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The New World of the northern Rhône

A crucible of experimentation, Crozes-Hermitage is home to a band of young producers with New World attitudes. Matt Walls introduces some of the names you should know, and finds a growing adoption of natural and biodynamic methods

The first time I drank David Reynaud’s white Crozes-Hermitage, Aux Bêtises, was a few years ago in Tain L’Hermitage, with two firemen in full uniform, listening to 1970s pub rock. The Rhône may be one of the great fine wine regions of the world, but it is refreshingly free of airs and graces. Crozes is rarely expensive; it’s ‘un vin democratique’, in the words of local vigneronne Natacha Chave.

It may be accessible and widely available, but don’t underestimate it. Thanks to its humble origins, Crozes is now the breeding ground of Rhône experimentation; the New World of the northern Rhône. Not that it suffers the New World excesses of 20 years ago: high alcohol, jammy fruit, 100% new oak. At least not any more. It channels the excitement of the contemporary New World: open-minded and dynamic, ready to embrace modern methods and technology.

Though New World in attitude, many top estates are looking to Burgundy, biodynamics and natural wines for inspiration. The burgeoning crop of fresh, elegant, aromatic wines brings into focus what Crozes does best – a uniquely vibrant expression of the Syrah grape. Crozes has long been the underdog of the northern Rhône, but competition between a host of new estates is driving up quality.

Varied terroirs

Crozes-Hermitage is situated on the east bank of the northern Rhône valley and comprises two principal parts. The first is to the north of the hill of Hermitage, producing fine reds and focused whites on varied terroirs, mostly steep, wind-blown granite terraces. It produces less than a quarter of the total volume. This is where you’ll find the village of Crozes, though ironically there are no longer any wineries based there.

David Reynaud’s estate is situated at the eastern edge of the newer, southern section of the appellation. This large annexe extends to the southeast of Hermitage and arguably deserves a separate designation. Mostly flat, the terroir consists of gentle plateaux of red clay, sand and chassis, large rounded pebbles that wouldn’t look out of place in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The reds and whites from this area tend to be a little richer.

Reynaud is a bear of man, but his wide eyes and wider smile are immediately disarming. His story is common among newer Crozes-Hermitage estates. Unlike the west bank, this was a land of polyculture farming; you can still find rows of peaches, apricots and ancient oaks among the vines. His family were local farmers for generations, who grew grapes to sell to the local co-operative. On returning home from military service in 2000, however, he withdrew from the co-op, converted the 20ha of family vineyards to biodynamic practices and in doing so created his own estate, Domaine les Bruyères.

His wines are unmistakable. They magnify the higher-toned fragrances of the Syrah grape, the more floral, peppery elements. ‘I work on the lighter side,’ he says, ‘like a Pinot Noir.’ On the palate, however, these attractive aromatics are backed up by body, mass and savoury dark fruits. He has no qualms with the term ‘natural wines’ for his range, as he never adds sugar, acid or yeast and only a bare minimum of sulphur.

He has a sense of adventure that is less common in other parts of the northern Rhône. His winery is like a playground. Concrete eggs for fermentation, vertical basket presses for his reds and a remarkably successful cuvée called Entre Ciel et Terre produced entirely without sulphur made above all, he says, ‘to amuse myself’. The Syrah grape offers many things in the northern Rhône; power, minerality, longevity. Crozes is most adept at expressing its more joyful side, and winemakers like Reynaud excel in bringing it out.

Growers who once sold their grapes now make their own wines: the number of independent wineries in Crozes-Hermitage has doubled since 1996. That so many are going it alone shows the health of the appellation. ‘You make more money, but it’s not just that,’ says winemaker Yann Chave, ‘people want to be able to say “this is my wine”.’

Organic approach

Chave’s story is similar to Reynaud’s; he took over the family estate in 1996, converted the estate to organic viticulture and started bottling his own wine. He’s noticed higher levels of acidity and better balance in his wines since he changed his viticultural approach.

His wines offer freshness and an understated power. He achieves this by picking relatively late to ensure full ripeness and opting for a long maceration but a very gentle extraction. Use of oak has changed in the region, he says: ‘Once it was all old, then all new; now it is more balanced.’ He compares Hermitage to a traditional old England and Crozes-Hermitage to the United States, the land of opportunity: ‘It’s possible to achieve something here… there are always new things happening.’

