Maison Stéphan - Côte-Rôtie 2017

This week we are drinking a 2017 Syrah with a small amount of Viognier from Maison Stéphan from Côte Rôtie.

I don’t know much about the Rhône. I do enjoy drinking the wines, but they are always something I pick up incidentally, a good deal here, an interesting single bottle there, to fill up the carton. You know how it is. It’s a bit surprising, though, that not a single wine from there has made it to the blog until now. So, it’s high time, and I’m using this opportunity to refresh my knowledge a bit. Depending on the source and the year of the source, between 60,000 and 80,000 hectares of vineyards are cultivated in the Rhône region. For some perspective: According to the German Federal Statistical Office (and they should know), Germany does have just over 100,000 hectares of vines in 2023. Still, the Rhône is far from being the leader in France. The majority of the vineyards are planted with red grape varieties. The significantly smaller northern area, with a more continental climate, is known for Syrah, while in the south, with a more Mediterranean climate, it’s Grenache or various blends. In Châteauneuf-du-Pape, surely the most famous appellation in the south, 13 grape varieties are permitted, both red and white, which can sometimes all end up in the wine together. The big names in the north include Hermitage, Saint-Joseph, and of course, Côte Rôtie. There are also white grape varieties, usually Viognier, Marsanne, or Roussanne. The steep vineyards of Côte Rôtie are located at the northernmost part of the region. If you want to write Côte Rôtie on the bottle, it must always be predominantly Syrah, but up to 20% Viognier can be blended in. It just occured to me that I first came across this combination, red wine with a splash of white wine for freshness, and specifically Syrah with a bit of Viognier, not in France but in New Zealand in the Wrint Flaschen Podcast in 2016. My memory can work surprisingly well sometimes.

Anyone who has read the title or looked at the picture will have noticed that Côte Rôtie is in fact on the bottle here, so it must be Syrah, and Viognier can be included. I couldn’t find any details about 2017, but the previous vintage was 90% Syrah and 10% Viognier, so I assume this wine will be the same. It seems the wine is now being bottled as a single vineyard wine under the name Les Binardes. At least if you go by the label of the 2018 Les Binardes, which looks deceptively similar to this bottle. And it has unfortunately become much more expensive, but the wine is not alone in that. Jean-Michel Stéphan only started making wine in the Rhône in 1994. His son Romain joined the winery in 2017, and last year, his other son Dorian joined as well. Together they form Maison Stéphan. They converted to organic farming as early as 1995, and according to the winery, they bottled their first natural wine in 1997. There’s also a reference to the rules of the L’Association des Vins Naturels. The grapes for the Côte Rôtie are spontaneously fermented with stems and then aged in stainless steel for a year. Bottling is done with little or no sulfur.

There’s a lot of spice on the nose, dense, intense, but also super fine. There are red berries, dried fruit, Kytta ointment, and something scruffy. And olives, but not the briny ones, rather the shriveled, dry-vacuumed kind that stick annoyingly to the pit but are extremely deep in flavor and super delicious. That’s exactly what’s in this wine. And behind it all, a bit of alcohol, even though the wine only has 13%. When drinking, however, there’s no trace of it. The tannins caress the tongue softly, there’s fruit, and quite a lot of structure. There are cherries and matching pits, and herbs. It’s one of those wines where you can’t stop smelling once you’ve put your nose in the glass. Each sniff opens a new door, and the slight booziness at the end completely disappears. I thought that wine from southern France and food from southern France might go well together, so I cooked Daube Provençale inspired by a reciped of Wolfram Siebeck, and it’s an absolute dream together. I’m a bit in love again. With the food, but also with the wine.

After a night in the fridge, it briefly smells like baby wipes. Maybe that’s the natural evolution of the Kytta ointment aroma, but since it disappears after two swirls, I don’t dwell on it too long. Then come thyme, rosemary, and a whole bouquet of Mediterranean herbs. And yes, I did open the windows in the meantime, it’s really from the wine and not leftover cooking smells from the night before. The wine is completely dry, not just in terms of sugar but also with dried fruit and dried shrubs. And the alcohol note that was there shortly after opening never comes back. It feels like a lot has happened in the glass, in the bottle, and in the wine overnight. That air is really necessary here, and that there is still plenty of potential for many more years. At the same time, the stage it’s at right now is simply brilliant. It tastes like the south but isn’t particularly hot or heavy. There’s freshness, finesse, and then so much spice behind it. Herbs, a dash of Maggi umami, and fruit. A wine that fills the evening, where you hang your nose in the glass, take a sip, and immediately want to smell again. And it works great with food. Maybe it’s time to delve more deeply into the Rhône. Or at least to fill the carton with it more often.

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