I realized early on, I am by no means a skilled writer, but, because of this recent envious Syrah tasting I attended in San Francisco, I just wanted to jot down some of my thoughts & experiences with Syrah, while the juices were flowing. At least all of the reminiscing will make me smile.
It starts with…….I really enjoy a well grown, well made Syrah.
The initial most enlightening renditions for me were from a trio of masters from France’s Rhone Valley–Gerard Chave, Marius Gentaz & Noël Verset. Although by this time I was well under way with the wines from Germany, Italy, Champagne, Burgundy, Bordeaux, Port AND California, there was nothing I previously tasted that even came close to what I experienced from these majestic , highly personal Syrah based reds.
I became an instant fan! These created a new standard for me to measure others by.
Each of these producers made wines which were much more interesting to me, AND consistently way more moving than those I tasted from the much more heralded trio of Jaboulet, Chapoutier, Guigal also of France’s Rhone Valley, just to name a few headliners.
My first trip to see these French vignerons was in the cold months of January 1991. Our list of appointments (made by fellow traveler, Fran Kysela M.S., then the National Sales Manager of Kermit Lynch Wine Merchants) included Marius Gentaz (Gentaz Dervieux), Rene Rostaing & Robert Jasmin of Côte Rôtie; Gerard Chave of Hermitage; Joseph Panel of St Joseph AND August Clape & Noël Verset of Cornas, just to name a few. The weather was quite inhospitable, vineyards barren & even the wine cellars quite cold, despite the lack of a wind chill factor. We visited, we talked & we tasted each day till well into the dark. At several of the stops spitting wine out on the floor seemed inappropriate, especially where in some cases there was so little wine in their cellar to sell to begin with.
Our first stop in the northern Rhone Valley, was at the Chez Chave. Talk about apprehension! Here was a family who owned & farmed the truly iconic Hermitage hill since 1481! (please keep in mind Christopher Colombus sailed to the New World in 1492 for goodness sake!) The family owned roughly 10 hectares , in 7 different parcels. We met & spent time with Gerard Chave. (I certainly will never forget this opportunity!) We started with a tasting of his Hermitage Blanc (roughly 85% Marsanne from 80 to 85 year old vines AND 15% Roussanne, also from 80 to 85 year old vines). It has taken me quite some time to understand & appreciate this wine. I previously just didn’t get it. I was awestruck by the sheer power/intensity, viscosity, bordering unctuou-ality, & reverent vinosity & breed of the ’90 & ’91. They were both resoundingly masculine AND grandiose each with very different perfumes, tastes & character. We continued with the ’90 St Joseph Rouge & then the 1989 St Joseph Blanc, which I remember thinking was quite an interesting progression (I certainly would not question a Master!) We then proceeded downstairs & barrel tasted through 7 lots from the 1990 vintage–Bessards (80 year old vines), Le Meal (80 year old vines), Rocoules, Peleat (a monopole), Diognieres, Baume & L’Hermite. Wow!!!! what a huge opportunity! (I have written an earlier piece on this with more specific notes of each. please check it out in archives). We also tasted the 1989, 1988, 1987 & some older vintages of his Hermitage Rouge, all, with color commentating by Gerard while he tasted along with us. What a day! I walked away with an even greater appreciation of Chave Hermitage because of this behind the scenes master class. I have visited this domaine a few times after & always walked away with an even greater understanding & appreciation of what this family does.
In addition, the times of walking Hermitage hill, parcel by parcel, with the color commentating by Chave is truly some of my best memories ever in wine country. I had previously thought Hermitage hill was all granitic soils. As was explained to me later by Jean Louis Chave, over time, glaciers collected & smashed different soils up against what was already there. That is why there are so many soil types found in different pockets. The Bessards lieu dit, for example, is mainly granitic; Le Meal has river stones; Peleat has more clay/sand; & Baume–pudding stones. And, these different soils also help create the layering of his red Hermitage wine. It is therefore a blend, rather than a single vineyard.
