Tannic Panic! Issue #36: Que Syrah Syrah
A wholesome expedition up and down the Northern Rhône: black fruit, black pepper, black olives and red wines
Wake up and smell the black pepper, you hibernating, wine-deprived maniacs!
Today, we’re headed back to the Rhône valley to embark on a wholesome “exploration” of a long and skinny (LIKE ME!) little wine region in southeastern France - the Northern Rhône.
The Northern Rhône AKA the Mecca for Syrah is a renowned region within the broader Rhône Valley wine region. It’s celebrated for its high-quality, limited-production red wines, primarily from the humble Syrah grape variety.
DID YOU KNOW… In contrast to its Northerly “neighbor,” the Southern Rhône is responsible for the majority of red wine production in the Rhône Valley, characterized by a flatter terrain and a Mediterranean climate, producing a variety of blends from different grape varieties, including Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre. [See our post on the Southern Rhone here]
This Northern Rhone is home to iconic red wines such as Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie, known for their enduring and rich characteristics (and *justifiably* high prices).
The climate and “terroir” of the Northern Rhône is significantly influenced by the powerful Mistral wind, a Northwesterly wind that carries cold air down from the Massif Central mountains, making the region substantially cooler than the Southern Rhône. Many of the best vineyards sites are situated along the banks of the Rhône River on terraced hillsides with granite soils, creating an ideal topography and microclimate for wine production, and providing some shelter from the damaging effects of the Mistral wind. Vines are typically trained along individual stakes or a “teepee-like” arrangement of stakes to provide further protection against wind damage. The Mistral wind may be misconstrued as a malevolent little spirit, but BELIEVE YOU ME, she also has some “wholesome” effects on the “humble” “Syrah” “vines” in the “region.” For example, “she” reduces the risk of mildew by quickly drying the vineyards, literally “blowing away” diseases (THE BAD KIND!) from the delicate little vines.
DID YOU KNOW… Due to its latitude, the Northern Rhône is at the northern limit where Syrah grapes can fully ripen, contributing to the unique characteristics of the wines produced in this region.
Syrah wines from the Northern Rhône are renowned for their black fruit aromas and flavors along with savory characteristics, including gamey notes, black pepper, and floral notes like violets and lavender.
Due to the range of latitudes and topography in the Northern Rhone, the Syrah wines here can “express themselves” in a variety of ways (MUCH LIKE TODAY’S YOUTH), ranging from lighter, fruitier expressions of Syrah with more pronounced floral and peppery notes to more ripe, concentrated fuller-bodied renditions of Syrah with ripe black and blue fruits (INSERT LAZY JOKE ABOUT MY BRUISED EGO HERE).
The stylistic diversity of Syrah in the Northern Rhone can be attributed to a couple of key factors:
1) The northern Rhone runs north to south over a range of latitudes, with the southern tip (Cornas) being significantly warmer than the more northern crus.
2) Vineyards can be found in a variety of sites, ranging from flatter, fertile sites along the valley floor to very steep south-facing slopes with maximal afternoon sun exposure. Before we dive into the purple zeus juice, let’s take a little “stroll” through some of the key red wine producing regions of the Northern Rhone that we will highlight in our incoherent rant. (“sorry” Condrieu — we’ll “save” you for a future post about the wonderful white wines of the Rhone)
Côte-Rôtie (which translates to “roasted slope” in “French”) is located on the eastern shore of the Rhône River, and is known for Syrah based wines that may include up to 20% Viognier in the blend (though most producers stick to 100% Syrah or blend in a much smaller percentage of Viognier). The addition of Viognier can enhance the aromatic profile of the wine, adding floral notes and a subtle complexity to the intense flavors of Syrah. Côte-Rôtie wines are deeply colored, full bodied, and age-worthy (much like the great red wines of Hermitage discussed below). They’re known for their elegance and finesse, with a harmonious balance of fruit, spice, and floral elements that distinguishes them from other regions in the Northern Rhone. The limited production, high quality, and prestige of Cote-Rotie wines contribute to their comically high prices (often several hundreds of dollars). Since we are too frugal to justify spending our daily pay check on a bottle of wine, we are not featuring Cote-Rotie in today’s reviews (you’ll thank us later!).
