DOMAINE LA ROUBINE: ANOTHER RHONE ‘SLEEPER’

The southern Rhone is home to a number of small estates that do great work in relative obscurity.  We have made it our mission to look into as many as we can and that process has turned up a few hidden gems.  While we can tell stories about a number of domains that we have been working with for a long time, or discovered before they became famous, La Roubine isn’t one of them.  In fact we didn’t first see this house until the 2010 vintage.  We bought some Gigondas from that vintage based not on press, or fame, but because it was simply a delicious, soulful bottle of wine.  Crazy, huh?

Even though we have a small cache of that wine probably thanks to the media-centric world we live in (it did get a rather low-key 91 from Spectator in a vintage full of 95s), we are still going to sing the praise of this stylish small domaine.  The domaine itself isn’t all that old in a place where some families can trace their roots back centuries.  It was only 1990 when Eric Ughetto took over the family vineyards located in Gigondas.

he was joined by Sophie in the late 90s and the two of them decided to make wine with their own grapes. They defined the estate “La Roubine” in 2000 with the first bottled vintage of Gigondas. Today the company is still a family run business.  Eric works at the wine cellar, while Sophie manages both the cellar and the business. They both do vineyard work.   Though the estate has expanded via inheritance, purchase, and lease (which the couple farms), it is still relatively small with 15.5 hectares of vines (38 acres) spread over four appellations.

They bring it ‘new school’, which these days is actually ‘old school’.  They use no chemical pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers, are agriculture biologique (organic) certified, and, because of their modest size, can wait on harvesting individual parcels until they are optimally ripe.  The harvests are by hand, as is the first and second sorting, only natural yeasts are employed, fermentations takes place in concrete, and everything is bottled unfined and unfiltered.  These are reds that speak of their origins, but also provide plenty hedonistic pleasure via their open, round, ripe, tender fruit.

Our focus today is on Eric’s sub-$20 duo, Sablet and Seguret, both appellations located in the higher ground near the base of the Dentelles de Montmirail.  Both areas have enjoyed status as an appellated Cotes du Rhone Villages for over 40 years.  Their higher-ground locales provide cooler nights that allow the wines to retain a certain freshness, but there is plenty of charisma to these efforts.

The Domaine La Roubine Cotes du Rhone Villages Sablet 2015 comes from 30-year-old vines, this particular assemblage being 70% Grenache, 25% Syrah, and 5% Cinsault.  Plush kirsch and blackcurrant fruit is the center of attention, with underpinnings of spice and a subtle streak of stony minerality.  There are also some savory elements as the grapes are not destemmed.  The acids are tame in this vintage and the tannins are ripe, the wine itself layered and tasty, and very true to the region.

Domaine La Roubine Cotes du Rhone Villages Seguret 2015 has a somewhat cooler edge, no doubt thanks to the 30% Mourvedre (the rest is Grenache).  The kirsch tones here are front and center with the Mourvedre providing pepper, garrigue and some earthy cocoa that add dimension.  A little closer to the vest than the Sablet but there is plenty to like here too.

Some of you might wonder if we have any convincing scores that validate these wines.  In truth, we don’t.  La Roubine doesn’t get a lot of media attention in the first place, and what it does receive is on the Gigondas and Vacqueyras, not these.  That’s OK as these punch well above their weight class, delivering pretty serious yet engaging wine for rather modest fares.  We have been impressed the few times we have had Eric Ughetto’s wines.  Numbers are all well and good, but delicious matters, too.  You can’t brag about a producer most folks have never heard of from somewhat obscure appellations.  But you can sure enjoy the heck out of them, and that’s what matters most.   We even have a few bottles left of that 2010 La Roubine Gigondas if you want to see where these are headed or drink a mature bottle.

