Rhône 18 - Tunnel wonders
Domaine du Tunnel - Saint-Péray
Winemaker: Stéphane Robert
Vineyard: 11 hectares
Annual production: around 50,000 bottles
Small family estate built from scratch by quiet artisan winemaker Stéphane and hyperactive wife Sandrine
Now owners of premium parcels with great exposure and terroir in and around mostly around the revived Saint Péray and Cornas
High-quality artisan fine wines with great ageing potential
Top wines: Saint-Péray Roussanne 16; Cornas 16
Stéphane Robert, originally from the Jura, ‘always wanted to be a farmer […]; work the land.’ He studied oenology and viticulture first in Orange, then in Mâcon. In 1994, Stéphane created Domaine du Tunnel in Saint Péray with his wife Sandrine with 5 hectares. He then invested in various local parcels, including one that everybody deemed completely unfit for purpose on the very steep rocky slopes overlooking Cornas. The pioneer is now the holder of 11 hectares of premium sites under the Cornas, Saint-Péray, Condrieu and Saint-Joseph appellations. The winery is now located on the Chemin du tram, a narrow road zig-zagging up the hills overlooking Saint Péray.
On the upper floor, I meet the tall and quiet Stéphane and his second in command Mickaël. The pair is relaxed but focused on the task at hand: finalising the gentle press of the Viognier from Condrieu that got in this morning. After a quick tour of the estate including the actual steam train tunnel built in 1905 that is now used as a resting cellar for the various wines of the domain, Mickaël and I head off to Cornas. There, Stéphane’s wife Sandrine is supervising the harvest of the Syrah from one of the 15 parcels of the domain. There is a complete contrast between the almost shy-looking and focused winemaker and his hyperactive, ubiquitous wife. The 30 pickers, all regulars at Domaine du Tunnel, get busy in the vines in the 30c heat while Sandrine gets in touch with Stéphane to make sure ‘[they] only bring him what’s needed at the winery and what’s ready to go. The rest will wait another passage.’ This flexibility allows Stéphane exactly the right quantity and quality of grapes needed to fill his small 10hl tanks without any triage at the grape’s arrival in the winery. This agility, added to the micro-management of the parcels, all vinified in separate tanks and aged in oak casks, creates some of the finest wines in the area.
At lunch, an absolute feast is served to the team: local charcuteries, fresh tomatoes, beetroot salad, hearty homemade lasagne and an inevitable magnum of Roussanne 17 followed by a Cornas 16. The atmosphere is very relaxed, the pickers joke with the newbie or share their projects for the weekend. On the other side of the table, Stéphane eats and jokes around with Mickaël. After a few minutes, he discreetly sneaks off to ensure the éraflage and tank transfer of the Syrahs that have just come in is going as planned. In the meantime, Sandrine tidies up and starts planning tomorrow’s logistics. There is still a lot more to do and as Stéphane says: ‘it’s in the first three weeks that a (great) vintage is made’. After only a week, it looked already pretty good to me.
The Saint-Péray Roussanne is one of the four white cuvées from Domaine du Tunnel. The Roussanne is grown directly around the winery, gently pressed, vinified part in stainless steels and old oak casks before some ageing on its lees. This results in a wine that is rich with honeyed notes and tropical fruit flavours but with enough freshness (from the slightly colder St Péray climate) to sustain its complexity. 18/20
The Cornas 2016 is made from Syrah coming from up to 15 different parcels, some with vines over 55 years of age. The wine is aged in oak casks for 14 months before release. The wine is fruit-driven with intense flavours of violet, blackberries and black cherries. It is rich but unlike traditional Cornas wines, the Domaine du Tunnel Cornas’ tannins are voluptuous and confers it a velvety texture from release until its peak 10 years later. 17.5/20
The wines from Domaine du Tunnel are distributed in the UK by Charles Taylor wines.