About The Wine
Google 3-D Image of Saint-Joseph “Les Rivoires”: Planted on a steep, east facing granite hill, this area of Saint-Joseph is part of the original zone of Saint-Joseph.
Stéphane Rousset’s wines are built on solid craftsmanship and a clear concession of his voice to that of his terroir. His rough, intense look gives the impression that he might be a tough one to squeeze for information, but fifteen seconds in his smile grows and his soft, humble personality emerges. He and his lovely wife, Isabelle, are gentle and hospitable people. To work with those with such talent and graciousness as the Roussets is the motivation behind everything we do as wine importers.
Crozes-Hermitage is home to one of the most diverse terroirs under one red grape variety, Syrah. (There’s white too, but to a much lesser degree.) Here you can find everything from intensely acidic rock, like granite in the shape of boulders, gravel, sand or clay, all the way to alkaline-rich limestone deposits, wind-blown loess and river alluvium. And all occur on various exposures, with some on flat land and some on treacherously steep hills. It’s all an extension of Hermitage, the famous hill of the region.
The criticism of Crozes-Hermitage comes in the form of the vastness of its terroir and the often ordinary nature of its Syrah. Many are blends of different parcels and the vast majority of Crozes is often thought of a delicious and easy going Syrah without any particularly compelling attributes that define it further. They are indeed vins de terroirs, but many of the appellation’s terroirs aren’t compelling like Hermitage, Saint-Joseph, Cornas or Côtes-Rôtie. However, there are exceptions and one only need to know where to look for them.
To the north and behind Hermitage, on the same side of the Rhône River, is the setting for Stéphane Rousset’s vineyards. These are the granite lands of Crozes-Hermitage. Aside from Rousset’s ace, Les Picaudières (read more about this quiet legend and Rousset here), they have many parcels in the appellation’s three historic communes before it was expanded, Gervans, Érôme and Crozes-Hermitage, the small village from which this massive AOC takes its name. Across the river, another gem in the range, is a terrific set of side-by-side, east-facing Saint-Joseph granite parcels named, Rivoires.
Stéphane and his father, Robert, tend to the vineyard work together. A stroll through their vineyards reveals an extremely high level of sustainable farming from this virtual two-man team. They respect the soil and nature, and minimize the use of treatments to copper and sulfur—both essential in all European vineyards whether they are in organic, biodynamic and/or a “natural” winegrowing culture.
In 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 thiefing wine to taste from 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 wine vinifications are made with fully destemmed grapes 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 proportions 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 derived from the bedrock. The Crozes-Hermitage Rouge “Les Picaudieres” and the Saint-Joseph are raised exclusively in oak barrels. As a side note, Rousset has a fabulous collection of single parcel Crozes-Hermitage vineyards that I’ve encouraged him to bottle alone. Hopefully this will come to fruition someday.
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 and preserve the elusive freshness whites from this region struggle to maintain. -TV
One of the most diverse appellations in France’s Northern Rhône Valley, Crozes-Hermitage is also its biggest. As already mentioned in The Story (above), Rousset’s vineyards are in its most northern communes: Érôme, Gervans, and Crozes-Hermitage (the village from which the appellation takes its name). The soil types and hill structures differ greatly from the rest of the appellation. Here they are on moderately steep to very steep granite terraces of the river’s left bank, above the Rhône and tucked back behind the behemoth hill of Hermitage.
Rousset’s collection of vineyards is where the Rhône River swings west before banking back toward the east, exposing granite rocks from the Massif Central and yielding wines of texture and perfume from what we more commonly associate with Cornas and St. Joseph. Les Picaudières, in the commune Gervans, is historically the most revered vineyard on this side of the river on granite terroirs, with exception of Hermitage and its many lieux-dits. With its brittle granite and schist-like shards, nearly void of topsoil thanks to gravity, 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 vineyard since Raymond Roure sold to Jaboulet and Robert Rousset (Stephane’s father), but its history and story are fascinating and worth further investigation.
