Most of my experience with Syrah is from Californian wineries. Consequently when the word “Syrah” is said my sense memory immediately conjures up a catalog of wines I have experienced over the years in my travels up and down the coast including Temecula, Santa Barbara, Paso Robles and Sonoma as well Napa, Lodi and the Sierra Foothills. I am still working on developing a history of experience with French versions of this grape.
Thus far, most of my experiences with non-Californian Syrahs have been from Australia or the Rhône particularly in the “Wines of the World” class I took in college and the WSET courses. In my humble opinion, based on what I have experienced thus far, one of the easiest grapes to distinguish between Old and New World is Syrah. I have never come across a Syrah in California that made me think, “Wow, this tastes like it came from the Rhône!” I have had a few that were similar to Australian Syrahs, particularly in Paso Robles and Santa Barbara. But I recently tasted and reviewed a vertical flight of Syrah from Cornas and those wines are still solidly in my memory.
As mentioned in the previous two reviews, on the second day of the Intensive Sommelier Training we tasted 3 Old World and 3 New World wines. The third wine we sampled was the 2011 Domaine Alain Graillot Crozes Hermitage, from the Northern Rhône.
Crozes-Hermitage AOC is the largest wine region in the Northern Rhône consisting of 1,238 hectares (3,059 acres) which accounts for approximately half of the entire region’s 2,400 hectares (5,930.5 acres). However, this AOC does not have the reputation of Côte-Rôtie or its near-namesake Hermitage.
Crozes-Hermitage, along with the rest of Northern Rhône, has a continental climate that differs from the Southern Rhône, which has a more Mediterranean climate. The winters in the north are wet and experience cold winds known as the le mistral which can last into the Spring. This plays a key factor in distinguishing Northern from Southern Rhône Syrahs, which also tend to be blended with Grenache.
Crozes-Hermitage AOC boundary begins around 10 km (6.2 miles) north of Tain-l’Hermitage, extends around the village of Gervans with its south and south-western granite slopes and then spreads south around Larnage where the land flattens and consists of more clay. Approaching Tain and the village of Mercurol the elevation increases again and the appellation spreads east. In this region, the soil is mostly rocks, sand and clay. Just south of Tain galets roulés, small surface stones, also found in Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the southern Rhône, appear. The southernmost part of the appellation is flat and newly planted.
As with the rest of Northern Rhône the only red grape allowed is Syrah. But, whereas Cornas must be 100% Syrah and Côte-Rôtie may blend up to 20% Viognier, the Crozes-Hermitage AOC allows up to 15% white grapes, Marsanne and Roussanne. This is a key factor in distinguishing Crozes-Hermitage from Cornas and Côte-Rôtie. If tasting a wine blind and you think the wine is a Northern Rhône, if it has hints of floral notes then you can eliminate Cornas. Then you have to figure out (among other factors) whether it has been blended with Viognier or with Marsanne/ Roussanne. White wines from this region are based on Marsanne and/or Roussanne.
Domaine Alain Graillot
Alain Graillot was born in the Northern Rhône but he left to pursue a career in business. He then undertook formal studies in Burgundy while learning from the new generation of winemakers including Jacques Seysses of Domaine Dujac. Not having an existing family winery in the Northern Rhône, he then founded his domaine in Crozes-Hermitage in 1985. The estate consists of 50 acres of 30-year-old vines in well-draining soils of sand, gravel, and stones, located on the flat alluvial plain between the Rhône and Isère rivers. He also owns two small parcels of land in St. Joseph. The vineyard is farmed organically and the grapes are harvested by hand. He uses whole-cluster fermentation and the wines aged in 1 to 3 year old Burgundian barrels.
In favorable vintages, he also produces a barrel selection knows as “La Guiraude” made from 100% Syrah from vines planted on alluvial soils in the heart of the Crozes plateau. The 94 vintage received a rating of 94 points from the Wine Spectator and ranked #9 in their Top 100 Wines list.
The 2011 Domaine Alain Graillot Crozes-Hermitage is 100% Syrah. The wine is opaque black at the core to violet at the rim. On the nose it has aromas of dusty blackberries, dried leather, smoked meat, dried herbs, black olives, with lavender and a hint of sweaty socks and creosote. On the palate it is bone dry, medium bodied, with medium alcohol, medium+ complexity and a medium length finish. This is an unmistakable Northern Rhone Syrah and it had a lot in common with the Cornas Syrahs in my recent review. It also retails for $48-$60.