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Jefford on Monday: The Crozes crusader

Has Andrew Jefford found France's greatest wine co-operative? He hunts down outstanding value and quality in Tain l’Hermitage...

My search for France’s greatest co-operative continues. Might it be the Northern Rhône’s Cave de Tain?

This isn’t easy country for mutualists. The Northern Rhône is, like Burgundy, a prized region of tiny vineyards and small domains (it has just 4,000 ha of the Rhône’s 70,000 ha of appellation land). Soaring vineyard values tempt ageing cooperative members to cash in. The younger generation, meanwhile, itch to create their own domains as they take over from their co-op supplying parents.

Back in 1980, the Cave de Tain had 600 members; numbers have halved since then.  Director Xavier Gomart admits that it’s hard to retain ambitious youngsters – while the lazy drift away because they don’t like the rigorous standards which the Cave de Tain imposes on its members.  It’s precisely that which should ensure that this outstanding co-operative continues to be a Northern Rhône landmark for generations to come.  There are, though, other assets, too …

The co-operative landowner

The Cave de Tain’s founding president, Louis Gambert de Loche, was a Hermitage landowner who agreed to sell his 6-ha holding to the co-operative when he retired.  The co-operative then bought another 16 ha of Hermitage during the 1960s, at a time when land values were considerably lower than today; this 22 ha total includes 4 ha of white vines.  Members bring another 8 ha of Hermitage vines of their own – so the Cave de Tain controls 30 ha (or 22 per cent) of Rhône’s grandest vineyard.  It also owns a little land in Crozes-Hermitage, Cornas and St Péray.

In Cornas, where land prices are prohibitive for any young grower not fortunate enough to inherit land, the Cave de Tain was recently able to set up four young growers with rental arrangements.  It’s done the same thing in St Peray.  These ‘domain’ holdings give the co-operative both a chance to compete at the very highest levels of quality, and a financial stability few others have.  Co-operative members account, of course, for the main landholdings – some 950 ha in production this year, including around 40 per cent of all Crozes-Hermitage.

The canny investor

I’ve visited many vinification cellars in my lifetime, including those of high-tech drama (Cos d’Estournel. Montes) and striking beauty (Cheval Blanc) – but I’ve never seen one as ingenious, complex and intricately engineered as that which the Cave de Tain installed in the nine months between the end of the 2013 and start of the 2014 harvest, for an eventual cost of around 11 million euros.  Since this isn’t a wine technology website, I’ll spare you the details, but let’s just say that this cellar enables the Cave de Tain’s talented winemaker Xavier Frouin to carry out the selectivity, soft handling and small-batch fermentation of a top private estate – but with a far larger and more heterogenous fruit intake, and in premises which, hectolitre for hectolitre, are much smaller than those of most well-funded private domains.  Anyone interested in cellar technicalities should make an appointment to visit.

The desirable partner

The Burgundy-like size and rising land values of the Northern Rhône also pose a challenge for wine buyers sniffing out value.  That, in turn, makes the Cave de Tain a desirable partner.  The Northern Rhône is lucky, of course, in the high standards of its leading négociant producers (Guigal, Chapoutier/Ferraton, Jaboulet and Delas) – but can any of them match the Cave de Tain for value, cent for cent?  If so, only occasionally. Moreover I’ve taken part in blind tastings of Hermitage Rouge itself which reveal that the Cave de Tain’s bottlings can compete head-to-head with leading producer’s top ‘parcellaire’ wines.  Notes on some outstanding wines from the current Cave de Tain range follow.

I’d particularly draw readers’ attention to the 2015 red Crozes-Hermitage in the Grand Classique series.  Does any other red wine on the global market match at present this magnificently zesty, pungent 2015 as a characterful vin de terroir at less than 10 euros per bottle (the co-operative cellar-door price)?  Honestly, I doubt it.  Importers should queue up for as much as possible of the small lake (8,000 hl) of this invincible Crozes crusader as they have shelf space for.

