For northern Rhône reds, it’s not the age but the emotions

By Eric Asimov

By virtue of job and inclination, I’ve got a lot of favorite wines. But of all my favorites, the reds of the Northern Rhône Valley of France, made entirely or almost entirely of the syrah grape, are possibly my favorite favorite.

It’s not just the pleasures of the aromas and flavors that I love. A good bottle somehow conveys to me a sense of reassurance that as bad as things might be in the world, all will be well.

Some people find comfort snuggling a cat. I open a bottle of St.-Joseph.

Here at Wine School, we know the perception of a wine is often emotional, although that side of the experience is generally given short shrift. Instead, our wine culture too often cuts right to the rational analysis, tracing aromas and flavors to soil types, winemaking techniques and so on.

That is important, too. The best wines affect us both emotionally and intellectually. They cause us to think and to feel.

I’ve found that people who have not studied wine are more apt to experience it emotionally because they have not yet learned the vocabulary for discussing wine analytically. Those who have studied wine tend to ignore their emotional response, possibly because it seems facile.

I don’t want to say that it’s essential to be open to both sides of the equation, because how people find satisfaction is a personal choice. I will say, though, that approaching wine from all sides, examining it analytically and emotionally, heightens the potential rewards.

As usual, I recommended three wines that readers would drink and ponder. Instead of picking three examples of a single genre, I instead suggested one bottle each from three different Northern Rhône appellations.

They were J.L. Chave Sélection Crozes-Hermitage Silène 2018, J.L. Chave Sélection St.-Joseph Offerus 2017 and Vincent Paris Cornas Granit 30 2018.

The idea was simply to see whether we could sense characteristics among the wines that might illuminate differences in their various terroirs. Not that we could definitively pin down identities — that would take years of experience and repeated tastings to discern consistent patterns.

But I thought at least this might get us used to thinking about these differences and whether they might be traced to where the grapes had been grown rather than to other variables, like producers with different intentions or to the characteristics of the vintage.

In an effort to eliminate some variables, two of the wines even came from the same source, J.L. Chave Sélection, although, unfortunately, they were from different vintages.

I admit, this was entirely a rational exercise. And it drew some rational pushback.

“I really don’t think any true appreciation of the Northern Rhône is possible while drinking these wines (no age),” said ES of New York. “They are simply not tasty.”

I don’t know whether ES drank the wines. But to me, they were absolutely delicious — that’s an emotional response. Would they have been better in a few years, becoming more complex and more distinctively themselves, highlighting whatever differences might be a direct result of their various terroirs?

Yes, I think they would. I recently drank a 2007 St.-Joseph, from Domaine Jean-Louis Chave rather than the Chave négociant operation. It was sensational.

But sadly, older bottles are few and hard to come by. For Wine School, we are left with what’s sold currently in stores, and if that creates a less-than-ideal situation for exploration, it by no means makes it impossible.

What’s more, these are the wines most likely to be found at restaurants, which only in rare cases put the time and expense into aging wines for diners. That’s certainly an incentive to avoid the 4-year-old Bordeaux, Barolo and Hermitage in favor of potentially lesser wines that will be more pleasing when young. But these three Northern Rhônes? Eminently drinkable, although with much still to be revealed.

We could have chosen young bottles with little in reserve. In Crozes-Hermitage, for example, vines are planted on stony granite slopes but also on fertile plains. The plains wines tend to be fruity, and sometimes jammy, easily accessible when young but without much more to offer. They are very much expressions of the syrah grape rather than of a particular place.

The Chave Silène came from two areas. One, near the village of Gervans, is a vineyard mostly on granite, where the wine is firmer and more structured. The other is around the village of Larnage, which has a little more clay, producing wines that are more generous and easygoing.

The result was a wine that was aromatic, savory, earthy and quite open, with aromas and flavors of herbs, black olives and flowers. I thought it was lovely, much more than a fruity, simple Crozes yet still relatively approachable.

St.-Joseph is divided similarly to Crozes-Hermitage. The wines from the granite hillsides are the most distinctive, complex, interesting and age-worthy, while the wines from the plains are relatively simple and fruity.

The St.-Joseph Offerus was nonetheless different from the Crozes. Jean-Louis Chave, the proprietor, has put a lot of time and energy into reconstructing ancient, abandoned hillside vineyards in St.-Joseph, and 60% of the grapes in this négociant bottle come from young vines owned by the Chave estate on historic hillsides. They provide structure and depth, while the rest come from vineyards to the north that are more easygoing.

Although it was a blend of elements like the Crozes, the St.-Joseph, a year older, felt denser, with aromas of violets and crushed rocks, and chalky tannins. It did not have the more obvious black olive flavors and felt more elegant and tightly wound.

Of the three wines, I would have thought the Cornas, from a warmer site in the southern end of the Northern Rhône, would have been the least ready to drink. Cornas generally requires more aging than either St.-Joseph or Crozes-Hermitage.

