The Rhône’s two main grapes, Syrah and Grenache, have very different personalities but can marry beautifully. Nick Tarayan reports on the region’s classic blend

Travelling through the Rhône Valley one begins to wonder whether the marriage of Syrah and Grenache is really a match made in heaven or whether the blend was born from a necessity to make peace between north and south. The Northern Rhône prides itself in its Syrah symbolism while the south tries to temper the greedy Grenache. Syrah can produce great wine without the help of its southern neighbour, but Grenache needs a serious amount of attention to produce a fabulous one-grape show. The question of a pre-nuptial agreement needs to be addressed, however, before marriage is seriously considered. Some may argue that Grenache, with its ability to produce huge quantities and high alcohol, cannot stand tall without the injection of colour and gravitas which the Syrah brings as its dowry. This argument is flawed. To understand how the marriage works one must look at the personalities of the individuals when they are in their prime and how they interact with soil and climate – the elusive rules of terroir.

In the Rhône there are five main soil types which affect the vines in different ways: shingle, clay-like limestone, soil layered with large stones, silt and sand. The Valley’s climate is characterised by seasons of rain, warm temperatures and broad strokes of sunshine. One could ascribe these virtues to many wine-growing areas but there is one further major influence – the Mistral wind which gusts up through the Avignon-Vienne tunnel created by the Cévennes mountains to the south and west, and the foothills of the Alps in the east.The combinations of microclimate, soil and vine, matched with the diversity of winemakers’ skills, create a bit of a headache. In past years it was individual experience based on tradition that determined how a particular wine would turn out. Things have changed. Although the presence of a Rhône-wide wine body is not a new invention, Inter Rhône – the professional organisation which oversees the Institut Rhodanien in Orange – has forged ahead since its brand-new research centre and college opened in 1995. Every aspect of wine production in the Rhône is covered here, and not just from the confines of a laboratory. The Institut’s director, Christophe Riou, is charged with implementing quality in the field, literally. This involves carrying out quality diagnosis from the vineyard onwards; maintaining an emphasis on training; encouraging the circulation of information on grape varieties, terroir, yeasts and root stocks; ensuring traceability; and reinforcing quality control on bottles sold both on the domestic and international markets. The latter task actually involves going shopping and bringing back previously assessed wines to check their authenticity and the effects which distribution and supermarket shelving has had on them.

The Institut’s big seminar last year, ‘Everything you wanted to know about Grenache’, presented research done over five years producing wines ‘in miniature’ from 25 plots dotted around the (mostly southern) parts of the Valley. The vines were pruned, green-harvested, vinified and assessed in as near laboratory conditions as possible. The role is to educate rather than police and, with more than 8,000 wine-growing properties producing AC wines in the Valley, it’s a mammoth task. But they do it with great style – it was particularly impressive to see 14 year-olds on a viticulturalists’ course (presumably with some dispensation for underage drinking).

CHARACTER TRAITS

So, back to the grapes. Syrah is the only red grape allowed in the Northern Rhône crus and can create magical wines bursting with spice and power. These can, in time, develop into wines which display a rather dank, animal character which, at best, need informed appreciation and can, at worst, be quite unappetising. Grenache is less renowned. There isn’t a village which insists on its sole use. And for very good reason. It can be a weed in vine terms, producing huge quantities of dilute grapes which lack structure and depth. It does, however, come into its own when nature and the viticulturalist work in harmony. With old vines, brutal pruning and tough soils, the vine’s flamboyance is restricted and the resulting grapes should be as fiercely concentrated as possible.

Concentration of the Syrah may not only mean powerful, high coloured fruit and aromatic notes of violet and pepper, but also dangerously high tannins. As a foil, the Grenache provides solid warmth and suppleness with its relatively low acidity. This is when the blend works – it’s a serious marriage. There is a trend for more and more wines to revel in the idea that they should remain bachelors. Syrah wants to show off without the help of anything else – except perhaps a little Viognier to add a floral note in a broody Côte Rôtie, or some Marsanne or Roussanne in Saint-Joseph and Hermitage. Grenache which has grown too old to marry is quite happy to concentrate its attention on providing drinkers with the fullness of character that comes with age.