‘Special Purchase’: Masterful Chateaunef, WS Top 100 #22 at Age 20

No wine region has had a better run than the southern Rhone over the last 20 years.  We have tasted copious examples of Chateauneuf over that time frame.  While there are numerous outstanding vintages (2015, 2010, 2007, 2005), in our minds  1998 still reigns supreme.  In every great vintage there have been great examples of the genre, but a few that were perhaps a little over the top.  One of the exceptions is 1998.  Virtually everything we have had the opportunity to taste from the vintage has been impressive for both richness and balance.  Sadly, we drank most of our 1998s a fair bit ago though we never stopped looking for that rare opportunity to grab another example of this wonderful vintage.  As they say, ‘seek and ye shall find’, and we found a gem.

We saw the 1998 Chateau La Gardine on a European suppliers list and could not wait to explore the possibilities further.  Of course given that the wine was twenty years old, we wanted to make sure the juice was in great shape.  We requested a sample from the European purveyor and they sent one.  Ignoring our own rules of letting bottles settle down for a few days after being shipped, we pretty much opened the bottle as soon as we could get it out of the box.  The wine showed beautifully literally right off the truck, which caused to scramble to secure every last bottle we could.

Chateau La Gardine was one of our house favorites early on in our formative years with Chateauneuf, and we fondly remember this from when we sold it the first time around.    The wine was round, and well proportioned (still is), with a definite leaning to darker red fruits in its profilewith a surprising elegance that few Chateauneuf vintages that were this ripe possessed.  The distinctive bottle also made the wine memorable, or a least immediately recognizable.  The story goes that when Gaston Brunel first wanted to expand his cellar, while he was digging in the ground, he found a mouth-blown bottle. He loved its distinctive look and decided to use a similar shape for all his wine. At the beginning, he had to go all the way to Italy to find a glass supplier that was able to make it. Since 1964, all of their wines have come in the unique ‘La Gardine’shaped-bottle.

The Chateau La Gardine Chateauneuf 1998 itself shows a lovely mulberry color with a pure nose of black raspberry, spice and hints of pepper.  In the mouth there are additional streaks of earth, meat, and chocolate along with the insistent, polished fruit.  The finish shows a bit of minerality as well as coffee/chocolate component.  The weight and impression lean more towards a riper Pinot Noir as opposed to the almost oppressive jamminess that occurs in some wines in warmer vintages.  It is a captivating experience and an example of a Chateauneuf that has aged beautifully and can still go a bit longer (though it is in a lovely place right now).

There’s pedigree here, too, as well as a flurry of scores including 92 points from Wine Advocate’s Jeb Dunnuck  (also listed on his own website) from a tasting done in 2015.  He suggests the wine still has 5-7 years of life ahead.  The original Wine Spectator review from 2000 was most enthusiastic and the wine not only got a 94 point review and a Spectator Selection nod, but was #22 in that year’s Top 100.  The review said, “A wonderful, masterful wine. Both firm and opulent, it displays a nice dig into the Rhône terroir as it brings out wet earth, mineral and an interesting, chewy tannin structure. A high-voltage drinking experience, with lots of fruit, spice and mocha. Best from 2003 through 2020.”

It’s all of that.  As to the wine lasting 5-7 more years, it certainly can.  The question is whether one can leave it alone for that long.  It is a rather spectacular drinking experience at its peak, with some 20 years of age already done for you.  This is a rare opportunity for Chateauneuf lovers, a refined and beautifully poised example from a notable producer from one of the best vintages ever.  As you probably guessed, quantities are finite.  Good hunting.

 

BEST CAYRON IN A LONG TIME

When we first got into Rhones in a big way back in the early 90s, Domaine Cayron was certainly one of, if not the ‘standard’ in the appellation.  Always very big, bold and expressive, the wines were loaded with blackberry and black cherry fruit that could best be described as a walk on the wild side.  Lots of well infused gravel, anise, roasted herb or dark chocolate nuance could pop up in any version, but they did all share a certain jump-out-of-the-glass fruit component.  They also, in those early days, sported a fair bit of chewy tannin, as did most Gigondas.

