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Alex in Wonderland

The Rhône Valley is, without any doubt, one of the great wine regions of the world. It is at the same time one which manages to be perennially over-looked.


Alex in Wonderland

While it is hardly an outright under-dog, being under-appreciated means that it is bursting with exceptional value, just as the classic regions of Bordeaux and Burgundy have been inflated to levels of pricing of historic proportions.

The Rhône is the cradle of, and home to many of the wine world’s most famous varieties. Syrah, in the Northern Rhône, Grenache in the South, most notably. But also Cinsault, Mourvèdre, Carignan and many other Mediterranean reds, which in the Southern Rhône flourish in its warm climate and diverse geology. Not to forget the native Viognier in the North’s Condrieu; Roussanne and Marsanne dispersed more widely. All these reference varieties are indigenous to the unfathomably under-rated Rhône Valley.

Fascinatingly, for enthusiasts of South Africa’s new generation stellar winemakers of the Swartland, these varieties, most of which were obscure in the Cape just a decade ago, now make-up the mainstay of the great wines of this pioneering pillar of contemporary Cape excellence. Bordeaux varieties, by contrast, totally ignored by the generation of arguably the finest viticultural-winemakers SA has ever known.

Focus on the Northern Rhône

Having followed some of the most hallowed winemakers of the Rhône for decades (we have been importing Alain Graillot in South Africa for close to a quarter of a century), I love to visit this region every European summer, to taste through, simultaneously, the wines just bottled -from 2 vintages prior thus- and the wines in barrel from the most recent vintage. Constantly tracking two vintages at a time, one now just in bottle, which was in barrel last time, and one which has recently been fermented and is now being brought-up in barrel.

The imposing and dramatic cliff-like vineyard slopes of the Northern Rhône, ripped out of the earth over centuries by the mighty Rhône river, defy gravity and you wonder how anyone can scale such gradients, let alone plant, tend or harvest vines there… Their granitic soils feed freshness and spice into some of the greatest Syrahs on planet earth, the hot days and cooler evenings imposing poise and balance. Narrating earthy flavours and grey, cracked black pepper, lining the dense but fresh, vinous wines of these amazing terroirs, succeeding the path of the Rhône river, from St. Joseph in the North, to Cornas in the South, passing through Hermitage and Côte Rôtie as the flow dashes you from one impenetrable gradient to another.

The Northern Rhône is the tipping point between the cooler climate of the Northern half of France and the balmy Mediterranean climate of the South. In Southern Rhône, in Chateauneuf, Gigondas and the surrounds, Grenache dominates the warmer climes, though supported by an orchestra of Mediterranean varieties (Carignan, Mourvedre, Cinsault etc.). Syrah is the only red grape with legal standing in the North. In most Northern Rhône appellations, white grapes (grown interwoven among the Syrah, as opposed to separate parcels, which is not permitted) are -or at least can be- co-fermented with the Syrah; usually Marsanne and Roussanne. In Côte Rôtie, the most plush and sexy of the great Crus of the North, Viognier is the white grape which is permitted for co-fermentation. Though many producers prefer not to. Cornas is in fact the only appellation where all reds must be pure, 100% Syrah -no whites allowed.

These rules borne of ancient experience, matching natural fitness of purpose to soil, climate and grape; figured-out over millennia and unquestioned today by the current custodians of this multi-generational patrimony.

My annual busman’s holiday transports me through the lives of some of the most down-to-earth and yet inescapably inspirational wine producers each year, who’s wines we are fortunate enough to import to South Africa.

Here are half a dozen of my favourite characters and producers :

