Syrah in Excelsis
Christmas, or whatever the festive end of year season is allowed to be called these days. An excuse to dig out some nice bottles, though not when there are too many thirsty family members around, well, not at today’s wine prices at any rate.
When I look at the cellar, there’s an embarrassing amount of Burgundy, an increasing love affair with all that is Italian, a rapidly diminishing and not replenished stock of Bordeaux and a rather meagre selection of Rhones. I suppose our family holidays have an Italian bias (plus a daughter studying the language, a marvellous excuse for travel there) and the nearest wine region to me here is the Cote d’Or (and Chablis or Sancerre, but for me that’s more white and here I am talking rouge). Hence the Rhone tends to be a flashing glimpse through the windscreen of the vineyard billboards on the slope of Hermitage as we drive down the A6 autoroute to the south to see friends and then (often) pop over the Italian border at Nice. And by that stage we’ve probably already pulled off the A6 at Beaune…
I am therefore embarrassed to admit that I haven’t tasted wine actually in the Rhone Valley for it must be over 20 years. My knowledge is consequently patchy and my cellar stock way too low. And it’s too easy to think of the Rhone as ‘southern’ and to conflate it with the higher alcohol levels of Chateauneuf (these days 16% is not rare) and the big, often rather cooked wines of the Mediterranean. All of which is, of course, a stupid mistake.
This weekend I thought we’d make minor amends, and taste two of my favourite winemakers in France, or anywhere for that matter. No, not on the famed left bank (eastern) slope of the Rhone that faces south/west at Hermitage, but on the opposite bank. Wines where finesse can be found with a capital F amidst the vertiginous, terraced vineyards where crampons or skis would seem more appropriate than shoes.
Years ago, at our favourite Parisian restaurant (Vin sur Vin, now alas gone), the owner-sommelier Patrice suggested I order a bottle of a ‘Cornas Cuvee C’. The name was uninspiring, Cornas was thought of as dark, tannic and rustic, and when it arrived, the label looked as unexciting as I expected the wine to be. Nor had I ever heard of Marcel Juge. But it was the only restaurant where I’d happily leave the wine choice to the sommelier, as he knew my taste buds (& wallet) and never failed, so I went along with his recommendation.
The wine was a revelation. Syrah yes, but syrah as if made with pinot noir, wine with a perfume and elegance that hailed more from the soft, undulating limestone curves of Burgundy than the hard, vertical granite of Cornas. And about as rustic as Mozart. (The wines used to be enjoyed by the emperor Charlemagne, usually better known for his affection for the hill of Corton in Burgundy, where his wife reputedly told him to grow white wine as the red stained his beard, hence the famed grand cru chardonnay of Corton-Charlemagne). Sadly, Marcel Juge has retired, and since passed away, but I tried to empty the rest of the restaurant stock whenever I was there. When it had run out, he produced another Cornas, this time from Thierry Allemand, and another dangerous obsession was born.
Mark Williamson, of Willi’s Wine Bar and Maceo restaurant in the Paris opera region, sold Allemand Cornas for a remarkably low price and would almost wince when I appeared as he knew I was on a lifetime mission to deplete his cellar of it too. (In France there are still restaurants, mainly in wine regions, where you can find cult wines at a fraction of their current stratospheric retail prices). Alas, the low intervention, low sulphur wines of the great man have now become way too well known and the 2019 that cost me 50 euros retail a decade ago is now four or five times that, another wine off my target list. With his five hectares of south-east/south facing vineyards in the steep clefts of the hills, he has in the last few decades elevated Cornas to cult status. Many would argue that his are the best wines of the northern Rhone, Cote-Rotie and Hermitage included. And yet he comes from a family with no winemaking tradition, and painstakingly bought tiny vineyard parcels whilst he worked for the Michel family and the other great mentor of Cornas, Noel Verset. His now legendary Chaillot and Reynard bottlings only appeared in the early 1990s after the negociants refused to buy his 1991 wine for about 5 euros a litre back then!
