As Fall begins in earnest, I find myself yearning for the wines of the Northern Rhone, and above all the kaleidoscopic complexity and refined rusticity of mature Côte-Rôtie. In particular, my fantasies play on the 1980 and 1983 vintages of the legendary Gentaz-Dervieux Côte Brune, two of the most memorable bottles of wine that I have encountered in recent years. Those bottles, made by the late Marius Gentaz, define my sense of what Côte-Rôtie can be.
Classically styled Côte-Rôtie, however, is hard to find these days, and I have fallen increasingly out of love with the appellation’s modernist wines. In the latter genre, Guigal’s La Mouline, La Landonne and La Turque are certainly the most successful, but I have yet to find the magic of the 1978 La Mouline replicated in more recent vintages. Worse, Guigal’s critical and commercial success has inspired many imitators to experiment with new oak and longer hang time, a high wire act that too often produces wines reminiscent of jam and sawdust—a very far cry from the Gentaz-Dervieux Côte Brune.
All the more reason to celebrate Côte-Rôtie’s remaining traditionalists: a short list of producers including the Domaines Jamet, Champet, Rostaing and—my most recent discovery—Domaine Bernard Levet.
Domaine Bernard Levet was founded in 1983, when Nicole Levet and her husband Bernard took over the vineyards of her father, Marius Chambeyron. Today, their soft-spoken daughter Agnès, with whom I tasted last year, presides over the cellar. The family owns some 3.5 ha of meticulously tended vineyards in a number of sites, including old vines in La Landonne (a fact they unaccountably omit from their labels), producing around 13,000 bottles each year. They are proponents of Sérine, the local version of Syrah, which produces thinner-skinned, more oval berries than the ubiquitous Syrah clones with which many of Côte-Rôtie’s vineyards have been replanted. In an unassuming cellar in Ampuis, the Levet’s old-vine Sérine is fermented on the stems in expoxy-lined cement and put through a three-year élevage in successively foudres, demi-muids and barriques. About 10-15% of these demi-muids are new, so the wine receives slightly less new oak than the Jamet brothers’ beautiful Côte-Rôties, for example.
The wines that result are strikingly authentic examples of their appellation. Two cuvées are produced: Les Journaires (in Europe, ‘Maestria’), the bulk of which comes from the lieu dit of La Landonne, and Le Chavaroche (in Europe, La Péroline), from the eponymous lieu dit. Their correct acidities and whole cluster aromatics, combined with Syrah’s propensity for youthful reduction, make them pretty uncompromising affairs in their youth—especially for those acclimated to Syrah-as-Shiraz. But with bottle age (fifteen years is very much the beginning for these wines in most vintages) they emerge from their medicinal and herbal immaturity, blossoming to reveal aromatics of black raspberries, rich cocoa, coffee bean, roasted game and violets. Les Journaires is darker fruited and more ample, Le Chavaroche higher-toned, more focussed and more mineral. No one who loves classical Côte-Rôtie should miss either.