We headed north on the A7 Autoroute, leaving the ‘galet' filled vineyards of Chateauneuf-du-Pape behind us. Ahead lay the towns of Orange and Montêlimar. The expansive vineyards of the south gave way to orchards and countryside. As we approached the village of Valence the terrain changed. The steep, terraced hillside vineyards told us we had reached our destination - and the holy grail of Syrah - the Northern Rhone.
Our destination was the town of Mercurol not far from Tain’Hermitage.
We pulled into the drive of Domaine Michelas Saint Jemms, a smaller family owned and run establishment and everyone, including the winery dog Tina, were there to greet us.
What makes Michelas Saint Jemm unique is that they produce wines from not just one AOC of the Rhone Valley, but several: Cornas, St.Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage and Hermitage. They are also one of the the oldest privately operated wineries in the area and the oldest family owned winery in Crozes-Hermitage.
And this is truly a family affair. The property itself goes back to 1861 but wasn’t really developed until 1961 when Robert and Yvette Michelas took charge. Today, three sisters, Sylvie, Florence, and Corine, work alongside brother Sebastien and other family members, oversee the 50 hectares (just over 123 acres) of vineyards and production of 150,000 bottles (12,500 cases).
Of course, the prize AOC is Hermitage - a region known to every lover and collector of French wines. The parcels (three noncontiquous parcels total 1/2 hectare/ 1.23 acres) were acquired years ago when a family friend, unable to keep the land in his family’s hands, asked Robert Michelas if he would be interested in purchasing the vineyards. Knowing that opportunities to purchase these scarce and highly prized blocks were few and far between, he jumped at the chance and the rest is Michelas Saint Jemms history!
- Santé from the Northern Rhone
- When my friend Jeanne, whom I’d met during my visit to the Languedoc earlier in the year, heard that my husband and I were going to be in Provence, she asked if she could arrange a visit to one of her favorite wineries. Never one to be impolite, I said ‘Merci’ and the plans were made.
- After a brief chat, we had a quick look at their tasting area (scheduled to be renovated by November 2014 in order to accommodate more visitors). Oenotoursime (wine tourism) is increasing in the region and as sister Sylvie is quick to point out, an important part of the wineries future. Judging by the level of hospitality they exude, anyone who visits is sure to be impressed.
The production area, which dates to the early 1960’s and the cellar (1972) were our next stop. Typical of the area, concrete and stainless steel tanks are the storage medium of choice, while down in the cool cellar there is a combination of traditional ‘foudre’ or large barrels and smaller oak barrels. They are used for both fermentation and storage and for red and white wines. One rather unique feature were barrels with plexiglass heads - handy for checking on the progress of fermentation!
- Thirty year old 'Foudre' in the cellar.
- The barrel room of Michelas Saint Jemms
- We were soon loading into the vineyard vehicles and heading away from the winery and through the countryside. We climbed higher and higher into the hills of Crozes-Hermitage, past crumbling castle ruins and row upon row of flowering grape vines.
- Vineyards of Crozes-Hermitage
- Raffia is used to secure the growing vines
- Cornas in the distance
- When we arrived in the Syrah vineyards, a small crew was busy tying up the young vines using the traditional raffia ties, hanging in bundles from their belts. Tricky work on these steep slopes.
For those of us not working, though, the view of the Rhone River and vineyards was amazing.
From our vantage point, Sylvie pointed out the other areas where Michelas Saint Jemm has their vineyards - across the Rhone River in the AOC of St. Joseph (4 hectares/9.88 acres) and Cornas (2 hectares/4.92 acres). The well drained, granitic soils make for beautifully structured wines.
- As we soaked in the wonderful vistas, Sylvie explained that, in 1973, Michelas Saint Jemms become an independent winery (rather than being associated with the local co-operative). Sébastien, who is in charge of all the vineyards, set about improving the quality of the fruit and several years ago, they qualified for the new H.V. E. certification. Haute Valeurs Environnmental (High Environmental Vaules) is a newer certification that emphasizes working in harmony with nature. Biodiversity is encouraged “ If there are trees, leave them. If there are grasses, leave them - don’t cut.” said Sylvie. “Birds and animals are welcome!”.
We sampled several wines in this gorgeous setting including the 2012 Crozes-Hermitage Blanc, a blend of 60% Roussanne and 40% Marsanne, half of which is oak aged with the balance in stainless. Soft toast on the nose but it’s all about minerals and fruit on the palate with acacia and a touch of marzipan.
- Michelas Saint Jemms wines tasted in the vineyard
Sorry to say that this wine, as well as the refreshingly fruity and fresh Crozes-Hermiage Fleur de Syrahne that we sampled next, are not available in the U.S., which I personally feel is a shame as they are delicious and both very food compatible and would be appreciated by the North American palate.
Luckily, the 2011 Crozes-Hermitage ‘Signature’ Rouge is! With fruit grown on chalky-clay soils, this is an aromatic Syrah. Fresh black fruit aromas are both fruity and meaty making this a versatile sipper or dinner companion. At at suggested retail of $25 USD it is a wonderful introduction to the signature grape of the Northern Rhone.
It was now lunch time. In France, this a ‘sacred’ part of the day - a time to stop and recharge with food, family, and, naturally, some wine.
