Rambling in the Rhône

I am a bad traveler. I find it difficult to leave the vineyard for any great length of time unless we travel during the month of January. Even then, ten days is a long time for me to be away. Like a Steinbeck character I am chained to my land out in the nether regions of the coast. So, I’m a reluctant tourist, you see, a sheepish American, embarrassed by my inability to speak Thai or Portuguese or Swahili. Even so, we traveled to southwest France this past June, though the timing was unfortunate for two reasons: the vines underwent bloom and set when we should have been out in the vineyard collecting leaf tissue samples (thank you, Alan, our winery and now vineyard assistant for sampling for us), and the dollar vs. the euro was at an all time low! But it was my parents’ 70th and 75th birthdays and all the Peays were to assemble in France to spend time together and celebrate. We obliged. I know, how we suffer.
This filial duty allowed Vanessa and me to rationalize a side trip to the northern Rhône for a little vineyard research. We were last in France tasting wine in dank cellars and getting our car stuck in premier cru vineyard mud in December of 2000. Egad, but time has slipped by. I do recall a pact we made to visit France every two years. Clearly, some pacts yield greater results than others.

But, boy, did it rain. C’était la deluge! It continued throughout the three days we spent ducking in and out of cellars in Côte Rôtie, Condrieu and Hermitage. The verdant hillsides were tropical, when they weren’t awash with muddy rivulets. Here, too, the vines were in the midst of bloom, at risk to suffer reduced fruit set, less crop, more shatter. To protect our son, Julian, from this fate we left him in our hotel room in the hands of capable Christelle, thanks to an internet search utilizing the keywords “garde d’enfants Lyon.” So, out we went into the downpour, parapluies overhead. We had some adventures noodling through the sodden vineyards on tiny roads up and down the hillsides, but most of the time we were inside cellars, tasting barrels and tanks, and talking.

First, we caught up with an old friend in Hermitage. He was keen on showing us his new project. We admired the slow work of recovering his Roman era terraces near Lemps, part of the St. Joseph appellation. Vanessa remembered visiting fifteen years ago when our vigneron was getting ready to clear and rebuild the first terraces at the top of the hill that were abandoned by his family after phylloxera at the end of the nineteenth century. He still has the bottom third to recover. This year’s spring planting was thriving with all of the rain, looking better than many irrigated new plantings I’ve seen. Still, we clambered past the occasional red basal-leafed plants. These new vines should not have been showing virus in plants so young or so early in the growing season. Clearly these vines were very diseased and would face replacement before the block produces its first crop. These plants initiated a conversation about plant material selection for new plantings and the much-agonized issue of dealing with virused vines. Our host seemed a little sheepish about the sick vines but asserted the superiority of selection massale over the clones that are available from nurseries. He seemed to be looking for agreement from me and so I concurred that the struggle with a little virus was often worth it, though in truth, I’m not entirely convinced that this is always the case.

Some suspect that a little virus makes for superior wine. We have three registered clones, guaranteed free of virus, and three selections that appear to be clean, though I’m beginning to wonder about some of our Estrella plants. I honestly cannot say that I have a preference among the six, though maybe the Estrella is a little inferior to the other five. It can be a touch less complete, requiring some complementary Syrah flavors to make a balanced wine. But does virus make the resulting wine weaker and more simple? Does it make it more complex? We can say with certainty that some virus will make Syrah less vigorous, make the vine life shorter, reduce the overall crop, and probably affect cluster and berry size. All of these in turn must have some impact on the flavor of the resulting wine.

I had read that the Northern Rhône Syrah producers favored selection massale over the government isolated and genetically homogeneous clones. I suspect that these vignerons are wary of their government, suspicious of their abilities as arbiters of quality. There are some very highly regarded individualists who favor the clones, however. Notably, one should make an appointment to visit the frères Jamet, Jean Luc et Jean Paul. We dropped in without an appointment on the spur of the moment, but the administrative assistant apologized saying they were not accepting any visitors since their most recent release had long been sold out. In my role as a humble tourist I failed to highlight our standing as fellow vignerons from California. This usually gets the door opened (if anyone is around) out of sheer curiosity on their part. Once Vanessa starts speaking French in her Bordelais accent, our hosts always brighten and relax, able to speak in their native tongue about technical and arcane grape growing and winemaking topics near and dear to their hearts. To hear about the Jamet brothers’ preference for clones, and which clones, we’ll have to make a return visit, this time with an appointment.

There were other interesting observations noted here and there. Across our visits, everyone was reducing the amount of new oak used, as if a high water mark had been reached and the trend was in reverse. There was also a change of historic proportions, we encountered very little Brettanomyces-affected wine (though one quite reputable producer’s bottled Côte Rôtie was very volatile!) The odds are good that horse stall aromas and flavors won’t ruin your next (recent vintage) Côte Rôtie. Also very interesting, we found all of the Côte Rôtie that we tasted to be unified by a common flavor profile, a red fruit, high acid, umeboshi (a Japanese cured plum) paste flavor that was present whether from Côte Brune or Côte Blonde. It did not matter whether stems were used, whether the wine was aged in barrels or puncheons, or if the wine had some, a little, or no Viognier in it. And these reds were markedly different from the flavor profile in the Hermitage and St. Joseph.

Truthfully, on this trip we were seeking information on growing and producing Viognier, so most appointments were with producers of Condrieu, some of whom produced Côte Rôtie and St. Joseph. Our Viognier insights will be related in a spring newsletter sometime in the future. At this point, all I can tell you is that there is an acre of rootstock planted this spring that is currently designated to be grafted to Viognier next spring. We spoke to Côte Rôtie producers who use Viognier in their Syrah (old plantings with intermingled vines), and those who do not (eight years ago a Jamet scoffed at the notion. “We don’t need any Viognier in our Côte Rôtie!”) We do not either. With this extra acre of Viognier we still do not intend to use any in our Syrah. But perhaps there may be the possibility of a little experiment some day, eh, Vanessa?

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