Crozes-Hermitage is home to France’s noble and rustic red, Syrah, and the whites, Marsanne and Roussanne. In the three original appellations the soil for Syrah is largely granitic, but with many small variations of igneous and metamorphic stones, as is stated in the case of Les Picaudières. His whites, composed of Marsanne, grow mostly on loess, a fine-grained crystalline soil blown in by the wind and resulting in deep topsoil deposits above granite bedrock under many of his vineyards by the river. Loess is a slightly yellowish white color, rich in minerals and calcium, ideally for white wine more than red. Across the river, in Tournon, one of the six original Saint-Joseph communes, Rousset’s two parcels of St. Joseph are on pure granitic bedrock on a very steep hillside.
The geology of the region is interesting and worth bringing into the conversation as well, because it is largely the defining factor between the taste of certain areas of this appellation. We go back as far as the Massif Central’s conception more than three-hundred million years ago, which is responsible for the granite and metamorphic outcrops found in the Northern Rhône. And then you must pick up the story with the Alpine orogeny.
The Alpine orogeny (mountain building event) began around forty million years ago and caused the development of the Saône Valley, a somewhat flat valley floor that sits between today’s Alps and France’s Massif Central. The result in Crozes-Hermitage and Hermitage were these opposing geological settings. On one end you have the ancient granite bedrock, and on the other, multi-layered alluvial deposits largely brought in by the Rhône and Isère Rivers; their torrent clash over the years is evident on the south and eastern zones of Crozes-Hermitage and Hermitage, and of course the Rhône is responsible for breaking away the western section of Hermitage and Crozes-Hermitage from the massif across the river.
Granite, one of the darlings rock types of the Northern Rhône Valley, is all too often misattributed as the mythical legendary soil of the hill of Hermitage, since it makes up only a small proportion of this famous hill’s western flank—perhaps around 15%. The rest of the hill is a layer cake of different alluvial depositions, some rich in calcium carbonate soils (limestone marls, loess, and more) from millions of years ago, with the more recent introduction of alluvium from the rivers in the form of rounded cobbles, gravel, sand and silt.
With Syrah the only red grape permitted in the AOC, and Marsanne, the dominant white, an exploration of how different soil types and how they impose recognizable characteristics on a wine are easier to understand if you can get a golden ticket into the cellar of Jean-Louis Chave, or afford to drink some of the single lieu-dit wines from Michel Chapoutier’s range, both priced out of reach for connoisseurs with even an above average wine budget.
Crozes-Hermitage represents a strongly terroir-diverse region where anyone with a modest budget for wine can explore the differences soil can impose. Certain producers represent specific areas principally on certain terroirs: like Alain Graillot and his wines from the Chassis plain, composed principally of river alluvium, similar to the lowest vineyards of Hermitage; or Domaine du Colombier’s Crozes-Hermitage wines from Mercurol on a mix of alluvium with limestone deposits similar to the hill’s eastern side; or Stephane Rousset’s all grown on granite or metamorphic bedrock, similar to the western end of Hermitage and its famous granite parcel, Les Bessards. (Explore via Google Maps 3-D the different communes of Crozes-Hermitage. I’ve dropped you in where you can see Rousset’s communes in the north, but if you move toward the south you will see the Chassis plain and the terraces east of Hermitage. There is a lot of vineyard land in this appellation and it is not the same as Rousset’s.)
The only insurance of the separation of soils is to diligently do your homework to find out where each vigneron has their parcels; for almost all only carry the appellation name and little else to separate areas, save a few, like Stephane Rousset, or the promising young Jean-Baptiste Souillard. (Insider tip: find the name of the village where they live, which is usually written on the label, and locate it on a geological map. The likelihood is that their vines are close to home, thus revealing at least a starting point to explore further.)