Cave de Tain: three value picks

Marsanne, Première Note 2015

This white Collines Rhodaniennes retails for less than five euros at the Tain shop.  It’s fresh, lively, clean and long, with enough vinosity and structure behind its lemony fruit to make a fine mealtime fish accompaniment, and with a little honeysuckle enchantment to draw you into the glass, too.  88 points (/100)

Crozes-Hermitage Rouge, Grand Classique 2015

Saturated, deep black-red in colour with a pure, exuberant and exciting scent mingling notes of smoke, bramble, blackberry, blackcurrant and redcurrant.  The flavours are joyful.  There’s a fruit core of singing lyricism, both vivid and fresh without being acidulous; the wine is tannic enough to give its fruit shape and gravitas but not roughness or austerity; and it has overtones which bring light and shade to the wine via faint notes of smoke, of cleansing bitterness, of the saltiness which is such a hallmark of parts of Crozes, and of the ‘stony’ flavours which lovers of terroir wine crave.  A gorgeous success.  93

Cornas, Grand Classique 2013

Another benchmark wine of resonant fruit purity, plus in this case ‘the Cornas difference’ — which translates into a little extra spice, incense and exoticism, palpable on both nose and palate.  Tasting this wine in the context of its peers reveals the excellence of the Cave de Tain’s terroir expressions.  90

Cave de Tain: six outstanding quality wines

Hermitage Blanc, Au Coeur des Siècles 2012

Based on mid-slope, alluvial-soiled parcels in Méal and La Croix, both of them planted with Marsanne vines after phylloxera (thus over a century old), this is a pale white wine with broad, beguiling yet purposeful scents of hay, meadow flowers and nougat.  On the palate, it’s as unfruity as the Crozes Classique is fruity.  The beauty here is related to the wine’s structure, depth, sap and marrow; to what seem to be crushed stone flavours; and to its aromatic allusions – more wild plants and flowers, and some sage notes, too.  The acidity is modest, very ripe yet structural too, despite its unassertive nature. 94

St Joseph Rouge, Esprit de Granit 2013

The extended, intermittent, disparate and sometimes excessively cool appellation of St Joseph is never less than a challenge, but it’s one that the Cave de Tain has risen impressively to with this fragrant, elegant and wholly satisfying effort, based on fruit from two separate parcels.  This is principally an acid-structured wine, but the acidity clings to the fresh yet ripe blackcurrant flavours, there are some impressive backing tannins, and above all it succeeds in conveying the bright, high focus, mouthwatering hardness which seems to mark some granite-grown Northern Rhône reds. 92

Cornas, Arènes Sauvages 2010

An irresistable Cornas with bramble fruit and spice aromas and generous, resonant flavours: not just bramble fruits, but the whole bush and bank itself – a synopsis, in other words, of generous autumn.  I suspect there will be more precision to this ‘parcellaire’ once we taste versions vinified in the new cellar, but 2010 is a great vintage and this wine reflects that grandeur.  91

Hermitage Rouge, Grand Classique 2010

Considering that the Cave de Tain produces two separate selections of Hermitage above this one (Gambert de Loche and the tiny-production Epsilon), the Classique Hermitage simply has no right to be as good as it is in 2010 – except for the fact that the vintage is a great one.  It’s still a very dark wine, with an impressive aromatic repertoire: charcoal, cigar leaf, broadleaf woodland in autumn.  The palate is a thunderer: gutsy, chewy, dense and earthy, unburdening spadefuls of dark black fruits and then finishing under a black snow of liquorice and spice.  This will surely see out two decades with ease.  95

Hermitage Rouge, Gambert de Loche 2013

The Gambert de Loche cuvée is the Cave de Tain’s principal ‘prestige’ version, based almost entirely on the co-operarative’s own domain, and with more of an emphasis on the granite parcels in the west than the ‘classique’.  The 2013 vintage is still young and elemental: benchmark aromas and flavours of dark, ample yet fresh black fruits, with a smoky smudge dragged across the fruit, and with plenty of high-focus grip and attack. It’s an outstanding classic which needs another half decade to soften and open up.  94

Hermitage Blanc, Vin de Paille 2011

The Cave de Tain has been one of the prime movers in the Vin de Paille renaissance in Hermitage, and it has an impressive range of vintages in stock, although the wine in made in tiny quantities in the best vintages only.  My view is that this is not necessarily a wine which ages well – so the 2011, at present the youngest and cheapest on sale, is for me also the best value. It’s deep yellow in colour, with sumptuous, layered scents of buttered apricots, jasmine and nougat.  On the palate, it is unctuous and rich, dripping with luscious allusions – more buttered summer stonefruit, oranges, honey, straw, almonds, with jasmine and lemon verbena.  Despite all that perfumed succulence, though, it has vitality and balance.  Don’t wait: tuck in.  93

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