Pilgrimmage to Syrah’s Motherland: Cote Rotie: Domaine Rostaing and Stephane Ogier

A quick five minute drive Up-River from Condrieu and we were welcomed into the town of Ampuis by E. Guigal signs towering above the cliff-like vineyards. The diagonal, pointed stakes and head pruned vines would have been a dead giveaway even without the signs, finally I caught a glimpse of the inspiration behind Ruben’s Block! Two quick right turns later and we walked into Renee Rostaing’s Cellar for our very first appointment in France.

Renee’s son, Pierre Rostaing, interned with Sashi for the 2005 vintage and a wonderful relationship has prospered between Domaine Rostaing and Stolpman Vineyards since. Immediately following Pierre’s stage with Stolpman, Sashi and Ruben traveled to the Rhone in the winter of 2006. Upon their return to Santa Ynez, Ruben planted his block in the unique style only found within the steep, tiny AOC. Sashi and Renee have met many times since, and because Renee has become a sort of mentor to Sashi, I was excited to meet this mythically talented winemaker.

We walked down the stairs into the basement barrel cellar where Renee, the consummate professional, laid out his ground rules. At most, the maximum amount of Viognier to be co-fermented with his Syrah is 2-3%, anything more is too feminine. Also, another important “Rule of Renee”, no more than 10% new oak should ever be employed. Renee took the reigns of the Domaine from his father 22 years ago after training for 19 vintages prior; I wasn’t about to argue. Sashi had warned me that Mr. Rostaing frowned upon our occasional use of all new oak and other past experiments. To Renee, our Wild West experimentation with intense Syrah must seem totally foreign to his sacred Cote Rotie tradition.

With Renee’s tenants outlined (literally, with chalk on the concrete wall), it was time to taste the wine. We started with the 2008 Ampodium Cote Rotie, Domaine Rostaing’s young vine syrah. And by young vine, I’m pretty sure they average older than Stolpman’s oldest Originals block. Ampodium, the Romans’ name for the town of Ampuis, showed attractive violet and an inviting meadow characteristic with a very, very tightly packed tannic backbone. 2008 had been a hair-raising vintage in Cote Rotie just as it had been at Stolpman, but instead of April Frost, Renee battled rain, heavy clouds and frigid temperatures throughout the summer.

Next was the 2009 Ampodium, and the warmer vintage showed in richness and dark forest flavors rather than the bright, sundrenched meadows of 2008. The wine was full and deep, and the herbal flavors seemed perfectly combined within the wonderful, complex dish in a glass. The richness of the wine also protected my mouth from the 2008 tannin attack.

Next we moved deeper into the cellar to try the 2010 Big Boys out of Barrel! Still being prepared for bottle, the 2010 La Landonne vineyard on Cote Brune showed raw herbs. While not quite the finished and beautifully presented bottled product that we tasted in the 2009 Ampodium, the La Landonne clearly packed a stunning array of ingredients slowly coming together. The wine’s luxurious continuum from red all the way into brooding blackness showed the greatness of those steep slopes strewn with iron boulders and dark soil.

Looking up from the cellar in Ampuis, Cote Brune appeared to be a Dark Fortress, terraced with slabs of grey rocks. To the left of Cote Brune, Cote Blonde looked a little more whimsically gentle. Back down to the barrels inside Domaine Rostaing, we were introduced to the more inviting 2010 Cote Blonde, by far the prettiest girl we had encountered in the Northern Rhone thus far. Delicate, light red, lifted fruit flavors riding on top of Raw Power. Renee’s 2010 Cote Blonde from chalky limestone instantly became my new definition of Cote Rotie, and I was thrilled to see the vintage parallels between Stolpman continue. Both wineries produced tight, tannic wines upon release in 2008; deeper, darker wines in 2009; and the 2010’s showed bright, lifted, flavors above firm structure. Moreover, 2010 demonstrates truly harmonious balance, without any one factor of the wines overpowering another. Jessica gave me a “wow” look after she tried the 2010 Cote Blonde, despite the early morning appointment, we were both wide awake!

As we prepared to dive into a couple older bottles, I suddenly appreciated Renee’s black and white winemaking stance. He employs the same methods to each of his cuvees every year, so the only differences we would taste in older bottles was the particular weather and relative age, with no other variables. For instance, the vineyard designated old-vine Cote Rotie blocks are fermented whole cluster, while he destems 50% of the younger vine Ampodium lots. The controlled experiment continued to unfold as Renee dug into his library stacks!

