The Wine World Cup Final: Allez Les Bleus

In preparation for the Wine World Cup Final, and in honor of my own Francophile tastes in grapes, here are a few snap reviews of some bottles that have recently passed my way. The first four are all pure Syrahs, three of them hailing from three separate Northern Rhône appellations.


Picked this one up at Roberts and Speight in Beverley, Yorks, a few years back; it was subsequently stored under my mum’s stairs, a classic makeshift British cellar that, judging by the dampness of the cork, clearly suffers from a surplus of humidity. Still, the northern Rhône appellation of Cornas demands short-term cellaring: aggressive to the point of affrontery in youth, it grows mildly refined with age. This wine was a purple-black color, with very very smokey blackcurrant roasted meat flavors. I wrote down the word “Animal.” But it had a surprising youthful acidity on attack, and while full-bodied and powerful, offered up restraint and elegance too, settling down over the course of an evening, while maintaining its fire and rustic charm throughout. Cornas is the ugly runt of the Northern Rhône red appellations; even with cellaring, it never emerges as civilized as than a finely aged Côte Rotie or Hermitage. But then it’s less expensive too. And it satisfies those who like their red wines to maintain a certain savagery.

If Côte Rotie and Hermitage sit at the top of the Northern Rhône wine tree, and Cornas in the middle, St-Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage are the region’s entry-level wines, more readily affordable and more easily enjoyable in their youth. (Syrah is the only red grape grown in the northern Rhône; Côte Rotie allows for up to 20% Viognier into the blend.) Of the two, I generally find St-Joseph to offer up the prettier wines, and so I bought this bottle despite my negative feelings towards the 2003 heatwave vintage. A neophyte would surely be impressed but this was one seriously dark and alcoholic Syrah, more like a baby Cornas than a mature St-Joseph. Aromas of burned bacon and roasted meats and spicy pepper were all echoed on the palate. Guests who came over for dinner appreciated its full flavors, but in my mind, it lacked the subtlety I typically look for from this wine. Puchased: Sip Fine Wine, Park Slope.

A Cornas that tastes like it should; a St-Joseph that tastes like a Cornas. Two surprisingly similar examples of Syrah.

My German friend strode into Stonehome in Fort Greene in late June with a markedly decisive pronouncement: “I’m in the mood for a Crozes-Hermitage 2003,” he said, and luckily for him, the bar had a big enough wine list to satisfy him. I voiced my fears about the vintage but the bartender quickly rushed to allay them. I wish he had not. For, Like the St-Joseph, this was an atypically ripe version of a traditionally soft wine; less expressive than the St.-Jo, I found it unpleasantly hot, though it nonetheless met with instant approval from my friends. The German was soon wearing it on his team shirt which I assure him (and you) had nothing to do with the wine or his nationality and everything to do with my own poncy attempt to swirl wine while holding forth in conversation. Stay clear of me if you see me at Stonehome.

From the Southern Rhône valley now, where Côtes du Rhônes are typically a blend dominated by Grenache, the renowned co-op
of Domaine D’Andezon offers up one of the region’s few pure Syrahs. Certainly there’s an argument to be made that Southern Rhône producers, used to hot summers, fared better with the dreaded 2003 heatwave than the vignerons up in the northern Rhône appellations of St-Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage, as this particular Syrah wore its ripeness comfortably. Almost black in color, with a strong peppery nose, a slightly herbal attack, smooth tannins, and a strong and relatively alcoholic finish, it’s the type of wine I’d happily open for a barbeque. You used to be able to find it for $10, but even at the rapidly inflated price of $14, it’s a steal. Purchased: The Wine Steward, Shokan.

Enough of 2003 and these oddball ‘baked’ wines. But I haven’t been that greatly impressed with 2004 either; for all that the professional wine critics have been heralding it a “return to normality” in France and the rest of Central Europe, I’ve found the wines to be almost equally big in character and alcohol. But the Château du Trignon is a marvelous exception. From a renowned Gigondas producer, this wine was a deep lemon-yellow color, with a nose emitting a seriously perfumed nose full of orange blossom and summer flowers, suggesting an atypically high percentage of Viognier, Marsanne and/or Roussanne. There was reasonable acidity to this 14% ABV wine, with good solid body that tasted of peaches and cream and apples and pears, and a stony resonance to it too. A magnificent advertisement for the generally maligned Côtes du Rhône whites, this was also one hell of a great food wine. Purchased at the miniscule Uva, a good reason to visit Williamsburg.

Côtes du Rhônes: Still among the greatest values in the world. The Domaine D’Andezon is atypically 100% Syrah; the Château du Trignon 2004 is a superlative white blend.

Finally, word is already out that the 2005 vintage has been especially kind to the rosés. Based on my first two samples, this time I’ll agree with the so-called experts. The 2005 DOMAINE LA JANASSE CÔTES DU RHÔNE hails from property bordering the estate’s Châteauneuf du Pape vineyards. It looked so pretty in pink, trapped in the bottle, that it was all I could do not to open it on first sight. Fortunately, I saved it until there were some glasses near by and some food on the grill. Dominated by Grenache, but with a healthy dollop of Syrah there too, it gave off just the right amount of strawberry and cherry notes to meet expectations. Simple and arguably even one-dimensional, it’s nonetheless a lovely summer quaff.

More expressive is the MAS DE GOURGONNIER LES BEAUX DE PROVENCE. For reasons I can no longer explain, I trashed the 2000 vintage while posting my feature on Southern Rhône Rosés, but I have no such complaints about the 2005. A deep salmon color, with a strawberry herbal nose, it was light in acidity, but immediately strong on the palate, its strawberry and cherry flavors so redolent I felt like I was chewing on the actual fruit. A good depth of flavor, a dry stony elegance and a crisp, lightly spicy wine all served to render this a serious rosé many volumes above the cheaper Provencal pinkies generally favored by tourists. It helps, certainly, that the village of Les Beaux is one of the most attractive in all of Provence, and that the local wine-makers, almost to a man – and many a woman, such as Mme Nicolas Cartier of Mas de Gourgonnier – practice organic and biodynamic farming. Both these rosés were purchased at Chambers Street Wines for $14; a combination of a falling dollar and the Rhône’s increased reputation have moved such bottles beyond the everyday purchase into the category of slightly special occasions. But if you’re looking for quality rosé – and in summer, who isn’t? – it’s worth coughing up the extra few dollars. Particularly in the 2005 vintage, you can certainly taste the difference.

The 2005 vintage is turning out some beautiful rosés, just in time for barbeque season.

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