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Get Your Saint-Joseph On

The crazy steep Saint-Joseph vineyards above Tornon, France.

I had the good fortune to travel, by car, on a wine tasting expedition through France in 1999. On that trip, my companions and I stopped at winery after winery in the Northern Rhône, where winemakers gave us tastes directly from their barrels. Whenever we fawned over a particular wine, they filled up plastic jugs for us to take along for the ride. The wines were both earthy and fruity, and always with that peppery brilliance for which Syrah is known. I've loved that region ever since. Whenever I drink a Rhône wine, I'm looking for something that will bring back my memories of that magical trip. 

The Saint-Joseph AOC is one of my personal favorite Rhône regions. Originally known as Vin de Mauves (meaning "purple wine," and apparently a favorite of Louis XII), its wines often possess a seemingly contradictory combination of muscular earthiness and disarmingly gorgeous finesse. Like the other Northern Rhône appellations, the only red wine grape allowed is Syrah. As for white wine grapes, only Marsanne and Roussanne are permitted. The thing is, people have produced wine in these vineyards for hundreds of years, and these varietal regulations are there for a tried and true reason: these particular grapes, grown in this particular geology and climate, can produce incredible wines.

Saint-Joseph (pronounced "Sahn Josz-EFF") sits just north of Crôzes-Hermitage, widely considered the second most prestigious region of the area. The most prestigious is Côte-Rôtie, which is about a 40 mile drive north up the A7. With the reputations of Côte Rôtie and Crozes-Hermitage both outshining that of Saint-Joseph, you can find some amazing bang-for-the-buck St. Joe gems at your local wine store. 

The younger Pierre GononOne of my favorite producers of the region is Pierre Gonon. This domaine was founded by Pierre himself, but he turned it over to his sons, Jean and Pierre, in 1989. I really liked the Gonon Saint-Joseph rouge (100% Syrah) the first time I tried it a few years ago, when my nose and taste buds told me what some internet research confirmed: this is an old-school producer that embraces traditional vinification methods. In fact, although they haven't yet bothered getting certified organic, they have been farming completely organically for years. You'll see this phenomenon a lot more in Europe than elsewhere: some producers care more about doing things "right," for their land and for their own notions of integrity, than about the marketing cachet (but added cost) that getting officially certified brings. The Gonons also steer clear of new wood, as they believe -- as I do as well -- that this lets their wines' terroir come through in the most pure way. To cement their credentials as traditional winemakers, note that the Gonons only use indigenous yeasts, ferment in open oak vats, punch down by foot (!), and never filter their wines. This winery is about as natural as they come.

I recently had Gonon's 2007 Saint-Joseph "Les Oliviers" blanc. The namesake of this beautiful white wine is the equally beautiful Les Oliviers vineyard. Les Oliviers is on a steep slope above the town of Tornon, where the precariousness of the vineyard requires the grapes to be harvested by hand. The soil is made up of alluvial deposits of clay and sanded granite stones. The wine is 80% Marsanne and 20% Roussanne, and it's a true stunner that reflects both opulent fruit and that stony soil. On the nose, I found a lovely bouquet of honey, tropical fruit, lemon zest, baking spice, and a distinctive chalky, minerally aroma I just couldn't get enough of. The mouthfeel was unctuous and oily, and flavors of persimmon, apricot, vanilla, baking spice and sweet lime danced around my mouth. It's not high in acid, but it is somehow still incredibly lively. I didn't want this delicious assault on my tongue to stop, and fortunately for me the finish went on and on. For the cost, usually around $35, this wine is actually a decent bargain. 

After this satisfying experience, I was eager to try Pierre Gonon's red Saint-Joseph again, so I tracked down a bottle of the 2008 vintage ($35). This wine had an intriguing and complex nose, mostly of pepper, herbs, and crushed rocks. On the palate, however, after a pleasingly wild hint of dirt, forest floor, and fresh pepper, all I could detect for fruit was something akin to unripe raspberries, and not much else -- darn it, the fruit was completely closed down, even though I had decanted it for two hours and poured it through my Vinturi. So I corked it back up, hoping for better results in a day or two. Thank-Dionysus I did. When I re-popped it two nights later, the wine had found its legs. Now I began to get the full picture: an initially floral nose anchored by white pepper, plum, blueberry syrup, and a hint of prosciutto. Upon tasting, the prevalent peppery earth from two days before was now complimented by ripe raspberry and plum as well as a meatiness balanced by integrated but pronounced acidity. This led to a deep, lengthy finish. This is what I was looking for. Memories of my trip to the Rhône came flooding back to me. This wine tastes like France, and left me jonesing to go back.

Other Saint-Joseph producers to look out for, and who also stick with a traditional approach, are Dard et Ribo (a favorite of Alice Feiring), Robert Michel, Jean Louis Chave (tres famous, but for good reason), and Bernard Faurie. And if you have the time and means, take a trip to France, rent a car, and road trip along the Rhône (with a designated driver, of course). And don't forget some plastic jugs.

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