Finding Your Way To The Northern Rhone

As we all move through our personal exploration of wine, I feel that we often find ourselves wishing that we had paid more attention to one region or another much earlier on. To this day, my first love is still my priority (Barolo), but if I had to name one region or varietal that I wish I had been turned onto earlier, it would be the Northern Rhone and Syrah. If your palate leans the same way as mine, then all it will take is one perfectly mature example of Hermitage, Cote Rotie, Cornas or Saint-Joseph, and you too will be a fan for life.

Château de Tournon overlooking the Rhone River

The unfortunate thing is availability and price. Here we are talking about a region that produces a very small quantity of wine, and since the word of its prestige is already out, prices have already gone through the roof. The top producers are nearly impossible to obtain because of the combination of their allocated and limited nature, along with pricing above many of my peers’ comfort levels. What’s more, they are at their best when mature, adding yet another wine to the cellar and requiring patience to allow young vintages to come around.

So what’s the answer for the aspiring lover of Northern Rhone Syrah? I say that the answer can be found in the appellation of Saint-Joseph.

But First… A Warning

Syrah in Saint-Joseph captures a certain elegance and femininity, with it’s signature violet floral tones and fruit that is a touch softer than Cote Rotie and Hermitage.

First and foremost, I will put it out there that the quality and expressions of Saint-Joseph can vary, mainly because of the region’s size and diverse terroir, being the largest of the Northern Rhone appellations. However, this is a minefield that’s worth traversing. Saint Joseph encompasses over twenty-six communes, equalling around 3,000 acres planted to vines. Yet, with just a bit of research, you can easily become familiar with the right locations and producers to pick. In fact, I’ll be recommending one to you before this article ends.

And trust me, learning about Saint Joseph is worth your time, because what we find here is an expression of Northern Rhone Syrah that is in some cases equal to or just below that of Cote Rotie or Hermitage, but at a fraction of the price. What’s more, they are known to reach maturity earlier than their neighbors in the north and south, yet they still go the distance in your cellar. It’s a win-win situation.

Digging into the Details of Saint-Joseph

Saint Joseph is located on the steep hillside slopes of the Rhone river, south of Cotie Rotie and Condrieu, yet north, on the opposite bank, and at times parallel to the hill of Hermitage. In the northern sections, the climate is more continental, while in the south it turns mediterranean. In general, it’s the vineyards to the south that are considered the best expressions of the appellation–but this is a broad generalization. The original appellation started in the south between the towns of Mauves and Tournon, in a single vineyard with the name Saint Joseph. Today this vineyard is owned in its entirety by Guigal. Much like Hermitage, it was a steep, terraced hill that was first planted by the Greeks and Romans, and then named by the Monks of the 17th century that tended these lands.

In 1956 the appellation was created, encompassing only 250 acres of granite soils on terraced slopes. However, in 1971 the appellation was expanded, and then again in the nineties. Today Saint Joseph reaches up the Rhone river to Condrieu, with varied soils containing granite, mica schist limestone, rocks and clay (richer in the north), and its topography includes both hills and plateaus. It was in this further, and more recent expansion, that we find the most confusing aspect of Saint Joseph, and that is the need to know the location that each producer is sourcing their fruit. The diversity here is not always a bad thing, but while some producers are blessed with granite or limestone on well draining hills, others are growing their vines in vigorous soils on the flat plateaus.

This brings me to the producer that inspired my ode to Saint-Joseph, Jean-Pierre Monier.

Domaine Monier – Perréol

Jean-Pierre is a self-taught winemaker, who has gone from a small upstart, to a quality leader and pioneer of Biodynamic practices in the region. Located in the town of Bruneaux, the Monier family farms 5 hectares (12/5 acres) of estate-owned vineyards around the town of St.-Désirat, just north of the original Saint Joseph appellation and on steep slopes of granitic soil.

Jean-Pierre and Samuel Monier

For many years, Jean-Pierre was part of the Cave Co-operative, tending to the lands established by his father, until in 2001, when he decided that the location of his vines, and quality of his fruit, could create a Saint-Joseph to be proud of. It took some time for him to find his path, but over the course of ten years he moved from organic to biodynamic and non-interventionist winemaking. This seemed like a natural course for Jean-Pierre, who grew up in a farming family, where the health of their produce and animals was just as important as the grapes on their vines.

