I’m the first to admit that I’m far from being anyone’s idea of a good driver. In fact, there are few people that feel safe when I am behind the wheel. So it is a testament to the greatness of Jean-Paul and Corrine Jamet’s legendary Côte-Rôtie wine that I was eager to brave the treacherously rising hills of their Ampuis vineyards just to taste it at the source. Heeding Corinne Jamet’s warning (“Fais attention!”), I drove very, very slowly up the steep (almost vertical) vine-covered slopes.
The Estate was founded in the 1950s by Joseph Jamet but it wasn’t until 1976 that they started Domaine bottling their fruit. The sons, Jean-Paul and Jean-Luc took over the family business in 1991 and slowly expanded it — expansion in Burgundy terms not California terms, that is. Currently, the whole family only owns about 8 hectares in Côte-Rôtie.
There are some soap-operaesque rumors surrounding Jean-Luc’s absence from the Domaine. In 2013 some say that he split from Jean-Paul and Corinne (Jean-Paul’s wife), taking with him some vineyard parcels. I didn’t bring up this touchy subject with Corinne on my visit but she did state that she and her husband only run 7 hectares in Côte-Rôtie. Whether Jean-Luc runs the missing hectare is a mystery.
Domaine Jamet owns 17 Lieux-dits in Côte-Rôtie and they believe that the best expression of the terroir comes from blending them together. The only parcel they do not blend is barely a half-hectare reserved for the rare bottling of their “Côte Brune.” The vinification process is the same save for a touch more new oak during élevage.
The first wine Corinne had me try during my visit was their 2012 Côtes du Rhône Blanc (60% Marsanne, 30% Viognier, 10% Roussanne) which is aged for 1 year in French casks (20% of which are new). Corinne said that this wine was “juste pour le plaisir” — just for pleasure. It was indeed fun and fresh but with soaring acidity, minerality and floral notes. The perfect wine to prime the palate for their reds.
Next was another fresh and mineral-driven wine that you won’t see much of outside France. It is labeled as “Jean-Paul Jamet’s Côte-Rôtie Fructus Voluptas.” Fresher to drink, it spends 18 months in barrel. Jean-Paul tastes every barrel of Côte-Rôtie and selects one with the most youthful finesse that is round and rich with acid and tannin levels that are “pas trop,” or “not too much.” This is then bottled under the separate label, and although it is easy to drink it holds a haunting depth of smokey fruit and tobacco.
I then tasted their 2011 and 2010 Cote Rotie, side-by-side. Both saw 2 years in barrel (20% new French-oak), which Corinne explained helps to express the terroir and Syrah cépage. They also believe in very little intervention in the winemaking process, as evidenced by their new gravity-flow wine cellar and lack of fining or filtering. They partially de-stem the grapes but the decision changes each year and is dependent on Jean-Paul’s opinion of the vintage.
The 2010 vintage for them, Corinne stated, was beautiful and much more classic than 2011 that went through awkward temperature swings. On the palate the 2011 did display more plush and mature fruit while the 2010 was more classically restrained with a better integration of tannins.
Feeling refreshed, it was time to head back down the steep slopes of the Côte-Rôtie, a task made markedly easier after a few glasses of Jamet. A quick drive brought me to the winery of another legend — René Rostaing. A Paul Newman look-alike, the handsome René welcomed me along with some other travellers into his cellar, brimming over with excitement to have us taste his wines.
“NO NEW OAK!” René boomed with an ear-to-ear grin as soon as we stepped into his cellar, “because wine is made from grapes, not trees!” Indeed there were no new oak barrels to be seen but instead a modest amount of casks and demi-muids.
René Rostaing, along with his family, is something of a legend. His father-in-law, Albert Dervieux-Thaize, was a great winemaker and president of the Côte-Rôtie growers association for 33 years. His uncle, Marius Gentaz-Dervieux, many consider the “Swami of Syrah” or “Angel of Ampuis” whose iconic wines stopped being produced in 1993.
After Marius Gentaz-Dervieux died, his parcel in La Landonne was passed onto René who now continues the tradition of excellence. This was the first wine we tasted. The old Syrah vines shone in René’s “2011 Côte-Rôtie La Landonne” which jumped out of the glass in a lavender, iodine and smokey punch of power.
Next, René said we must try his favorite wine. “This is the best of Côte-Rôtie,” he said. Then, looking at me he continued, “I’m sorry but for me, I prefer blondes… but only in wine!” This was his introduction to his “2011 Côte-Rôtie Côte Blonde.” This wine represents the 1 tiny hectare that he owns and is comprised of 95% Syrah and 5% Viognier. (“Viognier, because, blondes love perfume.”) But this wine was not like any Blonde I knew, it rushed in with grip and animal notes and ended with sweet cigar smoke.
We then tasted his special “2011 Côte-Rôtie Cuvée Ampodium” which is 100% Syrah and sourced from all of his lieux-dits except for La Landonne and Côte Blonde. The Name, “Ampodium” is derived from the old roman name for the village of Ampuis. In line with tradition he insists that to achieve elegance in a wine you must use the stems. The majority of his wines, including the Ampodium, only see partial de-stemming, this provides structure while offering herbaceous aromas.
To prove his point in a discussion we were having involving winemaking in warm vintages, René pulled out a bottle of his “2003 Côte-Rôtie.” The 2003 vintage was one of the hottest years in France, reports of over-heated apartment deaths in Paris grew as the summer came to an end. But René insisted that even in tricky vintages good wine can be made. Why? “Because the soil is the soil.” He claims that the Côte-Rôtie’s schist soils are what makes great wine- not the vintage. And maybe he is right. The 2003 was breathtaking.
His “1995 Côte-Rôtie” was next. After tasting, he told us it had already been open for one week. We then compared it to a fresh bottle. Of course the bottle that had been open was more approachable and soft, but everything else remained unchanged. The longevity of his wines, he believes is just as important in the glass as it is in the bottle.
Lastly we tasted his whites, which he saved for the end because they are pungently floral and aromatic. His “2011 Condrieu La Bonnette” is 100% Viognier and aged entirely in stainless steel tanks to preserve the bouquet. The stainless steel tanks capture the “fleeting youthfulness” of this wine as it’s beauty lies in the first five years after bottling.
With projects in the Languedoc (on the sweeter side of the wine spectrum), René is expanding in a curious but careful manner. His gentle approach to winemaking, respect for past generations and hearty sense of humor are what make his wines great.