Friday, January 2, 2009

Old School

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.


Anonymous said...

Spoken like a true Burgophile syrah drinker. I can't agree with you more the seeming loss in many cases of elegance, finesse, intensity without weight is a great concern and pity. I loved Chaves from the 70s and eighties.
The growing levels of alcohol in many wine regions is, for me at least, damaging the role of wine as a beveraqe to compliment good
food, to stimulate hunger. many wines are becoming too rich and heavy in alcohol or in the case of regions like Alsace often too sweet also as residual sugar remains after winemakers stop the fermentations at alcohol levels that are "reasonable" ( read 13.5%) albeit some 1.5+ degrees an 10 or so gms /litre of sugar higher than the wines were 30 years ago. With the threat of global warning this aspect is going to present many challenges to winemakers to find viticulture approaches, yields, clones(?), yeasts that deliver grapes/wines of phenolic ripeness but less alcohol and/or residual sugar.

edelzwicker said...


That '79 Chave rouge was by far the finest of the three bottles of this wine I have enjoyed. Pity that the '79 Chave blanc (acquired on the aftermarket from a completely different source) was compromised; properly-stored bottles are surely still in their peak drinking window.

More golden-era Northern Rhône syrah goodness awaits your next visit to Oregon. Take good care in NY & Dizy (stay far, far away from Prunay and Minty, however), and know that your current and former Portland contingent look forward to seeing you again in March.

-- edelzwicker

edelzwicker said...

I forgot to mention that Jason's Rote Goatee was perfect fodder for the background of your photo.

Thomas said...

Peter, I couldn’t have said it better.

I recently entered a discussion on a Danish Wine board, which took its stand on almost the same platform. A taster reviewed a very highly praised Robert Parker wine; Greenock Creek Alice's Shiraz 2005 from Australia. I have had my share of Greenock Creek and know what monsters they are and I basically hate them. The taster of wine remarked; “that the wine was pitch black with a almost thick and greasy texture. The 17,5% alcohol was not particular noticeable (yeah right), but one glass was enough for him”. Despite this last remark, he scored it (94-95 pts).

For me this is sick and I couldn’t help to comment even though I don’t focus on points.

Has wine become a comparison experiment?

Many tasters take an objective perspective when they judge a wine. This is on paper alright, as it keeps and open mind to see “art”. However – when it comes to wine a taster will always recognize the well made aspects of a wine. But what is well made? I think you’re very illustrative reference to 2003 Côte-Rôtie La Turque by Guigal says it all, Peter. For me that is not well made and my taste buds have exactly the same needs as yours – but you can rest assured that Parkers praises is well anchored out there. What seriously frightens me today – is that wine can be considered great without having the simple gift of being drinkable. When I drink Champagne (which is more and more often), I feel like licking the last drops out of the glass.
The dilemma is that wine people gather and put on tastings with various themes. When comparing in a mixed group of tasters – the chances for the “lowest cleavage” to win is rather high. Some of these massive wine can enter and impressed and as you only get one glass – you will only feel the “WOW” and never the heaviness and dull profile of glass 2,3,4…..



Anonymous said...


Sigh! I can't fault Mr. Parker's experience (just envy the wines he has tasted) but I have been collecting wine since 1975 and cellaring them properly. I cannot imagine these high alcohol wines as complementary to any foods at the dinner table and have not found them to fit any dinners I have tried. The rush to enjoy fruit, even overripe fruit, seems to be the current trend in wine reviews, replacing all thoughts of elegance and refinement through an appropriate aging regimen. Obviously, the aging regimen varies with the wine and should be tested over the years so that the owner is not surprised by a precocious wine that developed faster than expected. I believe all collectors have stories of wines that they cellared for too long a time which did not reward them when opened but the current overly fruited, high alcohol wines do not seem to be intended for any aging, at least they don't seem to improve with age. Of course this is a highly opinionated topic, thanks for reading mine.

Jim R
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