Last week, we were blessed with a whistle-stop visit from our old friend Crozes Hermitage maestro Alain Graillot and his charming wife (and administrative guru) Elisabeth. Alain graciously agreed to talk us through a flight of his wines and elaborate on his wine making philosophy as well as fielding questions from our inquisitive team in Mere.
Alain (who fortunately speaks excellent English) told us how he had become a first generation winemaker comparatively late in life on the eve of his 40th birthday back in 1985. After a successful international career in agro-chemicals Alain decided to pursue his dream and found a 17 hectare vineyard to rent on Le Chassis plain below Tain l'Hermitage. Alain was drawn to Crozes Hermitage because he is partial to Syrah and had been buying wines from the likes of Marcel Guigal, Paul Jaboulet and Jean-Louis Grippat for his personal cellar and also because land there was relatively affordable and he was able to get a toe-hold without enormous borrowings.
From the outset Alain has tried to produce "wines that are affordable and that people will want to drink". This game plan has served him well and he was able to buy the vineyard in 1988 and this year has overseen a huge excavation project to extend his cellars to accommodate his son Maxime's wine production from a neighbouring estate called 'Domaine des Lises'. Alain is candid that his retirement plans revolve around 32 year-old Maxime's ability to take over the day to day running of the operation and he is looking forward to working less hard!
We started our tasting with Alain's white Crozes Hermitage 2008 that is made from a blend of 80% Marsanne and 20% Roussanne and is a comparative rarity accounting for just 1 seventh of production. This fresh, youthful wine is, in Alain's opinion, best drunk in its first 3-4 years so he has decided to bottle it under Stelvin® scewcap. This policy has met with a mixed reception in France (which accounts for half of sales) but Alain is convinced it is the best way forward for fruity, early-drinking wines.
The first red we tasted was Alain's 2007 Saint Joseph, from just over half a hectare of Syrah vines that Alain rents at Saint Désirat. Alain explained that he is really looking for fruit "above all else" in his Saint Joseph and although this is very much a side line it is a wonderfully juicy and accessible wine with lots of bright red berry flavours and very supple tannins. Interestingly Alain told us that, on account of the granite soil that can yield hard tannin, he always de-stems all of his Saint Joseph but he never de-stems his Crozes Hermitage.
Our next wine was the 2007 Crozes Hermitage rouge that Alain admitted he was proud of as it was a vintage that required a great deal of effort and was never a predetermined success. This was darker, fuller and more complex than the Saint Joseph but was showing very well on its youthful fruit. We followed this with the same wine in the 2006 vintage which was denser, more closed and restrained with much less fruit on the nose. Alain explained that one is better off drinking Northern Rhône Syrah when really young (within a year or so of bottling) or keeping it for at least 3 years to develop some bottle age. To illustrate this point we then tasted the red Crozes' 1995 which was a great vintage and just coming into its stride with more secondary leather, chocolate, and sous bois aromas and a fine palate of black fruit that still had plenty of vigour. Alain told us not to underestimate the longevity of Syrah and that last year he tasted through a retrospective vertical of all of the wines he had made and that even his 2 most fraught vintages (1993 and 2002) were still 'alive' and enjoyable.
The final wine in this line-up was a real treat, Alain's 'La Guiraude' 2005. The La Guiraude is a barrel selection or Cuvée du Patron that Alain blends when the correct conditions prevail and can represent up to 10% of his red production. Although 2005 was a terrific vintage this wine is made to be laid down and was still very much in its infancy. It was showing more concentration and fuller and rounder tannins than the 'regular' Crozes' with a wealth of black fruit and good acidity - it should be an absolute belter given a further 3-5 years.
Before he headed for the hills we asked Alain what he thought was the secret of his winemaking success. "A fresh finish" was his immediate response because "that provides the incentive for the next glass". We couldn't agree more.