The Rhône River begins its life way to the north in Switzerland. As it makes it way down through the length of France, it widens to become the central feature of the Rhône valley, which spans roughly between Lyons and Avignon. The Rhône valley divides neatly into north/south regions at the town of Valence. The Northern and Southern Rhône regions’ climate, topography and soil types are quite distinct. The Northern Rhône is a land of steep, steep slopes carved into granite hillsides by the progress of the river over thousands of years. Vines cling to near vertical surfaces, or terraces carved into the rock. Along with those in Germany's Mosel Valley, the vineyards here are amongst the steepest and most difficult to work in the world. It is predominantly a red wine area, and for lovers of Syrah, the Northern Rhône wines are the standard-bearers. The eight AOCs that make up the Northern Rhône – Cote Rotie, Condrieu, Chateau Grillet, St. Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage, Hermitage, Cornas and St. Péray (from north to south) – run along a 45-mile stretch of the Rhône River from Vienne to Valence, with most of the vineyards planted on the river’s stunningly steep western banks. The wines from these appellations are famed for their high quality, and for the dramatic change in character that takes place from youth to maturity. When the red wines are young, they are tannic and intensely spicy, with aggressive tar and fresh ground pepper flavors and aromas. As they age, the wines develop depth and richness and display their distinctive underlying blackberry, currant and smoky notes.
Syrah has been grown in the Rhône Valley of France for many centuries, where it has recently had a resurgence of popularity. Only 3,300 acres remained in 1958, but by the mid-1990s, plantings in southern France had increased to more than 86,000 acres. The grape is well adapted to a wide range of viticultural temperature regions and wine styles. It is quite vigorous and thrives when given warm days, poor soils, and sun. Because Syrah is so vigorous, it requires extra canopy management (to expose the fruit to the sun for ripening) and aggressive crop thinning. Unlike most other varietals, its canes extend down toward the ground rather than up toward the sun.
Our Red Rogues Club features Syrah from three Northern Rhône appellations: Crozes-Hermitage, Saint-Joseph, and Cornas. As Eric Asminov of the NY Times writes, “Syrah is now grown all over the world, and exceptional wines are made with it in California and in Washington, in Australia and in South Africa, in the Languedoc and in Italy. Yet as good as those wines can be in their individual ways, they rarely display the glorious, almost primitive flavors of stone and iron wrapped in a savory package, which are very much the province of the northern Rhône.”
When it comes to matching with food, Syrah from the Northern Rhône does best with red meats like beef and lamb, and recipes that require putting a pot on the stove and letting it simmer. Rich hearty stews, roasts and grilled meats work best, since an intensely-flavored wine like Syrah needs full-flavored dishes to prevent the food from being overpowered. Recipes that incorporate marinades or braises with plenty of herbs and spices will mirror the spicy, peppery characteristics of Syrah.
Surrounding the hills of Hermitage is the largest appellation of Northern Rhône, Crozes-Hermitage, covering almost 3,700 acres. The appellation is composed of three geologic terrains, each yielding a differing style of wine. The best and most structured wines come from vines overlying the narrow exposure of granite. Other soils contain glacial alluvium, pebbles and stones deposited in the area by glaciers. To the east of Hermitage, the soils display a mixture of clay, sand and loess that are ideally suited to the white grapes of Hermitage, Marsanne and Roussanne. AOC laws allow up to 15% of these white grapes to be added to the Syrah, adding complexity to the red wine. Finally, the terrain to the southeast is a series of Quaternary terraces that support Cotes du Rhône appellation reds and whites.
Representing the third generation of her family to have answered the call of northern Rhône Syrah, Christelle Betton manages 15 acres of vines in Crozes-Hermitage and one-third acre of vines in Hermitage. Her skills come naturally, having watched her grandfather and father care for their vines, plowing the fields by hand, and farming as naturally as possible. Today Christelle farms her land organically but is not certified. She prefers the flexibility of allowing the earth to tell her what it needs, and when. Christelle has greatly refined the family’s house style, and her wines are excellent representatives of Crozes-Hermitage, deliciously drinkable and abundantly perfumed.
