I have recently noticed a drastic change in my cellar, collecting, and drinking habits. This change didn’t happen overnight; instead it was a slow transition; one that I don’t believe I was even willing to admit to myself until recently. So what is this change that I speak of? Well, I have officially begun down a path to truly loving wines of the northern Rhone.
You see, the Northern Rhone has a way of drawing you in and converting you into a lifelong fan. It’s not the average person who appreciates the fruits of the northern Rhone, for there seems very little in the way of fruit at all when first approached. These are wines of the earth, with pure animal magnetism. If Burgundy is the elegant royalty of French wine, then the northern Rhone is the war-hardened general. Nowhere else does a wine speak so much of the savory side of Syrah. It’s only after time – in the glass, or aged in bottle — that the complex notes of dark fruit come forward, complemented by hints of charred meat, animal musk, and intense minerality.
Syrah is the red grape which dominates vineyards throughout the region. The best is found on steep, terraced hillsides of shallow granite and slate, along a short swath of the Rhone river valley. Here, the climate is Continental with cold, wet winters and hot, sun-drenched summers. The appellations of Hermitage and Cote Rôtie represent some of the most prestigious and age-worthy wines of the region, yet due to limited production they are often pricy and very difficult to find. Many of the best producers are small family-run operations. However, it would be a mistake to dismiss the larger firms of M. Chapoutier and Jaboulet, who are both capable of producing some of the top wines of the region.
Yet today, we cannot speak of the northern Rhone without mention of St. Joseph and Cornas; two sub-regions of the north, which have made considerable strides in both quality and popularity. For the lover of Syrah and the animal-style of the north, these wines represent tremendous value, but many of us worry that it won’t last for long. We have already seen producers of Hermitage and Cote Rotie plant stakes in these vineyards, claiming that their qualities may one day equal that of Hermitage. However, only time will tell.
Below are some of the most exciting Northern Rhone wines that I’ve experienced this year, spilt up by region. I hope you’ll dig in and take the plunge yourself. Enjoy!
The popularity of Hermitage is nothing new, in fact, it’s more of a reawakening. This storied site has been producing world-class wines since the eighteenth century. In fact, it is often said that at that time, some of the top houses of Bordeaux would secretly blend in Hermitage to their wines for added richness and depth. Technically, producers here are allowed to add up to 15% of the white grapes Marsanne and Roussanne. However, this is seldom practiced.
- 2005 Domaine Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage – The 2005 Chave Hermitage seemed to literally blossom in the glass with a bouquet which spoke to everything I love about the northern Rhone. Initially it was very much rooted in the earth with dark soil tones, brown stems and herbs, yet turning deeper and richer with air, as notes of crushed red berry, exotic spice, violet florals, minerals and hints of animal musk lifted from the glass. On the palate, this gave the impression of a never-ending veil of silk being gently pulled across the senses—seamless came to mind. Its dark red fruit gave way to cascading layers of savory herbs and red floral tones as it came to a finish with dusting of mineral-tinged earth. (97 points) Morrell
- 2011 Delas Frères Hermitage Les Bessards – The nose seemed almost impossibly deep and intense with dark rich blackberry preserves, brown sugar, licorice, violets, tobacco and spice. On the palate, it showed dark, silky textures contrasted by finesse with focused blackberry and plum fruit seeming to touch on all the senses. The finish was long with fine tannin nearly masked by its dark fruit, spice and herbal tones. (94 points) Morrell
Côte-Rôtie is often seen as the little brother of Hermitage, yet make no mistake, the best wines can easily compete. Remarkably similar with its steep terraced vineyards, southern exposures and granite dominated soils. One of the biggest differences here is the common use of whole cluster fermentation and wines which often contain a small percentage of the white grape, Viognier. The results are often quite exotic. Many producers blend from different parcels throughout the hill and you’ll often find the exalted designations of either Côte Brune, Côte Blonde or a blending of the two.
