Que Syrah, Syrah

What do the northern Rhone reds have that new-world Syrahs just don't? History, complexity, and recently, a string of superb vintages.

Evening is shading the hollow below Les Ruchets, in France's northern Rhône Valley. A curious cock pheasant wanders out of the woods from the tangle of oak and cedar that has reclaimed many of these hillside vineyards since World War II. Church bells clang in the village of Cornas, and down along the river the last of the sunlight flares against the ramparts of Château Crussol, a wrecked castle that juts like a ship's prow from the granite cliffs. It's a scene poised at such a particular pitch of harmony that I would hate to topple forward and break my neck in the middle of it.

Les Ruchets may not be the steepest vineyard in the Rhône—there are even more treacherous slopes in Côte Rôtie and Hermitage—but if you slipped at the top, you could roll downhill for a while. This is how they grow the most perfumed, majestic, tongue-purpling grapes in the ancestral home of Syrah: in vineyards so precarious that the topsoil may wash down in a stiff rain, and workers have to tote the dirt back up the hill on their backs. It is a point of pride among some vineyard owners that not one row they farm can safely be worked by a tractor.

These are surely the finest Syrah vineyards in the world, the decades-old, painstakingly worked vines that put Syrah on the map. So why is Syrah from everywhere else suddenly so famous? What map are we looking at, anyway? Flatlanders from Santa Barbara County to Washington State are planting the grape in a frenzy, and American importers are stumbling over each other to uncover the next obscure, diffident Australian genius. Syrah has gone from having near-zero name recognition in the United States ten years ago to being the trendiest grape at the turn of the millennium, "the next Merlot," as the buzz has it.

As with the old Merlot, a lot of the Syrahs attracting first-time drinkers are fruity, simple, and soft. Northern Rhône wines by this measure are often zero for three. Even climbing up the price ladder, many of the better new-world Syrahs—and there are some wonderful ones—are very ripe, juicy wines with flatteringly obvious flavors. The better Syrahs from the slopes of the northern Rhône are a diverse group, but they can sometimes be tight and unyielding when young, broodingly dense, and packed with an exotic mélange of spices and funky characteristics (bacon? tar? saddle leather?) that aficionados adore and that first-time drinkers find off-putting.

These French wines may have to wait for a second, more sophisticated wave of Syrah trendies before they'll gain true hot-button status in the United States. Among other things, you have to know enough to look for them: Their labels don't say "Syrah" or "Shiraz" (that's Australian for Syrah). In the French tradition they are labeled by their places of origin: Hermitage, Côte Rôtie, Cornas, St. Joseph, or Crozes-Hermitage.

Of course, these historic wines are not exactly waiting to be discovered. They are basking in strong worldwide sales themselves, and have spawned a few super-luxury-priced cult wines (like Guigal's La Turque, La Mouline Côte Rôtie, and La Landonne). But while new-world Syrahs from previously unknown producers keep popping up on the store shelves at astonishingly steep prices, northern Rhônes from the likes of Chapoutier, Chave, Clape, Colombo, Guigal, Jaboulet, and Rostaing are among the wine world's last great reds not to hit price spikes.

They do not sell for pocket change, but considering the effort it takes to grow the grapes (and the potentially sensational quality of the wines), they begin to look like bargains in today's market. You can expect to pay $50 to $120 for a good Côte Rôtie or red Hermitage, $16 to $40 for St. Joseph or Crozes-Hermitage, and $30 to $60 for Cornas. A Bordeaux or Burgundy with a comparable track record and complexity can cost easily two or three times as much as a Hermitage or Côte Rôtie.

If these unique French Syrahs are not likely to be the "next Merlots," it doesn't seem impossible that they might be the next hot collectibles: They have tradition, ageability, high quality, and scarcity.All they lack now is a popular buzz—that suits northern Rhône Syrah lovers just fine.

