The red syrah grape dominates the north Rhone Valley, where Uncorked’s travellers often visit for a first occasion.
In Australia the same grape, known as shiraz, is the country’s most widely planted.
Well let’s not worry about that too much because Northern Rhone drinkers are enjoying syrah and styles completely apart from the domestic Australian drop. The reason is called terroir.
There is a clear definition of where to look for it.
Just drive south on the crowded A7 autoroute until reaching Ampuis, then turn your head right. There you’ll view the steep stone-terraced, single stake vines, growing in granite and clay across the river on the slopes of Cote Rotie (translated as hot hillside).
The geography tells it all, yet the Rotie’s are on the elegant end for Rhone syrah.
There is much talk about Rotie reds containing viognier. They do, but that’s only the old vineyards where this white is interplanted with its red counterpart. Modern re-planted vineyards, say under 40 years, are now all staked with syrah vines.
Further down the A4, about 100 km at Tain l’Hermitage, this time on the near river side is the Hill of Hermitage, again terraced but planted to syrah with white marsanne, and a little, though rarely found, white roussanne.
Sitting up on the Hermitage Hill (just 132 ha of green) is the Chapel of Chevalier de Sterimberg, a knight who led Holy Land crusades, now owned by Paul Jaboulet Aine (tasting Hermitage Blanc and La Petite Chapelle 2011).
Alongside are most extensive holdings of M Chapoutier, who once made just two wines by blending, but now since 1997 keeps each vineyard separate, white and red. It is a memorable Selections Parcellaires now renamed Fac & Spera collection (tasting Sizeranne 2012).
Across the river Delas Freres at Tournon who are situated in the larger Saint Joseph Appellation, draw grapes from Domaine des Tourettes (tasting Hermitage 2012). The more northern-based Guigal have plantings also. The M Chapoutier range are diverse, exciting, mouth-smacking and very collectible.
At Sizeranne which is biodynamic, the syrah is meaty, yet drawn on tannin, though svelte on the finish. Aussie warm area shiraz is punchy, syrupy, sweeter-alcohol; these Hermitage wines are more linear, lighter body, 13% alcohol, taut and gently rich, though flavoured and subtle. Opposites to the domestic Oz palate shape and different.
Now for Cote-Rotie; the spiritual home of the Guigal family and the many wines produced, varying vine age, selectivity, rarity, price escalation and taste diversity.
The culmination being the three LaLaLa’s (Turque, Landonne, Mouline), which host Stephane Crozet says with a wry smile “sell out each year within the week”.
He served the white Cote-Rotie; (tasted ExVoto Blanc 2012), a swirling marsanne 95% roussanne 5% tied up with a defining long oak treatment, Cote-Rotie Brune and Blonde, two vineyards combined (tasted Cote Rotie 2010), the special Chateau Ampuis where the family oak factory is housed (tasted Chateau Ampuis 2011) then one of the revered single vineyards which can contain up to 12% viognier, depending on the season (tasted La Mouline 2012).
Apart from Guigal’s dominance, for an absent owner, Chateauneuf-du-Pape maker Brunel de la Gardine makes excellent Rotie (tasted Cote Rotie 2013). And Jaboulet provided a neat Domaine des Picuelles (tasted Cote-Rotie 2012), all elegance. The Delas single vineyard Seigneur de Maugiron was excellent in silkiness, never confusing, just delicious in its line (tasted Cote-Rotie 2013).
And the only old and funky (looking like old Barossa also) was a Delas single vineyard, a rarer Cote-Rotie (tasting La Landonne 2006).
Why is Cote Rotie an amazingly elegant wine? I guess you can resolve to attend a visit such as this to see for yourselves; compare wine by wine, Hermitage versus Cote Rotie; the elegant and concentrated syrah versus equally concentrated yet silky finish.
Still syrah, still shiraz but never Aussie. The latter is far more butch than the Frenchmen. See for yourself some time, step outside the world of sweet fruit to that of the savoury. Voila.
Uncorked and Cultivated’s wine tourists visited the Northern Rhone makers Guigal, Chapoutier, Jaboulet and Delas during June 2016.