Northern Rhone Red: The Original Syrah

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.

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For more than 25 years, The California Wine Club founders Bruce and Pam Boring have explored all corners of California’s wine country to find award-winning, handcrafted wine to share with the world. Each month, the club features a different small family winery and hand selects two of their best wines for members.