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Pierre Gaillard Asiaticus 2010

This week's antidote to Bordeaux 2011 comes from the Rhône Valley, and is one of a number of wines from Northern Rhône vigneron Pierre Gaillard that I have been fortunate enough to taste this week. My little selection of Gaillard wines came from London merchant Bancroft Wines, and are all from the 2010 vintage; these wines have yet to be bottled - the "tiré sur fût" scrawled on the label of this wine told me as much. The standard across the range is high, and I will be writing a little more on the wines later in the week. This wine, however, piqued my interest on so many different levels that I just couldn't help but feature it as my Weekend Wine.

The story behind Pierre Gaillard's Asiaticus cuvée begins in ancient history, when the Romans planted vines along the Rhône Valley. Their viticultural efforts were not limited to those vineyards that we know so well today, namely Côte-Rôtie and - about 60 kilometres south - the famous hill of Hermitage, but were spread out along the Rhône's slopes and hillsides, making for a much more expansive vineyard than that which we have today. And some of the wines from these schistous slopes were very good indeed, it seems. Some, such as the wines Sotanum, Taburnum and Helicum, from around Seyssuel, just to the north of Vienne and a brief sail upstream from Ampuis, were lauded by both Pliny the Elder and Plutarch. And yet in modern times these wines are unknown, the slopes deserted; what few vineyards that had survived through to the 19th century were finished off by phylloxera, and the land lay unplanted for decades hence.

Pierre Gaillard Asiaticus 2010

As the appellation system developed during the 20th century it naturally ignored the slopes around Seyssuel and Vienne; after all, there where no vineyards there for the legislators to worry about. Thus when Pierre Gaillard - a young vigneron and graduate of both Beaune and Montpellier - became aware of Pliny's writings, he set about investigating the desolate slopes - which fell under the less-than-catchy Vins de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes designation - unhindered. What he found were banks of dark, decomposing schist, not at all dissimilar to that which lay underfoot in his vineyards in Côte-Rôtie. Determined to plant this lost terroir, he joined forces with Yves Cuilleron and François Villard and Vins de Vienne was born, and planting of a vineyard of Syrah and Viognier began. It was the start of a Seyssuel revolution; in less than two decades the slopes above the town have been converted from barren scree to verdant vineyard, the Vienne trio having been joined by more than a dozen other viticultural entrepreneurs with about 30 hectares established today. The wines are new northern Rhône classics, clearly genetically akin to Côte-Rôtie, and yet different, on a geographical as well as an organoleptic level.

Alongside their joint venture, each of the three original Vins de Vienne threesome took on a few hectares of their own, to cultivate and vinify as they wished. And thus we have this week's wine, a 100% Syrah cuvée named for Asiaticus, a 1st-century Roman senator who was also elected to consul, Rome's highest political office, for a time. It is an obvious and appropriate nod to the Roman origins of these vineyardsfrom Pierre. The fruit is hand-harvested, destemmed and cold-macerated before fermentation at 35ºC, followed by malolactic in oak from Allier and Nevers and an 18-month élevage. The most unusual aspect of the winemaking - although it is the norm for Gaillard, who is a dedicated convert to the technique - is micro-oxygenation every four months.

The end result, though, is quite remarkable. The 2010 Asiaticus has a dark hue, glossy but not opaque. Aromatically it seems to possess mainly lightly-floral fruit on the nose, with bright fruit skins underneath. And there is also a sense of something meaty and savoury, and yet certainly fresh, coming in behind that. There are also tinges of clove and black olive too, and I find the former to be associated more strongly with schist than other terroirs; it crops up in wines from this terroir in the Languedoc, and also in Anjou. It doesn't always work so well in the case of the latter; schist is fabulous for Chenin Blanc, especially with a liberal dose of botrytis on top, but it doesn't suit Cabernet Franc so well I think. The clove-tinged schistous cuvées of Anjou never have the same elegance as the tuffeau wines found further upstream, from Saumur and Chinon. Anyway, I digress, and back to the Rhône Valley - with a bang! here - as this wine is something of an épicerie on the palate, the middle of the wine liberally stuffed with scents of cloves, cardamom and black pepper. Beneath this spicy vein runs dark fruits and a soft texture, underpinned by vibrant acidity and ripe, low level tannins. This is a wine of real character and personality, and although it surely has the ability to age I think it would be very hard to resist right now. 16.5-17.5/20 (23/4/11)

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