Syrah is undoubtedly one of the true “noble” grape varieties of the world & has been for a long, long time. Unfortunately, Syrah is not in fashion right now & I am not sure exactly why. I, in fact, wish I had a dollar for every time a wine professional/wine buyer/server has told me in the past 5 years, how Syrah based wines, (especially New World versions) do not sell so well for them. I would be rich!
I am saddened to hear of this plight.
Well grown & crafted Syrah deserves a niche in the wine world. Not only does this grape variety have world class potential, it also can fill the big puka between Pinot Noir & Cabernet Sauvignon in terms of weight, drama & profoundness. The very best can have intricacy, pedigree, UN-heaviness & texture a notch or 2 away from Pinot Noir, with the depth, masculinity & regality a notch or 2 away from Cabernet Sauvignon. Syrah can be an ideal “tweener”.
Here are 3 examples which reminded me of this thought.
The Ogier family had been farming their vineyards & selling off to their grapes for many years (more recently to prominent producers such as Chapoutier & Guigal), until 1987 when they decided to grow & produce their own wine under their own label. At that time, they owned roughly 6 acres in Cote Rotie. Son, Stephane, started working alongside his father in 1998 & took over the domaine in 2000. Where previously, the winemaking was much more traditional with NO stems & NO new oak, Stephane changed his style to 100% Syrah, 80% de-stalked, 3 to 4 week stainless steel fermentation & 18 month barrel aging (30% new). In addition to their Cote Rotie, Ogier also began producing special bottlings–Embruns (2001) from purchased fruit & 50% new barrels; Lancement “Terroir de Blonde” & Belle Helene (a cask selection from their Cote Rozier parcel–30 months in 100% new oak). This is a producer of northern Rhone Valley Syrah well worth checking out. This 2001 Cote Rotie (13 years old), for example, was elegant, classy, refined, masculine, majestic with a surprising velvety texture. It had a gamey, rustic core with garrigue character & a sandalwood edge. I can imagine all kinds of meats & rustic meat preparations which one can have a field day with!
Noel Verset, for me, was one of the iconic stalwarths of the tiny Cornas appellation, who not only helped define an appellation, but shed a very different light on what the Syrah grape variety could be. His vines were old, his highly revered Sabarottes parcel yielded grapes like no other on the hillside & his winemaking was very traditional. I have to say, the resulting wines were truly one of a kind. They had a wild-ness–green & black peppercorns, true andouille sausage, raw meat, lots of red fruit, crushed rocks, garrigue with lots of herbal notes. His was a small winery, perhaps 800 case production in any given year. Rumors started circulating around the 2000 vintage, that he was retiring. (He even mentioned his thoughts on retirement on a visit I made in 1991). Subsequent vintages would pop up every now & then–I saw a smidgeon fo the 2003 & a tiny bit of 2006….& then quiet. It was the end of an era. Yes, there are other Cornas (Thierry Allemand & August Clape) which deftly carry on the appellation on the world class stage, BUT there was only 1 Noel Verset. I was completely enthralled with the 1995. It was quintessential Verset Cornas–wildly rustic, rock, peppercorns, wild herbs, with the rank smells of real French andouille sausage. It really sang out & was a thrill to savor.
For many, the Chave Hermitage is the pinnacle of northern Rhone Syrah. The family has been growing grapes & making wines on Hermitage hill since 1481. The vines today are organically & biodynamically farmed. “Every year, we start from zero in assembling the wine.” The core & backbone comes from the Bessards parcel, their largest parcel, located furthest west. Tasting out of barrel once with Gerard Chave, I found the Bessards to have a smokiness, a strong minerality with a certain elegance, velvety middle & lots of tannins in the finish. His parcels have very old vines. I found Le Meal was also smokey, but had distinct floral (violets, jasmine), ripe, jammy black cherry, green olive, spice & pepper with more of a middle, a riper, higher glycerine mouthfeel. Rocoules was fresher fruit, yet not as showy, with licorice, smoke, cassis, green notes & much more tannic. Peleat–more acid/structure with green olive, smoke & even an apple nuance. Diognieres had ripe cherries, jammy, bordering cassis like qualities with a funky/earthy edge. Baume–licorice, cherry, more austere, structured & refinement. L’Ermite–smokey, earthy, barnyard funk, green peppercrons, jammy–the most outgoing right out of the gates. The Chaves are master blenders, using all of the pieces to create a complete Hermitage–or as I used to say about the old Barolo masters—create an orchestra sound rather than just the horn section. Chave is the best at that! and HAS BEEN SINCE 1481!