In fact, this just may be the golden age of northern Rhône reds. The wind- and weather-battered region has basked in an unprecedented string of strong vintages in the late 1990s. And there is a new energy at work among these craggy hillsides as a younger, postwar generation takes over the reins from its parents.

Stumbling around Les Ruchets vineyard in Cornas you see—and hear about—the changes afoot. I had previously admired the vineyard's owner, winemaker Jean-Luc Colombo, more for his palate than his athleticism, but he looks like a dark, stocky mountain goat as he hops around the hillside, talking and talking.

A brash, ambitious Marseilles man who arrived in Cornas in 1983 with an outsider's fresh—and often unappreciated—perspective, Colombo soon gained a reputation, in writer Robert M. Parker Jr.'s words, as "a radical revolutionary." He loves forward-looking, organic farming techniques and uses no pesticides or herbicides on his vines. Instead of attaching new Syrah vines to A-frame, tepee-like poles, as they have been doing for centuries here, he stretches them out sideways on wire trellises whenever possible, allowing for better passage of moisture-wicking wind and more even sun ripening. He emphasizes elegance over sheer, massive size, picking the grapes before they are overripe, destemming them to subtract harsh tannins, and allowing the wines an extended soaking time in contact with their grape skins to soften the fruit tannins.

The wines are then bottled with minimum fining and filtration to preserve whatever special characteristics the vineyard and winemaker have bestowed on them. In a wine like Colombo's 1998 Cornas Les Ruchets, it means layers of black pepper, violets, and cooked spices in a smooth, tongue-caressing package. It's the kind of wine that refutes the stereotype of Cornas as rustic and stolid, a kind of oompah band to Hermitage's complex symphony. If the vineyards of curious old backwoods Cornas can yield such wines with this treatment, then imagine the glories possible for the famous vineyards of Côte Rôtie and Hermitage.

Apparently, a lot of people already have. If Colombo was considered a "revolutionary," then he came to a place ripe for insurrection. Not only were some of the region's most prominent winemakers, like Marcel and Philippe Guigal (in Côte Rôtie) and Michel Chapoutier (in Hermitage), working along similar lines, but Colombo's theories quickly gained him more than 100 consulting clients up and down the Rhône Valley, as well as in Switzerland, and in Roussillon and Languedoc. As bred-in-the-bone conservative as most agricultural people, many winemakers of the Rhône were forced to consider alternatives because prosperity can be elusive in these parts. Up until the last couple of decades, in fact, the 20th was just not the northern Rhône's century.

There had been better centuries before, lots of them. There's some dispute as to whether the Greeks or the Romans brought the Syrah to the upper Rhône; in any case, Syrah has, according to author Jancis Robinson, "the oldest charted geography, as well as history, of [all] the noble grape varieties." As Marcel Guigal puts it, no matter when the Syrah grape actually arrived, "Côte Rôtie has been under vines for 2,400 years." The domelike granite hill of Hermitage may have been planted as long ago as 500 b.c.

Over the centuries, Syrah became the undisputed focus of red-wine making in the region. Unlike the Rhône vineyards farther south, in places like Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas, where blending is the rule, the northern Rhône wines are made solely from the Syrah grape (although Côte Rôtie wines often contain a small portion of white Viognier, and red Hermitage can contain a portion of the white grapes Marsanne and Roussanne).

These powerful, long-lived Syrahs built a strong reputation among the cognoscenti down through the centuries. Among the fans was Thomas Jefferson, who, on his French sojourn, stopped off to visit and purchase cases of both Côte Rôtie and Hermitage. By the early 19th century, the wines of Hermitage were the priciest in France, ranking somewhere below the city of Moscow among the things coveted by both the czars of Russia and Napoleon I.

But by the turn of the 20th century, hard times loomed. The root louse phylloxera devastated the vineyards of Europe, and many northern Rhône growers had scarcely begun to recover from the pestilence when World War I hit, followed by the Depression, and then World War II. Whether because of the shaky economics of the small farms that composed the region, or simply the taste of fashion shifting elsewhere, the wines of the northern Rhône, particularly those areas outside Hermitage, fell into a deep slump.

