A RARE HARVEST-TIME VISIT FROM STEPHANE OGIER
When Stephane Ogier, the famed Cote Rotie winemaker of Domaine Michel & Stephane Ogier, told us he was coming to visit on September 5, Rajat Parr and I carved out time to show him Ballard Canyon. Sashi even committed to cooking dinner in the middle of Sandhi and Domaine de la Cote Pinot Noir and Chardonnay harvest. I privately wondered why he would be coming to visit in the middle of Cote Rotie harvest, but figured I’d find out once he arrived.
When we met on top of the Northern headland of Ballard Canyon, Stephane first wanted to get his bearings of East v. West and which direction the ocean lay. He arrived from Paso Robles and he was particularly interested to see the Coastal Range 10 miles behind us and to the East. Because Ballard Canyon lies in front of the Coastal range, exposed to the cold Pacific Ocean, we have a totally different weather pattern than Paso Robles, which lies sheltered by the range.
The wind howled against us as we stood on the ridge, punctuating our explanation of the daily cycle of cold nights, foggy mornings, quick mid-day spikes, and then cooling afternoon winds into the evening.
We headed directly to Ruben’s block, and Stephane jumped out of Rajat’s car, smiling “It looks like Cote Rotie!” We had picked the top 2/3 of Ruben’s block a week before and we planned to pick the bottom portion that night.
Tasting the lower Ruben’s Block fruit, I finally had a chance to ask Stephane, “Aren’t you picking right now?!” I knew Cote Rotie has a much earlier harvest than we do, but we’re running early this year, and Ruben’s block is always first due to the low per-vine yield of the ultra-high density block.
“No, no, no, I would never leave if we were harvesting. We are at least one month away. In fact, my team is green dropping right now we are so late.”
“You mean you won’t be picking until October? Why so late this year?”
“We had a very, very cold May which delayed everything and the vines have not been able to catch up”. An early-mid October Cote Rotie harvest is shaping up to be even later than the 2008 vintage, which we learned about when visiting Cote Rotie last year.
So while we are having an exceptionally early year, Cote Rotie is having an exceptionally late year. The unusual coincidence allows Stephane perhaps a once in a career chance to examine Syrah harvest in California, walk vineyards and taste ripe fruit profiles, and look at CA winemaking techniques in action.
STEPHANE’S COMMENTS ON THE VINEYARD
Stephane spent time climbing into Ruben’s Block with the man himself, Ruben Solorzano. While the actual vine training is the same as Cote Rotie, with 2 vines trained up diagonal posts to a single point, Ruben oriented them with more Southern exposure to maximize sun penetration.
Stephane revealed that while this was great for Stolpman, he trains Cote Rotie vineyards straight up the eastern facing hills to facilitate climbing up with a straight shot, rather than attempting the ascent at more difficult angles. In fact, Stephane explained, he connects the posts to make them stronger on the steeps, so they won’t fall over. Vintners can then grab hold of them and use the reinforced posts to pull themselves up the hill. The other benefit of training 2 vines to one point; it allows a clearer pathway in between each two-vine triangle to climb.
This explanation countered my understanding of the unique trellising system, “So the method was developed to make the blocks accessible for the vintners, not to eliminate shading and increase sun penetration?”
Stephane confirmed, “the primary reason for the triangles was to strengthen the posts, and to allow for rows to climb, the increased sun exposure was secondary.”
We had to get a photo of Stephane standing in front of our Cactus grove at the foot of Ruben’s Block. At the bottom of Cote Rotie, the small town of Ampuis straddles the wide Rhone River. The cacti highlight how arid and dry Ballard Canyon is compared to Cote Rotie.
Stephane was also curious about Syrah clone selection. He noted that he found Clone 470 difficult in Cote Rotie, always wanting to grow low. Ruben reported that 470 behaves nicely in Ballard Canyon, while Estrella River Clone is a trouble maker, trying to fight trellising and grow wild towards the ground.
When we showed Stephane our Extreme Provinage project he laughed, and asked “Who’s idea was that?”
Perhaps in another 20 years, this harvest flip coincidence will happen again, and Stephane will be able to see the single Vine ripening fruit to ferment hundreds of cases of wine from a maze of connected vines.
TASTING THE STOLPMAN VINEYARDS WINES
After looping around the vineyard, we made it to Villa Angeli to try a few bottled wines. The 2009 Ruben’s Block impressed Stephane and he noted “it’s still a baby”. Stephane also tried 2007 hilltops, 2009 Angeli Syrah, and La Croce. Stephane quizzed me on the exact winemaking of each, especially curious about whole cluster fermentation percentages.
The wine that most impressed Stephane was the L’Avion Roussanne, and he poured himself another taste after the reds, commenting on how rich and concentrated the white is. Stephane makes Roussanne in the La Rosine vineyard above Cote Rotie.
That night with dinner, we popped a 2001 Estate Syrah to demonstrate how Ballard Canyon Syrah ages. The fruit profile is still fresh, and the once massive tannin and finish have integrated nicely.
ABOUT STEPHANE OGIER AND HIS DOMAINE
Over dinner Stephane explained that his father had mainly tended to the family’s fruit orchards, and also had small vineyards planted by his grandfathers. His father had long sold the fruit to E. Guigal winery, until 1982, when Guigal decided not to purchase the fruit.
With still no buyer as the fruit ripened, Stephane’s father cleaned out an old concrete tank used by his own father, Stephane’s grandfather; to make wine. 1982 marked the return of the Ogier family winemaking tradition!
Under the young Stephane’s guidance, the wine quality and reputation of the vineyard has catapulted. Stephane credits his meticulous work in the vineyard for his rise to stardom, and claims he has only made small changes in technique within his cellar. This explains his extended hike into Ruben’s Block to examine our canopy management, bud clipping, and leafing protocol.
Stephane has also taken on a few other projects and purchased more vineyards. Over dinner, Sashi and Stephane talked Syrah production and both agreed that cold soaking Syrah doesn’t add color, flavor, or complexity to the varietal. Sashi arrived at this conclusion for our Ballard Canyon fruit over the past few vintages and now let’s the Syrah begin native fermentation upon placing fruit into the concrete fermenters, rather than using dry-ice to prevent fermentation and increase maceration length for extended periods. For Stephane, he simply continued with his father and grandfather’s technique, and experimented a bit to make sure their way was best.
We look forward to the continued sharing of information with Stephane Ogier, Renee Rostaing, and Oliveier Clape. As we jump full swing into Syrah harvest this week, we hope the best for our colleagues in the Northern Rhone. Perhaps Stephane brought our Ballard Canyon sunny days back with him to ripen his fruit!