Blood, sweat, granite and the Romans
The Romans weren’t madmen to build on these treacherous hills, but they were cruel because surely they got the slaves from their conquests to do it for them. Part of a Roman soldier’s rations was wine, but it became too expensive to ship everything from the homeland to the frontlines of their conquests, so they planted locally, creating an ancient sustainable “farm to table” movement! They knew these hills were perfect for the vine.
A weak line in the sand
The appellation lines drawn in 1956 originally included only six communes of Saint-Joseph. Why only six in the beginning? Well, it’s simply because the reds wines from here were better than every other commune’s on this side of the river, except those of Côte-Rôtie and Cornas. And this wasn’t decided by politics, but rather by the geological influence on the wines that made them taste special. It’s the granite… Because once you leave the original six going north, the bedrock is no longer granite, it’s schist. Schist is a fabulous rock and dirt for wine, but for whatever reason, it really begins to earn its stripes in Côte-Rôtie, not as much in Saint-Joseph territory.
There’s water in the blood.
Thirteen years after the lines were drawn, that stretch between Saint-Joseph and Condrieu—just below Côte-Rôtie—was extended to twenty communes, and it included some good additions, but also some really suspect sites that were likely about politics and not quality. Then there was another expansion, and finally a limit set on the amount of land that could be planted with the right to use the appellation name. From many of these areas, especially in the higher flats above the river terraces, gulpable Syrah is made, but they’re typically not wines that carry the noble distinction of the highest quality of what the Northern Rhône Valley has to offer. It sounds like maybe I’m unfairly throwing some stones here, but taste those wines for yourself to see if I’m off base. If there was ever a diluted appellation in France, it was this series of expansions of Saint-Joseph that puts it as a frontrunner. Had this not happened, perhaps Saint-Joseph (if limited to the original six) would command significantly higher prices than today, surely with the potential of some to rival in price the best examples Cornas, Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie.
It pays to know from whence came your Saint-Jo.
If you like Syrah, and believe in the merit of history and subscribe to the relevance of terroir, this short historical account should lead you to seek out Saint-Joseph wines from the original six: Vion, Lemps, St-Jean de Muzols, Tournon, Mauves and Glun. This is where all of Coursodon’s wines come from, but most are from St-Jean de Muzols, Tournon and Mauves—perhaps the most talented three. And while these wines may not make it onto trendy wine lists today as easily as they did ten years ago, history will certainly repeat for them at some point. You can remember this moment, when you were able to buy wines of such caliber and breed from one of the most respected names in French wine for such an extraordinary price, as the opportunity you seized because you know things have a way of coming around again and this is a once in a decade offer on wines like Coursodon’s; or as an opportunity missed because maybe you thought it was too good to be true.
The car ride up to many of Jérôme’s vineyards in his off-road-ready, tricked-out 4 x 4 is nerve wracking; sometimes there’s nothing in the driver’s side window and front windshield other than the sky, and some bumps rock the truck enough to make you feel your time may be nearer than expected. Once on top of each parcel, the bottom of the hill is nowhere to be seen—only an open-air view of the Rhône Valley and other steep hills covered in vines and the forest that surrounds it.
Silice, the first red in the lineup, is sourced from vines that are more than forty years old (and these are the youngest) principally from Mauves, with smaller portions from Tournon and Saint-Jean de Muzols. Elegance and richness are the hallmarks of this domaine, and Silice’s initial charge is upfront, with supple red and black fruits which quickly evolve into wild berry, anise, raw and smoked meats, and herbs of Provence, like thyme and lavender. Mauves is one of the steepest vineyard areas in all of Saint-Joseph, so steep that when you stand on the edge of a terrace, sight of the bottom more than a hundred meters below is quickly lost only a few rows down. The bedrock is composed of the ancient granites from France’s Massif central, home to some of the country’s oldest rock formations. Mid-slope and to the highest vines the topsoil is exclusively granite gravel and sand, and further toward the bottom a mix of sand, clay and gravel derived from the bedrock, as well as calcareous loess. This is complex, big-hitter Saint-Joseph with a soft voice and charming personality.
L’Olivaie lands squarely between Silice and Le Paradis Saint Pierre wines. To be found here is early drinking pleasure, intellect and a lot of that savory granite x-factor. When opened, it often immediately expresses dark chocolate, forest floor, bramble, iodine, hot iron and salty wood-fired meat. After much aeration, the wine begins to display its deep well of garrique and higher-toned red fruits reserved for the patient drinker. It comes from one of the northern-most sections of the original Saint-Joseph appellations, St-Jean de Muzols. It is located inside a small valley carved out by the Doux River, before it joins the Rhône, where it’s pure granite bedrock and topsoil, and faces directly south. The granite is heavily decomposed and friable, just like what is found on Hermitage’s western flank. Due west across the river, from the vantage point of two of Hermitage’s most famous lieux-dits, Les Bessards and L’Ermite, it’s tucked slightly out of sight behind the surrounding forests. The vineyard is notably steep and uneven with rocky outcrops, closely bordering dense forest, like much of Saint-Joseph in these parts. Winds from the Doux and Rhône Valleys, as well as the forest brings advantage of cooler air in the increasingly hotter years. With its seventy year-old vines, south face and purely granitic bedrock and topsoil, the slightly cooler nighttime temperatures keep this wine from becoming as boisterous as the next wine in today’s offer grown on the same soils, but with a more extroverted expression from its fully exposed hill.
“It is one of the finest Saint-Josephs I have ever tasted.” For all the Parker detractors out there, just because he said it doesn’t mean it’s not a valid assessment… In fact, all of Coursodon’s wines are appreciated by all the critics, and he remains one of the most consistent in quality, even in challenging years; this is the reason why I’ve spared a vintage overview on these wines. Parker’s is a worthy claim, and it is legitimized by this extremely special, historic site and Coursodon’s ancient vines. Le Paradis Saint Pierre comes from Le Paradis, a parcel on the historic hill that gave Saint-Joseph its name. Set on terraces of pure granite, these nearly one-hundred-year-old vines deliver grapes with vast complexity and depth. (The vineyard is pictured above with the eastern side of Hermitage in the background. Coursodon’s vineyard is within the brightly lit area in the middle of the hill and going up toward the top.)
As already mentioned, Jérôme doesn’t have much appreciation for bitterness in his wines, so the grapes are picked to avoid bitter seed and skin tannins. The result is a wine with a solid concentration of red and black fruits pushed to the limit of ripeness without any sense of dried or raisin-like fruit; somehow they still stay fresh and bright while also remaining powerful and rich. It’s the wine in Coursodon’s range that makes Jérôme smile the most when we taste together, and it’s not only because he loves the reactions during the drive up to the vines. He knows it’s a big wine, but with Le Paradis Saint Pierre he’s gone with its natural flow instead of trying to make it into something its not. The naturally low yields of the old vines and their deep root systems, and the extremely steep terraces fully exposed to the sun infuse it with one x-factor after another. All this adds up to a wine of immense concentration, a sort of freakishly powerful and balanced Saint-Joseph that easily presents a challenge to the great wines of Cornas, Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie.
Jérôme wrangles this beast to some degree by using 50% stems during the fermentation, which imparts more freshness and even more layers of complexity. Iodine and salty, aged meat aromas are effusive and the wine finishes with an enviable length and supple but refined tannins. It’s a tremendous wine and shouldn’t be passed over, but rather admired for its impressive refinement and breed.