8 Buyers, 1 Store, 8000 Wines

Monday, June 18, 2012

On 9:07 AM by The Bloggers @ 67 Wine in , , , , , ,    No comments

Unlike the Southern Rhone, which crafts wines from many different grapes, the Northern Rhone is based on only one red grape (Syrah) and make small amounts of white wine (from Marsanne, Rousanne and Viognier). Also unlike the south, where there are an almost unlimited number of small producers, the north is dominated by a few large companies. Though there are certainly a good number of small producers as well, the production of all the small wineries is dwarfed by the output of the big three: Guigal, Chapoutier, and Delas.

My visit to the Rhone went just that way. In the south, we spent time with several small producers, like Pierre Amadieu, Domaine Le Colombier, and Domaine Juliet Avril. In the north, we visited Delas and Guigal, and stopped at the Chapoutier tasting room.

Bruno was our guide at Delas, and showed us around the state of the art winery. For those of you who have never been around a modern winery, I'll try to illustrate it rather than blathering on.

On the top right are stainless steel fermenters. They include a robotic "punch down" apparatus that saves hundred of man hours. While the wines ferment, some of the yeast bubbles up to the top of the tank and has to be punched down to complete the fermentation.  After the wine is pumped out, the sediment is removed through the open doors at the bottom.

Below that are the tanks that store all of the wines that don't get barrel aged.

On the left, below Bruno, are specially designed barrel racks. If you click and blow up the picture, you can see that the barrels actually sit on rollers.

For red wines, they roll the barrels so the the bung (the hole in the side) points down for racking. Racking is the act of moving wine from one barrel to another, leaving the sediment behind. It allows them to do the racking by gravity, rather than using pumps. It also gives them an easier way to clean the barrels. White wine doesn't get racked, because they want to limit the exposure to oxygen. Oxygen will soften red wines, but can cause whites to prematurely oxidize. White wines, on the other hand, normally get treated by a process called batonnage. That involves opening the bung and inserting a baton (a long stick) and stirring the sediment (the lees). The rolling racks allow them to do a thorough battonage without ever open the barrel, simply by turning it over several times. It's faster, more efficient, and doesn't expose the wine to oxygen.

Many wines are also filtered before bottling. On the left is a state of the art filter. Rather than have filter chambers filled with clay particles, carbon or paper, the inside of the filter chambers have hundreds of thousands of strands of micron size filaments bundled together so that they appear spaghetti like, and these bundles fill the chamber like so many spaghetti strands in a box.

On the right is part of the bottling line. The blue on top are air filled bladders in strips. When lowered onto a stack of bottles, the bladders are filled to grip an entire layer of bottles by their necks. The bottles are then moved onto the conveyor, where the bladders deflate to release their grip.

Finally, we go to taste the wines. Delas is primarily a negociante, buying grapes from smaller growers and fashioning them into wine. Even so, they own vineyards in some of the region's best appellations, including Hermitage, Cote-Rotie and Condriue; they own estates in St. Joseph and Croze-Hermitage as well. They even own a parcel in the Southern Rhone, in Vacqueyras. The labels tell the story of the vines. White labels indicate negociante wines; yellow labels are single vineyard wines; brownish labels are estate grown wines. Delas wines are primarily sold in restaurants in France, with only a small percentage reaching the US.

We tasted three whites: a 2011 VdP Viognier, 2010 Crozes-Hermitage and a very ripe, plush, 2009 Condrieu (100% Viognier) that had loads of apricot flavor..

We also tasted six reds, starting with the Cotes du Rhone St. Esprit that we carry. Unlike your typical Cotes du Rhone, this on is 80-88% Syrah depending on the vintage. This one had a nose that spoke deeply of Syrah, and showed lots of fruit, some gamy notes, and very good acidity.

The highlights were the 2009 St. Joseph Frances de Tournon, the 2009 Cote-Rotie Seigneur de Maugiron, and the 2009 Hermitage Domaine des Tourettes.

The St. Joseph is a negociante wine that comes from three plots, all on granit soil. Not as animal as the Crozes Hermitage, it had more good black fruit, less black pepper and significantly more tannin. This one was 40% aged in tank, the rest in barrel. The Cote-Rotie is also a negociante wine, made from 100% Syrah (up to 10% Viognier is allowed). The nose was of black fruit and violets, with a palate of smooth black fruit and subtle pepper. This was a very  pretty, well restrained wine. The Hermitage is estate grown, mostly from the Le Gros Vigne plot with a small amount from L'Ermite. The vines are at least 60 years old, with some dating back to 1924. A very deep red color, not as purple as most of the others, the wine was dry and tannic, with some red and blue fruit and a good deal of spice. This is a big wine, and will need plenty of time before it will really show well.

