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Riding the Rhone Ranger

The holy trinity of wine in France is Burgundy, Bordeaux and arguably the Rhone, some may quibble over that, but I will agree. Thanks to the Rhone River some 505 miles long and originating in the Swiss Alps, upstream from Lake Geneva, this river has carved out on both sides an important and famous gastronomic valley. The wine region which covers from north to south is generally divided into two sub-regions with distinct vinicultural areas. The Northern Rhône and the Southern Rhône.

The Northern region is all about Syrah, the south gives rise to a host of grape varieties no more willingly than the famous blended wine of Chateauneuf du Pape. The origins of Syrah, the most important grape variety, some suggest that the Greeks were responsible for bringing the Syrah grape from the Persian city of Shiraz. Yet others suggest the grape variety came from the Sicilian city of Syracuse, when in 280 AD the Romans brought it with the Viognier grape. But the truth is after extensive DNA typing and viticultural research it has been established beyond doubt that Syrah originated in the Rhône region itself.

Again, southern Rhône's most famous red wine is Châteauneuf-du-Pape, a blend containing up to 19 varieties of wine grapes (ten red and nine white) as permitted by the appellation. Rich, ripe, robust, and rustic—the red wines of the Rhone riverside village of Chateauneuf du Pape are among the most celebrated and important wines of France, and their origins and history lie at the intersection of the temporal and secular politics of 14th-century Europe. Yes of course, there is a Papal connection thanks to Pope Clement V in 1309. In this case, the church did some lasting good.

The northern sub-region produces red wines from the Syrah grape, sometimes blended with up to 20% of white wine grapes, and white wines from Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier grapes. In the south similar wine blends globally are known as GSM a real favorite of mine, with Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre varietals.

These varieties have traveled far and wide to the New World. In the US the producers — known collectively as the “Rhone Rangers” — trace their roots to the 1980s, when a small group of California vintners dedicated to these varieties began meeting informally. One of these winemakers was Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard, I was a devoted admirer and belonged to his wine club. What I liked best was with each shipment you received a bottle of experimental wine. Although best known for his flamboyant and irreverent marketing campaigns, Grahm was among the first American winemakers to embrace varietals like Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvedre. So, when the Wine Spectator dubbed Grahm “The Rhone Ranger” in 1989, the moniker stuck.

We’re talking one grape variety: Syrah in France; Shiraz in Australia. Whichever it is still going to be rich and soft, ripe with blackberry, toffee and chocolate flavors. Shiraz was among the first grape varieties to be introduced to Australia in 1832, courtesy of James Busby. It quickly established itself as one of their most iconic and renowned grapes. Penfolds own Magill Estate was originally planted with parcels of Shiraz and the Barossa Valley is home to their flagship Grange. Downunder in Australia they have made blends since the late 60's, the first export boom was with GSM from the warmer climates of southern Australia. The blends that have historically grabbed the spotlight have been Shiraz driven wines like Penfolds Bin 138 and Grange. Today you have outstanding vintages coming not just from Barossa, but McLaren Vale, Eden Valley, and Adelaide Hills. Names like Penfolds, Lindeman’s and Wolf Blass, moving on through Jacob’s Creek and Rosemount. Some of the standouts are Henschke Hill of Grace, Two Hands Ares, Edelstone and Clarendon Hills Astralis.

One of Syrah’s greatest gifts is how it reacts to cool conditions in a hot country. Take a Chilean Syrah from Aymura in the Elqui Valley, a wild and unlikely vineyard site up towards the Atacama Desert, which, because of the ferocious cold winds that blow up the valley from the icy Pacific, actually manages to be cool. Or take Colchagua, this warm, sunny area – incidentally, the region with the largest plantings of Syrah in Chile – typically produces full-flavored, spicy reds with super ripe fruit and sweet tannins. The reality of Syrah in Chile is an up-and-coming and fast-evolving one. They are lighter versions of the Rhône style—gamey and a bit peppery. Increasingly, Syrah is also blended with Carménère in Chile to make fascinating blends. One of the most intriguing aspects of the development of Chilean Syrah has been the evolution of markedly divergent regional and even sub-regional styles, which makes drinking very rewarding.

Moving to another southern continent, Syrah has ridden into Cape Lands of South Africa a very long time ago. The story of modern-day South African Syrah is one of producers drawn to site, soil and light-filled southern skies. Syrah is sometimes known as Shiraz in South Africa, and the wine can be terrific—a stylistic midpoint between the Gamey-pepperiness of the Syrah's of the northern Rhône and the big fruitiness of the Shirazes of Australia. In South Africa, they are often drunk with South African braai—a barbecue during which an amazing number of meats are grilled including guinea fowl, antelope, deer, pork, lamb, beef, and ostrich. Eben Sadie, the celebrated winemaker (named Winemaker of the Year in 2017 by the Institute of Masters of Wine) is widely credited as a driving force behind the country’s fine wine revolution. Since the 2000 vintage, he has made the much-heralded Syrah-led blend Columella, built from different soil types. The 2019 vintage was also given the coveted 100-point score by Atkin, in his 2021 South Africa Report, in which the five top-scoring wines were all Syrah. An amazing example, I was dining under the stars at Ongama in Namibia, drinking Simonsig Merindol Syrah from Stellenbosch, it was so rich and beautiful that I thought I had mistakenly ordered a wine that was going to break the bank, hence I asked for the wine list a second time to double check. In fact, the price was very typically reasonable. It was opulent and alluring with the Kudu I was eating. Another striking specimen of South African wines being produced in almost every corner of the Cape at varied price points, Shiraz has to be one of the strongest weapons in South Africa’s armory when taking on other New World competitors in wine.

I am off France again very shortly, besides riding through the Rhone Valley I will be anxious to taste two specific Syrahs of exception! Each coming from probably the world’s two best sites –both are tiny. Côte-Rôtie is one single, incredibly steep cliff side teetering above the Rhône as it dips slightly to the west, just south of the old Roman city of Vienne. A couple of miles further on, the river curves towards the south again, and this precious, precipitous slope – protected from the violent mistral winds that can blow down the Rhône and angled invitingly towards the morning and midday sun – is gone. The second is Hermitage, a single, haughty outcrop of rock a bit further south, as the Rhône finally fights its way out of the hills and on to the broad plains that stretch away towards the Mediterranean. Its broad-chested slopes catch every ray of sun from dawn to tawny sunset. Just two tiny chunks of challenging granite hillside. Both will be priced well above my South African gem, but I’ve been saving up $$. Promise to raise a glass, Cheers!

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