The Divergent Styles from the Northern Rhone

crozes-hermitage-80222The Rhone has been in the cross roads of style for more than two decades.  Pressure to produce riper wines of the new world has felt across Europe, but ripeness effects Syrah more profoundly than any other grape that I can think of. In terms of the Northern Rhone, very ripe Syrah loses it’s historical identity.

Tasting wines like Jaboulet‘s Crozes-Hermitage Thalabert and Hermitage La Chapelle (now made by Caroline Frey of La Lagune), or any of Guigal‘s Cote Roties or their St-Joesph Lieu Dit, you can see their density, higher alcohol, and intense flavors that more ripeness brings. These riper wines are much more fruit driven, with noses and palates of cassis and black plum. Less manipulated approaches like natural winemaker Jean-Michel Stephan, or the traditionalist approach like Domaine Jamet‘s result in wines that are much finer, have leaner structures, and have aromatics of Geraniums, Tuberose, Violets and peppercorns. Eric Asimov of the New York Times wrote an excellent piece on the style divide last year – you can read here.

In decades and in centuries past, the continental climate, which is regulated by the cold air that rolls off the Alps,  has made ripening in the Northern Rhone (and Burgundy) difficult. Even the relatively minor heat variations between vintages meant the difference between ripeness and under-ripeness in these marginally adequate growing areas. Even in ripe years, the wines across Northern Europe have traditionally had lower alcohols and the reds have often had cool, green, peppery-flowery aromas and flavors.  Croze Hermitage and Hermitage, being in the wider and more open to warmer air from the south, generally produces  slightly darker and riper wine than vineyards farther up the ever tightening Rhone Valley.  As you can see in the picture above, it is these hills above Tain-l’Hermitage help keep the famed heat of the Southern France at bay.

Global warming has been a tremendous factor in winemaking around the world, but it is felt keenly in areas like Northern Rhone. Although it is difficult to attribute changing styles to one factor or another, these three things have changed the style of wines being made in Northern Europe: global warming, vintage variation, and winemaking philosophies and techniques. Certainly all of these factors are in flux and are incredibly interactive.  Read more on factors of traditional Northern Rhone styles from my blog here.


English: Modified version of Commons image Ima...
English: Modified version of Commons image Image:Rhone transit suspension.jpg to show the major cities, rivers and wine regions of the Northern Rhone Valley (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is refreshing to see so many traditional Northern Valley Syrahs on the market these days, I suppose this in large part because of small importers who are championing these small tradition based producers.  We vote with our pocket books, and I’m happy to get to the poll booth.

 The following wine came from that I had ordered in 2010 had been sitting in their warehouse for the past couple of years.  I didn’t know it was there. Oops! I normally wouldn’t review a past vintage, but they apparently still have some for sale.

2007 Domaine du Murinais, Croze-Hermitage Cuvee Vieilles Vignes. This is a 12.5 percent alcohol wine. Despite that, this seems riper than a 12.5% wine, with a surprisingly fresh, grape-y, black-raspberry nose, some appealing fennel-anise quality and black pepper. In the mouth, there remarkable ripeness, with significant sweetness to the black cherry, raspberry fruit. Again this is surprisingly ripe for such a low alcohol wine, but it has retained a bright, juicy, natural acidity. There is significant roundness and depth – without Cote Rotie’s leanness and sinew. Fresh fruit is the main attraction here, finishing with black pepper. For a 2007, this drinks remarkably fresh, like a much younger wine, and I’m sure the cold soak , giving a dark purple robe, is responsible for this. This is a delicious wine that although it is defined primarily by it black fruitiness, it narrowly holds onto its Northern Rhone Syrah roots with its peppery aromatics, with hints of flowers.  Score: 89 points

Domaine du Murinais has 15 hectares in Croze that they farm organically. This old vine cuvee comes from vines that are between 35 and 65 years in age. A week-long cold soak gives the wine its dark color give this wine a distinctive modernity. The winemaker’s desire to keep alcohols down is a nod to tradition.

Here is a  nice blog piece about Domaine du Murinais is here from New York Importer, T. Edward. From the T.Edwards post is this note on the producers concern about the increasing ripeness due to global warming.
“In regard to a trend that’s appearing across the appellation, Luc used to get phenolic ripeness at around 12% abv, but with climate change the average is now 12.5%, and so he’s experimenting with even lower yields to see if he can stave off any further increase.”


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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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