Each year with France’s Northern Rhône red wines, critics and consumers alike heap accolades on the marvelous selections from Côte-Rôtie and Hermitage. Reds from the nearby appellation of Crozes-Hermitage which also rely on Syrah grapes go largely unheralded. So the wines often languish on retail shelves even with prices a third or less of their prestigious Côte-Rôtie and Hermitage cousins.
The situation creates great opportunities for astute consumers to snare terrific values. More and more Crozes-Hermitage winegrowers defy stereotypes by dedicating themselves to producing terroir-focused reds with outstanding quality and plenty of personality. The key lies in purchasing red Crozes-Hermitage wines from growers who work hard in the vineyards and then let fermentations unfold naturally in the cellar.
During a visit to the appellation in May, 2017, I had the pleasure of tasting a solid handful of intriguing wines from Domaine Stéphane Rousset, David Reynaud from Domaine les Bruyères, Domaine Dard & Ribo, Domaine Yann Chave, and Domaine du Colombier.
Domaine Stéphane Rousset:
One look at the engaging Stéphane Rousset (pictured above) reveals a vigneron who clearly spends plenty of time in the vineyards soaking up sun. He works on the steep, wine-swept rocky slopes around the communes of Erôme and Gervans in the northern portion of the Crozes-Hermtage appellation. Like the neighboring Hermitage hillside just to the south, hard granite subsoils predominate in Rousset’s dramatic, picturesque vineyards such as “Les Picaudières.”
The rocky, terraced vineyard features vines up to eighty years old which Rousset works by hand. His sustainable lutte raisonnée methods minimize chemical treatments. After hand harvesting, he removes most of the stems and ferments the juice naturally in stainless steel with gentle rémontage. Aging occurs in large, old foudres and smaller Burgundy style barrels.
The 2014 Stéphane Rousset, Crozes-Hermitage “Les Picaudières” delivers dark red fruit and black pepper aromas opening to ripe, polished black fruit flavors with perfectly balanced concentration and silky tannins. A marvelous, pure wine ready to enjoy! In the U/S. Chambers Street Wines offers the wine for $22.99.
Beginning in 2000, winegrower David Reynaud converted his family’s Domaine les Bruyères to organic and biodynamic production certified, respectively, by ECOCERT and Biodyvin. The changes served his goals of enhancing the purity of fruit and freshness in the wines.
Today Reynaud uses grapes from 20 to 30 year old Syrah vines growing in clay and limestone soils on the plain south of Hermitage Hill. The vines lie in the commune of Beaumont-Monteaux near the Isère River. Round “galet” rocks cover the ground and help retain heat to ripen the grapes. Reynaud and his team work the vines manually without synthetic chemical treatments. Performing ébourgeonnages—removal of excess buds in late Spring—and vendanges en vert–removal of excess green grape bunches—keeps yields at a relatively low 40 hectoliters per hectare.
Manual harvest precedes careful selection on a sorting table followed by natural fermentation in concrete, egg-shaped vats. Aging occurred in 50% older barrique barrels and 50% in concrete. All the works shines in the delicious 2012 Domaine les Bruyères, Crozes-Hermitage “Cuvée Georges.” The wine is an homage to Reynaud’s grandfather, who passed in 2000, the year of David’s first vintage.
Ripe dark fruit aromas open to fresh, fruity flavors with zesty acidity. Mouthwatering freshness balances the long, fruity finish. Owner/Sommelier Nicolas Kalbache–Vernerey features the wine at his terrific restaurant Aux Gourmands at 8, Place du Marché in Montélimar, Fance. In the U.S., Wine Works Online in New Jersey offers the wine for $29.95.
Dard & Ribo:
For over thirty years, winegrowing partners René-Jean Dard and François Ribo have produced “natural” wines long before the current fashion. Today their wines are cult classics with natural wine enthusiasts, yet Dard and Ribo still go quietly about their business ignoring the limelight while producing wines with terrific personality and distinction.
