Steep learning curves

 

A new generation of winemakers in the northern Rhône is creating delicious wines from difficult terrain, writes JOHN WILSON

STÉPHANE MONTEZ IS part of a generation that changed the face of French winemaking and is one of the rising stars of the northern Rhône. He was brought up on a mixed farm, where his father grew peaches and apricots and his mother tended a herd of goats, producing Rigotte de Condrieu cheese. On the steep slopes leading up from the valley to the farm, they grew vines, the only plant hardy enough to survive the poor friable, granite soils. A large proportion of the surrounding vineyards had fallen into disuse after the second World War, when many migrated to the cites in search of employment.

Montez’s generation was the first to formally study viticulture and winemaking, a decade ago. Previously all knowledge was simply passed from father to son. This move towards education has had a profound influence. For the first time, future winemakers were exposed to wines from other areas and frequently other countries too. They developed a clear understanding of how to extract the best from their vineyards and produce quality wine. Less well-known regions such as the Loire, the Languedoc, Alsace and the Rhône now had a cohort of ambitious, talented young producers offering handmade wines with real local character. Even the big names such as Bordeaux and Burgundy began to produce better and more consistent wines with the emphasis on formal wine education.

Montez comes from the northern Rhône. The wines here are completely different to those of the south – many argue they have more in common with Burgundy, a short drive northwards. The north has tiny plots clinging to steep terraced slopes; those in the south are mainly on gently undulating hillsides. The south has a warmer climate and the grape varieties are different too; those of the north are pure Syrah; the south makes rich warming blends based on Grenache. The south is about ripeness and power; the north, fragrance and elegance. The south produces 90 per cent of the Rhône wine.

Two large producers, Paul Jaboulet and Marcel Guigal, were the first to bring the unique wines of the region to greater public attention. Both were hugely successful, not just with their Côtes du Rhône (the Guigal was a staple in 1990s middle-class Ireland), but also the great wines of the north, such as Côte Rôtie, Hermitage, Cornas and Saint Joseph.

Stéphane Montez always wanted to make wine. He studied in Burgundy, a stay that had a profound influence on his winemaking. On graduation, he worked in wineries in South Africa, California, Australia and England. Returning home, he planted vines in the fields around the family farmhouse (sadly the goats had to go), he borrowed and saved to buy a few plots in the most sought-after appellations of Côte Rôtie and Condrieu. He hired miniature diggers to clear the abandoned, steep, overgrown terraces, where vines had once grown for centuries. He even installed a funiculaire, running up one of the steepest slopes in Côte Rôtie. Slowly the business expanded, and his reputation grew, money became less of a worry.

A decade or so later, and now Montez is one of the big names in the northern Rhône. Like many others, he owns a patch of vines here, a patch there, scattered around the different appellations of the northern Rhône. There is now a long list of small, high-quality producers. The work involved in farming the impossibly steep slopes is incredible. Everything must be done by hand. The best grapes go to single-vineyard cuvées, the rest are blended to make lesser (in relative terms) wines.

The red wines of the northern Rhône are among the finest in France, the equal of the great wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy. (The white wines, a blend of the local Marsanne and Roussanne, or in the case of Condrieu, Viognier, should not be ignored either.) The most famous are the majestic, tannic, long-lived wines of Hermitage, and the soft, silky wines of Côte Rôtie, blessed at times with the finesse of a great Burgundy. Less expensive are Crozes-Hermitage, St Joseph, Cornas. The wines are savoury and dark, rarely too big or powerful, usually subtle and poised. They are the purest expressions of Syrah you will find – other than the Shiraz from Australia, the complete opposite in style.

I find them amongst the most satisfying of all; subtle, ageworthy, elegant, with a distinct personality. The best evoke a grape, a soil, a climate and a person – singular wines in an increasingly homogenous world. Under the name Domaine du Monteillet, Montez produces a very keenly-priced pure Syrah Vin de Pays red, a favourite in the Wilson household, alongside several from Saint Joseph, where his main holdings lie, as well as a Condrieu and a Côte Rôtie. In price they range from €15 to €50 a bottle and the better wines age superbly.

BOTTLES OF THE WEEK

Guigal Côtes du Rhône 2007, 14%, €13.50-13.99Perhaps not quite as ubiquitous as it once was, but still to be found on the shelves of most supermarkets and off-licences. The Guigal Côtes du Rhône is still a fine wine, rich and rounded but showing some northern elegance. Stockists: Superquinn; O’Briens; Carry-out, nationwide; Jus De Vine, Portmarnock; Manning’s, Bantry; O’Driscoll’s, Ballinlough; Joyce’s Galway.

Crozes-Hermitage 2009 Equinoxe, 13%, €18.99From Maxime and Thomas Graillot, this is a light and refreshing wine with piquant, dark cherry fruits and black pepper, and a smooth easy finish. Perfect with grilled pork or chicken. Stockists: The Corkscrew, Chatham St; Bin No9, Clonskeagh; La Touche Wines, Greystones.

Condrieu, 2010 Les Grand Chailles, Domaine du Monteillet, 14%, €43.95The Montez Condrieu is an exceptional wine, with textured, rich, peach and nectarine fruits, balanced perfectly by a refreshing acidity. Stockists: 64 Wine, Glasthule; thewinestore.ie; The Vintry, Rathgar; The Wine Room at One Pery Square, Limerick.

Saint Joseph 2009 La Cuvéee du Papy, Domaine du Monteillet, 14%, €29.95Soft, ripe, elegant, dark cherry fruits, currently showing a little spicy new oak, with a savoury, dry finish. Perfect with grilled meats over the next few years. Stockists: Jus de Vine, Portmarnock; thewinestore.ie; Sweeney’s, Dublin 11; La Touche Wines, Greystones.

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