Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Cédric Bouchard and Roses de Jeanne: Pushing the edge of the Grower-Champagne envelope

And so I have come to the end of my examination of the Champagne producers identified as "Great Growers" by Robert Walters in his book Bursting Bubbles. And it is ironic that we are ending with one of the best among this elite group who is producing grapes and wines in the least-heralded of the Champagne sub-regions: Cédric Bouchard (Roses de Jeanne) of the Côte des Bar.


The accolades for this producer flow endlessly:
  • "... some of the most spectacular wines being made anywhere in the world ..." -- Antonio Galloni
  • "The most coveted, and, arguably, the finest grower Champagnes are made by two producers -- Selosse and Bouchard" -- Renaissance Vintners
  • "Enthusiastic and talented young grower ... enigmatic and almost Byronic ..." -- BBR
  • "Bouchard is the most extreme of the great growers ... in that he pushes many of the agreed philosophies of quality and terroir as far as they will go -- and then a little further" -- Walters.
Like the majority of his fellow Great Growers, Cédric did not serve time with the family estate on a continuous basis. Rather, he went to Paris and got a job in a wine shop. While there he was exposed to wines from other regions and became especially enamored of the wines and practices of Burgundy. And it is this Burgundian wine ethic that colors his approach to winemaking.

Cédric eventually came back to Côte des Bar but his new views on winemaking did not sit well with his Champagne-traditional father and they butted heads constantly. In 2000 his father gave him access to the low-yielding Les Urseles parcel so that he could go off and experiment on his own. According to Cédric, his father thought that he was giving him the worst plot of the holdings but its low-yielding nature fit neatly into his burgeoning philosophy: sustainable farming, minimal yields, ripe fruit, and minimal intervention in the cellar.

Cédric named his new venture Roses de Jeanne in honor of his Polish grandmother Janika. His first vintage from Les Ursules was released in 2002. Subsequent to that release he has acquired a number of other plots as well as a label -- Inflorescence -- and its associated plot. Cédric gained full ownership of Inflorescence with the 2012 vintage and has since incorporated it under the Roses de Jeanne label.

Bouchard does no blending. Rather, he seeks to distill the essence of terroir through single-variety, single parcel, single-vintage wines. He follows biodynamic practices but is certified organic. Yields in his vineyards are vanishingly small -- 26 hl/ha -- making it easier for the vines to produce ripe, high-quality wine grapes. He does careful selection in the vineyard, selling off grapes and wine that do not live up to his exacting standards. With the low yields, Bouchard's wines easily attain 11% - 12% alcohol, unfamiliar territory (without chaptalization) for most other Champagne producers.

Bouchard's grapegrowing and winemaking practices can be encapsulated in the words "just say no":
  • No chemicals
  • No blending
  • No chaptalization
  • No selected yeasts (wild-yeast fermentation)
  • No fining
  • No filtering
  • No cold stabilization
  • No wood
  • No dosage.
Unlike Jacques Selosse, for example, Cédric does not use any oak in the aging of his wines. In his view, wood adds substances to the wine and, in so doing, detracts from the terroir effects. In addition, the use of oak promotes oxidation of the wine and he views oxidative notes in Champagne as a flaw. All of the Bouchard wines are fermented and aged in stainless steel tanks.

Bouchard adds 20 gm of sugar for the liqueur de tirage, well below the norm of 24 gm. This reduced level of sugar yields gas pressure of 4.5 atmospheres (versus an average of 6) after fermentation in the bottle and a "gentle, disappearing mousse."

As shown in the table below, Roses de Jeanne produces seven single-vineyard Champagnes. Due to plot sizes and low yields, production is very small (approximately 15,000 bottles across the entire line).

Table: Roses de Jeanne Wines
Vineyard Age
V’yd Size
Côte de Val Vilaine*
Pinot Noir/Blanc de Noir
Planted 1974
1.41 ha
Clay and limestone
24 – 28 months on lees
Côte de Béchalin**
Pinot Noir/Blanc de Noir
1981 - 1982
1.5 ha lieu-dit/0.73 ha owned
7 years on lees
Les Ursules
Pinot Noir/Blanc de Noir
0.97 ha

3 years on lees
La Haute Lemblé
Chardonnay (5 different rootstocks)/Blanc de Blanc
0.11 ha
3 years on lees
Pinot Noir (10 different rootstocks)/Blanc de Noir
15 rows

3 years on lees
La Bolorée
Pinot Blanc/Blanc de Blanc
0.217 ha
Chalky marl and sand
3 years on lees
Le Creux d’Enfer
Pinot Noir/Rosé

0.7 ha lieu-dit/0.032 ha owned

3 years on lees
*Inflorescence Blanc de Noir until 2011; **Inflorescence La Parcelle until 2006; many sources to include Walters (Bursting Bubbles) and Liem (Champagne).

