseph expanded from a small wedge of vineyards over 6 villages and 10 kilometres to an expansive region spanning 25 villages and 65 kilometres in 1969, it has been difficult for the appellation to pin down a core identity. Moreover, planted acreage has increased 10 times since the early 1970’s. This is now being countered with regulations established in the early 1990’s that will declassify under-performing and poor quality vineyards, but there is still a long way to go.
So is it possible to isolate a core identity for the large AOC? The peppery and dry Syrahs from the vineyards in the north contrast significantly with the riper, more masculine versions from the south. Producer style varies significantly, and there is no proper or consistent sub-appellation or vineyard labeling. This makes it near impossible to lock down a signature character. It also leaves most consumers confused.
Despite this, the increasing stature, popularity, and price of the famous Northern Rhone appellations Cornas, Cote-Rotie and Hermitage is a huge opportunity for Saint-Joseph. The region offers perhaps the greatest range of proper Syrah in the world and consumers who do their research can find outstanding examples for a third of the price of the more famous appellations.
A recent dinner focusing on these wines proved the point. The quality was consistently impressive, the style diverse, and the typicity spot-on.
Terroir, Vineyard and Producer
The granitic soils of many St. Joseph vineyards are well suited to Syrah, but the best sites are planted on hillsides rather than the plains or plateaus and have old vines. While granite is the key connection between most St. Joseph vineyards, the key differentiation lies between the northern and southern halves of the AOC.
But before we get to the differentiation, we must consider the granite. Granite is key to St. Joseph’s success as it produces wines with structured tannin that allow ageability. Most Crozes-Hermitages, for instance, do not possess this type of tannin because the vines are not planted in granite. So that’s the first ingredient to St. Joseph’s success. The other is vineyard site, which varies depending on whether it is southerly or northerly and also on the age of the vines.
The southern sector produces St. Josephs that are big, fruity and powerful. Roughly speaking, the southern half of St. Joseph lies near Tain l’Hermitage, across the river from the famous granite hills of Hermitage itself, centred in the town of Tournon – a village with hundreds of years of wine history. The southern sector comprises the original set of villages for St. Joseph. Because of this, the winemakers tend to have more experience and the vines are older. Combined with older soils than the northern villages, these factors mean St. Joseph vineyards from the south produce powerful Syrah with ripe berries, tar, and smoke, alongside tannic backbone and variable acid depending on soils. Generally the quality is higher in the south than the north.
In contrast to the southern St. Josephs are the northern vines, planted in younger granite soils that lead to more angular wines. This area ranges all the way from north of Tain up to Condrieu. In contrast to the power and dark fruit of the south, northern St. Josephs are the Beaujolais cru of Syrah, with lighter body, plenty of black pepper, leaner tannin and a drier texture. The general consensus is that the switch from riper, southern wines, to more aromatic, lighter bodied wines happens at the village of Sarras. It is there that one can observe significant changes in flora and fauna due to climate.
In my view, both sectors can produce outstanding wines, with much left to producer, particular site and vine age. There is no doubt that the south has the edge over the north. But, there are not surprisingly also not so ideal examples from both sectors.
What is particularly exciting in St. Joseph is the variety of wines available. You can seek out beefier, more California-inflected wines, aromatic and floral wines, and wines that offer a balance of both. There are wines that can age extremely well and those that offer much in youth. In my experience, producer comes first in St. Joseph and so I break down the worthy into two categories below.
The Top Tier Domaines
The top tier produce wines that can sit amongst the world’s best examples of Syrah. They do not reach the lofty heights of the very best Cornas, Cote-Rotie, and Hermitage, but this does not mean they do not deserve serious attention. They are generally a third of the price of their fancier brethren and these producers’ St. Josephs outshine many producers from the more famous appellations. Consistently, the top domains are mostly from the southern region of St. Joseph with holdings concentrated in the key villages of Mauves, Tournon and Glun.
Located in Mauves in the south with holdings in Tournon (the Les Oliviers vineyard in particular). The 2011 stood out at our dinner as signature Gonon, bacon fat and cool fruit wrapped in an elegant, balanced structure.
The Gonons repeatedly make amongst the greatest red and white St. Josephs, and work with biodynamic grapes and quasi-naturalist principles. Their pricing has increased in recent years but they remain worth it.
