Syrah has recently become the world’s hottest wine grape in terms of new plantings and growing popularity among consumers. Viewed from its homeland in the northern Rhône Valley, the boom is a source of pride, vindicating centuries of work with this grape. Yet most of the renditions popping up around the globe seem less like flattering imitations of Rhône Syrah than departures from it. This is especially true when these new wines are compared with those of the famed Côte-Rôtie.
By any measure, Syrah’s expansion has been astonishing, spreading from the Rhône to much of southern France, Italy, Spain, Switzerland and Greece, as well as to every winegrowing country of note in the New World. In Australia, acreage increased eightfold between 1990 and 2003. That same period saw even more rapid growth in California, where the 344 acres devoted to this varietal ballooned to 17,140.
As all these new vines begin sending wine into circulation, the contours of an international norm are emerging. There are exceptions, of course, but whether from the Languedoc, Mendoza, the Peloponnese, Santa Barbara County or the Barossa Valley, a bottle of Syrah will likely fit a standard description pretty closely: soft and pleasingly plump, with a simple, sunny disposition and nice, grapey flavors. Some show an edge of smoke or spices from oak, but few are complex or challenging—which is not really a disadvantage in commercial terms.
By contrast, an excellent Côte-Rôtie is strikingly complex and sometimes notably challenging. With intense aromas of black and red fruit, roasted or smoked meat, licorice, wildflowers, vanilla, woodsmoke, mushrooms and spices, a strong example of Côte-Rôtie is compelling rather than merely comforting. The contrast with international Syrah is even sharper in terms of structure and texture. A young Côte-Rôtie is often angular and intense with acidity and tannin that make it a better candidate for aging or pairing with food than for casual cocktail-style sipping.
The ironic result is that Côte-Rôtie wines seem ever more rare and extraordinary even as Syrah is becoming more commonplace. Plantings in Côte-Rôtie have increased steadily during the past 50 years and particularly since the late 1970s, but even now the vineyards occupy only 543 acres—the entire appellation could fit within a single Napa vineyard such as To Kalon in Oakville.
The extraordinary character of Côte-Rôtie is a direct result of its terroir. It is the most northerly of all Rhône Valley appellations, which helps explain why the wines are often more nuanced and less overtly muscular and ripe than the Syrahs of Hermitage, Cornas, Crozes-Hermitage or St.-Joseph. Indeed, it would be nearly impossible to get Syrah adequately ripe in Côte-Rôtie were it not for its famously steep slopes and optimal southern and southeastern exposure. Literally translated, Côte-Rôtie means “the roasted hillside” and was so named because it is at a perfect angle to avoid shade and capture every possible ray of sunlight.
The slopes rising behind the little town of Ampuis on the western bank of the Rhône are among the world’s steepest vineyards, with a slant of up to 60 degrees in places. It is not easy to convey how imposing this incline looks from below or how frightening it seems from above, though it might help to note that at 90 degrees, you are in outright freefall.
Viewed from a pathway or terrace wall atop the ridge, it seems certain that something close to freefall—ending with a crash onto an Ampuis rooftop—is exactly what would result from any misstep in the loose scree of the vineyards. Merely setting foot amid the vines requires real courage, and actually working amongst them seems as close to foolhardiness as bravery. The vines appear pinioned to the hillsides, each trained within échalas—odd, wigwam-like arrangements of two long and two short chestnut stakes. These offer stability and a bit of protection from the southerly winds that rake the slopes.
Uninviting though the site may seem, it has attracted vintners for more than two millennia. The Greeks may have established viticulture here as early as the 6th century B.C., and it is well documented that the Romans had covered the remarkable slopes with vines by the 1st century B.C. Called vinum piatum (because of the pitch added as a preservative for long voyages), these wines were highly esteemed in Rome. They retained their fame throughout the Middle Ages and by the French Revolution were shipped to most of the great royal courts of Europe. Thomas Jefferson visited the region, writing of the wines and purchasing them for shipment to his home in Paris.
By the 1870s, Côte-Rôtie was at the height of its fame and prosperity. But along with virtually all of France’s vineyards, it was soon destroyed by the triple plague of mildew, oidium and phylloxera. The vines were replanted by 1905, but the ensuing decades would see another trio of afflictions: two World Wars and the Depression. The local labor force was depleted by the wars, and afterward many residents found more favorable employment in fruit growing or factory work. Not until the 1980s did Côte-Rôtie begin to regain a reputation commensurate with its historic greatness.
Today, Côte-Rôtie is considered one of the world’s greatest wines. Many regions produce Syrahs that are riper and more alcoholic, but only Hermitage and Cornas consistently rival Côte-Rôtie in terms of complexity—and even they are often incapable of matching the range of dimensions it offers tasters.
Hermitage and Cornas are frequently said to be “masculine” wines and with considerable justification; yet Côte-Rôtie eludes such characterization. Wines from the north of Ampuis (the “Côte Brune,” with its clay, schist and iron soils) are certainly masculine by almost any standard, whereas those from the south (the “Côte Blonde,” with more granite, sand and limestone) are clearly the world’s most “feminine” Syrahs.
This is partly because about 5 percent of the Côte-Rôtie is planted with the white Viognier grape. Almost all of these vines are concentrated in the Côte Blonde, where soils are similar to those in the great Viognier appellation of Condrieu, the next wine-growing area to the south as you head down the Rhône. Vintners in many places have tried mixing or co-vinifying Viognier with Syrah, but to date no one outside of Côte-Rôtie has managed to conjure anything comparable to a great Côte Blonde bottling such as Guigal’s La Mouline.
Looking ahead, it seems very likely that Syrah will continue to spread throughout the world but far less likely that the character of Côte-Rôtie will be replicated elsewhere. Rather than being marginalized by Syrah’s expansion, Côte-Rôtie will probably become ever more highly valued as a unique—and arguably ultimate—expression of the grape. This will inevitably raise prices, suggesting that there may never be as good a time as the present for tasting what I regard as the world’s most complete and captivating Syrah.
Côte-Rôtie can be expensive, so seek out the most consistent bottlings, many of which are listed below. Be careful when choosing a 1992, 1993 or 2002, but any other vintage from the past two decades should delight. One that is especially pleasing is 1999, which produced soft, deeply flavored wines.
Domaine Gilles Barge Du Plessy, Côte Brune
M. Chapoutier La Mordorée
Domaine Clusel-Roch Les Grandes Places
Maison Delas La Landonne
Domaine Jean-Michel Gérin Champin le Seigneur, La Landonne, Les Grandes Places
E. Guigal Brune et Blonde, Le Château d’Ampuis, La Mouline, La Landonne, La Turque
Domaine Jamet Côte-Rôtie, Côte Brune
Domaine Michel et Stéphanie Ogier Côte-Rôtie, Cuvée Belle Hélène
René Rostaing Côte-Rôtie, Côte Blonde, La Landonne
The definitive English-language guide to Côte-Rôtie and its neighboring appellations was published in 2005: The Wines of the Northern Rhône, by John Livingstone-Learmonth (University of California Press, 704 pages, hardcover, $55). The author has written three earlier works on the Rhône as a whole, but this book focuses tightly on the north and treats every aspect of its wines in an exhaustive but incisive manner. With hundreds of producer profiles and thousands of critical tasting notes, Livingstone-Learmonth seems to have met everyone and tasted everything in the region.