What to Expect from Northern Rhone Syrah

Cote Rotie vineyards

The steep vineyards of the Northern Rhone provide unique terroir for Syrah

The Syrah grapes Stephane Ogier grows on the steep hills North of Ampuis are, genetically at least, from the same Syrah vines planted along California’s North Coast, in the Southern Rhone, and even in Australia (where it’s called “Shiraz”). But where warm-climate Syrah explodes with lush (often jammy) blue/black fruit, delivers mouthfilling alcohols (14.5-16%), and can be swaddled in oaky vanilla and spice, Syrah from the Cote Rotie neighborhood is something else again.

Much like the Cornas and St. Joseph reds from Vincent Paris we introduced you to last year, Ogier’s L’Ame Soeur Syrah 2011 is Syrah with Burgundian elegance, freshness, and minerality. The fruit is pure, rather than lush, and features fresh, even tangy, red and blue berries and plum. While the aromas and flavors are decisively ripe and intense, the alcohol is a trim 12.5%. And the wine wears its year in French oak (20% new) with restraint, showing a hint of spice and the silky tannins that only a spell in barrel can bring. It’s delicious, food friendly, and sure to improve over the next decade or so.

Northern Rhone versus the Rest of the World. Why is Syrah from the Northern Rhone so different – many would argue more interesting and delicious – from Syrah grown anywhere else in the world? The key is that subtle and complex concept the French sum up by the word “terroir.”

Most of the land along the Rhone River between Lyon and Valence is too cool to ripen Grenache, the Southern Rhone’s top grape, and too warm for Burgundy’s Pinot Noir. It’s also mostly too cool for Syrah as well, except in places where very special conditions obtain. First, the soils need to be rocky, loose, and low in clay so that water drains quickly and the vines send their roots down deep for moisture and nutrients. Second, each Syrah vine needs to receive unobstructed access to the northerly sun’s light and warmth, which means vineyards need to run up and down steep hillsides so one vine doesn’t block the sun from others.

Tannic Structure Without Harshness. You’ll find sites that fit these conditions dotted along the hills that hug the Rhone River, most famously at the majestic hill of Hermitage in the south and along the super-steep slopes of Cote Rotie in the north. In these schist and stone-laced vineyards, Syrah vines develop ripe skins, seeds, and stems that give tannic structure without harshness. And, the grapes develop layers and layers of perfume and flavor at lower alcohol levels and with more vibrant, fresh, acidity than can be found anywhere else in the world.

Stephane Ogier’s L’Ame Soeur Syrah comes from vineyards like these on low but steep hills below Cote Rotie and just north of the town of Ampuis. And, as Robert Parker noted, the wine showcases all of the best attributes of the Northern Rhone’s best terroirs. Dark in color, beautifully perfumed, layered on the palate with ripe but tangy fresh fruit, and finishing long and fine, this beauty marries the character and power of Syrah with the elegance and grace of a great red Burgundy. And, while it lasts, it delivers all of that at a very attractive price!