Offer available through Monday, 3/20/2023, or as inventory lasts.
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Hi everyone –
We have something special for you this week.
It’s a wine near and dear to my heart, which you’ll read details about below. It’s also one of my favorite wines to open when I’m feeling all wine-intellectual like and want to really dig into complex aromas and dynamic flavors.
First, a very quick primer on the Northern Rhône Valley
Northern Rhône 101
The Northern Rhône is a thin little stretch that begins basically toward the southern end of Beaujolais (city of Lyon separates Beaujolais from the Northern Rhône) and continues down until the ‘pinch’ of the hills between the Massif Central and the Alps, at the town of Valence.
Here’s a pretty map from Cellar Tours, of the entire Rhône Valley, north and south. Note this map below doesn’t show the true size of Crozes-Hermitage, which literally wraps around Hermitage. The top map is actually more accurate, but this one is more pretty.
In the North, you find Syrah and Viognier. You also find hills, rocky soils, difficult growing conditions, farmers with calloused hands, and wines with a power to them that can be enchanting and surprising at the same time.
In the South, you find Grenache-based wines. You also find rolling fields of rosemary, easier growing conditions, farmers with manicures (okay, maybe not manicures, but you get what I mean), and wines with a softness and friendly energy like meeting a golden retriever.
That’s the Rhône Valley in a very quick nutshell.
Zooming in on Hermitage and Crozes-Hermitage
One of the best known regions for top-level wines is Hermitage, which is a small region edging up to the river and full of dramatic views, vistas, and hillside vineyards. Wines from Hermitage tend to be structured, full bodied, cherished, and expensive.
Surrounding Hermitage is the region we’re focusing on, Crozes-Hermitage, which is the flat plateau behind the dramatic hills of Hermitage.
Crozes-Hermitage is big, the soils are varied, and it doesn’t carry the panache of Hermitage (or the price tag for that matter). However, a handful of producers, led by the late Alain Graillot, unlocked the secrets of the area and started making wines that give the ‘big boys’ of Hermitage a serious run for their money.
Memories of meeting Alain Graillot (and Spencer’s first wine)
In 2022, we lost one of the greats in the wine world, a person unknown to many wine drinkers in America but hugely influential in his region (Northern Rhône) and the center of one of my favorite personal wine stories, Alain Graillot. He was 77 years old. (Here’s the Wine Spectator obit.)
In the 1980s, while well established in a career in the agrochemical industry in Paris, Graillot caught the wine bug. He bought a small property near the town of Pont de l’Isère, in Crozes-Hermitage. At the time, the wine press (led by Robert Parker) was notoriously demeaning to Crozes-Hermitage, always pointing out that it was a far lesser region compared to its neighbor, Hermitage. But it was the only land that Graillot could afford (his winery was always a bootstrap operation). With some quick education from winemaking friends in Burgundy, some of the best names in the business, he started making wine under his eponymous label.
The critics took notice, and before you knew it Alain Graillot became the standard-bearer of the potential of Crozes. His wines were racy, lively, soulful, complex, and age-worthy. Graillot left his established career in Paris to move to his property and make wine full time.
Though this is a relatively common story today, it wasn’t in the 1980s. Back then, it was unheard of for someone to simply ‘catch the wine bug’ and make a successful go at it, especially in France, for there was history, rules, protocol, and established business patterns that were expected to be followed. This was even more so in a traditional region like the Northern Rhône.
In other words, Alain Graillot was a badass.
Fast forward to Minnesota in the 2000s, and I’m working for the local distributor for Alain Graillot. Our import manager at the time was Annette Peters, whom many of you have heard me talk about as one of my key mentors in the wine business (she now owns Bourget Imports and Domaines and Appellations Imports). It was Annette who popped the first bottle of Graillot for me and I was immediately hooked. It was unlike any other Syrah I was selling. While the Australians were getting big scores for their inky, higher alcohol, thick and jammy Shirazes, here was a wine that had lift, energy, verve, and begged to pair with food.
Quite quickly, I had more Alain Graillot in my personal cellar than any other brand. Granted, it wasn’t a large cellar at the time, but seeing those bottles lined up for future enjoyment always made me smile and appreciate the investment we made in them.
Fast forward to 2007. Spencer was 11 years old and we wanted to get him to Europe for the first time. We outlined a marvelous trip focusing on Paris, the Southern Rhône, and the Northern Rhône. A highlight for me was going to be a visit to Alain Graillot.
