Northern Rhine Reds
Some of the world’s greatest reds come from the Rhone Valley of southeastern France, native home of the syrah grape (a.k.a. shiraz in Australia), grenache, mourvedre and many others. The wine style there is deeply colored, hearty and robust.
As we discussed last week, the defining feature there is the Rhone River, one of the largest in the country. It begins in Switzerland and flows into and out of Lake Geneva, then enters France.
There it turns south and flows to the Mediterranean Sea near the port city of Marseille. Along its rocky banks are some of the greatest red wine vineyards in the world: 150 years ago they were considered the equal of Bordeaux’s cabernets and Burgundy’s pinot noir, but the region’s more isolated location caused it to be discovered by the rest of the world only later.
In the south, blending is the norm, but along the northern Rhone little blending is done. Northern Rhone reds are almost entirely syrah. A little blending is typical, but curiously it’s with a little bit of white wine. In Hermitage the syrah is typically blended with a little rousanne or marsanne. Nearby, Cote Rotie is syrah, blended with viognier. It takes a big red wine to remain dark in color after pouring some white wine into it.
Syrah is now grown around the world. One place that is now becoming famous for syrah is southern Washington. Washington wines often strike a balance between California fruit and French complexity and compatibility with food, at least in part because of the state’s northerly latitude, which passes right through southern France. It gets an average of two extra hours of daylight each day, which affects the vines. Some growers call it vine vigor.
The area’s dry climate means that nighttime temperatures fall dramatically. For grapes this is a perfect counterpart to warm, sunny days.
An example of a Washington syrah made in the northern Rhone style is from Ron Bunnell of The Bunnell Family Cellar. Blended with a little viognier, it’s very deeply colored, with flavors of dark bramble berries, a peppery finish and nuances of oak.
What it doesn’t have is the earthiness often found in French wines. I brought this into Arkansas recently, as an example of the style. (Retail price: around $45)
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