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2013 St Joseph Blanc, Mairlant, Domaine François Villard
François Villard has grown his tiny wine domaine from four to seven hectares and still produces a miniscule amount of highly allocated bottlings. Referred to by Robert Parker as one of the “stars” of the Northern Rhone, François also acquired a small parcel in Cote-Rotie and a few hectares in St. Joseph. Formerly a chef, François brings his complex palette to the winery to produce wines of power and grace that age for years.
The terroir of the Northern Rhone is, in a word, amazing. Fully exposed hillsides that face the East are covered with terraces first created by the Romans. The soil is made up of small gravel and decomposed schist over a bedrock of granite. The exposition allows for excellent ripening of the Viognier and Syrah grown on these coteaux and for exceptional water drainage (So much so that terraces are always needing to be re- paired.) The climate is warm with much cooler night than those found in the South.
François Villard’s strategy is to allow for the most optimal ripening possible. His wines, as a result, are rich and concentrated with complex aromas of peaches, apricots, honeysuckle, and honey for the whites and leather and spice for the reds. The whites are often allowed to develop botrytis and most of the wines pass through wood ageing for an extended amount of time to prepare them for a very long life in bottle.
The absurdly steep hillsides of the Northern Rhone mean that harvesting by hand is the only option open to winemakers. François Villard and his crew harvest in very small baskets along extremely narrow terraces, making for backbreaking and danger- ous work. These baskets are then emptied into larger boxes to be taken down the hill- sides by tractors, and in some cases, donkeys. The results, however, are unrivaled
In the north, the white wines of Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, St-Joseph, and St-Péray are produced from blends of Marsanne and Roussanne. Generally Marsanne is the dominant partner and it lends colour, body and weight to the blend, as well as richly scented fruit. Roussanne, a notoriously low yielder and pernickety to grow, produces intensely aromatic wines which contribute bouquet, delicacy and finesse to the blend.
Until about 15 years ago there was very little interest in southern Rhône whites as it was widely believed that the combination of dull non aromatic grapes and the baking summer heat meant quality wine production was nigh impossible. Since then the quality has improved markedly through the introduction of cool fermentation techniques and increased plantings of northern Rhône white grapes.
The base of many blends is still Grenache Blanc, a widely planted variety producing fresh wines with apple-like fruits, often with hints of aniseed. Ugni Blanc is still found in many blends, as is Clairette though their general lack of character and definition has led to a reduction in plantings. The future for southern Rhône whites appears to lie with Roussanne, Marsanne, and, increasingly, Viognier.
St Joseph is the second-largest appellation in the Northern Rhône with 50 growers producing wines from over 600 hectares of vineyards. Established in 1956, over 90 percent of the wine is red – made exclusively from the Syrah grape. The white wines, meanwhile, are typically a blend of Marsanne and Roussanne varieties. Its vineyards run due south on the west side below Condrieu, and are in six communes: Mauves, Tournon, St Jean-de-Muzols, Lemps, Vion and Glun.The styles of wine in St Joseph tend to be much lighter than other red Appellations d'Origine Contrôlee and the quality can vary dramatically. The soils and climate differ, as it is a long, narrow AOC. There is no particular characteristic of the commune as some wines are produced near Côte-Rôtie, while others are near to Cornas.
The best St Josephs are still produced in the original heartland of the appellation between St Jean-de-Muzols and Mauves, where soils are predominately granitic with patches of limestone and schist. Typically, even the finest St Josephs are slightly lighter and faster-maturing than the wines of Hermitage, as St Joseph's east-facing vineyards lose the sun up to two hours earlier in the crucial ripening season.
To meet demand, some extensions of the appellation have been made on less than ideal land, producing wines of indifferent quality.
Recommended producers: Pierre Gaillard, Jerome Coursodon, Paul Jaboulet
Best vintages: 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003, 2000, 1999, 1996, 1990
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