I’ll submit that, along with Champagne and Burgundy, the Northern Rhône attracts perhaps the most focused attention among wine lovers. Despite this, the region feels like less of a repository of up-and-comers than its northern neighbors. In a place like Burgundy, for example, the pursuit of new discoveries - producers and vineyards alike - has become for many of us the most fundamental way of orienting our interest and buying decisions. To an astonishing degree, the excitement of discovery has replaced the binary pursuit of ‘greatness’ as our north star. Despite an encouraging number of exciting addresses in the Northern Rhône, an approach still largely focused on blending makes meaningfully getting a grasp of site diversity challenging.
A small number of legendary domaines still dominates the Northern Rhône, comparatively speaking. Even today, most focused tastings and serious dinners center around mature vintages of a few canonical producers. The enthusiasm we direct to the region’s emerging producers tends to be directed at lightly extracted vins de soif: light-textured wines to drink young and, preferably, chilled. And yet, while these admirably accessible pleasures represent an enormously gratifying aspect of wine drinking, they do not and cannot represent wines’ fullness. Who points a way to the future?
Among a few others, I’ll nominate Jean-Baptiste Souillard, who launched his domaine in 2014. Before charting off on his own, Souillard spent several years working at a chemical lab in Cornas, where his fondness for the region deepened at the same time as an ambivalence to blending. Armed with a love of the cultural vantage point of Burgundy, he wondered why so many of his region’s noble terroirs were reflexively blended into relatively characterless, even if often delicious, wines. From the beginning, Souillard has eschewed blending in preference of the monastic ethos: 1 terroir = 1 wine. To this end, Souillard has sought out tiny plots he believes capable of compelling and individual expressions. ‘Les Baties,’ a .10 hectare hillside plot of 50 year old vines located just north of the Hermitage hill, is emblematic of his vision.
While I remember admiring the fruits of his inaugural vintage, I somehow couldn’t love them. The reds showed lovely fruit but also appreciable reduction which seemed distracting. What I remember loving was this little nugget of vital red fruit together with a streak of wildness and obvious textural appeal. A producer to watch, I noted. And a few years later, what a joy it’s been to discover this superbly expressive 2017. Zero reduction! Instead, the fruit is alert and clear, more red than black, with delicate petal-y aromas that feel more infused than extracted. Souillard’s love of whole-cluster is also obvious, with sweet spice and a soft green suggestion tugging at the wine’s vividly expressive fruit. In the end, the combination of purity and intensity is wonderful.
Is there a nod to Burgundy here? Perhaps. But to call this Crôzes-Hermitage Burgundian is to short change its own particularity and distinctiveness. This is no homage to a far away place. This is a clear and strong new voice, confident in standing on its own, and one whose wines suggest new possibilities for the region. Oh, and it’s an absolutely absurd value. For now.