“… my brother gave him some of the famous Vin de Mauves to taste, which he does not drink himself, as it is very valuable …”
Victor Hugo, Les Misérables (1862)
Vin de Mauves was the medieval name for the wines of Saint-Joseph, a clear indication of the history (and reverence) of this northern Rhône stalwart — even longer that its famed neighbour, Hermitage.
The history of viticulture in Saint-Joseph started circa 600 BC, via the Greeks, and continued to expand under Roman tutelage. Being that the Rhône River was the primary communication/trade route between the Mediterranean, Northern Europe and the Atlantic, it was only natural for settlements to be established along its banks. Enamoured by the steep slopes, the Romans took to the hills, planting the vines and supporting them with retaining walls made of stone, known as challeys. This prosperity lasted until the collapse of the empire. It was at this point that Saint-Jo (the local nickname for wines coming from the appellation), as well wines coming from the rest of the Rhône, fell into a dark period.
The rebirth started under Charlemagne in the late eighth century and continued under the Holy Roman Empire. By the late Middle Ages, the wine was cherished by the tsars and other European nobility, as well as being the wine of choice for the royal court of Louis XII, who owned a vineyard in the village.
In 1650, the first decree guaranteeing the origin and quality of the wine was enacted, and by the end of the 17th century, the name Saint-Joseph first came into use. It was monks who named the vineyard after the patron saint of husbands.
The modern era of Saint-Joseph commenced in the early 20th century, when a syndicate was formed to protect the wine’s authenticity. With this groundwork laid, the appellation and its 200 acres was officially bestowed AOC status on June 15, 1956.
In 1971, it was decided that the appellation would be expanded.
Today, it is a 50-kilometre-long strip, running north to south on the left bank of the Rhône. The majority of the 2,500 acres of vines are planted on steep south-southeastern granite slopes, which provide maximum sun exposure, retain and reflect heat back into the vineyards, offer excellent drainage, and protect against northern and western winds. All these factors assist in the ripening of the Syrah grape.
The white varietals Marsanne and Rousanne are also planted and, by law, can be blended with Syrah, to a maximum of 10 per cent. This practice is generally eschewed, as most producers choose to make a small percentage of white wine instead. For every one bottle of white, 10 are produced in a darker shade. Of the two, Marsanne is the most cultivated, thanks to its ease of ripening. Rousanne is more of a precocious creature, but when done well, it produces elegant wines with wonderful aromatics.
Another eccentricity is where the northern part of the region intersects with the southern portion of Condrieu: a white wine–only appellation. If Viognier is grown within the Saint-Jo appellation, it is labelled as Condrieu. Conversely, if Syrah is grown within the Condrieu boundaries, it is called Saint-Joseph.
It is also interesting to note that with the region’s friendly climate, many producers have switched over to biodynamic practices. Clearly, the results demonstrate that they are on the right track.
While visiting the region this past autumn, I had the chance to taste over 100 wines and got a pretty clear picture of what is happening, quality wise. It is said that the red wines of Saint-Jo are to be drunk while the wines of Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie mature. And until recently, I would have agreed with that statement, as many tended to be mid-weight at best.
But as time passes, vines grow older and modern technology and techniques come into play. Today, the best reds are powerful medium- to full-bodied offerings with a profile of cassis, pepper, herbs, violets, smoke and enough tannin to allow them carry on for 20 years. Of recent vintages, my nod goes to the spectacular 2009s, followed by the excellent 2010s. 2011 was a variable year.
As for the whites, I was pleasantly surprised, as they were refreshing offerings, with honey, flowers, peach, apple, pear and hazelnut qualities. The few that were oaked had the vanilla and spice working in tandem with the fruit.
Looking for a bite
Brandade de Morue, a local specialty of puréed salt cod, potatoes, garlic and olive oil, was a sublime match with the whites. Other great pairings I feasted on in the Rhône were fish carpaccio, smoked salmon, fresh lobster, goat cheese and cream-based vegetable soups.
As for the reds, veal, rack of lamb, duck breast, steak tartare, beef stew and steak frites worked incredibly well, as the tannins of the Syrah did their job.
The other upswing about the wines is price. A good bottle of red or white will only set you back $30. The premium cuvées will cost a little more. Compared to famed Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie, Saint-Jos are relative bargains.
Pierre Finon Le Caprice d’Héloïse 2009 ($15)
This was my top red Saint-Joseph while tasting my way through the appellation. There is impressive concentration to this full-bodied Syrah. The cassis, blackberries, raspberries, herbs, spices and dark cocoa, which are present on the nose, also carry long on the finish. The tannins give it two decades of aging potential. Impressive juice indeed!
M. Chapoutier Les Granits Rouge 2009 ($50)
From one of the most famous names in the Rhône comes this delicious offering. It is chock full of cassis, vanilla, nuts, rosemary, oregano, pepper and red fruits. There is great length, and the wine should easily last for a decade.
M. Chapoutier Les Granits Blanc 2009 ($70)
This 100% Marsanne possesses a deep yellow colour and a huge bouquet of peach, apple, peaches-and-cream corn, petrol, honey and flowers. There is a rich and creamy texture, with honey, spice, pineapple and peach carrying long into the sunset. This stunning white is a perfect foil for grilled salmon or chicken vol-au-vent.
Domaine de Coursodon L’Olivaie 2010 ($30)
A bouquet of crème de cassis, raspberries, vanilla, mocha, nuts and pepper meets a lovely florality on the palate. There is excellent length and enough tannin to age a decade or more. This would be a sublime pairing with a duck breast topped with a dark berry sauce accented with star anise.
Cave de Tain Esprit de Granit 2010 ($35)
Cave de Tain is the pre-eminent co-op of the Rhône Valley and one of the best in all of France. As proof, all you need to do is taste this wine. Intense crème de cassis, smoke, vanilla, tapenade and spice are in play. There is excellent length and a somewhat grippy finish, which rounds out the experience. It still needs another year in the bottle; then it can be drunk until 2020.
Delas Frères Cuvée François de Tournon 2010 ($28)
Quality at Delas has increased considerably over the past decade. It is now one of my favourite Rhône producers. Plums, herbs, crème de cassis, white pepper, coffee and raspberries are all present in this youthful wine. Hold until 2014 and then drink until 2023.
Yves Cuilleron Saint-Pierre 2011 ($28)
In my mind, Cuilleron is one of the top 3 producers of white wines in the northern Rhône. This small production, 100% Rousanne, spent 9 months in the barrel. There is a medium yellow colour and an intense nose of pineapple, honey, nuts, vanilla, spice and white flowers. In the mouth it is concentrated, with a creamy texture and great persistency. Drink over the next 3 years.
Domaine Courbis Les Royes 2010 ($38)
The 2010 Les Royes possesses a deep colour and flattering nose of mocha, cassis, violets and spice. With this mid-weight wine, the palate chimes in with rosemary and black pepper. The tannins suggest that the wine should be consumed over the next 7 years.
Domaine des Remizières 2010 ($90)
This is a structured Saint-Jo, which will easily last for 15 years. Cocoa, roasted herbs, cassis, raspberry and flowers come together as one. The length is excellent, and seared grilled duck breast topped with a dark berry sauce would be a divine match.
Ferraton Père et Fils La Source 2010 ($25)
The dark purple colour leads the way to a mixture of cherry jam, cassis, dark cocoa, pepper and anise. A mid-weight wine with depth and very good length. Drink now and over the next 6 years.