Keeping up with the neighbours. John Livingstone-Learmonth visits two of the best value villages in the Northern Rhône...

St-Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage are the places for great-value Syrah in northern Rhône. And with plenty of new blood, wines are starting to rival the more expensive Cornas, Côte-Rôtie and Hermitage.

The northern Rhône is not just about expensive big Syrahs that need lots of cellaring. St-Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage form a support group to the trio of Hermitage, Côte-Rôtie and Cornas, their prices more accessible, and their drinking window open earlier. Both appellations also provide white wines made from Marsanne and Roussanne, the St-Joseph whites being of particular interest.

Crozes-Hermitage is an area of two zones on the east bank of the Rhône, bordered at its southern end by the Isère River. There are granite slopes in the north, handkerchief-sized plots of often old vines scattered among them, and then the sandy, stony Les Chassis plain in the south, home to a sprawl of wire-trained Syrah that is easy and a lot cheaper to work.

Northern Crozes’ wines display red fruits, subtle, quite bony tannins and require three to four years to meld. Southern Crozes reds are often showy, their black fruits impressive in year one, with any older vine fruit packed into oak so it can start a second life at about four years old and upwards. Often the plain vineyards grow among apricot groves and next to patches of cereal.

Whereas the Crozes vineyards are all close together, St-Joseph is a straggle of hillside and plateau vineyards along the Rhône’s west bank. Its profile is low compared with Crozes – there is no obvious heart to this appellation, which runs for 65km north-south from near Condrieu to St-Péray opposite Valence.

St-Joseph, too, flops into two zones – its heartland southern area near Cornas and opposite Hermitage, that was set up across six villages in 1956, and a more northern area of another 19 villages added in 1969, loosely based around Chavanay, where the vineyards are often younger and later ripening. The geological link between the two zones is the granite of the Massif Central, in varying degrees of decomposition.

Crozes-Hermitage red often has fruit-forward Syrah, with a savoury appeal and a seductive spherical shape in the delightful 2005 vintage. This vintage gave many wines that are a pleasure to knock back, their warm fruit clearly defined in a manner that was absent from the more sticky 2003s and more fragile 2004s. The best 2005 reds made from Syrah vines of 30 years or older, and given some oaking, will live for a good 10 years.

Crozes also has a dynamic wave of young growers. Each year recently there has been an exit from the Cave Coopérative of Tain – a couple of growers here and there. Thus there are young men out there who have studied winemaking, and are up for the challenge of making fresh, drinkable wines. Since 2001, some of the bright lights have been Emmanuel Darnaud, David Reynaud at Domaine Les Bruyères, Franck Faugier at Domaine des Hauts Chassis, with other newcomers in the shape of Etienne and Dorothée Chomarat at Domaine des Chasselières and Jean-Pierre and Hélène Mucyn at Domaine Mucyn.

‘The dynamism of Crozes is exceptional,’ says Alain Graillot, ‘and the newcomers know what they’re doing – they make wine well.’ A footnote about Crozes is the fact that its département, the Drôme, has the largest surface area of any French département given to the organic cultivation of vines, fruit and cereal.

St-Joseph reds fall into two categories, decided by the north-south split. The southern reds, especially around the village of Mauves, carry supple red fruit flavours, with more tension in the nearby Tournon reds. The northern reds display black fruits with more leather and pepper present – they are usually harvested later than the southern Syrah, something that can develop their richness if there is a fine September, as in 2004.

St-Josephs are also more tannic and better constructed than Crozes-Hermitage reds, to develop well as mature wines. 2004 was a better vintage in St-Joseph than in Crozes, where the early September rains created rot on riper, more fragile skins. At St-Joseph, 2005 is a vintage to keep 10–12 years, 2004 a little less.

The best St-Joseph growers fall into two winemaking schools. The first are relaxed in their winemaking – E Barou, E Becheras, Jean-Louis Chave, Gonon, Domaine de Gouye, Jean-Claude Marsanne. The second seek more constructed depth with oaking – Chapoutier, Domaine Courbis, Coursodon, Pierre Gaillard, Guigal, Domaine du Monteillet, François Villard. The first group’s wines are softer and drink earlier than the second’s.

