The Complete Guide to Saint-Joseph
Every wine needs a purpose. So what is the “purpose” of St. Joseph?
A Northern Rhone for someone who just can’t afford the big names?
Actually, in part at least, why not? I certainly have found myself studying a restaurant wine list and ending up wandering down to the St. Josephs after deciding that the Cote Roties are too expensive. There’s nothing wrong with that.
But of course St. Joseph – good St. Joseph – offers much more than that.
Its greatest wines are special in their own right. They come from terroirs that are distinct, though similar, to the great terroirs of the famous AOCs.
Some of them reach heights equal to the greatest wines in the Northern Rhone. This has even been recognized by the market, and there is now one St. Joseph that sells for more than Lafite Rothschild!
Even putting aside those special wines, St. Joseph is able to offer something unique: a Northern Rhone Syrah that typically offers more drinkability, more vibrancy and more liveliness than its famous cousins.
While some are powerful wines that require years of cellaring, the majority of St. Josephs are wines you can enjoy on release. Many offer a casualness that permits drinking with simpler meals or even on its own. Yeah, the lower price tag helps with that
Whether at the serious or casual end of the spectrum, St. Joseph offers a lot of diversity.
The vineyards cover a series of different hills with slightly varying soil types, and there are lots of different producers taking slightly different approaches in the cellar.
The point of this guide is help you navigate through it all.
What I like most about St. Joseph
On top of everything I’ve said above – and in large part because of what I say above – the thing I like most about St. Joseph is that it accords perfectly with my philosophy of keeping a Reasonable Cellar.
Regular readers will know what I’m talking about: a cellar that isn’t about chasing the latest trophies that are being hyped by everyone; a cellar that isn’t filled with glacially aging wines that won’t offer up anything to drink for 20 years; a cellar that doesn’t cost a ton of money. Instead, a Reasonable Cellar is stocked with wines in the $20-$60 range that will be mostly ready to drink in three to five years. The wines are high in quality but rarely over-hyped and thinly-allocated.
St. Joseph is a fantastic source for wines just like that.
They almost all cost under $60 and they almost all can keep for three to five years and rarely need any more than that. A tiny number of St. Josephs are strictly allocated, but the vast majority are not. Along with regions like the Loire, the Mosel, Barbaresco, Chianti, and Campania, I regard St. Joseph to be one of the very top hunting grounds for a Reasonable Cellar.
St. Joseph Basics: What exactly is St. Joseph?
Before moving forward, let’s back up and give all the key must-know facts about St. Joseph:
- St. Joseph is an appellation d’origine controlee (AOC) located in the Northern Rhone region of southern France.
- St. Joseph can be red or white.
- Red wines must be made at least 90% from the red Syrah grape, and can have up to 10% Marsanne or Roussanne. In practice, red St. Joseph is generally 100% Syrah.
- The red wines – about 90% of the production -- are classic Northern Rhone Syrahs. They can have notes of meat and spice, with fruit registers that range from red to blue to black.
- Most reds can be approached on release but benefit from short-term cellaring. A few special bottlings can age for decades and rival great Cote Rotie or Hermitage.
- White wines can be any combination of Roussanne or Marsanne.
- The white wines tend to be full-bodied, floral, a bit nutty, and mineral.
- Most are intended for drinking young, though there are a few interesting examples of cellar-worthy St. Joseph Blanc.
St. Joseph: The Big Picture, and What Distinguishes it from its Neighbors
Ok, let’s put aside the stats and paint a broad picture.
St. Joseph is a long snake of a wine region that hugs the Rhone river on its west side. The vines grow on slopes that sprawl down towards the river, facing east. The soils here are almost all granite: there is none of the alpine glacial influences you get across the river in Hermitage or Crozes-Hermitage, none of the schist that you get in large parts of Cote Rotie, and very little of the sand or limestone that you find in Cornas to the south.
In short, St. Joseph is Syrah grown on east-facing slopes with granite soils. Period.
What about Crozes Hermitages….isn’t that sort of the same thing as St. Joseph?
It’s not a crazy question. Crozes Hermitages is the “other” AOC that offers decent Northern Rhone Syrah for a fraction of the price of Hermitage, Cote Rotie or Cornas.
