Le Grand Patron – George Vernay

Joe Gilmour Uncategorized

Condrieu as an appellation does not generally enjoy the favour of the cognoscenti. The condescension towards Viognier was caused by the exaggerated character of many of the wines and an over-expansion of vineyard land, that when planted on inappropriate slopes, was massaged by winemakers into an over-blowsy wine of little acidity and tropical fruit.

But amongst all that, there remained a man of total seriousness, Georges Vernay, whose wines deserve total respect and close scrutiny.

With the expansion of vineyard area, and growth in places that aren’t really appropriate, new growers pushed the yields up from an average of say 25 hl/ha in the early 1980s to about 50 hl/ha in  2004. Vernay is doubtful quality can be maintained over 30 and in doing so with dubious amounts of battonage and residual sugar, they have created a perception that Condrieu is not a serious wine. The blowsy aromatics and loose acidity have created a sort of exaggerated style, like a man dressed as a woman in pantomime.

That wines like the hyper-mineral Roulot and PYCM are in vogue at the moment have thrown this into contrast like never before.

Proving the opposite and making a wine that has all of the stuffing and poise of any of the worlds great wines is George Vernay’s Coteau de Vernon. The greatest Condrieu of them all.

The Coteau de Vernon is formed of one main plot, a convex, south-east facing hill composed of mica-filled granite. At just under 1.7 hectares it produces around 400 cases a year. It is vinified at a maximum of 18 degrees in cask, 25% new, the rest up to 5 years old, it’s ageing is typically 12-16 months.

2014 Coteau de Vernon

Fresh and bright, both in colour and in composition, discreet aromatics which is something the whole range share, in comparison to one’s mental image of Condrieu. Nice minerality and length (+2)

2012 Coteau de Vernon

More powerful than the 2014, and the better for it, still perhaps in a middle place between youth and maturity. (+3)

2011 Coteau de Vernon

A bit herby, lighter than the 2012, nice elegance (+1)

2010 Coteau de Vernon

Incredibly powerful in the mouth, with outstanding persistence. Premier league wine that only doesn’t get a higher mark as it lacks maturity in my mind (+4)

2006 Coteau de Vernon

Quite a different character on this wine, reminds me a bit of a Jurancon sec, a kind of sour apple flavour. A deeper colour as well. It seems a bit poorly crafted in comparison to the other vintages. Our sommelier commented that it could be that this was the last vintage that Georges himself consulted on – I don’t know if that’s true. (-3)

2002 Coteau de Vernon

Not a great vintage, but I thought this was incredible. Really nice balance and development of subtle aged character. What I like as well is that as the wines get older they seem to lose the Viognier top notes and taste more of the granite terroir. Also, the first wine of the line up that I thought was truly mature. Christine Vernay says the wines should be drunk at about 10 years, but based on this, I would say more like 20 in good vintages. (+4)

In sum, these wines offer up a lot more subtlety than I think most people were expecting, and the framework for ageing is a lot more extensive then you might assume. In fact, I would not really look at anything younger than 2010 for drinking now. Problem is, I suppose almost zero availability of the older vintages. They get snapped up pretty quickly, and for good reason.

Whilst Christine Vernay is the winemaker through our series of wines, the legacy is George’s and his was the vision for the domaine. Christine’s efforts with the reds are a new direction and one we didn’t the chance to explore this time.

When tasting these wines you’re aware just how different these wines are to anything that is produced in Condrieu, with the possible exception of Perret’s Coteau de Chery.

As John-Livingstone Learmonth rightly observes: “The debt to him from anyone who loves Condrieu or even Viognier wines is enormous, he is Le Grand Patron”

He didn’t just safeguard the region through the dog-days of the 1950s and 60s when no-one wanted to work the vines, he points at what is possible with the right land and the right winemaking. Not just serious wine but great wine, every bit the equal of Grand Cru Burgundy.

Post-Script – A nice photo we saw at the estate of Georges Vernay working the Coteau de Vernay vineyard in the 1970s.


Joe GilmourLe Grand Patron – George Vernay

Edmunds St-John

Joe Gilmour Uncategorized

“If Randall Grahm brought the flash to the Rhone movement, Steve Edmunds brought the soul” Patrick Comiskey, American Rhone.

When Jean-Pierre Perrin of Chateau Beaucastel was weighing up whether to invest in establishing the Tablas Creek winery in Paso Robles, he asked to meet Steve Edmunds so he could taste his 1986 Brandlin Ranch Mouvedre. They met and tasted, and Perrin recalls being so impressed with this wine, he cites it as a tipping point for going ahead with the project.

The more you read about Steve Edmunds, the more you realise, that he, Forest Gump-like, seems to enter in multiple episodes throughout the Rhone movement in the US.

