Rhone Part 1: Syrah’s spiritual home

The Crozes-Hermitage area of the Northern Rhone produces only a single red grape variety, but Peter Ranscombe finds out just how varied its Syrah can be.

“Syrah loves a view” – or so French winemaker Jean-Louis Chave once said. In the Crozes-Hermitage region in France’s Rhone valley, those grapes are spoiled for choice when it comes to picking a vista.

The Northern Rhone is the spiritual home of Syrah. The variety has been recorded growing in its soils since Roman times, with legendary areas such as Cote-Rotie and Hermitage having won praise around the world for centuries.

Syrah has relatively-thick skins and so the grapes need plenty of sunshine to ripen and produce their black fruit flavours. Despite temperatures averaging 20C over the summer and peaking at nearly 40C on the hottest days, the Northern Rhone is still considered a cool climate for Syrah, especially when compared to some of the figures reached in Australia, where the variety is better known as Shiraz.

Sitting on the right bank of the River Rhone, the winemaking area or appellation of Crozes-Hermitage is centred around the village of the same name, which ironically no longer has any wineries of its own. Instead, most of the major producers are based in and around the bustling town of Tain l’Hermitage to the west, with the main National 7 road passing through its centre.

In very broad terms, there are three main sections within the appellation, each adding different characteristics to the wines: the granite hills north of Tain, some covered in layers of loess sands blown in by the wind; the flatter alluvial plains to the south and east; and the terraces to the west, with their pebbles and more loess. Yet there are variations even within those areas; the alluvial soils from the Rhone are browner, while those from the Isere are yellower, and further north-west the soils around Larnage include sun-reflecting white stones.

This diversity of soils results in a wide variety of styles of Syrah, with winemakers blending wines from different parcels of vines to add even further complexity. Comparing and contrasting single parcels and blends from different producers helps to build up a picture of the variations on offer from Crozes-Hermitage.

Balancing roundness and finesse

Travelling round the area’s vineyards, producers are quick to point out that Syrah from the flatter plains tends to be rounder and fruiter, while the granite slopes produce wines with more structure and finesse. The two sets of characteristics also point to the way in which the style of Crozes-Hermitage’s wines has changed over the years; in the past, connoisseurs wouldn’t have dreamed of cracking open a bottle until it was at least five years old and the tannins had been given time to soften, but now many of the appellation’s efforts are made to be drunk young, within two or three years of their harvest.

Winemaker Gilles Robin makes his Syrah in three styles. His 2015 Papillons (£12.95, Wine Society) is in the younger vein, with a fruity nose full of blueberries, black cherries and violets, all of which shine through on the palate, with fresh acidity to balance the manageable tannins.

Robin’s 2015 Alberic Bouret (£20.96, Exel, 2014 vintage) – named after his grandfather, who introduced him to wine – is formed from a blend of grapes from three locations, with a touch of wood smoke joining the blackberries and blackcurrants on the nose and richer bramble and vanilla flavours on the palate, rounded off with a twist of warming black pepper on the finish. The 2015 Gilles Robin 1920 (£11.99, half bottle, Guildford Wine Company, 2011 vintage) is named for the year in which his great-grandfather started making wine and is framed as a much bigger style of Syrah, with the wine spending 18 months in new oak casks to add a richer and more rounded mouthfeel, along with vanilla notes.

Laurent Fayolle, who runs Domaine Fayolle fils et fille with Céline, his sister, is keen to capture a sense of place in his wines, demonstrating how Syrah reacts differently on granite and on a mix of clay and limestone. His 2014 Les Pontaix (£16.98, Christopher Keiller) comes from the latter, with smoke, blackcurrant jam and roast meat on the nose, leading into fresh acidity and firm tannins on the palate.

Granite is the basis for his 2014 Clos Les Cornirets (£19.89, Christopher Keiller) which has more grip to its tannins and some lighter redcurrant notes in amongst the black fruit. It has great ageing potential, as shown by the 2011 Clos Les Cornirets (£22.50, Palmers Wine Store), which has already developed some milk chocolate flavours and is much smoother and more rounded.

Digging deeper

Perhaps one of the ultimate methods for identifying and expressing the ways in which individual plots produce different styles of Syrah comes at Cave de Tain, a co-operative formed of around 280 growers, which investment €10 million in 2014 to create a winery where it can turn grapes from some 40 specific parcels into separate wines. These can then either be bottled as single vineyards or single sites, or they can be blended together to produce more complex wines.

The co-op’s “Terroirs d’Exception” series of bottles displays the characteristics of individual sites: the 2013 La Grace (€19.20) is made using 15 plots from near the village of Mercurol and offers roast meat aromas on the nose and gripping tannins on the palate; the 2015 LA (€19.20) for me is more rounded, with intense blackberry and black cherry characters and hails from around Larnage; the 2015 BM (€19.20) from around Beaumont-Monteux has warmer fruity aromas on the nose and more concentrated bramble fruit all the way through to its long finish; and the 2015 Nord (€19.20) from north of the village of Crozes-Hermitage has distinctive violet and blackcurrant notes, with more red and blackcurrants on the tongue.

Vinifying separate parcels of grapes into separate wines is also the order of the day at Domaine Paul Jaboulet Aine, one of the biggest producers in the region. Its 2015 Domaine de Thalabert (£16.25, BI Wines) is grown on pebbly terraces and has intense violets and blackberry aromas on the nose, leading into ripe black fruit flavours on the palate, while its 2015 Domaine de Roure (£22.08, BI Wines) is from steep granite slopes, with fresher blackcurrant and black cherry aromas and richer and rounder dark fruit.