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  • March 29, 2013
  • An Easter Tour in France

  • by Lars Carlberg

gonon_staircase“It has a postmodern entrance and then, bang!—you’re into the traditional old cellar, all in one short walk down a spiral staircase.” —John Livingstone-Learmonth, The Wines of the Northern Rhône

The entry on our visit in Mauves at Pierre Gonon, a leading domaine in the St.-Joseph appellation, was similar to how John describes it in one of my favorite wine books—along with Kermit Lynch’s Adventures on the Wine Route. In fact, it was the highlight of the trip, in addition to the hike up Hermitage and many of its old, gnarly vines in various lieux-dits, or named sites, such as Les Bessards and L’Hermite, to La Chapelle, the chapel, which sits atop this famous granite hillside overlooking the expanse of the Rhône Valley to the south.

The northern Rhône Valley, with its Roman history, steep, vine-covered slopes, and medieval castle ruins is similar to the Mosel Valley, although many wine people look to red Burgundy as Mosel Riesling's counterpart. Yet the terrain along Burgundy’s illustrious Côte d’Or, or “Golden Slope,” is in most communes relatively flat and less dramatic in comparison. Overall, Burgundy gets higher prices for its wines than either the northern Rhône, or especially, the Mosel, apart from some noble sweet auction wines from famous producers, such as Egon Müller or Joh. Jos. Prüm, as Burgundy’s reputation is greater today and, as a result, its land and tidy villages more prosperous.

Working the steepest hillsides of the Rhône and Mosel valleys is arduous. Most work has to be done by hand rather than tractor. In each region, the vines are traditionally trained on single wooden stakes—in Côte-Rôtie, the vignerons use a unique two-stake system per vine—but wire-training is now often preferred, if possible, to make cultivation easier and to save on labor costs, but it might imply taking out every second row of vines and, if necessary, the dry-stone-wall terraces. Sometimes the controversial wholesale remodeling of the vineyards is called for, even though it’s less common to find in the northern Rhône than on the Mosel, where many of the Mosel's steep vineyards, usually divided among many growers with spread-out parcels, have been reallocated and restructured to cut costs in production. This land consolidation, called Flurbereinigung, often entails pulling up old vines and building hillside roads.

It was over Easter that Gernot Kollmann, winemaker at Immich-Batterieberg, and I decided at the last minute to take a trip to the northern Rhône. Initially, he had proposed that we visit Chinon. Although I wasn’t averse to making another stop on the Loire, I preferred to go back to the appellations of Côte-Rôtie, Hermitage, St.-Joseph, and Cornas. It’s been almost eight years since I last made a short visit to the region. In the past, I had focused more of my time and money on the southern Rhône and Provence, particularly Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Bandol, despite squirreling away and drinking bottles from Jean-Louis Chave and Auguste Clape, among others.

A couple of my contacts helped arrange for our visit to the Gonon brothers’, where we were greeted at the door by Pierre, who took us directly down the stylish spiral staircase (pictured above) to his affable older brother, named Jean. In the deep, cool, and vaulted cellar—similar to some on the Mosel—Jean poured for us various barrel samples of the 2010s, reds and whites, as well as some bottles from the last few vintages. It was a long and rewarding tasting, especially when he uncorked a mature red 1995 St.-Joseph; and before that, a 2006 “Vieilles Vignes” rouge—a rare old-vine cuvée from a site, named Aubert, formerly farmed by old-timer Raymond Trollat. This old-vine bottling comes from a plot in St.-Jean-de-Muzols, one of the core St.-Joseph villages, along with Mauves and Tournon, where they also have choice parcels of densely planted old vines, on average 30 years old and propagated from mass rather than clonal selection. Besides their superb St.-Joseph “Les Oliviers” blanc from the prime Les Oliviers vineyard, above Tournon, planted to mostly Marsanne with some Roussanne, Jean offered us from a Mosel-shaped half-bottle, a sweet white wine that had a small percentage of Riesling.

The various 2010 Syrahs, resting in demi-muids (500- to 600-liter barrels) and a larger foudre, seemed promising as were the blanc cuvées raised in used 228-liter Burgundian pièces. The 2010 vintage in St.-Joseph is classic. “It has a little higher acidity,” Jean says, “one of the best vintages.” In 2008, they had to select a lot, half of a normal harvest Chez Gonon. “It was the worst vintage ever for work,” he says. In spite of this, the wines are very good and ready to drink. He describes his red 2008 St.-Joseph as “spicy.” He mentions, too, that unlike 2008, the 2009 vintage was easier. The harvest began in mid-September with surmaturité, or overripeness. The wines, he feels, are charming and can be drunk now “on the fruit” or in eight to ten years when they will develop more complexity.

All Gonon's wines ferment by ambient yeasts and show their different exposures and soil types. The vineyard work for their 9 hectares is organic, but there’s pleasantly no dogma attached to it or with the use of sulfur. Yields are low, circa 30 to 38 hectoliters per hectare. The Syrah grapes are partly destemmed and vinified in large open-top wooden vats with pump-overs and punch-downs twice a day for two or three weeks. For their white wine, the grapes are gently pressed in whole bunches with a pneumatic press and, after settling for around 12 hours, racked into barrels for fermenting with regular bâtonnage, or lees stirring. Both their red and white wines are bottled unfiltered. Over the years, I’ve especially liked among the reds the very good 2005, the brisk 2004, and some older vintages like 2001.