Domaine Alain Graillot & Domaine des Lises

Alain Graillot is a living legend, a winemaker’s winemaker. Humble, erudite, humorous, meticulous. Inspirational. His adopted home-appellation (his first life was as an electrical engineer, working on mega-projects in South America) became the then lowly Crozes-Hermitage. Step-child of the prestigious neighbouring Hermitage, “Crozes”, as it is called, was dominated by a sole co-operative and churned-out bulk muck for generations, affirming its lowly status. Until Alain Graillot came along and bought-up a marvellous site, belonging to an old lady of the region, without heirs and who clung to it until someone with the intelligence and foresight to recognise its potential came along. Alain bought the Domaine in the early 80’s and allowed the old lady to live in the main house (and the only house she had ever known) for the remainder of her years, typical of his humility, renting instead a simple residence in the village for over a decade, for he and his young family. In that time he worked the soil and the vines into a state of excellence suspected by nobody and started to deliver wines of a quality and finesse never before known or suspected of this ugly little step-child. His renown grew, wines which were impossible to sell became impossible to buy, and the appellation rose in stature on the back of one man’s toils. I recall one visit to taste with Alain, just before vintage one, September maybe 20 years ago, and he and I traversed the vineyard rows, tasting the fruit and talking as we went. Alain’s Crozes had just been named AGAIN in Wine Spectator’s wines of the year in the USA (coming in at the Top 10 of the Top 100, for the second time!). Astoundingly, in that classification, all the wines before and after Alain’s were positioned at anything from $400 a bottle to $100. In at position number 6 was Domaine Alain Graillot Crozes-Hermitage -priced at $19 ! I asked Alain, given that his wines were without question the best of the appellation (and better than so many in more prestigious Appellations to boot), why he charged so little for them -even pegging them slightly below those of the co-operative. I remember him spitting-out a pip as we talked, chewing on the skin of the grape to monitor its ripeness, and he looked at me and said “Álex, I will never charge more for a wine than I am prepared to pay for it myself.” It hit me with a thud. A man I respected so much in every possible manner had shown me that beyond all that evolves around the terroir, climate and savoir-faire of winemaking lay another, possibly equally-important dimension. Humility. If ever possible, I loved his wines even more -and have spent every year loving them since.

Alain’s philosophy, values and skills, being the incredible man he is, have been transmitted entirely and faithfully to his son Maxime, a wonderfully gregarious yet gentle character, who now not only runs Domaine Alain Graillot, but has also established his own Domaine. Taking a leaf from his father’s book, Maxime’s humility pushed him to not want to usurp his father’s name (Graillot); he instead named his estate Domaine des Lises, after his mother Elisabeth (Lise)… While his own wines bear his personal interpretation of the appellation and the varietal, slightly plusher and less spicy than his father’s, he nonetheless continues to make the Domaine Alain Graillot wines exactly, faithfully as his father did before him; whole bunch ferment for the signature Graillot white pepper. His own Domaine des Lises, mainly de-stemmed, still refreshes and exudes the typicity of Crozes, but in a version ever so slightly more polished than his Dad’s. Both co-ferment with small amounts of Marsanne and Roussanne, though you would never know if you weren’t told.

Between these two Domaines, the first and second best wines of the Crozes Appellation are made each vintage and, often, depending on your own taste, the preference will alternate between one and the other.

Domaine André Perret

André Perret, as he gains in years (now in his early sixties), is growing into the role of the father of Viognier. With Georges Vernay no longer of this world, the empty shoes of the previous generation are unintentionally being filled by this most introverted, awkward and unassuming man. Almost unable to hold an eye to eye conversation, he averts his gaze when discussing his beloved Condrieu, as his awkwardness is matched only by his intense dedication to the wines of the magnificent slopes of this curious appellation, in who’s shadow lies Domaine André Perret. Condrieu, after World War II, had fallen to less than 50 hectares of vines planted. This white isle of an appellation among a boisterous horde of Syrah greats was almost lost to oblivion. Rhône wines were at their lowest ebb, even the reds, and whites had no value to anyone. With so little labour available following the disappearance of a generation of men to war, it was nigh impossible to find manpower to work these slopes, and the vineyard was inexorably dying out.

Had it not been for old Georges, it is very possible that Condrieu would no longer be here today. He almost single-handedly pioneered the renewal of the appellation, in the circumstances described, for a generation -not only keeping it alive for posterity but educating the younger generation about why it must be preserved and infecting them with his passion for it. André Perret, thus infected, has spent his entire adult life restoring, planting and caring for his precious Condrieu vines. Restoring the retaining walls, reviving the soils, mounting the impossible gradients on foot, exercising thigh muscles like steel girders, after decades of interminable ascensions. Thanks to these men, and a handful of others including some excellent female producers more lately, Condrieu is composed of about 150 hectares planted today, and in fine fettle. Almost at the absolute maximum the appellation can contain.

Alain makes several different wines from Condrieu (and two reds from St. Joseph which, by the way, are damn fine too!) though his favourite vineyard is aptly named Condrieu Chéry (an old spelling for Chéri -meaning darling or much cherished or loved). Over years of barrel tastings with André, of opening countless vintages old and young in bottle, the time when André’s eyes have the courage to lock onto yours is invariably always when he shows you his Chéry. The incongruous confidence reflecting the inert emotion and energy he both invests and derives from this most prized, darling vineyard. The love of his life and the vinous god-child of his friend and mentor Georges Vernay.

