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Spotlight on Côte Rôtie

The Northern Rhône is most famed as the home of Syrah. That's not to say it doesn't make some fine white wines, but it is the Syrah-based reds that have been the source of its relatively recent recognition as one of the world's truly great wine regions. Of the several subregions within the Northern Rhône, the hillside appellation of Côte Rôtie in the far north of the region produces what many consider to be the ultimate expression of Syrah.

It's an appellation that has fascinated me for some time, and this is why I chose it as the focus for the first wineanorak tasting, held in central London last week (April 17, 2002). Nine wine nuts gathered to try a selection of 12 Côte Rôties, carefully chosen to reflect the range of styles this region produces, and spanning several recent vintages. These wines are usually quite hard to get hold of. Consider the fact that the whole appellation covers just 205 ha (one Bordeaux property reviewed recently on wineanorak, Talbot, has 104 ha of vines alone), and you'll see that only tiny quantities of Côte Rôtie are produced.

©Inter Rhône/Isabelle Desarzens

But despite the scarcity and intrinsic quality of these wines, prices are still relatively sane. With the exception of Guigal's single vineyard wines (La Mouline, La Turque, La Londonne; La La's for short) -- which, with their reliance on new oak, could be argued to be fairly atypical of the region -- you can pick many of the best wines for less than GB£30 (US$45).

Two other points worth mentioning. First, these vineyards have been cultivated for more than two millenia, making them among France's oldest. Second, there's commonly a dash of Viognier added (legally, this can be as much as 20% of the final blend). How much this has to do with the perfumed nose typical of Côte Rôtie is not clear. 

I enjoyed this line-up of wines very much: not only were the wines uniformly of a high quality, but also it was fascinating to see how much variation in character there was within such a small appellation. Favourite for me was the Gilles Barge Cuvée du Plessy 1999, although it may eventually be outperformed by the wonderful 1999 from Jamet, which is potentially longer-lived. 

The wines

Jaboulet Côte Rôtie Les Jumelles 1997
Quite a light, lifted spicy nose with some caramel character and a touch of herbal savouriness. The medium-bodied palate shows raspberry fruit with firm spicy tannins, and noticeable oak character. A firm wine, but quite warm and rounded at the same time. Attractive but not top-notch. Very good+

Gerin Côte Rôtie ‘Champin le Seigneur’ 1997
A huge wine. Big, forward toasty nose with vivid fruit and a fair whack of toasty, roasted oak – it’s still quite perfumed and expressive, though. The palate is dense, youthful and very spicy, with bags of fruit and firm tannins. Needs time to resolve, but this is impressive stuff, despite the prominent oak. Very good/excellent

Gilles Remiller Côte Rôtie 1998
Lovely nose: quite savoury and spicy with some earthy character and just a hint of green olive character. Relatively rich. The palate shows taut, spicy notes suggesting a little oak influence, but with good acidity, tannic structure and raspberry fruit. Potential here. Very good/excellent

Gaillard Brune et Blonde Côte Rôtie  1997
Slightly closed nose with some savoury, earthy green-olive character. The palate is savoury and rich but with a firm underpinning of acidity, some raspberry fruit and a hint of caramel. It’s quite austere, really, but still an impressive, expressive wine. Very good/excellent

Clusel-Roch Côte Rôtie 1996
Subtlety is the key here. Lovely perfumed, forward nose shows meaty, savoury fruit and good acidity. The medium-bodied palate is a little light, with good acidity. An attractive drinking wine; not a blockbuster. Very good/excellent

Champet Côte Rôtie La Viaillère 1998
This is a relatively pale bright red colour; this immediately sets it apart from the other wines. It has a very attractive sweet, fragrant nose with a spicy edge. The palate shows soft ripe fruit, firm (but fine-grained) tannins and a mineralic edge. Subtle, but quite structured. Very good/excellent

JP & JL Jamet Côte Rôtie 1999
Quite a rich, fragrant nose showing a touch of oak, along with spicy meaty notes. The palate is dense and rich with lots of spicy character and some new oak. With good acid and tannic structure, this is brilliantly balanced with lots of potential. Don’t open for another five years as I suspect this is soon to close down. Excellent

©Inter Rhône/Isabelle Desarzens

Burgaud Côte Rôtie 1994
Attractive animal nose is slightly bretty, showing some rusticity. The palate is beginning to dry out, with firm tannins dominant and a very dry finish. Nicely savoury, this is a good food wine, but one which I suspect is past its best. Very good+

De Vallouit Côte Rôtie Les Roziers 1998
Bit of a beast this one, and while some like it, others don’t. Quite a striking, pungent green olive nose with lifted acidity. The palate is firmly tannic and a bit austere, with powerful, concentrated meaty flavours and lots of medicinal, green-olive character. It will be fascinating to see this brute of a wine evolve. Very good/excellent

Gilles Barge Côte Rôtie Cuvée du Plessy 1999
Wonderful nose: complex, smoky and spicy with perfumed meaty, green-olive character. The palate is spicy and tannic, but with lots of rich, savoury fruit and no trace of unripeness or austerity. It’s rich and juicy and the tannins are fine grained. A brilliant expression of Côte Rôtie. Excellent

Rene Rostaing Côte Rôtie Cote Blonde 1991
Surprisingly deep coloured for an 11 year old, this shows a subtle nose of spice, leather and herbs, with a touch of caramel. The palate is savoury and rounded, quite spicy and nicely balanced. Quite oaky and showing some warmth on the back of the palate, my criticism would be that it’s hard to detect a great deal of regionality in this wine. Still, it’s a delicious drop, and drinking well. Very good+

Ogier Côte Rôtie 1995
Low level cork taint here, which only emerges after the bottle has been open a while. The beautifully dense palate gives a hint as to how good this wine would have been without the fatal taint. Not rated.  

See also: Photographs from Côte Rôtie

Spotlight on Northern Rhone Syrah (from February 2010)

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April 2002