Economic turbulence hit St-Joseph in 2004 when Cave de Sarras, the second largest coop and purveyor of indifferent wines, went bust. It has been absorbed by the Cave de St-Désirat. The market was flooded with cheap, not very pleasant red wine, which hasn’t helped St-Joseph’s image in the region. With only 10% exported, against Crozes-Hermitage’s 40%, many St-Joseph growers still have commercial work to do.

John Livingstone-Learmonth is a Rhône expert and author of The Wines of the Northern Rhône (£30, University of California Press)

Key players in St-Joseph & Crozes-Hermitage:

DOMAINE BELLE, CROZES-HERMITAGE

The Belle brothers jointly run this 20ha (hectare) domaine. The best vineyards are in Larnage, on its white clay soils just above the Hermitage hill. Very dependable wines are led by Les Pierrelles. Always full of fruit, the 2005 version promises a stylish future with ripe red fruits. The Louis Belle 2005, centred on 20–100-year-old Syrah vines, has rich, berry fruits at its heart, its oak lining demanding it be left until 2009.

DOMAINE YANN CHAVE, CROZES-HERMITAGE

Yann Chave stepped out of life in Parisian banking in 1996 to rejoin his father, Bernard. The domaine has grown to over 16ha, set on the flat lands of the southern sector. Chave has been exploring modern winemaking methods, which means that the wines are always full of fruit, if sometimes a little flashy. However, the classic cuvée gives good, rounded drinking, with a fleshy texture in 2005. There is noticeable oak on the special Le Rouvre.

DOMAINE COMBIER, CROZES-HERMITAGE

Laurent Combier’s southern sector domaine of nearly 20ha has been organic since 1970. He makes no-nonsense reds that are very reliable. The top wine, the Clos des Grives, is from average 50-year-old Syrah, and the 2005 started life with a raw, modern fruit and oak content. It should show well from 2009. The classic 2005 Crozes is smoothly textured – a ‘here I am’ wine with plum fruits and good to drink from mid-2008.

DOMAINE FAYOLLE FILS & FILLE, CROZES-HERMITAGE

Laurent Fayolle is a thoughtful young grower who has revitalised this 8ha old family domaine in the northern granite sector. The wines are stylish, with charm, graced by the benefits of old Syrah, but also Marsanne and Roussanne. ‘We work on finesse and length,’ says Fayolle. The Clos Les Cornirets 2005 is showing its oak for now, but will be elegant from 2009. The Les Pontaix 2005 is opulent, with a tingle of late mineral to keep it alert.

DOMAINE ALAIN GRAILLOT, CROZES-HERMITAGE

The man who woke up Crozes in 1985, having left his job working for a large international company in Paris. An aficionado of Burgundy, Graillot makes wines for convivial drinking. ‘My 2005 will be on the go by spring 2007,’ he says – ‘it has a mineral aftertaste, but is gradually opening.’ His top cuvée, La Guiraude, is chosen by tasting just before bottling, and develops very well. The 2005 is full of fresh fruit and vibrant tannins – drink from 2009 – a recent taste of the 1999 showed a wine singing away merrily.

DOMAINE JEAN-LOUIS CHAVE, ST-JOSEPH

Jean-Louis Chave, of Hermitage fame, is both a vineyard owner and a merchant. The Chave vineyard was started in the early 1980s, so is not old. Its wines carry the slinky red fruits of this domaine, and have rounded out as the vineyard has grown up. Chave has a soft spot for St-Joseph, which he considers his Ardèchois family’s local wine, and his contacts give him access to a series of good suppliers for his fruity Offerus St-Joseph. ‘I regard St-Joseph primarily as a vin de soif (thirst quencher) rather than a big, structured wine,’ he says.

