Edging up that hill
- Thursday 1 August 2002
Can the wines of Crozes-Hermitage ever be as great as those of Hermitage? Stephen Brook profiles the producers who are bridging the gap in quality between Crozes and its majestic neighbour up the hill, Hermitage
It's not just in Britain that we can add snob value to our names by double-barreling them. The same is true of French wine villages. Chassagne and Gevrey hitched themselves to Montrachet and Chambertin, and further south in the Rhône, Crozes is wedded to Hermitage. Crozes-Hermitage is quite a vague appellation, worshipping at the foot of the mighty hills of Hermitage, overlooking the town of Tain-l'Hermitage. The vineyards north of Tain have little in common with those south of the town, but no matter: they are all Crozes-Hermitage. The renown of Hermitage itself is immense. So it's tempting to ask whether the wines from Crozes can ever come close to the majesty of fine Hermitage, red and white. And the short answer is: very occasionally, yes, but usually no.
The soils that most resemble those of Hermitage are found in Gervans, just north of Tain. Some of the vineyards here are steep and granitic, so wines can be powerful and dense. But there aren't many. The best known is the estate of Raymond Roure, which was bought in its entirety by Jaboulet in the late 1990s. Elsewhere the soil is much more varied. Around Mercurol, east of Tain, there are pebbly soils, and clay slopes once famous for their white wine, as Syrah does not always ripen fully here. The finest reds come from la plaine (flatter land around the hamlets of Les Chassis and Les Sept Chemins, midway between Tain and Pont-de-l'Isère). The soil is stony, and parcels are strewn with potato-sized boulders similar to those found in Châteauneuf-du-Pape further south.
Etienne Pochon of Château Curson explains: 'Much of the plain consists of gravelly soil with little water retention. Such vineyards tend to give forward, easy-drinking wines, especially since there are growers who routinely overcrop. The stony sectors are the best, since the boulders retain heat.' They are the source of some of Crozes' best-known wines: Jaboulet's Thalabert, Alain Graillot's best parcels, and Combier's Clos des Grives.
In the past the slopes around Mercurol were just as celebrated. At Château Curson, Etienne Pochon displays a menu from the 1930s, recording a dinner at which the estate's white wines from 1893 and 1894 were served. Today one would be reluctant to serve a white Crozes at 10 years of age, let alone 40. The white wines are made mostly from Marsanne, though some growers have been planting Roussanne too. Roussanne gives much lower yields, but its aromatic rewards are greater than than the sometimes flabby Marsanne.
Search for improvement
In 1995 I organised a blind tasting of white Crozes, hoping to find encouraging signs of improvement. I was disappointed. Seven years later, there is still a dearth of exciting white wine. There are some good examples, such as Château Curson and Jaboulet's well-known Mule Blanche, but these are exceptions.
There is no shortage of winemaking talent. In the 1980s Crozes was dominated by négociant houses such as Jaboulet and Chapoutier, and a few private estates such as Entrefaux. Other celebrated properties are of more recent foundation: Alain Graillot first made wine here in 1985, Etrienne Pochon in 1988, Laurent Combier in 1990, Gilles Robin in 1996.
'I came here,' says Graillot, 'because I have always liked Syrah and because land was affordable.' He likes to pick late, even at the risk of low acidity in the grapes. Most of the white, which contains 20% Roussanne, is fermented in older barriques. 'I can't deny that the soils where I have my white vines are light, and the wines lack depth. Nonetheless I like to think of it as grand petit vin.'
The red, especially Cuvée La Guiraude which is only produced in top vintages, is far more interesting. Graillot is unusual in not destemming the grapes, yet the wines don't lack colour or structure. La Guiraude ages extremely well. Graillot unearthed for me a bottle of his first vintage. The level was worryingly low, but this 1985 was delicious: gamey, minty, and concentrated, though a touch dry on the finish.
Florent Viale at Domaine du Colombier also produces two cuvées, of which the better is Cuvée Gaby. As at Graillot, the Syrah is not destemmed. The wines, especially Gaby, are rich and bright, with flavours of plums and liquorice. But the whites lack vigour.