Microclimates are an important influencer on Crozes-Hermitage wines too. Rousset’s differ quite a lot compared to those on the fully exposed Chassis plain, or even up into Mercurol, home to some of appellations limestone terraces toward the east, not too far from the eastern flank of Hermitage. The climate in the area behind Hermitage tends toward warm days, but most of his vineyards are close to the river gorge and a plentiful supply of forests, so they air out and cool down quickly at nightfall. However, there are moments in the summer when the air is still and the sun’s power intense enough to change an entire vintage within a couple of days. The winters are brisk but not extreme, except for the penetrating winds that can catch you off guard. The Rhône River also contributes to moderating the temperatures, but likely less than in the past, as hydroelectric dams now slow the water current. -TV
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“Any fool can know. The point is to understand.” – Albert Einstein
On the Details
The details included on our website are meant to serve as general notes and don’t precisely represent all the infinite details that go into the crafting of a wine and how it will ultimately develop over time. The majority of the people we represent in our wine portfolio grow their own grapes and make their own wines, but they don’t open a recipe book and follow it no matter what the season presents. Deeply committed winegrowers evolve and embrace constant change because no season is the same as another; they use intuition and intimate knowledge of their vineyards, past vintages and the growing season to make thoughtful and often spontaneous adjustments that suit each year.
Many times I’ve heard winegrowers and winemakers give different explanations or specific details about the same wine on separate occasions; even for them it’s difficult to keep track of all the tiny details from one wine to the next, and year to year. So, which “fact” should we present and how do we pinpoint such a thing when it’s a constantly moving target?
The reality is that we are simply unable to cover such technical details with true accuracy. There is too much variation from one parcel to the next, from genetic advantage and health between vines in the same row, vintage-to-vintage, how the winegrower managed certain moments during the growing season (like pruning, canopy management, cluster selection, etc.), treatments and the dates they were implemented along with how much of each type they sprayed at what precise moment and why, or how much they added of something to the wine (such as sulfites), and all the other off-the-cuff decisions made during the wine’s creation.
On Tasting Notes
How does a wine taste one day after it was bottled, or two months, a year, ten years, or glass by glass and taste by taste? A taste of wine is merely a snapshot in time from that specific bottle which has been influenced differently in one way or the other either by temperature changes, travel, the cork, the glassware it’s served in, how long it’s been open and how we serve it. Was the glass topped up while descriptions were being written, thereby changing the expression of the previous two ounces and rendering those descriptions suddenly less relevant in the mind of the taster? The same might be asked as to whether it was decanted before analysis; both change a wine’s expression and not in a small way for those with a highly tuned palate. What if the taster was tasting on an empty stomach? Or during a meal? Or after eating? All of these contexts elicit various reactions to wine, including a different set of chemical reactions in our mouths.
What if the taster was in a particular mood when they analyzed a wine that everyone seemed to love and they can’t figure out why they don’t feel the same? What was the weather like the day it was tasted, drank, assessed or judged? For those who follow the Biodynamic calendar, was it a root, leaf, flower or fruit day, and did it change when the clock struck 3:00pm from a fruit day to leaf day and did this really impact the wine or did they just think it did because Maria Thun’s Biodynamic calendar suggested it would? Did they find that the wine tasted unexpectedly fruity which was strange because it was a leaf day? Did they taste only the first, middle or last parts of a bottle? Everyone who knows anything about a good wine knows that its least profound moment (although still good) is when the cork is first pulled, and the most inspiring during the last sips. Wine is alive and full of change and so are we; so was it the wine that changed, or the taster?
It’s impossible to present every detail accurately, to tell the full psychoanalytical story of a single vintage, lot, bottle, glass or taste. And once we have all the details, what will we do with them? Yet I understand the desire to get all the answers as the means and method in which to connect the dots of contemplation, study and enjoyment created by our life experiences through wine. The meaning of life can be glimpsed through its nuances, as it can through many other things.
The best I can do is share what I’ve observed along with what the winegrowers or other tasters have also noted. The wines we represent show a range of moments from their gestation in the cellar to the time they were a few months old, all the way up until the day they developed into adolescents with all their potential laid bare. I will attempt to bring to light a wine’s consistencies through many bottles in different settings and moments, starting from the first tastes out of barrel in raw and unfinished form. It’s not possible to satisfy every curiosity, but I hope that I can furnish compelling observations to think on and which might serve to lead us further down the rabbit hole we all keep going down together.
