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Visceral Classicism: Domaine Levet’s 2016 Côte-Rôtie

It is always immensely satisfying when a great grower finally gets their due. Domaine Levet in Côte-Rôtie has been a cornerstone of our portfolio since the 1983 vintage—the first they ever produced—and, while they have always had a loyal following, it is only in recent years that demand for their uncompromisingly feral wines has exploded.

Bernard and Nicole Levet began the domaine in 1983 with three and a half hectares of enviable holdings around Ampuis, passed down through Nicole’s father Marius Chambeyron—a legendarily brazen vigneron who planted a coarsely hand-painted “CHAMBEYRON” sign high on his parcel of Côte-Brune to compete with those of his more famous and moneyed négociant neighbors. (It remains there to this day.) Today, their daughter Agnes [pictured left] is at the helm, though Bernard is still intimately involved, and they work their vertiginous, unforgiving terrain with bred-in-bone skill and intuition. Labor in this appellation is necessarily manual and unavoidably treacherous, with many terraces so narrow as to accommodate but a single row of vines, which plunge for scarce water through miserly topsoil and meters of pure schist.

The wines today are produced in the same doggedly old-school manner as they have always been: no de-stemming, natural fermentations, long macerations, élevage in old foudres and 600-liter demi-muids, and no filtration. Perhaps in the ‘90s and early ‘00s, such tenaciously unsculpted wines were out of step with the times—not offering a gentle enough hand to lead one into the savage wilderness of such a terroir as Côte-Rôtie. Today, however, when even many well-meaning risk-embracing wines display a certain polish or eagerness to please, Levet Côte-Rôtie stands as a beacon of elemental authenticity, offering a visceral experience whose value is augmented by the rarity of encountering it.

We are poised to receive the 2016s from the Levet family at the end of April. After the immense concentration and imposing structure of the 2015 vintage, 2016 is a bit of a return to Northern Rhône classicism—higher-toned, less severe, and gentler in its texture (though, to be sure, “gentle” is a relative term with Levet). Harvest began September 27th—a more historically typical date than the previous year’s early start—and yields from their forty-year-old vines averaged 42 hectoliters per hectare. The wines should mature sooner than the 2015s and provide pleasure earlier, though there is plenty of tension and structure to allow for them to keep beautifully—as Levet always does.

2016 Côte-Rôtie
Comprised of vines from throughout the family’s holdings, Levet’s basic Côte-Rôtie is de-stemmed 50%, and spends two years in 600-liter barrels, less than 10% of which are new. The primary vineyard sources are “Les Craies” and “Mollard” in the Côte Blonde, with younger vines from “Moulin” and “Font Jean” in the Côte Brune. The 2016 is bright and penetrating, with supple fruit tethered to tannins that, while granular and powerful, are less stern than those of its old-vines brethren below. One of the hallmarks of Levet Côte-Rôtie is its aromatic fireworks—a dizzying blast of incense and baking spices—and this ’16 displays that in full force.

2016 Côte-Rôtie “Les Journaries”
The Levets own a third of a hectare of forty-year-old vines in the fabled vineyard “La Landonne,” and this cuvée is built around that holding, augmented by small parcels of old vines in other crus. No de-stemming is done here, which allows for that intoxicating spice signature to reach even greater heights. Compared to the ferociously animale “La Chavaroche” below, “Les Journaries” shows greater refinement and elegance, though in no way is it tame. Fruits on this 2016 run toward the red end of the spectrum, with brambly cherries complementing an alluring underlay of new leather and fresh-ground black pepper, and with its pure, dynamic acidity, it never feels bogged down by its more earthbound elements. This spent one year in foudres and a second year in 600-liter barrels, less than 10% of which are new each vintage.

2016 Côte-Rôtie “La Chavaroche”
The crown jewel of the Levet family’s holdings is a 1.2-hectare parcel of old vines at the very summit of the great “La Chavaroche” cru, and the wine they summon from this dizzying slope is among the most iconic in our entire portfolio. Always eye-openingly wild, “La Chavaroche” possesses an unmistakable musk: a warm-animal profile that feels somehow ancient and unknowable—some sort of profound riddle of terroir. The 2016, in keeping with its usual personality, shows more aggressive tannins than “Les Journaries,” with equally expressive spice that feels more somber and even more exotic. Though less forbiddingly monolithic in structure than the 2015, this ’16 needs patience, and will make old bones. Like its sibling above, it spent one year in foudres and a second year in 600-liter barrels.