After a week of nonstop travel through Northern Spain and levels of food and wine consumption that approached gluttony, a few days of recuperation at a lovely bed and breakfast in the hillside vineyards of Côte-Rôtie in the French wine region of Northern Rhone were desperately needed.
I’ve long been fascinated by Côte-Rôtie. It’s one of those wine regions (like the Douro in Portugal and Mosel in Germany) where working the vineyards seems impossible because the vines are planted on steep slopes more suited to goats than humans. But more importantly, the wine from this region is utterly unique. The primary grape here is Syrah which typically makes a big wine, powerful and full bodied with rich, dark fruit and a spicy finish that takes well to oak. Australian Shiraz and Paso Robles Syrah are examples of this style. Even some Northern Rhone Syrah from Hermitage or Cornas, while more restrained than new world styles, will nevertheless impress with their power.
Côte-Rôtie Syrah is an exception. Almost feminine with red fruits and floral notes predominating when young, as they age they develop flavors of bacon fat, tobacco and earth. But whether young or aged, finesse and a sensuous, silky texture are the calling card of Côte-Rôtie wines. It is as close to Burgundian Pinot Noir as Syrah can get. It is perhaps no accident that Côte-Rôtie is the northernmost region in the Rhone Valley separated from Beaujolais and Southern Burgundy only by the city of Lyon. A cultural preference for elegance and finesse may explain this expression of Syrah. But climate surely plays a central role. The weather is relatively cold and windy for much of the year so the grapes ripen slowly and maintain their acidity. Yet the southern-facing slopes get lots of sunlight and the additional weeks on the vine before sugar levels get too high allow the phenols to reach full maturity creating complexity and finesse. The fact that the wine laws allow up to 20% Viognier, a white grape, in the blend adds to the aromatic potential of these wines.
The region is also blessed with two soil types—schist rock and darker soils in the so called Côte-Brune which produce a darker, more structured, austere wine; and lighter granite and sand in the Côte Blonde which makes a softer, more elegant wine. Many wines from this region are a blend of grapes from both soil types. Just as in Burgundy, the best vineyards are near the top of the slopes where drainage is best and sunlight is intense.
As it is sometimes difficult to visit these wineries since they often do not have public tasting rooms, we hired Paul from Rhone Wine Tours to give us a tour of the region. We enjoyed an extensive tasting at Domaine Stephane Ogier, one of my favorite Côte-Rôtie producers, tasting through several wines from various vineyards to get a sense of how the vineyard site influences the final product. These were from the 2012 and 2013 vintages so they were relatively young. Ogier’s wines are very fresh and bright with high acidity and lovely floral aromas. This impression of freshness is present in part because he has not joined the modern trend toward extensive use of new oak. There appears to be a contrast between traditional and modernist approaches to Côte-Rôtie winemaking. The traditionalists use older barriques or large oak casks that add oxygen to the wine without imparting wood notes, and their old school methods can encourage the development of meaty and herbal notes that give a funky impression as they age. More modern producers, such as the largest producer in the region Guigal, make extensive use of new oak barriques and aim for the richness and toasted flavors that oak provides. Ogier is in the middle of this continuum preferring barriques that are 2-3 yrs. old. This makes for a fresh, floral but closed wine that needs a few years to open up. But the remarkable elegance of these wines is apparent even when young.
Alas, Côte-Rôtie is a tiny wine region with a limited production that is in great demand. With just over 200 hectares (around 500 acres) of vineyard plantings, low yields and many very small producers, it can be next to impossible to get your hands on a bottle in the U.S for under $50 and most are considerably more expensive. Even a relatively large producer like Ogier produces only about 25,000 cases per year which must serve a world wide market. As much as I love Côte-Rôtie it is only an occasional indulgence.
Our tour included a drive south to Crozes-Hermitage and Cornas as well. As we move south, the wines get bigger and more structured. Domain Betton’s Caprice was a muscular, complex Syrah with a gorgeous nose. Unfortunately we could not taste her highly regarded white Hermitage since all bottles had already been allocated. And Domaine Johann Michel makes full bodied Cornas that attract the attention of Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate every year. We tasted several barrel samples that gave some insight into how Syrah develops in oak.
But the best wine of this leg of our trip takes us back to Côte-Rôtie. A 2010 Domaine Clusel-Roche spotted on the wine list at a local restaurant had just enough age on it to begin to develop the meat and earth notes that fans of Côte-Rôtie adore.
As for the food, we welcomed the prix fixe menus of spring vegetable appetizers, gratins, and flavorful sauces that highlighted the simple cuts of duck, lamb, veal, or the ubiquitous guinea hen served in the local restaurants. This is country cooking but in the refined style that the French have mastered.
Fortified by rest and great wine, we are now ready to test the transportation system in Eastern Europe.