Northern Rhone Tour: Clusel-Roch, Jamet, Perret, Gonon, Sorrel, Cave de Tain, Clape, Allemand

I had the good fortune to be invited by Paul Gordon (Halcon Vineyards) to join a group of California winemakers on a week-long in depth tour of the Northern Rhone. Paul had been in contact with John Livingston-Learmonth for some time, having a transatlantic conversation about Rhone-style wines in California, and noodling on the idea of finding ways to have the two sides get to know each other a little better. At some point the idea of a tour like this came together. I have to thank Paul for including me as the only non-professional in the group. A tremendous amount of effort by Paul on this end and John in France went into setting this up, inviting and coordinating with all the participants, and just keeping it all together. I kept hanging on Paul’s email updates each month, keeping my fingers crossed that it would all come through, and was thrilled when the day arrived to actually head to the airport and get on a plane.

My role was to tag along, try not to ask too many dumb questions, and act as the unofficial photographer. So this little travelogue is really about an incredible week of California producers visiting several Rhone producers. I was just lucky enough to be along for the ride on the adventure.

The participants included:

Paul & Jackie Gordon (Halcon)
Adam Tolmach (Ojai)
Jason Drew (Drew Family Cellars)
Matt Brady (Jaffurs)
Bradley Brown (Big Basin)
Angel Davis (Fig and Thistle Wine Bar, San Francisco)

And our organizer/guide was none other than John Livingstone-Learmonth, author of “The Wines of the Northern Rhone”. John’s knowledge of the region, it’s history, geology, vineyards, vintages, wines, and - most of all - people and personalities, is encyclopedic. He’s been visiting and writing extensively about the Rhone for over 40 years, speaks fluent french (he often didn’t even know if someone we were visiting with spoke English or not), and knows the entire region better than most of its long time inhabitants. It was a treat and an honor to be guided by him. And, as you will see, exhausting; the man never stops wanting to explore - or eat and drink - more. I highly recommend his book, and refer you to his (subscriber only) web site (no affiliation on my part).

Everyone rolled into our base at L’Hôtel Les 2 Coteaux in Tain l’Hermitage on Sunday afternoon, and we got together for a kick-off dinner. Le Quai, right off the foot bridge over the Rhone, really nice food, wine, and service.

Paul, Jackie, Bradley, Matt on the left

Jason, John, Adam

2014 Hubert Lamy Saint-Aubin La Princée - France, Burgundy, Côte de Beaune, Saint-Aubin (4/20/2016)
Lovely medium depth, crisp, perfect balance, punches far above its weight class.

2009 Domaine des Martinelles Hermitage Blanc - France, Rhône, Northern Rhône, Hermitage (4/20/2016)
Very nice medium body, wax, nuts, long evolving finish, beautiful peach pit minerality. Excellent.

2013 Gilles Robin St. Joseph Cuvée Andre Pealat - France, Rhône, Northern Rhône, St. Joseph (4/20/2016)
Very dark, deep brooding black/purple fruit, nice reserved intensity, excellent acidity, tannins underlying but not obtrusive. Gets better and better in the glass, really nice.

Happened to be a big group of Somms next to us, several times breaking into Somm songs

2014 Alain Graillot Crozes-Hermitage - France, Rhône, Northern Rhône, Crozes-Hermitage (4/20/2016)
Fabulous fruit aromatics, nice fresh dark red/black fruit, good dose of pepper, excellent structure with a somewhat chalky grip, nice pomegranate acidity, lithesome and willowy.

Let’s do this thing

Day 1: Clusel-Roch

Our first visit on Monday morning was to Clusel-Roch (pronounced Clue-cell-Roke) in Verenay. Guillaume (the son) met us at the winery, and escorted us up the steep, winding roads to the top of Cote Rotie, where his father Gilbert and a small crew were planting a new vineyard section. The domaine has been bottling its own wine since 1969, first from just a tiny plot of vines, then gradually accumulating 1.3 ha in La Vialliere, 0.75 in Champon, 0.6 in Le Plomb, and 0.7 in Les Grandes Places, along with 0.5 ha in Condrieu. Their vineyard practices are all organic, and it is striking to see the differences between theirs and nearby vineyards which use herbicides (a temptation hard to resist, when you see how much labor is required to maintain a vineyard on such difficult terrain without resorting to the ease of chemicals).

