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Northern Rhône Sweet Spot: Saint-Joseph
By Michael Franz
Sep 17, 2019
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Fine Syrah from France’s Northern Rhône Valley is one of the world’s greatest wines, but the sad fact is that not much of it is made.  Appellations in the southern Rhône ranging from simple Côtes-du-Rhône up to Châteauneuf-du-Pape crank out fully 10 times as much wine, and though both have their differing strengths, wines from the north are simply more precious.  Pricey too, on account of their rarity, and that is a problem that will only get worse as these marvelous wines continue to rise in fame around the world.  Top releases from Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie are already exceeding $400 per bottle in price, so savvy consumers are turning to other appellations in the north for great quality at lower prices.  If this is what you’re seeking, the best place to go is Saint-Joseph.

I hasten to qualify this with the observation that Saint-Joseph isn’t the only place in the north to go for high quality and value in Syrah, as Crozes-Hermitage turns out some excellent wines fitting that description.  However, years of tasting intensively both in the USA and in the Rhône have convinced me that the quality average is simply higher in Saint-Joseph, whereas they only differ moderately in price.  Cornas also makes fantastic wines that aren’t as expensive as Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie, but the problem is that their prices are rising a lot faster than those of wines from Saint-Joseph.

I would usually provide a lot of detail at this point in a column on the location and topography and soils, but in this instance I want to go straight to a slew of brilliant wines that will convert you to “St-Jo” quickly and completely.  The vintages of 2015, 2016 and 2017 turned out fabulous wines that will—if tasted—do the job of conversion themselves, without a lot of verbiage from me. 

So, let’s get to it:  The best wines from the appellation that I tasted in the Rhône in April appear below in order of preference, with alphabetical ordering for wines with the same score.  Prices are approximate, and some of these are still not released in the USA (though almost all are now on offer in Europe).  Most are made in quite small quantities, and the finite number of bottles that will be spread across North America will go to those who are quick on the draw…and they’ll go quickly, so read up and then pony up!

Yves Cuilleron (Saint-Joseph) “Les Serines” 2017 ($50):  Cuilleron’s cellar releases wines every year that demonstrate the competitiveness of Saint-Joseph and Cornas with the historically more revered terroirs of Côte-Rôtie and Hermitage; the four bottlings of Côte-Rôtie are excellent, but the releases in 2017 from Saint-Joseph and Cornas are every bit as good when tasted side-by-side in close succession.  This was the best of the 2017s from St-Jo (narrowly but clearly), with very impressive density and depth of flavor, but even more impressive purity of fruit.  Indeed, my raw note taken when tasting this includes mention of “piercing purity,” as the fruit has uncanny freshness that punches straight through the wood and tannin to give this amazing lift and freshness for such a ripe, concentrated wine.  Now being sold in Europe, I’ve yet to see this on offer in the USA, but keep this in mind and pounce when you see it.  About 15,000 bottles were produced, and by the way, “Serines” isn’t a vineyard site, but rather a local synonym for Syrah.  This is an old vine cuvée, and a stunning one in 2017.  95

Delas (Saint-Joseph) “Sainte-Epine” 2016 ($75):  This house makes very good negociant wines and some killer bottlings from parcels that it owns in the various northern Rhône appellations (including a single-site Hermitage that is among the titans of the entire region).  This is fantastic in 2016, with all the purity and suppleness that this growing season provided to those who knew what to do with it, but also real depth and density.  Spicy, toasty oak notes are well tuned to the weight of the fruit, and are joined by a host of little aromatic and flavor details that make for very impressive complexity.  Superb.  95

Ferraton (Saint-Joseph) “Lieu-Dit Saint-Joseph” 2016 ($55):  Ferraton is a house of long-standing that has made two major changes in direction in recent years, first in 1998 when Michel Chapoutier got involved and shifted viticulture in organic and then biodynamic directions before buying the operation outright in 2006.  There’s a negociant side to the business, with quite good wines at attractively reasonable prices, but also some domaine wines made from excellent sites with old vines that were purchased decades ago by the Ferraton family.  These latter bottlings seem to get better every year, yet prices are not quite keeping up with the pace of improvement, which is a word to the wise.  This is sourced from a single site south of Tournon that was planted in the 1950s on decomposed granite.  It is marvelous wine, with excellent density and almost bottomless depth of flavor, but also a layered character with very open flavors showing a host of both fruity and savory nuances.  The fruit is quite dark-toned, yet never hard nor unforgiving, and the gorgeous accents of violets, black olive tapenade, smoked meat and baking spices are enduringly appealing.  95

