2011 Crozes-Hermitage Alain Graillot 94 pts. $39

graillot

A distinctive savory and earthy Syrah with aromas of mushroom soup and roasted vegetables. There’s some aromas of plum fruit here too but it falls into the background behind all that savory. The palate is super-minerally and fresh with some fairly intense tannin. A fabulous example of Syrah, if not a tad rustic. Perhaps it will mellow with a little more age and certainly it has the structure to last for a very long time. 94 pts
This is the best Crozes-Hermitage wines I’ve had. The Croze-Hermitage appellation generally is seen as a lesser appellation than the other Northern Rhone designations and deservedly so. The wines are generally less interesting and come from mostly flat plains and less-distinct soil types that surround the famed hill of Hermitage. But some producers, like Graillot, challenge the traditional paradigm by making distinctive wines that as, you can tell from the tasting notes above, embody Syrah from the Northern Rhone River Valley

So you want to get to know Saint Joseph Syrah?

gonon

Gonon Saint Joseph 2011

So you want to get to know Saint Joseph, well here’s a good place to start.

There was a whisper among some of the Syrah geeks and winemakers about Gonon. Every once in a while when I mentioned Saint Joseph they would say that this was the textbook example, that this was the wine that most represented the appellation. They espoused its classic lightness on the palate and its savory minerality and I knew it was a wine I had to try.

The wine: Black olive, black pepper, pervasive gravel aromas, hints of something vegetal in the background, high-toned fresh plum. On first opening even with an aerator the wine was super tight. A day on the counter and it was much better but you could imagine it fleshing out even more over time. There’s a lot of acidity here but the tannins aren’t as pronounced as Syrah from other regions of the Northern Rhone. That’s in line with what I’ve come to expect from Saint Joseph and historically what the region has been known for, food-friendly reds that are versatile enough to go with steak, chicken, or even fish.

Gonon is an historic estate that Pierre Gonon gave to his sons Pierre and Jean in 1989. They’ve resisted the temptation of new oak and other modern techniques and focussed their energy on elevating the vineyard while maintaining the classic vinification process in the cellar. The result is that these wines are textbook examples of what St. Joseph has classically been and what it should always be; food-friendly, fresh wines, with a core of pure fruit, and savory aromas.

Pining for a trip to the Northern Rhone: Two 2010 Saint Joseph Syrahs

It’s no secret that this blog has been mostly focused on California, a few years ago I started writing about Syrah from other parts of the world but, probably because I live in California, that Golden State focus has endured. I believe that wine is really more interesting when you know its context and although I enjoy wines from the Northern Rhone, I have yet to make a trip there. I definitely want to go in the near future and make that pilgrimage to Syrah’s birthplace. In the meantime, I’ll keep trying the gorgeous French wines available here in the States and hope that will provide enough interest for these posts.

St. Joseph is the lighter more playful side of the Northern Rhone. The wines go with lots of different types of food (even fish). They are generally less tannic, less big, but perhaps just as serious as wines from Hermitage, Cornas, or Côte-Rôtie.

domaine courbis

2010 Saint-Joseph Domain Courbis ABV 13%

Beautiful honeysuckle aromas on the nose mixed with some earthy tobacco aromas. There’s a sweetness on the nose that translates to a very dry mid-palate. This is what I love about St. Joseph. It has floral aroma but great acidity makes it super food friendly. We had it with some homemade carne asada tacos and it worked well. The finish is not too tannic but there are tannins there.

The Courbis grapes are de-stemmed and the wine is aged in neutral oak casks.

etienne becheras

2010 Etienne Becheras Saint-Joseph Le Prieure d’Arras, Rhone, France ABV 13%

Again, an elegant wine that smells sweet but finishes dry. Not as dry as the previous wine but also has beautiful acidity on the mid-palate. There’s just a gorgeous sweet plum aroma on the nose that is so cool-climate Syrah. The tannins are there but they exist in the background and this makes the wine, like most Saint Josephs, very versatile with food. This Syrah would pretty much go with anything you’d serve a Pinot with. It’s light and easy to drink but it’s not an insubstantial wine, it has a lot of complexity and interest, again very similar to Pinot.

This wine is made with indigenous yeast fermentation and aged in various sizes of neutral oak barrels. The grapes are de-stemmed.

If you like Syrah, you need to check out wines from St. Joseph. They are often in the lower price range (both these wines retail for under $30) in comparison with the other star appellations in the Northern Rhone but they are beautiful, elegant expressions of Syrah. Meanwhile, I’ll go back to pining for a trip to Syrah’s ancestral home.

Two Impressive Syrahs from Domaine Faury

faurysSaintJoseph

The Domaine Faury St. Joseph is one of the best values in Northern Rhone Syrah, a Syrah that tastes and smells like real Syrah. This wine has been one of my favorites through the years and it’s fun for me to get a chance to really get to know it by writing about it for the blog.

