It’s summer, which means that for three months we say goodbye to rich, heavy red wines and welcome into our repertoire zippy whites and crisp roses to sip on the porch while soaking in the sun. That’s what most of the country does, at least. But not here. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, whose summer comes in the fall and spring, whose spring comes in the winter, and whose winter comes in the summer (and whose fall never comes).
So rather than write about rosé de pinot noir and pouilly-fumé like most of my fellow francophiles, I’m pulling out syrahs from the Northern Rhone, whose bold, hearty flavors pair perfectly with a chilly, overcast June evening.
The Northern Rhone Valley lies a few miles upstream on the Rhone River from the better-known southern regions of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, and their little brother Côtes du Rhone. While the Southern Rhone specializes in grenache (usually blending it with minority portions of syrah, mourvèdre, and cinsault), Northern Rhone reds are composed of almost exclusively syrah.
Big deal, you might say. Syrahs are everywhere these days. California’s opulent Central Coast syrahs frequent restaurant lists and retail shelves throughout the nation. Australia’s high-octane Barossa shirazes dominate the import market (“shiraz” is the same grape as “syrah”; the term “shiraz” is fashionable in the southern hemisphere, whereas the northern hemisphere tends to prefer the traditional “syrah”). Other southern wine-growing regions like South Africa, Chile, Argentina, and even Mexico have experienced some shiraz success recently. Syrah-based ports are all the rage in places like Amador County, Calaveras County and El Dorado Hills.
But the Northern Rhone is not just one more region feeding the syrah craze. The Northern Rhone is to syrah what Burgundy is to pinot noir and chardonnay; what Bordeaux is to cabernet sauvignon and merlot; and what the Loire is to cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc – the place where it all began.
Not only that, a typical Northern Rhone red differs markedly from any other region’s typical syrah. For one, French vintners will sometimes blend in a little of the white grape viogner (rarely more than 5 or 10%, never exceeding 25%) to add a floral quality to the otherwise smoky, robust red wines.
Also, there’s something about these wines that weds power and finesse, a prized commodity in the wine world. Northern Rhone syrahs exhibit the deep, rich fruit that you’d expect from a region that gets lots of sun exposure; but they also possess the seductive silky texture you’d expect from a region just a little south of Burgundy. Likewise, they exude the earthy, even gamey flavors typical of Rhone vines; but they are also endowed with a clean, mineral character and a structure that suggest an elegant rusticity. While this kind of layered, complex balance is characteristic of Northern Rhone syrah, it is the exception rather than the rule among Californian and especially Australian shiraz.
Unlike most New World syrah, the vineyards of the Northern Rhone are planted on very steep slopes, some with a gradation in excess of 60 degrees, making even basic viticulture tasks a challenge. But these taxing conditions also promise great rewards to winemakers willing to make a go of it. Steep vineyards characterize some of the best wine regions in the world, including Barolo and Barbaresco, parts of Northern California, certain plots in Burgundy, Bandol, and the Mosel and Nahe in Germany. Wines from vines on steep slopes often deliver unique flavor nuances that make them especially worth seeking out. (Don’t believe me? Taste and compare Napa cabernet sauvignons from the Valley floor with those from nearby Mt. Vedeer.)
Although syrahs fitting this Northern Rhone profile can increasingly be found at high elevations in California’s cool Sonoma Coast region, these tend be priced fairly high. My wife and I were dining at a nice San Francisco restaurant the other week, and the sommelier suggested a half-bottle of syrah from the Sonoma Coast. I told him of my distaste for alcoholic, juicy syrahs and of my interest in Northern Rhone. He said that if ever a wine were to convert me to New World syrah, this was it. And he was right – it was elegant and clean, rich but restrained, reflecting the cool temperature in which its grapes were grown and the careful attention with which it was made. But the wine retails for over $60 – which isn’t bad for brilliant California syrah, but twice the price of a wine of similar quality from the Northern Rhone.
So let’s say I’ve convinced you that Northern Rhones are special and you want to try one. What should you buy?
First off, don’t go looking for “Northern Rhone” on a bottle label – it’ll never be printed there. The area known as the Northern Rhone is made up of eight distinct regions, each of which has its own legal designation that marks its bottles. The major syrah-producing regions in the Rhone include (from north to south) Côte Rôtie, St. Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage, Hermitage, and Cornas.
Which of these regions you choose to buy depends in large part on your budget. Côte Rôtie and Hermitage are the most famous and highly regarded of these wines, and also the most expensive. They age exceedingly well and are among the most prized wines in France. I rarely drink them because I have trouble justifying spending over $50 (and in some cases well over $100) on a single bottle of wine. (I did drink a 2004 Côte Rôtie recently that I found for only $35, and it was fairly disappointing.) But if you’re willing to shell out the cash and you want to try the best the Northern Rhone has to offer, enjoy!
Cornas tends to be less expensive than Côte Rôtie and Hermitage, but it’s still pretty pricey. The cheapest Cornas I’ve ever seen cost around $30. The real value is found in the remaining two regions – St. Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage – and it’s these wines that I recommend to the savvy shopper. Good examples can be found easily in the $20 to $30 range, which although on the higher end of the bargain spectrum, is far less than you’d pay for a comparable Californian syrah.
So which is better – Crozes-Hermitage or St. Joseph? Within the general flavor profile of Northern Rhone syrah that I described above, St. Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage are stylistic opposites. St. Joseph, which on average tends to be a few dollars more per bottle than its counterpart, is generally the richer, more powerful of the two wines. Its blueberry fruit flavor is stronger and its earthiness more pronounced. Those who love robust red wines tend to prefer St. Joseph for that reason. By contrast, Crozes is more restrained. But its restraint gives it a delicate quality that reveals intense floral aromas and flavors that might otherwise not have surfaced. Whenever I drink Crozes, I feel as if I have a garden of violets and lavender in my mouth, with flits of soil dancing about on my tongue. It’s a delightful sensation that is not everyone’s cup of tea (some have called it “interesting” rather than “delightful”), but it suits my palate nicely.
Every month, my wife and I have a wine-themed dinner with two other couples. In May, we paired Northern Rhone syrah with paprika-seasoned filet mignon wrapped in pancetta. The Crozes-Hermitage (2005 Emmanuel Darnaud, $24), lighter and cleaner than the St. Joseph, was the best sipping wine and my personal favorite. Sipping the St. Joseph (2004 Cave de Chante-Perdix, $21), by contrast, caused one of our party to exclaim “So dirty!” – creating the surprisingly versatile moniker “dirty as a St. Joseph.” It was kind of dirty, but it also was much better with the steak, since the paprika spice matched its earthiness, the fat-rich pancetta paired with its game flavors, and the tender meat complemented its pronounced fruit.
Of course these wines’ virtues are also their vices when taken to the extreme. At their worst, St. Joseph is musty or overripe and Crozes is bland or astringent. But at their best, they represent the depth and diversity of Northern Rhone syrah at prices that won’t break the bank.
Syrah is actually a terrific summer wine because it pairs well with grilled foods. Low-alcohol syrah like that of the Northern Rhone is even more versatile, because it isn’t overcome by the spice and sweetness of many marinades. So don’t feel that because it’s hot outside you have to forgo robust red wines. Northern Rhones deserve to be drunk in every season. Likewise, if you’re mourning fifty degree June evenings as I am, cozy up to a bottle of Northern Rhone and wash your blues away with the best syrah twenty bucks can buy.