E. Guigal (Saint-Joseph) “Vignes de L’Hospice” 2016 ($100):  This wine is certainly among the most famous and prestigious bottlings from Saint-Joseph, and though it is definitely not necessary to spend at this three-digit level to get a wine of the highest quality, the fact remains that this is a reference point to be taken seriously.  Aged in 100% new oak barrels, this gets the same high-end treatment of all the other top end Guigal wines (including the three $400+ single site Côte-Rôtie offerings), for better or worse.  (Meaning, better in excellent vintages when the juice can support the wood, and better for those with cellars and patience to let the oak be absorbed by the wine; worse for the impatient and those of more modest financial means.)  In 2016, the fruit material is definitely up to the challenge posed by the wood, and though it will take years for the wine to integrate what now seems like a one-two combination punch of dense fruit and aggressive oak, this will definitely become a great wine.  As an aside, I should note that while Guigal has enjoyed a nearly peerless reputation in the USA since the 1980s, thanks in large part to the lofty praise of Robert Parker, many of the European wine writers whom I’ve befriended when tasting in the Rhône think this house is over-rated, usually on the ground that the wines are insufficiently individuated because of the aggressive oaking applied to all of them.  There’s certainly some validity to that, but the criticism dissipates in validity over time as the wines age, suggesting to my mind that the overwhelming blame for mistreatment falls on consumers rather than the producer.  95

Yves Cuilleron (Saint-Joseph) “Cavanos” 2017 ($40):  Cuilleron makes a lot of different wines (white and red, from multiple different appellations), and this one isn’t even shows on the website, so I can’t tell you much about it…except that it is terrific in 2017.  By comparison to the lighter-but-lovely ““Les Pierres Sèches” bottling (which earned a mere 93 points), this shows both more muscle and more oak, but everything about this wine is so proportional and precise that it is already irresistible even at this young age.  Pure notes of red and black berries are intertwined with suggestions of cured meat, minerals, toast and spices, with the savory, fruity and woody facets all beautifully integrated.  94

Pierre Gonon (Saint-Joseph) 2017 ($120):  During the past five years or so, the St-Jo Rouge from this house has become a cult wine (no other term will do) that is very difficult to find at any price, and very difficult to afford if found.  I’ve got a couple of magnums of the 2012 in my cellar for which I paid about half what a 750 ml bottle now costs, which indicates just how crazy the cult has gone.  (Note to cultists:  My cellar is guarded by Marco, a Pit Bull / Rottweiler / Lab mix who doesn’t take kindly to intruders.)  Usually it isn’t a good idea to chase cult wines, but there’s no doubting that this is excellent in 2017, showing rich, dark-toned fruit with impressive intensity but also a suave side with lots of little aromatic nuances, layered flavors, and just the right touch of wood.  My close friend and WRO colleague Paul Lukacs tasted a bottle of this in a restaurant in Europe a couple of years ago…loved the wine…and then returned to the horrific discovery of what one must pony up to buy a bottle.  Beware of undergoing the same sequence of experiences.  94

Michelas Saint Jemms (Saint-Joseph) “Terres d’Arce” 2017 ($45):  I had never even heard of this producer--much less tasted the wines--until happening upon some bottles in the midst of an open-call restaurant consulting project in the summer of 2018.  The quality of those bottles was stunning, and my first chance to taste them amongst their peers while in the Rhône in April of 2019 confirmed my stateside impressions.  This is a big, rich wine in the mold of 2017, with wonderful textural roundness and very impressive depth of flavor.  Complex now but sure to become much more so as this loses some primary fruit intensity that will be backfilled by bottle bouquet, this is currently marked mostly by a one-two punch of fruit and oak.  But that’s no knock on the wine:  The fruit is fabulous, and the oak balanced just right.  94

P. J. Villa (Saint-Joseph) “Tilde” 2016 ($50):  Concentrated and deeply flavorful, but also marvelously pure and fresh, this is obviously fantastic northern Rhône Syrah regardless of the appellation…and I’d be willing to bet that even most professional tasters who know the region well would mistake this for Hermitage if tasting blind.  Aged very sensibly in 500 liter oak casks, a very sensibly modest 10% of which are new.  The fruit material is so manifestly fantastic that it doesn’t need any heavy-handed cellar treatment, and thank goodness it wasn’t subjected to any.  Not much made, and not easy to find…but you should try.  I’ve already bought it.  94

Maison Les Alexandrins (Saint-Joseph) Domaine Les Alexandrins 2016 ($46):  This is a new house that makes some solid entry-level wines from purchased fruit and a few truly exceptional ones from estate-owned vines…Domaine designated, as in this case.  I shows plenty of concentration and depth of flavor, but even more notable is its supremely silky texture, purity of fruit, masterful integration of oak and general classiness.  Very impressive, but without trying too hard, this is excellent.  93

Sebastien Blanchon (Saint-Joseph) “Alban” 2017 ($35):  This house evidently knew just how to play the 2017 growing season, as this shows quite ripe fruit that is open and extremely expressive, with excellent intensity and depth of flavor, but also real complexity and a layered character with savory notes and undertones of campfire embers and spices that make for real interest to go with all the power.  93

