Northern Rhône Syrah for Autumn
Northern Rhône Syrah has to be THE perfect wine for this tiny bit of autumn weather we are finally experiencing in the southeastern United States. It has meaty, smoky qualities that just beg for a fire pit in the yard and a charcuterie board while some hearty stew simmers on the stove!
Yet, I find that most folks overlook this classic wine. I think it’s perhaps the intimidation factor. The starting price can be relatively high (but worth it), and beyond that it’s a wine region not widely discussed outside of wine nerd circles.
So, I figure a bit of a primer is in order! Firstly, Syrah is the star grape of the Northern Rhône. This is Syrah’s homeland: on the steep granite slopes that start just south of the famed culinary town of Lyon and following the Rhône River south to just past the town of Valence. It is cool here, resulting in elegant Syrah — a far cry from jammier New World versions.
There are a series of subregions, mostly on the western side of the river, but two famed sites do exist on the eastern shore. Each subregion has its own unique set of factors influencing the wine’s character (and price)! And yes, there are white grapes found in the Northern Rhone: Marsanne, Roussanne, and Viognier. They are honestly some of my favorite white wines in the world (but we will save that for another blog)!
Here’s a brief overview of those subregions running north to south:
Côte Rotie: literally means roasted slope; the very steep granite slopes here yield intense, age-worthy wines; this is possibly the most revered subregion alongside Hermitage; there are no white wines produced here; look for names like Clusel-Roch, Rostaing, Levet and Chambeyron (pictured here); mostly under $100 (definitely better with five or more years of bottle age)
Condrieu: an appellation for the aromatic white Viognier; no reds are produced here
Chateau Grillet: also entirely focused on Viognier; tiny appellation nested within Condrieu’s boundaries
Saint-Joseph: a larger appellation that allows red wines from Syrah & white wines from Marsanne & Roussanne; producer and site are very important because the boundaries of this appellation have expanded over time (allowing for some lesser sites) but with the right producer you can find outstanding value here (compared to the pricier subregions of Cote Rotie, Hermitage & Cornas); I especially love relative newcomers Souillard and Cecillon (pictured here) but also look for icons like Chave
Crozes Hermitage: on the eastern bank of the Rhône River; surrounding the iconic Hermitage hill; like St-Joseph this is a rather large geographical area so pay attention to producer and site, and you will also find white wines from Marsanne & Roussanne; Cecillon is a rising star with a site here, but once again Chave has an excellent example
Hermitage: also on the eastern bank of the Rhône River; famed southern facing hill (much like Côte Rotie) that ensures long lasting Syrah that becomes beguiling with time in the cellar; you will also find white wines from Marsanne & Roussanne that can be very age-worthy themselves; Chave and Guigal are possibly the most iconic producers and will be well worth the lofty pricing for a special occasion (definitely better with five or more years of bottle age)
Cornas: the tiny appellation of Cornas focuses entirely on red wine production and can demand much the same reverence as Côte Rotie and Hermitage (yet you hear less about it and thankfully pricing can be a bit more reasonable); I especially love the younger vines creation from Vincent Paris (pictured here), which is a relative bargain (under $50 retail), but there are several highly celebrated producers here that are worth a splurge if you are lucky enough to find them: Clape & Allemand, most notably! (the younger vines example of Paris can be quite delicious in its youth but older vines benefit from five or more years of bottle age)
Saint-Peray: the most southerly appellation and most definitely flying under the radar; focused on sparkling and still from Marsanne/Roussanne