Famille Levet is one of Côte Rôtie's most fervent traditionalists and smallest domaines with only 1,000 cases produced annually. While my love of Northern Rhône Syrah veers heavily toward the most old-school and authentic interpretations of terroir, Levet is almost in a category unto itself.
This domaine has been the standard-bearer for ultra-traditional Côte Rôtie since Neal Rosenthal has imported the wines, starting in the early 1980s. Rosenthal's words on Bernard and Nicole Levet have always stuck with me, declaring these as the best and most carefully tended to vines in his iconic portfolio (also filled with names such as Fourrier, Jacques Carillon, and Paolo Bea).
The magic derives from the raw material on these treacherously steep terraced granite slopes. Levet works with the oval-shaped Serine, a genetic variation of Syrah more common in Côte Rôtie, known for its vivid, explosive violet tones, bacon fat, smoke, and black pepper, with a pulverized granitic streak that carries through the long finish. The wines are fermented with 100% whole clusters with a three-year aging regimen in foudre, demi-muid, and smaller barrels.
At the northernmost, cooler-temperature stretches of valley, Côte Rôtie is where we find Syrah at its most hauntingly pure and precise. These characteristics have long turned the eyes of Burgundy collectors south with this kinship—this should be your first stop on the stylistic shift into the Northern Rhône.
Eloi Dürrbach of Domaine de Trévallon believed Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon made a compelling duo in a very particular pocket of Provence. Since the early 1970s, he's proved this slice in Les Alpilles, aka the Little Alps, can produce some of France's most celebrated wines.
Trévallon is situated in the remote village of Saint-Etienne-du-Grès, a limestone goldmine on the north side of the Alpilles mountains. Driving here from Bandol on one sweltering July afternoon, I began to wonder how Cabernet Sauvignon could thrive here. But upon arriving on the northern side, temperatures quickly dropped, and I immediately felt ushered into this new land, Baux de Provence. The garrigue shrubbery of the south gave way to a picturesque roadway leading to Trévallon.
The estate covers 17 hectares of almond and olive trees and vines, most of which are planted to the latter. Cabernet Sauvignon was widely planted here pre-phylloxera, but in the 1930s, the appellation system set rules establishing which varieties could be labeled under particular zones. Cabernet Sauvignon got the boot. Still, Dürbach knew Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah achieved something greater as a blend than each on their own, so he labeled his rouge under France’s lowly Vin de Pays category.
After whole cluster fermentation, the red wines age in large, old foudre, a critical element in giving them tremendous clarity and brightness. They call to mind the dark graphite and tobacco-inflected wines of Pauillac, with the black olive and violet of Côte Rôtie. Burgundy, Rhone, and Bordeaux take the lion’s share for most significant French reds. Still, the consistency and heights that Trévallon achieves each vintage are unsurpassed. Dürrbach has won the hearts of collectors across the globe!
Crozes-Hermitage has long been a great appellation for those looking for value from esteemed parcels. Graillot's wines nail the value element, and he is undoubtedly the benchmark name in this zone of the Northern Rhône Valley.
Graillot's journey began in Burgundy alongside Jacques Seysses of Domaine Dujac, so as one might imagine, there will be stems! The eponymous domaine is unwavering in its 100% whole clusters for fermentation and aging in older wood, divided between barrique and foudre. La Guiraude is not a single vineyard but rather a selection of the best barrels according to Alain.
Before starting his domaine in 1985, Alain's work with Jacques imparted key traits to his winemaking style—he wanted his wines to be both supremely fresh and spicy. While temperatures have warmed in the last three decades, Graillot is still a beacon for Rhône enthusiasts passionate about terroir-driven wines steeped in tradition.
Les Pallières and and Gour de Chaulé embody Southern Rhône's best overachieving appellation, Gigondas. Commonly known as Baby Châteauneuf, Gigondas has the elevation and steep slope grade to induce a seriousness to these Grenache-dominant blends that are in another league of terroir from neighboring zones.
Terraces cut into the Dentelles de Montmirail hillsides give us Gigondas from the 15th century-founded Domaine Les Pallières. Of the two cuvées produced by the Brunier brothers (also owners of Vieux Télégraphe in Châteauneuf du Pape), it is the Terrasse du Diable (Devil's Terraces) that has always struck a chord for me. These are the highest elevation plantings on the estate, bringing the essential brisk structure to balance Grenache's forward-baked strawberry and white pepper profile.
Gour de Chaulé, like Pallières, focuses on high percentages of Grenache in their blend, not relying on the dark and muscular tones of Syrah and Mourvèdre to impress. (Both domaines use over 85% for these two cuvées). While Pallières partially de-stems, Gour de Chaulé always sees 100% whole cluster fermentation. Here, an extra element of tension and a more reserved fruit profile gives one of the most disciplined frames of a Southern Rhône red.
In Châteauneuf du Pape, walking the fine line between elegance and rusticity is difficult, but Domaine Pégau embodies the precision of this balance like none other. Their progression over the last ten years to highlight a more lifted style while maintaining a sense of opulence is a hot topic for lovers of the Southern Rhône Valley. While the estate produces several cuvées, their Cuvée Réservée fulfills the best value and sharpest focus on this fabled terroir.
The Reservée has always been the prime CdP for value, but Laurence's recent move to raise the Grenache and lower the Syrah percentage in the blend has done wonders for its clarity and persistence. Licorice, dark fruits, woodsmoke, game, and wild garrigue are hallmarks of every bottle of CdP. Pégau captures these notes with an impressive mineral streak and fine-grained tannins that stand out from the pack. A rack of lamb alongside Pégau has become one of my ultimate pleasures.
Laurence Féraud works with her father, Paul, in carrying on a steep tradition started by their ancestors in 1607. The backbone of the estate is their old Grenache plantings dating back to 1907 in the famed La Crau vineyard, where limestone mother rock sits below the iconic, round galet river stones. They use whole clusters for vinification, and the wines age in large foudres crafted nearly a century ago. Both elements are crucial in preserving a sense of vibrancy in their Grenache-dominant blends.
Truth be told, the Southern Rhône pulled me into France way back when I was finishing college. Today, I pull bottles from this region with much less regularity—much of that has to do with producers chasing after power and points. However, Pégau never succumbed to altering their methods. I can't tell you how refreshing it is to have a select few producers that still makes wines that they love to drink and their ancestors would be proud of today. Pégau is everything sacred about tradition and should be celebrated as often as possible.