Recent Rhônes: Four from the North
Usually you find me writing (and raving) about wines from the Southern Rhône, but make no mistake: those of the Northern Rhône are among the finest in the world. Unfortunately, at least when it comes to Hermitage and Côte Rôtie, they’re also among some of the most expensive. The wines of Cornas, St.-Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage – all of them pure Syrah, the only red grape legally grown in the northern Rhône – are not exactly cheap either, but at least they pack a serious quality without burning too big a hole in your wallet. Three of the following four wines recently came out of storage, where they’d matured nicely; the other was brought to dinner as a gift by someone who knows that I love the wines of St.-Joseph almost as much as I do life itself!
J.L. CHAVE ST.-JOSEPH “OFFERUS” 2004
Jean-Louis Chave is considered by many to be the finest wine-maker across the Northern Rhône, mainly for his Hermitage – but also for this top-level St.-Joseph. Dark ruby purple with good legs. A potent nose of meat, the tell-tale “bacon” aroma perhaps a little more burned than in a Côte Rôtie (which tends to be a more delicate wine), with a considerable herbal touch, a lean mineral streak but also some black-currant fruit wafting up from the nose too. The palate brought forth more of this fruit, raspberries and strawberries dancing with the blackberry and blackcurrant, all complementing an otherwise taut, meaty, classically Syrah profile. Very acidic too, yet with plenty tannin sticking to the cheeks and a long long juicy finish to round it all off. It’s no surprise that this is considered the benchmark St.-Joseph: it has everything you would expect from the appellation and more. It could easily go a few years in the cellar, but allowed to breathe in either the glass or the bottle, and sipped slowly, especially with the right food, it proves nothing short of magnificent.
ALAIN GRAILLOT CROZES-HERMITAGE, 1999
Don’t be confused by the name: the wines of Crozes Hermitage rarely come close to the quality of those from Hermitage proper. (In fact I generally consider St.-Joseph, which sells at a similar price point to Crozes, the superior appellation.) There is one true star among the local wine-makers, however, and that is Alain Graillot, who had never made wine before moving to the Crozes area, buying up some acreage and, from his first vintage in 1985, almost single-handedly raising the appellation’s profile. Graillot’s wines (he makes a more expensive red, La Guiraude, when the vintage demands it, and a white that I have never seen) are known for being delicious while young but also going the long haul, as proven by this 1999.
A black wine with a very meaty aroma, it was more like a serious St-Joseph or even a youngish Hermitage than the usual cheap Crozes. The aroma opened up with some olives, which I always love in my Syrah, and then some of that burned bacon we typically get from the northern Rhône. Very lean, quite austere, very mineral, quite markedly serious. To be honest, it could have gone a lot longer in the cellar, for while only some of the fruit had dissipated, and while it had not dumbed down, nor had it turned into something spectacular. But that’s not to demean it; this was the kind of brooding dark wine that suggested it had a story or two to tell; and if you couldn’t hear it doing so, it’s an ideal wine to sip on while letting others do the talking. The Graillots have edged up in price close to the $30 mark, but when you taste one, you understand why; these are truly excellent wines.
JEAN LIONNET, CORNAS, DOMAINE DE ROCHEPERTUIS, 1997:
Cornas is the dark horse of the Northern Rhône: literally so, the wines often being black as night in their youth, offering up a wild, savage aroma and taste that turns some people off and encourages others to let them sit for a decade so. (I did, however, once have a friend who thought young Cornas was the greatest wine in the world; some of us vegetarians need to satisfy our cravings for raw bloody animals as best we can!) So, around the year 2000, I picked up this relatively unacclaimed Cornas, probably for about $25, and put it down for the best part of a decade. I opened it in advance of special guests coming over the holidays, and initially I hesitated on whether to serve it, the wine seemed so violently backwards and acidic (even after all this time). But we warmed up to it with a lovely Bordeaux and by the time we got to the Cornas we were well in the mood for such a rustic drink.
The color was a dark, bloody red with noticeable brick starting to emerge. The nose was stubbornly awkward to begin with, the harsh acidity seeming to have its own aroma that dominated everything. But given time to breathe, it offered up a wild texture heavy on the herbs and meat, light on the fruit, with chewy tannins still highly prevalent. I’d figured a decade after bottling was a good time to drink this, but I think now that it could have gone much further. Certainly a wine that needed some contact with air to come good. I’m not sure if this qualified as great Cornas, as my experience with the appellation is relatively limited; I had hoped it was going to come out of this decade of maturity offering up something a little more sophisticated. Instead, it remained the same wild wine Cornas is famous for in its youth, and if that’s your style – and I enjoy it, especially in winter – it was a wine well kept.
ERIC TEXIER, CÔTES DU RHÔNE BRÉZÈME, VIEILLES VIGNES, 2000
Brézème is a near-forgotten village in the northern Rhône allowed to add its own name to the Côtes du Rhône appellation. (Read more about it here.) Negociant Eric Texier – who seems to have made wine from every one of the many Côtes du Rhône Villages – caused some controversy when he first re-discovered Brézème. His Vieilles Vignes wines were so acidic that those who opened them warned the rest of us to age them several years, while a basic Brézème I bought fell apart within a year or two and turned out to be undrinkable. So, all things considered, I was pretty nervous about opening this. To my delight – and especially in comparison to these eminently serious wines mentioned above – it was a bright, exuberantly fruity (almost giddily so) Syrah, like a Saint-Joseph given extra doses of sugar candy. For all that we sometimes think of syrah as a black fruit wine, with that bacon-like aroma that I keep referencing (when you smell it, you won’t think of anything else!), this one conjured up images of chocolate strawberries with bright acidity, the combination such that my wife suggested it tasted sweet. The most amazing thing about this wine was its youthful excitement; despite its age, it was like opening up a well-made cool climate Syrah – and yet there was probably a few teaspoonfuls of tannin floating around in our various glasses and the eventually emptied bottle. A treat – and vindication for occasionally cellaring wines that don’t necessarily look like they demand it. I gather that the Vieilles Vignes has been renamed “Pergault,” and I am hearing positive reports about the more recent vintages of everyday bottle too – which would be by far the least expensive of the four Syrahs profiled here. Buy it if you find it.