Saint-Joseph – which currently boasts 1,330 hectares under vine – can be a tricky appéllation to get to grips with as it is home to some terrific wine-makers with great parcels of vines and others who are less punctilious and don't enjoy prime viticultural real estate. On the plus side, the recent vintage run has been excellent, wine-making has been improving throughout the Rhône and there is great value to be found. The main emphasis here is on red wines, made from Syrah, but there are some great white wines made too (from Marsanne and Roussanne) which account for 14% of the overall output.
Those looking for an exemplary white Saint-Joseph should sample the Chave family's 'J-L Chave Sélection' négociant bottling called 'Circa'. Made from a blend of 80% Marsanne and 20% Roussanne grown on granitic soils and raised in used oak barrels, it drinks well from release with a bouquet of white peach and apricot and a ripe stone fruit palate plus a long, elegant finish. It has a red sibling called 'Offerus' made mostly from home-grown grapes that has a 3-week vinification before being matured in barrels of different ages and sizes for 12-14 months prior to bottling. Redolent of ripe hedgerow fruit with a core of blackberries and damsons with supple tannins and peppery undertones, it merits decanting and can cellar well for a decade.
The Chaves also bottle their own acclaimed 'estate' red Saint-Joseph from mature vineyards around Mauves, Lemps and Tournon. Typically, 85% of the fruit is de-stemmed prior to a traditional vinification and ageing in casks then larger barrels before blending and bottling. It often shows well on its youthful fruit but really requires 3-5 years bottle age to reveal its potential. With dark autumnal fruit scents and a complex palate of black fruit, herbs, tapenade and tannins, it makes a fine accompaniment to small game or wild mushrooms.
Veteran vigneron Alain Graillot (assisted by sons Max and Antoine) also makes a fine red Saint-Joseph from two 0.75 hectolitre parcels of vines in Saint-Jean-de-Muzols and Saint-Désirat that are vinified separately before barrel ageing and blending. The finished wine has red and black fruit scents and flavours, a savoury mineral streak and fine-grained tannins.
Completing an august assemblage of renowned Rhône wine-makers is Christine Vernay whose 'Terres d'Encre' bottling hails from vine-holdings above Chavanay. With a beguiling bouquet of stewed dark fruit and a mid-weight palate of black cherry and blackberry supported by supple tannins, it shows Saint-Joseph in a very pure light.