Pierre Gonon is one of my favorites, in addition to Thierry Allemand in Cornas. Syrah planted in the best northern Rhône sites on a predominantly granite bedrock, as Mosel Riesling on slate, gives the wines their breed and distinctive mineral quality. A Gonon St.-Joseph has the purity and drinkability that I seek and often associate with my favorite producers of traditional dry-tasting Mosel wines and not necessarily those declared as Grosses Gewächs (GG) or labeled officially trocken, or "dry."

On my frequent pilgrimages to Paris since the mid-nineties, I like to walk down rue du Faubourg St. Martin from Gare de l’Est, before cutting right and heading west on rue Etienne Marcel to Legrand Filles et Fils (once a quaint family-owned wine shop) and then stop at Mark Williamson’s Willi’s Wine Bar for either lunch or even dinner. Several years ago, he still had, among other top Rhônes, the outstanding Clape Cornas 1995 on his wine list for a song. I ordered several bottles of it over the course of a year or so before he ran out of this stellar wine.

Later on, in Germany, at a dinner tasting with some friends, my lone bottle of the 1995 Clape turned out to be corked, so I was glad to have drunk this wine in Paris. Fortunately, the other 1995s from Chave, including Hermitage blanc, and Château Rayas more than made up for it on that night. All these bottles were purchased upon release in nearby Luxembourg and cellared until February 6—single-bottle gems from my now nearly depleted cache of Rhône wines.

Back to our tour and unable to get a table at Le Mangevins in Tain l’Hermitage later that evening (closed on Saturdays), we were recommended Carafes en jolie, just across the Rhône at Tournon, where I ordered for us a bottle of the aforementioned 2006 Gonon St.-Joseph “Vieilles Vignes” and asked the owner to decant and hide the bottle, so it could get some air and for Gernot to taste blind. In the meantime, we drank a delicious bottle of Faurie Hermitage blanc. (I, however, forget the vintage now, for we drunk so many bottles of wine on our trip.) The wine list was full of esteemed Rhône producers as well as from other regions, such as Clos Rougeard in Saumur-Champigny or Marcel Lapierre in Morgon.

For the first three nights, we stayed at an excellent chambres d’hôtes, a bed and breakfast, run by the Rivoire family. Madame Rivoire was able to arrange on short notice two visits that I wanted to make at Jamet, situated on the plateau above Ampuis, and Clusel-Roch in Vérenay to the north of the appellation. At the latter, Brigitte Roch, who was kind to show us around their property, even spoke fluent German. I bought some 2008 Côte-Rôtie. (Their elegant 2004 is one of my favorites.)

The Rivoire’s bed and breakfast is on the bank of the Rhône, at Ampuis, in the heart of the steep-terraced vineyards of Côte-Rôtie, which are reminiscent of the Lower Mosel’s Brückstück and Röttgen vineyards in Winningen. Each morning at the chambres d’hôtes, we had delicious breakfasts of fresh croissants, pains au chocolat, all-natural sourdough bread, and homemade jam to go along with our coffee, before setting out for the day. Monsieur Rivoire grows vegetables for a living and on our arrival that first evening, we had the pleasure to eat a home-cooked meal with them and an Italian couple visiting from Geneva. At one point, Madame Rivoire broke away from the dinner table and came back holding an old label of Clos du Mont-Olivet. It was a memento from the bottle that another friend, Stefan Schwickerath, and I had brought along with us years ago from Châteauneuf-du-Pape for sharing at the dinner table.

On our drive home to Germany, Gernot and I decided to take the back roads west and then head north through the Côteaux du Lyonnais, Beaujolais, and Burgundy, spending our last evening in the Côte-de-Nuits, where we had with our dinner at some château-restaurant a most delicious bottle of 1996 Domaine des Lambrays “Les Loups,” the second wine from the grand cru Clos des Lambrays.

It was a beautiful time of the year to visit wine country, as the pruned vines, many old, were budding and the ground underneath was still visible. We made our intermittent short vineyard walks along the way. Seeing the soil change, for instance, from Les Pierres Dorées (“Golden Stones”), around Charnay, with its yellowish limestone, to the varying granite soils of the crus of the Upper Beaujolais, in the north, was a worthwhile detour. We even drove up Côte de Brouilly and from atop its high hill could still set sight on the area we had left, around Lyon, way in the distance.

Driving further north towards Beaune, we made a brief stop in the premier and grand crus of Puligny-Montrachet. Many of these top sites, like in other vineyard areas of the Côte d’Or, are enclosed by old, low stone walls, known as a clos, here and there crumbling, that add even more to their mystique.

On our last morning—as we walked past such vineyards with dry stone walls, between Chambolle-Musigny and Morey-St.-Denis—a cute brunette in her work attire was plowing by horse rows of vine in a parcel at Les Ruchots on a sunny Easter Monday. It was a sight to behold and a fitting closing to our tour in France. ♦

This post first appeared in similar form on the blog of Lars Carlberg Selections, May 24, 2011.

  • In March 2012, a Swedish friend and I visited Paris. Besides hanging out in Canal St. Martin, Palais-Royal, and St. Germain, among other neighborhoods, we really enjoyed our lunch at Pierre Jancou’s Vivant, where we had an excellent wine that our waiter recommended and later served from magnum. It was Domaine du Possible’s 2010 Charivari from Côtes du Roussillon. It reminded me a lot of good Beaujolais, such as from Marcel Lapierre. Later on, I ordered a few cases of this wine in Germany. It’s a delight. This wine belongs among the group of so-called “natural wines.”

  • Daniel Darahem says:

    Wow. Glad you posted a new link to this article, Lars.

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