The first bottle to be extracted from the wooden crates was a 2003 La Landonne. The 2003 vintage is now notorious for the heat throughout Europe, and Renee noted he picked the La Landonne vineyard on August 22 rather than mid September. Now with nine years of age, the terroir of Cote Rotie has returned to the wine despite the scorching weather during harvest. Sun dried fruit bounded out of the nose and the body showed appealing softness.

The grand finale of the tasting was the 2006 La Landonne. The wine walked a tight rope between attractive fresh fruit and powerful structure only beginning to meld together. I thought I could taste the Iron rich soils of Cote Brune and Renee’s whole cluster fermentation translated into a secondary mint element behind the perfectly ripe plum. And I mean perfectly ripe, it burst with flavor but still held firm, un-wilted textures. A pretty incredible wine and a great way to finish our first appointment in Cote Rotie!

As we said goodbye to Renee I looked up at the two steep, terraced hills of Cote Rotie and I couldn’t wait for the chance to explore them on foot the next morning. I drank in the magic of this tiny place, the motherland of great Syrah, before we headed across river to have an outdoor lunch.

We feasted on seafood and seasonal produce under lush trees along an undeveloped stretch of the Western River bank. Chef Antoine, who owned the remote Chateau restaurant L’Atelier d’Antoine with his wife, recommended the 2010 Saint Joseph Blanc from avante garde producers Mathilde et Yves Gangloff. Jessica and I took a second to drink the whole experience in, and the long lunch really gave a vacation feel to the day. The fact that we were headed directly to Michel et Stephane Ogier after the meal also lent some giddy excitement!

Back over the bridge and into Ampuis, barely a half mile away from Rostaing, and we pulled up to Ogier. Young, studly Stephane waved us down and shouted, “we’re making a little party to try wines, some more people are coming”. Turns out Stephane had coordinated our appointment to combine the two of us with his Dutch importers and some Lyon Sommeliers. This way, Stephane could justify devoting an entire afternoon out of his insane multi-appelation winemaking obligations to barrel taste with all of us – Nice!

Once everyone assembled, we started trying individual 2011 barrels, working through Stephane’s vineyard blocks. I immediately noticed that these wines were much more approachable than Renee Rostaing’s even though they were a year younger. Ogier’s Cote Blonde had a similar femininity as Rostaing’s with light and fresh fruit that lasted through the finish without the Rostaing raw power and robust tannic structure. The Cote Brune wines showed more herbs with sweet mint and chewy oakiness.

Next we launched into isolated Cote Rotie vineyards, and I started running back and forth to the block map so I could better understand the specific terroirs. The South facing Leya vineyard showed attractive depth and richness backed up by oak while the North facing Bessett vineyard was lighter bodied and silky, possibly the greatest departure from Rostaing’s braun. We tried a couple different lots from the Champin vineyard which showed deep tar and then bounced back to Cote Rozier, which lies just above La Landonne. Rozier, boasting 70 year old vines that Stefan’s grandfather planted, hit an unprecedented high. By far the best wine of the afternoon thus far, the wine boasted high pitched, singing red fruit and a sheer prettiness that got me totally excited. The last Cote Rotie single vineyard we tried was Lancement, which had a savory crispy duck skin texture with herbal, fresh marijuana notes.

I was through the moon with the chance to try all of the different Cote Rotie vineyards. It turned out we weren’t done, as Stefan decided we had to try some of the vineyard designates from 2010. The Champin vineyard showed strong parallels to the tarry 2011 with near identical depth and blackness all the way through the tannins. The 2010 Lancement’s duck skin seemed better finished, almost slow cooked, infused with rosemary and thyme.

Out of the barrel room, Stephane poured some Grenache as almost a Remise en Bouche; a little juicy refresher to recover from the experience of the almighty Syrahs. Stephane popped the blended 2010 Cote Rotie which after a few good swirls in the glass, showed intense lavender. The 2010 Rozier had deepened into a coating, purple wine after the 2011 had showed so high-toned. Backing up further, menthol added complexity to the overriding fruit flavors in the 2009 Cote Rotie and the menthol turned greener, almost vegetal, countered by brown sugar in the 2007. The wines seemed to be getting younger, but the bottles were coming from older vintages! The trend continued when Stephane brought out the grand finale, the 2007 Le Belle Hellene, picked from our favorite Rozier vineyard. The wine was still so mean I wanted to save it for dinner!