We then went on to visit August Clape in Cornas. They own 5.5 hectares, 50% on the “hill”. This was also a rustic, very small family owned winery & I loved the strong sense of heritage, culture & family here. We tasted many wines here, back to 1981 & I was awed by the masculine soulfulness of the wines, which were much more blue collar & rugged than those at the Chave stop. But, they were still so memorable.
Probably the most emotional visit for me in all the years of visiting vineyards & wineries was our visit with Noël Verset. I was already so taken by his wildly rustic, profoundly soulful Cornas wines & meeting him & tasting wines with him, tugged at my heart that much more. I sometimes hear all kinds of disenchantment with his wines & their flaws. Get a life! This was an honest man who made wines that touched us deep inside. He reminded me of a painter/artist from way back when. Just went about his business. No frills. While there the last time, he hinted he would be retiring. Perhaps 2000 would be the last? Ha! I saw some 2003 show up. Then 2006. Surprise! Then there was none. There will sadly never be another like him or his wines.
It was quite late the night we visited Joseph Panel in St Joseph across the river from Vienne. St Joseph is a long, thin appellation & therefore has quite the variety of vineyard site topography, soils & growing conditions. Panel’s was at the top of a hill. It was cold & even colder because of the fierce pounding wind & what seemed like sleet. I was hoping it would be warmer in the cellar, but the coldness permeated through the rock floor numbing my feet & then worked its way up. His estate was 200 years old–7 generations. I felt like I was hanging out with a farmer rather than a winemaker. He was a true artisan & I loved his St Joseph reds, as they were so honest, earnest, earthy, feral & full of countryside character. They also had delicious-ness in a very masculine, savory way without any sense of heaviness. I was very sad when he retired & his wines were no more.
I was really glad to visit with Robert Jasmin (& son Patrick). Robert made you feel very welcome. He seemed gregarious with a big personality. He looked like he was a true blue collar type, never afraid of getting dirty. He owned 4 hectares of vineyards, mostly in the Côte Brune & the Côte Blonde, planted to 96% Syrah (mostly Petite Serine from Hermitage) & 4% Viognier. He proudly told us, he typically uses only about 10% new oak (since 1984) & does not filter or fine (since 1989). His were big, “down to earth”, masculine, savory, surly wines with the same kind of manliness he had. I was sad to hear of his passing in I believe 1999.
Marius Gentaz had an old, earthen floor “shack”, which looked no bigger than a 3 car garage. Marius seemed like an every day kind of guy, dressed simply, reserved, but very articulate as he explained to us the 5 hillsides that comprised the Côte Rôtie, while showing us each on an old map on one the wooden walls. He spoke very little English, so our traveling companion, Dennis, acted as the translator. His family could be traced to the 1700’s in the area. He had a little under 2 hectares of vines, split into 2 parcels. The vines averaged 45 to 80 years in age & he smiled when he spoke of his Petite Serine vines, which he seemed more proud of & happy with in comparison to some of the “Mauvre” vine selection (tightly packed, BIG berries) he also had planted. He also had a tiny bit of Viognier planted of which he would blend .5 to 1% into his Gentaz Dervieux Côte Rôtie, depending on what he felt the wine needed. He was kind enough to open & share with us the ’90, ’89, & some older vintages. I was absolutely blown away with each. I had never had Syrah like these before. Just before we left, he sadly informed us, he thought his nephew, Rene Rostaing, would be making the wines after the 1991 vintage. OMG, the end of an era. (as it turned out I think he also made a ’92 & a ’93).