The soils of Domaine Betton’s vineyards in La Roche de Glun are alluvial, with many “galets roulés” commonly found along the Rhône River valley (and most commonly in Châteauneuf-du-Pape). The area is also very dry, which is why the Betton family has for years plowed the land by hand, to better train their vines’ roots to dig deep in the rocky soils. Also, vineyards are well-exposed to the cold northern “mistral” winds from the Alps, helping preserve freshness and acidity in the grapes.
When it’s time to harvest, the grapes are picked by hand in small crates, and stored in a cool room for 24 hours before placing in tank. Fermentation happens on indigenous yeasts. Christelle uses only older French oak barrels (from four to eight years-old) sourced from white Burgundy producers to age her wines. Wines are typically aged in barrel for one year and are bottled unfined and unfiltered.
Domaine Betton’s 2018 Crozes-Hermitage “Espiégle” is vibrant and bright, capturing the essence of the grape from its soil type. (“Espiégle” means playful or mischievous in French.) Made from 100% Syrah, the grapes come from the Domaine’s youngest vines. The wine offers aromas of summer berries, light earth, and peppery spice. On the palate, initial savory earthy notes with fresh acidity, a touch of pepper, and subtle cherry and blueberry fruit are framed by fine youthful tannins and well-integrated oak. The wine finishes with a hint of mint on the lingering juicy finish. While enjoyable now, Betton’s 2018 Crozes-Hermitage “Espiégle” will continue to improve over the next 3-5 years.
Three great appellations begin about 15 miles south of Lyons. They range along the right bank of the Rhone and are, from north to south: the famous Cote Rotie, Condrieu, and St. Joseph. In Cote Rotie and St Joseph, the Syrah varietal reigns supreme. Saint-Joseph, the long and large appellation of the northern Rhône Valley, second only to Crozes-Hermitage in size, was created as an appellation in 1956. It stretches 40 miles along the west bank of the Rhône River, and includes 26 villages and towns from Condrieu on the north to Cornas and St.-Péray on the south. The appellation encompasses many different terroirs, from steep granite slopes to loamy flatlands. The best wines come from the crumbling granite soils on hillsides so steep that they must be plowed by cable and winch, and some are even too steep for that. The original appellation of St.-Joseph joined the hillside vineyards of six communes—Tournon, Mauves, Glun, Lemps, Vion and St.-Jean-de-Muzols—totaling approximately 250 acres. Today, St.-Joseph covers almost 30,000 acres.
Domaine de Gouye, established as an estate winery back in 1933, is run by Philippe Debos, a third-generation vigneron from the tiny village of Saint-Jean de Muzols. It is an exciting estate producing wines that compare more to the greats from Hermitage, which is almost directly across the river and visible from Desbos’ driveway. The Domaine gets its name from the lieu-dit it sits in above St-Jean de Muzols. (Lieu dit is a French term referring to a specific part of a vineyard or region recognized for its own topographic or historical specificities.) Philippe is a true-blue, hands-on vigneron. Probably the most modern tools he has are the mechanical winches he uses for plowing some of his steepest parcels. At Domaine de Gouye, winemaking follows time-tested tradition, not because it’s romantic but because it’s the “most efficient,” says Philippe. The estate consists of 3 hectares planted between 1955 and 1975. The family farms manually and uses almost no herbicides. They plow by horse, a gentler practice that is also still very efficient for these hill-side vines. About 7,000 bottles are produced annually, a majority of which is St-Joseph rouge.
The grapes for Domaine de Gouye’s 2017 Saint-Joseph “Vielle Vignes” come from older vines that sit at 1,050 feet above sea level, surrounding the family house and cellars, on a steep, south-facing slope. Soils are mostly decomposed granite. After the grapes are hand-harvested, full-cluster fruit is crushed by foot and fermented on indigenous yeasts in upright oak fermenters in the family’s naturally cold cellar dug into the granite hillside. Pressing is completed in an old 1868 press. The wine is then aged in older, neutral French oak barrels for 16 months. The finished wine is bottled unfined and unfiltered.
Domaine de Gouye’s 2017 Saint-Joseph “Vielle Vignes”, made of 100% Syrah, is focused, minerally, perfumed, and loaded with energy. It exhibits fabulous detail and purity with blackberry, boysenberry, blueberry, damson plum and currant fruits complimented by crunchy mineral, peppercorns, liquid violets, anise and a faint hint of camphor and leather/earthiness. The tannins are remarkably refined, though structured. The wine has all the necessary components to age another 5-10 years, even though elegantly accessible now.
