Crozes-Hermitage cleans up its act

A version of this article appeared previously in the San Jose Mercury News:

France’s northern Rhône wine region is famous for appellations like Hermitage, Côte-Rôtie and Condrieu. But prices for many of these wines are out of reach for most consumers. Another appellation in the area, Saint-Joseph, used to offer good value, but not so much anymore.
If you’re not a tech titan or hedge fund manager, there is one northern Rhône appellation that still makes wines you might be able to afford: Crozes-Hermitage. The wines aren’t cheap, but there are many good choices for around $30.

There was a time when a lot of the wines were, shall we say, on the rustic side. But Crozes-Hermitage, both red and white, is better than ever. “The proportion of bad wines is very, very low,” says Yann Chave, proprietor of his eponymous winery.

Crozes-Hermitage, outside the town of Tain-l’Hermitage, is the largest of the northern Rhône appellations. The appellation is more than 90 percent red (syrah), with the balance being white (marsanne and roussanne). Much of the vineyard area, about 80 percent, spreads out on gravelly plains, although the northern part of Crozes-Hermitage is much steeper, with granitic soils, as well as wind-blown silt at the tops of the hills. (The latter is considered particularly good for white grapes.)

Crozes-Hermitage takes its name from the town of the same name, which is in the north of the appellation. The appellation was created in 1937 and later expanded to encompass 11 villages. (The town of Crozes-Hermitage, interestingly, isn’t home to any wineries.)

The wines of the 1970s and ‘80s, according to Jacques Desvernois, enologist for Paul Jaboulet Ainé, “were very simple wines,” largely because of big yields in the vineyards. Now, he says, lower yields result in wines that are more intense yet elegant. There’s also been a change as wineries have passed into the hands of younger family members, who tend to travel more. “They know what’s happening in the world,” he says.

The younger generation has been responsible for another change. For years, their grandfathers and fathers took their grapes to the Cave de Tain l’Hermitage, the area’s big cooperative. Now more of them are keeping the grapes and making their own wines. For example, Gilles Robin’s family sold its grapes to the Cave de Tain until 1996, when Gilles took over. He is a fourth-generation vigneron whose great-grandfather bought his first vineyard parcel in 1920. Now the domaine has about 42 acres in Crozes-Hermitage, all of it farmed organically

(The Cave de Tain is still the largest producer of Crozes-Hermitage and controls about 1,600 acres of vineyards in the appellation.)

With the exception of the Cave de Tain – whose wines can be very good but also hard to find — the larger producers are the ones whose wines you’ll most often see. Paul Jaboulet Ainé, for example, has the 2011 Les Jalets ($30), which is made from purchased grapes and wines that don’t make the other blends. It’s dark and refined, with berry fruit and notes of white pepper and smoke. The winery’s 2011 Domaine de Thalabert ($50), from a large vineyard that contains some 60-year-old vines, is bigger, richer and riper, with fine tannins.

         From M. Chapoutier, the 2013 Petite Ruche ($32) is smoky and peppery, with red fruit, while the 2013 Les Meysonniers ($40) is quite aromatic, with red fruit, white pepper and a slight floral note. E. Guigal, better known for Côte-Rôtie, made a 2011 Crozes-Hermitage ($31) that displays roasted red fruit, a slight herbal note and fine tannins. A particularly good buy is the 2012 Delas Frères Les Launes ($22), which is ripe and peppery, with ample dark berry and fine tannins. The same winery’s 2010 Domaine des Grands Chemins ($34) is darker and more structured and benefits from decanting before serving.

I’m a fan of the Crozes-Hermitage from Domaine Gilles Robin. The 2013 Cuvée Papillon ($24) is an excellent buy; it’s fruity and a little peppery, with bright berry and medium weight. The 2012 Alberic Bouvet ($30) is darker, with more weight and concentration and is also a great value.

Yann Chave says he wants to make “a wine for all year,” instead of something that’s too heavy and muscular. With the right food, you could drink his Crozes-Hermitage in the warmer months, but the wines would benefit from some time. The 2013 Yann Chave Classique ($26) is peppery and fairly tannic, with bright berry fruit, while the 2013 Le Rouvre ($36) is darker and more concentrated.

At Domaine Combier, Laurent Combier makes a range of Crozes at various prices. The 2014 Laurent Combier “Purple Label” ($26), made from a blend of purchased grapes and fruit from young vines, is smooth and easy, with spicy, lively berry and a hint of white pepper, while the 2013 Crozes-Hermitage ($35) has more weight and some smoky, peppery overtones. The 2012 Cap Nord ($45) comes from a vineyard in the northern part of the appellation; it displays plump berry, good structure and a hint of white pepper. His top bottling comes from the Clos des Grives, a 22-acre vineyard on the plains planted in 1952 by his grandfather. (“Clos” refers to a vineyard that’s enclosed; in the case of this one, it’s surrounded by a pyracantha hedge.) The 2012 Clos des Grives ($55) is elegant and smoky, with spicy fruit and fine tannins. The wine ages well, too. Combier poured several older vintages, dating back to 2000, and they were showing extremely well.

I tasted a number of wines from smaller producers that are excellent values. They’re worth seeking out. An example is the 2012 Fayolle Fils & Fille “Sens” ($25), a lively, elegant wine with juicy berry and a note of white pepper. From Domaine des Entrefaux, the 2014 Les Champs Fourné ($21) is dark, dense and peppery with bright berry and fine tannins, while the 2013 Crozes-Hermitage ($26) is more structured and still quite tight. The 2013 Emmanuel Darnaud Mise en Bouche ($24) is peppery and concentrated, with dark berry, spice and a hint of violets. Another highly regarded producer to look for is Alain Graillot, whose wines are also a decent value.

The white wines of Crozes-Hermitage are less common here; several importers I talked to don’t bring in their clients’ whites because there’s not as much demand. But I really enjoy the whites, which are usually predominantly marsanne. They range from racy and fresh to richer and fleshier.

Wines made in that racy style include the 2014 M. Chapoutier Petite Ruche Blanc ($30); the 2014 E. Guigal ($30); the 2013 Nicolas Perrin ($30); and the 2013 Domaine Belle ($26). The 2013 Paul Jaboulet Ainé Les Jalets Blanc ($30) and 2014 Yann Chave ($27) are richer, with more weight. The 2014 Fayolle Fils & Fille “Sens” ($20) is also a fleshier wine and is a great buy.