It was May of 2007 and it was a glorious spring. The poppies were in bloom throughout Chateauneuf-du-Pape. A bit further north, in Crozes-Hermitage, the vines were leafing out but the canopy had not yet covered and hid the gnarly, twisted trunks of the vines. Bees were flying from flower to flower, making the blossom bounce after flying away.
We had an address and a phone number for Alain Graillot scratched on a piece of paper, but that was it. This is before smartphones, of course, so we took out our hand-written directions and maps. I’m insistent on being on time, so we arrived in the area an hour early. Lucky for us.
We drove and drove and none of the signs matched up to any of the words on our instructions. For over 40 minutes we covered almost every back road in the region, finally giving up and spotting an old man in one of those classic tiny old French cars in his driveway. I didn’t speak an iota of French, and he spoke even less English, but through hand gestures (drinking wine and saying “A-lahn-grai-OH!” over and over) he finally motioned for us to follow him.
Five minutes later we were there.
Alain Graillot, like our tour guide in the tiny car, spoke little to no English. But wine people have their own language, and we walked the vineyards and talked about vine age, grape varieties, his history, vintages, soil, and much more. We made our way back to the winery and he said, “We taste the wine, oui?” Heck yeah!
He motioned for me, Angela, and Spencer to head to the barrel room and he would grab glasses. When he joined us in the cellar Spencer noticed he was holding four glasses. Spencer shot a look at me saying “What do I do?”
Spencer, though growing up around us and wine his whole life, had politely refused every offer we made him as a kid for a thimbleful of wine, but here we were in an important place with an important guy, working!
I said, “Spencer, you’re in France. Do what the French would do.” And he took his glass.
Graillot grabbed his wine thief to get some barrel samples for us. He started with the just-finished 2006 Crozes-Hermitage and filled up our glasses, including Spencer’s.
I still get teary when I say this: Spencer’s first glass of wine was served to him by Alain Graillot.
I couldn’t believe it, and I’m so happy Angela had the wherewithal to snap a picture.
Graillot looked at Spencer. Spencer swirled the wine and looked at the color. He stuck his nose in the glass like he saw us do thousands of times. And then … he GULPED the whole glass. One-shot, straight down the gullet. Graillot started chuckling hard.
“Good?” he asked Spencer.
And we also got to meet his son, Maxime. At the time he was a young man just starting out in the wine business, learning from his father, and making wine from vineyards he purchased next to the family operation. We tasted his new wine, called Domaine des Lises, and loved every drop of it.
Dare I say it … I may have enjoyed it more than his father’s wine.
Alain Graillot conveyed his thoughts in broken English: “My son’s wine is good. He’s learning. It will be even better in the future.”
The French Laundry, February 2010
Fast forward three years and we found ourselves at The French Laundry to celebrate Angela’s 40th birthday.
Every wine list has a bargain. Even an overpriced list like The French Laundry. I searched and searched and finally found it: Domaine des Lises Crozes-Hermitage by Maxime Graillot, priced at a totally reasonable $65.
The sommelier swung by to open the wine and chat, and thanked us for making such a good choice. “Everyone comes here and orders these gigantic Napa Cabs that honestly don’t play well with our food. But it’s what they want to drink when they are here, and it’s what they want to spend. Congrats on not playing that game.”
We still have that bottle:
What today’s wine tastes like
Let’s start with what is IS NOT: big, inky, dark, heavy, high-alcohol, jammy, fruit bomb, tannic, etc.
What the 2020 Domaine de Lises IS: medium to full bodied, detailed, elegant but powerful. Aromas of blackberry, violets, clarity, and touch of floral notes that come after it’s open for a bit. Super detailed, and super expressive. The spice of Syrah comes through in the finish. It is hands down one of the best wines of the Northern Rhône Valley, and can easily age for ten or more years (but drinkable now with a couple hours in a decanter).
If you buy this wine, there may be a treat offered to you
BUT IT GETS BETTER … we’re still confirming this, but there MAY be twelve bottles of 2020 Alain Graillot Crozes-Hermitage available as well. This is the LAST wine that the great Alain Graillot had his fingers on before passing away in 2022.
So we’re going to do this: anyone who buys the wine being offered today will also get first shot at some of the Alain Graillot, resulting in a father-son horizontal that will never be available again. We can’t offer it here right now, for we have to confirm how many bottles are available, but rest assured that if you buy the Domaine des Lises you’ll have a chance at the Alain Graillot.
Jump on this. It’s one wine with top level provenance and a great story behind it.
It represents everything we want: organic farming, family tradition, a great story, a sense of place, and top-level quality.
Sommelier and founder/owner of Twin Cities Wine Education
Offer is open Friday at 3:00pm central until Monday at 6:00pm central, or as inventory lasts.