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Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Who says they can’t make kick ass Syrah in the Southern Rhone?

Well, just about every vintner in Chateauneuf does, but then again, they are biased. I think part of their dilemma, in addition to the intensely hot climate, is that they constantly make comparisons to standard bearers like Cote Rotie and Hermitage instead of appreciating the distinctiveness in character that the varietal achieves in the south. The team from Pegau, Clos du Mont Olivet and Charvin were all very outspoken regarding their relative disdain for the variety when it came from their southern soils, with only Fortia and Barroche (Julien Barrot, Barroche’s rising star, has already received quite a bit of flack for using such a lofty chunk of Syrah in his Chateauneuf called ‘Fiancee’) coming to mind as real champions of the grape. Now don’t get me wrong, I love Grenache more than any other and I am not campaigning to dethrone the undisputed champion of Chateauneuf du Pape. Having said that, I’d be remiss to not appreciate the merits of a Southern Rhone Syrah when it is done well, even if it’s only a supporting player in a blend. Its lusty pepper scented bouquet adds a welcoming gaminess to some of the finest Chateauneuf du Papes that I choose to laud, instead of apologize for.

What began this ‘defense of Syrah from the south’ diatribe? Well, a bottle of 1995 Chateau Fonsalette Syrah that I indulged in over my first anniversary dinner last night got my mind brewing. Not only was this bottle no whipping boy, it was flat out fabulous in every way I’d hope a Southern Rhone red to be, regardless of grape variety. It opened up to reveal alluring, earthy aromatics of worn leather, grilled steak, hoison sauce, rust, wild mushrooms and copious amounts of cracked pepper. Its deep blackberry flavors cut through the palate like a champion figure skater performing a triple axel, with precision and an almost ethereal glide, thanks to the imbedded tidal wave of vigorous acidity. While there was still an ironclad grip of youthful, tannic structure, it married beautifully to the deep, dark berry fruit and never lost its stride. As the finish churned along, there’s a suggestion of a mossy underbrush note, as whispers of mountain herbs dance away in the background…..an easy 95 points, second hand Syrah and all.

What I loved most about the wine was its typicity, not only of place, but of varietal. It did indeed taste and feel much like a Syrah, but more importantly, like a great Syrah from the southern Rhone (no, that is not an oxymoron!). It had a synthesis of spicy, savory elements that struck a Chateauneuf-like chord, but a more firm, dark tone to the flavors that could have only be attributed to Syrah. Perhaps most importantly, a Syrah like this could only have come from the southern Rhone. While it’s no Hermitage or Cote Rotie, the wines from the north could never duplicate what this vintage of Fonsalette was able to achieve.

I think wines like this make a strong argument for the transparency of fine Syrah and, in my opinion, make a statement that southern Rhone Syrah can in fact be great, and at the very least, should be respected for what it is, not berated for what it isn’t. I appreciate the fact that most Syrah from the south may be best suited as a member of the supporting cast…but if Rayas can make a southern Rhone based Syrah that is this compelling at age 13, I’m convinced Syrah’s place amidst those sun-drenched galets is an invaluable one that shouldn’t be taken with a grain of salt….or pepper.

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