A leathery/tobaccoy Syrah with tons of savory elements it’s a great introduction for those of you want to get a sense of a French cool-climate Syrah without breaking the bank. There’s a bit of vegetal aroma too but just in the background.  It’s also an approachable wine because of the lack of overt tannins which is something I’m beginning to notice is a common theme in wines from St. Joseph.  It also has a sweet floral aroma but what most impresses me is its beautifully balanced mid palate. There’s a lift of acidity but there’s also a smoothness to it that must have something to do with those light tannins.  This is a Syrah that is really hard to not drink all of, especially after a decant or a day left out on the counter.

faury L art zele

L’ ArtZelé is another delicious Syrah from Faury made from younger vines in the Côte-Rôtie appellation.  At around $30 it’s also a steal.

It has that same savory nose of tobacco and leather but tends more towards mushrooms and black pepper but with more minerality. The nose has aromas of strawberry too that transition to the midpalate, again this is a wine with good acidity but a lack of harsh tannins.  Wow, this is smooth and light but also serious. It has an elegance that the St. Joseph doesn’t.

I love these types of Syrah because of their savory aromas and smooth mouthfeel and I think I’m really developing an appreciation for Domaine Faury’s interpretation of Syrah.  These are wines that are probably most defined by something that I don’t sense on them and that is new oak.  The wines are aged in large neutral oak barrels that minimize the impact the wood has on the wine and that’s what keeps them so purely delicious.

Tasting the Northern Rhone with William Allen

I recently had the opportunity to taste some incredible wines with the help and charity of my friend William Allen.  William tweets and blogs under the moniker @sonomawilliam.  He’s been very supportive of my blog and was especially so on a recent afternoon when he invited me to his home to expand my palate for French Syrah and really dive deep into the Northern Rhone.

Image

The wines assembled

William had recently returned from a fact-finding trip to the Northern Rhone where he was able to taste producers who make wine in the style that he aspires to with his own Two Shepherds label;  that is, with little manipulation and either very little or no new oak.  He brought back cases of wine and was looking forward to tasting through some of his loot.

William laid out a hefty sample of wines from the five major Syrah regions in the Northern Rhone: Crozes Hermitage, St. Joseph, Côte-Rôtie, Hermitage, and Cornas.  Our idea was to pit the regions against each other to see if we could come up with a clear winner.  In retrospect it was a pretty ridiculous task to attempt.  Even though we had a lot of wine in total, our sample sizes for each of the particular regions were probably too small and some of the wines within each region showed so differently that it was difficult to make any pronouncements.

We decided to start with St. Joseph.Our bottles were the 2010 Gangloff St. Joseph, the Faury 2010 St. Joseph, and the 2010 Cuilleron St. Joseph L’ Amarybelle.  As would be evident throughout the rest of the tasting, these wines were simply too different to make any across the board judgments about St. Jospeh as a whole.  The Gangloff was grossly over-oaked upon opening (and even after a quick decant) it reminded me of a California Cabernet (William said the wine tasted better later in the evening).  The Faury and the Cuilleron were beautiful wines.  The Cuilleron especially brought a fair amount of pepper, iron, insect, earth, and minerality, all with underlying aromas of violet, raspberry, and strawberry.  The Faury was also aromatically gorgeous, with aromas of cherry and cola, and structured but less tannic on the finish.  It was the most accessible of the St. Joseph wines but also markedly different than the rest.

We next tasted 2010 Gangloff and Faury Côte-Rôties.  Neither wine had any Viognier in them which is actually more common than people think.  Viognier is allowed but not always added in Côte-Rôtie.  Again, the Gangloff was an oak bomb with great acidity on the mid-palate and the finish, but hard to get any sense of the wine through all that oak.  The Faury was again a star, and even without the Viognier, it was a floral wine, elegant with bacon fat and some of that textbook Northern Rhone minerality.  The mid-palate had a fair amount of acidity and there was a tannic punch on the finish.  The Faury was an impressive wine but obviously we needed more wines here to really make any sweeping generalizations about the region.

We went on to Crozes Hermitage, an area of the Northern Rhone that is known to produce wines that vary greatly in quality.  The wines are usually a lower price point too.  We tasted a 2010 Chave Selection Crozes Hermitage that showed quite well with savory aromas and a little barnyard.  It had a core of acidity and a nice long finish.  We also tasted a Colombier Crozes Hermitage that unfortunately I forgot to write any notes on (yes I was spitting this entire tasting so I can only blame my own poor organizational skills).

For Hermitage we tasted one example, the 2007 Jean Luis Chave Selection Farconnet Hermitage.  This wine unfortunately was overly oaked in my opinion, and had some good dark fruit.  It was hard to parse out the aromas through the oak.  Hermitage is obviously a region I want to revisit (as were all these regions!!) especially if I can find some examples of producers who are more restrained with their oak treatment.