Walters describes the above wines thusly:
  • Côte de Val Vilaine -- fleshy texture, wonderful purity. and an intense smoky minerality
  • Côte de Bachelin -- flesh and texture; plenty of complexity from the time on lees
  • Les Urseles -- super concentrated; deep; ripe, dark fruit; smoky complexity
  • Le Haute Lemblé -- rich, creamy, nutty wine with great texture
  • La Bolorée -- yellow fruits with a saline freshness and hint of lanolin and beeswax
The Rosé (Le Creux d'Enfer) is made by the saignée method. In this case the grapes are foot-stomped and then macerated on the skins and stems for up to 4 days in order to produce the classic color. The wine is then bled off the solids. Walters describes the wine as "fabulously pure" and "silky and yet energetic with crystalline red fruits and subtle nettle and herbal notes."

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Friday, September 21, 2018

Vouette et Sorbée: Bernard Gautherot's "Great Grower" entrant from the Côte des Bar

Vouette et Sorbée is one of two Côte des Bar producers (the other is Cédric Bouchard) identified as "Great Growers" by Robert Walters in his book Bursting Bubbles. Walters describes the wines of this estate thusly:
These are generous yet savory and complex wines without a drop of dosage. They are wines that make us think of Bertrand Gautherot the farmer -- a farmer who works very closely with nature. They are wines that could not be more authentic or uncompromising. Yet, at the same time, they are textural, generous and delicious. Like the man and the farm on which they are grown, these wines are unique; they should be sought out by those searching for true wines of place.
And the critics are singing from the same hymnal. According to Antonio Galloni (Vinous), "Like many artisan Champagnes, the Vouette et Sorbée are wines first and foremost ... When the wines are on, they are among the most exciting wines being made in Champagne. Bertrand Gautherot crafts gorgeous, handmade wine loaded with personality."

And Peter Liem:
The Champagnes of Vouette et Sorbée are uncompromisingly original, possessing deep, vinous aromas and assertive personalities. These are wines before they are Champagnes, and their intensity of character makes them more suitable for contemplative drinking or to accompanying food than to casual sipping. They are clearly the products of a natural philosophy of viticulture, with all that that implies in the French wine world.
As you have probably garnered from the foregoing, Bernard Gautherot is the Vouette et Sorbée vigneron. Bernard, like a number of the Growers that we have covered in this series, came back to the vines after stints in the wider corporate world; in his case, as a luxury goods designer for Girlan, Chanel, and Dior, respectively. He left that world in 1993 to take over the family estate.

The estate, named after the vineyards directly behind the winery, is located in the Côte des Bar commune of Buxières-sur-Arce, with most of its 5 ha of vineyards therein resident. One vineyard (Chalet) is located in the neighboring commune of Ville-sur-Arce.

Bertrand started out a grower and his passion has always been in the vineyards. He began farming biodynamically in 1998 and gained his certification in 2001. He feels that "biodynamics has encouraged the root structure of his vines to descend deeper into the ground rather than settling for nutrients near the surface" (Peter Liem, Champagne). The small size, and tight geographic footprint, of the vineyards is an advantage for Bertrand in implementing and managing practices that advance the health of his vineyards. The vineyards are detailed in the chart below.

As he has done in many of the fledgling-grower stories, Jacques Selosse also makes an appearance here as he is credited, along with Jerome Prévost, with encouraging Bertrand to make the leap from grower to winemaker. He began making wine in 2001.

Bertrand's winemaking style can be classed as minimalist. The grapes are vinified in oak barrels using indigenous yeasts. Minimal sulfur is applied at harvest. There is no cold stabilization, fining, or filtering and no dosage is added.

Fidelè is a Blanc de Noir made from grapes sourced from the Fonnet (mostly) and Biaunes vineyards. Walters sees this wine as showing vibrant red and blue fruits, having racy acidity, and a minerality that runs the length of the palate.