At Vieux Télégraphe, Daniel Brunier considers that Grenache is the artist’s

canvas that provides a foundation on which to build his Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The grape provides alcohol, low tannin and rich perfume in his blend but the introduction of 20 – 35% of other varietals adds other nuances to aid complexity. Many other producers feel that Syrah is the next most important part of the recipe, but Brunier thinks that it should only take precedence over other varieties when the vintage tells him so. In a good year, Mourvèdre can be a fillip to the relative austerity of the Syrah with its back-slapping, tarry fruit adding colour, structure and antioxidant properties to the blend. As Châteauneuf is pretty well the northern limit for ripening Mourvèdre, its slow development can make it susceptible to late rains and subsequent dilution, rendering it useless in a top-class wine.Michel Chapoutier’s Châteauneuf-du Pape, by contrast, has the peculiarity – especially in an appellation which allows the use of 13 grape varieties – of being made solely from Grenache. And there is no better example than his ‘Barbe Rac’, where 90-year-old vines struggle through stoney soils to produce sublime concentration, a deep ruby colour and a huge amount of alcohol. And there it is. The marriage of the two

primary Rhône varietals is based on their individual characters. There is no set recipe. It is the combination of many different parts which make the whole. Rhône winemakers must understand the soil and allow the vines to express themselves, but know when to check their performance. This means producing wines which relate to the vagaries of the climate in any particular year. The climate also means that consumers won’t get a uniform, international-style wine, but as long as the measures are in place to ensure reliability, then that’s what it’s all about. Vive la difference! Perhaps not the sort of thing one says on bended knee, but this message is the focus of the new Côtes du Rhône UK advertising campaign (see News, page 28). The much-heralded ‘trio’ of great vintages – 1998, 1999 and 2000 – illustrate the point about variation. This was certainly a marvellous run but the years were very

different. Although each was opulent, 1998 favoured Grenache while 1999 was Syrah’s turn. If anything, they were very similar to their counterparts exactly a decade ago. An overview would indicate that the top 1998 wines are big, broody and muscular and will need time to develop their classic styles. The 2000 vintage, on the other hand, is hugely generous with gutsy, forward fruit, and the 1999 wines fall somewhere between the two, with a mouth-watering quality which is beautifully cut with acidity and

tannin in all the right proportions.

Nick Tarayan is a wine consultant and writer.

Blends

Château Guiot, Costières de Nîmes, 2000 (Predominantly Grenache and Syrah). If this is bargain basement, you need a bigger basement. Smokey, savoury notes come from the grape – there’s no wood. £5.99; Maj

M Chapoutier, ‘Belleruche’, Côtes du Rhône, 1999 (50% Grenache, 50% Syrah). This is a perfect example of how the two major Rhône varietals work together to produce a

lovely, easy style. The best attributes of both grapes are heightened. Men

Cave des Vignerons de Chusclan, ‘Les Monticauts’, Côtes du Rhône Villages, 1999, (50% Grenache, 50% Syrah). This cuvée displays generous, soft, supple fruit and wonderfully rounded tannins. Its immediacy is helped by a short maceration of Grenache and 20 days for the Syrah. The 2000 ‘village’ wine is already bottled and ready to provide a velvety drink.

Ogier, ‘Domaine de Couron’, Côtes-du-Rhône Villages, 1999 (50% Grenache, 20% Syrah and 10% each of Mourvèdre, Cinsault and Carignan.) A real Rhône violet character which is developing nicely and has good holding tannins. If found, check out Ogier’s Duc d’Aiguillon, Réserve des Templiers, CdR 1999, which is wonderful. Mis

Domaine Le Sang des Cailloux, ‘Rouge Lopy’, Vacqueyras, 1999 (60% Grenache, 40% Syrah). Deep garnet, generous fruit and great length – a very stylish wine with a stoney Châteauneuf character which demands drinking now but could easily wait five or more years – from 60-year-old Grenache and 40-year-old Syrah vines.

