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Anson on Thursday: Syrah’s new frontier

Driving south out of Lyon airport, it takes around 20 minutes to see the first vines, grazing the A7 motorway on the left-hand side, set high on a few inconspicuous slopes that rise steeply behind a row of warehouses and out-of-town outlet stores.

Harvest time in Cote Rotie vineyards in the Rhone. Image credit AFP / Getty / Philippe Desmazes

They might not look like much, but these are the first vineyards of the Rhone Valley. They lie in the commune of Chasse-sur-Rhone near the market town of Vienne and are farmed by Michel Chapoutier. Just a few minutes further south and the vines slide into the commune of Seyssuel – the heartland of one of the most exciting developments in French wine right now.

Trickily, these vines are not part of the official Rhone family, and are not even an appellation. Instead, they languish within the IGP Collines Rhodaniennes, a vins de pays designation that covers, according to its INAO charter, a range of white, red, rosé and sparkling wines running from 9.5% to 15% abv and from more than 60 communes across the Ardeche, Drome, Isere, Loire and Rhone, with a potential 30-plus different grape varieties.

Ridiculous, frankly, for the 13 winemakers across the communes of Chasse, Seyssuel and Vienne who are producing only red or white wines from either Syrah or Viognier grapes. All but one of them are already well known for their Cote Rotie production – by no coincidence an appellation that lies on the other side of the Rhone river, and one that shares much of the same elevation, orientation and soil type as Seyssuel. The slopes here are slightly less steep than Cote Rotie’s iconic Cote Brun, more in line with Cote Blonde (so maybe 30-40%, gradient, compared to the 40-50% of the Brun slopes). And the Seyssuel soil comprises a more regular schist block (or mica-schist, which glitters beautifully in the sunshine) that lies along the eastern borders of the Massif Central mountain range as the Alps start their ascent. But the wines are unmistakably cut from the same cloth.

No wonder Brough Gurney-Randall, sales director at OW Loeb, sounded frustrated when he told me that Seyssuel doesn’t work as well as it should, ‘because people don’t know what it is. Despite the fact that it is comparable in taste profile to Cote Rotie, perhaps slightly lighter but still very fine and elegant, offering real value for money’.

I had my first taste of these wines when visiting Stephane Ogier in Cote Rotie last summer, when his 100% syrah L’ame Soeur stood out for its aromatic vitality and smoky sweet fruit. This was unmistakable northern Rhone syrah, from vines that were not officially within the Rhone wine region, and yet were planted in Seyssuel, just a 15 minute drive from the town of Ampuis where we were tasting. The back story of an abandoned vineyard that is being brought back to life by Cote Rotie’s finest names added to the allure, and I headed back to Lyon a few weeks ago to see the vineyards for myself.

The slopes and terraces of Seyssuel were first planted by the Romans in the 2nd century BC (I’m afraid this fact may have been jumped on a little too enthusiastically; you’re going to have to work your way through a whole heap of Latin names when getting to know these wines). You can still find old postcards in Lyon antique shops showing the slopes in the late 19th Century, when more than 100 hectares of vines produced highly sought after bottles, but they were abandoned in the early 20th century, decimated by the usual suspects of Phylloxera, war and economic crises. This neglect is not so surprising when you consider that Cote Rotie itself had shrunk down to barely 30 hectares, and neighbouring Condrieu just 12 hectares, until the early 1970s when a few visionary winemakers took it upon themselves to replant.

I’m waiting for the same thing to be said about Pierre Gaillard, François Villard and Yves Cuilleron – the three Cote Rotie winemakers who crossed over to the Left Bank of the river in 1995 to start Les Vins de Vienne. They planted around four hectares of vines on reclaimed oak forest or scrubland bought or rented from local landowners and today remain the biggest producers of Seyssuel wines.

‘We were the only ones making wine here for the following six years,’ Cuilleron tells me cheerfully as we taste through a horizontal back at Ogier’s winery in Ampuis, ‘and the whole thing was pretty much met with indifference at first. But slowly others joined us.’

Today 13 winemakers have staked their claim to around 35 hectares of Seyssuel in total, with Ogier arriving in 2001 along with other reputed names such as Alain Paret and Michel Chapoutier. A fourteenth winemaker, Sophie Eymin, is planting right now.

In many ways, this is already a success story. Prices are higher than you might expect for IGP (an average of 27 euros per bottle, conservatively half that of Cote Rotie) because the reputation of these winemakers precedes them, but this has not stopped them from applying for AOC status. This being France, we can expect the official wheels to turn slowly, particularly as they first want to be included in the Rhône winegrowing district. They are not even certain if they will try for AOC Seyssuel or AOC Terres de Vienne, but it is clear that the main concern is that if the area does not achieve AOC, there is nothing to protect it from the planting of other grape varieties than Syrah and Viognier, nor avoiding plantings on less suitable soils.

The horizontal of the 2011 and 2012 vintages showed a real sense of family – violets, wild peonies, sour cherry, white pepper, fine and elegant tannins. Inevitably with such young vines, most will be best drunk within the next five years but as the vineyards age, their seriousness and complexity will inevitably rise. If the AOC system is not able to protect the potential here, it would truly be a loss.

Winemakers in Seyssuel

  • Domaine Yves Cuilleron
  • Domaine Pierre Gaillard
  • Lucidi & Chapoutier
  • Michel et Stéphane Ogier
  • Domaine les Serines d’Or
  • Domaine Christophe Billon
  • Maison Alain Paret
  • Les Vignobles de Seyssuel
  • Domaine François Villard
  • Les Vins de Vienne
  • Vignoble Hervé Avallet
  • Domaine Pierre-Jean Villa
  • Julien Pilon

Jane Anson is a Decanter contributing editor. Read her new column here on Decanter.com every Thursday.

Read previous columns by Jane Anson, published on DecanterChina.com:

Written by Jane Anson

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