Blanc d'Argile is a Blanc de Blanc made from low-yield, ripe Chardonnay grapes grown in the Biaunes vineyard. Beginning in 2019 this wine will be further fortified with fruit from the Vouette vineyard. Walters describes this wine as "Super mineral, nutty, and stone-fruited" with some red fruit notes. He further finds it salty and smoky with good texture.

Source: plusbellelavigne
The Saignée de Sorbée is a "deliciously sappy, peppery Rosé that can be thought of as a light red wine." The grapes are subjected to lengthy carbonic maceration and extended fermentation in oak barrels. Indigenous yeasts are used for both first and second fermentations.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Champagne's Côte des Bar sub-region

The Côte des Bar, the southernmost of the Champagne sub-regions, is located 100 km south of Epernay and, as such, is closer to Burgundy's Chablis than it is to the heart of the Champagne region. The sub-region's 7,900 ha of vines, and 64 villages, is distributed between two growing areas: Bar sur Aubois and Barséquanais.

Côte des Bar (Source:
Today the Côte des Bar is prized for its Pinot Noir and the character that its wine adds to Champagne blends; but the region was not always welcomed with open arms by the sub-regions to the north.

Regulatory History
The regulatory history of Champagne is bound up in brand-protection strategy and questions as to the physical boundaries of the brand and who/what would be excluded from the brand's inner circle.  The case of Champagne was further complicated by an internecine war between the French Departments of Marne and Aube as to whether Aube should be considered a part of Champagne or a part of Burgundy.

In the 1890s and early 1900s, the grape growers in Marne and Aube felt that the Champagne Houses were bringing grapes in from other French regions, blending it with local grapes, and calling the resulting product Champagne.  This was a problem on two levels: (i) It had quality implications in that bad product would reflect directly on the "Champagne" growers and (ii) more importantly, it provided competition for local grapes in an environment where prices were already deathly low. Growers organized themselves into the Fédérations des Syndicats Viticoles de la Champagne and lobbied the government to pass laws that would make it a fraudulent act to sell a wine as Champagne if it was made, wholly or in part, with grapes from "foreign" sources. The Law of August 1, 1905, went a long way to meeting the organization's goal in that it allowed the government to regulate the composition and origin of wine "of general and specific areas" ( and to pursue offenders.

In order to "flesh out" the 1905 Law, a December 1908 Law defined the areas that would be considered as Champagne for wine-production purposes.  The areas designated as such were Marne and selected communes in Aisne to a total of 33,500 hectares.  A subsequent Law passed on the 17 June, 1911 designated Aube as a Champagne-Deuxième Zone, a classification which would prevent Aube-resident growers from selling their grapes into the main Champagne region.  The Aube growers were unhappy with this solution and they took the issue up again after the end of WWI and got relief with the Law of May 6, 1919 which defined the Champagne wine-growing region in terms of size as well as grape varieties.  Marne inhabitants disputed the Law and it was placed in the hands of an arbitrator for final resolution.  His findings, which made their way into the Law of 1927, defined the AOC system for all of France, did away with the Champagne-Deuxième Zone, and included Aube in the Champagne AOC (

Champagne region post the 1927 Law (Map source:

The climate in the Côte des Bar is reflective of two influences: (i) an Atlantic, rain-bearing influence from the west and (ii) the extreme temperatures associated with continental impacts. It is felt that this combination of moisture and heat aids in the full ripening of region's grapes.

Côte des Bar Soils
At varying periods of the earth's history, portions of present-day Europe were covered by shallow seas. Such was the condition during the Jurassic period in the time span we now call the Kimmeridgian Age, identified by ammonite and oyster fossils found in associated strata.

Strata from periods post the Jurassic continued to be deposited into the shallow seas and many of these layers were forced to the surface when the area that is known today as the Paris Basin began a slow sag during the late Tertiary and Quaternary periods. This slow tilting of the Basin allowed the Seine, Aube, Yonne, and Loire rivers to "downcut through the rising ridges, thus cutting the Kimmeridgian-Portlandian outcrop band into an archipelago of wine areas" (Wilson).