Crozes is an AOC that lies across the Rhone River on the east side, as seen on the graphic above. Its soils are more alluvial and have more glacial deposits, without all the granite that dominates St. Joseph. This means that Crozes is generally less tannic than St. Joseph.
In the great Northern Rhone hierarchy, I would have to say that Crozes ranks behind St. Joseph. If one of the region’s big negociants offers both a Crozes and a St. Joseph, the Crozes will invariably be cheaper. There are exceptions, of course: Graillot’s Crozes and the Thalabert from Jaboulet are excellent. But for the most part, St. Joseph is the better wine.
I mean, I’ve made this guide to St. Joseph; I don’t think I’ll ever get to a guide to Crozes Hermitage (though I do discuss it in more detail in this guide to Hermitages).
What about the white wines?
The white wines of St. Joseph can be excellent, and certainly have the potential to be as great as white Hermitage. One day.
Remember that the northern tip of St. Josesph touches Condrieu, and the southern tip touches the white wine AOC of St. Peray. So it is not surprising that good whites can be produced just across the border (Condrieu actually overlaps with St. Joseph, so there are sites that produce both wines). More importantly, perhaps, is the fact that St. Joseph’s slopes face east, making it easier to retain freshness in the white wine than in, say, the south-facing slopes of Hermitage.
For now, St. Josephs mostly taste like white Hermitages – a bit floral, a nice nuttiness, round fruit flavors – but they are not as grand.
I am hopeful that some producers will dedicate more energy into the white wines and one day we will think of the wines as Hermitage’s equal. Already, a few examples come close, like Gripa’s “Berceau”.
Is it true that St. Joseph is too big?
St. Joseph is a long, thin AOC that stretches up the western bank of the Rhone river from Cornas, at its southern end, to Condrieu, at the north.
It’s about 40 miles long – long enough that when you drive along its minor highways you will occasionally pause and think to yourself: is this really still St. Joseph? Your drive will take you through 26 different villages, more than in the entire Cote de Beaune and its cluster of 30 or so AOCs (but possessing just 16 villages) and far more than Cote Rotie, which has only three. Another way to think about this is in terms of ripeness: grapes at the southern end are often ready to harvest a full week before grapes at the top. I wonder if that’s true in any other AOC in France.
So is it too big? This seems to be the first point that many commentators make when discussing St. Joseph. They recall a very simple history: back in 1956, when the St. Joseph AOC was invented, it covered only six villages. Now we are at 26. Clearly, there’s been a lot of expansion, and often to vineyard sites that don’t bear all that much in common with those that lie in the original six.
Yes, it’s probably too big. An AOC is a brand, and the consumer is supposed to know roughly what’s in the bottle from the brand name. Of course, the AOC system is far from perfect and it rarely works like that. Almost every AOC today has a diversity of producers, styles, terroirs and quality levels. But it’s fair to say that St. Joseph has more than most. Also, a lot of the new land that has been added to the AOC doesn’t even have a history of viticulture. Many farmers have grubbed up their apricots on the flatlands and planted vines. I’m not convinced that these sites will ever produce great wines.
That is not to say that good St. Joseph only comes from the six original villages. No, there are other sectors of St. Joseph that produce truly great wine, and most of the rest of St. Joseph produces wine that is at least decent.
In the next part of this guide, we’ll sort all of that out.
A Tour of St. Joseph
St. Joseph is named for a single vineyard found near Tournon, one of the “original six” villages of the AOC and the main town in this part of the world. Tournon sits right on the Rhone river. Cross the river on a short bridge and you are in Tain-l’Hermitage, with the great hill of Hermitage looming above. Or, walk less than 3 miles south and you are in Cornas. It’s not surprising that great Syrah can grow here.
St. Joseph is easiest to think of in two zones, a southern zone around Tournon, and a northern zone that covers the rest of the AOC.
- The southern zone has older and more solid granite.
- The north also has granite, but it is younger and looser.
- The other major difference is temperature: the south, being further south, is slightly warmer, and grapes here manage to ripen several days earlier.
In both north and south, the vineyards tend to be planted on hillsides that face east. This is in contrast to the great south-facing sites of Hermitage, just across the river. Ripening mostly from the cool morning sun, this accounts for the energy and liveliness that is the signature of St. Joseph Syrah. It also means that, historically anyway, it was harder to ripen grapes here, so it was first Hermitage (south-facing), then Cote Rotie (southeast-facing), then Cornas (also east-facing but further south and therefore warmer) that got all the attention.
