Juicy Details with David Larson: Syrah and the Northern Rhône

Okay, so I have another favorite red grape. It’s Syrah. I was going to write about summer whites, but I had a bottle of 2002 Chave Saint-Joseph recently and I’m still thinking about it. And besides, it’s the season of cookouts and barbecues, and there are few better wines to pair with grilled meats than Syrah.

Syrah is on the varisty team along with Pinot Noir, Sangiovese and  Nebbiolo (sorry Cabernet Sauvignon, you’re the co-star of the junior varsity team along with Nerello Mascalese).  While there are plenty of good Syrah based wines to be had from around the globe, it is in the Northern Rhône valley of France where Syrah reaches its pinnacle. The wines from here are as distinctive as any in winedom, and the 5 major appellations of the region are also delightfully distinct from one another.

One of Domaine Jean-Louis Chave’s Meticulously Tended St. Joseph Vineyards

One of Domaine Jean-Louis Chave’s Meticulously Tended St. Joseph Vineyards

These five appellations are Côte-Rôtie, Hermitage, Cornas, Saint-Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage.  The appellations of Côte-Rôtie, Hermitage and Cornas produce the regions greatest wines, and they have a few things in common, the first being they are relatively small (under 200 hectares). While some of the Rhône appellations have been expanded far past their original boundaries, these regions have remained small and focused – in the case of the hill of Hermitage, there is nowhere to expand too. Another shared trait between Côte-Rôtie, Hermitage and Cornas is granite found in their soils. Syrah loves granite; there is a certain structure and minerality in the wines that come from granite and it is remarkably complementary to Syrah’s flavor profile. Saint-Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage can be excellent sources for good value wine (especially the terraced slopes of St. Joseph), but you need be a bit more selective. Both have spread to such a size that they include vineyard area that is too flat and too fertile to produce distinguished wine.

Many years ago during a visit to Domaine Jean-Louis Chave, I learned what may be the important part of the explanation on what makes Rhône Syrah so special. Jean-Louis made a statement that I will never forget: all great wine regions are located at the northernmost point where that region’s grapes can adequately ripen – Nebbiolo in Piedmont, Pinot Noir in Burgundy, Riesling in Germany, and Syrah in the Northern Rhône. Lightbulb!  It was something that I had never read, heard, or thought about up to that point. Vines need to struggle to produce fruit that makes great wine, and the appropriate region is the fundamental start of that struggle.

Whether you are looking for the elegance of Côte-Rôtie, the power of Hermitage and Cornas or the immediate pleasure of a Crozes-Hermitage or Saint-Joseph, Syrah from the Northern Rhône is always exciting to explore. Pick up a few bottles from HDH Retail for your next summer barbecue.

Leave a reply

Hart Davis Hart Wine Co. - 1511 W 38th Street, Chicago IL  60609 - Phone: 312.482.9996  Fax: 312.335.9096