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.


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.

Domaine Marc Sorrel Hermitage

After a few fits and starts in France, specifically a sadly missed meeting with Domaine Clape, we were relieved to find Marc Sorrel’s cellars in the town of Tain L’ Hermitage rather easily. His little winery even had a sign in front (which is not as common as you would think in the Northern Rhone region of France), and he spoke English which made my wife happy as she did not have to attempt to translate.


Monsieur Sorrel comes from a long line of public notaries in the village of Tain. He studied to be a notary and ended up becoming one for a short period until his father’s death. His father and grandfather had owned parts of Le Meal vineyard and some of Bessards and Les Plantiers and his father began making small amounts of wine in the 1970s. Marc Sorrel took over operations in 1984. He was also able to add the Greffieux vineyard in the mid 1980s by purchasing it on his own. He’s a bit reserved but opens up quickly and it’s easy to tell he has a lot of quiet pride in his winery and confidence in the quality of his wines.

Sorrel makes wine in a traditional way with a few nods towards modernity, he uses no new oak, generally 100% whole cluster (depending on the maturity of the stems) and ages his wines for two years in barrel. Yet, he uses outside yeasts and an automatic punchdown machine, which he’s quite excited about. He’s one of the small producers, a little island in an appellation dominated by Jaboulet, Chapoutier. and Guigal. In fact, according to Monsieur Sorrel only about a dozen producers make wine outside of the three big ones and they make it in small quantities. Hermitage is, after all, a small appellation.

Marc Sorrel talking about his punchdown machine and the barrel room which, rather than being downstairs, extends back from the tasting room/store front. 

Monsieur Sorrel makes a cuvee that he simply calls Hermitage Rouge ($55). Traditionally most Hermitage Syrahs were blends from various vineyards and this is still widely practiced today. The 2013 cuvee tastes of honest pure fruit with good balance and a backbone of acidity.


The Greal ($85), so called because it is a combination of the Greffieux vineyard and the Méal vineyard, is his flagship red. It’s a richer style of Syrah and seems darker and fuller than the Hermitage Rouge but also defined by its core of pure fresh fruit.


Monsieur Sorrel also makes a beautiful white Hermitage from Les Rocoules which is spectacularly rich and complex and a wine that I’d love to taste in 10 to 15 years.

These are impressive iterations of Hermitage. Although I would have loved to have purchased a Greal (and I’m still kicking myself for not having done so), I decided on an Hermitage Rouge and plan on putting it away for a few years to revisit and enjoy.

Franck Balthazar Cornas

cornas road sign

Our first stop in Cornas didn’t exactly start out as planned. The GPS in our rental led us on a wild goose chase that led to a dead end and also led to us being about a half an hour late for our appointment with Franck Balthazar.

Balthazar makes wine in a place that for all intents and purposes looks like a French version of a tract house from the outside. We approached timidly, wondering if this truly could be the right place. We rang the doorbell a few times and were about to turn away when a sleepy teenager opened the door blinded by the sunlight. She squinted at us and wordlessly led us around to the backside of the house where a tractor and a bunch of winery-looking tubing made us finally sure we were in the right place. She led us down a staircase below a large garage and that’s where we found Franck Balthazar.

franck balthazar

We also found that Franck had been using Google Translate to answer my email to him and that he really only spoke a little English. I had assured my wife that all the winemakers we were meeting with spoke fluent English so she wouldn’t have to call up the French she had last spoken 20 years ago during her college study abroad program. Well, surprise honey, not only do I need you to translate for me but I need you to translate a bunch of wine terms you’ve probably never heard in English. But Franck did his best and Emily did her best and we ended up being able to communicate pretty well.

Franck is a humble and self-effacing guy who makes wine in an understated winery.  But he makes world-class wines. They are traditionally-styled, basket-pressed, no new oak and aged in 600 liter demi-muid barrels. The wines are all 100% whole cluster. Balthazar makes a cuvee that is fruit made up of 80% younger vines (8 to 9 year old vineyards). It’s a floral Syrah with a full mid-palate and searing acidity. He also makes a Chaillot vineyard designate Cornas which was wonderfully perfumed and reminiscent of a combination of black and red fruit aromas. These are incredible iterations of Syrah and in this young stage are all freshness and acidity. I look forward to seeing how they develop in a few years. We tasted the 2015 out of barrel for both vintages and the wine had that not-ready taste to it that sometimes happens (fittingly, because they aren’t ready) when you taste wines out of barrel.

 Franck Balthazar’s two Syrah bottlings. 


Franck’s barrel cave and basket press.