I’ve had 15-year-old bottles of Cornas that still seemed too young. That might have been before the effects of climate change were as apparent in Cornas as they are now. Ferocity was once considered a hallmark of Cornas. I haven’t seen a clenched-tight bottle like that in a long time.

But the Granit 30 is intended for early drinking. For our purposes, this was good in that the wine is enjoyable now, and not so good, perhaps, in that it’s atypical of the region. Even so, I felt as if I could still sense the Cornas identity in this wine.

It was even more dense and concentrated than the St.-Joseph, yet paradoxically more ready to drink. It was fruitier than the other two wines, with lingering aromas and flavors of violets, black olives, and red and black fruits. On the second day, earthy mineral flavors emerged.

As I said earlier, the characteristics of a terroir can be discerned only over time. Yet in my experience, these wines very much bore out what I would have expected to see: The Crozes-Hermitage was the most open, and the St.-Joseph more tightly wound and stonier.

The Cornas was an outlier stylistically because the producer intended it to be easygoing. But in its density and concentration, it revealed the possibilities of this appellation. Vincent Paris’ Granit 60 — the numbers reflect the gradient of the vineyards — is a more traditional Cornas, made from older vines. I wouldn’t try to drink a 2-year-old bottle of Granit 60.

Beyond my effort to analyze the wines, I have to say they were a great joy for me to drink, one night with Cuban-style black beans, another night with roast chicken.

Readers gave the wines mixed reviews. Michael of White Plains, New York, and VSB of San Francisco both very much enjoyed the St.-Joseph, but Peter of Philadelphia called it “a one-dimensional wall of acidity.” He much preferred the Cornas.

Jack of Los Angeles agreed with Peter about the St.-Joseph, but Geoff Dick of New York found the St.-Joseph smooth and approachable — although he, too, preferred the Cornas.

Ultimately, I think this experiment went well. While not remotely conclusive, the comparison of appellations adds an extra element, at least from the analytical side. As for the emotional side, feeling is believing.

Turmoil, Strife and Wine: Reds From Lebanon

With the pandemic and all the damage it has done to economies, businesses and personal relations, and the daily consequences of climate change, 2020 has been a difficult year for wine in general.

But few places in the world have faced the onslaught of obstacles that have challenged the wine industry of Lebanon.

The country has been in an economic and political crisis for several years, which made life difficult even before COVID-19. The huge and damaging explosion that rocked Beirut on Aug. 4 was the latest national trauma.

The Lebanese people ordinarily consume about 8 million bottles of wine annually, half of which are Lebanese and the rest imported, said Marc Hochar, whose family owns Chateau Musar, the leading Lebanese producer, which achieved renown for its wines under his father, Serge Hochar.

Because the currency has been devalued, Hochar said, Lebanon can no longer afford imported goods, which has heightened the demand for locally produced wines. But the cost of materials required by the industry, like machinery, glass and labels, has gone up as well, and because of the economic conditions wine producers cannot raise their own prices to cover those expenses.

Hochar called it “a very bizarre situation.”

The Lebanese wine industry has had to demonstrate its resilience for decades, most famously navigating through 15 years of civil war. When the war ended in 1990, just five wineries were operating in Lebanon. As of 2018 there were roughly 50.

Most of the Lebanese wine production is centered in the Bekaa Valley in the east, near the border of Syria, but another region in northern Lebanon around Batroun has been growing as well.

The three red wines I suggest are all from the Bekaa Valley. They are:

Massaya Bekaa Valley Le Colombier 2018 (Winebow, New York) $15

Chateau Musar Bekaa Valley Musar Jeune 2018 (Broadbent Selections, Sonoma, California) $20

Domaine des Tourelles Bekaa Valley Cinsault Vieilles Vignes 2017 (RC Distributors, Cleveland) $24

You can sense the influence of France, which controlled Lebanon roughly from the end of World War I until the country achieved independence in 1943.

Aside from their place of origin, the wines are not all that similar. The Massaya is made of grenache, cinsault and tempranillo; the Musar Jeune of cinsault, syrah and cabernet sauvignon and the Tourelles solely of cinsault.

If you cannot find these wines, try any Lebanese wines you do come across, even the whites, which are often made with the indigenous grapes obaideh and merwah. If you don’t mind a splurge and can find an older bottle of Chateau Musar — Musar Jeune is the budget-priced, entry-level wine — you are in for a treat. These are idiosyncratic but wholly distinctive.

“To understand Lebanon is not easy,” Serge Hochar told me in 2012 when he was visiting New York. “The dimension of taste in Lebanon is different than anywhere else. Not better, but different. Better has no meaning.”

The idea this month is not so much to compare the wines as to see if we can sense a Lebanese difference. And, while 2020 has been challenging for all of us, maybe we can spare a few thoughts for the people of Lebanon as well.

“Wine is above politics,” Serge Hochar also said in 2012. “Wine is tolerance.”

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