Located on a steep south-facing slope (THE GOOD KIND!) behind the town of Tain-l’Hermitage, Hermitage is a “highly celebrated” little wine appellation, known for its bold and enduring Syrah-based red wines, as well as some white wine production from the underappreciated Roussanne and Marsanne varieties. The Syrah-based red wines of Hermitage may include up to 15 percent Roussanne and Marsanne co-fermented with Syrah to soften the tannins and add floral notes to the wine, but most producers stick to 100% Syrah these days. Hermitage wines are recognized for their full-bodied flavors of blackberry, plum, black cherry, and cassis, accompanied by hints of spice, earthy tones, and a touch of flowers. Red Hermitage wines are generally the most full-bodied of the Northern Rhone, and due to their robust tannic structure, they can age beautifully (UNLIKE ME!) and continue to develop complexity in the bottle for decades.
Crozes-Hermitage, situated on the eastern bank of the Rhône River, is a large geographical area that wraps around Hermitage, and produces high-quality Syrah wines. Crozes-Hermitage is responsible for the majority of Northern Rhone’s Syrah production by volume. The wine from this region is known for its approachability and versatility, offering a wide range of styles, depending on the producer and vineyard site. Lighter wines produced in higher volumes that are intended for “earlier drinking” (like before noon) come from the “flat plain” south of Hermitage. In contrast, Crozes-Hermitage vineyards to the north of Hermitage are planted on steeper slopes, yielding wines with greater concentration and structure. Overall, the reputation of Crozes-Hermitage basks in the hypothetical "rain shadow" of its far superior “daddy” to the West (Hermitage). What this means is that more premium examples of Crozes-Hermitage from sloped sites (THE GOOD KIND) can sometimes be a wonderful source of “value” for you and your tiny little friends, as they are made in a similar style to Hermitage, but you won’t need to spend last year’s salary to get your greasy little meat hooks around a bottle.
Saint-Joseph is another prominent appellation in the Northern Rhône, producing Syrah wines that reflect the region's unique and diverse terroir. Saint-Joseph is a skinny little region that runs along a long stretch of the Rhone River. Consequently, Syrah wines from this region can either be made in a lighter, more approachable and fruit-forward style or richer, more concentrated style with greater structure and aging potential, depending on the vineyard site (flat plain vs. steep south-facing slope) and winemaking style (e.g. use of oak barrel aging). Saint-Joseph produces large volumes of lighter bodied Syrah wines from high yielding, flatter sites with fertile soils, often using carbonic maceration. However, more “premium examples”, made in a style of similar intensity to Hermitage, can be found near the small, but prestigious village of Tournon along terraced south-facing vineyards that fully benefit from the “ripening rays” of Mr. Golden Sun.
Nestled at the southernmost tip of the Northern Rhone (but providing far more depth than #justthetip), you'll find the petite yet esteemed region of Cornas. This area is renowned for its robust, tannic, and luscious Syrah wines, all crafted from 100% Syrah grapes. Thanks to its southerly location, Cornas boasts the warmest climate among the red wine crus in the Northern Rhone. The vineyards, strategically positioned on protected south-facing slopes along lateral valleys, bask in generous sunshine, which is instrumental in achieving optimal ripeness. Cornas wines tend to showcase rich black fruit flavors, intertwined with spice, leather, truffle, and black olive notes and are typically matured in oak barrels. These wines are distinguished by their profoundly deep purple hue, “muscular” tannins, and opulent black fruit flavors—a style often likened to Hermitage, but without the wallet-flattening price tag (#potentialvaluealert!).
… AND NOW FOR THE REVIEWS (IN ORDER OF PRICE):
2019 Cave de Tain Origine 1933 Saint-Joseph / 90+ Points / $25
Profile: Blackberry, black cherry, bacon fat (THE VEGAN KIND), violets, juniper, rosemary, black pepper, chocolate.
