The contrast with my last tasting trip (the frenzy that is UGC week in Bordeaux) could not be more pronounced. In spite of Parker’s enthusiasm for the region, the Rhône retains a relatively low profile. Each year as we taste through these wines we are struck by the impressive quality and relativley sensble prices. As elsewhere in France the 2009s have generated a buzz of excitement so we are keen to get started.
9am at Bonnefond seemed a little challenging as we eventually got to our chambres d’hotes (Entre Eau et Vin, a modest but charming B&B on the river in Ampuis) well after 1am thanks to a delayed flight and suitcase lost in transfer. Fortified with plenty of coffee and a truly fantastic shower we set off in good time.
The Rhone is not a beautiful river at this point, but it is clearly a working river. The banks are cluttered with nuclear power stations, factories, transport depots. The autoroute runs to the right and the train line to the left and there is a constant hum of traffic. However, a short drive up through the precipitous vines and you come out in a pastoral idyll – open rolling plains, rows of apple trees dominated by Mont Pilat in the distance.
Christophe Bonnefond was in remarkably talkative form. He was dressed in pale colours which seemed brave for somebody who spends his days in the vines and cellar and he admitted that he often finishes the day a little dishevelled. It was a great start – his 2008s, now in bottle, had fantastic purity, while the 2009s from barrel were delicious: rich ripe fruit, peppery spice, firm smooth tannins and balancing freshness. A triumph.
He was also optimistic about the quality of the 2010s – it has been a good growing season, quite dry, and a litle rain last week will see the vines through to picking towards the end of the month.
Back into the heart of the village to visit Stéphane Ogier. We retasted his Côte Rôtie 2008 which is excellent and more wonderful 2009s. Stéphane described the 09s as “ripe but silky and balanced, giving pleasure young but with potential to age”.
And the last stop of the morning is Réné Rostaing. I must confess a prejudice here: I love Réné Rostaing and I love his wines. He is precise, eloquent, opinionated and if he disagreed with you he would tell you or maybe even thow you out of his cellar.
He has always been charm itself to me, and today was no exception. Each of his 2009s got three stars (in my highly complex three star marking system) and are a perfect balance of richness and purity. Bravo Réné.
He has also offered a six vintage vertical of La Landonne for our Rhone Tasting on 16th November, so book your tickets now…
For lunch we dropped into Le Cercle des Vignerons. Not much more than a wine shop with a café attached, but this is a fantastic place. After a lunch their four years ago my husband still talks about his “paupillettes de caille” matched with a flight of Côte Rôties as being one his most memorable meals ever. And they do not disappoint today.
Our first stop after lunch is Andre Perret, for me, the outstanding producer of white Rhone. He has a lightness of touch that transforms Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne into ethereal delights. We sell out each year and 2009 will be no different in spite of our shameless begging for bigger allocations. He makes tiny quantities and there is a long queue.
Only this morning the plaster cast was removed from a broken wrist and he gingerly pulled his first cork in several weeks. Spectacular – white and red St Joseph and his Condrieus all share the same pure, precise character while being packed with perfumed fruit.
Pierre Gaillard is not around (he is overseeing the harvest at his Languedoc estate) but his amiable daughter Jeanne, who works with her father and also makes wiensin her own right, presents their wines to us. Success all round in the Northern Rhone this year – Gaillard’s stle is generally fruit-driven and forward and these are no exception. Both St Joseph and Côte Rôtie are sweet, smooth and moreish.
The last stop of the day is to see Stephane Montez. He is never at home when we arrive, but comes rushing from the vines. He is a whirlwind of activity – it is hard to get a word in edgeways – and his wines are so so good.
We taste his whites next to a clattering bottling line – and the unconducive atmosphere might have dimmed our appreciation of lesser wines – but the quality still shone through. Fortunately we adjourned to the cool quiet of his cellar and our patience was rewarded with some of the best reds we had tried that day. There is real class here.
Finally a wander through his hilltop property – a vast new cellar is in full construction, although they will need to work fast if it is to be ready for the 2010s as he hopes. We finish with an “apero” of his Vendanges Tardives 2007 and depart, reeling from information overload, late for dinner but very happy.