If one were to search for today’s most purely traditional Côte Rôtie estate—the equivalent of Ch. Rayas or Henri Bonneau in Châteauneuf—it would certainly be Champet. And the fact that little here has changed over the past fifty years makes this timeless domaine all the more magical.
The domaine is today ably run by Joël Champet and his sons Romain and Maxime. Joël has been a traditional icon in his own right for the past quarter century, but he would be the first to credit his father, Emile, for the philosophy that today sets Champet apart from virtually every other domaine in Côte Rôtie.
Everything is done with an utmost respect for tradition. His barrels are all old, and whole-cluster fermentation rules the day. In fact, if Joël wanted to destem, he couldn’t. He doesn’t even own a destemmer.
Joël’s vines are all in the great La Viallière lieu-dit. That fact is advertised on his label not (as at other domaines) for purposes of fashion, but because that’s where the vines are. In the 1960s, La Viallière was almost completely covered with woods, but Joël’s father Emile took on the challenge of returning a prime part of this rugged terrain to vineyards.
It took Emile 35 years of working by hand to plant just three hectares—an extraordinary illustration of what Côte Rôtie’s true believers were willing to do to produce great wine, at a time when the extrinsic rewards for doing so were so small. But the result of Emile’s labor and vision is the iconic example of La Viallière, made ultra-transparent by the family’s old-school methods.
La Viallière’s special qualities were first isolated by the revered single-vineyard Côte Rôtie pioneer Albert Dervieux, who recognized Viallière’s singularity.
What Dervieux knew was that the Viallière terroir, an ideally southeast-facing slope of dark brown, fine mica-rich schist, can produce kaleidoscopically nuanced, broodingly powerful and very long-lived Côte Rôtie.
But Dervieux’s last vintage was in 1989, and his epic Viallières from the ’60s to the ’80s have become impossible to find. Luckily, in the Champets, we still have a traditional champion of Côte Rôtie making a cru wine from Viallière today.
Grower Bernard Burgaud recently said to us of Champet, “Emile was a total pioneer. He was the first to plant vines in the extraordinarily difficult conditions on the Viallière … in that parcel, he was all alone with his vines, surrounded by woods.”
Today, Emile’s son Joël, and his grandsons Romain and Maxime are the guardians of the fruits from this heroic effort. Best of all, they’ve inherited Emile’s philosophy and “everything by hand” work ethic, and have made only minor changes to the winemaking over the last 50 years, tinkering with how hard they press the grapes, for example.
They still vinify with nearly 100% whole-clusters, fermenting and macerating with the native yeasts for two to three weeks with frequent pumping over. The year and a half elévage takes place almost entirely in neutral barrels, primarily large demi-muids augmented by a substantial number of 600L foudres and a handful of piéces before the wine is bottled without fining or filtration.
The result of all of this is that the Champets are arguably the most traditional growers in Côte Rôtie today, with the third generation inspired by their experiences drinking their father’s and grandfather’s wines from vintages like 1978, 1983 and 1990.
Côte Rôtie of such typicity and classicism is rare today, but the Champets continue to turn out utterly classic wines that speak not only of the soil but of deep tradition.
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