Indeed, if not his words directly – he claims it comes from the owner of a local wine store, he certainly was the first to use the term “Rhone Ranger” to band together the early enthusiasts. From a modern perspective it seems strange that Rhone varietals took so long to catch on in the US, but they did. In the mid 1980s they were not an easy sell.

His own epiphany occurred when eating at Chez Panisse, the the epicentre of a new movement in wine and cuisine. He was handed a glass of 1983 Qupe Syrah, Bob Lindquist’s first vintage. Taking the glass away from his lips, he thought of bacon fat, violets and all of the interesting Rhone markers and said “My god, this guy’s onto something. Maybe we can do this here”.

Steve, like his fellow Ranger Sean Thackrey has always been a roving chef, finding fruit sources where he could. In the early days, he sourced a bit from Gary Eberle’s landmark Estrella vineyard (then one of the few places to find Syrah in California). His breakthrough was finding a parcel of Mouvedre on Mt Veeder, which met with acclaim from Francis Peyraud of Domaine Tempier. It was like picking up a jewel in the dirt. The old Mataro was a legacy of early Californian plantings that were often field blends and accidental happenings.

When he started making wine in the mid 1980s you could count the number of US wineries making Rhone blends on the fingers of two hands. It was a pretty niche business. Cabernet , there was a legacy of some kind, but there was no track-record of making Syrah or Grenache at this point. Everyone said the climate could and should be ideal, but not many people were staking their reputations on it.

His first vintage was 1985, where he made just a hundred cases. He shared early bottles with his friend, fellow musician and local wine merchant Kermit Lynch, who encouraged and helped circulate the wine to the local community.

The early Rhone Rangers like Steve, Sean Thackry and Randall Grahm weren’t fussed about following the crowd. So being praised, criticised then ignored by Robert Parker for ignoring the movement towards big flavour, probably didn’t bother him that much. Whilst Randall Grahm was wearing all kinds of marketing hats to publicise this new direction in varietal wine, Steve kind of sat back and focussed on making his wines better. He knew he was doing something right. They tasted great on release and aged beautifully. All done whilst keeping production low and prices keen. His wines have always been a bit like him, original, understated and thoughtful. At a time most American winemakers wanted more and more, Steve had the sense to know when enough was enough when it came to making his wines.

As his early fruit sources became unavailable, Steve has branched out into several other interesting projects, including Vermentino and Gamay, the latter from a plot in the Sierra Foothills also utilised by Arnot-Roberts. These reflect also a rare American desire to make drinkable wines, not the ‘Great American Wine’. That mind-set has been the downfall of many wines and winemakers.

I’m very excited to say these wines will be coming into the UK very soon, give me a shout if you want more details.

Joe GilmourEdmunds St-John

Jurassic Park

Joe Gilmour Uncategorized

The Rhone Valley’s viticultural dinosaur” was how Robert Parker described St-Peray in 1987.

The appellation blurs its boundaries with the sprawl of Valence, and it can be difficult to spot where the town ends and dinosaur territory begins. The village itself remains rather down at heel, spottily pretty, like the off-beat charm of its wide-ranging wines. Today 60% is still, 40% sparkling. I have no real knowledge of the area, my only experience was battling the Sat-Nav to try and find the cellar of Hirotake Ooka, a natural producer whose brilliant wines en cuve didn’t quite seem to survive the experience of being put into bottle

In the appellations heartland, the hillside slopes, there is exceptional exposition, old vines and some of the very best Rousanne in the whole of the Northern Rhone.

All Northern Rhone white wines of genuine quality are under-rated and undervalued by the market. Still, even within this context, St-Peray shows a special talent for ‘going missing’ in the mind of the wine buying public.

In 1889, the order book of a local merchant show the prices fetched for the still St-Peray (3 Francs) matching those of Corton and Pommard, besting those of Cornas and Crozes and just below those of White Hermitage (3.5)

Is some of the problem that two very different styles of wines are produced? The quirky, full-bodied sparkling wines, that largely find the mouths of the local French market and the still version, from old vines on hill-side vineyards.

No one seems to be articulate a bright future for the sparkling wines. It just doesn’t really fufill the modern requirement of sparkling wines to be fresh, uplifting and acidic. Phillipe Jaboulet remarks that even as early as 1960: “People lost the habit of sipping wine at 4pm with their cakes, or taking it as a desert wine. It slid from view”.

There are only four domains making sparkling St-Peray, which remains now rather a local tradition. Of the still style, there are about a dozen small growers making and bottling their own wine

Of those, St-Perays from producers like Clape, de Tunnel, Lemenicier, Gripa, Cecillon, Grand Colline and others, are the last best secrets of the Northern Rhone.

