The fortunes of all wine regions wax and wane, but the story of St-Péray, the most southerly appellation of the northern Rhône, is more turbulent than most.
Making traditional-method sparkling wines as early as 1829, St-Péray soon rivalled Champagne in quality and price. In the late 1800s it was devastated by phylloxera; but as it tried to recover, larcenous négociants put paid to its good name by passing off inferior wines. By the end of the 20th century it had slipped into obscurity – but St-Péray is rising again, and this time it’s the still whites in the ascendant.
The town of St-Péray sits on the west bank of the Rhône in a picturesque valley created by a tributary called the Mialan. One side of the valley is granite, the other is a limestone outcrop with the ruined 12th century Château de Crussol on top. Vines grow on both soils: limestone imparts freshness and tension; granite brings ripeness and salinity. At just 89ha under vine, it’s a small appellation, but a growing one.
St-Péray only produces white wines, using Marsanne, Roussanne or both. Marsanne brings stone fruits, body and structure. Roussanne is less common as it’s sensitive to disease and can ripen suddenly, but it contributes aromas of pear, floral notes and freshness. Most producers blend the two or use pure Marsanne, particularly for sparkling wines.
Despite the paucity of St-Péray mousseux nowadays, there is a diversity of style. Even the lightest have an unusual breadth on the palate. More concentrated examples, with long lees ageing, can be remarkably full-bodied, rich and flavoursome for a sparkling wine. Today’s St-Péray mousseux doesn’t have the finesse of good Champagne, but it does have a distinctive and characterful style. Quality-minded producers such as Rémy Nodin are spearheading a gradual recovery.
The still wines, however, are now world class. They vary from medium-bodied, fresh and floral in style to full-bodied and opulent. What characterises St-Péray in the context of other northern Rhône Marsanne-Roussanne wines is a certain softness on the palate. Crucially this must be balanced – often by both acidity (never high in St-Péray) and light tannins, minerality and a pleasing bitterness. Otherwise the wines can be flabby.
Since St-Péray has hit its stride again, some have pushed an ambitious, concentrated style. When it works, the wines can impress and work well with rich dishes. But if overdone they lack drinkability and refreshment – even more so with prolonged oak ageing. Those who focus on tension and freshness tend to produce a more precise and articulate expression of the terroir.
Cooler years, such as 2014, often give good results as they preserve the all-important acidity and freshness. Warmer years have traditionally been less successful, but I was impressed with the consistent quality from the hot 2015 vintage. These will be best drunk young, but St-Péray isn’t a wine for long ageing in any case – and 2016 is looking even stronger. The future is looking bright again for this phoenix of the northern Rhône.