Hard to believe, but by the 1960s most of the Côte-Rôtie was abandoned to wild brush. One could earn far more money growing apricots along the Rhône than one could growing grapes on the slopes above. What was once celebrated the world over had quietly slid into oblivion. Thankfully, a few growers weren’t fazed and carried on, earning neither fame nor fortune in return. Even the French had forgotten about Côte-Rôtie, the only remaining clients being local industrial workers who paid pennies for the privilege. Kermit and a fortunate few found their way here in the 1970s, tasted what was then largely a floral, earthy, complex, and sometimes gamey style, and had the foresight to bring it back to market. Slowly the jewel was rediscovered. Soon, though, everyone wanted to make Côte-Rôtie “great” again, which many interpreted as powerful, strong, sucker-punch wines. The old, rustic style began to fade away.
Along came Louis Barruol, with a near-fanatical obsession for the Côte, its terroirs, and its lore. Louis channels the Côte-Rôtie of yore in his vinifications, with a few seemingly simple yet essential guidelines: select grapes from the greatest terroirs (there is indeed a hierarchy, much like in Burgundy, although not codified here), use only Petite Serine (an older, heirloom type of Syrah), whole cluster bunches (the stems are essential), short macerations, and indigenous yeasts. The result here has some meaty “roast” and concentration (which its name implies) and a rustic side (the stems?), all within a soft velvet glove.
Louis Barruol is an indefatigable force in the Rhône, the 14th generation in his family to be making wine in Gigondas. On what was once the site of a Roman villa, Louis’ cellars show spectacular remains of Roman vinification vats carved into the limestone. Here, Louis works with different grape varietals from the Rhône, vinifying each parcel separately. He’s taken to acting as a micro-négociant, working with top growers in the region who still work with Sérine. Producing only a few precious barrels of each cuvée, Louis is helping to save the authenticity and identity of old Côte Rôtie parcels. Together, he and Kermit blend our Northern Rhône wines and a Southern Côtes du Rhône Blanc and Rouge from a selection of Louis’ purchases.
On the wines of the northern Rhône, Kermit wrote in Adventures on the Wine Route, “The best combine a reminder of the sunny Mediterranean with the more self-conscious, intellectual appeal of the great Burgundies farther north, which is not a bad combination.” Like the wines of Provence, Burgundy, and Beaujolais, Kermit was introduced to this region by Richard Olney, an American ex-pat and friend of Alice Waters.
Though technically part of the same region as the southern Rhône and connected by the Rhône River, much differentiates the north from the south. The climate is continental and in general cooler than that Mediterranean climate of the south. The appellations are significantly smaller: Cornas has less than 300 acres planted to vine and Hermitage around 345. The area planted is minute when compared to Gigondas (3,000+ acres) and Châteauneuf-du-Pape (nearly 8,000 acres). Many of the great wines come from steep hillside vines—terraced during Roman times. It was clear to the Romans that great wine could be made here and DNA evidence now shows that Syrah is in fact indigenous to the Rhône.
The terroir is predominantly granite and lastly, blends of the wines are mostly single grape varieties. Only four grape varieties are permitted in AOC blends: Syrah, Viogner, Marsanne, and Roussanne (as compared to the 19 permitted varieties allowed in Châteauneuf). The red wines are nearly all Syrah and Condrieu and Château Grillet must be 100% Viogner. The whites of Hermitage, Saint Joseph, Saint Péray, and Crozes-Hermitages may only be blends of Marsanne and Roussanne.
Trust the great winemakers, trust the great vineyards. Your wine merchant might even be trustworthy. In the long run, that vintage strip may be the least important guide to quality on your bottle of wine.—Kermit Lynch
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