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The Search for Greatness in Saint-Joseph Syrah

As top appellations in the northern Rhône grow prohibitively expensive, winemakers have turned their attentions to less anointed sites. Jon Bonné on the ambitious producers looking to Saint-Joseph, and the trouble they face in crafting its identity.

We’ve been bumping along a barely formed dirt road in Jean-Louis Chave’s Land Rover, climbing past live oaks, sage and scrub brush and even the occasional cactus—a scene that reminds me of northern California, and Chave of Provence. Finally, we emerge on top of a hill in the village of Lemps, hop out of the truck and I instantly get my bearings: Directly below us is the Rhône river and, on the other side, the juggernaut of the hill of Hermitage—that last granite chunk of the Massif Central, one last shard of mountain cleaved apart by the river.

Chave is one of the most famous names in this part of the Rhône, known for making what is arguably the finest example of Hermitage, and thus one of the world’s top wines. Yet we find ourselves on the other side of the river from Hermitage, among the head-staked vines that cascade down the south-facing hill, in a parcel Chave calls Bachasson. This side of the Rhône river occasionally mimics Hermitage in its soils, containing a type of granite known as biotite, but also has more transformed granitic rock similar to what you’d find in Cornas. It can yield something nearly as impressive as the wines from those two famous places. 

This isn’t my boast; it’s Chave’s. We’re up here because Chave, who easily could sit back on his success with more important wine, has an obsession with Saint-Joseph, where he’s painstakingly reconstructed 34 acres worth of plantings, over the course of more than 20 years. It’s his Fitzcarraldo—his grand attempt to push back against where fate has taken Saint-Joseph: toward the bland commerciality and mediocrity of a catchall appellation known more for volume and cheapness than finesse.

“Here, we start everything all over again. That’s our adventure,” he tells me, as we stand in Bachasson. “It will take, maybe, my whole generation, but I strongly believe in this place.” 

Rags to Riches? 

If the appellations of France are soaked in their own creation myths, Saint-Joseph’s is more the work of dreary bureaucracy. Created in 1956, it was meant to carve out from the omnibus Côtes du Rhône appellation some of the interesting terroirs in the towns just across the Rhône river from Hermitage: Tournon, Mauves, Saint-Jean-de-Muzols, Lemps. By one telling, the name was chosen by Pierre Le Roy de Boiseaumarié, co-creator of France’s appellation system, who abandoned plans to use the name “Tournon” in favor of that of a nearby hill, Saint-Joseph. While that historic core had once been filled with terraced hillside plots, the usual mix of war and phylloxera largely emptied the countryside, leaving many vineyards abandoned by the time the appellation was created.

As was typical in that era, French farmers sought the easy way out. They successfully lobbied in the 1960s for 20 more villages to be added to Saint-Joseph, so that the appellation today stretches some 37 miles, from Condrieu in the very north to Saint-Péray in the south. Chave points this out as we pore over maps in his office, in the town of Mauves. “It makes no sense,” he tells me.

Even as the northern Rhône has, finally, found a measure of fame, Saint-Joseph has remained largely unloved. In part, that’s because it is an appellation defined by its bigness. The massive expansion of vineyard land in the ‘60s was the big knock on Saint-Joseph—a tenfold growth over the past 50 years, much of it on poorly situated hillsides, led to a current production of four million liters; that’s 30 times what it was a half-century ago.

This has made Saint-Joseph the northern Rhône’s big conundrum, and it makes one wonder: Why would anyone, much less a luminary like Chave, throw such resources into an appellation known, at best, for making minor versions of the Rhône’s epic syrah-based wines? 

For one thing, because places like Hermitage, Côte-Rôtie and Cornas have grown so prohibitively expensive that in order to remain viable, the northern Rhône needs other potentially great wines. And, in Chave’s case, there’s a moral importance to making good, affordable wine from less anointed places. But it’s also because Chave, and other high-profile vignerons, like Jean Gonon, see Saint-Joseph as a botched experiment they have the opportunity to fix.

This is why Chave, in 1995, began to resurrect Bachasson and other nearby parcels like Chalais, in his hometown of Mauves. To access abandoned land, he had to construct nearly two miles worth of roads. He hired five masons to build or reconstruct terrace walls, replicating the abandoned terraces still found in the hills throughout this corner of the Rhône, in order to plant vineyards on slopes as steep as those found to the north, in Côte-Rotie. He even tends a vine nursery of mass-selection cuttings, to preserve local cultivars—all of it meant to prove that this sprawling appellation, or at least its historic core, deserves a better fate. 

In Chave’s view, the real Saint-Joseph is much closer to its original 1950s size, specifically the south-facing slopes of five small valleys west of the river, which include Bachasson as well as other spots well known for the quality of their wines, like Sainte-Epine, near where Raymond Trollat, one of Saint-Joseph’s few legendary vignerons, farmed. Gonon, who has become a current-day cult figure of sorts, has similar holdings, including parcels bought from Trollat’s sister and old vines in the Oliviers site, high above Tournon, historically one of the area’s best parcels.

