Syrah: King of the Northern Rhône

by Alex Beaumont
Vendanges Duclaux

Côte Rôtie vineyards are planted on very steep slopes that have to be manually harvested.
(Image from Domaine Duclaux)

There is a lot of excitement around the imminent release of our Rhône 2019 EP campaign, from customers and L&S staff alike, and for good reason. As France’s second largest AOC (after Bordeaux), the Rhône boasts a total of 52 different winemaking communes, however it is only those located in the Northern Rhône (which account for just 5% of total production) that are the focus of this offer.

Northern Rhône: a Burgundian print?

Although it is geographically close to the Southern Rhône, that is where the similarities end. In actual fact, the Northern Rhône is much more akin to Burgundy in spirit and has built a strong following from Burgundy fans in recent years. In the communes of the Northern Rhône, winegrowers battle the same continental climate conditions as Burgundy, with fiercely warm summers (sometimes exceeding 40°C) and harsh winters. Not as extreme as the Southern Rhône, its higher latitude means it benefits from the effects of the Mistral (the cooling wind that sweeps south down the Rhône Valley).
You will find many growers employing the same viticultural and vinification techniques, in particular the inclusion of whole bunches during red wine fermentation to give their reds freshness, lift and grip.
I believe the most significant point to make is that, unlike the Southern Rhône’s blends, the reds of the Northern Rhône (apart from Côte Rôtie where a small percentage of white Viognier may be added to the Syrah) are produced from a single varietal. In Burgundy, Pinot Noir is praised for being able to express ‘a sense of place’ or ‘terroir’ and by the same standard, the dark-skinned Syrah is the vessel for the expression of terroir in the Northern Rhône.

Syrah is a cool grape

Back in the day we were told that Syrah was so called because it came from Shiraz in Persia (now Iran), and has been brought to the Rhône by Phoenician merchants – which explains how it came by the name Shiraz when planted in the New World. It is now widely accepted that Syrah is the result of a crossing between Dureza from Ardèche (father) and Mondeuse Blanche (mother) from the Alpine region of Savoie. Could its maternal parentage from a cool climate region be the reason it thrives in the funnel like valleys of the Northern Rhône as opposed to the flat plains of the Southern Rhône?

In a continental climate it can also expertly translate the nuances of vintage variation, displaying high toned aromatics in fairer years and opulent black fruits in more extreme heat.

In the wines of 2019, you will find the latter. It is a vintage defined by drought resulting in bold, sumptuous reds. In comparison to the wines of 2018, they exhibit slightly more elegance thanks to more stable temperatures and moderate levels of rainfall that came in late July and mid-August. In the southern reaches of the Northern Rhône there were some localised spots of hail which can have an affect on both quality and quantity, however the best producers are able to overcome any qualitative problems.

It is a wonder with such adverse conditions that the 2019’s show such quality, yet pricing remains debatably the fairest of major French wine producing regions. The unparalleled value on offer will make 2019 Rhône wines hard to resist and it is for this reason that we’re so excited about their upcoming release.

Northern Rhône: a land of AOC & IGP

There are 5 appellations that give life to Syrah, each with their own quirks and idiosyncrasies, but if you are new to the Northern Rhône, a great place to start is with the wines of the Collines Rhodaniennes IGP.

Northern Rhone appelation map

Map of the Northern Rhône

Collines Rhodaniennes IGP

Often labelled purely as Syrah, the fruit is sourced from a number of sites up and down the Northern Rhône that neighbour the best designated vineyards. They can therefore give you a good insight into what to expect, without having to commit to great investment.

Although not included in our Rhône EP campaign, it is worth mentioning the fantastic ‘Terres de Mandrin’ from Jeanne Gaillard. Jeanne is the daughter of famed vigneron Pierre Gaillard, who in turn cut his teeth working for the Guigal family, arguably one of the most prolific families in the Rhône Valley.

This cuvée takes its name from Louis Mandrin, a character in local folklore of “Robin Hood” status. It is aptly cheeky, light on its feet and incredibly giving (without taking from the rich!). A brilliant example of what good Northern Rhône Syrah can be in its youth. Peppery and juicy with bounds of energy.

Once you are ready to explore Syrah’s full potential, it’s important to understand the subtle differences in terroirs of the Northern Rhône.

Côte-Rôtie

The northernmost appellation of Côte Rôtie is defined by its vineyard’s positions on steep, south facing slopes (Côte-Rôtie literally translates as “roasted slopes”).
In the north you will find high proportions of clay in the soil which produces the most muscular wines. Moving south the profile changes to encompass more sand and granite, which translates into high-toned aromatics.

Duclaux Cote rotie tupinThis is evident in wines of Benjamin and David Duclaux whose 2018 wines will be in this year’s offer, as they only offer once the wines are bottled. Now fourth generation of their family, these brothers expertly farm their 5.8 hectares of vines above Tupin-et-Semon (just below Ampuis). Their winemaking style is gentle and aims to showcase the natural elegance gifted to them by the terroir of south Côte-Rôtie.

