Since he took over for his father in the 1950s, Georges Vernay has become a legend in the northern Rhone Valley. In fact, his fellow vignerons call him "the man who rebuilt Condrieu." At a gathering of the region's winegrowers in the late 1970s, Vernay met a humble young grower who'd just taken over from his father. Vernay sized up the young man and saw a reflection of himself, twenty years removed. Remembering how he'd felt all those years ago, Vernay offered the grower a few words of encouragement and advice. The young man was Louis Cheze.
Inspired by his conversation with Vernay, Cheze returned to his estate in Limony and decided to strike out on his own. Cheze's first obstacle was his own father. Until he retired, Cheze pere had been the head of the local growers co-op and as such sold all of his estate's fruit to it. He regarded his son's decision was blasphemous. But young Cheze persevered and eventually convinced his father that the family's future lay in producing their own wine. Modeling himself after Vernay, Cheze became an obsessive farmer who committed to techniques that would result in smaller amounts of better-quality grapes.
Cheze produces wines from two northern Rhone appellations, Condrieu and St. Joseph. Although critics like Steve Tanzer refer to St. Joseph as "Cote-Rotie's less sophisticated little brother," it's thanks to superb wines like Cheze's that they even refer to the appellation at all. St. Joseph stretches south along the western bank of the Rhone River from Cote-Rotie and Condrieu nearly down to Cornas. Cheze's 25 acres of vines are planted high on the east-facing hills that overlook the river. The hills here are extremely steep, and to prevent erosion of the rocky, granitic soil, the vineyards are laid out in terraces, which Cheze painstakingly harvests by hand.
Most of Cheze's wines are sold directly on the estate or served in French restaurants, with about 500 cases making their way to the U.S. Ro-Ree is his classic cuvee, which he ferments in one, two, and three-year-old barrels. The 2004 Ro-Ree benefited from the longer, milder growing season that followed the inferno of 2003. Grapes benefited from cooler weather, more hang time, and as a result Cheze harvested at optimal maturity. The result is a dark, rich with black fruits and animal undertones that are characteristic of outstanding Old World Syrah. Drink now-2011.