By Kevin Bonnaud
St Joseph, a vineyard close to Lyon
St Joseph 1000-ha vineyard is located on the west bank of the Rhone between Chavanay (60 km south of Lyon) and Guilherand (120km). The heart of the Northern Rhone Valley with Condrieu and Côte-Rôtie wine appellations in the north and Cornas in the south.
50-plus km of steep terraces overlook the Rhone and its tributary rivers – a typical landscape of the Rhone Valley. Driving from the south, you have a spectacular view of the hillsides vines which look truly like natural balconies.
A little bit of history
St Joseph wines are part of France’s wine heritage.
The first terraced vines were cultivated by Romans and sold all over Europe throughout the Middle Ages. In the 17th century, the vines located between Tournon and Mauves were owned by a Jesuit community who gave their name to the vineyard.
Wines produced in the area were called Mauves wines.
Famous French novelist Victor Hugo reffered to Mauves wine in Les Misérables.
The prestige of St Joseph wines has grown significantly over the past 60 years with the creation of the appellation in 1956 and the publication of John Livingstone’s book The Wines of the Rhone Valley in 2005. The Irish born writer has been a strong advocate of Rhone Valley wines across the world especially in the UK and the US.
What do St. Joseph wines taste like?
Though St Joseph wines can be kept three to ten years, you do not have to wait too many years to appreciate them.
St Joseph red wines have a strong, garnet robe that can sometimes develop orange hues as they age. White wines have a very light color with green hues turning golden.
The most fascinating step of tasting is when you sniff the wine a few times to discover its multiple flavors. Young red wines have aromas of fresh red fruits such as blackcurrant. You can smell scents of ripe fruits out of older wines as well as spicy notes.
White wines are subtle and elegant. They have notes of hawthorn, nuts, apricot and spices when raised in oak barrels.
You appreciate the roundness and fleshiness of red wines.They are smooth with fine tannins creating rich and gourmet sensations in the mouth.
White wines are well-balanced between acidity and sweetness.
Less known by the public, their minerality and richness match perfectly with truffles, fish and even cheese.
Grape Varieties & Soils
The aromatic strength along with spicy and floral notes of St Joseph red wines come from Syrah grape. The only red grape of Saint-Joseph wines.
White wines, which represent less than 10% of the production, come from two, often combined, white grapes: Marsanne and Roussanne.
Marsanne grapes are rustic, vigorous, resistant, quite old (50 years or more) and provide dry fruits aromas like nuts. Roussanne grapes are younger and more delicate with many floral and fruity aromas like apricot. St Joseph grapes grow in poor and rocky soils mostly made of granite though you can find
clay-limestone areas sometimes mixed with schist and stones zones.
The composition depends on the exposure and the location. Soft gneisses with granite in the north, marl with diverse granites in the south. You can even have different granites in the same parcel.
The complexity of soils which illustrates the singularity of each terroir within the appellation gives a large variety of fine wines.
Where to taste St Joseph wines in the Rhone Valley ?
The best way to find a wine that pleases your palate is to go directly to wine-growers. Many properties can be visited by reservation. Here’s a couple of possible stops if you plan a wine tour.
Domaine Coursodon in Mauves (100km from Lyon)
Start in Mauves, the birthplace of St Joseph wines. Stopping by Domaine Coursodon is a great introduction to the appellation.
The Coursodon family owns a 16-ha vineyard producing exclusively Saint-Joseph wines. You can taste six different cuvees including l’Olivaie and Le Paradis Saint-Pierre, an exceptional terroir.
Guy Farge cellar in St Jean-de-Muzols (95km)
Travelling up the Rhone river, pass Tournon-sur-Rhône and stop in Saint-Jean-de-Muzols, 6 km north of Mauves, where many terraced vineyards are located. You can visit Guy Farge wine cellar, taste delicate wines made with 70-year vines and kept in old oak barrels.
The winemaker, who took the family domain in 1980, proposes three red cuvees of Saint-Joseph.
The Gourmandises cuvee offers notes of eglantine, mirabelle, blackberry, licorice (stick) and pepper. A fruity and gourmet pleasure.
Domaine des Pierres Sèches in Cheminas (90 km)
Make a 10-km inland detour on the west towards the domaine des Pierres Sèches in Cheminas. A 5.5-ha vineyard estate created by Sylvain Gauthier in 2007. 4 hectares of Syrah grapes plus one hectare of Roussanne grapes. Though the young wine-grower was born in the North-East of France, he is not a stranger to the wine world. His father was a winemaker in Lorraine.
After completing his studies in Burgundy, Sylvain Gauthier learned about Rhone vineyards working with Chapoutier and Stéphane Robert, a winemaker from Saint-Péray, another AOC appellation.
He is one of the few local vintners to propose white wines without Marsanne grapes. His white wines have notes of pears, acacia and nuts.
Olfactory game in St Désirat cooperative (70 km)
Heading to the northern part of the appellation, stop by the wine-growing cooperative of St Désirat (10 km from Peaugres safari). You can buy St Joseph wines while testing your knowledge through an olfactory free tour.
Domaine Jeanne Gaillard in Malleval (60 km)
Wine is often a family business. Jeanne Gaillard, daughter of famous winemaker Pierre Gaillard, created her own vineyard estate in 2008 after years of studying in Burgundy and California.
She is slowly (and symbolically) taking over for her father with a first St Joseph cuvee named “La Relève” (“succession” in French). A well-rounded wine made with 30-year vines planted with old serines grapes (former variety of Syrah grapes) which adds fruity and species notes.
It’s a long-keeping wine aged in recent barrels for 18 months.
Other wineries producing St Joseph wines in the northern Rhone Valley
Vidal-Fleury, the oldest winery of the Northern Rhone Valley, is even closer to Lyon (40km) in Côte-Rôtie vineyard. You can make a reservation to visit the property just like Thomas Jefferson did in 1787 when he was US ambassador to France…