The figures above show that upper Jurassic deposits (which would include Portlandian and Kimmeridigian deposits) came to the surface in a band that falls below the Champagne and Loire bands and above the Burgundy band. Wilson refers to the Kimmeridgian outcrops as the Kimmeridgian Chain in that they are distinct and separate from their associated wine regions. The primary Kimmeridgean vineyard sites in France are: (i) the Aube sub-region of Champagne; (ii) the Chablis, Tonnerre, and Auxerrois areas of Burgundy; and (iii) the Pouilly, Sancerre, and Menetou-Salon areas of the Loire Valley.

Wilson sees the key to Kimmeridgian soil as the way it works with its Portlandian partner. The marly soil of the Kimmeridgian develop good structure and water-retention characteristics and is easy to cultivate. The hard limestone of the Portlandian contains many fossils and fragments and is also cracked by frost. This enables aeration of the slopes as well as aiding in drainage.

To be specific, the subsoils of the Côte des Bar is mainly composed of marls, limestones, and clays from Kimmeridgian deposits. On the slopes, the stony limestone elements help the soils to drain fully.

While its fellow Kimmeridgian traveler (Chablis) focuses on Chardonnay, the variety of choice in Côte des Bar is Pinot Noir (84.44 of the plantings). The vines are planted on hillsides with steep slopes  where the stony limestone elements help the soils to drain freely.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Jacques Lassaigne: Making Great Grower Champagne in Montgueux, the edge of the known (Côte des Blancs) universe

Montgueux is a tiny hill of pure chalk that, even though 100 km to the south of Epernay -- and being only 12 km northeast of Troyes -- is classified into the Côte des Blancs growing area by the Union des Maisons de Champagne. In addition to its remove from its Côte des Blancs counterparts, Montgueux's grape growing history is fairly recent, stretching back, as it does, to the 1950s and 1960s when negociants, seeking new product sources, encouraged the locals to begin growing grapes. It is in this remote, fledgling, Côte des Blancs outpost that Emmanuel Lassaigne (of the label Jacques Lassaigne) crafts the wines that have led to Robert Walters (Bursting Bubbles) numbering him among Champagne's Great Growers.

Montgueux falls into the Aube Department administratively but does notr share the Kimmeridgian soil and Pinot Meunier variety of the Côte des Bar growers. In contrast to the Côte des Bar, Montgueux's soil is comprised of chalk from the Turonian age and is, according to Lassaigne, really a geologic continuation of the Côte des Blancs chalk -- even though 15 million years older. The Montgueux chalk is 60 metres depth and is endowed with silex inclusions.

A total of 209.3 ha is planted to vine with 90.25% allocated to Chardonnay, 9.22% to Pinot Noir, and the remainder to Pinot Meunier (This Chardonnay dominance is a hallmark for Côte des Blancs vineyards.). The vineyards are southeast-facing and this, coupled with their far-south location, results in the production of fully ripened grapes. Over 50% of the grape production is sold to Champagne Houses.

The Estate and the Wines
As mentioned, vine planting in Montgueux is a fairly recent occurrence. Jacques Lassaigne (Emmanuel's father) began planting vines in 1964 and sold his fruit to the Houses. He began holding back some of his grapes for wine production in the 1970s but at this time he only made still wine. He began producing Champagne in 1980. Most of the wine was sold at the "cellar door."

The family business was not doing well so Emmanuel came back home in 1999 to aid in its rescue (at the time he was working in manufacturing. At that time he had no formal training in viticulture or viniculture nor had he apprenticed at the feet of Jacques Selosse (as have many of his peers). Rather he worked by trial and error and experimentation and has been rewarded with the acclaim accorded  his wines today.His first vintage was in 2002.

The estate holding is a single 3.5-ha block in the Le Cotet vineyard. The vineyard is farmed organically, eschewing fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. The grass in the vineyard is cultivated between vines and rolled flat between rows. Vines are Guyot-trained.

In an effort to tap into all of the terroir opportunities on Montgueux, Emmanuel supplements the estate fruit with grapes purchased from a few small growers. In order to ensure that the purchased product approaches the level of quality of his grapes, Emmanuel's requirements are as follows:
  • The source vineyard must be located in Montgueux
  • The source vineyard must have a south or southeast exposure
  • The source vineyard must rest on chalky soils
  • The vineyard must be managed by a good grower who works effectively in the vineyard
  • The fruit must issue from old vines (45 - 60 years old).
As a result of purchasing fruit, Jacques Lassaigne is classed as a negociant-manipulant.

The Lassaigne portfolio of wines is shown below.  This array has recently been supplemented with a vintage Champagne called Clos Sainte-Sophie.

