• Côte Rôtie's Wild Side

    Côte Rôtie's Wild Side

    In July 2012, a friend and I experienced our first Bastille Day celebration in epic fashion at Marcel Lapierre's annual feast in Villié-Morgon. A few days later, it seemed fitting to meet with Jean-Michel Stephan atop the steep terraces of Côte Rôtie, who notes Lapierre as his greatest inspiration.

    Stephan takes an approach to vinification that differs drastically from his neighbors in Côte Rôtie. From his time in Villié-Morgon, Stephan's philosophy employs full carbonic fermentation, a process customarily reserved for Gamay in Beaujolais. Still, the most profound bottles hit the same mark as great traditionalists like Jamet, Benetière, and Levet.

    As Stephan explained to us, the whole clusters go into fermentation tanks free of sulfur additions. He pumps in some CO2, closes the hatch, and walks away. When he returns, the intracellular or carbonic fermentation is complete. This method gives a fruitier note to Syrah, but the use of whole clusters counters that with spice, tannin, and freshness.

    At first glance, Stephan's wines may come across as Côte Rôtie through a Beaujolais prism, but for me, they offer a mineral streak and wildly aromatic range that is so unique. The dark and brambly fruit is unadulterated through the complete absence of sulfur additions. With decanting, these young wines open up to reveal a side of Côte Rôtie that makes it feel like it's your first time drinking Syrah.

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    Posted by Max Kogod
  • Hommage to Saint Joseph

    Hommage to Saint Joseph

    Syrah shows many different sides in California, but no producer in the state has a passion for the variety quite like Pax Mahle. For many years, Pax has worked with a wide range of Syrah vineyards in California bottled under his namesake label, formerly under Wind Gap. He's obsessed with tapping vineyards on the extreme to prove this grape can flourish in conditions that other winemakers thought were too marginal.

    Pax's love for this variety traces back to the birthplace of Syrah. Starting in 2016, he wanted to pay tribute to Saint Joseph's Raymond Trollat, a legend of the old guard. As one would imagine, Sonoma-Hillsides is 100% whole cluster fermented. Sourcing comes from three vineyards that capture the essence of cool-climate, California Syrah: Castelli-Knight Ranch and Walker Vine Hill from Russian River Valley, and the iconic Griffin's Lair Vineyard on the Sonoma Coast. Through Pax's illustrious career, sites like these have best expressed the fresh, vibrant personality that Syrah is capable of.

    At 12.5% alcohol, the Sonoma-Hillsides cuvée exemplifies everything thrilling about the more savory, spicy, and mineral-inflected qualities of Syrah. Pax is a benchmark for what other producers in California aspire to craft and serves as a mentor to much of the younger generation. He has a long history with Syrah, but it's this hommage to Raymond Trollat that hits the sweet spot for me more so than any other bottling.

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    Posted by Max Kogod
  • Hauntingly Pure and Precise Côte-Rôtie

    Hauntingly Pure and Precise Côte-Rôtie

    With only 1,000 cases produced annually, Famille Levet is one of Côte Rôtie's most fervent traditionalists and smallest domaines. While my love of Northern Rhone Syrah veers heavily toward the most old-school and authentic interpretations of terroir, Levet is almost in a category unto itself.

    Today, I'm happy to offer the 2017 Famille Levet Les Journaries and La Chavaroche Côte Rôties.

    Levet has been the standard-bearer for ultra-traditional Côte Rôtie since Neal Rosenthal began importing the wines in the early '80s. Rosenthal's words on Bernard and Nicole Levet have always stuck with me, declaring these the best and most carefully tended to vines in his iconic portfolio, one filled with names like Fourrier, Jacques Carillon, and Paolo Bea.

    Indeed, the magic of Levet is derived from the unadulterated raw material from these treacherously steep terraced granite slopes. Levet works with the oval-shaped Serine, a genetic variation of Syrah more common in Côte Rôtie; it's known for its vivid, explosive violet tones, bacon fat, smoke, black pepper, with a pulverized granitic streak that carries through the long finish.

    Levet offers the best opportunity for long, slow evolution in bottle of any Côte Rôtie traditionalist. Levet's Cote Roties are fermented with 100% whole clusters and go through a three-year aging regimen in foudre, demi-muid, and smaller barrels.

