Northern Rhône, France
A gentle, jovial, quiet, and extremely humble man, Stéphane Rousset remains a relatively unknown gem in the Northern Rhône. His wines are built on solid craftsmanship and a clear muting of his voice in deference to those of his terroirs. He makes fabulous Saint-Joseph wines, and his wonderful Crozes-Hermitage selections put a rare face on this lesser-understood and appreciated appellation. The glory of the Northern Rhône Valley rests on Côte-Rôtie, Hermitage and Cornas, and while Saint-Joseph can give them a run for their money, Crozes-Hermitage suffers from its sheer size and ability to produce a great volume of wine from nearly every hectare, which ends up diluting how the appellation is perceived. However, there are some Crozes-Hermitage areas and vineyards that standout among the Crozes crowd—vineyards that share the same geological heritage as some of the aforementioned greats. Those special and overlooked areas are home to this story’s protagonist, Stéphane Rousset. Crozes-Hermitage, the appellation home to the majority of Rousset's collection of vineyards, is the most diverse terroir in this region under the red grape variety, Syrah. (There’s white too, but a much lower production volume.) In this appellation everything from the acidic metamorphic and igneous rocks all the way to alkaline-rich limestones, wind-blown loess and river alluvium can be found. And all occur on various exposures, some on flat land and some on treacherously steep hills (like Rousset’s Les Picaudières) with every possible soil grain, from clay, silt, sand, gravel, cobbles to boulders! Geologically, Crozes-Hermitage is laid out as if Hermitage had been stretched and pulled in every direction away from the river, toward the north, east and south. Read more
The criticism of Crozes-Hermitage comes in the form of the vastness of its terroir and the often ordinary nature of its Syrah, a grape that manages to deliver a lot of flavor and pleasure even from the lesser terroirs. Many are blends of different parcels and the vast majority are often considered delicious and easy-going, but without any particularly compelling attributes that further define it. They are indeed vins de terroirs, but many of the appellation’s terroirs aren’t nearly as compelling as those from Hermitage, Saint-Joseph, Cornas, and Côtes-Rôtie. But there are exceptions and one needs only to do some research within this vast appellation and its seemingly endless supply of growers.
Rousset’s VineyardsTo the north and behind Hermitage, on the same side of the Rhône River, is the setting for Stéphane Rousset’s vineyards, on the granite lands of Crozes-Hermitage. Aside from the greatest vineyard in Rousset’s stable, Les Picaudières, they have many parcels in the appellation’s three historic communes of Gervans, Érôme and Crozes-Hermitage, the latter of which being the small village from which this massive AOC takes its name. Across the river is a terrific set of side-by-side, east-facing Saint-Joseph granite parcels named, Les Rivoires, that Stéphane bottles simply as a Saint-Joseph appellation wine but is perhaps deserving of a demarcation of its origin within the original six communes of the appellation before it was expanded to cover most of the ground on the right bank (west side) between the original six communes and Condrieu. Stéphane and his father, Robert, tend to the vineyard work together, and a stroll through their vines reveals an extremely high quality of farming from this two-man team. They respect the soil and nature, and minimize the use of copper and sulfur treatments in the vines—though both are essential in all European vineyards whether or not they are practicing organic, biodynamic and/or a “natural” winegrowing. Nature abounds in this specific area of Crozes-Hermitage and the Roussets embrace it, which also seems to be perceptible in the wines, with their large range of savory characteristics and less punchy fruit.
Wine CraftingIn the cellar it’s pretty straightforward. Located on an unassuming and unmarked road, a first glance inside instantly reveals Stéphane’s attention to detail. His fastidiousness is obvious, even when he’s thieving with his pipette to taste from his barrels, as hardly a drop ever hits the floor. Like many of the cellars in the Northern Rhône Valley, their approach is similar to what one would see in a California wine cellar with Syrah as part of their production. The red wines are made with fully destemmed grapes (sometimes exceptions are made in warmer years) and the use of 225-to-500-liter French oak barrels, with a minimum of new oak mixed in, and only when barrels in disrepair need replacement. Certain portions of the basic red Crozes-Hermitage are aged in stainless steel, which seem to be parcels largely grown on granite bedrock with loess topsoil, and then blended in with some of the wines raised in oak barrels from parcels that are largely grown in granite bedrock with granite topsoil. The Crozes-Hermitage Rouge “Les Picaudières” and the Saint-Joseph are raised exclusively in oak barrels. As a side note, Rousset has a fabulous collection of Crozes-Hermitage vineyards that I’ve encouraged him to bottle alone. I’m happy to report that it’s finally happening after four years of discussion, starting with a particular site that has been gorgeous out of barrel every time I’ve tasted it. His whites made from Marsanne are mostly aged in stainless steel tanks, with a small proportion of French oak barrels. The steel is employed to inhibit malolactic fermentation by temperature control and to preserve the elusive freshness whites from this region struggle to maintain. And while we are ecstatic about Rousset’s reds, his whites are irrefutably considered within the best of the Northern Rhône. -TV
Lay of the Land
One of the most diverse appellations in France’s Northern Rhône Valley, Crozes-Hermitage is also its biggest. As already mentioned, Rousset’s vineyards are in its most northern communes: Érôme, Gervans, and Crozes-Hermitage. The soil types and hill structures here differ greatly from the rest of the appellation. They are on moderately steep to very steep igneous rock terraces (with a very small amount of metamorphic rock) of the river’s left bank, above the Rhône and tucked back behind the famous Hermitage hill. Rousset’s vineyards are just north of the Rhône River’s hard left turn that wraps around the south-facing Hermitage. The river carved out this narrow gorge, exposing hard granite rock on each side. This section on the left bank (east side) yields wines of texture and perfume from what we more commonly associate with Cornas and St. Joseph, minus the solar power of those more exposed appellations. Les Picaudières, in the commune Gervans, is historically one of the most revered terroirs inside of Crozes-Hermitage. With its granite and schist-like shards, nearly devoid of topsoil thanks to the steepness of the hill, gravity and hard bedrock, it may be one of the most singular wines from the entire appellation and surely one of its most recognizable when tasted. We haven’t seen or heard much about this historic vineyard from the legend now a few generations past, Raymond Roure, sold to Robert Rousset (Stephane’s father) some decades ago, but its history is worth further investigation. Read more
Crozes-Hermitage is home to France’s noble and rustic red, Syrah, and the whites, Marsanne and Roussanne. In its three original communes the soil for Syrah is largely granitic, but with many small variations of igneous and metamorphic rocks, as is the case of Les Picaudières. His whites, composed of Marsanne, grow mostly on loess, a fine-grained crystalline soil blown in by the wind that results in deep topsoil deposits above granite bedrock on many of Rousset’s vineyards by the river. Loess is a slightly yellowish white color, rich in minerals and calcium, and ideally suited for white wine more than red. Across the river, in Tournon, one of the six original Saint-Joseph communes before numerous expansions, Rousset’s two parcels of St. Joseph are on pure granitic bedrock on a treacherously steep hillside.