Our next visit, as it turned out, was in fact to Rene Rostaing. It was in the early evening & quite cold. I was shocked as we walked up to see what looked like a modern winery, as if it could be in California. I was further anxious later on the visit after seeing the barrel room, full of new oak barrels. It was almost opposite of what we experienced at Gentaz. Rene has 17 different parcels (which included absorbing the Dervieux-Thaler parcels), his prized lieu dit was 1/4 hectare in the Côte Blonde of 80 year old vines. Rene was very neat & precise & I dared not spit at this domaine, eventhough it was quite late & we were all so tired. Both his 1990 “La Landonne” & ” Côte Blonde” had sweet, very ripe fruit & with quite noticeable oak presence & grip, despite being only 18 or so months in 25% new. I walked away remembering all of that new oak barrels & asked myself, what will happen when he takes over Marius Gentaz’s magnificent vines & fruit?
Imagine, these were just the highlights of the trip AND only the northern Rhone Valley leg. Still, it solidified my fascination with the Syrah grape variety, what it was capable of & insight into the true Masters of the French renditions.
A short time later, I was again blown away at a casual dinner held at Square One restaurant in San Francisco, where my long time wine brother, Nunzio Alioto, kindly opened 4 amazing, for me, “once in a life time” French Syrahs–1990 Vincent Gasse Côte Rôtie, 1990 Gallet Côte Rôtie, 1990 Gentaz Dervieux Côte Rôtie & a 1990 Jean Louis Chave Ermitage “Cuvée Cathelin”. Wholly smoke!, this certainly was a night to remember & really fueled my love for such northern Rhone Syrah wines. It made me wonder, how could man create wines like this that transcend what the fruit & the oak offer?
The wonders continued with samplings of the string of Chave Hermitage–the 1978 & 1983 really being memorable; multiple aged vintages of Gentaz Dervieux, Verset & Clape wines. Each were WOW, beguiling experiences & I am so thankful to have experienced such treasures, especially with my dear friend Nunzio Alioto & later with the VINO gang.
Furthermore, because of these Syrah epiphanies, I still always keep an eye out for Syrah based red wine that would also ring my bell.
I remember, for instance, noticing a lot of 1982 Gentaz Dervieux Cote Rotie at the KHPR Radio wine auction one year. The wines were procured by well renown wine auctioneer, Archie McLaren from a collector in Texas. Jim Clendenen & I stood in the back anxiously waiting for the lot to come up for bid, like two hungry wolves. We should have been smarter, as we did not have an auction paddle & just held up our hand to place a bid. Since Hawaii is such a small town when it comes to fine wine, others starting bidding too, because they saw it was the two of us & figured if we are bidding on these wines, they must be good! I shouldn’t complain, though, as we still got the lot for $35 a bottle, a REAL steal, even though this was in the mid-90’s. I truly believe that only Jim, myself & perhaps Archie had a grasp of what these wines were or how hard they were to get. Well, that is certainly not the case any more, that’s for sure. (By the way, tasting the wine eventually was yet another mind blowing experience.)
My generation was very fortunate to have a visionary palate & importer like Kermit Lynch to sniff out these kinds of “game changers” & expose them to young, impressionable minds like myself. When more & more small, specialized importers came onto the national wine scene, I realized what separated Kermit from the rest, was his eye for that special artisan, who could connect & realize the true potential of a special site in a very personal way. Furthermore, many of the selections had a soulfulness to them AND thankfully a wonderful deliciousness & remarkable balance. Yes, he had/has a gift. There has been, after all, only one Marius Gentaz & only one Noël Verset, just to name a couple of examples.
Aside from who I considered to be the 3 masters of the time–Chave, Gentaz & Verset–Kermit also championed St Joseph “below the radar” winemaking studs such Joseph Panel & Raymond Trollat & Auguste Clape (& son Pierre-Marie & grandson, Olivier) & later on Thierry Allemand from Cornas. These are/were truly artisan, profound, rustic, soulful Syrah, done in a style we sadly see less & less today. And, later on, Kermit would introduced us to Pierre Gonon & Jean-Pierre Monier of St Joseph & Philippe Faury.
Again I ask–how could man create wines like this that transcend what the fruit & the oak offer?