Historically, the greatest St. Josephs have come from the south. That’s where the historic St. Joseph villages making up the original AOC are all located. This is still where the most powerful St. Joseph is produced.
But the north also has many excellent terroirs producing long-lived St. Joseph, though they do tend to be a little less structured, less ripe, more peppery, more herbaceous, and blacker fruited.
You might be tempted to think that most of the white grapes of St. Joseph are planted in the northern zone, which borders on Condrieu. But at the southern end, a portion of its border also abuts white wine land: St. Peray, where the same grapes you find in St. Joseph Blanc are grown. So you will find both white wines and red wines in both halves of the AOC.
Let’s take a closer look at these two zones.
St. Joseph -- The Southern Zone
Of the six historic St. Joseph villages – all located in the southern zone -- the ones to know are (1) Tournon, (2) Mauves, and (3) St. Jean-de-Muzols.
Mauves is the closest to Cornas and the most famous (though Chateaubourg is even further south and is the village that actually abuts Cornas). The fame of Mauves is partly thanks to its current crop of well-known producers – Gonon, Chave, Coursodon and Gripa – a group that you might call the “Gang of Mauves”. But Mauves’ lofty reputation actually goes way back, and Jonathan Livingstone-Learmonth in his great guide to the Northern Rhone points out that Victor Hugo refers to “this good wine of Mauves” in Les Miserables! Indeed, according to JLL, the wines of Mauves fetched double the price of Cornas in Victor’s Hugo’s time (mid 19th century).
Mauves and Tournon are directly adjacent and quite similar, though Mauves has a touch more clay. The Gang of Mauves farms vineyards in both villages. North of Tournon, the hills break into a valley, and the vineyards take a short break before hitting St. Jean. The granite here is already a touch looser, and the hills above protect it from the northern winds.
Some of the sites in St. Jean face more south than east – unusual for St. Joseph -- and you are closer to Hermitage here than anywhere else in the AOC. It is in this village that legendary producer Raymond Trollat produced his St. Joseph. Gonon now owns the vines and occasionally releases a Vieilles Vignes cuvee that trades for astronomical prices. St. Jean is also home to Ste. Epine, a vineyard name that you will occasionally find on good bottles.
Keep heading north and you will get to two of the other villages of the original six, none of which figure significantly today, plus a couple of other minor villages. Then you get to Sarras, around where the southern zone ends and the northern zone begins.
St. Joseph – the Northern Zone
While none of the northern villages are very famous, you do hear about a few of them every now and then.
It’s also possible that this zone’s reputation will improve, relatively speaking, in the future. Global warming is pushing up temperatures and this area might become more ideal for perfect grape ripening than further south. Also, this being a more recent part of the AOC, most of the vines were planted in the 1980s or later. The wines should gain depth as the Syrah vines get into their 40s and 50s.
That said, a number of well-known St. Joseph producers – including many covered in my recommendations below – operate in the northern zone. That’s because both zones have quite a bit of internal variation, and there are bits of the north that produce top class Syrah.
Heading north, for example, you quickly come to St-Desirat, home to top producer Monier-Perreol, who releases several single-vineyard bottles that showcase the village’s excellent and varied terroirs.
And then there is Charnas, known to produce excellent white wine. But it’s not until you reach St. Joseph’s far north that you arrive in the zone’s best-known village: Chavanay.
It’s well-known partly because it’s the sub-zone’s commercial center; and partly because it’s the closest area to Condrieu and Cote Rotie further north, so some famous names from those more northerly AOCs do some work here.
Indeed, there are some slopes in Chavanay that can produce Condrieu from Viognier and St. Joseph from Syrah. Aside from that, there is a solid group of very respectable wine-makers who make excellent St. Joseph in the surrounding hills.
Really, in this part of St. Joseph, you probably want to pay more attention to individual producers than to villages. There is some excellent St. Joseph here, and you will find it if you pay attention to the source.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the St. Joseph producers you need to know…
Stars of St. Joseph: Top Producers
One of the exciting things about St. Joseph is that it is one of those regions that is just frothing with new producers, generational changes, experimentation and the like.