    At the cooler, northernmost stretches of the Rhone Valley, Côte Rôtie is where we find Syrah at its most hauntingly pure and precise. It's these characteristics that have long turned the eyes of Burgundy collectors south with this kinship. And for those who favor Burgundy, the wines of Bernard Levet are the first stop on the stylistic shift into the Northern Rhone.

    Posted by Max Kogod
  • Piedrasassi Syrah Duo

    Piedrasassi Syrah Duo

    Cooler climate Santa Barbara has more and more become an obsession of mine. I find myself constantly reaching to drink wines from these rocky sites and marginal climates. The name most integral to this array of labels is Sashi Moorman. Although his Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Gamay are among my favorites, it's his oldest home label, Piedrasassi, that offers the most downright delicious and complex reflection of Syrah.

    Today, I'm happy to offer the 2017 Piedrasassi Bien Nacido Vineyard and Rim Rock Vineyard Syrah.

    Piedrasassi harnesses savory, bright, and superior aromatics while never shying away from the innate luscious qualities that California instills in the grape. Sashi follows a surgical-like protocol to vinify and age as naturally as possible, excluding sulfur at fermentation and only utilizing native yeasts.

    Whole cluster inclusion and aging in larger 500-liter barrels ensure the lively, crushed rock virtues that make Northern Rhone Syrah so unique aren't lost here in Santa Barbara. When I pour Syrah I'm always open to new discoveries, but for some things, I'm just not game. Candied fruit and milk chocolate tones that mar much of the California Syrah I taste is just a non-starter. What I love about Piedrasassi is each wine, regardless of price point, nails the roasted meat, violet, and black pepper trifecta I crave.

    Sashi's single vineyard-designate bottlings from Bien Nacido and Rim Rock are examples of how Syrah can continually develop in the bottle over many years.

    Posted by Max Kogod
  • Old Guard Hermitage: Bernard Faurie

    Old Guard Hermitage: Bernard Faurie

    From "the last of the Mohicans" to "wise old man of the hill," there are many ways importer Kermit Lynch can describe the guru of whole cluster Hermitage, Bernard Faurie. My July 2018 visit with Bernard was one I'll never forget. Primarily because of our rapid ascent up his parcels of Hermitage where I tried to keep pace with the spry and seasoned vigneron. If Hermitage is the world's most regal expression of Syrah, Bernard Faurie is surely its most ardent traditionalist.

    Today, I'm happy to offer a range of Bernard Faurie's Hermitage stretching from 2001 through 2017.

    The greatest selling point of Faurie's Hermitage comes down to Bernard's minuscule holdings of just 1.7 hectares, all comprised of vines over 100 years of age. While labels may look identical, Bernard separates Hermitage's parcels into distinct bottlings differentiated by capsule color.

    Cream capsule: Gréffieux/Bessards
    Gold capsule: Bessards/Méal
    Gold capsule with 'M': Méal
    Gold capsule w/ unique lot number: Greffieux/Bessards/Méal
    Red capsule: Bessards

    Smoke, roasted meats, black pepper, violets, blackberry, plum, and olive tapenade are quintessential descriptors of Northern Rhône Syrah. In Faurie's hands, through the most old school methods of vinification and élevage, his Hermitage captures a haunting and understated style that can floor you as much for its intensity as for its floral vitality and granitic mineral delicacy. Though shy early on, there's no Syrah that holds the freshness of fruit for decades in bottle like Bernard Faurie. A stunning bottle of 1988 made clear just what kind of glacial pace we can expect in the aging curve.

    Whole cluster Hermitage is a rarity. Many feel the true reflection of the great hill of the Northern Rhône should have a suave finesse and a clear sense of nobility. After all, the spice and accentuated tannin from 100% whole cluster Syrah can be formidable here, but that is why Faurie is in a league of his own. Bernard eschews gloss and a forward fruit style, instead targeting a savory Syrah profile with chiseled structure.

    Annual allocations from Faurie have been extremely limited due to the size of production, and that's why today I'm happy to offer this deep collection from Hermitage's old guard.

     

    Posted by Max Kogod