The wines here are superb, classic versions of Syrah with unobtrusive stems, and little noticeable oak.

Gilbert Clusel and son Guillaume

Cote Rotie soil along the top of the plateau

New plantings

Half way down the mountain, gives an idea of the slope, and how hard it is to work the vineyards

The perspective doesn’t really do justice to the slope these vines are on

The Clusel-Roch “garage”

I haven’t seen this many boots outside of a Minnesota mud room

Left to right: Bradley, Matt, Paul, John, Guillaume, Adam. You’ll see a theme developing: John is almost always taking notes of some kind.

2013 Clusel-Roch “Grandes Places” is a beautiful wine, plenty of depth, richness, complexity and balance. The '85 Cote Rotie is equally lovely, fabulous nose, still showing a lot of youthful character, nowhere near its peak.

A striking, still youthful, almost quarter of a century old Viognier. One of the wines of the week.

The group, with Clusel-Roch family in the center: Gilbert, Guillaume and Brigitte

Now this is a stove!

For lunch we cruised back up to the top of Cote Rotie for a chilly picnic

The sign reads “Vignobles Levet, Côte Rôtie, Côte Blonde”

More to follow…

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Really awesome, Alan. Looking forward to more.


Great notes and photos.
I will add that Clusel-Roch demonstrated the first signs of a stunning 2015 vintage - great depth, strong fruit but also fresh and good structure. I particularly liked the liked La Vialliere from barrel and the 2012 from bottle.

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Wow, great photos and notes. Looks like a fantastic trip in the making. I just picked up a Las Grandes Places, so thank you for the post.

Cool photos and notes! I have a singleton of 1989 just waiting for the right moment. This is a label I should focus on more.



Informative notes and pics. Keep 'em coming!

Good stuff Alan. Thank you

Great pictures and notes, Alan! Thank you for taking the time to post these. Enjoy the rest of your trip!


Fabulous! I’m looking forward to the updates. Thanks, Alan.

The trip was over last week. FYI. [cheers.gif]

I talked briefly to Matt over the weekend about his experience (apparently the highest peaks were Jamet and Allemand, imagine that) and am glad for this chance to relive it vicariously. Thanks for posting the notes and photos!

Good reading, thanks for taking the time.

“Happened to be a big group of Somms next to us” made me LOL.

Day 1: Jamet

Pinch me. No, this is not a dream. We’re pulling into Jamet, tucked several miles back into the rolling forests and farmlands above Ampuis. We arrive, take off our blindfolds. John warned me that Jean-Paul is a tricky camera subject, which, in the low light cellar setting was especially true, but I think I managed to capture him nicely. He is certainly serious about his wine, but can quickly turn jovial, and even playful.

I won’t be going into details about vineyard holdings and vinification methods as I write about each visit. For that I refer you again to “Wines of the Northern Rhone”, which has a wealth of comprehensive information gathered by John over years and years of visits and interviews with each producer. Just to note that Jamet has fairly large holdings across all of Cote Rotie, in a variety of soils, slopes, exposures, and elevations. The red wines are typically 80-100% whole cluster, with new oak levels ranging from 20-35%.

Jean-Paul Jamet


More discussions, here’s where you are, here’s where you’re going, etc.

Finally, some wine!

2015 Condrieu barrel samples

Adam, Jason, Bradley contemplate the wine. John takes notes.

The 2015 Condrieu shows a subtle nose right now, with lovely intensity, great length, strong, steely, mineral, lasting finish. Shows potential to be a beautiful wine.

