Spotlight on northern Rhône Syrah   
A seminar/tasting with Jason Yapp

‘We were in the right place at the right time,’ says Jason Yapp, on how his family wine merchants became one of the top importers of Rhône wines into the UK. At the Hawkes Bay Syrah Symposium in February 2010 he gave a thoroughly interesting talk and tasting, which would have presented the mainly local crowd a rare chance to taste some top Rhône Syrahs. This is my attempt to write it up, although Jason's talk was much better than my account here!

The Rhône is France’s second biggest river valley, stretching from Valais to Marseille, bisecting the southeast of France. The viticultural area of interest stretches 180 km from Vienne in the north to Avignon in the South.

The northern and southern Rhône are quite different regions. The northern Rhône is a 70 km stretch from Vienne to Valence, and it’s cooler and more temperate than the southern Rhône, which is flatter and hotter.

The Rhône has history. Bags of it. After all, it is known for being the origin of Syrah, which is now one of the world's superstar varieties. The Romans certainly knew of the quality of Rhône Syrah: Pliny the elder referred favourably to wines from Vienne. For a long while, in the 18th and 19th centuries, northern Rhône Syrah was used as a booster for Bordeaux. Indeed, ‘Hermitaged’ Bordeaux frequently fetched higher prices than the unadulterated stuff on merchants lists.

But it is a region that is only recently fashionable. The postwar prosperity in France of the 1950s led to many winegrowers leaving the vineyards. Some appellations almost became extinct. In 1965 there was only 8 hectares left of Viognier in the whole world. But since the 1970s there has been a great renaissance of interest in the Rhône, picking up pace in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Côte Rôtie
This is a small appellation of just 202 hectares. The vineyards are steeply sloped, and there are two distinct parts of the appellation. Côte Brune has ferruginous (with iron) mica-schist over granite. This results in deeper, more intense and more tannic wines. 20% of Viognier is allowed in the blend, but usually none or up to 5% is used. Côte Blonde is sandy limestone over granite, and results in seductive aromatic wines which don’t last as long as those from Côte Brune.

St Joseph
920 hecatares, but this region saw a fourfold expansion in the 1980s. The old area was expanded out of greed and this has become a hit-or-miss appellation. Varying soils, ranging from steep granite slopes (good) and poor land that shouldn’t be planted. These are the lightest and fruitiest wines of the northern Rhône.

The jewel in the crown of the northern Rhône, it’s a big saddle-shaped block of granite. The soils vary: there are 19 different Lieux dits. Les Bessards is the biggest. Overall, just 140 hectares of vineyard. It’s a steep southerly slope with mainly granitic soils, but the key is to blend across the different soils. You can’t really have a great Hermitage without Bessards in it; other bits include Le Meal (limestone/quartz) and l’Hermite (ferruginous, iron-rich).

Crozes Hermitage
The largest appellation in the region with 1280 hectares, and it’s the flatter area at the top of and behind the hill of Hermitage. Varied topography and soils.

A small appellation of 90 hectares, with the vines in a south-facing ampitheatre. It now makes some of the finest Syrahs in the Northern Rhône, although some still consider Cornas to be 'rustic' (quite wrongly, in my opinion).


Alain Graillot Crozes Hermitage 2007
In 1985 Alain Graillot gave up a career in the agrochemical industry and rented some vines. Now he owns 17.3 hectares of Syrah and 2.6 ha of Marsanne and Rousanne, and is making some of the Rhônes most interesting wines. He ferments with stems, and uses second-hand barrels from Dujac. This wine has a fresh, peppery, meaty, spicy nose with a lovely savoury dimension. The palate is concentrated but fresh with lovely savoury, pure raspberry fruit. Juicy and bright with mineral complexity. Firm, edgy and savoury with high acidity, but just beautiful. 93/100 (Interestingly, Robert Parker gave this 83–85/100)

Yves Cuilleron Saint Joseph L’Amarybelle’ 2006
Yves Cuilleron has holdings in St Joseph, Condrieu and Côte Rôtie, and he’s one of the brightest talents of the region. This wine has a beautifully focused, aromatic, floral, meaty, spicy nose with lovely freshness and also some pepperiness. The palate has focused, juicy, vibrant cherry and raspberry fruit with a strong savoury dimension. Pure, lively and expressive. 94/100

E Guigal Château d’Ampuis Côte Rôtie 2005
93% Syrah, 7% Viognier. Marcel Guigal produces 40% of all Côte Rôtie by volume; he joined the family firm in 1961 aged just 18. This wine was first made in 1995 when Guigal bought Château d’Ampuis, and has grapes from seven different lieux dits. It’s aged in 100% new oak, in which it spends just over 3 years. Spicy, focused and fresh with some elegance and fresh acidity. Quite Burgundian with savoury spicy tannic structure well integrated into the wine. Subtly meaty and peppery, and not as edgy as northern Rhône Syrah can be. Polished with well integrated oak. 92/100

Patrick Jasmin Côte Rôtie 1999
Patrick took over from his father in 1999, and farms 5.3 hectares in 8 different climates. Sweet, pure liqueur-like edge to the raspberry and cherry fruit. Very seductive and elegant with nice freshness. The palate shows elegant bright fruit and nice meaty, spicy overtones. There’s real focus and poise here: it’s a Burgundian expression of Syrah. Peaking now. 94/100

Clape Cornas 2004
Auguste, Pierre and Olivier Clape farm 5.4 hectares in Cornas, and the wines undergo a short fermentation with stems. This has a beautifully focused sweet dark fruits nose. It’s concentrated and intense with blackberry and raspberry fruit bolstered by good acidity and some lovely spicy tannins. Rich but with lovely edges, too. 94/100

JL Chave Hermitage 2001
The Chaves have 13.9 hectares of Hermitage (9.3 Syrah, 4.6 Marsanne and Roussanne), and they could justifiably claim to be the top domaine in the northern Rhône. This is beautifully fresh and bright with lovely acidity, and firm but not aggressive tannins. There’s some meaty, spicy complexity. It’s assertive and savoury with very little fleshiness or richness, but it’s a proper, proper wine. 95/100

Published 12/10
Wines tasted 02/10  

Find these wines with

Back to top