Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Two Northern Rhone Syrah

I know I'm repeating myself, but I get slightly irritated when people criticize blowsy new world pinot noir-based wines as syrah-like. As in, "If I wanted a syrah..." The thing is, a self-respecting syrah can often be an elegant wine in its own right, no matter that it's darker (in all senses of the term) than a self-respecting pinot noir. It can simultaneously posess brawn and delicacy in equal measure. And when it's grown in granite-based soils, the wine can take on cool, stony, spicy tones that resonate.

That, at least, is what I hope for. I don't always get it.

Domaine Vincent Paris St. Joseph 2006
St. Joseph, the Chile-shaped appellation that lines the western side of the Rhône for 40 miles, has the steep granite terrain that can produce terrific syrah, but it also contains slightly less favorable terroir as well, which figures given how enormous this region is. I don't know where Vincent Paris sourced these grapes, exactly, but Polaner says the vineyards are "predominantly granite based."

Unfortunately, this wine is overly rough and rustic. Its aromas of cooked stone (which foreshadow a bit of heat on the palate), blackberry, and meat become more pronounced on the palate. The acidity is a bit rasp-making and the finish is focused on the middle front of the palate — it's distinctly absent toward the back. I call that wildly out of balance. I'd also say it's overly tart. Over four days I confirmed that this was simply not good, particularly at $30. Vincent Paris is a highly regarded producer, so I'm not sure what the deal is here.

Domaine Belle Crozes-Hermitage Les Pierrelles 2004
Let's hop over to the east bank of the Rhône to the plateau of Crozes-Hermitage. According to the Kacher Selections propaganda, "The Les Pierrelles vineyards are located below Hermitage and are covered with small calcareous/limestone granite pebbles." The grapes are 50% destemmed and 25% of the oak casks are new. I'd never had this producer's wines before, and I wasn't sure what to expect, particularly as 2004 doesn't have the best rep, and also because the wines that come from this appellation can, in my experience, be slightly dull.

But Belle pulls a nice one out of the hat: this Les Pierrelles is an elegant syrah with an unusually light footprint. The aromas are classic Northern Rhône: coffee, blueberry, cold stone, and cold grilled meat. It's smooth in the mouth, with peppery blue fruit and a subtly long minerally finish. This becomes more intensely spicy on the second night, and the tannins become a bit more burly. I could quibble at the price, which like the Paris is also $30, but I'm frankly not in the mood to quibble.

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