Also located in Mauves in the south with vineyards in Tournon, all of which are blended together to make the final wine. This is perhaps the most ageworthy St. Joseph available and the class and breed are completely undeniable. At our dinner the quality of the 2005 and 2006 vintages jumped out in a blind flight and it was not surprising to see who the producer was on the reveal.
Be sure to distinguish the estate St. Joseph from the “offerus”, which is a negocient bottling of far less interest.
Mauves alongside an old-vine vineyard in the St. Joseph climat in Tournon (the wine is called Berceau). While not poured at our dinner, I include this producer in the upper tier, particularly the ‘lieu dit’ bottlings. These are classy, delicious wines. The whites also stand out. You can pick them up at Marquis and I highly recommend doing so.
Located in both the north and the south. Originally two domains, Monier is from the Northern sector in the village of St-Desirat and Perreol from the southern village of Glun (home to the Terres Blanche vineyard), which is south of Mauves. Monier Perreol may be my favourite St. Joseph producer. Both the whites and the reds have a class and transparency to them that is quite uncommon generally and also in St. Joseph.
The two reds we drank at the dinner – 2009 St. Joseph and 2012 Terre Blanches – had a fundamental deliciousness of fruit that suggested extremely high quality farming practices. The Terres Blanches is the top cuvee and a top vineyard, planted in limestone rather than granite. For me it was the better of the two, but the regular bottling was also exceptional.
Perret is one of the few top produers with heavy holdings in the north in the village of Chavanay where you can find vineyards dating to the 1920’s. The old-vine cuvee easily belongs in the top tier category. John Livingstone Learmonth calls Perret’s St. Josephs reference class.
Located in Mauves. Not at the dinner, but every time I taste these wines I am extremely impressed. The Coursodon’s are one of the original families of quality St. joseph.Their holdings span four key southern villages: Glun, Mauves, Tournon, and St-Jean-de-Muzols. Vines are massale selected here and the domain makes four reds. I have a fond place in my heart for the ‘paradis’ bottling.
The Second Tier Domains
The second tier domains represent high quality and typicity but do not quite reach the overall balance and impact of the top tier. My selections, in no particular order, are:
A very important domain that some would put in the top tier. Their entry level St. Joseph is classic Northern Rhone Syrah that is easy to drink, but it is their lieu dits such as “Les Royes” that truly stand out. The only reason I do not put these guys in the top tier is the sheer size of the operation, which has allowed certain bottlings to slip below the upper echelon.
Paris is much more of a Cornas producer and his St. Joseph is meant for easy drinking. That said, it is classy, aromatic and deliciously easy to drink. A northern sector wine meant for the summer.
Located in the south, this producer makes powerful, unctuous wine with huge, delicious fruit. Their wines are very easy to like.
A La Tache
Before our dinner I had not tasted these wines. This is not surprising as the domain didn’t exist until the early 2000’s. They now farm two vineyards in Mauves and Tournon. They are imported into the US be Selection Massale, meaning they are of the ‘naturalist’ and very small producer bent, using no SO2 and no temperature control in vinification.
I tried the Cuvee Guillamy 2010 and the Cuvee Badel 2010 (each single vineyards). Both were a little awkward at this stage, but I think that will mellow with time. Not really close to the top tier right now, I do find the domain interesting and worth following.
The old vine cuvee really stands out at this domain, which is up and coming on the heels of Coursodon and Gonon. I think Faury will eventually find his way into the top tier.
Yves Cuilleron and Francois Villard
Villard and Cuilleron are two separate domains operating in the same school, offering a more modern take on St. Joseph. While these wines are not my personal preference they are high quality, particularly the single vineyard bottlings.
Where to Buy
Marquis Wine Cellars has had a long tradition of supporting top Northern Rhone producers and I recommend them highly. They currently carry Gripa, Paris and Gonon. In the past they have had Courbis and Coursodon.
Your next best bet it Kits Wine, which has a small selection of St. Joseph, including JL Chave, the modernists Cuilleron and Villard and usually Vincent Paris.
Last, I have seen the basic Courbis at some signature BCLDB stores.
Prior Articles in the Northern Rhone Series
For an earlier entry in my Northern Rhone series, see my article on The Pleasures of Cote-Rotie.