Northern Rhone Red: The Original Syrah

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.
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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.