I returned home on Tuesday from a little over a week in France where I spent some time learning about the vineyards and wines of Cote Rotie. It is a truly beautiful part of the world, and I learned a lot by visiting.
I stayed in the tiny village of Ampuis, at Domaine Michel & Stephane Ogier. My hosts were generous beyond words, and they made me feel immediately at home.
I spent some time “working” in the cellar, but VERY carefully. I found it to be nerve-wracking working in someone else’s cellar. Although the work is generally the same, we all do things differently in the winery and our cellars are private places, really. I didn’t want to overstep or make any mistakes, but I had to get into the daily work routine in order to learn about the differences in the local processes. The staff at the Domaine was great! So capable and fun to work with. It helped immensely that everyone spoke English, but I made the decision to spend some time learning French for future visits. As is the case when you travel to new locations, if you allow yourself to have an open mind about things, there really is so much to be learned.
I think it was most impressive for me to see the vineyards there. Slopes that we would never consider planting in Paso Robles were covered with grapevines in Cote Rotie and Condrieu.
In those very steep spots, almost all of the work is done by hand. The row spacing is too tight for equipment (in many places the spacing is 1.1m between rows and .8m between vines), and the slope is so steep that equipment cannot safely be used there anyway.
Spraying is done by hand with backpack sprayers. Horses can be used in a few spots for tilling, but other than that they rely on good old-fashioned hard manual labor to manage the vineyards and bring in the crop.
I was so impressed with the vineyards that I am determined to try a small block “Cote Rotie Style”, here in Paso Robles. I plan to plant a block at my own vineyard, but I’m licking my chops looking for another willing participant who is open to experimentation and wants to give it a shot. (Yes John, I’m talking about you.)
I found the wines of this appellation to be classic and exemplary, consistently showing remarkable finesse, chic style, and lasting sophistication that is the marker of the region.
Since I’ve been home my colleagues are asking, will I change my winemaking style now that I’ve seen how they do it in Cote Rotie? I don’t think so. If I learned anything there it is that terroir is king. I have to make wines that showcase the terroir of Paso Robles with a little bit of my personal flair somehow shining through, and those wines will be a lot different from wines made anywhere else. That’s the point of it all, don’t you think?