Palate: Dry, high acid, high tannin, full body, medium+ finish
Pronounced black fruit and herbal notes, along with black pepper, chocolate and a hint of bacon fat on the nose. This wine is a stark contrast to the Alain Graillot St Joseph (which we also reviewed today). This one also sports high acidity, but it is much more balanced and pleasant to drink. The aromatic profile shows more layers and at half the price of the Graillot, this is a far better value. 90+ points.
2018 Cave de Tain Origine 1933 Cornas / 93 Points / $30 (VALUE PICK!)
Profile: Black plum, blueberry, blackberry, black olive, violets, chocolate, wet stone, lavender
Palate: Dry, medium acid, medium+ tannin, medium+ body, long finish
An incredible source of value, with concentrated flavors of black plum, blackberry, black olive, violets, chocolate, wet stone and lavender. This producer has proven to be an excellent source of value for high quality Northern Rhone wines, and we look forward to trying more from them. NEATO! 93 points.
2019 Guigal Crozes-Hermitage / 91+ Points / $30
Profile: Blackberry, black olive, barnyard, bandaid, black tea, black pepper, black plum, chocolate
Palate: Dry, medium+ acid, medium+ tannin, full body, long finish
A really nice entry to the Crozes-Hermitage here, showing black fruits, black pepper, with some of the iconic barnyard aromatics (THE GOOD KIND!) that I tend to associate with the region. A very solid wine with great structure and a long finish. 91+ points.
2018 Alain Graillot Saint-Joseph / 83 Points / $50 (DON’T BUY)
Profile: Underripe blackberry, sour stone fruit, stinky sour lemonade, band-aid
Palate: Dry, high acidity, medium tannin, medium body, medium finish
TERRIBLE VALUE ALERT. This wine is EXTREMELY sour on the palate, with thin and underripe flavors and not much complexity. The wine has some structure, but the high acidity overtakes the other elements of the wine and the concentration of fruit and complexity is lacking. In hindsight, the 13% ABV on this wine (quite low for Syrah) should have tipped us off to the fact that this wine is lacking in ripeness.
At $50, this is a horrendous rip off. Shame on you, “Alain Graillot”
Our take? DO NOT BUY THIS WINE!
2018 Delas Freres Domaine des Tourettes Hermitage / 97 Points / $78 (PREMIUM VALUE PICK!!)
Profile: Blueberry, blackberry paste, black cherry, black olive, leather, violets, lavender, black pepper, tar, wet stone, rosemary, tobacco leaf, earth, licorice, vanilla, chocolate.
Palate: Dry, medium+ acid, medium+ tannin, full body, long finish.
This is a perfectly balanced, rich, silky wine with a dense mouth feel and great concentration. Featuring a complex bouquet of black and blue fruits, black olives, flowers, herbs, earth, and spices. Made from 100% Syrah grapes aged in new French oak barrels. This is by far the ripest of the wines we tasted, but despite its 15% ABV, the wine retains an incredible amount of elegance due to its impeccable structure.
At 97 points, this is the highest rating we’ve given a wine since starting this newsletter. Wawaweewa!
Northern Rhône is home to some excellent value, but it is also home to some of the highest quality wines in the world, that still deliver an incredibly high quality to $ ratio, even at the high end. We were astounded by how good the Hermitage we tasted was, and while it was at the low end of the spectrum from a price standpoint for an Hermitage (high from an everyday drinking standpoint at around $80), it was still unrealistically good. If you ever feel like blowing 4/5 of $100 on a fancy bottle and don’t want to risk striking out, Hermitage is an excellent horse to bet on.
If you want incredibly good quality wines in the $20-40 range, Crozes, Cornas and Saint Joseph are finally ready to put themselves out there again. Just remember— price does NOT always reflect quality, and it’s always good to have some well informed “buddies” (LIKE US!) to help you sift through the bullsh*t.
Until next time, HAPPY “DRINKING” PEOPLE!
Zach & Isaac
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