Before we could depart for the trendy Le Pyramide restaurant in Vienne, we had to cleanse our palate with whites. Stephane busted out a nutty, spicey 100% Marsanne St. Joseph Blanc that knocked my socks off. Next up, Ogier’s Condrieu showed fuzzy pear, which Stephane attributed to Lees contact. The wine was definitely ripe, as it was picked very late for the Rhone in October. The Condrieu reminded me of Apple Cider and Apricot preserve, maybe even Kern’s Peach Nectar, but with a pretty gold color.

Reeling from the long tasting, during which even more winemakers and Sommerliers joined up with the group, we were somehow hungry despite our multi-course lunch just hours before. We had yet to dine inside since being in Europe, so we opted to sit in the back garden of Le Pyramide to enjoy a 1990 Jaboulet Crozes Hermitage Rouge. Jessica and I now had the chance to digest our incredible crash course in Cote Rotie. We were wowed by the sense of tradition Renee Rostaing imparted and the unrelenting fierceness of his young wines that still managed to show delicate, pretty qualities. On the other hand, the younger mover and shaker, Stephane Ogier, who doesn’t limit himself to just wines from Cote Rotie, made wines that were easier to approach in the cellar. But when Stephane popped more mature bottled wines, the long aging potential of Ogier was clear.

As the sun began to set over the garden, we savored the Northern Rhone Syrah at the perfect drinking age. We decided we couldn’t have picked two better producers to see while in Cote Rotie. As we walked around the town of Vienne after dinner, we hatched a plan of attack to explore the two mountains in the morning on foot, that way, we could see first hand why each vineyard block was so unique.

Up early the next day, I parked on the shoulder of the single track road deep into the misty canyon in between Cote Brune and Cote Blonde. We hiked up the trail of jagged crushed rocks, along the ancient rock terraces. Jetlag caught up to Jessica about halfway up Cote Brune, and she opted to rest against one of the terraces with a view of Ampuis and the River below. I continued to charge upwards, at times practically crawling up the steeps. Finally at the top, I had a great vantage point of the different blocks, despite the soft precipitation. Climbing the hill of dark boulders and reaching the top of the anceint “fortress” of great syrah, I looked over the tiny, tightly spaced old-vine Syrah, that had struggled here for hundreds of years. No wonder these wines were so potently rugged!

I carefully climbed down to the terrace where Jessica was feeling better after her power nap, and we drove up the twisting paved road to the top of Cote Blonde. Just a couple hundred yards away, Cote blonde’s limestone pebbles might as well have been on the moon compared to the jagged dark rocks of Cote Brune.. On top of the mountain, a gorgeous wheat field grew right up to the vineyards, where the hill gently sloped off towards the river. Wildflowers grew in between, and the femininity of the Cote Blonde wines made perfect sense.

As we headed south for our Cornas and Hermitage appointments, I felt as I had truly experienced Cote Rotie. The proud people I met in the no-frills town of Ampuis left me with a sense of the sacred Syrah tradition here. My hike up the hand-worked cliffs of terrace after terrace of tiny, stunted vines explained why Cote Rotie’s flavors are so dynamic and explosive. I had tasted the wines, studied maps, and read about the Northern Rhone all before, but experiencing the place led to a new reverence.

Now returned to the US and already caught up in travel and preparations for our last bottling and harvest, the tradition of Cote Rotie has stayed with me. I’ve experienced the storied and continued dedication to Syrah and I feel refocused on the bigger picture facing Stolpman Vineyards and our own Ballard Canyon region. While we don’t have the history now, if we stay dedicated to our noble varietal and tending to the vines with the utmost care, we have the potential to impart the same mystical sense of place within our steep rolling hills as I felt on top of Cote Brune. While we have the freedom in America to plant whatever grape we want and push the limits of experimentation, we need to dedicate ourselves to the fundamentals of Syrah to create an identity in the same vein as Cote Rotie.

As I guided tours in the late afternoon glow during Dinner in the Vineyard, we reached the top of Ruben’s block and gazed west over the ridgelines of Stolpman, Beckman, and Jonata. Combined, the three vineyards happen to be about the same size as all of Cote Rotie. Up there, I saw the same look of amazement on our guests’ face as I recognized from the photos Jessica took on top of Cote Blonde. Thanks to what my dad started 22 years ago, I think we’re headed down the right track.