- 2010 Gilles Barge Côte-Rôtie Côte Brune – The nose was savory to the core and rooted deeply in the earth, showing dark soil, animal musk, bree, mineral-laden stone, and black cracked pepper. On the palate, rich, savory textures messaged the senses as black fruit was ushered along by a core of minerals, savory herbs, charred meat and peppery spice. The finish remind me more of a veal reduction sauce than a wine, lasting long with it’s rich meaty flavors and herbal tones. It’s wines like this that create diehard fans of the Northern Rhone. (94 points)
- 2012 Pierre Jean Villa Côte-Rôtie Carmina – The nose was rich and layered, yet wonderfully floral all the same, showing black fruit with ginger-spice, violet floral tones, dark earth and black pepper. On the palate, waves of mineral-drenched black fruit washed across the senses with herbal tones, showing remarkable balance and poise. The long saturating finish was floral with berry tones and spice. The 2012 Pierre Jean Villa Côte-Rôtie Carmina is incredibly youthful today with serious upside potential, yet so hard to resist now. (94 points) Morrell
- 2011 Domaine Jamet Côte-Rôtie – This showed a wild and savory nose that was more of the vegetable garden than the berry variety. Notes of savory herbs, exotic floral tones, stewed tomato, and chalky minerals came together in a mind-bending yet truly enjoyable bouquet. On the palate, it was smooth and vibrant upon entry yet quickly turned to structure with brisk acidity. Youthful to be sure, yet still showing an array of red vegetable and herbs turning to riper red berry but never giving up its earthy-soil driven persona throughout the palate-saturating finish. (93 points) Morrell
- 2011 M & S Ogier D’Ampuis Côte-Rôtie – The bouquet came to life in the glass to reveal notes of animal musk, blackberry, olives and herbs, followed by floral undergrowth, ginger spice and hints of black pepper. On the palate, it showed smooth, silky textures with ripe red and black fruit, along with violet tones. Hints of tannin were kept fresh by inner floral tones, black pepper and herbs lingering throughout the finish. (93 points) Morrell
- 2010 Paul Jaboulet Aîné Côte-Rôtie Domaine des Pierrelles – The nose was rich and intense with dark fruits, savory herbs, white pepper, spice and violet floral tones. On the palate, I found vibrant-silky textures which were quickly contrasted by a firm tannic spine, as ripe black fruit saturated the senses. Structured yet focused through the finish, in need of time to show it’s full potential, yet already pleasing on its intensity alone. (92 points)
St. Joseph may be the most exciting region within the northern Rhone today. As prices for Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie continue to escalate, it’s hard to ignore the value of St. Joseph. What’s more, the interest being shown by producers throughout the region (JL Chave being a perfect example), is a sign of things to come. If you could only try one wine from this list today, it should be a St. Joseph.
- 2012 Domaine Monier St. Joseph Terre Blanche – A truly floral and exotic perfume reached up from the glass with notes of yellow flowers and rosemary, along with bright, tart cherry and spice. On the palate, it entered silky with fleshy textures only to reveal more acid-driven tension as it traveled across the senses. Finessed dark fruits and floral tones lent a feminine persona with the addition of grainy slate and minerals which lasted long into the finish. (93 points) Morrell
- 2011 Domaine Jean-Louis Chave St. Joseph – The nose was dark, earthy and intense, showing red and blackberry fruit, citrus peel, vine-ripened tomato, animal musk and bacon fat, along with floral tones and dark soil. On the palate, it was smooth yet dense with silky textures, as rich red fruits, spice and crushed violets lasted well into the concentrated yet focused finish, along with lingering minerality. (92 points) Morrell
- 2012 J.L. Chave Sélection St. Joseph Offerus – With a nose that can only be the northern Rhone, the 2012 Offerus showed dark yet vibrant aromas of charred meat, wood smoke, animal musk, crushed blackberry, toasted pasty dough and savory herbs. It was smooth on the palate with medium-bodied textures and notes of crushed violets, blackberry, and herbs with brisk acidity providing a truly pleasant and complete experience. It finished clean, a little shorter than hoped for, yet enjoyable for its remnants of dark fruit and juicy finale. In the end, this is a terrific value. (91 points) Morrell
- 2012 M. Chapoutier St. Joseph Les Granits – The nose of the Les Granits was dark and remarkably intense, showing layer after layer as it sat in the glass. Aromas of animal musk and olive gave way to spiced citrus, crushed berry and floral tones with hints of caramel and spice cookie. It seemed to travel across the palate in a dense, silky wave of dark fruit yet left behind a coasting of soil and mineral earth tones in its wake, along with a hint of savory herbs. Tart red berry, minerals and a note of blueberry skin lingered on the finish. (91 points) Morrell
Cornas is the most southern portion of the northern Rhone. Here too, the steep, terraced vineyards and brutal climatic conditions create wines of intensity and tremendous depth. Yet with Cornas we often find darker, denser wines with gripping textures. You will typically need to give them time in the cellar to reveal their charms.
- 2010 Paul Jaboulet Aîné Cornas Domaine de Saint Pierre – The nose was diffuse, showing blackberry and herbs with hints of cocoa powder, spice and dark soil. On the palate, it was medium-bodied with intense tart black fruits and hints of pepper. Gripping tannin matched with a good acid balance assures this will last an easy decade in the cellar. Herbal tones, dark fruits and hints of citrus lingered through the finish. (93 points)
- 2012 Domaine Courbis Cornas Champelrose – The nose was vibrant with dark red berry fruit, pretty floral notes and a hint of blueberry skins. It was angular on the palate, yet kept fresh through lively acidity, delivering dark fruit flavors, black pepper and violet floral tones. The finish displayed saturating dark fruit with gripping tannin and lingering minerals. I enjoyed this wine for its contrast of bright floral fruit and underlying structure. (91 points)
Article and Tasting Notes by: Eric Guido