For many years Cayron was marketed by Kermit Lynch.  Not sure if his leaving the Kermit portfolio, or a bit of a slump in his winemaking was the cause, but Michel Faraud’s wine kind of dropped out of sight for a while.  The current purveyor referred to this estate, founded in 1840, as the ‘benchmark producer in the region’.  Not sure if we buy into that entirely.  Domaine des Bosquets and Saint Damien have been doing some outstanding work and there are a number of rising stars in the region as well.  But with this particular vintage, Cayron is definitely deserving of the limelight again.

The 2015 Domaine du Cayron Gigondas has collected a nice range of reviews including ‘over 90’ barrel scores from Wine Advocate, Jeb Dunnuck and Vinous Media and we can see why.  That bouncy, gregarious, in-your-face herb-laced fruit component is back with a vengeance.  While everybody’s enthusiasm is clear, the writers’ descriptors have quite a range from plum to boysenberry.  We’ll borrow the prose from Vinous’ Josh Raynolds as a reference, “Dark ruby. Potent mineral-and-smoke-accented cherry, boysenberry and garrigue scents pick up a sexy incense nuance as the wine opens up. Sweet, seamless and penetrating on the palate, offering intense red and blue fruit, spicecake and lavender pastille flavors and a hint of smoked meat. Concentrated yet light on its feet, playing power off finesse with a smooth hand and finishing impressively long, sweet and youthfully tannic…”

While he commented on the wine’s ‘youthfulness’, we would point out that this tasting note was based on a barrel sample from a region not exactly famous for its polish.  Michel Faraud’s three daughters are at the helm now, under his watchful eye of course.  However we sense a little more seamlessness to the back half of this wine and a less rough-and-tumble demeanor.

All of that put together makes for the best Cayron in some time. They do all the right things here…hand harvesting, indigenous yeasts, and bottling unfiltered and unfined.  As you would expect, Grenache is the workhorse here (78%) with the balance from the ‘usual suspects’ (14% Syrah, 6% Cinsault, 2% Mourvèdre), all finished in large older barrels.

Is Cayron back or is this outstanding, mouth-filling red just the result of a sensational vintage?  Can’t answer that just yet, but that doesn’t stop us from enjoying this one for what it is…big, bold, and delicious.

 

‘Little’ Wine from a Top Dog, Northern Rhone Style

So years ago (2000 actually), we attended the first InterRhone exposition in the Rhone Valley, an event dedicated to presenting Rhone wines in groups during presentations within the various appellations.  One of the most memorable days was the ‘show’ in Hermitage, with a large number of who’s who producers.  It was in a bank building and the various growers were stationed behind teller’s windows presenting their wares.

The majority of the wines were from the outstanding 1999 vintage, there were three producers whose wines stood out even among the power lineup that was presenting that day.  One of the three was a house we had read about but had never yet seen in our part of the world, nor had the opportunity to taste.  That was Domaine Sorrel.  That event made a lasting impression and we spent the next few years trying to find a viable source for Sorrel’s wines.  We got a couple of scraps in the European market but were generally unsuccessful in our effort to solidify a steady source.

About a decade later, the Sorrel wines showed up at a local importer and it was a pretty happy day for us when we snagged the tail end of Sorrel’s 2010 Hermitage.  A  beautiful wine that encapsulated Sorrel’s distinctive style to a tee,  it showed depth and presence but also an uncommon elegance.  This wasn’t the biggest or jammiest example of the genre.  But it did not lack for stuffing and was impressive for its balance and polish.

Fast forward to today and the 2015 vintage.  We had never seen Sorrel’s Crozes Hermitage before but the house style was in full array.  The Marc Sorrel Crozes Hermitage 2015 showed plenty of dark fruits with insistent undercurrents of minerality, but the wine also had a harmony and presence that set it apart from the rank and file from this ripe, weighty but sometimes California-like vintage. Crozes can be a little curious from the standpoint of quality because the appellation extends from the hillside to flatter areas near the highway.  As we say here, hillside Crozes is better than ‘freeway’ Crozes.  In the hands of someone like Sorrel, the equation only gets better.

