A Fascinating Visit to Domaine Bernard Gripa

A visit to Domaine Bernard Gripa was a revelation about the movement to finesse in St. Joseph, as much for whites as for reds. Gripa is one of the old-line domains in Mauves, in the heart of the St. Joseph appellation. “I’m Fabrice, Bernard’s son,” says Fabrice Gripa when I arrive, “I took over the domain in 1993, now I’m the winemaker and manager (and owner). My family has been in France since the seventeenth century, and involved in wine since then; my grandfather made some wine, but mostly sold in bulk, as glass was expensive and he bottled wine only on special demand. My father started bottling in 1974 and since then we have bottled everything.” The address of the domain is in the main street through Mauves, but in fact the premises–an old building and caves–are round the back and quite extensive.

The domain is just behind the main street through Mauves.

Vineyards are half red and half white, all in St. Joseph except for 5 ha of white in St. Péray. “All our St. Joseph plots are in the “berceau” (the heart of St. Joseph),” Fabrice says, “divided between Mauves and Tournon.” Winemaking is traditional. “We are quite classical, there’s really no innovation here.” In each appellation, there are two cuvées, a general blend, and a selection from the best plots (called Le Berceau for St. Joseph in both red and white). The first new cuvée was introduced in 2016, Le Paradis from St. Joseph. “I planted the vineyard 20 years ago and now it’s good enough to be made alone,” Fabrice says.

Whites are an unusually high proportion of production here. Fabrice is interesting about them. “White is a novelty in this area, until recently it was 99% red. The whites used to be powerful. People here like whites that are quite massive, they don’t like acidity. Even now if you try to use a northern vineyard for whites, people don’t like it, they think it has too much acidity. The difficulty with Marsanne is that it needs oxidation, but it becomes over-oaked quite easily. There was no experience with Roussanne until the recent replanting. Then it was trial by mistake.”

“In the 1990s, the most important thing for reds was to be big and concentrated. Everyone was taking grapes off to get down to 35 hl/ha. They made the whites the same way, so the whites were very strong and powerful. It works in Hermitage because the terroir compensates, but in St. Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage, the wines were heavy. When I grew up, whites were heavy and bitter, and made for aging. It’s very easy to put wine into new barrels for two years and then to sell it, but to find the right balance of oak and aging is more difficult.” Gripa’s whites age in barriques or demi-muids with 10-15% new oak.

“The big difference between St. Péray and St. Joseph is of course the soils, the climate is similar, but there’s granite in St. Joseph,” Fabrice explains. The white St. Joseph is 70% Marsanne with 30% Roussanne and is quite aromatic. The Berceau cuvée comes from a single vineyard of 100% Marsanne and is correspondingly more powerful. If you drink the whites young, open a few hours ahead. In St. Péray, Les Pins is 70% Marsanne and 30% Roussanne, while Les Figuiers is 60% Roussanne and 40% Marsanne, and includes old vines. Usually at 3-5 years the fruits become less obvious, and savory almost herbal notes appear, a bit sooner for a hot vintage, a bit later for a cool vintage. “4-5 years is the best time to drink the white,” Fabrice says, but then he pulls out some older vintages. After ten years, the aromatics have changed completely, from fruity to savory. The revelation is a 20-year old St. Péray, all full of savory flavors. It is fair to say that Les Figuiers is the most elegant wine I have had from St. Péray.

By contrast with the whites, Fabrice prefers the reds younger. “The Syrah with Hermitage has a stage when it goes down quite low, but then it comes back. St. Joseph stays down. I prefer the St. Joseph between 4 and 5 years, I find Syrah less interesting after 10 years than earlier.” The St. Joseph red can be quite stern and tannic on release, but after 3-4 years becomes more fragrant, mineral, and precise. Le Berceau comes from a plot of vines first planted in 1920 in the St. Joseph lieu-dit. Its richer, deeper, more concentrated fruits make the tannins less obvious even though the wine is more intense. It can veer from overtly powerful in hot vintages to relatively fresh in cool vintages.