Lassaigne traditional portfolio (Source:
The grapes for the Lassaigne cuvees are hand-harvested, destemmed, and then gently pressed. A small amount of sulfur is added to the mix at this time to retard oxidation. Each parcel is processed separately. The must is vinified in stainless steel tanks (or barrels) with indigenous yeasts and the wine aged according to the practice for that cuvee.The treatment for the individual cuvees is shown in the table below.

Les Vignes de Montgueux NV
Le Cotet NV
La Colline Inspirée NV
Clos Sainte-Sophie*
Fruit source
7 – 9 parcels; 1/3 purchased fruit
Estate, single vyd.’ Single plot
Le Cotet, Les Paluets, La Grande
La Grande Côte, Bouillerate
Clos St Sophie
Vine age (yrs)
Planted 1964 - 1967
40 - 50
Planted 1968 - 1975
Yield (hl/ha)
35 - 45
45 - 60

45 - 60

Fermentation vessel
Mostly tank (15% in wood)

SS tank
Old barrels

Indigenous yeasts
Indigenous yeasts
Indigenous yeasts
Indigenous yeasts
Indigenous yeasts
Aged in new and old barrels for 12 – 24 months
12 – 24 months on lees in stainless steel and used barrels (4 – 20 years)

24 – 36 months on lees; old barrels
6 mos in barrel
Last three vintages with greater amounts of last two; over 50% reserve
Significant % of base-year wine plus small %s from prior vintages; perpetual blend

Two vintages

Sur Lie
1 – 5 years
3 – 5 years

3 – 5 years

*1.2 ha plot surrounded by a hedge
Compiled from various sources.

The characteristics of two of the Lassaigne Champagnes, as seen by Walters, are as follows:
  • Les Vignes de Montgueux -- a racy, salty, iodine-noted wine which is at once deliciously refreshing yet having good depth and some exotic notes
  • Le Cotet -- a racy, mineral, citrusy, complex wine.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Fontodi's Flaccionello della Pieve: A vertical tasting (1995 - 2015)

Besides its DOCG, Vin Santo, and Gran Selezione wines, Chianti Classico is also known as the birthplace of the now-famous Super Tuscans. The Super Tuscan wines grew out of producer frustration with earlier iterations of the wine laws which prevented them from making wines that were 100% Sangiovese, or removing the allowed white varieties from the wine. Some producers made these types of wines anyway but they could only be called table wine under existing laws. These wines were so finely made, and widely accepted, however, that the laws were modified such that a new level -- IGT -- was created above the table wine to support their initiatives. The current instance of the Chianti Classico wine laws would allow many of the Super Tuscan wines to be labeled as Chianti Classico but many producers continue to retain the IGT label and the success that they have enjoyed as standalone brands.

Such is the case for Fontodi and its vaunted Flaccionello della Pieve, a 100% Sangiovese wine made in an international style. Wine Watch (Ft. Lauderdale, FL) recently held a tasting of selected vintages of the wine produced between 1995 and 2015. I report on that tasting in this post.

The Estate and the Wine
The Fontodi estate sits on 130 ha of land -- 70 of which are planted to vines -- just south of the village of Panzano, itself located in the commune of Greve in Chianti. The estate, which includes vineyards that have been operational since the days of the Roman Empire, was purchased by Dino Manetti in 1968 and his son Giovanni came aboard in 1979 (Prior to their involvement in the winery, the Manetti family produced and sold terracotta amphorae.). Giovanni took over the running of the business in 1980.

Panzano, the estate's home village, sits at one end of  ridge which divides the valleys of Pesa and Greve. On the Pesa side, the land falls away from the crest of the ridge in a number of amphitheater-like structures, the largest of which is called Conca d'Oro (golden shell). It is upon this south-facing, sun-drenched amphitheater that the Fontodi vineyards reside.

Vineyards on Conca d'Oro are planted at altitudes between 350 metres and 450 metres. The Chianti Classico climate is continental, with long summers and cold winters. Annual rainfall ranges between 700 and 800 millimeters and occurs primarily in the spring and late autumn. Conca d'Oro day-night temperature differentials are enhanced by its elevation.

The soil is a mix of flaky shale, galestro (crumbling schistous rock), and some limestone albarese.

Vineyard practices are focused on sustainability. The estate is certified organic with an end goal of becoming fully biodynamic (24 of 25 wineries in Panzano are either organic or biodynamic).

