2010 Domaine Johann Michel, Cornas
Both of this month’s wines come from the long, narrow region of the northern Rhône, and from two of its smallest appellations. (And we couldn’t overlook the fact that the producers’ names are similar, too!) The first wine is from Cornas, which has only about 225 acres of vineyards. It is the southernmost appellation of the northern Rhône and it lies in a warm basin-like site where the heat and light are intense and it is protected from the cold north winds. The vineyards in Cornas are carved into steep, precarious, rocky hillsides and are planted entirely to Syrah, producing dense, powerful wines that are extremely age worthy. This region was quite renowned throughout history (the wines were favored by Charlemagne), but many of the vineyards had fallen into decline by the early 20th century. In the late 1980s though, producers emerged who were willing to reestablish the neglected vineyards and incorporate newer methods. Some of the older, more austere wines gave way to a fresher, more fruit forward style. This is the approach of young, up-and-coming producer Johann Michel, who farms a small four-hectare parcel of vines averaging around 20 years in age. When we tasted his 2010 Syrah recently, it was smooth and dark with a bit of leather, typical of a good Cornas. One characteristic of Cornas wines however is that, while they can be approachable when young, they usually go through a “dumb” phase, lasting about five to eight years, during which time the flavors shut down, but after which they emerge wonderfully developed with earthy, leathery flavors, fine texture, and full-bodied power. We recommend cellaring this one for at least five or six years, then enjoying it with a special meal, like rack of lamb, roast duck, or perhaps cassoulet. It is highly allocated and only $53, a good value considering the high prices of Johann’s immediate neighbor, Auguste Clape, with whom Johann trained.
2010 Domaine Jean-Michel Gerin, Condrieu “La Loye”
The tiny appellation of Condrieu is about the same size as Cornas, but lies at the upper extremity of the northern Rhône, just south of Côte Rôtie. Here the river turns a bend, giving this region its name, from coin de ruisseau, or “corner of the brook.” This is exclusively Viognier territory and the best are powerfully aromatic, lush, and sensual. But given the miniscule size of the growing region and its ancient soils and steep terraces, combined with the fact that Viognier is a finicky grape to grow well, you can see why Condrieu is limited and usually very expensive. The Gerin family has seven hectares in the heart of the Côte-Rôtie, in the village of Ampuis, where they have been making outstanding red wines for six generations. But they also have a tiny parcel on those steep, granite slopes of Condrieu, with a sunny and warm southern exposure, perfect for growing Viognier. Their approach is for a fresher and more minerally style, and their 2010 Condrieu reflects this. With 40% aged in neutral barrels, and the rest in stainless steel, the wine is both concentrated and elegant; not as unctuous as some Condrieu can be, but silkier and balanced by nice acidity. This style of Condrieu is not meant to age, and this one will be best over the next two to three years. Enjoy it on its own as an aperitif, or with lobster, or grilled fish, while you think about the Cornas, above, aging quietly in your cellar. It is $43, and there is a small amount still available.