Stephane Ogier in Côte-Rôtie

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Somehow I didn’t take a picture of the winery so this photo looking towards the slopes of Côte-Rôtie will have to do. 

Pulling into Stephane Ogier’s winery in Côte-Rôtie you immediately know that this tasting experience might be a little different. Very modern and austere, the winery feels a little like an outlier in the middle of all the old rustic stone buildings. Rather than a bell on a string you buzz a gate keypad and state your business. The gates open and you wind up a gravel road to a low angled glass and metal modern structure that almost looks like it’s part of the hill it was built on.

Stephane was off tasting in Portugal but we met with his “right hand man” Graeme Bott. Graeme’s a New Zealander and, after struggling through a few tastings in French, it was a relief to converse with someone completely fluent in English (I know, I need to learn French).

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Graeme Bott, winemaker and “right hand man” to Stephane Ogier

The barrel room is expansive and also modern, clean and bright, it’s more reminiscent of a larger California winery than anything we had seen up until this point in the Northern Rhone. We got started on the 2015’s in barrel and I couldn’t believe how open and finished these wines tasted. Graeme attributed this to the spectacular 2015 vintage which he puts right up there with 1990, 1999, and 2010. The wines had recently been racked which he felt made them more open and approachable even in barrel.

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Graeme pulling barrel samples from the 2015 wines.
Stephane Ogier’s 2015 wines are defined by their balance, they aren’t on the lean side but they aren’t on the rich and full side either, they seem to walk the fine line between brawn and finesse. The 2014’s were a little more on the finesse side of things but didn’t lack for power.

Like many of the Northern Rhone wineries we encountered, Ogier seems to combine the best of the traditional wine-making techniques of the region with the best of the modern. He uses a little new oak and makes decisions about stem inclusion based on the vintage. Having studied in Burgundy, Ogier wants to make Syrahs of finesse and elegance. The Burgundian influence also shows in his philosophy of exploring distinct terroirs within the Côte-Rôtie appellation. They produce a Côte-Rôtie Village from younger vines, a Côte-Rôtie reserve, 6 single vineyard Côte-Rôties and two smaller parcel selections from within those single vineyards. Ogier also produces a wine called L’Ame Soeur which is from an as-yet unapproved Seysuel appellation on the other coast of the Rhone River.

Some highlights of what we tasted:

The 2015 wine made from the goblet-trained vines of Montmain was rich and full but with an incredible floral aroma. The Fongeant, Cote-Bodin, and La Vialliere were also showing very well out of barrel which Graeme believed had to do not only with the vintage but also with the fact that the barrels had been recently racked.

The 2014 vintage was a trickier vintage than 2015, marked by lots of rain but a dry end of the summer, the wines tend to be more reserved than the 2015’s. We were able to taste the 2014 St. Joseph, the Côte-Rôtie Village, the Côte-Rôtie Reserve and the Seysuel Syrah. All were delicious, elegant Syrahs with floral and savory character. The star of the tasting was a 2012 Belle Helene which is a parcel select wine that Ogier makes; it was savory and umami, no sense of vegetal with an irresistible salted plum character.

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The spectacular Belle Hélene

It was a pleasure to meet Graeme and his lovely wife Julie (who helped us with dinner reservations at the bistro of the famed La Pyramide) at Stephane Ogier’s winery. I got the sense that, in the sea of modernity that is the Ogier winery, there is still a winemaker that respects the traditions of the Côte-Rôtie by celebrating the elegant, feminine side of Syrah.

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Domaine Gonon in St. Joseph

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Jean Gonon

Our meeting with Jean Gonon was much anticipated. We had heard about his magnetic personality and how much we would learn from our time with him. And all of it was true. Jean Gonon is a pleasure to be around. He’s articulate, has a good sense of wine in its global setting and he’s very knowledgable about wine in the Northern Rhone.

Domaine Gonon is run by siblings Pierre and Jean Gonon. As the younger brother, Jean was not necessarily expected to play such a large part in the family winery but he came back from college to do some seasonal work when his father became ill. The wine work intrigued him and he just kept doing it. After their father’s death, he and Pierre share all the work in the winery and have what Jean describes as a problem-free working relationship.

Gonon’s vineyard holdings are ten hectares and include their own vineyard holdings above the town of Tournon planted by their great grandfather. This area is referred to as Les Oliviers. Other grapes come from holdings in Mauve and parts of Raymond Trollat’s famed vineyard. These holdings are the ones from which they occasionally make their special Vielles Vignes bottling. The Tournon vineyards are mostly granitic soils.

When it comes to vinification, the Gonons are rather traditional. The wines are aged in neutral oak 600 liter casks. A high percentage of whole cluster is used in the vines but the percentage varies based on the vintage. The vineyards are organic and to that end the Gonons are very proud of the horse they’ve purchased to help plough the vineyard rows. Given the steep slopes, many vineyard owners in St. Joseph still resist ploughing in favor of easier to administer herbicide sprays. The horse has been a revelation.

The Gonons are also big believers in massale selection and are replacing clones when they can. They feel that the clones just produce and produce without moderation and are also generally shorter lived than the original vines that were planted. The old version of Syrah originally endemic to the region produces less grapes but the grapes are of higher quality and the vines tend to live longer. In the 1970s the region saw practically an obsession with clones and now in Jean’s estimation the entire St. Joseph appellation is 90% clone. Like Clusel-Roch in Côte-Rôtie and some of the other organic wineries in the Northern Rhone, turning the tide against clones to return the vineyards to their original historic version of Syrah is a pivotal concern.

The Gonons harvest as late as possible and Jean finds the current fashion and fascination with “fresh” wines in the global wine community rather amusing. In the Northern Rhone, Jean says, “freshness is not the thing, ripeness is the thing”. The struggle to ripen grapes fully is always the main concern. The grapes never get over-cooked. To that end the Gonons and, in fact, many of the winemakers in the Northern Rhone are very excited about the 2015 vintage. It was a consistently sunny vintage which has resulted in richer, darker, more tannic but perhaps less floral versions of Syrah.

The 2014 seemed to me a classic St. Joseph with its floral aromas and distinct mineral edge. It also has less tannin and more acidity. The 2013 was a lot like the 2014 with its elegant floral component. Jean had an interesting observation in which he referred to the aroma in cool-climate Syrah as “dead flowers”, I like this description for Northern Rhone Syrah, the wines often have a floral component (whether or not they include Viognier) but that floral component also has a meaty, rotting, almost bloody element to it.

We also got to taste a 2001 St. Joseph which took its time to open up but was a more rounded and fresh version of the 2013 and 2014 we tasted. A beautiful wine that Jean referred to as “…perfect for a winter day.” I’d have to agree, in the almost 100 degree weather we experienced while in the Northern Rhone the only place to drink these Syrah was the Gonons cellar or better to save them for a wintry day.

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The Gonon cellar is dark and cold.  Perfect for tasting brooding Syrah. 

We had a spectacular and informative time with Jean Gonon. He’s an effusive, amiable and articulate representative of his winery and the Northern Rhone in general.