The reviews indirectly speak of the value in that the score was very close to the Hermitage but the Crozes costs about half as much.  Josh Reynolds of Vinous saw it this way, “Deep vivid ruby. Ripe blackberry and cherry scents are energized by cracked pepper and smoky mineral accents. Fleshy and open-knit, offering sweet dark berry and violet pastille flavors and a touch of salty olive paste. The peppery note recurs on a long, blue-fruit-inflected finish that’s given structure by mounting tannins…91 points.”  The wine definitely has an upscale feel to it, but at a touch over $30 its pretty wallet-friendly for what it delivers.

 

Rhone 2016: ‘A Little Something’ from Burle

We have been preaching the gospel about the southern Rhones in 2016, a vintage that thus far has not ceased to surprise and amaze us from the big gun Chateauneufs (tasted recently in Europe) to the littlest Cotes du Rhone.  The ongoing problem, however, is that the wines are concentrated thanks to super low yield.  So you have very compelling wines, just much less of them.

Think of this knockout little Cotes du Rhone, from one of the Rhone’s grand old families, as something you would have seen an email offer on except for that one, small issue.  As we often do when we run across something this compelling, we try to corral as much of it as we possibly can.  Sadly this time there simply wasn’t much to be had.  Hence this modest, if no less enthusiastic piece.

Looking at the facts, you have an estate that isn’t very big in the first place (they only produces around 500 cases each of three different wines in a good year) and you have a vintage that was woefully short anyway thanks to Mother Nature.  The fact that it is brought in by a small, relatively new importer may have also come into play, but probably not.

As to the wine, the Domaine Burle Cotes du Rhone 2016 might be the most impressive thing we have yet had from the Burle domaine.  Like some of the other 2016 Cotes du Rhones we have featured, this wine has an uncommon power and grace.  The vintage was very successful overall, with the wines showing deep, almost glowing mulberry color and unprecedented power thanks in particular to the Grenache (the wine is 70% Grenache and 30% Syrah from 40-50  year-old vines).

What makes 2016 special is not only the size and concentration of the wines, but the harmony and fine tuning they show from top to bottom.  Enter Burle, an estate that typically makes muscular, if sometimes a little rustic wines, here showing like it is dressed in its Sunday best.  Organic farming, bottled unfiltered and unfined, we suspect in this case they aren’t just going with the current trend.  They have always done it this way.

Rich, lifted, uncommon verve and balance, you’ve likely had Chateauneufs that aren’t this compelling, and you certainly paid more than $15 for them.  A must while it lasts, the ‘little’ wines in the southern Rhone in 2016 are special, even if the label here looks like it is some sort of ‘sun’ vision from the 70’s.  The media hasn’t really picked up on it in a big way and the ‘buzz’ hasn’t started…yet.  Take advantage while you can, but with 2016s you’ll likely need to move a little faster.

ROUSSET CROZES HERMITAGE PICAUDIERES 2015

As hard-core Rhonies know, the 2015 vintage in the northern Rhone was something special…a vintage to be placed along with the icon vintages of the last quarter-century (1989, 1990, 1999, 2003, 2009, 2010).  Some might make an argument that this could be the best given the fleshy ripeness, bright lift and freshness, and the fact that winemaking has come a long way in the last 25 years.

What some people tend to forget is that, in such vintages, a whole lot of producers have uncommon success.  The wine media will go out of their way to fawn over the acknowledged great ones like Chave, Ogier, and Chapoutier.  Those folks have earned their stripes, no question there.  But demand for these limited production gems will be fierce, quantities will be low, and prices, if you can find the stuff to buy, will be scary.   Our take on the 2015 northern Rhones is much like the 2015 Burgundies…find the hidden gems that you can drink and enjoy without the severe prices.  In such vintages, you can find some very cool stuff if you know where to look.

