Seventeenth-century monks in the region wrote about the wine from these hills as being “fresh and delicate,” and, indeed, the Faurys have always accentuated Syrah’s potential for making elegant wines of real finesse. Their Saint Joseph rouge in particular stands out as a thing of purity and grace. Vinifications are gentle, with about one third of the fruit going through whole-cluster fermentation for textural and aromatic lift. Élevage takes place in foudres and demi-muids to preserve the wine’s inherent vitality and avoid any flavors not born from grape or terroir, and the wine undergoes neither fining nor filtration. Suggestions of violets, black olive, blackberry, and peppery spices soar from the glass, and the wine graces the palate with a featherweight touch—that’s the Faury signature. From its floral nose to the bright, supple finish, this Syrah is a perfect example of traditionally styled Saint Joseph.
Along the steep, narrow valley that traces the northern Rhône, the appellations of Côte-Rôtie, Condrieu and Saint-Joseph take their place among the great wines of France, and Domaine Faury is one of the region’s most artisanal producers. When Philippe Faury took over the domaine in 1979, the family was selling wine, peaches and cherries, and the bulk of their clientele was local. Over the years, Philippe increased their holdings to over 11 hectares and began to sell internationally. He shared his savoir faire with his son, Lionel. Since 2006, Lionel has taken over the reins, though father and son still work side by side. Every method they use encourages the grape towards greatness with the ultimate respect for its fragility.
On the wines of the northern Rhône, Kermit wrote in Adventures on the Wine Route, “The best combine a reminder of the sunny Mediterranean with the more self-conscious, intellectual appeal of the great Burgundies farther north, which is not a bad combination.” Like the wines of Provence, Burgundy, and Beaujolais, Kermit was introduced to this region by Richard Olney, an American ex-pat and friend of Alice Waters.
Though technically part of the same region as the southern Rhône and connected by the Rhône River, much differentiates the north from the south. The climate is continental and in general cooler than that Mediterranean climate of the south. The appellations are significantly smaller: Cornas has less than 300 acres planted to vine and Hermitage around 345. The area planted is minute when compared to Gigondas (3,000+ acres) and Châteauneuf-du-Pape (nearly 8,000 acres). Many of the great wines come from steep hillside vines—terraced during Roman times. It was clear to the Romans that great wine could be made here and DNA evidence now shows that Syrah is in fact indigenous to the Rhône.
The terroir is predominantly granite and lastly, blends of the wines are mostly single grape varieties. Only four grape varieties are permitted in AOC blends: Syrah, Viogner, Marsanne, and Roussanne (as compared to the 19 permitted varieties allowed in Châteauneuf). The red wines are nearly all Syrah and Condrieu and Château Grillet must be 100% Viogner. The whites of Hermitage, Saint Joseph, Saint Péray, and Crozes-Hermitages may only be blends of Marsanne and Roussanne.
Trust the great winemakers, trust the great vineyards. Your wine merchant might even be trustworthy. In the long run, that vintage strip may be the least important guide to quality on your bottle of wine.—Kermit Lynch
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