You might compare it to Saumur in the Loire, as this is a very ancient part of the wine world where you will be surprised to discover new producers with frequency.
My current list of must-know producers is below, but it contains one producer who I only learned about in the past year and I expect that there will be new additions in the near future.
Classic Producers from the Historic Villages in the Southern District
Cornas has Verset and Cote Rotie has Gentaz. Trollat is the St. Joseph version – a super-traditional producer whose last release was now well over a decade ago and whose wines now fetch incredible sums in the secondary market. Of the three producers, Trollat’s wines are actually hardest to find. He made his wines from very old vines in St. Jean-de-Muzols. Gonon now has his vines.
Widely considered the greatest producer of St. Josesph of today, Gonon is based mostly in Mauves, but as noted above they also have a parcel acquired from Trollat in St. Jean. The Trollat parcel produces their Vieilles Vignes bottling released only in some years – now easily the most sought-after St. Joseph (bottles often trade above $1000). Even their regular St. Joseph has gone cult and is very hard to find.
Chave is most famous for his Hermitage, but in fact he is a member of the Gang of Mauves and he takes his St Joseph very seriously. His negoce arm produces the St. Joseph Offerus, which is easy to find and always a terrific bargain. His domaine St. Josephs are very high in quality, but also expensive and hard to find.
The third member of the Gang of Mauves, though the least-well known. They, too, craft traditional St. Joseph from old sites in and around Mauves. Look for their “Berceau” (French for cradle) produced from ancient vines in St. Joseph, the vineyard site in Mauves that gives the AOC its name. There is both a red and a white Berceau, and the white may be the greatest white in the whole AOC.
This Mauves producer has taken a different approach to St. Joseph, as they are not afraid to use new oak and to experiment with other modern techniques. Otherwise, the story here is similar to the other great names in the village, and they have plenty of old vines in great places in and around Mauves.
Classic Producers from the Northern District
This producer actually straddles the two districts, as they have vines in the village of Vion, one of St. Joseph’s original six villages but not one that you hear about much. But most of their vines are just north of there in the village of Arras, so it’s in this section of the list. They have some interesting terroir on steep, rocky terraced sites, some of which bear limestone soils (which are not at all common in St. Joseph). This is a top-quality producer making classical St. Joseph.
A partnership formed in just 2008 between two family domains (hence the hyphenated name), these are specialists who produce a range of single vineyard cuvées from the higher-altitude sites around the village of St Desiderat. They were early adopters of biodynamic farming. I am a big fan of these wines.
- Yves Cuilleron
Now we go all the way to the northern end of the AOC in Chavanay, where Cuilleron is the best known producer. He has quite an extensive range of bottlings from vines in and outside of Chavanay, including a number of delightful IGP wines from just outside St. Joseph’s official boundaries. But the top wines are from old vines in Chavanay. The style is not too modern, not too traditional, but just good focus on clean and pure wines.
- Lionel Faury
This is another Chavanay estate and one that is dear to my heart – and not just because of a lovely visit there several years ago. The wines speak to me with their upfront easy-going personality but also sneaky depth that seems to permit medium and long-term aging. The VV is a very special St. Joseph and it remains a bargain for under $50 when you can find it. This is the top traditionalist in Chavanay.
- Gilles Barge
Ok, Barges is really a Cote Rotie producer but they produce such a good St. Joseph that I have to mention it here. He produces a St. Joseph from a Clos in Chavanay that he treats like his Cote Rotie, aging the wine in old barrels for 16 month. It’s a very good deal but not around very often so grab it when you can.
St. Joseph is a region of experimentation and it’s the hottest center for natural wine production within the Northern Rhone. Here are three top producers who farm naturally and use very little or no sulfur in the cellar.
- Herve Souhaut
Domaine Romaneaux-Destezet (better known by the name of its proprietor Souhaut) is actually located outside of St. Joseph – not too far – but he has old vines holdings in two very good sites in St. Jean-de-Muzols: St. Epine and the Clos de Cessieux. The wines are incredibly drinkable, thanks to minimal tannic extraction and sulfur additions. These are some of my favorite natural wines from anywhere. (You possibly met Herve’s daughter Ludovine when she was an intern at Flation’s NYC shop a few years back.)
