Since 1481, there have been 16 generations of unbroken lineage at the Chave estate along the Rhone River's towering granite slopes. When we look closely at the birthplace of Syrah, there's no name more respected than that of Jean-Louis Chave.
Jean-Louis Chave joined his father Gérard in 1992 after completing his studies in enology at UC Davis. Once home, his primary mission was to re-plant the steep slopes of Saint Joseph—the same hillside where the domaine first began, but the vineyards laid fallow since the 19th century when phylloxera decimated them. Jean-Louis knew these treacherously steep hillsides in Saint Joseph were capable of producing a magnificent yet value-conscious alternative to Hermitage.
Saint-Joseph's boundaries have expanded immensely since the appellation gained AOC status in 1956, but Chave's choice parcels still represent the best and most serious terroir. Here, there's an underlying mineral component that provides the backbone to their wines, and it's this definition that allows them to age effortlessly. Examples of Saint Joseph from the late 1990s have floored me with their sense of vivacity, freshness, and regal structure.
It's been nearly three decades since these terraces were re-built by hand, and vines were re-planted among traditional échalas stakes. Today, the results are stunning wines that remind us the root of Rhone's success comes from hands-on work and attention to detail, something the Chave family has personified for hundreds of years.
Death, taxes, & Faury's Saint Joseph Vieilles Vignes. These are the guarantees in life! For years, I've made it no secret that Faury's Saint Joseph Vieilles Vignes is a particular bottle from the Northern Rhone that demands everyone's first look.
Faury produces the greatest value Syrah from these 1937-planted vines. After a recommended decanting, the wine reveals new layers, and explosive Syrah notes jump out of the glass: Olive tapenade, smoke, black pepper, and violets meet tell-tale blackberry fruit. While other Saint Joseph champions often tip over $100 per bottle, Faury's cuvée remains half the price!
Philippe Faury first took control of the domaine in 1979, when peach and cherry production was more common from these vignerons. That year marked a shift toward a newfound vineyard focus at the estate. They purchased parcels on the steeply terraced granite vineyards of Côte Rôtie, Saint Joseph, and Condrieu. Today, Philippe works alongside his son Lionel who took the reigns in 2006.
“The first time I tried Hervé Souhaut’s Syrah. It was one of my many awakenings to natural wine, and I remember grinning ear to ear and saying, ‘What is it that I am feeling/tasting/experiencing? Why am I so happy?!’” — Jenny Lefcourt, Importer
Though it’s a half-hour drive from St.-Jean de Muzols to Northern Ardèche, the craggy landscape makes Domaine Romaneaux-Destezet feel like it’s on the outskirts of Saint-Joseph, and the wines take on a similar lone-wolf character. Naturalist icon, Hervé Souhaut, was influenced early on by friends Marcel Lapierre in Beaujolais and Philippe Pacalet in Burgundy. He’s become a crowd favorite for his approachable, idiosyncratic Northern Rhône Syrah and Gamay.
Today, I'm happy to offer the 2019 Hervé Souhaut Syrah and La Souteronne Gamay, with rare back-vintages to 2005.
In the early 90s, Hervé and his wife, Béatrice, inherited a 16th-century fortified farmhouse surrounded by old-vine Rhône varieties and Gamay. Hervé turned to his friends Lapierre and Pacalet for guidance and adopted their practices; he farms according to organic and biodynamic principles and, in the cellar, works entirely with whole clusters, semi-carbonic maceration, and minimal sulfur. He delicately extracts the grapes to make wines with subtlety and finesse.
In Ardèche, La Souteronne Gamay comes from 60-to-80-year-old vines, and "Syrah" taps vines 10-to-100-yrs-old. The schist of Hervé's home is unlike anything in Saint-Joseph, with its sand-like granular texture falling through your hands. And, the Saint Epine Syrah comes from 100-plus-year-old vines in St.-Jean de Muzols.
All of the reds undergo long macerations at low temperatures. They're then fermented in wooden tanks and aged in old oak casks on fine lees for a minimum of eight months. Bottled with no filtration and 25ppm of sulphur.
What Hervé produces is still unashamedly Syrah, but it's shed some of its uptight inhibition. The 2019 Syrah is soft and generous, with varied hues of red fruit that interplay with cowhide, red dust, and velvety tannins. Sainte Epine is a bit more serious, though still lively as ever, and it's known for its bluer, brambly fruit, violet tones, and mineral streak. The region’s cool, rainy climate ensures their freshness over time; with some age, the grip and snap of acidity is toned down, and the fruit melds with more earth and funk.
“There’s Gamay in the Rhône?” I asked my colleague, Marc, when he poured the 2019 La Souteronne. “Beaujolais isn’t too far,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. He’s right. Actually, it’s a mere 60 km from Beaujolais to the French capital of Syrah. Wine writer Jon Bonné wrote that La Souteronne “remains a benchmark for not-Beaujolais Gamay,” just with an inflection of Rhône. The 2019 French Gamays I’ve had thus far have collectively shown a calm and collected gracefulness, and La Souteronne is no different.