Domaine Yves Cuilleron

There is so much to say about Yves Cuilleron. If you could combine a live wire dynamo with a super-fast processor, an indefatigable diesel motor, a multi-tasking, laser-accurate, hyper-purposed 3D printer, with an autonomous, innovative and cerebral savant, you’d be on the right track to imagining both the energy and personality type of Yves Cuilleron.

And yet he possesses the same trait of humility of the gentlemen above - reserved and awkward in a social setting.

When Yves finished his studies three decades ago, his uncle offered him work helping with his very basic 3.5 hectares of vineyards in St. Joseph. In those days, people derived a living from apricot and cherry growing -but farmed their vines too, as they were perpetuating (often without knowing quite why) what centuries of ancestors had done before them, backs bent and pockets empty. Yves’ uncle was an ordinary grower at a time of ordinary wines in an ordinary Appellation. Or so the conventional wisdom of the day dictated. Yves, sharp of mind, very early became convinced of the immense potential of these under-appreciated, under-rated, magnificent (according to him) vineyard sites. People imagined that because they were on such impossible, poor soiled slopes, so difficult to farm, they were inferior and unworthy. Yves, like Vernay in neighbouring Condrieu or Graillot in Crozes or Clape in Cornas, was convinced that St. Joseph was an enchanted site -and he set about proving it. Thirty years of work later, it is difficult to imagine anyone ever doubted it !

With over 70 hectares now making-up his Domaine, Yves has accumulated many of the finest locations in the extremely elongated and uniquely varied appellation that is St. Joseph. And along the way, he has invested significantly in other singularly exceptional sites in Condrieu and Côte Rôtie, initially, and since in Cornas and elsewhere.

Yves’s love of the region, of the history and identity of its past, cultural and viticultural, are the stuff of local legend. He has painstakingly restored ancient buildings, entire vineyard wall enclosures to its original state, using old-fashioned techniques and artisanal experts to preserve their heritage, he has been the force behind establishing its own appellation for St. Péray, he has worked with the European Union to fund projects to bring back from practical extinction the Serine grape, cousin of Syrah, grown since Roman times in the Northern Rhône, planting coteaux vitrines (display slopes) in St. Joseph and elsewhere, ensuring first its survival and now rebirth. The list goes on and on.

Yves has pioneered a style of winemaking of luxuriant textures, yet balanced acidities, bursting with flavour and always, always resplendent in the quality he has proudly drawn into his wines from the vineyard sites he has championed for thirty years. I flew to St. Joseph last November to celebrate Yves’s 30 year anniversary of making St. Joseph, held in his astonishing new winery. Among the almost 300 people crammed into the cellar for the amazingly generous and festive banquet, I recognised the faces of so many of the great winemakers of the region, each present to celebrate and acknowledge Yves’s heavy contribution, ultimately to the collective livelihood and global reputation of the wines of Northern Rhône. Hesitant and unwilling to make a speech, he was eventually hoisted onto a table and applauded for a full ten minutes, before he gave-up and spoke. Having accomplished so much, being recognised so publicly by so many peers, he had nothing but thanks to give -and total reluctance to take. And typical of his generous spirit, the tables were lined with the wines of his favourite producers from the Rhône, Burgundy, the Loire and from distant lands. Like his wines, always generous.

Domaine Jamet

Jean-Paul & Corinne Jamet strike you as an unlikely couple. He, reticent and suspicious, grumpy and curt. Tall and fit, muscular and yet lean, with hands, by contrast, weathered and worn by a lifetime of hard labour, in the vineyard and in his cellar. Working mostly alone, until son Loic joined the Domaine 3 years ago (having just completed a vintage at Radford Dale). A solitary character, prone to mumble and tinker. She, diminutive and chirpy, mockery on her lips and a smile in her eye. Quick-witted and energetic like a Jack Russell; yapping instructions to all, friends and family alike, busily corralling everything and everyone.

Jean-Paul works the vines and the wine. Corinne administers. Paperwork, regulatory admin, order preparation, invoicing, logistics. Loic is the new Duracell bunny, buzzing through the vineyards pruning at a hare’s rate while apprenticing his father’s cellar methods, underground, being held back by his Dad’s thoroughness. A working family, toiling collectively, hard work, with and sometimes despite nature. Old-fashioned grunt work, performed by the family, not a labourer in sight.

The sheer slopes of Côte Rôtie necessitate a combination of specially adapted equipment, from powerful mini-tractors, with caterpillar tracks like a combat Tank, capable of climbing impossible slopes, between individually-trellised vines, to basic ropes to tie about your body, ensuring you don’t fall off the hillside, such is the gradient. These extreme terraces of Syrah rise-up the wall of granite that boundaries the western edge of the massive Rhône river below. Suddenly, you are 350 meters above the beginning of the vineyard, towering over the river beneath and the plain disappearing into the distance.

