29 January, 2009

Popping corks on the roasted slope.

For a few days every January, somewhat anonymous little Ampuis, tucked in a bend of the Northern Rhone, becomes the center of the wine world as it hosts its own "little" Marché aux Vins. The wine fair's focus is the connoisseur's Côte-Rôtie, which is not very surprising since Ampuis is located in the region of Côte-Rôtie, or Roasted Slope (mm, it just doesn't have that je ne sais quoi in English...).

A place of steep slopes and plentiful sun--hence the name--the area is considered by many to be where wine was first cultivated in Gaul. While Côte-Rôtie was for centuries the wine of French royals, its circle of influence outside the court was fairly limited, and by the twentieth century, neglect had led to a somewhat shabby reputation. This has been nearly singlehandedly turned around since the 1970s by the then-unorthodox wine-making and marketing approach of one family, the Guigals. (Full disclosure: our party was rather disappointed by the Guigal wines on offer at the fair.)

After world wars and economic difficulty, neglect is not unimaginable. One look at the extremely steep slopes--or more accurately hills--around Ampuis, and you quickly realize that here, wine-making is not an undertaking for the faint of heart. The cotes have a gradient ranging from 20% to 28%, and the extreme steepness sometimes requires pulley systems, and winches, for hauling grapes and equipment up and down from the cheys (the local term for the man-made terraces). Given the intensive labor involved, many of the cheys have been taken over by lower-maintenance fruit trees. Only the cheys facing south or southeast have vines, and those plants have to be hardy enough to withstand the persistent problems of high winds and erosion. I wish I could offer a photo, as the cheys are impressive, but it was raining cats and dogs (and their offspring) when I arrived with friends at the 81st annual marche last weekend.

Côte-Rôtie wine, like Hermitage, is made from red Syrah grapes. Sometimes, to give that little extra accent of difference, a small amount of white Viognier grape is added. Côte-Rôtie is a good wine for setting aside in the short to medium term, with, broadly speaking, somewhat more delicate aromas than Hermitage. Of course, once you start tasting, there is such a startling degree of variation...

In addition to the Côte-Rôtie and the Hermitage, the Ampuis wine fair spotlights other Rhone Valley reds such as the Saint-Joseph, Croze-Hermitage and the Cornas, which is the one of the smallest Rhone AOC (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée). Among Rhone whites, the fair features the very distinctive Condrieu, Saint-Joseph white (my discovery this trip), Croze-Hermitage white and Hermitage white. While the Condrieu is purely Viognier (love it or hate it--and I am generally a fan), the others are varying combinations of Viognier, or Marsanne and Roussanne grapes.

For 8 euros, you are given your own tasting glass and are sent in the direction of the masses milling around stands of the over 60 producers present. The professional wine merchants and writers go all four days, perhaps staying with either red or white on a given day, I imagine. In one day, it is impossible to visit with even half the producers. At least in our cases, it became more and more difficult to clearly distinguish between glasses after a while, despite diligent use of the spittoons. As we were there with friends, I did not take tasting notes. I suppose this is a bit of a mistake if one wants to be able to write about it later. But we certainly enjoyed ourselves--despite the crowds. (A tip: give yourself a good three hours, and arrive just before lunch, to stand a better chance of elbowing your way to the front of the more popular producers.) And here's a bit of what I did retain from the day's labors:
The Delas house is gaining in popularity due to strong and steady improvements in the past few years; the resulting praise from Robert Parker hasn't hurt. Unfortunately the photo I took above highlights a bottle of white I was underwhelmed by, having found it a bit astringent. To the right sits a bottle of what we quite liked: their Les Challeys 2007, St. Joseph white. So refreshing and, well, flirty, I was already busy imagining summer afternoons on the terrace.
I can say that we very much enjoyed the various Côte-Rôtie on offer by the gracious Levet family, pictured above. They have a small, independent operation, with a storefront in Ampuis itself. It was hard to choose, but we walked away with their 2006 Amethyste, and 2005, both Côte-Rôtie reds. Voluptuous and rich, with a lingering finish. Stephane Otheguy makes organic wine, on a tiny scale. We found his 2006 Côte-Rôtie red a pleasure, but the bottle of 2006 Les Massales was the real show-stopper. It is made from 75 year old vines of petites serines, which, as I understand it, is the genetic precursor to the syrah. I wanted it badly (even knowing it would likely outshine any dish paired with it), but cooler, budget-minded heads prevailed: it is 39 euros, which was decidedly more than we paid for any other bottle there. (Perhaps a visit to Monsieur Otheguy later in the year...) Ampuis is a half an hour from downtown Lyon and just off the main highway toward Marseille and the coast, thus eminently accessible, and the wines make it worth a detour, rain or shine, wine fair or not.

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