|Jean-Michel Stephan is the Independent Spirit of Côte-Rôtie, setting out his stall as the maker of unadulterated and in a certain way innovative wines.
He works in a cramped cellar with no adornments or signs around, and most usually it is children’s toys that are spread around the outside.
His cellar is on the site of the cold-storage rooms for the fruit and vegetables.
He studied at Belleville in the Beaujolais and took his first steps in 1991, spurred on by his passion for biology and plants.
His largest holding is the 1.5 ha on the Coteau de Bassenon (Coteaux de Semons on the map); Bassenon is in fact a derivative of the term “Bas de Semons.” This is a 40° slope, with a lot of terraces cut into the soft granite or gneiss. The high part dates from 1987; the low part, of 0.87 ha, from 1896 and 1902 are used in the cuvée ”Vieille Vigne en Coteaux” when the vintage is great enough.
His other sites are Tupin (1965), Coteaux de Tupin (1980), and he regular cuvée comes from part of Les Bercheries, and a tiny 0.3 ha up at Verenay (1992).
As someone who tries to be organic at every turn, Jean-Michel is planting massale-selection Serrine whenever possible. At present, his vineyard is around 60 per cent clone, 30 per cent Serrine, and 10 per cent Viognier; the last is also being regenerated, and at Verenay he has planted 500 young Viognier cuttings grafted from an old massale plant.
In vineyard upkeep, Jean-Michel picks the soil around the wood of the older vines and cuts the weeds on the surface. If he can look harassed by the burdens of his job, it’s not a surprise given the expectations he places on himself. “In eight years I expect a large difference in quality to come through in Coteaux de Tupin for instance” he states; “there will be a stronger and deeper sense of terroir in the wines.”
The steep slopes will also be ploughed by hand.
“I make wines on the fruit, without sulphur,” he states. “I want fruit and maximum freshness. The late Jules Chauvet in the Beaujolais would saturate his vats with natural carbonic gas until the cap rose, and vinification would take place around 10°C. That’s what I do with one of my three wines, the one from Tupin that is called Coteaux de Tupin, while my plain Côte-Rôtie is made partly along those lines.”
“Reduction can come with the process; but one has to remember, the wine is not blocked in any way by sulphur, and the reduction aromas lessen in the bottle after 16 months’ cask raising, where I use wood between two and six years old. You should also decant the wine, and it will remain good for three days in an open bottle.”