One of my favourite ways to start a visit to a winegrower is to take off up into the vineyards with them (no sniggering, please). How better to get a feel for where the wine starts out on its journey, all the way from soil to cellar?
So it was that on a recent Saturday morning we met up with Stéphane Ogier at his DDG (drop-dead-gorgeous) 2014-built winery, which sits at the edge of the village of Ampuis at the foot of the hallowed Côte Rôtie in the heart of the northern Rhone. We jumped into his car and set off up the steep track and crunched to a halt at a vantage point in the middle of the vineyards (above), fringed with wild flowers and with views of the Rhone way beneath.
From here we could see that the frighteningly steep Côte divides neatly into two parts, separated by a small but clearly visible stream, the Ruisseau de Reynard. To one side (towards Condrieu) is the Côte Blonde, whose soil is characterised by its granite and gneiss composition. As the name suggests, it’s somewhat paler in colour than its sister across the stream, the Côte Brune, made up of schist with a good iron oxide component which gives it a richer brown colour (though at this time of year with the vines in full cry, I’ll concede the predominant impression is of green). The Ogiers own around 40 different plots in both Blonde and Brune hillsides.
The Ogier reputation today is such that it’s hard to believe that it was only in 1983 that Stéphane’s father Michel began bottling their own wines – previously they had sold grapes to Guigal, the huge and internationally celebrated Rhone winery with some of the Côte Rôtie’s most iconic lieux-dits in its considerable portfolio. In 1997 Stéphane rejoined the family domaine after completing his studies in Beaune, followed by a spell in South Africa. Today they farm around 27 hectares of vines in total, of which 11 are on the the famous roasted slope, which rears up above Ampuis. Stéphane has continued to develop the estate with flair, sensitivity and a real vision. That vision is all about terroir and its expression – which was why we started our vineyard visit gazing down reverently at pale, crumbly granite and chunky pieces of schist, glinting in the sunlight.
Our field trip completed, we descended to the cellar to taste a range of 2017 wines direct from the barrel. Grapes from each of the 40 different plots are vinified separately. Some may then be blended; others are considered distinctive enough to merit their own label with mention of the lieu-dit. The morning morphed into an advanced lesson not only in how distinct the different terroirs are (Côte Brune vs. Blonde, and all the different plots contained in each) but also how different vinification techniques influence the outcome (whole-bunch vs. de-stemmed grapes, blending vs. single-vineyard).
We tackled first the Côte Brune with wines from various named sites (Besset, Cognet, Fongeant, Côte Bodin) siphoned directly from barrel to glass. The schist here is supposed to give more tannic, structured wines deeper in colour, tougher to taste in youth than those from the Blonde, therefore destined for long ageing. As for vinification, for his wines from Cognet, for example, Stéphane uses whole bunches of grapes (i.e. with stems and all), which gives added complexity and power. “The terroir needs it,” was his explanation. For wines from La Côte Bodin on the other hand, for ages he used whole-bunch, but of late has moved over to using de-stemmed grapes. “It was too much for this terroir.” (I told you this was the advanced lesson.)
The final Brune example was the formidable Belle Hélène, named not after my friend in the picture above (coincidentally also Helen) but for his mother. Made from 80 year-old vines, he describes this special cuvée with affection and respect as “the perfect expression of the terroir”.
From the Côte Blonde we cask-sampled Lancement, according to Stéphane a demonstration of the finesse and elegance of the Côte Blonde, “another terroir that I love, completely the opposite of Belle Hélène”, and Mon Village, a blend of grapes from young vines in various plots. We completed our tour de terroirs with a comparison of two whites: a delicate, elegant Viognier La Rosine at a [mere] €20 with his gorgeous, supple, deeply intriguing Condrieu, a bit above my pay grade at €65 ex-cellar. Same grape, two different worlds, and the final demonstration of the value of a great terroir (if one were needed).
Bargains in the northern Rhone are a dim and distant memory and Stéphane Ogier’s wines are amongst the most sought after. A wooden case of his 6 top Côtes Rôties from selected named sites will set you back €600. However, for reds, if you cast your net a little wider than his stratospheric Côte Rôties, for a mere €10 you can have a meaty, entirely serviceable St Joseph, or – a step up – La Rosine (€16), an IGP contiguous with the Côte Rôtie with the same granitic soil as the Côte Brune. For one better, go for his L’Ame Soeur (Soul Sister) at €35, from the exciting vineyards of Seyssuel on the other side of the river (currently classed as Collines Rhodaniennes but heading fast for its own appellation).
Visits by appointment