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Lessons Learned From France @ Hospice du Rhône 2010

Date: 05/04/10

by Laura Ness

Is Viognier finally making a comeback? Did it ever go away? Or is it actually being bumped off its once primal throne in favor of being blended, like a sweet-faced Cinderella, with her somewhat ungainly stepsisters, Marsanne and Rousanne? Viognier, after all, was the original varietal that inspired Hospice du Rhône. It’s still going strong, with 34 exhibitors pouring it at the 16th annual event, held in Paso Robles, April 30 and May 1.

This year, though, there were 47 producers pouring white Rhône blends. Thirteen poured varietal Grenache Blanc, which may be the new Sleeping Beauty awakening to a throng of thirsty wine drinkers, eager for something brighter and refreshing. That this lithe-textured princess, with delicate peach, pear and melon flavors, would be making her debut amidst company renowned for hedonistic enormity, was not unlike a figure skater finding herself cross-checked in an NHL ice hockey skirmish. Yet, there she was, fair maiden, waving a lemon chiffon scarf from the tower window at the plus 16% GSM-besotted hordes in the courtyard below.

Fittingly, the seminar, “Côte Rôtie: The Next Generation,” moderated by John Alban and featuring Stéphane Ogier of Domaine Michel and Stéphane Ogier (from Ampuis, France) began and ended with memorable white

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Rhônes. The first was a 2008 Viognier de Rosine, which sounded as charming rolling off his tongue, as it actually tasted. As perfumey as a teenager off to her first prom, and as delicate as her sheer gown, the lively flavors of lime, tangelo, tangy nectarine and kiwifruit made a glorious debut. Naturally low in acid, Viognier must be picked lean and clean to keep its fresh flavors. This came in at a whopping 12.5% alcohol. The youth in the crowd practically grimaced at their first taste of a true Viognier.

The next Viognier was from Condrieu, a steep granite vineyard, where the grapes yielded a 13.4% wine rich in straw, melon, golden apples and papayas. Stéphane’s trick is to ferment entirely in 500L neutral oak barrels with no battonage. He wants to preserve the exuberance of the fruit, exempt of yeastiness, barrel influence and corporal punishment,

Winemakers in Paso should have been taking notes.

Some of the Syrahs Stéphane shipped had gone missing. Ogier blamed “The American truck driver who is drinking zee wine instead of you!”

The 2007 L’Aime Soeur Syrah from Vins de Pays, was planted on schist blanc, a lighter granitic soil than that of Côte-Rôtie, on the other side of the river, where the dominant soil is schist brun, containing iron and clay. L’Aime Soeur translates literally to “soul sister,” but means “soul mates:” soils, and souls long ago separated.

Côte Blanc wines exhibit a feminine signature, with perfume and elegance. This example was gorgeously austere with white pepper, delightful bacon and clay notes. The Côte Brun wine (Côte-Rôtie, Reserve du Domaine) was intense, with rich tannins, smoky tar and molasses. In both cases, the fruit was 100% de-stemmed, and fermented with natural yeast and little extraction.

The long-held Côte Rôtie tradition was to blend the two “côtes” after separate vinification. But in the past 20-years, the new generation of vignerons has adopted better vineyard practices, like religious leaf thinning twice per season and relentless dropping of green fruit, in an attempt to achieve the ripeness demanded by the international wine-drinking audience. Gone are the days when wines from opposite banks had to be blended to achieve something palatable. Now, each bank can dance to its own tune.

Stéphane has never had to acidulate, except in 2003. He was not happy with the results, confessing with a wink, “I will never use acid again…in my wine!”

His secret to adding freshness in a “hot” year is retaining some of the stems. They add a green factor that elevates their aromatics and overall bright tone. Otherwise, it’s off with the stems.

We finished with a 2005 Roussane, honey-gold colored, filled with baked apples and burnt butter brickle. Stéphane said it needed more time: he prefers to sells them with 10 years of bottle age.
Patience rewards: a good French lesson.

As John Alban summarized, all of the Ongiers wines exemplified something Stéphane kept repeating: finesse. Pronounced with his endearing French accent, it sounded more like a mantra: one the man clearly takes to heart, and to the cellar.

Finesse: it’s a mantra that should be repeated more often in Paso’s Rhône country.

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