In Joe Czerwinski’s report for RobertParker.com, he singled out the Duclaux’s 2018 Coteau de Tupin cuvée, then unnamed: ‘Benjamin Duclaux showed me a single barrel of wine that may be bottled separately, hence the 2018 Côte Rôtie Unnamed Cuvée. Nearly all undestemmed, it’s a bit vegetal (in a good way!) and complex, with plenty of silky tannin supporting raspberry fruit, hints of tea leaves and pressed violets. Full-bodied, with a long, firmly structured finish, it will be a special wine if the brothers choose to bottle it on its own.’ 95-98 points.

Saint-Joseph

The appellation of Saint-Joseph stretches 30 miles along the western banks of the Rhône and is known for producing some of the best value wines in the Northern Rhône. Much like Côte Rôtie, it features two different soil profiles. Clay and granite dominate in the north and marl (a mix of clay with limestone) and granite in the south. The addition of limestone in the mix tends to bring out Syrah’s overt spiciness – think aromatic Szechuan pepper!

Saint Joseph Domaine BottWe are very excited to receive our third vintage from a new relatively new Domaine, G&J Bott. We first came across the New Zealand native Graeme Bott 8 years ago when he was Chef de Cave for the world-renowned Stéphane Ogier. Graeme and wife, Julie, met whilst working for Stéphane and decided to start their own project in 2015, earning the name “Les Kiwis d’Ampuis”. They have been resourceful in their site selection and their vineyard holdings now total 6 hectares, including vines planted in their own back garden (in Condrieu) and abandoned sites ravaged by phylloxera that were never replanted.

The Bott style is sleek and modern and their Saint-Joseph is no different. From sites in the north of the appellation, it is full bodied and round with a good tannic structure thanks to 25% inclusion of whole bunches. Awarding a score of 90 points, Matt Walls writes ‘An attractive, perfumed style of Saint-Joseph. Rounded and generous on the palate with good acidity. Full-bodied, quite massy with textural tannins.’

Crozes-Hermitage

Located east of Saint-Joseph across the river, is the appellation of Crozes-Hermitage. This is the largest appellation in the Northern Rhône and the vineyards on the eastern side of the river produce Syrahs with more pronounced acidity.

papillon crozes hermitageThis freshness is abundant in Gilles Robin’s Crozes-Hermitage Papillon Rouge. Gilles Robin took over his family business in 1994 at the age of 24, however winemaking at the estate dates back to 1920 when Gilles great-grandfather (Louis Pasquion) decided to make wine for his own personal consumption.
In the spring of 2001 Gilles first daughter was born and to mark the occasion he decided to produce a light and fruity cuvée. At the same time, he had a plot of young Syrah vines coming into production in Crozes-Hermitage and thus the “Butterfly” (Papillon) cuvée was realised.

The 2019 vintage tasted by Richard Hemming scored an impressive 16.5+ points. Tasted blind, he writes: ‘Smoked bacon fat and sweet spice with a creamy note on the nose. Lovely streak of black pepper and clove and a creamy ripe mouthfeel, the tannins are quite present but will intergrade. A black-olive note to the mineral drenched finish’.

Hermitage

Crozes-Hermitage wraps itself around the hill of Hermitage, which is arguably the jewel in the crown of the Northern Rhône. They are also the wines with the most structure and will reward those who can cellar between 5 – 10 years or more before opening. The region takes its name from local legend of a wounded 13th Century crusader, who retreated up the hill, making it his stronghold. As he lived alone, the hill was named ‘Hermit’s Hill’ (or Hermitage). The appellation is

Cornas

Our final stop, and the most southernly appellation is Cornas. Located on the western banks of the Rhône (south of Saint-Joseph), it takes its name from the Celtic word for ‘burnt earth’. Cornas produces the boldest and most tannic wines of the Northern Rhône and arguably the best of those are produced from vineyards in the north, on steep clay and granitic soils. As you move south, the soil profile changes to include more sand. Here the fruit produces wines with less power and structure but with more accessibility in their youth.

Cornas Terre Brulée

A producer to watch from the region of Cornas is Domaine Lionnet and we are pleased to offer their stellar 2019’s as their second vintage with L&S. The Domaine is run by Ludovic Izerable and his wife Corrine Lionnet. Corrine’s family have been farming in Cornas since the late 1500’s, but since she took the helm with Ludovic in 2003, they have been making conscious and smart changes to operations whilst still respecting tradition. In 2008 they began to covert to organic viticulture, gaining certification in 2012. The vineyards are worked by horse and plough and in the winery the fruit is left as whole bunches and ferments happily with its native yeasts.
These small, but qualitative changes have enhanced the traditional style of their Cornas wines, whilst bringing a lightness of touch that brings freshness where so many of their contemporaries lack.

Their Terre Brûlée Cornas is their flagship cuvée. Terre Brûlée translates ‘burnt earth’ and is a direct reference to their location in Cornas. It is a love letter to their heritage and tradition, always inky black, concentrated and chocolatey with firm tannins that will unwind over time.

There is much to unpack in the 2019’s of the Northern Rhône and truly something for everyone whether you are looking at early drinking or cellaring away.

To receive information on pricing and availability when the offer goes live, please register here.

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