The story goes that the importer found Rousset by asking the locals, including already famous Jean and Pierre Gonon.  This was one of the names that kept coming up and, even though this family had been in these parts some eleven generations, they were still under the radar.  The press we found only went back a couple of vintages prior to 2015, including some nice notes on the 2014s from Vinous’ Josh Raynolds.  We haven’t seen any reviews on this one yet, but we didn’t need them in this case (though we’re sure they will come).

We tasted three wines from Stephane and Robert Rousset, all possessing pure, bright, succulent fruit, and those layered, nuanced, full throttle yet refined flavors that exemplify the best vintages from this part of the Rhone.  Since they were all relatively similar in price, we settled on our favorite, the Rousset Crozes Hermitage Picaudieres 2015 This is a single vineyard that is located on the hillside of Crozes with terraced, granite rows of vines facing south.  Some notes made comparisons to Hermitage with respect to the soils and exposure.

To be sure this is certainly no ordinary Crozes.  The Roussets own about a half-hectare here (about an acre and a quarter) of densely planted vines, many of which are quite old and date back to the 1930s.  It is said to be one of the best parcels of the appellation.  They plow by horse where they can, make the wine in the traditional way with only the wild yeasts and this particular bottlings sees a touch of new oak.

The result is a pretty thrilling bottle of Syrah with plenty of well-woven-in minerality and polished notes of the classic meat/smoke element that defines the region, all in a supporting role to a pure, juicy blast of perfectly ripened blackberries and black cherries.  This is Crozes that reaches to a higher plane and, with apologies to all of the Rhone Rangers everywhere else, is the kind of wine that can only happen here, when conditions are exceptional, and when the winemaker doesn’t get in the way.

The problem with Crozes is that the appellation has so many variables, with killer vineyards high on the hill and more ordinary stuff along the autoroute.  Picaudieres is top dirt and the wine costs way less than anything that says Cote Rotie or Hermitage on it, but it plays at that level.  A dark, expressive beauty.  These folks are still pretty ‘under the radar’, but we see that changing real soon. Beat the crowds.

 

 

A NEW OPPORTUNITY ON SOME OLDER LA NERTHE CHATEAUNEUF

Over the years we have had the opportunity to observe all facets of the wine business.  One thing that has always been a little quirky (OK, there are a lot of quirky things but that’s a piece for another day) is how older wines get distributed.  People wonder where we get all of the older Bordeaux we come up with on a regular basis.  The answer is simple…they are out there.  They are out there because there is an established, rather vibrant market supported by the negociants from older stocks, library holdings of some sort from most of the top chateaux, ‘exchanges’ of sorts like the one called ‘Livex’ where dealers all over the world can trade among themselves, and of course auction houses where consumers can buy or sell personal holdings.  That’s a lot of options, and no other genre has anything close to that.

For most everything else, one is relegated to finding older goods as they resurface in the auction market.  The frequency with which things appear there has a lot to do with the goods themselves.  Bordeaux and older domestic wines are most common because those are the most popular categories overall and fueled by a certain level of speculative buying.  At the other end of the spectrum, you see very little from certain categories like Burgundy and Rhone because those buyer purchase such wines to drink and very few scenarios would motivate them to part with those wines.  Very few of the producers themselves keep healthy back stocks for an extensive set of reasons we won’t get into here.

Our point here is that opportunities to buy older vintages of top quality Chateauneufs are rare by definition, and clearly something this rare and unique even more so.  The Chateau La Nerthe Chateauneuf Du Pape 2007 was a remarkably delicious surprise that appeared before us very recently.  You simply don’t see a lot of 10-year-old Chateauneuf from iconic vintages floating around out there, period, let alone with compelling reviews at palatable prices.

The wine is a textbook example of what a well-made Chateauneuf from a ripe vintage should be, a little bit of grilled herbs to the inviting nose of confectionary cherries, some spice and pepper woven into the lush, kirschy palate, resolved acidity, and resolved ripe tannins.  The quality of this particular bottling was enhanced because the domaine chose not to bottle their reserve Cuvee Cadettes and added that juice to this cuvee.  Why they would do that in a vintage of this caliber is anyone’s guess  But that is the fact and clearly that took this wine to another level.