But if Thierry Allemand is now the doyen of Cornas, the Godfather would be Auguste Clape, who passed on three years ago at the noble age of 93. In the nineteenth century the vineyards were ravaged by phylloxera, strikes and then the First World War to such an extent that growing cereals became more economically sustainable than trying to make wine that nobody outside the village wanted, or had heard of. If wine was made, it was sold off in bulk to negociants. (I wonder where it all ended up, we have all read about the rather beefy, dark and long lived ‘Burgundies’ of that age). It was Auguste Clape who started to bottle his own wine and build a market for wine locally in the mid 50s and then, decade by decade, expanded its reputation, eventually worldwide.
The granite slopes are dangerous and unfriendly to farm, but these are old vines that are picked late, for full ripeness before the rains descend, fermented with whole cluster (with stems) and aged for a long elevage in old oak foudres. They produce old school syrah that needs time to unfold, but this is entirely meant as a compliment. Wines sculpted from granite contours.
A little further north, prices and renown multiply in Cote Rotie. As does geographic complexity – there is the paler slope of the Cote Blonde contrasting with the more masculine, irony Cote Brune and its famed La Landonne vineyard. Wines that send American wine critics into an ecstasy of hyperbole and three figure scores.
I suppose there are advantages to having an uneducated palate that prizes elegance and finesse above power as the wines of La Landonne often seem too brutish to me, denser, heavier and altogether more massive. Wines that eschew the ethereal for the more imposing. Prices too. If you want to be sexist, these are masculine and very hairy, bristling with muscles.
Which brings me to Jamet. Tragically, I cannot comment on their Cote Brune as I have never drunk it and given the price tag, am unlikely to so do. They have also just acquired a plot in La Landonne, so perhaps I will bury my prejudice if ever I get a chance to taste it. But his regular cuvee is, for me, the quintessence of Cote Rotie and syrah (his straight Cote du Rhones are good too, as are his whites – in 2015 he added a Condrieu).
It comes from 20 plots scattered all over Cote Rotie (including Cote Blonde and Landonne), and like our Cornas friends is whole bunch and sees precious little new oak. Here the soil is schist, though there is some granite. And, again, steeply terraced ‘chayets’ from where you can see Mont Blanc (as you can in Burgundy on a very clear day).
Time to get back to those 2006s. The Jamet was not so deep in colour and I’d say at a perfect age, and we’ve had a few since 2019 to watch its progress. I am sure it will age further, but I don’t see the need, and once your birthday cards have a 6 appended on them as the first digit, you don’t really want to be buying wines that need a minimum 20 years to reach their peak. Not unless you have discovered the elixir of eternal youth.
It was what I’d call classic northern Rhone syrah, tarry, bacon fatty, maybe some black olive taste, lots of ripe cassis and a lifting, juicy acidity. Good texture, length and balance. Quite simply delicious. And at 13%, less alcoholic than most Chambolle or Puligny. Classically syrah, but restrained and complex. A wine you could happily sit with and contemplate on its own.
The next night we uncorked Mr Clape. The colour was a little darker, the wine a bit denser, with soft, powdery tannins coating the finish. It had thickly textured extract which made me perhaps fancifully think of those hard granite slopes, but above all it had a glorious perfume, dark, floral fruit and some menthol, and almost sweetly ripe cassis. Also at 13%.
There’s no point trying to pick one, as I don’t believe in scores or competitions, the wines were slightly different as you’d expect, but both were beautiful examples of syrah at its best.
By chance, the previous syrah I had drunk recently was also a 2006, a Guigal La Turque kindly poured by a generous friend. It was opulent, plush and impressive, but for me tasted more of winemaking and elevage than place or grape. I can see why it garners the high scores, but for me it’s too much about dress and make up. We also recently drank the trilogy of hallowed La La’s here at home, where, ironically, the only wine that I could spot as syrah was the Landonne, though I’d have put it in Hermitage due to its irony, bloody taste. The rest were, for me, an orgy of oak and ripeness, but I couldn’t define what lay beneath.
Give me Clape and Jamet at half the price any day.