Back when I started to take wine classes I was told that vines were traditionally grown on rocky hillsides along with olive trees in southern Europe, where nothing else would grow and that vines actually had to struggle (with limited nutrients and water in the soil) to achieve great fruit flavor. While there are certainly exceptions to every rule, I believe that wine should reflect the place it comes from. I also think that if you want to become “an expert” it’s a great idea to buy 4 or 5 bottles of a certain type of wine e.g. Chianti, Volnay or Pinot Gris, share them with friends, take notes, and discuss what you all perceived in sight, smell and taste.
I recently had the very good fortune to taste some great and rare wine including the following three which provided a stunning lesson on the power and beauty of Syrah:
Halcón, Yorkville Highlands, ‘Las Alturas’ 2009. A gift to the market at $24.99. Have you ever been to a blind tasting and just been bowled over by a couple examples? This Halcón did it for me: just a wonderful, delectable expression of flavor, complexity and pleasure. I can recommend few wines more highly at the moment -it just sings Syrah character, and as you may know, Syrah has been anointed by the Wine and Spirits Education Trust as one of the 8 great grapes in the world (out of about 14,ooo known to exist, of which about 10% are used in wine production) – and I like it!
Halcón Vineyards, at 25oo feet, is one of the highest vineyards in California, located in the Yorkville Highlands of Mendocina, overlooking Anderson Valley. The altitude and exposure to the Pacific create a climate similar to the Northern Rhône in France. Also, the soil at Halcón Vineyards is composed of a rare geological mix similar to the soils of the Côte-Rôtie.
Domaine Coursodon, St. Joseph 2010 ‘L’Olivaie’ ($49.99) You can, for now, only imagine my joy at this huge step up – or down, one could argue, in purety and depth. I know, it sounds oxymoronic, but trust me, this stuff rules! Coursodon is in Mauves, which sits opposite Hermitage (the world’s most celebrated Syrah vineyard), in the heart of St. Joseph, one of France’s biggest appellations. It is a bifurcated string of vineyards along the Rhone some 40 miles long, about the length of the Napa Valley.
Syrah produces robust wines with notes of pepper, spices, and a hint of violet; it is the Syrah grapes that give Saint-Joseph wines their fine, darkly aromatic personality. Coursodon’s vineyards for ‘L’Olivaie’ are in nearby St-Jean-de-Mazuls above the Delas offices and date from the 1960’s; the “soil is more stone-gravelly than the other areas, with sand elements” (‘The Wines of the Northern Rhone’ by John Livingstone-Learmonth). This crop is de-stalked and the total production of 9,000 bottles is aged 12-15 months in a mix of new (15%) and seasoned barrels and 600L demi-muids. The 2010 is juicy but chewy, strong, but bathed in fruit, a wonder to behold. JLL says bottles are “best left until four or five years old”, as in NOW: Carpe diem, baby! (This seems an appropriate time for my motto on ageing wine: “Better too soon than too late!”) On these insane terraces, people have to work like mules, hauling everything up or down these sheer hillsides – they must work up a big thirst!
Jamet Côte-Rôtie 2009 ($119.99) Some wines have a bouquet that is worth the price of admission and this surely is one of them…we are talking wild roses, tar, a hint of Nebbiolo, and Ardeche garrigue floating above of bed of iron rich beet and wild game. A sheer marvel, with a palate to match!
At a tasting of 16 different Côte-Rôtie, Eric Asimov of the New York Times commented: “A  Domaine Jamet was gorgeous: pure, graceful and precise with savory, multifaceted flavors and structure — my kind of Côte-Rôtie, a wine that could come from nowhere else.” I couldn’t say it much better to describe the ’09 (note the bold type for my emphasis.)
The Jamets work about 18 acres of vines in 17 different plots, with 75% of fruit coming from the Côte Brune and 25% from the Côte Blonde; most of the vines are 25-50 years old. This, is very much a blended wine: some lots don’t make the cut… They do not grow any Viognier which is frequently added here from 1-20% in each bottle. Depending on the vintage, they will sometimes include some grape stems, sometimes not – such “whole cluster” fermentation is one of the hot topics in winemaking today. Each year they use about 25% new, one-year, two-year & three-year old oak barrels and they age the wine for about 22 months. It is neither fined nor filtered, and it smells and tastes like nothing else. One could say unforgettably unique!
If you haven’t been, Côte-Rôtie, the roasted, largely south facing slope on the west side of the Rhone, 30 miles south of Lyon, is certainly that (roasting) in September. The patchwork of steeply elevated and terraced vineyards (some reaching 60 degree angles!) looks like some form of lunatic agriculture:
You feel like you’re gonna fall into the river up top! There’s nothing but the sky to stop you!
Check out these “wigwam poles” (echalas) they have to use to stake up most of the vines. In the old days, they had to carry the topsoil back up the hill in baskets after a heavy rain. Some modernists have ‘sloped the hillside’ to make it more workable… There are 73 registered sites among the vineyards. Almost all of the vines are planted on metamorphic rocks: pressure and temperature – which are higher in the south of the appellation – have created three different terroirs: mica schists in the north, Gneiss to the south, and migmatite at the south-eastern tip. In Côte-Rôtie, the parent rock contains a large number of fractures that provide the vines’ roots with access to the water and minerals contained therein.
Michael D., Beltramo’s Wine Consultant