Franck’s holdings in Cornas are small and he farms them with care and even uses a horse instead of a tractor to help with the ploughing. Given the tight rows in Cornas’ plantings a tractor is unfeasible anyway. Chaillot is of course Balthazar’s gem. All the wines he makes are from the old Cornas clone sometimes called “la Petite Syrah” because of its smaller berries.

Franck was a gentle, humble soul with a disarming smile, it was a pleasure to spend time with him. Our apologies for waking up his sleepy but accommodating daughter.


Cornas vines are on single posts, granitic soils, and tightly spaced rows. 

tasting table

We tasted with Franck in the cellar, (as we later found out would be the case in almost all the wineries that we visited in France).


Domaine Clusel-Roch Côte-Rôtie


The affable and knowledgeable Brigitte Roch.

Meeting Brigitte Roch was one of the great pleasures of our trip to the Northern Rhone. She’s a joy to be around and we thoroughly delighted in our time with her. Clusel-Roch is a Côte-Rôtie winery that makes traditionally styled (employing some new techniques) elegant wines. Brigitte’s husband Gilbert Clusel’s family started in the wine business three generations back and Gilbert inherited a small portion of Côte-Rôtie’s Grandes Places vineyard from Gilbert’s father Rene and started making wine. They’ve secured other vineyards for fruit as the years have gone on. Gilbert and Brigitte’s son Guillaume also does a lot of the work in the winery. The day we visited father and son were out tying errant grapevine stalks to the triangular-shaped posts that are favored in Côte-Rôtie.

cote rotie vines

The vines right behind the Clusel-Roch Domaine

Guillaume has also started a small project of making wine from the Coteaux du Lyonnais appellation that lies between Lyon and Vienne. Guillaume found an old abandoned vineyard of Gamay and has made a go at making a less-expensive wine that he’s been able to put his own stamp on. The Gamay was impressive and tasted just as good as many high end Beaujolais that I’ve had (although admittedly I haven’t had a whole lot of high end Beaujolais). Guillaume also made a pleasant rosé using the saignee method from the same grapes as the Gamay.

On to the Syrah and the real reason we came to see Brigitte. The Clusel-Roch Cuvee Classique is made with native yeast fermentation, gravity fed, punched down twice a day and basket-pressed after one month on the skins. It spends two years in barrel (20% new) and is bottled at the beginning of harvest usually in September.

The design of the winery allows the grapes to be brought in through the outside doors at the top level and then gravity fed into the tanks. 

The property that Gilbert and Brigitte own is all massale-selected vines from the original “Serine” clone of Syrah from Côte-Rôtie. They graft this variety from the original plantings from the Les Grandes Places vineyard. Not a whole lot is known about the origin of this “O.G.” clone of Syrah but there’s little doubt that it makes the best Syrah on the planet, or at least the Syrah that best fits the Côte-Rôtie appellation. According to Brigitte, the townships of the Côte-Rôtie area spoke a dialect before the Romans arrived that was called Serine, so the name goes back to the beginning of the region. Gilbert and Brigitte were instrumental in the 1990s in the push for more massale selection when many vineyards began to be planted over to clones. Brigitte thinks that the preservation of the Serine clone that is unique to the Côte-Rôtie is integral to the preservation of the tradition of exemplary Syrah for the region. She believes it’s a more complex and floral Syrah than the clonal varieties that were introduced and some experiments they performed in the winery bore this out. They’ve also found that the modern clones of Syrah are too vigorous for the tight spacing that Côte-Rôtie employs and tend to grow too quickly and aggressively for them to keep them in check. The Serine vines seem to fit the land.

Brigitte has also been instrumental in getting the region mapped out. In fact, before the region was officially mapped by the appropriate French authority, Brigitte drew it all out by hand. She even color-coded for soil type.

brigitte roch handrawn map

Brigitte’s beautiful hand-drawn map of Côte-Rôtie.


The famed schist in the soils of Côte-Rôtie.

The Clusel-Roch family are also proponents of organic farming. In Côte-Rôtie, being organic is not just a simple matter. The steep slopes make chemical weed spraying a difficult-to-resist temptation. But they noticed the negative impact spraying had on the soil and the vines so they decided to commit to plowing by hand and on the steepest slopes they use a winch to help pull the plow up the row as it is hand guided from behind.

We tried the 2013, 2006, and 2005 Classiques and the 2013 Vialliére and Les Grandes Places. The Vialliére and the Grandes Places are vinified similarly to the Classiques. All the wines were spectacular with bright acidity and lots of floral aromas. These are such elegant Syrahs with the structure to age for a very long time. I found them to be a little light in the mid-palate which might be something that fleshes out as the wine ages as the 2005 proved a tad richer than the other vintages. The 2013 Les Grandes Places was a special pleasure to taste as it had the structure and mid-palate richness that one expects from Syrah but also the unmistakable floral element of a Côte-Rôtie. Such a gorgeous wine. The Classiques were also hard to beat and we purchased a 2013 and a 2005 and look forward to tasting the wine again in a few years (or more!) and thinking of our time with the affable Brigitte.