The Cornas selections were the moment I’d been waiting for and we had three to taste:  A 2009 Domaine Courbis Champelrose Cornas, a 2006 Franck Balthazar Cornas Chaillot, and a Cuilleron 2010.  Unfortunately the Cuilleron was the only one that showed well, with aromas of pure berry fruit and a vivacious mid-palate, and although it had a tad too much oak it was otherwise was a spectacular wine.  The other two seemed off balance–the Balthazar especially was off balance and with distinct aromas of dead animal or wet dog.  I was a little disappointed but happy with the way the Cuilleron showed and clearly I will continue to search out other producers from the region.

So, what can be said to sum up the tasting.  Just like every region in the world, it’s hard to make any pronouncements about the state of wine based on such a small sample size, and in fact it would be irresponsible to do so.  Even though many of the wines didn’t show super well, I was supremely impressed with the ones that did and also surprised at the general diversity of the wines within the region.  It’s clear to me (and this has also been borne out by other experiences) that there are philosophical differences in regards to oak within each region and these differences again make it difficult to make any generalizations.  For future reference, I now know that Cuilleron and Faury are producers from which I need to buy more wine to get to know better.

The other take-away from this tasting is that except for the Gangloff wines, you would never mistake any of these wines for anything other than Syrah, which unfortunately is not always the case for New World iterations of the variety.  This is Syrah in all its original and authentic glory and it was a pleasure to be able to compare so many at one time.

Many thanks to William Allen for allowing me to participate in such an amazing and educational tasting.

Two Delicious 2011 Northern Rhone Syrahs for About $20

Laurent Combier

2011 Laurent Combier Crozes Hermitage 12.5% ABV $20

My first thought when I had a whiff and a sip of this wine was, “Damn this is a well-made Syrah”.  This is fabulous stuff and another great example of why cool-climate Syrah grown in the Northern Rhone is where it’s at.

On the nose this wine is dusty violets and olives and herbs.  There’s a bit of orange zest even and pretty licorice.  The mid-palate is full bodied but with great balanced acidity.  Wow this is a nice wine.  A wonderful finish too, not much tannin, and nicely integrated with the rest of the wine.

The Laurent Combier winery has an interesting story.  The Combier family were organic fruit farmers in the 1970’s (when nobody else was) who grew grapes until the son of the family, Laurent, who had studied both viticulture and agriculture at the university in Orange refocused the farm and made it more of a viticulturist family who grew apricots and peaches.  They expanded their grape growing and now are about 19 hectares of wine and about 20 hectares of mainly peaches and some apricots.

The grapes are brought in and go through a 25 day maceration in stainless steel tanks and then eventually are transferred to either concrete eggs or into neutral oak.  The result is a pure fruit wine with beautiful body and acidity.  In keeping with their organic philosophy,  the wine also sees very little sulphur.

This is just a deliciously pure Syrah and one that I will seek out again, especially if I can continue to find it for less than $20.

Cuilleron

2011 Yves Cuilleron Syrah Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes 12% ABV $18

This is a wine that on the nose just screams old world Syrah.  It’s got a rustic edge to it with a lot of minerality.  On the palate it’s just a tad juicy with dark fruit and hints of tobacco, and has a full mid-palate with some tannins on the back end.  The acidity spikes and makes the wine finish a little like biting into a tart orange.  This is a wine that might be best suited for big food like steak or sausage but would also work with pork or chicken dishes with a rich sauce.

The Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes Syrah is Cuilleron’s entry-level Syrah and comes from the village of Chavanay where his headquarters reside.  Chavanay is in the more up-and-coming area of St. Joseph.  The vineyards for this wine are farmed naturally, if not quite organically.  The grapes are de-stemmed, fermented in open vats and go through a two-week maceration process.  The wine is aged for eight months in oak.

According to my Northern Rhone bible The Wines of the Northern Rhône, Cuilleron has drawn a lot of attention to himself because of his modern wine making although Livingstone-Learmouth thinks that Cuilleron gets considerably more “flamboyant” in his winemaking with his whites.  I look forward to trying more of Cuilleron’s Syrahs as I continue to explore the Northern Rhone in more depth.  For an “entry level” Syrah this is definitely a wine to find and enjoy and for less than $20 it gives a great introduction into the world of cool-climate Syrah.

A disclaimer: 

The truth is that as I begin to peel the onion that is French Syrah, I’m finding out that it’s going to be a slow process.  My notes for the French Syrahs are going to be a little more heavy on the tasting notes rather than the back story of the winery simply because of how far away I am from the story of these wines and how little I’ve researched them so far.  That will all change as I find out more and more.  Perhaps a trip to France in the future?

Now, you may wonder how the hell am I not an expert in Northern Rhone when I profess to be extolling the virtues of cool-climate Syrah.  Well, while I have drunken quite a few of these wines and have a good sense of their flavor profiles, I don’t know that much about the specific producers or the story behind them.  The price point for some of the Syrahs has also been a factor in scaring me off.  But now, I’m delving in, with an eye out for some not-so-expensive iterations.   Please stay with me as I learn more!