DOMAINE COURSODON, ST-JOSEPH

The Coursodon wines are from the southern sector, and have been bottled since the 1950s, making them one of the first St-Joseph domaines to have a profile outside the region. Around 16ha is large for here, and it’s allowed the Coursodons to make a number of different red cuvées. The style is for clean, modern fruit with traces of oak. The very good Paradis St-Pierre is a bold, upright wine when young. The L’Olivaie is more chewy and robust, the Sensonne often very new oak-marked. The Paradis St-Pierre white is a full, long-lived, cask-fermented wine.

DOMAINE YVES CUILLERON, ST-JOSEPH

Modern school outlook and winemaking have driven Yves Cuilleron onto the main stage in recent years. His copious, often oaked whites from Condrieu and St-Joseph are exceptionally full flavoured, but it is the reds where most recent progress has come. His top two reds are of most interest: Les Serines, its richness capable of handling the new oak, and L’Amarybelle, full of smoky, black fruits. Both can live for a decade-plus.

DOMAINE FAURY, SAINT-JOSEPH

Philippe Faury has been joined by his son, Lionel, and this domaine looks set for a good future. The whites – St-Joseph and Condrieu – are full of charm, even if the Condrieu La Berne can be a little oaked. The St-Joseph reds are headed by La Gloriette. The style is usually relaxed, with STGT (Soil to Glass Transfer) tones in the classic cuvée St-Joseph reds – a lovely, clear fruit in the 2004 and a similar style in 2005, with greater black fruit intensity.

DOMAINE GONON, ST-JOSEPH

The benchmark St-Joseph domaine. A classic STGT estate of under 8ha, which the Gonon brothers work organically. ‘Our approach is the most natural possible, but you have to guide nature as well – we don’t think you can get a clean wine every year if you use no sulphur dioxide,’ says Pierre Gonon. The red is raised in old casks and comes into its own at four to five years old. It can live for 15 years or more. Their white, 80% Marsanne, 20% Roussanne, comes from a south-facing slope called Les Oliviers, and is a rich jewel of a wine.

DOMAINE BERNARD & FABRICE GRIPA, ST-JOSEPH

A classic St-Joseph domaine from the southern sector. The wines take a little time to open but are very well structured. Fabrice Gripa wants to achieve finesse in his wines. ‘I also like to drink our reds around six to eight years old, when you still have fruits, spice and complexity, without the more dense, chocolate side of the Syrah,’ he says. The 2005 St-Joseph Le Berceau is shaping up to be a solid, chunky wine that will live well.

DOMAINE ANDRE PERRET, ST-JOSEPH

André Perret is a core grower at St-Joseph and also makes excellent Condrieu. His prize plot is his 40–70-year-old Syrah vineyard at Les Grisières on the crumbling granite slopes above his village. Its wine is tightly packed and filled with the black, sometimes peppery fruit of northern St-Joseph, and some oak. The white St-Joseph shows Perret’s great touch – around 50-50 Marsanne and Roussanne, this is elegant and full, and consistent.

EMMANUEL DARNAUD, CROZES-HERMITAGE

A protégé of traditionalist Bernard Faurie at Hermitage and St-Joseph, Darnaud is a young man who is making a strong name for himself. Since his first vintage in 2001, he has emerged as the maker of brightly fruited wines with a seductive appeal and plenty of the round temptations of the southern Crozes sector. The Mise en Bouche is lively fruited and a dashing wine ‘for all circumstances’ according to Emmanuel. The Trois Chênes holds more content and oaking. ‘My cool macerations have helped me to achieve more richness and velvet in the wines,’ he says.

DOMAINE DES LISES, CROZES-HERMITAGE

Big Max Graillot wasn’t interested in wine in his teens and early 20s, but suddenly caught the bug and now is in full flight. His 7ha vineyard is in the south of the plain at Crozes, and needed resuscitation after years of spraying and soil neglect. His winemaking accentuates fruit and clear flavours, with his influences appearing to stem from his friends and experience in Burgundy. The 2005 is round and spicy, and gains weight through the palate. His small Equis merchant business will be producing a Cornas from a central vineyard there in the future.