Jamsheed Harem La Syrah Yarra Valley Victoria $25 92 pts.

Jamsheed Harem

I watched a lot of cartoons as a kid and one of the ones I loved the most was Pinky and the Brain. Pinky (or was it Brain?) had a saying when an alluring mouse of the opposite sex came along, “Hellloooooo Nurse! “ Well, that’s the first thing that came out of my mouth when I tasted this wine. It’s just plain alluring and delicious. It’s one of those wines that before you know it, you’ve drunk more than you anticipated you would.

A little oak on the nose, a little earth, but also a rich and inviting aroma of fruit that’s reminiscent of blackberry pie. Now, normally, that’s not necessarily a Syrah that I’d be totally into but this wine is just so pretty on the palate. It’s got some savory and meaty notes and a little richness but also just a beautiful acidity that makes you want to keep drinking it.

It’s a vision of the future for Syrah in Australia. A touch of that oak and sweetness but good lift on the mid-palate to keep it interesting and savory. What a wine!

Jamsheed’s been around for about a decade and I kept hearing rumors of a cooler climate style Australian Syrah that was worth trying. They make a few single vineyard Syrahs that are higher priced. This one’s a blend of grapes from Pyrenees (80%) and Yarra Valley (20%) areas of Australia. It’s 80% whole cluster and spends time in big puncheons old and new.

2012 La Rosine M&S Ogier D’Ampuis $30 12.5% ABV 91 pts.


Let’s talk about crunchiness in wine. Some wines, especially Syrah grown in cool climates, have a quality that reminds me of biting into a piece of fresh fruit. The first Syrah that I really liked was like that, it had almost a crunchy pomegranate quality. This wine has that. There’s tension and verve, beautiful high-toned aromas of plum, pepper and gravel with an acidic lift on the mid-palate that is almost Pinot-like. The finish is more acid than tannin. It’s an elegant Syrah that has a freshness to it that’s hard to resist.

The Ogier family started making wine after years as growers for Guigal. Michel Ogier made his own bottling of the vineyards and now his son Stephane is the winemaker.

The wine is aged in neutral oak barrels for one year. No stem inclusion, light maceration to minimize over-extraction.

Collines Rhodaniennes is a rather new appellation in the Northern Rhone and for now it’s a great way to get to know wines from the Northern Rhone without breaking the bank.

Ogier is getting quite the reputation and the Northern Rhone. I’m looking forward to getting to know this producer more.

2012 Keller Estate Rotie Sonoma Coast Syrah $54

keller estate rotie

Aromas of leather, plum, strawberry, and cigar mixed with vanilla.The oak is a little pronounced for my palate but after the wine breathed a bit the fruit and savory elements became more pronounced.The palate has a lift of acidity that gives the wine a light and elegant character. There’s a touch of tannin and sweetness on the finish that reveals its California origins but as the name implies there is a European sense about this wine also. 92 pts.

Keller Estate is owned by Arturo and Deborah Keller. Arturo fell in love with the hills of the Petaluma Gap and bought the land there back in the 1980s. The property is now planted with Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Syrah. The Petaluma Gap is an area defined by wind and fog. Every morning the fog collects in the valley and then is blown out in the afternoon by the intense cool coastal air as it rushes to warmer inland areas. Arturo’s daughter, Ana, took over the winemaking in 1998 and she says that it’s sometimes a challenge to ripen the Syrah. They also grow Viognier on the property and have to manage thinning the leaf canopy on the Syrah to get it to mature while doing the opposite on the Viognier to keep it from getting over-ripe too early.

The Syrah and 6-7% Viognier are co-fermented, there’s no whole cluster stem-inclusion on the wine. It sees about 25% new oak and spends 18 months in barrel.

Although the wine says Sonoma Coast, it really is a Petaluma Gap Syrah and Ana Keller has devoted a lot of energy to showing how her area deserves to be its own appellation. She and other growers and vintners have petitioned the government and wait for what seems to be an inevitable ruling in their favor. In the meantime Ana holds Petaluma Gap tastings to further interest consumers in what she believes are wines uniquely shaped by the wind and fog.

This is a Petaluma Gap Syrah that represents the Petaluma Gap well and I was excited to have the opportunity to taste it.

This wine was provided as a sample for purposes of review.