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.
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.
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.
“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.
There's no producer in the Northern Rhone that continues to raise the bar each vintage like Guillaume Gilles. His 2008 was a showstopper for me at the time of release, impressing for an authenticity of Syrah that grabbed ahold of me immediately - the kind that's romantically spoken of, but rarely found in bottle.
Savage, spicy, purple-hued, and filled with crushed granite, Gilles' Syrah from the famed Chaillot vineyard encapsulates everything that habitually points me to Cornas. Last July's visit with Guillaume was a great opportunity to learn more about the young vigneron who highlights this new generation.
Guillaume trained under Jean-Louis Chave and the now-retired Cornas legend, Robert Michel. If Michel's wines were known for their uncommon transparency and light-handed touch, Gilles are darker, more ferocious, and packed with a concentration that's quite different. However, like Robert Michel, the soul of the wines from Gilles are founded on a sense of place that's undoubtedly pure granite and 100% whole cluster fermentation - just the way we like our Cornas!
Personally, falling hard for the wines of Thierry Allemand has set my eyes continually toward today's more under-the-radar producers. Allemand's 2017's will easily fetch $250+ per bottle - at less than half the price there's simply no producer deserving of more attention now than Guillaume Gilles.
Today, Gilles farms just 2.5 hectares, working by hand the famed Chaillot vineyard (pictured below) that he leased from Robert Michel. His traditional approach means zero de-stemming, aging in large neutral barrels, and no fining or filtering. That quintessential combination of roasted meats, violets, blackberries, smoke, black pepper, and the granitic "scorched earth" that Cornas derives its name from is always front and center.
One of the secret wines in the range that only sees 30 cases arrive to the US annually is his Les Peyrouses VDF, which was served last at our tasting. Les Peyrouses is a small parcel containing vines planted over 100 years ago. Unlike the granitic soils of the terraced slopes of Cornas above, this lower portion is planted on sandy and clay soils scattered with the iconic galet stones from the plain of the river. Peyrouses is akin to the more rustic country cousin of Gilles' Cornas cuvée - But, these extremely old vines create an intensely concentrated wine that leads Guillaume to pour as the finalé during visits.
And, for the 3rd time, I'm able to offer Gilles' Cornas "Nouvelle R". The name comes from the vineyard Les Rieux, situated at a very high altitude in Cornas at 450 meters above the amphitheater. The soil here is very unusual, a white granite. Prior to the 21st century, nobody had planted vines here, fearing they would not ripen properly. Of course, warming temperatures have winemakers everywhere looking for higher altitude land. At 12.5% alcohol this was a stunner when I tasted with Guillaume, and his mentor Robert Michel remarked this is what Cornas used to taste like in the '70s and '80s when alcohol levels were more modest.