The promise and potential of Saint-Joseph

When it comes to the red wines of France’s northern Rhône River Valley, the stars are unquestionably those from Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie, with Cornas perhaps a step or two behind. These wines are all based on syrah (Côte-Rôtie sometimes contains a little viognier), and the best ones are made in tiny quantities from distinctive, rocky sites. So they tend to be expensive – sometimes extremely so.

There’s another appellation in the neighborhood that offers wines that are a little more affordable, though by no means cheap. That appellation is Saint-Joseph, which lies across the Rhône from Hermitage.

With the reputations of Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie already well-established, says Philippe Guigal, general manager and winemaker at E. Guigal, “for me, Saint-Joseph is the northern Rhône appellation with the biggest potential. … We have a vision of Saint-Joseph which is very high end.”

Saint-Joseph, adds Delas Frères senior winemaker Claire Darnaud-McKerrow, is “an amazing appellation.”

The vineyards of Saint-Joseph are on the western side of the Rhône River. This vineyard is in the northern part of the appellation. (Photo by Steve Jankowski)

Saint-Joseph comprises about 3,000 acres of vineyards, according to Inter Rhône, which represents growers and vintners in the Rhône Valley. The appellation is 88 percent red (syrah), with the rest white (marsanne and roussanne). When the appellation was first established, in 1956, it was focused on six villages and encompassed just 250 acres. It was later expanded – many, including a lot of vintners, say the expansion was too big – and it now stretches along the western bank of the Rhône from just south of the town of Tournon north to Chavanay. (In the north, part of Saint-Joseph overlaps with the white appellation of Condrieu.)

Although some of the “new” Saint-Joseph is made up of granitic hillsides, other sites are flatter, with more vigorous soils. The appellation is scheduled to be scaled back by 2021 to eliminate some of the inferior sites. Still, the place can be confusing because of the variety of soils, slopes, exposures and elevations.

“It’s very difficult to really understand Saint-Joseph,” says winemaker Joel Durand of Domaine Durand.

During a visit last year, I stopped at wineries and talked to vignerons along the length of the appellation. The northern part of the appellation is a little cooler and produces wines with more minerality and freshness. The south produces wines that are fleshier. But for me, the key isn’t so much whether the vineyards are in the south, around the original confines of Saint-Joseph, or to the north.

Rather, for the reds, it’s the granitic soils that are important. (Whites – and there are some really good ones – do better in soils with more clay or loess.)

I tasted wines mostly from the 2015 and 2016 vintages. 2015 produced wines with more richness and ripeness; I like the freshness of the 2016s. Often a vintage is good for either red or white, but 2016 was very good for both.

At the aforementioned Guigal, all the Saint-Joseph vineyards are to the south, including a famous site, the south-southeast-facing Vignes de l’Hospice on a steep hill above the town of Tournon. The 2015 E. Guigal Saint-Joseph “Vignes de l’Hospice” ($125) is dark, dense, muscular and spicy, with very concentrated black fruit. Its freshness keeps it from being heavy, but the wine definitely needs time. The 2015 Saint-Joseph “Lieu Dit Saint-Joseph” ($33) is from another famous site in the original heart of the appellation; the wine is concentrated and quite spicy, with a graphite note. Finally, the classic cuvée, the 2015 Saint-Joseph ($33), is structured and lively, with dark fruit, white pepper and a drying finish.

“I think there are jewels in Saint-Joseph,” Philippe Guigal says.

Delas Frères also draws much of its Saint-Joseph fruit from the south. The top wine is from the Sainte-Épine vineyard, which is “geologically similar to the hill of Hermitage,” Darnaud-McKerrow says. Although I haven’t tasted the current Delas Sainte-Épine vintage, 2016 ($70), the 2014, from a difficult year, is dark, dense, smoky and lively. There’s also the 2016 Delas Saint-Joseph “Les Challeys” ($19), a blend of fruit from throughout the appellation that sees very little oak and is pure and spicy, and the 2015 Saint-Joseph “François de Tournon” ($38), which is structured and full-bodied, with notes of black raspberry, white pepper and graphite. (The 2016 may be available in some markets.)

Joel Durand’s Domaine Durand Saint-Joseph “Les Coteaux” is also from the south, near Cornas. The 2016 is dark and spicy, with berry fruit accented by graphite and smoke; the 2015 ($30) is currently available.

Some wineries blend fruit from throughout the appellation, which is the case with the Paul Jaboulet Ainé Saint-Joseph “Le Grand Pompée”; the 2015 ($36) is dark and dense, with ripe black raspberry, white pepper, wet stone, graphite and fine tannins.

Most of the producers I visited are based in the north, around Condrieu, and have their Saint-Joseph vineyards in that area. One example is André Perret, who makes excellent Saint-Joseph but is perhaps better known as one of the vignerons who revived the appellation of Condrieu. The 2016 André Perret Saint-Joseph ($38) is very aromatic and pure, with a touch of spice. The 2015 Saint-Joseph “Les Grisières” ($50) is from older vines; it’s dark and structured with a lot of concentration.

Domaine Yves Cuilleron, in the Chavanay area, is better known for Condrieu but makes some excellent Saint-Joseph. (Photo by Steve Jankowski)

Yves Cuilleron is also better known for Condrieu. He owns some vineyard land in Saint-Joseph and also works with growers. The 2016 Yves Cuilleron Saint-Joseph “Cavanos” ($42), from an old vineyard in Chavanay, is lively and structured, with ripe berry and notes of white pepper, spice, smoke and wet stone. The 2016 Saint-Joseph “Les Serrines” ($63) is darker and more concentrated but still has nice freshness.

Pierre Gaillard, based in the hills of the northern part of the appellation, produces a wide range of very good wines, but the only red Saint-Joseph bottling available here is the 2016 Saint-Joseph ($30), which displays bright berry fruit, a white pepper note, slight earthiness and a fine texture. Not far away (as the crow flies; the drive is more circuitous) is Domaine Faury, where Lionel Faury produces the 2016 Saint-Joseph Vieilles Vignes ($45) from 40- to 60-year-old vines. The wine is full-boded but not heavy, with rich berry fruit, a white pepper note and refined tannins.

Nicolas Jaboulet, a member of the family that used to own Paul Jaboulet Ainé, is now co-owner of Maison & Domaines Les Alexandrins. The “maison” part of the business produces a range of Northern Rhône wines, including the 2016 Maison Les Alexandrins Saint-Joseph ($38), which comes mostly from northern vineyards; the wine offers smoky red berry fruit accented by some peppery notes.

In addition to lower price, Saint-Joseph has the advantage of being ready to drink much sooner than, say, Hermitage. The wines will reward some aging – on average, about five to eight years – but are also enjoyable when they are younger and their fruit is particularly enticing.

Saint-Joseph whites are rarer, and fewer of them are imported. But many of them are delicious, with fleshy, floral white fruit and notes of wet stone, dry honey and, in the best cases, a lot of energy and tension. Among the producers whose white Saint-Josephs I enjoyed were André Perret, Yves Cuilleron and E. Guigal.