The Graillots, now synonymous with Crozes- Hermitage, are in fact relative newcomers to the region. Alain Graillot arrived from Paris in 1985. His son Maxime now runs the estate, and has since established his own company, Equis, in 2004. He looks to express the calling card of Crozes – ‘true, deep, Syrah aromas’.

Domaine Alain Graillot has always included stems in its ferments, as this adds structure and longevity. But for the Equis range Maxime destems 70% to 100% of the crop, resulting in a more exuberantly fresh, bright and fruity style that is enjoyable immediately. He studied in Burgundy, and his love of the Côte d’Or is evident in his wines.

Maxime believes that Crozes-Hermitage is ‘one of the most dynamic appellations in the northern Rhône, and probably even in France’. He attributes this openness to experimentation to the local history of polyculture. ‘People own a lot of land. The average size of a farm in Crozes is 20ha, the average size of a farm in [St Joseph] is probably 6ha.’ Large volumes to play with make experimental cuvées less of a risk, and the flat terroir means that trying out new growing methods is relatively easy.

Natacha Chave is Yann Chave’s younger sister, but instead of working on the family estate she forged her own path. She bought her first Crozes- Hermitage vines in 2007 – a block of 45-year-old vines in Mercurol. Like many of her peers, she eschews chemical products, favouring natural or biodynamic preparations instead. The results are wines with precision, purity and freshness.

She has been experimenting recently by planting Serine, an ancient local variation of Syrah, which she says ‘brings colour, fruit, and contributes complexity’ to her wines. Her first white Crozes will be from the 2012 vintage, a 50/50 blend of Marsanne and Roussanne. ‘I think there has been tremendous progress on Crozes whites,’ she says. ‘They are much better balanced than before.’

Crozes-Hermitage is the cheapest appellation to buy land in the northern Rhône, and there remains a further 1,500ha of Crozes to be planted. She welcomes the newcomers who have set up in the area over the past 15 years, which she says has led to a valuable exchange of ideas.

Infectious ideas

From this crucible of experimentation, successful ideas spread to other, more traditional appellations. Reynaud has added St-Joseph and Cornas to his range; Graillot has too; and Yann Chave makes a Hermitage. No doubt their success is being studiously observed by their neighbours.

The uptake of organic, biodynamic and natural practices has come easily to this part of the Rhône. This lighter touch plays to the region’s strengths and seems to amplify Syrah’s more delicate aromas, the higher ranges that can be less audible in the rest of the region. According to Maxime Graillot, ‘in Cornas or St-Joseph the terroir is more obvious in the tasting’ but for Crozes-Hermitage ‘not feeling the terroir is the signature of the terroir’.

Graillot suggests some winemakers in Crozes suffer from ‘a kind of a complex’ since their terroir is less striking compared to the vertiginous terraces over the river, which makes them lack belief in its potential. But for others it has the opposite effect, making them all the more determined to prove themselves. ‘We are the last kid of the family, the small one, which helps us to fight more,’ he adds.

Crozes winemakers once measured themselves against other nearby Rhône appellations. They tried to match them in power, making the mistake of ‘trying to make a Cornas from a Crozes’ as Reynaud puts it. But Crozes has other strengths, and the current generation of forward-looking winemakers are bringing them to the fore.

See Matt Walls’ top nine Crozes-Hermitage

Crozes-Hermitage at a glance:

Appellation The largest in the northern Rhône;
AC granted in 1937.
Location 20km north of Valence, on the east bank of the Rhône. To the north and south-east of Tain L’Hermitage.
Area under vine 1,534ha, producing 66,150 hectolitres in 2012.
Average yield 43hl/ha.
Production 91% red, 9% white.
Producers 55 wineries, 30 négociants, 2 co-operatives.
Grape varieties Syrah, Roussanne and Marsanne
Terroir Granite slopes to the north, plateaux of red clay, sand and large stones to the south.

Crozes-Hermitage: know your vintages:

2012 Mixed; some producers made very good wines.
2011 A reasonably good vintage of light, fresh wines for early drinking.
2010 Excellent; great potential for ageing.
2009 A very good, warm vintage making lush, rich wines.
2008 Below average; some fresh and very drinkable wines, others thin and green.
2007 An average vintage of fresh, forward wines.
2006 A very good, underrated vintage – not hugely powerful but detailed and balanced.
2005 Many very good wines, stylistically more rich and intense than elegant.

Written by Matt Walls

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