Today Jean-Pierre, 64 and a farmer at heart, has brought his son Samuel on board as the winemaker. What’s more, he allied with a family friend, Philippe Perréol, who brought his vines to the Monier portfolio. With prime locations around the original Saint Joseph appellation, and tended to under the same practices, the Philippe Perréol fruit is brought to the Monier winery, vinified and bottled under their direct supervision.

In the winery, the processes follow the changing vintages, with purity as their guiding rule. In some vintages the Monier family will ferment completely whole-cluster, while in others they will go down to 15%. Most wines are completed over one year in tonneaux, while the vintage can dictate if a small percentage of new oak will be used to soften and accentuate the wine.

For me personally, I have been tasting the wines of Monier over the course of five vintages, and they seem to be getting better and better. On his recent visit to New York, I was able to taste with Jean-Pierre, and the man truly does live up to the hype. For him, it’s not about making wine, it’s about making Saint Joseph. It’s about capturing the essence of the fruit, the terroir and the vintage in each bottle. It’s not his winemaking stamp or name that he wants you to think of as you drink his wines–it’s the place.

On your shortlist of Saint-Joseph producers to hunt for, taste and place in the cellar, Monier should be right at the top.

On to the Tasting Notes

2016 Domaine Monier Perréol St. Joseph Blanc – Aged completely in concrete eggs, the nose of the ‘16 Saint Joseph Blanc was wonderfully fresh with mineral-infused lime, granny smith apple, hints of rosemary, dusty earth, and almond skins. On the palate, I found soft, mid-weight textures with with ripe stone fruits, and saline-minerality firmed up by a bitter twang of acidity. It finished long with palate-coating oily textures, inner floral tones and a twang of fresh green herbs. (89 points)

2015 Domaine Monier St. Joseph Terre Blanche – The Terre Blanche comes off of vines that are over 33 years old, planted in soils of granite over white clay. The nose was floral, herbal, earthy and fresh, with black fruits up front, followed by minerals, airy sweet spices and hints of animal musk. On the palate, I found silky textures with zesty acidity, saturating, ripe black fruits, spices, minerals and inner floral tones. It was big, dark, and brooding but there’s a drinkability here brought on by it’s juicy acidity. The finish was incredibly long with saturating black fruits and lingering fine tannin offset by residual acids. (93 points)

2014 Domaine Monier St. Joseph Les Serves – From the same hillside as the Terre Blanche, but in soils of decomposed granite, the nose of the ‘14 Les Serves showed sour cherry, savory herbs, white pepper, dried orange, and exotic floral tones. On the palate, I found gorgeous purity with silky textures, showing ripe red and black fruits offset by brisk acidity and minerals. Inner floral tones developed on the long finish with savory, saline minerals, saturating black fruit and a coating of fine tannin. Savory, tart, spicy and pure–it’s simply a pleasure to drink. (93 points)

2015 Domaine Perréol St. Joseph Châtelet – The Châtelet comes from Perréol fruit, in a vineyard located in the the most southern end of the appellation with soils of limestone over granite. The nose was gorgeous and fresh with hauntingly dark violet florals tones, hints of pepper, crushed blackberry, and stone dust, gaining richness with time in the glass. On the palate, I found finessed textures with tart black fruits, saline-minerals, and brisk acidity in a savory and almost juicy experience. The finish was medium-long with palate-staining black-purple fruits and a hint of herbs. (92 points)

Paying Tribute and Resources

What are the top recent vintages in Saint-Joseph?
1999, 2001, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2012 and 2015

What Grapes are permitted in a bottle of Saint-Joseph?
Rouge: Syrah 100%, with permitted additions of up to 10% total of Marsanne or Roussanne.
Blanc: Marsanne and/or Roussanne up to 100%.

Article, Tasting Notes and Photos by: Eric Guido

Fine Domaine Monier – Perréol at Morrell Wine and Spirits

Domaine Monier – Perréol is imported by Kermit Lynch