BY virtue of job and inclination, I’ve got a lot of favourite wines. But of all my favourites, the reds of the Northern Rhône Valley of France, made entirely or almost entirely of the syrah grape, are possibly my favourite favourite.
It’s not just the pleasures of the aromas and flavours that I love. A good bottle somehow conveys to me a sense of reassurance that as bad as things might be in the world, all will be well.
Some people find comfort snuggling a cat. I open a bottle of St-Joseph.
The perception of a wine is often emotional, although that side of the experience is generally given short shrift. Instead, our wine culture too often cuts right to the rational analysis, tracing aromas and flavours to soil types, winemaking techniques and so on.
That is important, too. The best wines affect us both emotionally and intellectually. They cause us to think and to feel.
I’ve found that people who have not studied wine are more apt to experience it emotionally because they have not yet learned the vocabulary for discussing wine analytically. Those who have studied wine tend to ignore their emotional response, possibly because it seems facile.
I don’t want to say that it’s essential to be open to both sides of the equation, because how people find satisfaction is a personal choice. I will say, though, that approaching wine from all sides, examining it analytically and emotionally, heightens the potential rewards.
Instead of picking three examples of a single genre, I instead suggested one bottle each from three different Northern Rhône appellations.
They were J L Chave Sélection Crozes-Hermitage Silène 2018, J L Chave Sélection St-Joseph Offerus 2017 and Vincent Paris Cornas Granit 30 2018.
To me, they were absolutely delicious – that’s an emotional response. Would they have been better in a few years, becoming more complex and more distinctively themselves, highlighting whatever differences might be a direct result of their various terroirs?
Yes, I think they would. I recently drank a 2007 St-Joseph, from Domaine Jean-Louis Chave rather than the Chave négociant operation. It was sensational.
But, sadly, older bottles are few and hard to come by. What’s more, these are the wines most likely to be found at restaurants, which only in rare cases put the time and expense into aging wines for diners. That’s certainly an incentive to avoid the 4-year-old Bordeaux, Barolo and Hermitage in favour of potentially lesser wines that will be more pleasing when young. But these three Northern Rhônes? Eminently drinkable, although with much still to be revealed. We could have chosen young bottles with little in reserve. In Crozes-Hermitage, for example, vines are planted on stony granite slopes but also on fertile plains. The plains wines tend to be fruity, and sometimes jammy, easily accessible when young but without much more to offer. They are very much expressions of the syrah grape rather than of a particular place.
The Chave Silène came from two areas. One, near the village of Gervans, is a vineyard mostly on granite, where the wine is firmer and more structured. The other is around the village of Larnage, which has a little more clay, producing wines that are more generous and easygoing.
The result was a wine that was aromatic, savoury, earthy and quite open, with aromas and flavours of herbs, black olives and flowers. I thought it was lovely, much more than a fruity, simple Crozes yet still relatively approachable.
St-Joseph is divided similarly to Crozes-Hermitage. The wines from the granite hillsides are the most distinctive, complex, interesting and age-worthy, while the wines from the plains are relatively simple and fruity.
The St-Joseph Offerus was nonetheless different from the Crozes. Jean-Louis Chave, the proprietor, has put a lot of time and energy into reconstructing ancient, abandoned hillside vineyards in St-Joseph, and 60 per cent of the grapes in this négociant bottle come from young vines owned by the Chave estate on historic hillsides. They provide structure and depth, while the rest come from vineyards to the north that are more easygoing.
Although it was a blend of elements like the Crozes, the St-Joseph, a year older, felt denser, with aromas of violets and crushed rocks, and chalky tannins. It did not have the more obvious black olive flavours and felt more elegant and tightly wound.
Of the three wines, I would have thought the Cornas, from a warmer site in the southern end of the Northern Rhône, would have been the least ready to drink. Cornas generally requires more aging than either St-Joseph or Crozes-Hermitage.
I’ve had 15-year-old bottles of Cornas that still seemed too young. That might have been before the effects of climate change were as apparent in Cornas as they are now. Ferocity was once considered a hallmark of Cornas. I haven’t seen a clenched-tight bottle like that in a long time.
But the Granit 30 is intended for early drinking. For our purposes, this was good in that the wine is enjoyable now, and not so good, perhaps, in that it’s atypical of the region. Even so, I felt as if I could still sense the Cornas identity in this wine.
It was even more dense and concentrated than the St-Joseph, yet paradoxically more ready to drink. It was fruitier than the other two wines, with lingering aromas and flavours of violets, black olives, and red and black fruits. On the second day, earthy mineral flavours emerged.
As I said earlier, the characteristics of a terroir can be discerned only over time. Yet, in my experience, these wines very much bore out what I would have expected to see: The Crozes-Hermitage was the most open, and the St-Joseph more tightly wound and stonier.
The Cornas was an outlier stylistically because the producer intended it to be easygoing. But in its density and concentration, it revealed the possibilities of this appellation. Vincent Paris’ Granit 60 – the numbers reflect the gradient of the vineyards – is a more traditional Cornas, made from older vines. I wouldn’t try to drink a 2-year-old bottle of Granit 60.
Beyond my effort to analyse the wines, I have to say they were a great joy for me to drink, one night with Cuban-style black beans, another night with roast chicken. NYTIMES