It takes a certain level of craziness to labour vines like these, through the seasons. Extreme heat, pummelling rain, freezing ice and snow.

Like many of the pioneers of his generation that I have had the good fortune to meet and befriend over my decades of visits to the Northern Rhône, Jean-Paul Jamet defied his era and transcended the ignorance of the thinking of the time, to bring the Côte Rôtie appellation to the forefront of the great Syrahs of the world and indeed in establishing it among the truly magical appellations of the entire viticultural France.

Starting life in an area of mixed-agriculture several decades ago, with family land beyond the crest of the vineyards and on the high plateau beyond, Jean-Paul Jamet inherited parcels of land including a small handful of Côte Rôtie vines. Worth next to nothing then, but believing in the true greatness of the site, he, throughout the decades of his career, bought-up every parcel of Côte Rôtie he could possibly (and at times impossibly) muster the funds to purchase. Across the many different soil types, aspects and altitudes that make-up the appellation. To the point where he owns today 2 dozen parcels in the appellation and stands among the biggest owners of it. It is worth a considerable fortune in today’s world, where the value of Côte Rôtie is now entirely recognised. But materialistic considerations bear no currency with Jean-Paul.

As resolute as he has always been in his hands-on, old-fashioned approach to natural viticulture, he never followed the trends of modern winemaking. New oak, super-ripe flavours, modern oenology consultants and point-seeking winemaking he has systematically scorned, even forbidding Robert Parker to visit his cellar. Ever. His wines are pure, alive, intensely brooding, uncompromising and uncompromised. Capable of ageing multiple decades. Convinced of this, and despite the lack of funds to do so, Jean-Paul has set aside every vintage, since his first, up to a quarter of his production, every year. This means that today, when releasing his latest wines (which he does always a year later than anyone else in any case), he is able to also release inventory of whatever older vintage he believes is now ready to be drunk. The topsy-turvy order of these late releases, reflecting the unchronological sequence of climatic irregularity. A cooler vintage being released perhaps ten or twenty years after a warmer one, for instance. In the order he deems fit. To my knowledge, a totally unique manner of working, from a totally unique man, attached to his unique vineyards and surrounded by his close-knit, unique family. Jamet are and remain my singular favourite wines of the Rhône Valley.

Domaine Verzier

Maxime Verzier is in his late twenties and represents life as a viticulturist in a different era to the other Domaines I have introduced. Generally speaking, the two prior generations had done all the pioneering, brought the region to prominence, preserved its heritage and established its reputation, worldwide. His challenge is a completely different one, in a more established scenario, where his instincts are in fact taking him to a dimension above and beyond the work of his predecessors. Maxime’s parents, Isabelle and Philippe, both around the 50 year-old mark, spent their working lives toiling in the shadows of the dominant big names of their generation– Guigal, Chapoutier, Jaboulet, and so on. They did not have ambitions to spread to multiple areas in the Rhône and, in fact, had the opposite calling : focussing on the very location where Maxime’s staunch Catholic grandfather had paid-for and erected, at the top edge of his vineyard, an imposing, massive statue of the Virgin Mary ‘La Madone’, which dominates the Rhône, over Condrieu and St. Joseph, like Jesus over Rio de Janeiro.

Maxime’s heritage is specific to his location within the Rhône Valley. He is fiercely proud of his village and his vineyards, his local traditions and the personalities. Max is a big, strapping lad, with hands the size of baseball gloves and a vice-like grip as he compresses your hand in his pneumatic handshake. An easy smile and glint in his look which draw you to all he has to say. Max is also the local champion of La Joute -the medieval sport of jousting. This version plays out in long rowing boats on the mighty Rhône River, rather than on horseback. Each rowing team powering its jouster at the rate of knots into the trajectory of the opposing jouster’s wooden pole, braced forward hands locked, determined for their man to splinter his joust into the sternum of the opponent, catapulting him into the fierce Rhône beneath.

Domaine Verzier

Max’s attention to matters such as label design and product communication are heroically void. His younger sister Chloe and brother Alexis have joined him today and can ‘do that if they want’ he smiles as he tells me. He’s far more interested to let me into his confidence about a parcel of vineyard he is hoping to acquire, from an old man in a neighbouring village who wants Max to have it, not Guigal or another big player - who would pay more and quicker. The old man wants Max, a small grower like him, with passion and respect for tradition, to buy it from him, even if it takes the rest of the years he has left to be paid… He’ll even let him have it at a better price. As long as his life’s work is transmitted to the right hands, to the next generation, in the absence of heirs of his own, to be continued faithfully. This is the pride of the region. The old man knows that Max incarnates this spirit and that his vines will be safe.

