Last fall, our wine buying trip took us up and down the Rhone River in the South of France. Thanks to a fellow Sommelier Guild member in Chicago, I did find the off-the-beaten vineyard of Mas Daumas Gassac. This Grand Cru Bordeaux style blend of red was amazing in the Languedoc region, close to virtually nothing else halfway between Barcelona and Lyon. Quel plaisir!
After that drive, however, we anchored in near Gordes, France, in the Luberon mountains (Cotes des Luberons) in Provence. Going from the bottom up, we tasted most of the Grenache-driven areas, including Gigonda, which we have enjoyed. However, to our surprise, we found that our taste buds kept us going north, into the Cote-Rotie (or “Roasted Coast”) for more and more syrah-driven reds. The Rhone river is to France what the Mississippi is to America’s heartland. During one minute, the central artery may showcase biodynamic grapes on a steep, narrow slope. During the next, you might pass a high-tech nuclear reactor.
Not far from this unique Northern Rhone domain known for its viognier/syrah symphonies is a small town called Cornas. The terroir and micro-climate from these river banks seems to weave a beautiful tapestry of earth notes into this grape that my wife and I now seek out. Finding a Cornas can be like truffle-hunting I suppose: you need to be a good sniffer on all wine lists, and you need to be at the right place at the right time.
The Rhone valley is likely less understood to most American consumers that perhaps Bordeaux or even Burgundy. Since our visit, we have found a few cellars primarily in New York City and one in South Carolina to carry a Cornas appellation. The pride and history of this wine’s tradition have kept its quality high and its profile stable across the several vintages that we’ve tried so far. Since the area under French wine law is so discrete to its town, Cornas, there’s a great chance you’re finding a great local producer if you spot it on the menu.
On a more basic level, any wine enthusiast trying to understand the vast difference between a red wine being earth-driven, vs. fruit-forward, can simply try pairing any French Syrah against an Australian Shiraz or Napa Valley Syrah. The differences are stark and obvious to even most vino neophytes. If you want berries and fruit, you’ll stay in the New World with future selections. If you want spice of the earth, you’ll be looking for the Old World again. Que Syrah Syrah!