An afternoon spent in the northern Rhone took an interesting turn and by some miracle I ended up in Raymond Trollat's living room. Mr. Trollat, now retired, was regarded by a small group of insiders to be the great artist of the Rhone appellation Saint-Joseph. I had only tasted a Trollat wine once before and that was from the 1996 vintage. The bottle was opened late into a long party in which alot of great wine had been consumed. My memory recalls a lean, tannic wine, which at the time I did not really appreciate. Thankfully times and palates change and I now have a better understanding of the type of wine Trollat produced. During the hour or so I spent at his house, Raymond came across as the ultimate character. He has a rather large nose, very big ears and a smile which rivals both. I speak little French and therefore had no idea what Trollat was saying in his thick country accent, but judging by the reactions of the others in the room, he is funny. He said something about a Cornas winemaker slicing his head open with an axe and still working that evening at the local fair. Mrs. Trollat is a fitting partner, a rugged woman of rural France.
After a long disappearance, Mrs. Trollat appeared from the basement door with bottle necks wedge between her fingers. The first wine to opened was a 2002 blanc. The wine's deep golden color hinted at its richness. Trollat mentioned that there was some Chasselas in the blend, along with Roussanne and Marsanne. On the nose the wine was slightly oxidized, but it wasfull and honeyed in the mouth with a long finish.Truly unique. Four reds were then brought to the table and their corks pulled using what appeared to be an ancient corkscrew. Our time was limited, so I had to grab a quick taste of each. In retrospect, it was probably a good thing that we had to race to Condrieu for an appointment and did ot have more time to spend at Trollat's table. I would have personally seen to it that the open bottles were sufficiently appreciated, which would have made the steep and winding roads even more treacherous. 2004 - Tight nose with bright flavors in the mouth. Firm tanins provided a good backbone for this medium bodied wine. 2002 - Leaner/lighter, not as intense, but still very nice.
2001 - Big and structured. The most complete wine of the group. This must be as good as Saint Joseph gets. As a side note, I asked Trollat which wine of the four was his favorite and he pointed to this one. He also inferred that he did not think much of the 2002.
2000 - Soft, not as concentrated as the 2001, but still very good. Special.
The first thing which struck me about the wines is that they do not taste like other Saint-Josephs, which tend to be fruit forward. Trollat's wines are firm and have earthy flavors. My first thought was 'Verset light.' I am referring to the great, old school Cornas wines made by Noel Verset. The Trollat wines are not as dark and deep as the Verset's, but they are cut from the same mold. Real wine of the earth. There are still some producers making traditionally styled Cornas, but I am afraid that this style of Saint-Joseph is gone. Some producers in the area still use some of the stems like Trollat, but their wines are as earthy. One variable that separated Trollat from the other growers in his area was the excellent location of his vineyards and the old age of the vines. Verset was similar in this regard. Trollat's cellar is truly amazing. I say 'is' because the room is still full of wine. Mold covered bottles from various producers throughout France fill a rack at one end, gifts from visiting winemakers. A dozen or so barrels line the walls and some still contain wine. Raymond seemed unclear as to which vintages they contained.
As time goes on, the traditional ways of making French wines are not the only thing disappearing. Each year seems to bring the retirement of another classic/traditional producer. Just recently, in addition to Trollat, the wine world has seen Noel Verset and Jacky Truchot in Burgundy retire and sell their vines. Moments like this can create dangerous levels of depression, but at least it is still possible to find some Edvan Vatan Sancerre in the market. I only wish I had been around to buy Trollat's wines when they were available and retailed for under $20. These hand-bottled works of art sure would have made a nice a house wine.