Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Northern Rhone Valley—Where Syrah is King

The Rhone region of southern France produces marvelous wines and is one of the most beautiful yet least visited areas of that country. The region is divided into two sub regionsthe Northern Rhone and the Southern Rhone. The wines from the two regions are different in composition and in style (and as a rule, in price.)

Grapes have been grown in this area since about 600 B.C.E. Various theories give credit to the Greeks, Persians, and Romans for initiating viniculture here, but all agree that genetic studies prove the Syrah grape indeed originated in the Rhone.

The Northern Rhone, where the vineyards are often on incredibly steep hillsides overlooking the river, has a continental climate influenced by mistral winds which bring in cool air. Winters are harsh and summers are warm. Syrah is the only red grape allowed in A.O.C. wines here. For Cornas A.O.C. designation, the wine must be one hundred percent Syrah. The other appellations allow addition of white varietals such as Viognier, Roussanne, and Marsanne, although only Cote Rotie widely does this. Some white wines are produced. Viognier is produced in the northernmost part, and blends are made from Marsanne and Roussanne in some other areas.

The Syrahs from this region are earthy, meaty, and structured on a tannic backbone. They are very different from the much more fruit-forward versions from California and Australia (where the grape is known as Shiraz.) Aromatics of smoky bacon and green olives are classic. Northern Rhone and lamb are a match made in heaven.

The appellations are as follows, as you drive north to south:

Cote RotieSyrah with up to twenty percent Viognier. Wines are elegant and layered. They tend to be very expensive and are produced in small amounts. Guigal’s single vineyard Cote Roties cost almost $300.00 per bottle at release

CondrieuProduces white wines only of Viognier. The varietal reaches its greatest heights—incredibly aromatic and floralin this regionThe climate in Condrieu is difficult. Fierce cold winds during winter sometimes cause havoc during budding and flowering. The clone of Viognier grown in Condrieu produces lower yields and smaller berries than other clones grown in France or elsewhere. As a result, Condrieus are very pricey and are difficult to find under $50.00.

Chateau GrilletThis appellation consists of only one estate (called a monopole) comprising a little over three hectares and producing whites from Viognier. The Viognier from this estate is unusual in that it is meant to age up to ten years before reaching its full maturity. The wine is hard to find and expensive, but is a rare experience.

St JosephRed wines of Syrah and up to ten percent Marsanne and Rossanne. These wines are earthy, structured, and a beautiful expression of the Syrah grape. They are also a relatively good value for the Northern Rhone. Offerus, from Chave, one of the Rhone’s great producers, is a wonderful wine for $29.99. It shows meaty black cherry and black currant notes intermixed with damp earth and forest floor. It is an excellent introduction to the northern Rhone.

Croze-HermitageRed wines of Syrah with up to fifteen percent Marsanne and Roussanne. This is the other appellation to shop for in looking for affordable northern Rhone wines. Chave also has a great offering here at 27.99. The wine is stuffed with dark raspberry, plum, and licorice, with graphite and smoke on the finish. Jean-Luc Colombo does a nice one too. Finally, Chapoutier, another of the Rhone’s great sources, makes a nice white Croze-Hermitage, Meysonniers, that is delicious.

HermitageRed wines of Syrah and up to fifteen percent Roussanne and Marsanne. According to legend, a knight named Gaspard de Sterimberg returned wounded from the Crusades. The Queen of France permitted him to build a small refuge on a hilltop in which to recover, and he lived there as a hermit. The hill is now owned by one of the great negociants of the region, Paul Jaboulet Aine. These wines were favored by royalty, and in the nineteenth century, some Bordeaux wines were “hermitaged” by blending in wine from this appellation to fetch higher prices. These are huge, powerful, age-worthy wines that are very expensive. They have aromas and flavors of leather, red berries, earth, and coffee. Many are over $100.00 at release.

CornasRed wines from one hundred percent Syrah. This is one of the smallest appellations. It is on lower hillsides and is partially protected from the mistral winds, hence its climate is a bit warmer. The fruit ripens well and harvest tends to occur the earliest of the northern appellations These are dark, inky, very powerful renditions of the Syrah grape. Domaine Courbis Cornas Champlerose is insanely good at $47.99. Robert Parker, giving this wine 94+ points, says, “This wine shows terrific full-bodied texture with gorgeous ripeness, purity, and expansiveness.” It will drink beautifully for decades.

The wines from the Northern Rhone are very special. Viognier and Syrah reach heights here to which all other examples of these varietals are compared. To try them is to truly experience what these two grapes are meant to be.

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