Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Taking on the Northern Rhone

Our tasting group, the inspiration for this blog, has been meeting for five years now. Over nearly 40 formal tastings we have torn apart and dissected most of the world's key wine regions and grapes in blinded, theme-based tastings, but we have never critiqued the syrah-based reds of the northern Rhône. This glaring omission was corrected tonight, with eight tasters taking on six of the region's greats.

After warming up our palates with some fine Burgundies we turned our attention to these northern Rhône treasures: four Hermitages, one Côte-Rôtie and one Cornas, ranging from 3 to 19 years of age. We even had a Parker 100-point wine at the table...

Some nights our group can be quite consensual, but other times our individual rankings are all over the map - tonight was one of those nights:

The winner of tonight's tasting was the youngster, Ash's 2005 Delas Frères Côte-Rôtie 'Seigneur de Maugiron', a wine ranked amongst the top 3 for most tasters. A youthful nose of spicy fresh berries, white pepper, violets and a flinty earthiness. The palate was a velvety carpet of dark berry fruit - fruitier than most of tonights offerings - but with a pleasing long finish and a nice minerally, acidic backbone. My third choice amongst this impressive flight of wines. I wonder if you threw this into an Aussie tasting, would anyone call it out as French? Score: 18/20

Consistently ranked first or second amongst the men, but last place rankings from the ladies resulted in a second place showing for Pramod's 1999 Ferraton Ermitage 'Le Méal'. It took a while to open up, ultimately revealing pretty floral, nutmeg, and old leather notes, earthy blackberries, flint, vanilla, and much more. Very, very elegant on the palate, perfectly balanced with supple tannins and a fine seam of acidity. Polished, with a never ending finish, very easy to enjoy today after a lengthy decant but I think it could be a decade or longer before we see the full potential. My second place, bravo! Score: 18.5/20

Third place (but my favourite of the evening) was Lloyd's 1989 Paul Jaboulet Hermitage 'La Chapelle'. Cam insisted on the scent of 'vomit' on the nose, but I was thinking cooked plums and dark berry fruit, violets and blackberries, leather, fern, hazelnut and flint. A great nose, but it was near perfection on the palate that separated this one for me - silky smooth tannins and fresh acidity held it all together, and despite nearly twenty years in the bottle it was still fresh. An extremely long finish, this has the stuffing to go at least another decade or two in the cellar. An absolute joy to taste one of Hermitage's legendary bottlings, perfectly aged. Score: 18.5/20

Fourth was an impressive showing for my inexpensive (in this crowd) Cornas, the 2003 Delas Frères 'Chante-Perdrix'. Someone suggested a nose of post-coital sweat, but I preferred fruit candy and flowers (pre-coital?), hay and earthy/mushroomy notes. Fresh, balanced, but simpler than the others with a shorter finish. Score: 17/20

Fifth was Cam's 1999 Ferraton Ermitage 'Les Dionnieres'. Meaty and ashen on the nose, firm gripping tannins but a touch hot on the palate. Rather awkward, could soften up and sort itself out with some cellar time. Score: 17.5/20

The biggest story of the night has to be the last place finish (first place amongst the ladies) for the 2003 Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage, a wine Parker rated 100 points. What?! Actually a pretty good nose of ripe (overripe?) blueberries, blackberries, orange, cardamom and tea, liquorice and hazelnut...and LOTS of heat. The palate presented big juicy fruit and firm gripping tannins...and heat. So fruity and awkward, it just didn't show well tonight. I concede that it may simply be 'closed', but I doubt this will ever present a perfect score in my books. All of tonight's wines were 13% alcohol except for this one, which clocked in at a very noticeable 15%. Score: 17/20


For me there were many sides to this evening: a wine that was expected to be compelling (the La Chapelle), a pleasant surprise (the le Meal), an overacheiver (the Chante-Perdrix) and a surpising downside (the Chave).

That Chave surprise was not just ours - Larry Meehan over at Gang of Pour expressed shock at this wine, and Parker's link to Neal Martin's view was an 88 - in line with my 17.

So why were the men and women so diametrically opposite the men on the le Meal and Chave? I'm not going to touch that one.

PS - for my Montreal friends, that le Meal is being cleared out by the SAQ, on sale for C$71. Not cheap, but you rarely get a chance to get such a compelling, aged Hermitage for this price - I think the critics missed this one.


Edward said...


What a great sounding night. I'm not sure I like the sound of a wine that smells like fresh vomit though. . .

Shea said...

Good stuff. As for the Chave - 2003 was a very very hot year. It's too bad the wine was awkward. I'm surprised parker would give any northern rhone from 2003 100 points - in my opinion there just wasn't the weather to support the traditional elegance you hope to find in the greats. We'll see how my 05 tastes in 20 years :)

Joe said...

Hi Ed - I like to throw in my fellow tasters' comments, but I don't think there were any others commenting on vomit. And it was an absolutely terrific night - as you know I'm a bit light on northern Rhone wine so it was great to have such a nice flight - that's what a tasting group is for!

Shea - I have not tasted Northern Rhone deeply enough to have vintage opinions, so thanks for that. Let's hope the '05s were much better, or that the wine was closed and will open up later.

Shea said...

Ya, I can't help it with Rhones - my original love in 'fine wine'. 2005 should be an outstanding vintage - but I won't know for a while when I start to open my shipment of 05's

Brooklynguy said...

cool to read this and compare with my notes from a recent northern rhone tasting. i'll post them soon - there was some overlap.

Joe said...

I'm looking forward to that! At least I think I am - you're not going to embarrass me, right? :) I would bug you for the overlap, but I think I'll wait for the post.

J. Song said...

You have a great blog here! I especially envy people who can muster consistent tasting groups who are committed to advancing their knowledge and passion of wine. I'm in law school now, so hopefully I'll get a consistent group going soon!


Joon S.

Joe said...

Hi Joon - it is very hard to get a group of like-minded tasters together, but we seem to have done that. It helps that the members of the group are friends and would want to hang out even if wine wasn't involved! The challenges in building your group will be gathering "like-minded" individuals (who have the same tasting objectives and price points in mind) and having one person to ultimately steer/organize/cajole others who may have something other than wine on their minds. It has been a labour of love, and the foundation of this blog. Thanks for your comments, and best of luck!