Cote-Rotie, or the "roasted slope," stands at the very northern edge of the Rhone Valley, five miles from Vienne and just outside the historic village of Ampuis. Wine has been grown here for a very long time, and some writers believe this was the site of the first cultivation of the vine in ancient Gaul. True or not, the wines of Cote-Rotie have only become sought-after in the past few decades, and largely due to the efforts of one man: Marcel Guigal.
Marcel's father, Etienne, founded Establissements Guigal in 1946. Like most of France, the Rhone Valley was in a sorry state at the time, the victim of war and economic collapse. Things were not much better when Marcel joined the company in 1961. Through intelligent, conscientious and inspired winemaking, he revitalized the wines of Cote-Rotie; due to the enthusiasm of Robert Parker for Guigal's single-vineyard offerings, these wines became prized throughout the world. Cynics have suggested that statues should be erected to the two men in Ampuis, and there has been much speculation about where the pigeons might come home to roost.
Why is this slope roasted? The terraced vineyards of Cote-Rotie face southeast, positioned to capture most of the available sunlight. The hill is divided into two areas, Cote Blonde and Cote Brune. The soil of the Cote Blonde is lighter, and this is where the Viognier is grown. Cote Brune has darker and richer soil, perfectly suited for Syrah, and the famed wines of La Mouline, La Landonne and La Turque emanate from here. Conventional wisdom asserts, though, that the best wines are a blend of grapes from the two sections of the hill.
At its best, Cote-Rotie is a full-bodied but feminine wine, layered and complex, powerful and seductive at once. Like Hermitage, its neighbor to the south, white grapes are permitted (up to 20% Viognier can be included in the final product, compared to a lesser percentage of Roussanne and Marsanne in Hermitage; in practice, no more than 5% is generally used). Hermitage is generally a more dramatic and masculine wine, without the elegance and grace of Cote-Rotie.
Marcel Guigal inherited thirty acres of prime vineyard holdings from his father. In 1984, he bought the firm of Vidal-Fleury, where Etienne received his start in the wine business; Vidal-Fleury operates as a separate enterprise, although Marcel makes the Cote-Rotie wines under their label. The Guigal holdings in the northern Rhone were further augmented several years ago, with the purchase of the Grippat and de Vallouit domaines in Crozes-Hermitage and St. Joseph. The company is now in the hands of his son Philippe, ensuring continuity for the next generation.
The following notes were taken during a vertical tasting held in Fort Lauderdale.
2001: Dense purple center, crimson rim. Ripe and dense black fruits on the nose, bolstered by pepper accents. Full-bodied entry. There is an explosion of sweet black fruit in the mouth, pure and syrupy, along with flavors of kirsch, mocha, anise and herbs. A big wine, with a concentrated midpalate and a finish that continues for almost a minute, this has the potential to age long and gracefully. Spice, pepper and tannin linger on the extreme length.
2000: Purple center, crimson rim. Intense, mineral-infused nose, redolent of stewed black fruits and wild herbs. Powerful, full-bodied entry. The wine has a spicy, concentrated and tannic midpalate, along with a texture which is cool, composed and mentholated. The finish is long and complex, with the fruit essences playing across the palate. A sexy powerhouse.
1999" Saturated purple, crimson rim. Fresh, clean nose, giving up aromas of pepper and black fruits with coaxing. The wine displays a tart texture, considerably leaner than the 2000 and 2001, with good acidity and soft flavors of red and black fruits. The midpalate is a bit hollow, however, and the finish is more compact than one would hope for.
1998: Ruby-red center, crimson rim. Splendid nose: plump, ripe and poised, with haunting overtones of earth, minerals and fresh herbs. Stiff, full-bodied entry. In the mouth, the wine displays good acidity, firm tannins, gobs of sweet black fruits, and an appealing rustic edge. The finish is long and subtle. The best thing about this wine is its balance; it is seamless, and perfectly put together.
1997: Dense, muddy purple center, watery rim. High-toned, spicy nose, with evidence of good acidity and aromas of damp forest floor. Ripe, full-bodied entry. The earth notes continue on the palate, framing the blackberry, plum and red berry flavors; there is a solid beam of fruit emerging from the midpalate and continuing on the finish. Luscious, balanced and ripe.
1995: Muddy purple center, watery rim. The nose is recessed and earthy, yielding aromas of black fruits with coaxing. Solid, full-bodied entry. The fruit is concentrated and syrupy, reduced to a coulis; it coats the roof of the mouth and reverberates for quite a while on the finish. Balanced and unassuming, this is a gentle giant.
1988: Muddy purple center, slightly brickish rim. Funky, earthy nose, concentrated and mentholated, infused with aromas of black and red berries. Powerful, full-bodied entry. Still a blockbuster after fifteen years: poised and rich, perfectly balanced, with excellent acidity and a sweet, smooth concentration of old-vine fruit. A brilliant wine.1978: Muddy purple center, brickish orange rim. Fabulous nose of cola, menthol, wet forest undergrowth and strawberry liqueur. Ripe, full-bodied entry. There is an amazing concentration of creamy, old-vine fruit in the midpalate, combined with excellent acidity for its age, perfectly resolved tannins, and a beautifully balanced, composed quality which lingers on the very long finish. Absolutely gorgeous, but beginning to head south.