M. Chapoutier (Saint-Joseph) “Les Granilites” 2016 ($32):  This isn’t easy to find in the USA, but the 2016 is so good that it is worth a search…even if that search requires a trip to France, Germany or Switzerland.  Although it displays admirable density, the real attractions derive from the open, vivacious aromas and flavors, which are layered and complex to a degree that seems uncanny in relation to the wine’s physical concentration.  In a word, magical--which is often a word that comes to mind when tasting Michel Chapoutier’s wines these days, whether from the eponymous house or the wholly-owned house of Ferraton.  I have no idea whether the magic derives from biodynamic viticulture (which certainly incorporates explicitly magical elements) or sheer skill or some other sort of dark art…but I don’t much care because the wines are so arrestingly interesting.  93

Louis Cheze (Saint-Joseph) “Anges” 2016 ($34):  I rarely see this bottling of St-Jo from Cheze in the USA, whereas the “Ro-Rée” bottling is much easier to find.  Still, this is the one you want if you can find it, as the 2016 displays terrific punch for a vintage that is more about poise than power, but also shows lovely perfume and a captivatingly layered character.  Probably the single best wine I’ve ever tasted from this producer, and a steal if you can actually track it down.  93

Domaine Durand (Saint-Joseph) “Lautaret” 2017 ($35):  This is a house on the rise, with excellent wines at reasonable prices and a clearly upward trajectory in terms of overall quality and reputation.  This release shows excellent floral aromatics and lots of detailed flavors for a wine that is as dark, deep and dense as it proves to be.  The texture is very supple but hardly formless, as it starts lush but then finishes with good structure.  93

Domaine Georges Vernay (Saint-Joseph) “Terre d’Encre” 2017 ($50):  This house makes wonderful whites as well as reds, all very tastefully wrought, and rarely showing even a whiff of any excess ripeness or extraction or wood.  Unfortunately, they aren’t easy to find in the USA, and are usually much more expensive on our side of the Atlantic than in Europe.  This particular wine shows the house’s stylish side in the form of alluring floral topnotes and lively, spicy flavors, but also shows seriousness in the form of admirable concentration and very flavorful fruit that easily outlasts the wood and tannins in the finish.  Delicious St-Jo.  My approximate price halves the difference between the $60 you’d likely pay in the USA and the $40 or so this will cost you in Europe.  93

François Villard (Saint-Joseph) “Mairlant” 2016 ($32):  This delicious wine is notably more impressive than the “Reflet” St-Jo in 2016, though that wine is also very good and a fine representation of a wonderfully suave vintage.  Yet this “Mairlant” bottling offers up more of everything, including toasty, spicy oak aromas that lead into very dark-toned fruit flavors with accents of cured meat, campfire embers, iodine and pen ink.  A glass-staining wine with striking intensity.  I see very little of this currently on offer in the USA, but the state-run monopoly in Pennsylvania is selling it for the amazingly reasonable sum of $32, which is tempting me to make the drive from DC….  93

Emmanuel Darnaud (Saint-Joseph) “Lieu-Dit La Dardouillle” 2017 ($45):  Showing the character of the vintage, this is big, dark, sappy and strong, with lots of muscle and structure but not all that much perfume at this early stage in its development.  I have little doubt that it was in a rather dumb state when I tasted it in the Rhône in April, but even if I’m wrong and it doesn’t show more primary aroma as it evolves, the advent of tertiary aromas from bottle aging will certainly turn this into a wine with enough aromatic interest to offer an appealing introduction to the existing fireworks of flavor.  92+

Domaine Courbis (Saint-Joseph) “Les Royes” 2017 ($48):  A bit light by reference to the norm among top producers (which certainly includes Courbis) in the 2017 vintage, this succeeds less on sheer power than on purity and prettiness.  To be sure, the wine still has punch as well as depth of flavor and some notable firmness in the finish, but there are no hard edges, and this is a charmer rather than a killer.  92

Les Vins de Vienne (Saint-Joseph) “Lieu Dit Le Biez” 2016 ($42):  An excellent, interesting wine that shows both power and poise, this shows good density isn’t unusually concentrated for the vintage.  What distinguishes it above all is its textural complexity, as a very soft (even creamy) mid-palate is followed by a finish with welcome grip from lots of fine-grained tannin.  Delicious already, this will last and likely improve for at least another five years, but I doubt that many bottles will survive for long if those who buy them taste this early on.  92

P. J Villa (Saint-Joseph) “Preface” 2017 ($38):  This is Villa’s simple, fresh take on St-Jo, and it is always delicious and a pure pleasure to drink, even if never as impressive as the Tilde.  In the warm, generous 2017 vintage it is especially easy to enjoy, if not so complex as to seem an object for deep contemplation.  Soft and overtly fruity--but without seeming grapey or overly simple--it is impossible not to enjoy.  91