Jean-Michel Stephan is different! He tends his vines within sight of the iconic Guigal and Chapoutier advertising signs that dominate the steep slopes of the Côte Rôtie in the northern Rhone.
However, unlike the norm for this region of high alcohol, heavily new-oaked wines, Jean-Michel opts for lower alcohol and no new wood for his wines.
Another fact that marks him as different is his love for the grape variety Sérine. This is a variant of Syrah that has smaller grapes and looser bunches. It is also more prone to disease as a variety than Syrah. However, we think that the flavour of the wine made from Sérine is superior to that of Syrah.
His vineyards are on the Coteaux de Tupin and the prized Coteaux de Bassenon as well as a new plot on the plains of Condrieu right next to the Rhone. They are managed using biodynamic principles and the wines are fermented in large cylindrical steel vats.
The vineyards are so steep that only 25% can be worked with a horse, the rest has to be tended manually. We can attest to the steepness as our aging bodies found it hard to keep up with Jean-Michel as he bounded up the slopes like a mountain goat!
The photo below shows the terracing with just one row of vines on each terrace.
Another reason why his wines taste different is that the yields are incredibly low. He achieves about 10 hectolitres per hectare which is painfully low, however it means that the vines have far fewer grapes to feed and this results in highly concentrated fruit. We think that it shows in the quality of the wine.
Jean-Michel Stephan Cote Rotie Nature 2014
This wine was made in a year where the weather was very unkind in this part of France. It was a very warm summer.
Jean-Michel was not able to make his usual Coteaux de Tupin or Coteaux de Bassenon, instead combining them to create a single Côte Rôtie. The terraces here are on a 40% slope. No added sulphur for this wine. There is a mixture of Syrah (30%) and Sérine (60%) in this wine. The remainder is 10% of the white grape, Viognier (adding a little white juice to temper and round out Syrah is very common in the northern Rhone). The wine was matured in old barrels for a period of twelve months before bottling.
At a recent tasting this wine was drinking beautifully. It has all the notes that you expect from Syrah and Sérine such as cherries, blackberries, cinnamon, licorice and little bursts of violets. There is also a lovely expression of minerality derived from the elements in the gneiss and granite soils in which the vines thrive. There are also very attractive silky tannins that envelop you. But it is the incredible freshness, finesse and liveliness that really stands out with this lovely wine - it is definitely a living wine and so engagingly different to some of the brutal monsters found in this region. The alcohol level is only 12%.
Jean-Michel Stephan Vin de France Plain de Condrieu 2013
This wine is made from the new plantings on the plains near Condrieu. The vines here are much younger than the vines on the slopes so the wine is a lot cheaper. However, you can still see with this wine the distinctive wine making style adopted by Jean-Michel.
So there are still all the hallmark aromas and flavours you would expect from Syrah from this region. You will find spices such as cinnamon, fruit flavours such as blackberries and blackcurrants, flowery bursts of violet accompanied by the beautiful, elegant tannins that are the trademark of Jean-Michel's winemaking technique. What you won't find is overpowering wood flavours or bitterness derived from over-extraction.
This wine has less than 5 mg/l of free sulphur dioxide which is extraordinarily low for any wine.
RRP: SOLD OUT
Jean-Michel Stephan Vin de France VSO 2011
This wine is interesting because it was not approved by the tasting committee to carry the Côte Rôtie appellation on the label because it was deemed "atypical", which, of course, it is! He uses carbonic maceration while fermenting the grapes, does not use new wood so beloved by the tasting panels, does not filter or fine his wines and does not add sulphur at any stage.
The wine was made, as usual, from grapes picked from the steep slopes near Ampuis and Tupin-Semons (both are villages that cling to the slopes beside the mighty Rhone River) where the soils are granitic with some outcrops of gneiss.
On the back label of this wine Jean-Michel has the ironic message:
Ce vin n'a pas recu l'agreement de l'INAO, il se retrouve ainsi <<Sans Origine>> which roughly means: This wine has not received the agreement of the INAO, it finds itself as <<Without Origin>>.
He therefore decided to use a little joke by giving it the name VSO which stands for Vin Sans Origine.