Le Paradis is a selection from a 2 ha plot­–the rest goes into the St. Joseph blend–and there are only 2,000 bottles. It spends a year in demi-muids with 25% new oak, followed by a year in 4-5-year barriques, and is very fine, with a great sense of precision and tension. Its silky tannins show all the tautness of granite. “Most of the reds of Tournon are powerful,” Fabrice says, “and I wanted to change tradition with this terroir, which is really different.”

Hearing Fabrice’s thoughtful analysis of the reds and whites, not to mention tasting the range through both young and old vintages, made this one of my most interesting visits to the Northern Rhône last week.

Impressive Range of Northern Rhone Wines at Cave de Tain

I don’t visit cooperatives very often, but sometimes they can give an insight into a region that’s otherwise hard to obtain, especially when they produce wines from all the appellations that can be compared directly. One great cooperative is La Chablisienne, another is the Cave de Tain, which I visited last week.

Founded in 1933, this is the most important cooperative in the Northern Rhône. All the appellations are included (as well as varietal wines from IGP Collines Rhodaniennes). Most of the grapes come from members of the cooperative, of course, but the Cave owns some vineyards, including 21 ha of Hermitage (which came from the estate of Louis Gambert de Loche, who founded the cooperative). This makes them one of the major owners of Hermitage (the others being Chapoutier and Jaboulet). The Cave de Tain is a modern building located just next to the hill of Hermitage.

The introductory range is called Grand Classique, and offers an unusual opportunity to compare all the appellations of the Northern Rhone with similar vinification. In whites, Crozes-Hermitage has more character than St. Joseph, while Hermitage is distinctly richer and deeper. In reds, Crozes-Hermitage is immediately pleasing, but St. Joseph has more grip and character, and Cornas presents a smooth modern impression, yet retains a sense of earthiness in the background. Hermitage is smooth and moves more in the direction of elegance than power.

Each appellation also has an organic cuvée, marked bio, and in each case the fruits are just a touch rounder, riper, and smoother than Grand Classique. (If the only difference is in viticulture, the comparison makes an effective argument for the advantages of organic culture.)

Special cuvées from each appellation come from selections of the best parcels. In whites, Les Hauts d’Eole Crozes-Hermitage is 60% Marsanne, 40% Roussanne, compared with the 100% Marsanne of Grand Classique, and gives a classier impression with greater concentration. The Grand Classique Hermitage is 100% Roussanne and in another league; Au Coeur des Siècles, the special selection Hermitage from select parcels, is 100% Marsanne, giving a richer impression, but also is a touch more rustic, so this is a rare case where I prefer the “regular” cuvée to the special selection.

The red special cuvées are generally worth the small extra cost compared with Grand Classique or Bio. Crozes-Hermitage Les Hauts de Fief is a more serious wine than the other Crozes-Hermitage cuvées. St. Joseph Esprit de Granit is from a selection of parcels, and shows the extra tautness of granite compared with the other cuvées. While the Cornas Les Arènes Sauvages is not at all savage, it has greater grip than the other Cornas cuvées. The smooth, sleek character of the Cornas cuvées clearly show the inclination of the Cave de Tain towards modernism. In Hermitage, the special cuvée Gambert de Loche (named for the founder of the coop) has the most sense of structure, and more grip than the other Hermitage cuvées.

The coop maintains an impressive quality across the entire range, and is certainly well in touch with modern trends. It has a huge modern building in Tain l’Hermitage, with a boutique and tasting room that is always busy. Just round the corner is the Cité du Chocolate, where Valrhona has created a museum of the history of chocolate, so this is an interesting neck of the woods.The museum of chocolate is a major attraction in Tain l’Hermitage.

A Vertical of Chave Hermitage: from Modernity to Tradition with Surprises Along the Way (Eucalyptus!)

