Syrahs of the Northern Rhone: a Showdown of Aromatics

In a recent tasting of the Syrahs of the Northern Rhones, an overriding theme stood out: these wines have significantly lower-alcohols and finer features  than the Rhones from the South.

Terraces of vineyards in the French wine regio...
Terraces of vineyards in the French wine region of Cote Rotie in the northern Rhone Valley. (Photo credit: Wikipe.

Despite its name, the wines of Cote Rotie (translation -“roasted hillside”) have uniformly low alcohols even in ripe years. This suggests, at least circumstantially, that these grapes are grown on marginally-ripening sites.  This is only partially true however.  The vineyards of Cote Rotie are perched on precipitous hillsides that drop 1000 feet down to the banks of Rhone River. The extreme angle of the slope is a dizzying 55%. This gives the vines tremendously long exposure to the sun… when it is not blocked out by fog that forms up from the river below. In the late spring and early fall, fog often blankets the vineyards, making full-ripening of the Syrah difficult. This is not a bad thing. In fact it gives Cote Rotie it’s regal, and fine featured character.

Very Notable: Over the course of several hours, wines that had shown very floral, and green-peppercorn, notes much-like peppery-floral tuberose, or perhaps geranium-like aromas, would suddenly switch gears, and begin to smell like bacon fat and black pepper.  Then, without explanation, they would flip back again, to its earlier, peppery, floral personality.

“The source bacon fat and smoked meat aromas has always been something of a mystery”

The source of bacon fat and smoked meat aromas has always been something of a mystery. Some have suggested it is the strain of yeast, cellar funk, or maybe even a strain of brettanomyces. But this switching of profiles from green to meaty suggests, at least to me, that these are different faces of the same element: under-ripeness, or marginal ripeness of the Syrah fruit that is being harvested.  

Structurally and aromatically, these Syrahs from the farthest, Northern regions of the Rhone Valley, reminded me much more of  Pinot Noir from Burgundy, Nebbiolo from Barolo, or even the Aglianico grown in Campagnia and Basilicata, than Syrah, grown anywhere else in the world.

Then there was the Hermitage.  Hermitage is a small, fairly homogenous appellation, of only 345 acres that covers three hills. Given Hermitage’s reputation, this was predictably much more powerful, significantly riper, and had a full-degree higher in alcohol. However, this special bottling, cannot be counted on accurately representing the Appellation, since it hails from Hermitages greatest sites (largely from the Le Meal vineyard with a small patch from Les Greffieux). 

The Cornas of the flight was something of a ringer too.  Mattieu Barret is a biodynamic, and almost a natural winemaker. Despite Cornas being geographically the farthest south, and warmest of all the Northern Rhone regions, Barret’s wines are much more Cote Rotie-like.  I believe this to be a conscious, stylistic difference, by picking early, in order to counter the tannic clunky characteristic wines Cornas is reputed to have.  I will meet him this coming week, and ask him about this issue of Syrah and ripeness in the Northern Rhone.

St Joseph and Croze Hermitage are much larger areas than Cote Rotie, Hermitage and Cornas, and much less homogenous. All of the wines from these two regions also had lower alcohols. This is due to, it is said, the cool Continental climate of the appellations. These lower alcohols are also possibly due to longstanding winemaking traditions there. In any case, there was great uniformity to the wines in the tasting, save the Sorrel Le Greal

For the tasting notes below, I have listed the stated alcohol levels, which are among the lowest  from any major red wine region, that I have seen in recent years.


2010 Texier Cote-du-Rhone 12% alc.  A fantastic spicy nose, with fresh grapefruit rind and cream. Meduim-light in weight, with good richness and meaty tannins.  None-the-less, I do not believe this wine will age well. Texier is a producer that is part of the natural winemaking movement, meaning nothing is added to the grapes in the vineyard, nor during their production. No yeast, no SO2, no sugar, no acid, no nutrients, nothing.  $21.99

2008 Bernard Burgaud, Cote Rotie 12.5% alc.   Pretty nose of flowers, grapefruit, and red cherries.  Medium-light, with very fine tannins, but still good breadth of flavors across the palate. Finely textured, this is a very feminine styled Cote Rotie.   $37.99

2010 Domaine Faury, Saint-Joseph  13% alc. Great nose. Ripe apples, loam, smoked meat and plums. Rich and soft on the palate with meat and spice. Medium-light in weight, although it gained some weight after three hours. $26.99