But to be blunt, this isn’t quite a case of restoring faded glory, because Saint-Joseph never quite achieved great repute in the past. “That belonged to the knights,” says Chave, pointing across the river to Hermitage as we sit in traffic in Tournon, stuck behind trucks from the local carnival. “While that over there”—he points to the slopes rising up just above us, on the Saint-Joseph side—”belonged to the farmers.” In other words, Saint-Joseph’s struggle is the historic struggle in much of France: peasants hoping to escape the shadow of nobility.

For all this virtuous work, one key question remains: How exactly is Saint-Joseph meant to become the important place its believers think it can be? It’s not that the wines can’t be great. When I finally taste the barrel that Chave makes from Bachasson, it’s all bright tannins and monumental structure—a big wine that makes its distinction known, like a mini-Hermitage crossed with very good Cornas. But wines like, say, Gonon’s, earn the prices they do, candidly, more because of their winemakers’ reputations than any meaningful association with Saint-Joseph, which remains largely without an identity. Today, when anyone talks about the northern Rhône’s up-and-coming appellation, they mention Crozes-Hermitage, the land that surrounds Hermitage itself. 

And yet it’s more Crozes that’s a failed hope, in its way. For sure, it has some exceptional wines, from producers like Alain Graillot and his son Maxime (with his own label, Domaine des Lises), plus the minimalist producers Dard & Ribo and even from Paul Jaboulet Aîné, the major négociant who acquired historic properties like Domaine de Roure. But if Crozes largely enjoyed success thanks to the “Hermitage” in its name, today its land is no longer a bargain as it was, and there’s a lot of mediocre wine bearing the name.

Meanwhile, it’s Saint-Joseph, and the Rhône’s western bank, that has attracted at least a handful of ambitious producers: naturalists like Domaine des Miquettes in Cheminas and the Delobre family of La Ferme des Sept Lunes in Charbieux; Aurélien Chatagnier, a protégé of François Villard, who works far enough north to bottle some of his viognier as Condrieu. Hervé Souhaut, the naturalist icon from the Ardèche, makes a standout Saint-Joseph from a parcel owned by his wife’s family in the Saint-Epine climat in Saint-Jean-de-Muzols, arguably the appellation’s best-known vineyard.

These wines are important not only because of old-fashioned minimalist winemaking in the vein of Trollat, as well as increasingly organic farming, but also because they’re doing the important work of rooting out exceptional vineyards—of bringing order to a sprawling, unwieldy appellation. Their wines are an opportunity, for those who might not be able to afford Gonon (now pushing $70 a bottle), to still appreciate the charm of northern Rhône syrah, and the heady white wines made of marsanne and roussanne. That even extends to Chave, who, despite his personal crusade, continues a healthy négociant business making less expensive Saint-Joseph. 

“Now It’s All Coming Back”

After several days touring its most lauded sites, I’m still struggling to see how Saint-Joseph can succeed. Even with Chave’s reputation, a wine from Bachasson will never be worth even a fraction of what his Hermitage, now around $300 per bottle, might garner. There might be hope in that other French trick—creating premiers or grands crus, to highlight the historic core—except that it’s almost fated not to happen, since authorities squelched a prior attempt around 1990. “INAO would never want that,” Gonon tells me, referring to France’s governing body for wine law.

Still seeking an answer, one afternoon I drive up the switchbacks of Sainte-Epine, to Raymond Trollat’s tiny old farmhouse. It was Trollat, after all, who was once considered by people like the influential importer Kermit Lynch to be Saint-Joseph’s great hope, a lonely voice for quality in a backwater appellation. 

“We’re taking his horse to the vet at six,” remarks Trollat’s wife, Ginette, as I walk in the door. The house looks largely unchanged from the 1970s, an old French farmer’s home, and I sense that the Trollats are weary of foreigners knocking on their door, seeking the same answers I am. But soon enough everyone relaxes, Trollat uncorks a bottle of his 1999 white Saint-Joseph for an afternoon drink, and we talk about the past. 

Unlike Chave, whose hopes rely on his success in fancier appellations, Trollat achieved a reputation as a country legend in the Rhône more or less unintentionally. His exuberantly flavored, traditional wines from ragged slopes of schistous rock were proof that something wonderful was hiding in Saint-Joseph. Now he is retired, having handed off his parcels to younger aspirants like Gonon and Mikael Desestret of Domaine de la Côte Sainte-Epine. 

In part, Trollat’s legend was built out of stubbornness and insistence on difficult, traditional work. He kept working the slopes when most farmers chased easy money in the flatlands—hence the proliferation of abandoned terraces nearby. “In that era, they were just being used for table wine,” Trollat explains, “so they were too much trouble.”

That harder path is now the same one being pursued by Chave and Gonon, which might be a minor bit of comfort to someone like Trollat—who, it is evident from the old cars in the driveway and the shambling house, has not particularly benefitted from the Rhône’s recent fame.

“Now it’s all coming back to the old ways,” Ginette notes, as they get ready to put the horse in a trailer. And perhaps that’s solace enough.

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