AURELIEN CHATAGNIER, ST-JOSEPH

This man must send a lot of Christmas cards. The list of people who have lent him a hand, material, equipment, space and advice is long, led by Pierre Gaillard and François Villard. In his 20s, he works about 2.5ha of Syrah for his cask-raised St-Joseph, that is promising in both 2004 (bright fruit) and 2005 (good structure). ‘I have calmed down since my first vinifications, and now extract less,’ he admits. The red comes mainly from the middle region of St-Joseph around Sarras. The vin de pays Syrah is pretty rich in 2005 and can show well over five years.

DOMAINE DES MIQUETTES, ST-JOSEPH

An escapee from the Cave Cooperative of Tain, Paul Estève made his first wine in 2004. His 3ha St-Joseph vineyard at Sécheras is at the top of the southern sector, at 400m, meaning he often harvests in early October. His vinification is outside the main stream – whole bunches if the crop is ripe enough, and half carbonic maceration, half traditional fermentation. ‘I like the structure brought to the wine by whole grapes,’ he says, referring to the use of the stalks. His 2005 red St-Joseph is a wine that is tightly woven, with plenty of character and generosity in the making.

DOMAINE MONIER, ST-JOSEPH

This is a biodynamic domaine going places at speed, its quality exemplary, its approach understated. Another of the STGT group, it is run by Jean-Pierre Monier, a wisp of a man in his 50s who left the St-Désirat Cooperative in 2001. He burns with indignation when hearing that growers bandy the term ‘organic’ without due cause, and his wines carry a purity that sets them apart from any in this middle part of St-Joseph. The three red St-Josephs are guided by their plots, Les Serves showing engaging early fruit with good tannic support, the Terres Blanches being a darker wine with more overt tannic thrust. The vin de pays Syrah is also accomplished.

St-Joseph and Crozes: The Facts

ST-JOSEPH

Vineyard: 1,005 hectares

Number of villages: 25

Grape varieties:

Syrah for reds, Marsanne, Roussanne for whites

Soil: granite theme throughout, firm rock to decomposed, gneiss

Number of domaines: 113

Cooperative: 59%

White wine: 10%

Export: 10%

CROZES-HERMITAGE

Vineyard: 1,429 hectares

Number of villages: 11

Grape varieties:

Syrah for reds, Marsanne, Roussanne for whites

Soil: granite, sand in

north, sand, clay, alluvial stones in south

Number of domaines: 51

Cooperative: 64%

White wine: 8%

Export: 40%

Livingstone-Learmonth’s top 10 from 2005…

When tasted last November, most of these had either just been bottled or were due to be bottled in the coming weeks

Domaine des Hauts Chassis, Les Chassis Crozes-Hermitage

Old Syrah is used in Franck Faugier’s top wine. Good, red berry fruit and classy tannins with an oaked outer frame. From 2008.

£14.69 (2003); ABy

Domaine Gonon, St-Joseph

Touch of game on a savoury bouquet. Enjoyable richness, flows well, good tannic kick – a graceful wine from 2009.

£15.50; VTr

Delas, Le Clos Crozes-Hermitage

Ripely scented, a rich, gourmet wine without excess. Its tannins give it a frame late on, and a little mineral brings a clear finish. 2008–09.

£27.60 (2001); BWC

Domaine du Murinais, Caprice de Valentin Crozes-Hermitage

Classic sequence in this oaked wine – ripe bouquet, ripe tannins, very clean fruit. From late 2008.

£12.09; Loe

Domaine Durand, Lautaret St-Joseph

Old-vine Syrah from this progressive domaine in southern St-Joseph. Liberal oaking, rampant tannins for now, a meaty appeal. Mid-2008.

£16.95 (2004); GWW

Domaine Monier, Les Serves, St-Joseph

Olive, mineral in a polished bouquet. Great early fruit, wine with a future due to its understated tannins and rich, oak-flecked finale. Up to 2013.

£17.95 (2003); SVS

Domaine Rousset, Les Picaudières, Crozes-Hermitage

Delightful, structured wine from the granite. Savoury fruit in the making, with a flicker of oak and tannin. From 2009.