2008 Domaine de Coulet, Cornas, “Bris Cailloux” 13% alc. Almost black in color. This exotic wine showed  high-toned red fruits on the nose along with a wildly changing cornucopia of anise, geraniums, bacon fat (alternately), and fresh black peppercorns. Medium weight, with long, fine, acid that was much more black-fruited on the palate than the nose was. Bacon, coffee, and leather flavors, along with the green floral components of geraniums and tuberose appeared and disappeard each time I tried it. I found this to be very similar to the 2010 Bris Cailloux in weight, not to mention in it’s stunningly aromatic, elusive personality.   Mathieu Barret is a master of Cornas, and this wine proves it beyond a doubt. Why was the 2008 vintage so (wrongly) overlooked? $41.99

2010 Domaine Des Grands Chamins (Delas) Croze-Hermitage  13% alc. Rich and spicy, but softer than the previous wines.  With this ripeness, this also does not have the earlier wines aromatics. Plum, cocoa powder, oak… This wine is comparatively powerful, but ultimately a bit simple because of it. $29.99

2009 Saint Cosme, Cote Rotie 13% alc. Very aromatic, with a  nose of grapefruit rind, earth  blackberry, toasty oak, brettanomyces, and bacon. This wine was decidedly earthy compared to the others. In th mouth, blackberries and plum were more evident on the palate. This was very rich and soft, earthy, much fuller bodied, and very complex.  $57.99

2009 Marc Sorrel, Hermitage Le Greal, 14%  Deep and powerful in nose and flavor.  Very modern in terms of the other wines tasted, with much more ripeness, thickness, and correspondingly, it had higher alcohol. Deep berry fruit, with a slight reduction. This wine was very complete, with a solid, and obvious core of fruit. Well integrated tannins. Satisfying, and even an exciting wine, if not as thought provoking, as the lighter, more aromatic, Cote Roties that they are routinely compared with.  $119.99

Saint-Joseph (Photo credit: Renée S.)

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Diary of a Winebuyer

About Me: Thirty years ago, I graduated with a degree in political science from the College of Letters and Science at the University of California at Berkeley. Having grown up at the height of the Cold War, I still have vivid remembrances of being instructed to hide under our elementary school desk, covering our heads. The young, white, female teacher, training us without explanation, to face away from the windows. I suppose it is not all that surprising that I had a particular interest in the realpolitik of international relations. My fascination grew with the discovery that certain conditions almost uniformly exist where all revolutions ferment. Did this mean that the revolutions which had occurred in the first half century were revolutions which had been usurped by Marxists who were in the right place at the right time? Probably. A favorite professor was A. J. Gregor. This was a man who, while rakishly wearing a Gestapo-styled black leather motorcycle jacket, exuded expertise on fascism (which he looked the part) and Marxism. Improbably, he did it with a significant swagger. Then in my last semester, I had the blind luck to take a class on Asian Marxist revolution, and the professor, who just happened to be visiting that year while he worked on some unnamed project, was Chalmers Johnson. In retrospect, I should have known his name, as he was a luminary in the political science community but at that time, I did not. It was a remarkable opportunity to experience the ivory tower, but I seem to remember being anxious to get on with life. After college, I drifted through a few of jobs that were of interest to me. One of my former high school teachers said to me. "If I were in your shoes, I'd get a job as a flight attendant." So in order to be young while I could still afford to, I accepted a job serving chicken or beef at Pan American. With that airline losing money faster than it could sell its routes, I got a job doing cellar work at David Bruce Winery. This was the beginning of my wine career. All during this period, I wrote a still unpublished novel about homegrown terrorists the U.C. Berkeley campus, attempting to use some of what I learned in school, weaving in the Vietnamese political and military strategies of Dau Tranh as professor Johnson had lectured years before. Since the early 1990's, I have been involved in the wine industry, selling fine wine in both the retail and wholesale arenas. I have approached learning about wine, by always challenging myself to question how I know what I think I know? And in an effort to try to find answers I've turned, with varying degrees of success to wine books. Overall, I've not been happy with the quality of most wine writing, finding the authors either to lack any deep knowledge, or unable to move much past what I consider to be superficial information. I recognize that wine writers have to monetize their work, but I believe this has dramatically held back our knowledge and understanding of wine. I have set out to add to our industry's base of knowledge where I can. My first series, 'The Terroir of Burgundy' (which I should probably re-edit and complete some kind of conclusion, but I got involved in this project), can be viewed here. I currently work as a sales and marketing manager for a Burgundy and Bordeaux importer based in Atherton, California.

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