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Saturday, June 07, 2008

Sculpting Fine Wine on the Roasted Slope

Rene Rostaing’s modest wine cave is tucked away by the river, just off the main road and a stone’s throw away from the imposing Guigal castle, which seems to dwarf just about everything in the town of Ampuis. Rene has been making small amounts of his treasured Cote Rotie since 1971, only recently dabbling in the Languedoc to fashion a top flight Syrah blend and an idiosyncratic white from Grenache Blanc, Vermentino and Viognier. While Rene also produces a Condrieu, it is so small in quantity that even I felt guilty when he offered me a taste of his golden colored ‘07s that were resting in barrel.

Rene is a passionate gentleman, with an old school charm that he wears on his weathered, yet ruggedly handsome face. His strong sense of subjectivity may make his perspective seem a bit jaded, but I happened to be taken in by it…entranced by his animated speech, lead by the rhythm of his hands, guiding each word like the conductor of a symphony. He views his job as that of a sculptor, with his terroir at Cote Rotie producing wines full of fat that meant to be chiseled and shaped. Carving out elegance and finesse in wine is what he loves and does best. While he detests sheer mass in wine (and was very outspoken when I asked him what he thought of his neighbor’s wines), he also demands substance, finding the wines of Jasmin to be too light, albeit in a style which he appreciates. ‘Anyone can make a massive wine, but finding finesse and subtlety is difficult,’ repeated Rene, spoken as if it were a mission statement. With his particular terroir, he may be correct, particularly with the famed La Landonne vineyard, a plot known for its muscle, firm spine and longevity.

Rene essentially has no staff, save for harvest time, and he does just about everything by himself. He even manned the labeling device when my wife and I purchased a couple bottles of his Puech Noble on our way out, noting that he keeps things small enough so he can maintain a firm grasp on all the facets of each operation. He did admit that ‘his hand’ is responsible for the textural similarities in his wines, yet he still believes each distinctive segment of land speaks more loudly than any technique he happens to use. Rostaing’s favorite recent vintages are the 2000 and 2006 (which are still resting in barrel) and he has made it no secret that he completely loathes the freakishly ripe ‘03s (which happened to receive more critical acclaim than just about any other vintage he’s produced). The pride he has for his ’06 vintage was palpable as we tasted through what he refers to as ‘real Cote Rotie,’ the type of wine he strives to make each year and will never make any apologies for.

Cote Rote 2006
During fermentation, the Cote Roties undergo pigeage 3 times per day to gently extract as much flavor and color as possible. The Cote Rotie vineyards are between 100 and 300 meters in elevation above the river, using the steep slopes of the hill & reflective heat from the river to attain as much ripeness as possible. The ’06 appellation level cuvee has 1-2 percent Viognier co-fermented and revealed a soft, supple texture, packed w/ notes of bacon grease, warm toast, sweet spices and dried flowers. The mouth-feel was coated in silk, w/ a nice depth of flavor to the dark fruit flavors that beamed along a medium bodied spine to a fresh, crunchy finish, 90-92 points.

La Landonne 2006
Texturally, the La Landonne had a similar polish to the base Cote Rotie, but showed a bit more opulence and animal notes, with smoky, sauvage undertones weaving in and out of the violet and blackberry flavors. Although there is a bit more sinew to the La Landonne, the wine displays a suave personality, under-pinned by a striking sense of minerality that really sings on the long finish, 91-93 points.

Cote Blonde 2006
Perhaps the most exotic of the three cuvees, displaying blueberry, boysenberry and gravel notes in a plush, showy style. While more open-knit than the La Landonne, the Cote Blonde was full of poise, fabulously textured and stretched out its flavors beautifully on the finish, allowing a grippy iron-kissed note to peek in. The ’06 Cote Blonde synthesizes the seduction of Cote Rotie w/ a rugged, unbridled sense of earth, 92-94 points.

Puech Noble, 2005
This outstanding Syrah from the Coteaux du Languedoc also incorporates 10 percent Grenache and 10 percent Mourvedre into the blend. The nose of this red is as primal as any, crammed w/ braised beef, Indian spices, cedar, crushed flowers and blackberry reduction sauce aromas. A hearty, savory attack in the mouth paves the way for a chewy, yet refined textural experience, w/ layers of sun-baked fruit, hints of brett and unbridled Syrah characteristics steaming through the palate to the finish, rippling w/ earthy minerals. In France, Rostaing lovers can grab a bottle of this nugget for 10 euros per bottle, an absolutely screaming value, 91 points.

Puech Noble Blanc, 2005
The fore-mentioned white blend from the Languedoc is an atypical, esoteric tasting experience. The scents strike a bit of a Riesling chord, hinting at warm slate, freshly sliced melon, fennel seed and apple peel notes that are sure to either offend or endear just about as many. The body strikes a plump, juicy chord that is suggestive of the Southern warmth, but isn’t short on salty, citrus squirts of acidity that move things along w/ verve. The only issue I have w/ this wine is that it comes in somewhat of an awkward package, seemingly trying to find itself as it unfolds in your mouth, just missing the mark from completely coming together, 87 points.

Condrieu, 2007
Although it was still undergoing malolactic fermentation, the scents of this liquid treasure were as heavenly as any, ejecting spearmint, lemon drop, honeysuckle, peach custard and melon ball notes from the glass. Tougher, leesy and a bit disjointed in the mouth, but full of underlying intensity that is screaming to get out & sure to please as it rounds into form.

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