Joe GilmourJurassic Park

New Systems, New Codes

Joe Gilmour Uncategorized

When I visited Champagne a few years ago on a big buyers trip, I remember Christian Holthausen with particular clarity, then working as export director for Charles Heidesick. I don’t know if the whole thing was set up to provide the greatest contrast between the unbelievably boring clichés of the other houses and his fresh outsider perspective, but it certainly seemed so at the time.

He has written brilliantly on the rules of the ‘new luxury’ on jancisrobinson.com.

“Signs of consumption have now become so coded, it’s no longer about the nouveau riche trying to appear wealthy as it was during the first part of this century. It’s about the rich trying to appear ‘just like everybody else’ while simultaneously displaying coded signs for the benefit of their aspirational peer group. A lot of these codes are immersed in notions of self-care, health and altruism.”

“I recently spoke with a very wealthy woman in New York who asks her nanny to change into a white organic cotton ensemble (provided by the nanny’s employer and washed nightly by the employer’s housekeeper, no doubt in organic washing powder) as soon as she arrives for work in the morning. Her official reason is that she doesn’t want her baby’s skin to touch non-organic fabric but it’s also an easy way to explain why your nanny wears a uniform.”

Joe GilmourNew Systems, New Codes

Time to Kill, Burgundy 2017

Joe Gilmour Uncategorized

Burgundy in September can seem a weary place. The vignerons are tired from the harvest and tired from showing the vintage to endless visitors to the cellar, probably endlessly asking the same questions. The clouds are low, grey and everything seems to be drawing in to prepare for winter. After a gruelling set of appointments, a beer is about all one can muster before dragging away for a night dreaming of cold cellars and wines that all taste identical.

In June, the sun streams down, the days are long, and everyone seems to bound around with an extra few inches in their stride. It is Volnay to the Pommard of winter.

I visited last week with a friend who works for one of the more ‘prestigious’ wine companies in the UK. Their prestige doesn’t seem to extend sending him to Burgundy though, so I joined him on a holiday / business jaunt to see a few producers, drink some wine, stroll through the vineyards and see a couple of suppliers. Unlike September visits, this was relaxed and dare I say it, even fun?

On Monday we had visit with Domaine Fourrier, whose star seems to show no sign of slowing down its ascent. How the wheel of fortune has spun for Jean-Marie, who twenty years ago was schlepping round Belgium trying to sell his wines in supermarkets.

We met Jean-Marie’s English wife Vicky as  was showing some ‘big-name’ guests around, including descendants of the Ming dynasty in China and our own Princess Beatrice. Oh my, modern Burgundy.

Vicky talked very interestingly about their commitment to keeping ex-cellar prices low, I think she mentioned something like 80 Euro for the CSJ. Also, she explained in detail about the negociant augmentation to the range, which is all financed and arranged by their importers, in particular their Hong Kong agent, Pearl of Burgundy. All news to me.

The 2016s all looked good, although a few like the Bourgone Rouge seemed to be going through a bit of an awkward stage. Yields are low, the skins are pretty thick so it should be a decent wine to age. Sort of like a 2009/2010 composite. Vicky also opened a 2011 CSJ which was terrific and drinking beautifully. A maligned vintage but one with ample charms when handled well.

We departed for some lunch at the surprisingly excellent Gallery 412, set within a Holiday Inn, in Dijon with one of my friend’s suppliers, who pulled out a bottle of 2001 Chambolle-Musigny 1er from Mugneret-Gibourg, which was great, if served a little warm and perhaps because of that lacked the definition that for me characterises the domaine.

Dinner that evening was at the Maison de Colombier on a stifling hot evening. Being Monday, finding a restaurant was tough, and we only just managed to sneak a table to dine. We kicked things off with a bottle of 2013 Raveneau 1er Butteaux, which was sublime and well worth the meagre 75 Euro tariff. Although looking at the photo reminds of the pitted olives. I mean, why are we still doing this?

Things went rapidly downhill with a bottle of 2012 Savigny-Les-Beane from the usually estimable Simon Bize. Chewy, a bit green and lacking any joie-de-vivre, with some meat in winter, it would have been fine, but on a stifling hot evening with summer food. Not so much.

Joe GilmourTime to Kill, Burgundy 2017

Laurent Cazottes introduces his still

Joe Gilmour Uncategorized

On a recent trip to France to check out the cellar of a restaurant whose contents the owner is looking to sell, I had the chance to spend a few hours with Laurent Cazottes, whose liquors and eaux de vies are some of the finest in the world.

If I could distill his core message into one sentence, it would be that making the best spirits means having the best fruit. No alchemy in the distillery will change that. The still is a concentrator, nothing more, nothing less.

That being said, I greatly enjoyed him explaining the working of his still, inherited from his father, who used it to make moonshine for the village back in the day.


Joe GilmourLaurent Cazottes introduces his still