Cornas sits on the steep slopes of the Rhône River. This region is on the west bank alongside the majority of the other wine-producing appellations such as St. Joseph, Condrieu, Chateau Grillet and Côte Rôtie, with only Hermitage and Croze-Hermitage on the eastern banks. Cornas is one the most southern sections or the Northern Rhône, with only the tiny and relatively unknown Saint-Peray with its interesting sparkling wines to the south. After Cornas is the official border of the Southern Rhône. This southerly location means the region is one of the warmest in the whole of the Northern Rhône, (the name is Celtic for "burnt earth"), furthest from the cold Mistral wind that blows down from northern Europe, but still northern enough to not benefit much from cool breezes off the Mediterranean. It’s the earliest-ripening of the Northern Rhône appellations – the first to be harvested each year – and the resulting wines have a reputation as being some of the most concentrated, spicy, rich and tannic of the region. Cornas is the only appellation in the Rhône whose wines are 100% Syrah. No addition of white grapes is allowed, in contrast to all its northern neighbors that often use white grapes to lift the fruit and soften the tannins. Of course, many high-quality producers in other appellations do make 100% Syrah wines, but in Cornas, winemakers have no option. Cornas acquired its AOC status in 1938, and in 1960 the region was expanded considerably. The most important lieu-dits (properties) are le Chaillot, le Renard, la Côte, la Génale, Patou, les Sept Vaux, le Calvaire, and les Mazas.
Cornas is tiny, it has just 94 ha (232 acres) of vines. (Several single estates in Bordeaux exceed this size.) The vineyards, located in the foothills of the Massif Central to the north of Valence and to the west of the village Cornas, are planted with just one grape—Syrah. They cling to the hillside in a half circle (south-southeast location) which forms a kind of natural amphitheater. The majority of the vineyards are terraced for stability and to make viticulture possible, and much of the work is done by hand due to the steep slopes. The granite retains heat and provides rapid drainage and low fertility, which forces the vines to form deep, strong root systems. The soil has a high granite and chalk content, especially in the higher-altitude vineyards in the north, where the wines are fresh and tannic in comparison with those produced in more low-lying vineyards. Then oldest vines are found in the south-facing vineyards in the middle of the Cornas appellation. The soil here contains more gneiss and clay, and consequently the wines are richer and fuller, with ripe, round tannin. The sandier soil in the south has a looser structure; the wines are more supple and aromatic.
The Dumien name can be found mentioned in Cornas as far back as 1515. In 1925, before Cornas was recognized as an AOC in 1938, the family purchased 3.5 hectares of vineyards which constitute their current estate. Most of this land is found in the Patou vineyard, which has primarily granitic soils; the remainder is located in Les Savaux. After years of selling in bulk to negociants such as Delas, Chapoutier and Jaboulet, Domaine Dumien-Serrette began to bottle their own wine in 1983. Today, fourth-generation Nicolas Serrette oversees the estate. Although Serrette isn’t certified organic, they use only organic fertilizer. Nicolas continues to follow family tradition and makes wine the old-fashioned way, refusing to fall victim to modern trends. Grapes are hand-harvested and gently crushed by foot. The grapes are then fermented full cluster on indigenous yeasts in tank and then pressed with an old-fashioned basket press. Wines are aged for approximately one year in older French oak barrels (barrels generally older than six-seven years), and bottled unfined and unfiltered.
Made from 100% Syrah from the lieu-dit Patou, Domaine Dumien-Serrette’ 2017 Cornas “Patou” offers the rare combination of northern Rhône finesse combined with southern sun richness. Ripe, concentrated yet delicate in frame, this Syrah emits aromas of luscious blackberry preserves accentuated by dried lavender, bramble and cacao. Silky on the palate and coated in ripe, chalky tannins, it's an immediately enjoyable yet deeply finessed wine that should improve for another 5-15 years, maybe more.
2017 Domaine de Gouye Saint-Joseph “Vielles Vignes” $36 (club member price)