We were very fortunate to be invited to share this time with the family (including Tina and Emmi the cat) and soon discovered they had prepared a veritable feast of traditional fare reflecting their Drome and Ardeche regional roots.
- Tina-Sylvie's faithful companion
- Starting with charcuterie and a homemade meat terrine, ‘caillette', served with amazing bread from the local ‘boulangerie’, we sampled some of the wines available in the American marketplace.
The 2011 Crozes-Hermitage “La Chasselière Red is 100% delicious Syrah aged in older French oak barrels for one year. Deep, dark and spicy with dutch black licorice and baking spice notes on the finish, it was already silky on the palate. ($29 USD)
We followed with the 2012 Saint Joseph ‘Saint Epine’ Red. We had seen these vineyards across the river from Crozes-Hermitage - granitic soils in the foothills of the Massif Central - the landmass that forms the centre of France. The vines enjoy a southern exposure, ensuring the fruit is ripe; full of flavor and character at harvest. Aged in four year old French oak barrels, the wine exudes wonderful deep berry aromas and hints of dried herbs. It shows well structured tannins and lots of dark fruit notes lashed with peppercorn! ($29 USD)
The last of the wines available to us here in the US was from granite and schist soils of the ‘red only’ Cornas AOC. This too, was visible from our earlier vineyard locale. Sylvie had pointed out to us how the southern edge of the Massiff Central drops away in this area, lending the terrain to steep, terraced vineyards.
2011 Cornas ‘Les Murettes’ Red is one of two cuvee produced from the vineyard, This bottling shows big, juicy, ripe black fruit on the nose and palate. A joy to drink now with or without food but you could definitely age this for 10 years or longer. ($45 USD)
- Crozes-Hermitage 'La Chasselière 2011
- Saint Joseph 'Saint Epine' 2012
- Cornas 'Les Murettes' 2011
- It was now time for the next course - a local specialty of the pre-Alps region of Grenobles - Ravioles du Dauphiné. These tiny little pockets of pasta are filled with cheese, herbs and cream. Sylvie served these in wonderful ceramic dishes which, as with the other artisan table wares, were produced ‘just down the road’. Although our ravioles were topped with local Extra Virgin Olive Oil and fresh basil from the garden, we were told they were also delicious baked in a gratin with courgettes (zucchini). I can only imagine!
- Smaller than the Italian version and popular since Roman times, especially in the Middle Ages.
- Olive Oil from Provence - delicious! Click on the photo for a short video on this producer.
- Raviloes du Dauphiné - a traditional specialty of the Drôme, Hautes-Alpes and Isère regions of France.
- The next selection of wines, are, I’m sorry to say, not available in the United States but would give any wine lover an excellent excuse to visit the winery!
Under the ‘Terres d’Arce’ label, Michelas Saint Jemms bottles all four AOC - Crozes-Hermitage, Saint Joseph, Cornas and Hermitage and are the only independent producer to do so. These are their ‘prestige’ bottlings - what an New World winery might call their ‘Reserve’ tier, showing the distinctive character of each terroir and its interpretation of the Syrah grape. These wines consistently score highly in such respected publications as the ‘Hachette Wine Guide’ and the ‘Gilbert & Gaillard' wine magazine, not to mention Robert Parker’s ‘Wine Advocate’.
- Terres d'Arce - the epitome of regional terroir
- We were thrilled to try all the offerings, including the Hermitage (of which they only produce 600 bottles!) and tried our best to convince everyone, especially Sales Manager Laurent Gomez, that they should make these Rhone treasures available stateside!
No French meal is complete without ‘a little something’. A large dish of exquisite local peaches and apricots appeared (Hermitage is equally famous for the delectable stone fruit, it seems) plus a big platter of ripe red cherries.
- Fresh from the trees - local peaches & apricots
- Fresh cherries echo the amazing Syrahs of Michelas Saint Jemms!
- Another regional delicacy appeared on the table. A large, round yeast bread, ‘Pogne de Romans’ which, translated from Old French, means ‘by hands’. Similar to a brioche, these are made for special occasions and holidays and are lightly scented with orange blossom water. This particular pogne came from an old and revered bakery, L. Ronjat in the village of Saint Donat sur l’Herbasse, where they have baking since the 18th century.
- Ponge de Romans, with fresh fruit decoration by Florence!
- Too soon, it was time for the family to return to the wines and for us to get back on the Autoroute. It had been an extraordinary day, filled with the wonderful ‘connections’ that only wine can make. We felt so blessed to share in the traditions of the region and now, whenever I think of the Northern Rhone Valley I smile, remembering the day, their gracious hospitality and wines made with true love, respect, passion and joie de vivre.
As I was writing this post, I received a message from Jeanne. She was preparing to go and help out with the Syrah harvest in the Cornas vineyards of Domaine Michelas Saint Jemms.
“Pictures, please!” I requested.
How fitting that we can now see, full circle the literal ‘fruits’ of their efforts and the continuation of Vendage 2014.
All photos below courtesy of Jeanne Peron, Benson Marketing who was kind enough to arrange this visit. Merci!
- Sylvie Chevrol-Michelas
- Sébastien Michelas
- Cornas Syrah - 2014 Harvest
- 'Merci' to Jeanne Peron for arranging such a memorable visit to Michelas Saint Jemms.