Château de Montmirail, ‘Cuvée des Deux Frères’, Vacqueyras, 1999 (70% Grenache, 20% Syrah, 10% Mourvèdre, Cinsault). Clear and brilliant in colour with a powerful nose of ripe red fruits. Big and juicy in the mouth and a finish which goes on and on. Hal

Maison Arnoux & Fils, Vacqueyras, 1999 (75% Grenache, 20% Syrah, 5% Mourvèdre). Despite its great complexity, luscious, sweet fruit gives this wine immediate appeal. Art

Les Vins de Vienne, ‘Les Cranilles’, Côtes du Rhône Rouge, 1999 (50% Syrah, 50% Grenache). One of the blends performed by the ‘Dream Team’ of Cuilleron, Gaillard and Villard. Wonderfully concentrated – Rhône terroir meets New World opulence.

Les Vins de Vienne, ‘Les Otéliées’, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, 1999 (Grenache & Syrah only). Rich and chocolatey on the nose and palate and bursting with toffeed fruit, but

nevertheless showing a certain restraint and underlying subtlety.

Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, 1998 (65% Grenache, 16% Mourvèdre, 12% Syrah, 7% other). Closing down but showing enormous, soft, velvety textured, gamey fruit with a steely, structured backbone. The Mourvèdre hits out. L&W

La Roquette, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, 1999 (70% Grenache, 20% Syrah, 10% Mourvèdre). Elegant balance with light red fruits and orange peel on the palate. Soft and clean – a delight. (bottling June 2001). L&W

100% GRENACHE

Domaine de la Janasse, ‘Les Garrigues’, Côtes du Rhône, 1999 From 60–70-year-old vines and very low yields. Powerful, chewy fruit with great concentration and structure. Could do with another year. £16.50; Swg

M Chapoutier, ‘Le Barbe Rac’, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, 1998 Unbelievable intensity and huge alcoholic, with a wealth of aromas and flavours running the gamut of liquorice, chocolate and wild berries – a real star produced from 90-year-old vines. Men

Stockist contact details for all the wines in this feature can be found on page 146.

Domaine de la Janasse, ‘Les Garrigues’, Côtes du Rhône, 1999 From 60–70-year-old vines and very low yields. Powerful, chewy fruit with great concentration and structure. Could do with another year. £16.50; Swg

M Chapoutier, ‘Le Barbe Rac’, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, 1998 Unbelievable intensity and huge alcoholic, with a wealth of aromas and flavours running the gamut of liquorice, chocolate and wild berries – a real star produced from 90-year-old vines. Men

Stockist contact details for all the wines in this feature can be found on page 146.

Domaine Gilles Robin, Crozes-Hermitage, 1999 Hugely evocative, sweet and savoury Syrah. Complex, modern winemaking with a leathery edge.

Domaine Combier, Crozes-Hermitage, 2000 Bursting with lively fruit. His 2000s are very much more spicy, exciting and classy than the 1999s. EnW

Paul Jaboulet Ainé, Domaine de Thalabert, Crozes-Hermitage, 1999 A blockbuster of a wine with everything intact but, nevertheless, the tannins are so ripe that you almost want to knock it back right now! £113 plus VAT per case; Loe

Domaine Gerin, ‘Les Grandes Places’, Côte Rôtie, 1999 A really succulent, big, busty, brilliantly structured wine – and it’s a joy to drink. C&C

Daniel et Roland Vernay, Côte Rôtie, 2000 The thing about the Vernays’ wines is that they exude extraordinarily pure Syrah. Dusty pink and sweet with a rustic style beneath a modern façade. The 1999 was in mid-life crisis but intrinsically all there; the 1998 had come through it but still needed a couple of years. These are serious quality wines. Yap

Domaine Gangloff, ‘Jeunes Vignes’, Côte Rôtie, 1999 (90% Syrah, 10% Viognier). Wonderfully easy style and marvellous structure. Nice alternative to the broody style. CKe

Domaine des Remizières, Hermitage, 1999 Inky black, with aromas of black cherry, lilac and spice. Marvellously complete on the palate with gorgeously soft tannins.

Domaine Pierre Coursodon, ‘La Sensonne’, Saint-Joseph, 1999 Hugely generous, opulent fruit with fine velvety texture and finish.

Les Vins de Vienne, ‘Sotanum’, Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes, 1999 Incredible expression of Syrah from young vines. Violets, raspberries, blackcurrant leaves, abundant spice. Is this the next Rhône equivalent of a Super-Tuscan?

Written by NICK TARAYAN