Bruno also took us for a walk around this village of Tournan and pointed out the three towers that have defined Tournan since the middle ages. On the left is the fortress, with only  the lower portion of the tower remaining. On the right is the Church, dating to the 12th Century. Below is the Hospice du Rhone, the hospital, also dating back many centuries. The vines above and to the left of the Hospice tower belong to Guigal, from which they make a Vignes de L'Hospice St. Joseph.

The next day, we paid a visit to the Chapoutier tasting room, where we were allowed to taste six wines, all from the Northern Rhone, though they make and sell quite a bit of wine from the south. The highlights included the 2009 Cote-Rotie Les Bescasses with an intensely floral nose, a delicate body with lots of flavor, though still very primary. The future looks very good for this one - it should add weight and secondary notes over time. We also tasted a tank sample of the 2010 Hermitage Les Sizeranes and also a 2007 edition of the same wine. The tank sample was being stabilized before bottling, and was very disjointed, though full of fruit. The 2007 was full-bodied, round, ripe, and spicy, with plenty of ripe tannin.
The visit to Guigal was fascinating. I've been to big wineries in Napa, but I've never seen anything close to Guigal in size. They have a huge room filled various sizes of stainless steel tanks, including by far the biggest ones I've ever seen (75,000 Liters). There is a huge warehouse holding over 10 million botttles from many appellations and vintages, all unlabeled. The labels go on right before they get shipped, because they ship to 80 different countries with different languages and label rules. In fact we tasted out of unlabeled bottles, marked in white ink as to what they were.

Guigal tasting area
The Cotes du Rhone? For that they purchase wine, not grapes. These finished wines are stored at the vineyards and transferred to the facility in Ampuis to be blended and bottled. The Cotes du Rhone is blended all at once, but bottled throughout the year. They run the bottling line for the Cotes du Rhone every two weeks. The massive bottling line can process 9000 bottles an hour.

Barrel Cellar, partially in a tunnel under the road
The huge wooden foudres, used for the Southern Rhone wines (besides the Cotes du Rhone) are only used for four years. They buy 20-25 new foudres per year. In contrast, the foudres at Pierre Amadieu (see part one of the Rhone Report) date from 1885 and are still in use. The stainless steel tanks are used for Southern Rhone wines as well. The Northern Rhone wines all go into small barrels. Guigal has their own cooperage (barrel making) on site, where they make about 3 barrels a day. The barrels are used for 4-5 years.

Our tasting was of four whites and five reds. The whites included the 2010 Condrieu aged nine months, 1/3 in oak and 2/3 in vat. It had a super floral nose and great flavor intensity. The 2009 Hermitage Ex-Voto White is 95% Marsanne and 5% Rousanne aged 2 years in barrel. The flavors were bold, with a broad note of bitter lemon, and a long, long finish.

The red wines were all from the Northern Rhone and were one highlight after another. The 2009 St. Joseph was light and bright, with good acidity and nice spice. The 2007 Cote-Rotie Brune et Blonde is 95% Syrah and 5% Viognier and spent 3 years in oak, with a pretty nose, grippy tannin, and seriously black fruit.

Terrassed Vineyards on the steep hillsides of Cote-Rotie
The 2005 Hermitage spent 2 years in oak and was big and long, very peppery. The 2007 Cote-Rotie Chateau d'Ampuis is 93% Syrah and 7% Viognier from 8 different parcels all domaine owned. It showed a more complex nose and was denser than the Brune et Blonde, but was less evolved.

The real treat was the 2008 La Turque, not yet released. We still have some 2007 La Turque, which at $450 a bottle is something I had never tried. 2008 was a lighter vintage than 2007, and while still quite tannic was very pretty, with a beautiful nose and a lot of flavor. It was certainly lighter than the 2007 Chateau d'Ampuis, but should still gain weight over the coming years.

Finally, that's it. Two days in Nice, five days in the Southern Rhone, two busy days in the Northern Rhone. We finished the trip with three days in Paris, but I won't bother posting anything here (though we did have a great tasting with Nicolas Feuillatte Champagne.)


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