Max is not without determination. Which serves him well in his mission to reproduce in each bottle the genetic imprint of the location of each of his vines. Benefiting from the many years his vines have been organic, thanks to the conviction of his parents before him, Max’s self-challenge is to make wines of a purity and authenticity uninfluenced and unaffected by commercial considerations. Ironically agnostic, in the shadow of his grandfather’s Madone, Max’s faith is entirely locked into his dirt and his plants. Which makes his success so much more rewarding -his wines are some of the finest and most expressive wines of the Rhône Valley. Gentle like his humour and yet powerful like his physique. The balance and poise of his wines, equal perhaps to what makes him the jousting champion, are nothing short of remarkable. His wines refresh, satiate and stimulate, within a sip. Perfumed and grippy, spiced and quenching. A remarkable combination, unadulterated and sublime. This is a work beyond pioneering a region; it is perfecting one. An equally worthy cause, for a young man living in his nature.

Domaine Auguste Clape

If ever a legend there was… Auguste Clape died last year, at the ripe old age of 93.

Auguste married into an established farming family in the area and decided very early on to revive the family vineyard, which had almost completely died-out, following the all-destructive phylloxera crisis. The domaine was only 4 hectares and the appellation was beyond obscure - but he wanted to restore this activity to an area which had lived by it for two millennia. Cornas is the Southern extremity of the Northern Rhône reds and the sole appellation where only wines of 100% Syrah may be produced -no exceptions, no white grapes blended-in, just Syrah.

During his long career, Auguste championed traditional winemaking. Though passing through various eras and technological advances, not budging an iota from his ways was his duty. A visit to his cellar, in recent years hosted by his son Pierre (almost at retirement age himself today) or by Olivier (his grandson and current incumbent and already father of the next generation himself), even a seasoned Rhône follower like me never ceases to be intoxicated by the incredible site of generations of mould and penicillin carpeting the walls, the bottles, the ancient vats… The dank, dark underground cavern, with wall to wall, inches-thick grey mould, sparsely lit and damp, viewed as if in black and white, impart a mysterious and mystical feel to each visit. Peeling an old bottle from beneath a rug of mould, Olivier customarily and generously marks the passage of each of my pilgrimages with a special bottle, often between his age and mine, which invariably follows a lengthy tasting from each of the individual old vats lining the vague cellar walls. He ascends these wooden ovals by means of a rickety wooden ladder, inserting the glass sampling tube (the only modern -20th century- equipment I have ever caught site of at Clape) in the limiting space between the under-arch of the cellar and the head curve of the vat, drawing what in the dark looks like blood from stone. Reaching down to share the peculiar liquid, Olivier reflects on the specific parcel of vines which make-up the contents of each vat, its age, altitude, soil, aspect; talking us through the Spring and Summer which shaped the vintage and marked the wine in a unique combination which will give identity to the wines in the decades to come.

The wines of Clape, and each generation of the 3 who worked together until last year, identical in their composition, are benchmark Cornas. No artifice, no pretence; pure Cornas. Granite, sun, rain and man. The basic tenants of the age-old potion that is wine. Pure and magnificent. These wines age like few others. Reluctant and restrained in their youth, they build and build, out of nowhere, dense and sublime as the decades earn beyond. Powerful -and all the more so by never using it. Robust yet at ease, balanced, always fresh. Rare modesty in a world obsessed with self-worth.

Auguste Clape, through his life’s work, elevated Cornas to recognition, globally. Providing a sense of identity as well as a livelihood to ensuing generations in his village, his appellation and his community. He loved this spot of paradise on his somewhat isolated granitic outcrop, opposite the deep-flowing Rhone river. Auguste Clape was a pioneer of tradition. A fixated visionary. An icon of a Region. The soul of an Appellation.

On the last occasion I saw Auguste, as we emerged from the depths of the cellar with Olivier, we chatted amicably for a while in the workshop, where he still pottered about, as Olivier rinsed the glasses and the sampling tube. What inspired him to do with his life in Cornas all that he had, I asked him ? His wrinkled face and old hands twitched momentarily but his eye fixed me, alert and friendly. “Älex, c’est un pays de merveilles” he smiled – ‘Alex, it’s a wonderland’…

Published On: 04/03/2019

Alex Dale

Twitter @radford_dale

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