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Rhône Valley Dynamo: Jean-Luc Colombo
By Michael Franz
Mar 17, 2015
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I know that I’m supposed to maintain journalistic objectivity about everything in the world of wine, but quite frankly, I’m madly in love with the wines of France’s Rhône Valley.  I’ve always been especially smitten with wines from the Northern Rhône, which are much more rare than their cousins from the south.  More expensive too, on average, but surpassingly complex and elegant.

Across the duration of my long-standing romance with these wines, no one has been more influential in their development than Jean-Luc Colombo, an ultra-dynamic man who has not only made many great wines of his own, but also helped boost the quality of many other producers as well.

I’ve admired Colombo’s wines for a very long time, but had never enjoyed an opportunity to meet him until earlier this month.  He not only showed a set of his recent releases but also whipped up a sensational lunch for me, working at a speed that helped me to understand how he has achieved so many different things across his remarkably accomplished life.

Or should I write, “lives?”  Originally trained as a pharmacist, he migrated from southernmost France (near Marseilles), cracked into the wine trade by offering laboratory services, and rapidly built a consulting business on that foundation.  Turning his prodigious energies and talents to viticulture and winemaking, he also led by example, turning out wines that were full of flavor--but not marked by the sort of quirks and flaws that had long been passed off as “ local terroir” notes.

Stated a bit differently, Colombo showed that it was possible to make wines of character that derived their attributes from meticulously tended vineyards, perfectly ripened fruit, and carefully chosen cooperage--rather than “character” that was actually the result of musty old wood and slipshod cellar techniques.

As a revolutionary of sorts (and an “outsider” on top of that), it isn’t surprising that some members of the Northern Rhône winemaking community weren’t entirely enamored with Colombo or the trends that he introduced.  Perhaps I should have asked him whether that bothered him over the years, but it never occurred to me to do so…for a simple reason:  Seeing him in person, slashing through one task after another with utter abandon, it seemed obvious that he’s a man too intent on what he’s doing to take much offense at what others opine about what he’s doing.

Considering his impact over a career (one that is far from over, and perhaps far from its apex), it is hardly an exaggeration to say that the distinction in the Northern Rhône between “traditional” and “modern” wines largely boils down to the question of whether they were crafted under Colombo’s direct or indirect influence. 

His sway has certainly been greatest with reds in general and the wines of Cornas in particular, but he has directly or indirectly influenced the way producers work on every grape and in every appellation in the region.  Based on his own estate-grown wines, his négociant business, and his work with hundreds of consulting clients, he has steadily turned a host of innovations into standard practices.

These include aggressive crop thinning, late harvesting, complete de-stalking of grape clusters, extended maceration, and prolonged ageing in newer oak barrels.  Some detractors remain to this day, yet now it is they rather than Colombo who are in the minority.

There is a very good reason for this outcome, and you can actually taste it in his wines.  Stated simply, they are pure, and natural seeming, and delicious--whether tasted young or with time in bottle; they emphatically do not seem over-worked, nor do they seem like the hyper-correct wines that one might expect from someone who came to winemaking from a laboratory.

On the contrary, they seem like wines made by someone who took his cues from a kitchen.  A really good kitchen, where flavor counts first--but cleanliness and precision follow immediately thereafter (as they invariably do in really good kitchens).  I would never have understood this not-so-obvious truth about his wines if I hadn’t had a chance to see him cook.  Which is the only reason that I even mention having enjoyed a lunch that he prepared…as gloating is not my thing.

Whether Colombo is a mere technician or, rather, an artisan and "vinous cook" is a testable question.  Which is also to say that it is a "taste-able" one.  Below you’ll find reviews of a set of current releases that will indicate my take on the question, but I invite you to reach your own conclusions:

Côtes du Rhône Blanc “La Redonne” 2014 ($18):  Many American consumers have never tasted a white Côtes du Rhône wine, much less one made in the northern Rhône.  If this is true for you, here’s a very, very good place to start.  It is made mostly from Viognier with just a bit of Roussanne.  Subtle floral aromas get this off to a great start, and though some tasters want “explosive” aromas from a Viognier-based wine, I much prefer the subtlety shown by this wine.  The body is medium in weight, but the flavors are energized by a very bright streak of acidity that lengthens the flavors (white peach, predominantly) and lifts the finish.  That finish shows some nice grip, and though it wasn’t clear to me whether the wine draws its definition from mineral notes or the component of Roussanne (or both), this doesn’t make much difference as long as the Viognier’s blousy tendencies are counterbalanced.  Although this wine won’t cause Condrieu vintners a lot of sleepless nights for lack of sheer fireworks, it might well cause some stress on account of its excellent balance and value.  To place this last point in context, you could buy about five bottles of this for what most Condrieu wines would set you back, and not many bottlings of Condrieu can make that arithmetic look good for them.  89

