Saint-Joseph: Demanding by nature!
On the right-bank of the Rhône, the Saint-Joseph vineyard sits upon the 45th parallel, planted on steep hillsides that have been carved into terraces since ancient times. Erstwhile known as “Vin de Mauves”, the Jesuits gave it its current name in the 17th century.
Today, the appellation is known for its red wines made using Syrah grapes. These wines are both strong flavoured and refined, expressing notes of pepper and spices, often accompanied by notes of violet mixed with minerals. The appellation also produces 10% of all white wines made using Roussanne and Marsanne grape varieties.
Like the terrain itself, the appellation’s winemakers are demanding and seek to produce only the best wine – but they are far from being stern: every year they host the National Comedy Festival.
Within the Saint-Joseph AOC area, 160 winemakers produce predominantly red wines and, on a much smaller scale, white wines made with a single variety of grape or an assembly of different varieties. Syrah is the primary variety used in the red wine (even if up to 10% Roussanne or Marsanne were authorized in 1980), resulting in a strong end product.
Syrah produces robust wines with notes of pepper, spices, and a hint of violet, and is made into wine exclusively in the northern reaches of the Rhône valley. It is the Syrah grapes that give Saint-Joseph wines their fine, darkly aromatic personality.
The balanced, gourmet white wines are yellow with hints of green, and with a structure that changes with its assembly. The wine is produces in metal or stainless steel vats. Roussane makes wines of the highest quality that are fine, straw yellow in colour, offer a remarkable nose and age nicely. A noble grape variety, it gives wines a satisfying colour and an elegant touch of apricot, hawthorn, unroasted coffee, and honeysuckle in the nose, with discreet hints of narcissus.
Marsanne requires a hot, dry climate with a lot of exposure to the sun. Rustic and sturdy, these vines are happy in poor soil, but good hillsides with stony earth provide the most harmonious development. It produces strong wines of average acidity, and its floral aromas come into their own as it ages, and are accompanied by notes of hazelnut.
The vineyards were first planted by Greek colonies, before being cultivated by the Romans who were seduced by the very steep hillsides on the Rhône’s right bank. The AOC gives its name to the vineyard found between Tournon and Mauves.
A wine served at prestigious tables across Europe and Russia, Charlemagne also enjoyed Saint-Joseph wines. The first written record of the wine dates back to the 17th century, but it was the monks of the monastery that owns the vineyard that gave it its name.
More recently, the wine would be mentioned in Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables”, “My brother served him some fine Mauves wine that he never drank himself, as he said it was very expensive”.
In the 20th century, the winemakers formed a union to protect the Saint-Joseph name. On 15 June 1956, the AOC was made official, running through 6 local authorities (90 hectares).
In 1994, the AOC was restructured and is today spread over 1082 hectares across 26 local authorities. The vineyard winds from Chavanay to Guilherand, and connects Condrieu and Côte-Rôtie to the north, and Saint-Péray and Cornas to the south.
From Chavanay in the north to Guilherand in the south, the vineyard stretches for 30 miles along the right-bank of the Rhône. It covers 23 local authorities in the Ardèche and 3 in the Loire.
In the northern area, the vines are subjected to a semi-continental climate and grapes are picked later, while the southern zone is more temperate with a Mediterranean climate. If the vineyard contains some variations inherent to the soil and exposure, Saint-Joseph wines are remarkable for the combination of continental and Mediterranean influences.
The vineyard for the most part occupies terraces on fairly steep inclines, a key factor in the terroir’s drainage and exposure to the sun. Granite is the main component of the appellation’s soil, but other soil varieties are present and influence production.
The diversity of the appellation’s soil gives it its unique character and provides three varieties of grapes will all of the nutrients they need to flourish. The northern area is made of soft gneiss and granites on hillsides with sections at the foot or the mountains or in the plain. The southernmost area around Touron is made up of marl and complex, thin, acidic granite.
Domaine Gripa is producing some stunning wines from Saint-Joseph. Available here.