Laurent Combier has orchards as well as vineyards, all cultivated organically. His vineyards are divided between the Les Chassis plateau and 4ha at Gervans near Tain. There are three bottlings: the simple 'L'; the regular Combier wine, aged in older barrels; and the excellent Clos des Grives, aged in about one third new oak. There's also a white Clos des Grives, almost entirely Roussanne, and vinified and aged in new oak. The reds have a beguiling crushed red fruits quality, which makes them very enjoyable young, although they do age well.
The soils are lighter around Chanos-Curson, and this is reflected in the wines of Domaine des Entrefaux. A long-term partnership between Charles Tardy and Bernard Ange, the property was thrown into some turmoil when in 1998 Ange left to start up his own estate. The best cuvée, formerly known as Le Dessus des Entrefaux, has now been replaced by Les Pends for the white (with one third Roussanne) and Les Machonnières for the red, from old vines and, like Les Pends, aged in one third new oak. These are wines of charm rather than concentration.
The Domaine Pochon wines are fairly light too, but the higher-priced Château Curson bottlings from the same vineyards are much more exciting. The white is taken seriously, with new oak ageing, but it can lack vigour. The red is concentrated and lush, and is aged in the barrels previously used, when new, for the whites. Gilles Robin is a newcomer to the region, although his grandfather made wine here. After a spell as an oenologist in the Savoie, Robin returned to his roots. He has just built a large underground winery, but insists: 'I want to make wines in exactly the same way that my grandfather did. I plough the vineyards, and decide when to pick the grapes by the old-fashioned method of tasting them!' Cuvée Pavillon is his early-drinking Crozes, fresh and fruity. More serious is the Cuvée Albéric Bouvet, only partly destemmed and aged in 15% new oak. It's a tremendous wine, drenched in flavours of blackberries and other black fruits; sweet, ripe and concentrated.
Other good private estates include Albert Belle, Bernard Chave, Collonge, Remizières and Pradelle. The négociant houses are still big players. Chapoutier has three Crozes wines. The whites are enjoyable young but lack length. The unoaked Petite Ruche is for early drinking. More serious is Les Meyssoniers, which is grown quite close to Hermitage. And since 1994 Michel Chapoutier has made Les Varonniers, from a parcel of 60-year-old vines that adjoins Hermitage. Along with Jaboulet's Domaine de Roure, this wine has a claim to being the Crozes that comes closest to rivalling Hermitage itself. Les Meyssoniers is the best value; although less dense and voluptuous than Varonniers, it is considerably less expensive.
After a dull patch, Delas is back on form, and now produces one of the most attractive, if lush, examples of white Crozes. Jaboulet is enormously proud of its Domaine de Roure, with its ancient vines, red and white, but quantities are limited. Thalabert, grown on a large parcel of stony soil with many old vines, remains a benchmark Crozes, and vintages such as 1983, 1985, and 1988 are still going strong. It's a wine marked by menthol, liquorice and blackberries, a complex mouthful that becomes more gamey with age. Les Jalets is an inexpensive cuvée intended for early drinking.
The cooperative at Tain vinifies 60% of all Crozes-Hermitage, but until recently quality has never been exciting. Now British-born Julie Campos, after many years in Chablis, has arrived like the proverbial new broom, and is sweeping vigorously. She has installed pneumatic presses and temperature-controlled tanks, and works closely with the 400 growers who supply the cooperative. Tasting the 1999 and 2000 Crozes, it is clear the cooperative was improving in quality in the late 1990s, especially with its top cuvée Hauts de Fief, but Julie Campos intends to keep pushing the quality levels higher.
Crozes-Hermitage is not Hermitage. Indeed, some of its wines are too light and simple to warrant much attention or praise. On the other hand there is a far wider range of excellent wines, especially reds, than you could find 10 years ago. The négociants no longer have the field to themselves, and growers such as Combier and Robin are going from strength to strength. And with the exception of some of the limited-production top cuvées, prices remain sensible.
Stephen Brook is a contributing editor to Decanter.