£12.29; Gdh

Emmanuel Darnaud, Les Trois Chênes Crozes-Hermitage

Soft, dark cherry aroma, and a clear fruit on the palate with well-founded tannins. Juicy appeal in 2008–09.

£14.95 (2004); BBR

La Ferme des Sept Lunes, St-Joseph

Thoughtful organic grower Jean Delobre’s switch to making just one red St-Joseph has given his wine more depth. Red berry flavours are packed in with a minted end. From 2008.

N/A UK; +33 4 75 34 86 37

Yves Cuilleron, Les Serines, St-Joseph

Richness by design on the bouquet – coffee, brewed fruit, oak. Includes old Syrah from the 1930s. Richly textured all through, promising and drinkable already because of its richness.

£32; Swg

… and best value buys

Domaine Gonon, Les Oliviers, St-Joseph white 2004/05

One of the best northern Rhône whites, this is 80% Marsanne, 20% Roussanne. Superbly rich, the 2005 is more muscled than the 2004. Great value for money. Up to 2014.

£17.85; VTr

Marc Sorrel, Crozes-Hermitage white 2004

Oily, soil to glass transfer wine, full with lift from its 1945 Roussanne vines. A wine to age well.

N/A UK; +33 4 75 07 10 07

Philippe Faury, St-Joseph white 2004

60% Marsanne, 40% Roussanne, elegant texture, wine with a light touch, plenty of content and good length.

£13.51; RSW

Yves Cuilleron, Le Lombard, St-Joseph white 2004

100% Marsanne. Structured wine with oak, but is complex and nutty. Up to 2014. N/A; ABt

Château Curson, E Pochon, Crozes-Hermitage red 2004

Pebbly, leather aromas, modern but tasty wine with mature fruit and oak apparent. Clean and elegant. Up to 2011–12.

£10.40; J&B

Delas, Saint-Epine, Saint-Joseph red 2005

Classical black fruits, oaked top note on floating, refined nose. Stylish, calm, rich, balanced, elegant. From 2010.

£22.99; BWC

Domaine du Murinais, Les Amandiers, Crozes-Hermitage red 2004

Black fruits nose. Bouncy black fruit on palate, clear wine, jolly drinking.

£9.69; Loe

Domaine Gripa, St-Joseph red 2004

Sinewy elegance, clear fruit on palate, enough depth to move on well from mid 2007. Very long.

£15.50; VTr

Domaine Les Bruyères, Cuvée Georges Reynaud Crozes-Hermitage red 2004

Brewed aromas, scented fruit gum flavour, ends richly, with grip. To 2010.

£9.95; Fln

Philippe Faury St-Joseph red 2004

Mulled fruit flavour, mineral aftertaste, wild elements. Likeable, shows its terroir well. To 2012.

£16; HvN, Pnz

St Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage: Know Your Vintages

2006 Good – Promising fruit at an early stage. Likely to be round and easy drinkers, especially at Crozes. Fragrant whites.

2005 Abundant, generous wines – The Crozes are good already, many St-Josephs need until 2008 to settle their tannins and oak. Solid white wines.

2004 Fair – Fragile wines, with nervous fruit. Some overoaking. Drink before 2010. Excellent white wines at St-Joseph.

2003 Very good – Compact, fruit pastille flavour. Balance shaky at times. Showing OK now and can run for several years.

2002 Fair for St-Joseph, mediocre for Crozes – September rains the problem. Drink by around 2010. Some good value St-Josephs.

2001 Very good – Wines with clean lines and acidity. Will be on good form around 2007, but can evolve further.

2000 Good – Wines that are open and easy to drink now. Low acidity and a lack of stuffing an issue.

1999 Excellent – Full wines, and plenty of tannins. The best domaines’ wines are full of richness. Can live to 2012–14.

1998 Very good – Great drinking now, with still some gamey richness in the best.

1997 Good – But no great depth. Soft wines. Drink them by 2008-09.

Written by John Livingstone-Learmonth