davies wakefield | wine uncorked | march 2019
If Tiger Woods hadn't been born, we would all think of Phil Michelson as the greatest golfer ever. If Elvis Presley never existed, Frank Hermans and other Elvis impersonators would probably be imitating Jerry Lee Lewis. And if Hermitage had never been planted with the Syrah grape, we wine drinkers would be proclaiming Saint-Joseph as the world's greatest Syrah. But none of those things happened, yet Saint-Joseph has a favored place in my pantheon of great wines, at least it used to.
When I first got interested in French wine, Max “the hat” Zimmerman (the hat was a café stetson that Max wore every day in his store) who owned Zimmerman's Wines at 213 W. Grand Avenue in Chicago, put a bottle of Saint-Joseph in my hands and said “Try this you'll like it.” That was in 1982 and I've enjoyed many a case of Saint-Joseph since then. Max, who opened his liquor store the day after prohibition ended, was the only source of fine wine in Chicago — and the rest of Illinois — in those days and before online merchants. He was prescient about the bourbon craze, stocking 39 brands back in the early 1980s. Max traveled to France every year to review the “en primeur” wines and new French vintage intimately. “Mr. Z,” as he was called, must be rolling over in his grave now that that beloved wine has started to change, but it did not happen quickly and the elements that caused the change may affect other famous French appellations as well. But first, understanding how Saint-Joseph is produced will help to understand the changes.
As you travel north from the coastal region of Provence, the olive and cypress trees disappear and though one sees rosemary and thyme, they are cultivated, not growing wild. Butter and cream replace olive oil and garlic and tomato plays a lesser role. It is similar to the cultural difference between northern and southern Italy. The Provencal farmers pity the Northern Rhone farmers as being too uptight, while the Rhone growers return the favor accusing their southern neighbors of being lazy and superficial. The tall steep hills above the Rhone River have a spacious view of the Alps to the east and the Massif Central to the west. Romans first cultivated these rocky hills by digging out the granite stones and building stone walls and terraces. The dry stone walls painstakingly constructed over the centuries bear witness to the value the ancients accorded the viticultural sites of the Northern Rhone. The stones that make up the walls were picked out of the soil in order to plant grapes, but the terraces also kept the soil from washing down the hillsides. The Northern Rhone is simple, not like the numerous districts and appellations of Southern France. There is just a handful including some of France's noblest: Saint Pètray, Cornas, Saint-Joseph, Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, Condrieu, Chateau Grillet and Côte Rôtie. Côtè Rôtie literally means “roasted side.” In the vernacular of the Rhone, it refers to the steep slopes of the hills along the Rhone River that get the full effects of the summer sun. Some of these slopes are 35-40 degrees. Syrah grown on these hills has a distinctive taste. The taste of these wines is due to the height, angle of the sun and the rocky granitic soils that these wines are grown on. The French refer to the character of wines produced in these soils and environment as terroir. The Syrah wines grown in these soils have aromas and tastes that are specific and unusual. They have been variously described as ground pepper, Asian spices, hoisin, licorice, truffles, bacon fat, cured meat, roasted meat/game and Peking duck. When well aged, these components mix with the aromas of wildflowers and baked plums to produce a wine like Hermitage or Cornas that routinely sells for $2,000-$5,000/bottle at auction. Saint-Joseph doesn't approach these prices, but it can provide a tantalizing taste of Cornas for about $20-$30 a bottle.
The ancient Romans who discovered and cultivated these slopes recognized the value of these niches to produce great wine. The Roman expression “Bacchus amat colles” (Bacchus loves the hills) embodies the ancient settlers attitudes about planting on these slopes. The Romans used slaves to cultivate the soils and build the terraces and walls. Later during the middle ages, serfs were used by the churches that owned most of the wine producing acreage. In the early 20th century, Algerian and North African labor was used to plant, cultivate and harvest these very steep slopes. As time progressed, after the Second World War and labor became more expensive, parts of these rocky slopes were abandoned. Now trees grow in many of the untilled vineyards.
The move to abandon these unique viticultural areas didn't happen without help. The INAO (Institutnational de l'origine et de la qualité) whose purpose is to regulate the use of noteworthy names of French products to prevent fraud, in my opinion, conspired with the vintners to allow them to grow grapes along the river banks of the Rhone river and still label them as one of the Rhone appellations. Farming is a tough occupation. It is even tougher when the product is subject to the vicissitudes of fad and taste like wine. The top wines of the Rhone will always be pricy and in short supply but the everyday wines (vinordinaire) are under increasing price pressure from the new viticultural areas like South Africa, South America, Australia and yes, even China. Farmers in France have responded to these threats by moving production to the level plains around the Rhone River. They have started using automated picking machines to harvest the grapes, laser optical sorters to pick out and discard rotten, shriveled or unripe grapes, and even GPS controlled tractors for cultivation, all to reduce their cost of labor. The real cost of moving production from the hills to the plains has been the loss of the distinctive flavors that made these wines attractive.
But, as in all trending movements, there are always a few rebels who buck the zeitgeist of the moment and recognize the value of producing wines from these difficult places. Jean Louis Chave, Lionel Faury, Marcel Guigal and Michel Chapoutier are the mavens, rebels and innovators who are maintaining the high standards of the region. I was able to buy two Saint-Josephs from Faury and Chave for this article but Guigal and Chapoutier are worth searching for. These wines are not cheap. The Faury Saint-Joseph is $27 a bottle, while the Chave is $25. I liked both of them, but they are as different in character as my two adult children.
Jean Louis Chave is the 16th generation of the family that has managed the property since 1491 he has taken the helm from his father Gerard. In response to a question about growing on the land near the Rhone, Jean Louis said, “At Hermitage there is no flatland.” He further added that “there's not much of a decision to make, that decision was made centuries ago,” referring to where to plant and the Romans. The vineyards used for his Saint-Joseph are located in two distinct Saint-Joseph areas. The communities of Mauves and Tournon provide 80 percent of the yield. The wine is fermented in open-top concrete tanks. These southern vineyard sites express tightly wound tannins, spice and cooked plum flavors. This is a wine for slow cooked beef ribs with olives to match the deep flavors.
Lionel Faury, on the other hand, is a relative newcomer. His father Phillippe bought the Domaine in 1979 and started by selling peaches and cherries. The Syrah grapes are grown 850 feet up on the 35-degree slopes in terraces facing south and southeast. They do partial destemming (70 percent) and temperature controlled fermentation. Pigeage, the punching of the cap, is not done using tools but gently by foot, not just poetic but pragmatic. Unlike other vignerons in the area, the Faury's have an aversion to oak, rotating between new and old oak barrels and 600-liter demi-muids. The French refer to such wines as elegant for the restraint from oak, but to my taste, Faury's Saint Joseph's are awesome. It smells rich, floral and spicy. It tastes just as good, with dark fruits melding with mineral undertones. It is fresh but with concentrated sweetness. I bought half a case but told my wife after tasting this bottle that we're getting more. In short, some Saint-Joseph isn't the same, but if you are diligent, there are still some great ones out there.