The Flaccionello label was launched by the estate in 1981 as a 100% Sangiovese (IGT) made in an international style. Grapes are hand-harvested and fermented in stainless steel tanks using indigenous yeasts. The wine is subjected to a post-fermentation maceration (with punch downs) of 3 - 4 weeks, upon completion of which it is transferred to barrels for malolactic fermentation and aging.

Eric Guido (Morrell Wine), in a piece titled The Evolution of Flaccionello, points out a number of changes in the Flaccionello production process over the years:
  • Fruit source -- the fruit for this wine was originally sourced from a vineyard named Flaccionello della Pieve. Beginning with the 2001 vintage, and subsequent to the purchase of some additional prime vineyard property, the decision was taken to make the wine as a blend of the best fruit across the estate's vineyards.
  • Aging regime -- Prior to 1990 the wine was aged for 1 year in 50% new oak. Beginning in 1990, the estate began a gradual shift to today's practice: 24 months aging in 100% new oak from the Troncais and Allier forests.
The Tasting
Early birds were treated to bottomless Franciacortas as we hung around the bar and engaged in pre-tasting banter. During the time that we were at the bar, all of the wines to be tasted were poured into our glass, giving them some exposure to oxygen prior to the actual engagement. The wines included in the tasting were: 1995 Felsina Fontalloro (don't ask me) and 1995, 1996, 1999, 2000, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2014, and 2015 Flaccinellos.

With the exception of the Fontalloro and the 2000 and 2014 Flaccinello, the wines presented extremely well with a red fruit-herb-tobacco character as a through line. There was a dividing line in the tasting at the 2005 vintage where the wines became more youthful in nature and the fruit subsumed some of the tertiary characteristics. My favorites of the night were the 1995 and 2005 but the consensus picks were the 1999 and 2007.

Tasting Notes
The 1995 Felsina Fontalloro presented dried red fruit, rose petals, and dried herbs on the nose. Flat and dried out on the palate. This wine did not persist well in the glass as an additional pour later in the evening revealed a much livelier character.

The 1995 Flaccionello was more robust on the nose than the Felsina but not as aromatic. Deeper, darker, more concentrated fruit. Elegant on the palate. Lean but powerful. Citrus and burnt orange and a lengthy finish. I loved this wine.

The 1996 Flaccinello showed red fruits and a nuttiness on the nose. A beautiful fruit note on the palate. Elegant. Lengthy finish. High-toned.

Roses, tobacco, and dried herbs on the nose for the 1999 Flaccinello.  Rich and concentrated. Spicy, lengthy finish.

The 2000 also showed herbs and roses on the nose. Big, broad-based fruit. Most developed of the wines tasted up to this time. Browning. Drink now or forever hold your peace.

The 2005 showed red fruit, wet tobacco, and a perfumed nose. Bright on the palate with a slight puckering. Sandy, spicy, and beautiful fruit. Lengthy finish.

The 2007 showed tobacco, smoke, and rich red fruit on the nose. Tobacco, red fruit, and a youthfulness on the palate. Lengthy, grippy finish. Long life ahead.

Red fruit, tobacco, herbs on the nose for the 2009. Herb-infused fruity finish.

Herbs, green bark, somewhat unyielding on the 2014 nose. Mushrooms and red fruit on the palate. Not as impressive as the foregoing.

The 2015 exhibited power. Plum, licorice, herbs, and smoke on the nose. Spicy and structured on the palate. A drying finish.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Les Bessards, Le Méal, and L'Hermite: The top climats in Northern Rhône's Hermitage AOC

Variations in soil type, combined with elevation differentials, have resulted in a number of distinctive planting zones (climats) within the Northern Rhône's Hermitage AOC. The variations in soil type are reflected in pH differences (almost neutral at Les Bessards and 8.5 at Le Méal) and this, according to Jean-Louis Chave, "provides one of the most simple arguments in favor of blending the wines from different climats" (Livingstone-Learmonth). With two exceptions (Chapoutier's Le Pavillon and Delas' Les Bessards), the leading red wines of the region are multi-climat blends.

Truly understanding the wines of the region requires a familiarity with the characteristics of the individual climats. We begin that effort with a review of the three most important: Les Bessards, Le Méal, and l'Hermite (drawing primarily from John Livingstone-Learmonth's The Wines of Northern Rhône). The geographical scope of the three zones is outlined in red below.

