Syrah, with its great food-friendly versatility, is what people like to drink. It’s dense and tannic and is in demand now more than ever: California acreage has expanded from 2,000 acres in 1996 to more than 20,000 today. In France’s northern Rhône Valley, where some truly epic Syrah is made—Côte-Rôtie, Hermitage, and, to a lesser extent, Cornas—prices have skyrocketed. So producers have turned to a new location to capitalize on Syrah’s trendiness: Saint-Joseph.
The region is a narrow 30-mile-long stretch between Côte-Rôtie and Cornas. About 2,400 acres—large for a Rhône appellation—cling to the left bank of the Rhône River. Saint-Joseph’s inky, stony Syrah-based reds and Marsanne- and Roussanne-based whites have been overlooked by wine drinkers for years.
But over the last decade all of the big names in the Rhône—Guigal, Chave, Chapoutier—have invested in vineyards there, and now even boutique producers are carving out space in the tough, granite hillsides. When I visited the great Crozes-Hermitage producer Alain Graillot a couple of years ago, all his son Max, who is now the winemaker, could talk about was his excitement over the new vineyard in Saint-Joseph. Yves Gangloff, who produces some of the top Côte-Rôtie, recently acquired a few acres in Saint-Joseph that used to bear vines 100 years ago but have since become overgrown and wooded. “I have big hopes for this place,” he said, “because it was not cheap.”
Old-school producers are skeptical (of course) that Saint-Joseph wines will reach the heights of the big-ticket Syrahs. “Its sites face more to the east than Hermitage or Côte-Rôtie,” says Francois Villard, one of the stars of the northern Rhône whose 2003 Saint-Joseph Reflet is a typical high-quality wine of the region, “so you will never get quite that kind of ripeness. But the granite soils can make for a wine with great minerality and Syrah expression.”
A few to try: J.L. Chave’s Offerus is as savory, delicious, and affordable as they come. The basic Saint-Joseph from the Gigondas-based producer Chateau de Saint Cosme is a marvel, with intensely earthy notes of graphite and iron dressed up with high-flying aromas of wildflowers and dried herbs. Also try Guigal’s 2004 Lieu-Dit: abundant dark raspberry, violet, and plum notes; a mineral grain; and a slight smokiness.