Having been drinking Chave Hermitage for more than twenty years, and having made a pilgrimage to the source, where there was an extensive tasting of barrel samples, I thought I had a pretty good bead on Chave Hermitage both old and young, but I was surprised by the wines between the current era and the very oldest at a vertical extending back to 1978.

The first flight showed striking variations of style, reflecting extreme vintage variation. The 2005 was decidedly a modern wine, all youthful power of spice and black fruits waiting to subside, but the potential for future development along classic lines was revealed by a faintly animal note to the nose. The 2004 started with vegetal notes, clearing in the glass to a more traditional fruit spectrum, but somehow never quite coming to life. Not much in the way of great wine came out of the south of France in 2002, the year of the floods, but the 2002 showed nice restraint, more red fruits than black, in a style admittedly much lighter than usual.

The next flight was frankly a puzzle, as all the wines were characterized by eucalyptus and menthol, in varying strengths from a medicinal wintergreen on 2001, although lightening in the glass, to faint notes in the background of the lighter 2000, to a more subtle impression of high toned aromatics on 1999. All developed faint notes of tobacco on the finish.

This theme continued with variations through the third flight, with 1998 faintly perfumed, floral, and phenolic, and mentholated notes rising a bit obviously above the somewhat monotonic fruits; it was more subtle the last time I had it, a few years back, so age has restricted rather than broadened it. 1997 was a classic nose with leather and perfume, and that slight touch of menthol, but at this point the most subtle wine of the nineties; and 1992 was frankly overwhelmed by eucalyptus.

Going back further, we returned to familiar ground. The 1990 was the knockout of the tasting, perfect balance, fragrant with mature fruits well past primary, but less animal than it has been previously, and not yet tertiary. The 1988 would have showed a somewhat similar style but was slightly corked. The 1978 was a much older version of the 1990, fragrant like old Bordeaux, quite delicate.

The old vintage of Chave with which I’m most familiar is 1985, as I’ve been finishing off a case, and taking that as my benchmark, the 1990 seems like a decade younger version, and the 1978 like a decade older. But I can see a clear lineage here, from the modern 2005 to the traditional 1978, with 1990 and 1985 fitting in along the way and showing appropriate development. I’m frankly puzzled by the wines between 2004 and 1992, where the varying strength of eucalyptus seems to cloud assessment.

The Perils of Tasting

A tasting to compare Côte Rôtie and Hermitage showed the perils of tasting. With wide variations of style, from wines in full blown modern international style to wines in restrained, if not austere, tradition, Côte Rôtie and Hermitage make a perfect illustration of the point.

Twice during the tasting a wine in a more restrained style followed a wine in a more powerful style. Both times, the second wine was, to say the least, under appreciated.

Guigal’s La Mouline 1998 showed pretty well. The primary black fruits and new oak are still pretty evident on the palate, but in very good balance, and it’s all beginning to integrate beautifully. But it’s still a few years off reaching the point at which it will complement a meal instead of providing its own assertive focus of attention.

The following wine, Clusel Roch’s Les Grandes Places, was subtle and understated in the usual style of the house. A sweet aromatic impression to the nose is almost perfumed, leading into a lively, elegant fresh palate. But as one of the lightest wines in the tasting, it elicited comments such as “water” or “dilute”. But I would bet that the comments would have been completely different if these two bottles had been tasted over a leisurely dinner instead of being sipped briefly in the context of the tasting.

At the end of the tasting a comparisons between two Guigal’s was equally informative. Even though it’s lightened up quite a bit, the Brune et Blonde from 1983 was surprisingly fuller and superficially richer than La Landonne. Most tasters preferred it, although La Landonne, probably now at its peak, showed ethereal layers of developing red fruit that were a lot less obvious (incidentally a striking demonstration of the ability of Northern Rhones to mature along a path similar to Bordeaux).

This all confirmed my belief in the need for a reality check: consume a bottle with dinner. The test is whether at the end you are tired of it or (in principle if not in practice) would like to have another bottle. That’s a much better test than a sip or gulp at a tasting.