Among their myriad character flaws, the French are ludicrously and endlessly poetic. Thus, the Northern Rhône appellation Côte-Rôtie, which receives an inordinate amount of sunshine, has a name translated as ‘The Roasted Slope’. And since that’s not quite poetic enough for them, they also make a red wine that has unmistakable overtones of roasted meat, which is close, but no poetic cigar. So they make bottle verse in two subregions, Côte Blonde and Côte Brune (blonde and brunette), the first having Grace Kelly elegance and Marilyn Monroe youthful pizzazz, the second showing Liz Taylor body and a longer life expectancy.
Now we’re talking poetry.
Côte-Rôtie wobbles atop Rhône like a pie tin on an acrobat’s pole; the appellation is a tale of two berries, one rugged and red, the other fat and white. Together, they perform a beautiful pas de deux. And by ‘together’, I mean that the law stipulates that if the primary varietals of the region (Syrah and Viognier) commingle in a bottle, they must first commingle in the vat.
Co-fermentation is a legal requirement for the Côte-Rôtie blend, which may be up to 20% Viognier, resulting in a unique, delightful concoction that is, like the entire region, a cornucopia of contradictions.
There was a time when co-fermentation was used often in southern Old World wines, noteably in Rioja and Tuscany, where ‘filler’ whites not only softened harsh tannins, but, through an ironic trick of biochemistry, made them a richer shade of red. The practice has all but died out, and since 2006 it’s been illegal to add Trebbiano to Chianti while purist producers in red Rioja often sniff at the idea of blending Viura into the mix.
Sniffing, of course, should be what it’s all about. Adding nonchalant Trebbiano to muscular Sangiovese or indifferent Viura to Tempranillo is one thing—bringing Viognier to the party is a whole different pocket full of poesies. Among the most assertively aromatic wine grapes in the the world, Viognier is the drama queen of Rhône, and if you take her to the tasting, you can at least expect her to pay her own way.
Thus—although I am told that vignerons in Côte-Rôtie tend to downplay Viognier’s contribution—it so changes the playing field of Syrah that a Rôtie will stand out from a nearby Syrah-dominant Hermitage or Cornas as blatantly as a linebacker in lipstick. Overtones of femininity are displayed in a vivid floral quality to the wine—certainly in the nose, but especially on the the palate. Viognier in Syrah (as the Australians have since learned) is not merely a way to lighten up the tannins, it is as breakthrough a flavor epiphany as Reese’s peanut butter and chocolate.
Why the apparent aura of hush-hush around the tradition, I do not know.
Yesterday, I tasted three Guigal-owned Côte-Rôties from three unique lieux-dits. I love the term lieu-dit, which is more French poetry, but legal this time: It means (unpoetically) ‘said-location’ and indicates (poetically) the smallest piece of land which has a traditional vineyard name assigned to it. There are lieux-dits all over Côte-Rôtie, and these three, all under the common Domaine de Bonserine name, produce wines of very different character.
La Garde is the smallest of the three, wresting about 3000 bottles annually from the iron-rich schists of Côte Brune. Under the guidance of négociant Guigal since 2006, estate manager Ludovic Richard and winemaker Stéphane Carell have refined techniques in the vineyard, including severe pruning, leaf plucking, and if necessary, green harvests—ensuring low yields and healthy ripe grapes. In the cellar, Carell relies on indigenous yeasts, at least a week cold-soak maceration and new oak aging for three years.
The 2010 showed this last bit of coddling via tactile tannins throughout the wine, which begins with a full, efflorescent nose to flesh out a backbone of black cherry. Phenolic density in the palate is striking; the wine proves its pedigree of sixty-year-old vines with a rich display of cherry, raspberry and smoke. 2010 was a fine vintage in the region and the wine still displays the freshness of youth even as it begins to take on the elegance of age.
La Sarrasine is, by contrast, the workhorse property, which in this tiny world means about 2500 cases annually. This 2011 vintage wine saw less time in oak, and in 170-gallon demi-muids. As a result, the tannins are finely-grained and more integrated into the body of the wine itself. There is ripe red berry in the nose along with a meatier profile—the aroma of bacon frying. Where violets dominated the nose of La Garde, here it explodes on the palate, mingling with red tea, tobacco and chocolate-dipped cherries. The wine is shorter lived in the mouth, but 2011 was, overall, a poorer vintage than either the year preceding or the year following.
La Vialliere, another 2011, is redolent with an exotic blend of floribunda and fumé; raspberry liqueur mingles with pure plum notes, bacon rind, earthy spice (black pepper especially) and a bright acid bite. The wine is self-assured in its statement, and opensup in the glass quite beautifully.
All three wines benefit from a very slight chill; maybe 55°F, and unveil considerable candor and character after a period of aeration. Rhône reds in particular seem to improve markedly with some breathing room in a cool environment, especially if the up-front tannins have been held in check in favor of fruit and flowers by a winemaker like Carell. Like a bloom unfolding in early spring, these wines seem to rebel against bottle confinement and want to strut, but first need about a half an hour to stretch their legs.
At between $60 and $100 a bottle, it pays sensory dividends if you allow them to do just that.