There are compelling notes from Robert Parker and a 93-point score back in issue 185 (October, 2009), but we’d suggest even more relevance to the notes from Jeb Dunnuck in a 10-year Chateauneuf retrospective in February of 2017, “Still youthful and not yet fully mature, the 2007 Châteauneuf du Pape (which includes all the grapes that would normally have gone into the declassified Cuvee Cadettes) is full-bodied and impeccably balanced, with a fresh, focused bouquet of cassis, licorice and charred meats. This cuvee always ages beautifully, and this is one of the more fresh, lively and focused 2007s out there–and it still has present tannin. It’s certainly enjoyable today but should be even better with a year or two of additional cellaring…94 points.”

Great older wine isn’t easy to get, great old Chateauneuf is super rare.  So take the time to reward yourself for the holidays, or for whatever reason you want, with this very special edition of Chateau la Nerthe.  Just don’t take too long (there’s not a lot).

FABULOUS FAURY

Everyone pretty much accepts that axiom that wine is subjective.  Not everybody has the same palate memory, tasting experience, or even the same physical ability to taste wine (or anything for that matter).  Even among ‘experts’ there are a widely varied opinions as to what defines a ‘great’ wine.  We could write pages (and have) on all of the things that determine and effect how a wine is perceived beyond the wine itself.  But our purpose today is merely to define our terms for this specific case.

The definition of ‘great’ depends on the format.  The winner of a mass tasting is often the wine that overpowers, or might be the most expressive on that day. Does that mean its great?  To some people maybe so.  But our enthusiasm for this pair from Faury, the Cote Rotie 2015 and Condrieu 2015, stems from their achievement of an ideal.  We’ll explain.

Yeah, we have been fans of Faury, an estate in the Northern Rhone, for a long time.  The wines have always been round, engaging, and well priced.  Philippe Faury founded the estate in 1979 and his son joined him in 2006, and it seems like they have been doing their best work of late.  The 2015s, not surprisingly, have been uniformly exciting from top to bottom.   But the pair we mentioned earlier kind of took us aback.

They are not the ‘biggest’, most aggressive wines we have had, nor would we guarantee they would win some knock down tasting event.  But without trying to sound presumptuous, the appeal with this particular pair was the proximity to what some might call ‘perfection’.  We are defining that as the wines performing beautifully to the ‘benchmark’ of their particular genre.  Simply put, they are sensational examples that you would describe exactly as how they might be described in a textbook.

We have gone into detail about how difficult it is to get Viognier right.  It is a capricious grape that can go from lean and undernourished to dumpy and flabby in short order.  If you were to describe the perfect Condrieu, it would be a wine with richness in midpalate, but not too much, supported by enough acidity for lift, but not too much, with just the right amount of tension between all of the components to sit perfectly centered on the palate.  The flavors would range from pear to peach to apple, with a slightly honeyed note and layers of spice tones.

With the Faury Condrieu 2015, you get exactly that.  Round enough to deliver and luxurious mouth feel and yet it sits high on the palate, perfectly proportioned, delicious but not overbearing Condrieu from vines planted between 1976 and 2007 in granite soils, this is exactly what it should be.

Perfect Cote Rotie?  Great Cote Rotie has a lovely core of blackberry fruit with streaks of mineral, smoke and bacon, ripe tannins, refined acidity, but also the best examples sport an almost Burgundian elegance.  Here we have a winner, lovely fruit, nicely proportioned with everything in harmony, plenty of style but not heavy or ponderous.  From schist and clay soils, the vines on this 1.7 hectare parcel were planted between 1976 and 2007, this one excels by virtue of its stylish execution of  typicite.

If you are looking to be bowled over with overt power, that’s not what these are about.  Nor should they be.  Here we are talking about a couple of truly delightful wines that excel because they are refined, well executed, captivating examples of exactly what they are supposed to be.  Brilliance without excess, it doesn’t hurt that they are attractively priced for their categories to boot.