The three most important climats in Hermitage encircled in red.
(Underlying map sourced from

Les Bessards
Les Bessards is 'the beating heart" of Hermitage, its biggest and best climat. This south-facing climat starts out flat in its lowest reaches and steepens markedly with increasing altitude. The soil story here is granite -- in varying forms of decomposition. The locals divide the climat into three zones based largely on the composition of the granite in each (see map slice below).

Approximate allocation of sub-climat boundaries and
soils distribution (underlying map slice a screen shot

Les Bessards is primarily a Syrah site. The table below shows the main growers and the characteristics of the wines they produce.

Table 1. The role of Les Bessards in leading Hermitage red wines
Producer/Wine Climat Role Wine Character
Chapoutier/Pavillon Source “the Bessards granite gives a rigorous, mineral impact in its wines — there is a tension in the wine from the granite.”
Delas Main contributor “… complexity is the principal characteristic of our Bessards cuvée. Its richness sits well on a thoroughbred structure …”
Jaboulet/La Chapelle 1/4th “… the finesse in their Bessards Syrah comes from the rotted granite …”
Chave/Hermitage Foundation wine “… our essential climat — you cannot make a Grand Hermitage without it … the frame around which we work; no granite — no long life.”
Source: Derived from The Wines of the Northern Rhone.

Delas produces Marsanne wines from a 1-ha plot at the bottom of Les Bessards. The soil here has some granite stones but is "more vegetal, deeper soil than elsewhere" in the climat.

Le Méal
This is the second ranked of the three great Hermitage climats and is a "perfect counterpoint" to Les Bessards:
  • Les Bessards is oriented verticallly while Le Méal is oriented horizontally
  • Les Bessards soil is all about granite while there are a multiplicity of soil types at Le Méal
  • Le Méal is hotter than Les Bessards
  • Largely due to the two preceding points, Le Méal produces "open, warm-structured Syrahs" versus the brooding and severe wines of its counterpart.
This south-facing climat is one of the steepest in the AOC, starting out flat and then rising quickly to its maximum height of 240 m.

The soil is comprised of light-colored glacier stones and loose soils of silt and sand from Tertiary era alpine glaciers. The stones radiate the sun's heat resulting in higher temperatures than in Les Bessards. Unlike the pH-neutrality at Les Bessards, the soils at Le Méal are alkaline. The soil difference between the two results in redder fruit being produced at Le Méal.

The soils at lower elevations contain a little more clay and are richer as a result. They are suitable for both red and white grapes.

The main producers in this climat are as follows:
  • Jaboulet -- largest holder (6.8 ha); product from this climat is the core contributor (25% - 50%) to the producer's La Chapelle
  • Chapoutier
  • J-L Chave -- provider of flesh to Hermitage
  • Sorrel -- Le Gréal (fruit from Le Méal combined with some Greffieux fruit)
  • Bernard Faurie -- Le Méal
Chapoutier finds the wines of this climat to be "... very silken, full of ripe fruits" while Livingstone-Learmonth sees them as "... gloriously sumptuous, rich wines that can hold animal and meat undertones stemming from the natural heat" of the location.

L'Hermite runs across the top of the Les Bessards and Lé Meal climats and, in one area, has a penninsula-like out-jutting that temporarily separates the two.

There is a mix of soils in this climat -- granite, crumbling granite, loess, and alpine detritus -- resulting in sudden changes in soil composition even in vineyard rows. The figure below shows the soils distribution and the grape varieties by soil type.

The dominant influence on L'Hermite are the loess and alluvial stones of its central and eastern portions. These soils can run up to 0.5 m in depth. The alluvial stones (galets) aid fruit ripening. "I would place L'Hermite as one of the three best white wine sites at Hermitage -- those that give the most luscious, ripe Marsanne fruit from mature vines ..." (Livingstone-Learmonth). Jean-Louis Chave sees L'Hermite as a site for white wines of "balance and finesse."

Syrah vines are planted on granite and alpine glacier residues. "L'Hermite's red wines always carry freshness and spice, ... In some vintages, there can be a lot of maturity, but still a sound acidity. Its tannins are usually quite tight and vivacious" (Jean-Louis Chave in The Wines of the Northern Rhone).

In addition to Chapoutier and Chave, the Cooperative and Guigal also grow fruit in this climat.

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