We sampled several different 2014 and 2015 barrels. 2015 overall shows deep wines with good intensity, various notes of green olive, spice, blackberry and violet fruits. 2015 Côte Brun barrel showed fabulous floral/violet aromatics, more elegant red fruit than other blocks, beautiful balance, with plenty of fine structure. 2014 samples show a bit less intensity (consistent with the difficult vintage), still quite nice, more elegant and medium bodied. 2014 Côte Brun has a smoky, meaty nose, reserved deep red fruit, spice, quite tannic/grippy finish.

Now the bottles come out:
2013 Côte Rotie - meaty, smoky nose, nice medium intensity, medium dark red fruit, good fine tannins, quite pretty
2012 Côte Rotie - plenty of medium rich fruit, delicious but perhaps a little less complex
2012 Côte Brun - floral/spice nose, beautiful deep red fruit, fabulous complexity. Outstanding
2007 Côte Rotie - decent intensity, touch of strawberry jam, a lighter weight early drinker
2001 Côte Brun - good intensity, nice lush strawberry/raspberry fruit, finishes with smooth tannins, showing a touch of sweetness but very nice
1999 Côte Rotie - older, aged wooden winery nose, wow gorgeous medium dark fruit, meaty, savory, complex, beautiful, with years to go

Jean-Paul’s son Loic joins us, and will guide us into the vineyards

Beginnings of the torch being passed.

Loic Jamet

Illustration of a theme we heard numerous times throughout the week. The “big” guys (Guigal and Chapoutier) are making major investments to engineer new vineyard sections. The smaller, artisanal producers we visited have concerns about a lot of this work, the impact on their vineyards, and particularly that they aren’t managed organically. This slope was created from terrain that used to look like the scrubby forested section at the upper left (which, of course, most of the vineyard land on these hills was as well at some point in the past). But new vineyards like this are being built without terracing, and the concern for erosion of the hillside is a real one.

The work does provide a fantastic opportunity to get a view into the geology of the soil.

“Dammit Jim, I’m a chemist, not a geologist”. I could have it wrong, but this looks pretty schist-y to me.

Trying to capture how hard these vines struggle, and how difficult it is to work these vineyards

Monday Dinner

Dinner was at Restaurant Chartron, about 10 miles to the west of Tain, in the small town of Saint-Donat-sur-l’Herbasse. A fine meal, and the most elegant restaurant of the trip. We had some wines provided by two producers we weren’t visiting: Domaine des Entrefaux and Domaine Habrard, and of course additional wines chosen by John from the restaurant’s list. My apologies that I was in a bit of a daze by that point, and just sat back to enjoy the food, wine, and company without taking notes.

1 Avenue Gambetta
26260 Saint-Donat-sur-l’Herbasse, France

A fantastic dish of raw scallop, lobster, asparagus

Pigeon. Delicious. As good as wild duck.

More to come…

“Dammit Jim, I’m a chemist, not a geologist”. I could have it wrong, but this looks pretty schist-y to me.

I am (or rather, was) a geologist, and while you can’t be sure, I agree. I see kyanite blades in the rock. IIRC, that means high pressure, low temp metamorphism, which is consistent with a rock that looks to have much of its original structure preserved, but jumbled and folded like a linen sheet.

I thought that 1999 Jamet C-R was one of the best 2-3 wines of the trip. Just sublime.
I preferred the power of the C-R to the Cote Brune generally, and for my palate, I prefer the slightly fatter 2012 Jamet C-R to the more taut 2013 vintage.
The 2015 barrel including Landonne, Cote Brune and (I think) Cote Rozier was truly brilliant. They need to bottle that one separately :wink:.
I will never forget the Jamet visit!

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Nice. I ran into Matt at HdR. He came straight from the airport. Sounded like a grea trip. Thanks for posting.

so cool, thanks for posting Alan…love the pics!

Thanks. Mostly, it’s 1000s of words I don’t have to type [cheers.gif]

OMG amazing reports and photos. My heart warms up reading them. I love the Rhone, one of the happiest places in my soul…looking forward to the reports.