The Holy Grail of French Syrah
Home to some of our most loved regions, (St Josephs, Cote Rotie, Condrieu) this is the benchmark for French Syrah. The only permitted red grape for AC wines in this region, the deep, dark, peppery and gamey wine is sought after in all countries. Not too far from the spotlight: Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne find a home here. The latter often being blended together while Viognier lays claim to the region of Condrieu producing peachy, floral wines. Basing this on my WSET Diploma studies, here is a break down of everything Northern Rhone.
Yes, Portugal and Germany lay claim to steep slopes. However, Northern Rhone isn’t far behind. Constructed of narrow and steep vines planted on a western slope, little mechanization is available. Production costs are much higher as everything has to be done by hand. On top of the steep slopes, the soils are prone to erosion. They even pull the eroded soil back to the top by a pulley system or by themselves! A bucket and a back are all you need to bring the topsoil back to the top. It can get labour intensive quite quickly!
The soils consist of granite bedrock with limestone, clay and alluvial soils closer to the river. Decomposed mica-schist and granite sands are mixed into the patches. The granite retains a lot of heat helping to battle some of the dominating features of the region plus allowing the ambient temperature to be increased, even if just for minutes at a time, during ripening. A strong, cold north wind cools the valley’s known as the Mistral. The disease becomes a problem so vines are staked individually to help combat this effect (eroding soil also take a play in this decision) The wind is so strong vines can have a permanent “windblown” look. Another common practice is Echalas: a teepee-fashion trellising system to support, protect and organize the vine canopy. While Syrah actually tends to droop when growing, the added support is much needed. Every girl needs a good underwire, we could say.
Frost risks are prominent in early spring delaying ripening. Early ripening varieties are planted to assist with the temperature drops of the north. What is a French vineyard without combating hail? Occasionally a problem, they see rain in the spring and late fall. Summer’s are hot but not too hot resulting in sweet, ripe fruit flavours. Rarely the overripe, jammy notes typical in hotter climates. Keeping it old school, red winemaking is dominated by traditional, lengthy maceration and ageing periods. White wines undergo cool fermentations with little oak ageing, if at all.
Starting at the top of the region, you’ll find Cote- Rotie. Translates to “roasted slope”, this is a prime example of an area impossible for mechanization. Dominated by Syrah with up to 20% Viognier being allowed into the blend, these are deep, spicy full-bodied red wines. There is 73 Cru’s in the area so location is key.
Condrieu is all about Viognier. Low yielding old vines are best to find here. While enjoyed young, steep slopes and small production drives a higher price point. Harder to come by, Guigal floods the market as the largest negotiate. Chateau Grillet AC actually is a single vineyard producing oak aged Viognier worthy of some ageing. With one producer, Neyret-Gachet, it’s limited to a mere 10,000 bottles each year.
Saint-Joseph AC is the baby brother of the Northern Rhone. The lightest bodied northern Rhone red you will find, these Syrah’s have spicy and raspberry characters. A little more fresh and floral, you find incredible value in this region. Sitting on the west bank of the river, it is one of the longest regions in the Northern Rhone following the Rhone river. Sloped sites producing the best (as they say, Syrah likes a view) and bulk production seen in the more flat sites.
Crozes-Hermitage surrounds the town of Hermitage. Not to be confused with the AC Hermitage either. This is actually the largest production area in the Northern Rhone. More yields, lighter bodied wines. While there is some treasure’s in here, most are mid-priced wines due to a little less fame and larger volume. This is where you’ll find your simple table wine or a great, robust Syrah. Positioned on the east bank of the river, west facing slopes develop less fruit and more of a tobacco note. East and south facing slopes are where you will find the best wines.
Known as Hermitage Hill, it is home to some of the most exclusive wines. On the east bank of the river on a south facing hill, you will find Syrah with an ageing potential of 50+ years. This is where you will see the famous M.Chapoutier sign on the embankment much like you would the Hollywood sign in LA. The original story consists of a wounded crusader taking refuge in the hills. Named “Hermit’s Hil” for the life of solitude he lived in his quaint chapel on the hillside. Not only about red, white wine blends dominated by Marsanne have a place here. They are full-bodied with a long ageing capacity.
Last but not least, we have Cornas. Perhaps the boldest yet most undervalued red wine region of Northern Rhone. These wine’s will rival Hermitage with most waiting 10+ years to show their true colours. Unlike any other region, it must consist of 100% Syrah. Modern producers are practicing techniques to deliver a softer wine upon release. Some of the best vineyards are located above the city of Cornas where the soils are dominated by granite and clay.
If you are not convinced about exploring this region, well too bad. More for us. There are many great wines to find here if you’re a student, Master or a novice drinker.