Condrieu “Amour de Dieu” 2012 ($90):  At the risk of undermining my own last point, here’s a Condrieu that is so convincingly delicious that you might well prefer it to five bottles of Colombo’s “La Redonne” (and more bottles than that of anyone else’s Viognier from anyplace beyond Condrieu).  It shows expressive floral aromas that never turn overbearing or tiring, and the flavors are likewise quite open and generous without seeming heavy.  There’s a citrus edge to the juicy, peach- and apricot-flavored fruit as well as interesting mineral undertones.  Succulent and racy at once, this is Viognier that one can not only admire but also drink.  Terrific.  93

Saint-Joseph “Les Lauves” 2012 ($28):  The 2012 vintage in both the northern and southern Rhône produced quite ripe, soft-textured wines.  In the north, this often works to the advantage of particular wines, whereas many 2012s from the south are--to my taste--lacking in structure and grip.  This Saint-Joseph manages to show plenty of structural definition thanks to fresh acidity and fine-grained tannin.  It can nevertheless be enjoyed early on, as the wood component is quite modest, whereas the fruit is admirably fresh and open.  Red and black berry flavor notes predominate, with a little whiff of blueberry for good measure.  90

Côte-Rôtie “La Divine” 2011 ($90):  I’ve tasted many of Colombo’s wines in most vintages for more than a decade, and I adore Côte-Rôtie (which along with great Burgundy is simply the world’s most sublime red wine, period).  Nevertheless, I’ve never tasted this wine, though I’m damned sure glad to have put an end to that lamentable reality.  The aromas are simply gorgeous even before the wine has attained an age at which it could offer up tertiary scents--which is a testament to how good the fruit material was, and how judiciously it was oaked during the wine’s elevage.  Lifted scents of violets and both red and black fruits are totally alluring, and the delicate flavors follow suit.  Beautifully light and fresh for a wine from the (sometimes chunky) 2011 vintage, this just radiates elegance and class.  94

Cornas “Terres Brulées” 2011 ($50):  If you prefer intensity and a shade of wildness in your red wines as opposed to elegance and class, then Colombo can help you dial things up with three excellent wines from Cornas.  This bottling is sourced from multiple sites in different parts of the appellation.  It shows a very pleasing and versatile balance of freshness and gutsiness, with deeply-flavored fruit but no excessive ripeness or weight.  The wood is well measured; the acidity is nice and bright, and the tannins are grippy but not astringent.  Very nicely done.  91

Cornas “Les Ruchets” 2009 ($90):  I vastly prefer the 2010 vintage in the southern Rhône to 2010, but in the north, these two thoroughbred years really run neck-and-neck.  The 2010s are brighter but also tighter, and will take a long time to hit their optimal time windows for enjoyment.  The 2009s will show a much higher percentage of their charms earlier on, and yet, serious wines from Cornas, Côte-Rôtie and Hermitage are very serious indeed, and bear little resemblance to ripe-and-ready wines from a downright hot year like 2003.  This wine is a fine case in point for showing the strength of the top 2009s, as it is quite rich and broad in texture, very deep in flavor, and quite muscular in overall terms--yet also really fresh and nimble for its size, with a clear beam of acidity shining through its masses of ripe fruit.  There’s no apparent raisining in the wine’s fruit profile, and though wood is still showing as a distinct aromatic and flavor component, it is neither rough nor raw, but rather a welcome counterweight to the richness of the fruit.  Undeniably delicious now, but with a long and happy life ahead of it.  95

Cornas “La Louvee” 2011 ($90):  Somewhat to my surprise, this gorgeous wine from 2001 showed an even riper fruit profile than the Le Ruchets from 2009.  It also showed less overt oak, though I confess that I found it difficult to tell whether less new oak was involved in the vinification and ageing…or whether it was simply swathed in so much gorgeous fruit that is was less discernable.  No matter.  The fact is that this is a big, meaty, muscular Syrah that--for all of its softness--is nevertheless beautifully proportioned.  The balance of fruit, acidity, wood and tannin is essentially impossible to fault in any respect.  The immediacy of its charms made me want to give it a lower score than the 2009 Le Ruchets, but every time I returned to it, I was persuaded not to do so.  Damned delicious wine.  95