Syrah is one of my favorite red grape varieties—or more accurately, I should say that syrah from the Northern Rhône can produce some of my favorite red wines outside of Burgundy and Piedmont. Yet I find that I rarely purchase modern examples to drink. It’s not that there aren’t good wines being made—there are plenty. It’s just that first of all, I prefer Northern Rhône wines when they have a reasonably significant amount of bottle age, and second, I prefer a distinctly lighter style of syrah, one that emphasizes terroir over fruit and that avoids excessive amounts of ripeness and alcohol. Anything remotely jammy, massive, prodigious or that has gobs of anything sends me running the other way.
A trio of wines the other evening from three of my all-time favorite syrah producers provided plenty of food for thought. The lovely 1985 Cornas from Noel Verset was fragrant, open and alluring, with heady aromas of bacon fat and exotic spice. Verset’s wines always require a good deal of time to show their best, and the 1985 felt like it was at a perfect point of drinking, balancing a lingering richness of fruit aroma against an expansive backdrop of mature, soil-driven complexity. In contrast, the 1985 Côte-Rôtie by Marius Gentaz was still youthful, primary and slightly constricted, requiring about half a hour to emerge from its shell. Like the Verset, this was a masterly demonstration of both variety and place, developing a marvelously porky, bacon-y fragrance and revealing an intense depth of aroma along with the inimitable silkiness of fine Côte-Rôtie. I would find it difficult to believe that either of these wines were more than 12.5 percent alcohol, yet their aromas were so riveting and pure, proving once again that you don’t need weight or power to achieve intensity and expression.
With its quietly elegant refinement, soft-spoken intensity and restrained balance, Gentaz’s Côte-Rôtie is the antithesis of the modern blockbusters that are at the forefront of the region today. While surfing the web recently, I ran across Robert Parker’s review of the 2003 Côte-Rôtie La Turque by Guigal, a wine to which he awarded 100 points. Parker writes, “This is a prodigious effort that may eclipse any other vintage Guigal has ever produced! It possesses similarities to the 1999, but it is even higher in alcohol, more unctuously textured, thicker, and longer. Encapsulate the character of this single vineyard in a top year, add more depth, intensity, alcohol, and power, and this describes this freakishly rich 2003.” Lavish praise for Parker, but to me, freakish is the operative word here. He goes on to say, “This is the stuff of modern day legends. As for what it actually tastes like, just take my notes for any of the great vintages and add more power, glycerin, alcohol, tannin, and concentration... that about defines this 2003!”
This review made me think of the third wine of our evening’s trio, the 1979 Hermitage by J.-L. Chave. The Chave estate is still one of the appellation’s greats today, but the wines of that era and this one are markedly different, and it’s hardly a surprise as to where my preferences lie. Of the magical, heartbreakingly sublime 1979, I could write, “This is the stuff of legends, a glimpse of a bygone age. Just take my notes for any of the great vintages of the modern day and add more finesse, elegance, subtlety, delicacy, complexity and grace. Take away glycerin, power, tannin and excess concentration, and subtract two percentage points of alcohol to create an even more weightless, hauntingly ethereal expression of the Hermitage hillside. That about defines this 1979.” 100 points on the gob-less scale.