- Fermes des Sept Lunes
Operating in the hilltop town of Bogy, just north of St. Desiderat, this small estates maintains a small patchwork of vineyard plots a bit like a garden. These wines may seem a little less “natural” because they are more structured and have a more classic profile, but sulfur additions here are minimal – in some bottlings there aren’t any at all – and farming is very natural (and polycultural).
- Dard et Ribo
This is really a Crozes-Hermitage producer but they have such good holdings in southern St. Joseph – including 70 year-old vines in Tournon -- that they need a mention here. This may be the cultiest of the Northern Rhone’s natural wine producers and the wines are getting tightly allocated.
Newer Names to Watch
- Aurlien Chatagnier
In the northern sector of St. Joseph, especially south of Chavanay, there is still land with good terroir that is cheap enough that with patience and luck you may just be able to start your own domaine. That’s exactly what Chatagnier did, after studying in Burgundy and with Cote Rotie producer Villard. This is a somewhat Burgundian take on St. Joseph, with a focus on elegance and fruit purity. It has become a fast favorite.
You can read more about the wine pictured above in one of the New York Store’s recent blog posts.
Jolivet is the producer that was new to me in 2020 and what a find! For years they supplied wine to the local coop, but Bastien Jolivet withdrew in 2014 to bottle his own wines. OK, this is so far a pretty commonplace story, but Jolivet’s holdings are in St Jean-de-Muzols and includes vines that are over 100 years old! Wine-making is great and quite traditional. I have a feeling that this is a name we will hear a lot about in the future.
The Future of St. Joseph
In 2015, Eric Asimov, writing for the New York Times, said that St. Joseph was the “next best wine in the Northern Rhone”.
Hermitage was the historically recognized “best wine”.
Then people discovered the beautifully elegant Cote Rotie.
Meanwhile, Cornas was dismissed as a “country” wine, until we discovered Noel Verset.
Now, just maybe, it is St. Joseph that will take its place among the greats.
The reasons to believe so are straightforward enough. Terroir-wise, St. Joseph has all the granite of top Hermitage – remember that top sites in the southern, historic sector of St. Joseph lie just across the bridge from that famous hill.
The biggest difference is really orientation. Hermitage vineyards face south. Cote Rotie lies more typically southeast. St. Joseph tends to point east. That makes it just a little harder to ripen grapes. Look at the diagram below and you can see that It all has to do with the flow of the river.
That’s probably why St. Joseph has been behind the other AOCs in reputation. Cornas is also an east-facing site and it, too, was historically behind in reputation, before the wines of Verset helped elevate its stature. Cornas is also slightly warmer, being further south, helping to compensate for the eastern orientation.
But now we have a confluence of two big forces.
- One is global warming. St. Joseph today is as warm as Cornas used to be. Soon – maybe already – those eatern orientations are going to be seen as a plus, mitigating the higher temperatures.
- The other force is humans: like I talk about above, there is more buzz, more innovation, more experimentation, more new producers, more generational change-overs in St. Joseph than elsewhere in the Northern Rhone. It’s a true hotbed, and we are seeing some of the excellent results in producers like Chatagnier and Jolivet. More are sure to come.
I don’t know if it will ever be considered the “best wine” in the Northern Rhone, but the future of St. Joseph is looking very bright.
Buying and Cellaring St. Joseph
This is the easy part: St. Joseph is still far less expensive than the other AOCs of the Northern Rhone (except for Crozes), and with very few exceptions the wines are not (yet) fully allocated.
But there are a few points I want to make here:
- Don’t miss out on St. Joe! Sure, Cote Rotie and Hermitage are the bigger names, but top-drawer St. Joseph can be just as good….and may be getting better as the planet warms up.
- But do take advantage of the fact that so much St. Joseph is less expensive and more accessible. You can’t make Hermitage your every-day red wine, but Chave’s St. Joseph Offerus would sure be a good choice.
- Find some room in your cellar for St. Joseph. Even $30-$40 St. Joseph improves with just two or three years of cellaring. If you share my Reasonable Cellar philosophy, St. Joseph should be high on your list.
Keep a close eye on this region. Things are changing fast. This is not 1st Growth Bordeaux, which has changed only once since 1855. This is a region where new names will explode on the scene out of nowhere. (Don’t forget to subscribe to our newsletter for the latest developments….)