By the time Marcel Guigal's father entered the wine business in 1923, the planted surface area of Côte Rôtie had shrunk to 40 hectares—under a hundred acres. As the price of cherries and apricots in some years rose higher than grapes in the region, the steep slopes must have seemed wearisome to the point of futility. Around the northern Rhône, woods and orchards claimed land that had been under vine for centuries, in a process that has only begun to be reversed in the past 10 to 20 years. Flying above St. Joseph, you can still see slopes once in vineyard now barren and eroded. (The region's now-fashionable white grape, Viognier, suffered the worst. By some counts, Viognier was reduced to seven hectares in the world by the mid-1970s.)

The growers of Côte Rôtie have battled back from obscurity. Today there are just over 500 acres in the appellation, making it about the combined size of two largish Bordeaux châteaux, Lafite-Rothschild and Léoville Las Casesfor, for instance. What it lacks in size it makes up these days in vitality: Everybody is clamoring to plant. The authorities permitted only an additional six hectares (approximately 15 acres) to be planted last year, an allotment divided between about 50 growers who applied.

The firm of M. Guigal, in the drab little town of Ampuis, has been at the forefront of the northern Rhône's comeback. From purchased grapes and wine and its own vineyards, the firm produces a vast range of fine bottlings from all over the Rhône Valley, from under-$10 Côtes-du-Rhône (an appellation for wines covering a large area), to Hermitage, to the super-luxury-priced single-vineyard Côte Rôties. Nowhere else in the upper Rhône is the determination more apparent to leave the past behind.

Some 12,000 cars a day plus a railway line run above the company's cellars, whose vast, mysterious underground network now fingers out beneath the very center of Ampuis. Some 753 pillars are sunk 11 meters (36 feet) deep into the bed of the Rhône River to keep the tunnels and their vats and barrels vibration-free and earthquake-proof. But that's not the amazing part.

The amazing part, as young (25 years old) Philippe tells me, is that "We enjoy robots very much." Tall and thin like his father, Marcel, with apple cheeks and a shock of black hair beneath his baseball cap, Philippe has spearheaded some radical changes in the musty old cellars. He radiates the kind of young evangelist's fervor for new technology. This wave—the information revolution—Guigal is surfing home.

Pass through a door, and you find yourself in a massive, hangarlike space with room to park several 747s beneath its steel rafters and giant silver ducts. The room is humming with robotized bottling machines—a Chaplinesque fantasy that begins as one machine removes the plastic tape from a pallet of bottles and "eats" it. About 8,000 bottles an hour whiz past, with only two indolent-looking workers minding the shop. One device ejects bottles with a fraction of a millimeter too low a fill level; automatic optic devices measure whether the labels are precisely aligned. "This is the wildest machine of the line," says Philippe appreciatively, as a dumpster-sized machine careens forward, stopping millimeters short of the stacked bottles, and whisks them away in the grasp of its metal claws.

Guigal's circuit-board-studded grape reception area is like something from a space-shot as well ("Ampuis...we have a problem"). Among other things, its electronic refractometers measure the incoming grapes' sugar levels and calculate potential alcohol content on the spot—and then will automatically return substandard grapes to the grower by reversing the horizontal screw that brought the grapes into the building. "It's the rule, and they know it," shrugs Philippe. The first year of the system they refused eight growers, the next year three, then one. For the past four years, every grower dealing with the Guigals has been with the program, in part no doubt to avoid the humiliation of hearing that screw reverse, and seeing the grapes he just unloaded come back out and be dumped in his lap.

Down the river and seemingly in another century, the Chave family is also glad to see the bad times pass for the northern Rhône. "It's easier to make wine the way it should be made when you have money," says 31-year-old Jean-Louis Chave, a polite, intense man whose family has been making wine in and around Hermitage for 600 years. "To make great wine means being able to pay attention to every detail."There are no robots visible in the gloom of the Chave family cellars, which are slung with low-hanging electric cables and festooned with grot and fungus. But here, too, change is having its day.