Their main vineyards lie in the hilly, northerly side of the appellation in the communes of Larnage and Crozes-Hermitage, itself. The soils offer a mix of clay and granite covered with gravel and sands. The area’s altitude and relatively cooler climate creates the potential for chiselled, structured wines with refinement. But the partners also favor an easy drinking, delicious style emphasizing transparent, ripe fruit and minimal oaky notes.
The 2015 Dard & Ribo, Crozes-Hermitage offers a lovely dark purple color with piping aromas of black fruits and black pepper. Rich, ripe flavors of raspberries and blackberries mingle with meaty notes. Fresh acidity, smooth tannins and mouthwatering minerality. Delicious, superb pleasure! Close your eyes and you’ll swear your drinking delicious Fresh acidity, smooth tannins and mouthwatering minerality. Delicious, superb pleasure! Tastes more like a Côte Rôtie! Available in the U.S. from Vanderbilt Wine Merchants for $35 and from Flatiron Wines & Spirits for $35.99.
Since officially joining his father Bernard at the family domaine in Mercurol in 1998, the affable Yann Chave has become a champion of improving the quality and reputation of Crozes-Hermitage wines. At his own domaine, he has taken the lead by converting to organic cultivation under the European rules for Agriculture Biologique.
The wines have improved steadily as shown in the 2014 Yann Chave, Crozes-Hermitage “Le Rouvre.” The Syrah grapes come from a special selection of 50-year old vines toiling in rocky soils in the southern plain near Pont de l’Isère,
Chave implements green harvesting to limit yields and harvests manually. For this wine, he ferments only free-run juice in large 600 litre oak barrels, only some of which are new.
One of France’s leading sommeliers, Baptiste Cavagna, serves the wine at La Pyramide, Chef Patrick Henriroux’s gastronomic Michelin two-star stop in Vienne. Cavagna paired the wine with a Fricassée d’escargots du Rozay—sautéed and braised Rozay snails served with crisp, tiny new potatoes and peas over a savory base of finely minced and caramelized meat from pig’s feet and ears. It paired nicely with the wine’s deep purple color and tantalizing aromas of ripe dark fruit and black pepper. Concentrated, ripe fruit balanced with terrific freshness and prominent, yet smooth tannins. It all made for a deliciously memorable pairing!
In the U.S., Cellar Door Fine Wines sells the 2015 Yann Chave, Crozes-Hermitage “Le Rouvre.” for $33.95.
Domaine du Colombier:
Brothers Florentand David Viale run this highy reliable domaine whose vineyards lie in Mercurol and Tain l’Hermitage.The tall, affable Florent oversees winemaking, and he favors a soft and approachable, yet always fresh and well balanced style. After harvest, he destems the fruit which ferments in large, mostly older 600-liter casks.
For the domaine’s top Crozes-Hermitage red, the “Cuvée Gaby,” Viale makes a selection from the top casks made from “old vines.” The wine pays homage to the family patriarch, Gabriel, who was born in 1939 and who remains vital and active. The Viale family has long grown cherries and apricots as well as grapes, and on a visit in May, we found the jovial Gaby picking cherries in the warm afternoon sun. In a memorable, beautiful moment, he graciously shared his juicy, sweet harvest still warm from the sun.
The 2015 Domaine du Colombier, Crozes-Hermitage “Cuvée Gaby” tasted from cask at the domaine offered dark fruit aromas with smoky, meaty notes and hints of wild herbs. Ripe, rich fruit with good concentration and ample fresh mixed with soft tannins. This will be a a wine to drink either now with decanting or up to 5 years or more of aging.
I recently enjoyed a 2009 Domaine du Colombier, Crozes-Hermitage “Cuvée Gaby,” a wine with eight years n the bottle, and yet it still offered plenty of ripe dark fruit, black pepper and floral aromas. Ripe, rich dark fruit flavors balancde mouthwatering mineral freshness and soft tannins through a lingering, fresh finish. One of those bottles that practically drinks itself!
In the U.S., Astor Wines offers the 2014 Domaine du Colombier, Crozes-Hermitage “Cuvée Gaby” for $39.96.