2011 Crozes-Hermitage Alain Graillot 94 pts. $39

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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

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2014 Halcon Vineyards Yorkville Highlands Syrah 94 pts. $27

Heading up to the hilltop vineyard at Halcon, one can’t help but think, “How would it have occurred to anyone to plant way up here?” The dirt road winds and then winds again but, eventually, the vineyard appears on the horizon and you know you’re almost there.

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The view west from the vineyard edge.

Paul and Jackie Gordon bought the land and planted their vineyard about ten years ago and slowly but surely have built a brand around this spectacular site and their flagship cool-climate Syrah.

The property had been an old sheep ranch that was subdivided. There weren’t many grapes in the area but the exposed hillside and the rocky soils were too enticing not to take the plunge. It’s a low-vigor site, as you can tell right away, so the vines generally produce the right amount of fruit without much cropping necessary. Paul says that what he’s learned in ten years of farming the vineyard is that what defines it is their cold month of May where they don’t get the fruit set that they would in areas with warmer springs. And the wind, as we found out as the day went on, is a force to be reckoned with! Paul said that just as in Côte Rôtie, the northern-facing slopes will actually produce riper grapes than the southern-facing slopes because of that constant buffeting from the wind. But smaller yields and stressed vines (although not too stressed) can often make for the best wines and Halcon Vineyards certainly exemplifies that.

The vineyard isn’t organically certified but Paul and Jackie practice organic farming. The weeds are weedwacked in early summer and then die back from lack of water as the season progresses. They do irrigate but only small amounts with the goal to eventually not irrigate at all, if possible.

There’s still some planting to be done at Halcon, they’d like to plant some Marsanne and Rousanne and also put in some Pinot. They also have a plan to plant a steeper section of the vineyard using the single-stake method that is used throughout the Northern Rhone. They would be one of only a few Syrah growers that I’ve heard of to employ this method. There’s also a small block of own-rooted Syrah there that produces only about a half a ton an acre. They think the sandy and rocky soil would prevent any Phylloxera from taking hold and if it did, they are in an isolated spot.

The soils are known as Yorkville-Shortyork-Witherell, which is the greatest name for anything ever. They are made up of loam or gravelly clay loam and sandy loam, below that there’s hard schist bedrock at a depth of about 20 to 40 inches.

The vineyard is divided into four blocks planted to mostly Syrah, Tablas Creek clone, Chave Selection, Estrella River, and Clone 172, and with some Mourvedre, Grenache, and a tiny bit of Viognier that they use in the Côte Rôtie tradition as a co-fermenting agent.

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Paul and Jackie also plan on putting a winery and a home on the site. Right now they make their wine at the Dogpatch Roar Wines facility in San Francisco. They are looking forward to being able to process their grapes just steps away from the source.

The 2014 Halcon Vineyards Syrah: A little more primary fruit driven than the 2013, floral aromas also add to the blackberry and plum. High-toned aromas of gravel with powdered cocoa too. Lots of energy and freshness on the palate with an umami element that reminds me of that salty/sweet balance in asian food. The finish is pleasant with present but not-too-tannic tannins, a wonderfully balanced Syrah. 94 pts.

The wine is aged in 20% new oak and neutral puncheons with about 30% whole cluster.

We also tasted a beautiful Roussanne from Alder Springs, and an impressive Anderson Valley Pinot from the Oppenlander vineyard. Their GSM blend is also quite delicious.

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Thanks to Jackie and Paul Gordon and their little dog Cookie for having us up at their distinctive vineyard site in the Yorkville Highlands.

I’ve written about all the vintages of Halcon Syrah going back to 2009 if you’d like to explore them on the blog.

This wine was provided as a sample for the purposes of review.

So you want to get to know Saint Joseph Syrah?

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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.

Two Impressive Syrahs from Domaine Faury

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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.

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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.

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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.