Terroir: Rousset’s one hectare parcel is located in Tournon, one of the appellation’s six original communes of Saint-Joseph. Around the corner from the original hill that gave the appellation its name are Rousset’s two parcels within the lieu-dit, les Rivoires, positioned side-by-side, facing east. The house style of Rousset is elegance over power, and aside from the natural elegance the granite bedrock imparts and the shorter exposure to the sun due to its eastern face on a steep hill, the deft touch in the cellar accentuates the wine’s natural affinity for finesse. By comparison to Rousset’s other top red, the Crozes-Hermitage “Les Picaudières,” this wine is more immediately upfront and continues a slow evolution without straying too far. Les Picaudières is somehow the opposite, within the context of only these two wines. It’s a journey that starts slow by comparison but builds layer upon layer of deep palate textures and intense mineral characteristics.
Vinification: Once picked, the grapes are typically destemmed; however, exceptions may be made depending on the vintage, like in 2018 where 80% of the stems were left in the vat to bring more freshness to this atypically warm year. Spontaneous yeast fermentation takes place in stainless steel vats and pumpover extractions are principally made at the beginning but cease once the fermentation begins to slow; this is to avoid too much extraction of harder tannins from the seeds. Time on skins before pressing can be up to a month in order to move past some primary fruit and superficial fermentative aromas. This brings more emphasis to the wine’s deeper complexities earlier on in the wine’s life. Once pressed, settled and racked into barrel it undergoes malolactic fermentation naturally.
Aging: The aging takes place entirely in small French oak barrels with an average age of five years with up to 5-10% new wood in total, depending on the year. New wood is brought in only to replace spent barrels.
This area of our product description has nothing to do with technical information but rather a subjective look into the wine in its earliest stages from when we’ve tasted it in vat and discussed its tendencies with the winegrower, to tasting the wines shortly after bottling and perhaps some years after the vintage date. In any case, it’s imperative to take note that these assessments are largely based on young wines and not specifically what they may become with plenty of time in the cellar. It’s also important to note that the information in this section is not vintage specific.
Many of a wine’s youthful characteristics may hold up to some degree over time, but there are too many potential scenarios for each (and every individual bottle and taste from a particular bottle as it opens up in the glass, and many other factors, like our mood or the weather—see our sort of disclaimer here) to change in unexpected ways. When one considers a wine’s natural balance in certain vintages, how it was crafted, how much sulfur was added and how it was handled after bottling makes it difficult to know where it’s headed after its first couple of years; some wines in their youth are vigorous but can quickly fall flat. There are techniques deliberately employed to give a forceful display of pleasure and intrigue when young, but are not equipped to stand the test of time with that seductive youthful energy fully intact. On the other side, many wines are not extroverted in their early years but blossom into a glorious artistic interpretation that remains true to its terroir and can give goosebumps, or inexplicably bring us back in time to smells from our childhood. Our categorization of each wine is not made by a single taste of a specific vintage but an assessment of what we have noticed, or what other tasters and especially the winegrowers, have contributed to our experience with the wine; who knows the wine better than the one who raised if from bud break to bottle and has analysed every nuance and tendency and the conditions in the vineyard and cellar as it evolved?
As much as anything in this section, I’ve attempted to add a few more dimensions (at risk of being too abstract and/or personal) to the shape of the wine. There are more common descriptors like Acidity, Tannin and Body, all of which are important and more easily understood, but they leave too many supporting dimensions like Finish, Intensity, Core and Texture that bring the wine out of a one or two dimensional view and into 3D.
A range of descriptors for each of these categories could go on forever and there are many creative words that may be more apt than what was chosen. That said, I’ve decided to at least keep the range within each category simple.
There are largely only three words, and sometimes four, that separate each with a dash between them. Some wines exist all the way to one side of this simplified range and are bolded only where it seems to fit in. Others have two, or rarely all three bolded, and I hope that the implication is obvious that when there are numerous descriptions bolded that the wine seems to fit in a more broad range, or somewhere in-between the two words.The most important thing to consider is that the wines are calibrated to my palate and it’s likely to not be consistent with yours. However, my goal is to at least be consistent so when you taste a wine categorized as having a dense core, instead of a lithe one, or an electric intensity instead of subtle, you at least have an understanding of what it may be like be on one side of the spectrum instead of the other. In this way you can theorize to some degree what some different dimensions of a wine may be like if you’re familiar with some wines we work with already that have been assessed.
Notes compiled in 2019 by Ted Vance and Rachel Kerswell (The Source) and Stéphane Rousset