"We don't make 'fashionable' wine. That would be sad to me," says Jean-Louis. "But sure, our tastes have changed from my grandfather's time, when the wines used to be rougher, more 'animal,' more tannic. Now our taste is more toward fruit and the softness of the wines." As at Guigal, the superb wines turned out at Chave combine time-tested methods—native yeasts, no herbicides, hand-plowing—with the knowledge available now.Jean-Louis speaks for many in the northern Rhône: "The new generation always adds something, because the world is changing. Of course, we must respect tradition, but a good tradition is to move forward."

Rhône Rolodex

The wine landscape of the northern Rhône features family-scale wineries and a group of négociants (the most famous of which are Guigal, Chapoutier, and Jaboulet).

CHAPOUTIER has, under the direction of the young, blunt-to-the-point-of-rudeness Michel Chapoutier, a fresh energy to go along with its top-flight grape sources. Among Chapoutier's beauties: The flavor-packed 1998 Hermitage "La Sizeranne" ($70); the confectionary 1998 Crozes-Hermitage "Les Varonniers" ($80). An affordable taste: the silky 1998 Crozes-Hermitage "Les Meysonniers"($24). A surprise: Chapoutier's Australian Mount Benson Syrah ($40).

CHAVE, situated inside a fungus-bearded, twilit cellar, offers an Aladdin's treasure of spectacular Hermitage wines. Gerard Chave and his son Jean-Louis blend grapes from seven different sites to create masterful, long-cellaring wines that reveal layers of subtle flavor. The Chave 1997 Hermitage ($100) is velvety and satisfying—and only beginning to unfold.

CLAPE wines are the fashion for Cornas: deep, rich, firmly structured reds that require several years of cellaring. Says Pierre-Marie Clape over-modestly, "It's not the fashion now, but we still choose to make what our vineyard gives us." The 1997 Cornas ($45) is already graceful, elegant, and juicy. The 1998 ($50) is a massive wine with years of cellaring potential.

COLOMBO is run by Jean-Luc Colombo, a whirlwind operator who not only makes his own estate Cornas but heads a consulting business, and now bottles négociant wines. Try his juicy, big-boned 1998 Cornas La Louvée ($62) or the smooth, more elegant 1998 Les Ruchets ($62).

GUIGAL turns out luscious, full-flavored wines, including a range of Côte Rôties and a top Hermitage. Guigal's most coveted wines are the hard-to-find, single-vineyard Côte Rôties: massive, slow-evolving La Landonne ($150); silky La Turque ($150), Marcel Guigal's favorite; graceful La Mouline ($150). At the "low" end of the scale (around $35): the rich, supple Côte Brune et Blonde, the largest Côte Rôtie label.

JABOULET, the family firm that has sailed on in fine fashion after the unexpected death of longtime director Gerard Jaboulet in 1999, has a name you automatically seek on restaurant lists. It has a very strong, top-to-bottom excitement-to-dollar ratio. The flagship wine: the dense, long-lived 1998 Hermitage La Chapelle ($110). The Crozes-Hermitage range includes an expressive 1998 Thalabert ($29) and the more backward, Hermitage-like 1997 Raymond Roure ($33). The medium-rich 1998 St. Joseph "La Grand Pompée" ($21) is regularly the best bargain red of the northern Rhône.

ROSTAING, operated by tense, correct, well-groomed René Rostaing, paradoxically turns out Côte Rôtie wines of passion and harmony. From a sleek, small cellar with cutting-edge, Australian-style rotary fermenters, these include: the supple 1998 Cuvée Classique ($60); the still-tight but potentially stunning 1998 La Landonne ($75); and the pièce de résistance exotic 1998 Côte Blonde ($90).

Richard Nalley wrote about Ridge Vineyards' Paul Draper in the November/December 2000 issue of Departures.