Cellar Direct Winter Wines: Stephane Rousset Crozes-Hermitages

18 01 2020

By Peter Vetsch

[This bottle was provided as a sample for review purposes.]

The Cellar Direct offer train rolls on this weekend, and obviously they have my personal wine preferences bugged:  after offering my favourite kind of white wine (Mosel Riesling) last offer, they have moved on to my favourite red grape (Syrah) this week, straight from its spiritual homeland in France’s Northern Rhone.  This relatively compact, narrow winegrowing area runs north-south and is split in half by the Rhone river, with the regions of Cote-Rotie, Condrieu, St. Joseph and Cornas tracking the river’s west bank and Hermitage and Crozes-Hermitage hugging the east.  There is a part of the Rhone that curves gradually out to the east before almost immediately swerving back to the west; right at that cut-back bend lies the mighty hill of Hermitage, the most esteemed appellation in the Northern Rhone, with its understudy Crozes-Hermitage spreading out in concentric circles to the north, south and east behind it.

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Crozes-Hermitage is both literally and figuratively in the shadow of its namesake, both considerably larger (1,700 hectares of grapes under vine as compared to Hermitage’s 136 hectares) and more varied, a hodgepodge of sites and soils, its wines varying widely in ambition and quality.  Given this level of variety, it’s hard to know what you’re going to get in any given bottle of Crozes; the region itself lacks the automatic pedigree and heightened standards of its neighbours.  So how to approach this appellation, the Northern Rhone’s biggest, which is often promoted as a budget-friendly alternative to its neighbouring luminaries?  Hook your wagon to specific producers or sites as opposed to the region as a whole.  Find those in the most compelling areas with the best soils and sites, those with a relentless focus on quality vineyard and winemaking practices.  I’m aware that this can be easier said than done.  Don’t know where to start?  Start right here.

Some parts of western Hermitage are well-known for their granitic soils, and the entire appellation-on-a-hill is revered for its slope, aspect and location, the hillside vineyards allowing for better sun access to the whole vine and enhanced air movement, the proximity to the river modulating temperatures and fostering consistent growth.  Conversely, only 10% of the vineyard land in Crozes-Hermitage is on hillside land, and granite is only featured in the northern communes of the region.  However, the renowned “Les Picaudières” lieu-dit in Crozes is a steep south-facing hill close to the waters of the Rhone, on granitic and metamorphic schist soils and located due north of Hermitage hill, making it not only a rarity in Crozes-Hermitage but one of the region’s very best sites, a reasonably priced facsimile of the legend itself.  (As I kept coming back to while tasting, the vineyard’s soil profile also seems to make it a kindred spirit to some of the top elevated areas producing Cru Beaujolais, another haven of granitic and schistic soils and the lithe and complex wines that are born from them.)  This world-class vineyard is currently owned and tended by only two producers:  Rhone stalwart Jaboulet, and Stephane Rousset, creator of tonight’s bottle.

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2016 Stephane Rousset Crozes-Hermitage “Les Picaudières” ($51)

Rousset owns only a single hectare of the Les Picaudières vineyard, which has become his small estate’s flagship site.  All of his Crozes-Hermitage vineyards are granite-based and located in the northern communes of the region; his St. Joseph vineyards across the river are also planted in granite, so he obviously has a type when it comes to geology.  Stephane and his father tend the vineyards in non-interventionist fashion, avoiding all chemical herbicides and pesticides.  Les Picaudières is located on a sharply sloping terrace surrounded by forests just east of the coastal village of Gervans, featuring vines averaging 50 years old but whose oldest vinous inhabitants are nearing a century of life; the soil is almost pure granitic bedrock, with almost no topsoil to speak of thanks to the hill’s steep slopes.  To the extent tilling is possible, the plot is only tilled by horse.  It is a throwback in every sense of the word.

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In the recently released 8th edition of the World Atlas of Wine, Jancis Robinson writes that there are two main styles of Crozes-Hermitage, “one full of youthful, supple fruit for early drinking, and the other, more serious, savoury bottlings that can be kept for up to 10 years.”  This is definitely the latter.  The Syrah grapes are destemmed after harvest and their juice is fermented using indigenous yeasts, spending up to a month on the skins before pressing to tease out additional flavours and complexity.  The finished wine is then aged in a combination of stainless steel and oak barrel, nearly all old.  The result is a marvel.

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Cork Rating:  1.5/10 (Motion to fire all “Mis en Bouteille” corks and all bunch-of-grapes neck foils into the sun. Motion carried.)

The scion of Les Picaudières is a semi-translucent ruby-purple, featuring the shade but not the thickness of hue associated with more steroidal versions of Syrah.  Initially reticent, its aromas quickly blossom into pleasingly plump raspberry and blueberry, restrained and honed by sharper oolong tea, copper cups, fennel, pencil lead, violets and black pepper, about as classic an olfactory expression of Northern Rhone Syrah as you can get.  (My initial tasting notes, prior to any vineyard soil research, included “granite”, which now seems a little too on-the-nose.)  Lean and scaled-back on the palate, at first it is a study of iron and blood, any aromatic fatness of fruit vanished, a prominent sanguine streak penetrating the lighter, more piercing cranberry and sour cherry flavours.  Further air and exploration teases out incense, jasmine, tennis racquets and something brightly citric alongside sleekly grippy tannin and a rush of driving, almost severe acid.

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I intentionally avoided argon preservation (but not my fridge) after the first night of tasting and on the second night the wine developed a remarkable softness of texture that smoothed out the angles and sharpness of its profile and rendered its myriad of flavours far more accessible.  Decant healthily if opening immediately (although you certainly can with enough air); Jancis’ up-to-10-years quote notwithstanding, I suspect this would show even better in a decade than it does right now.  This is a remarkable example of Northern Rhone Syrah’s ability to convey “power without weight”, and of all of the recent Cellar Direct wines I’ve had the opportunity to taste, this is the one to buy in multiples, as its progression over the years is likely to be extremely compelling.  I will never understand why Syrah is often found to be a hard sell, but bottles like this will unravel that problem in a hurry.

91+ points


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