At Doubtless Bay Wine Company our Syrah project is still in its infancy.
Our approach, while reflecting our very different soil and climate, is drawn from inspiration based on the wines of the Northern Rhone. In particular, what marks these wines for us is their propensity to display elegance with power, and also to age with grace.
We search for our own styles in harmony with these ideals. The variation of the seasons and our small size means that our wines may also vary markedly. This does not change the ideals. We also grow a small amount of viognier for possible blending with the syrah – not out of any sense of obligation; merely to be able to try and to see what happens.
As part of the search we believe in tasting a wide range of examples from the region that is the source of inspiration. This week we have undertaken a review of a range of aged wines from Cote Rotie. Drawn from vintages between 1995 and 1998 they are therefore 12 to 15 years old. Not all are from “classic” vintages as that would not have given a particularly meaningful comparison.
Much has been written of the shifting styles of wine over the last few decades. Stylistically the producers we have tried range from the more traditional to the modern, from quite small to relatively large (in Rhone terms).
Domaine Jasmin, Cote Rotie 1995. Almost mistakeable for a more mature Burgundy (with Rhone hints). Delicate fading florals and hints of meat; nothing feral but really rather elegant. Some length but remaining tannins meant the finish was starting to dry out.
Domaine Gilles Barge Cote Rotie Cuvee du Plessy 1997. Typically the lighter and more elegant of the two Barge cuvees. This was not the ripest of years, with some slightly herbal overtones and lack of warmth, but overall holding up well and an engaging, enjoyable drink. Meat, bacon & smoke followed by a soft, quite full savoury (not specifically brett) palate. Finishes almost on a sweet note. Tannin less marked than the Jasmin.
Rene Rostaing Cote Rotie 1998. The Cuvee Classique ( 100% Syrah) as it is now named is sometimes in the shadow of Rostaing’s la Landonne and Cote Blonde cuvees. Slightly darker than the 1st two wines but with very similar meaty smoky & liquorice notes. Fuller on the palate, less elegant than the earlier wines, but nevertheless lovely balance and a nice long finish.
Marcel Ogier Cote Rotie La Belle Helene 1997. Ogier’s super cuvee is markedly different from the earlier wines. Distinctly darker in colour it displays real vinous power and intensity. There are robust notes of meat and smoky bacon, and hints of bretty characters at levels that add complexity. However, overlaying all these, the nose is quite dominated by the strong odour of volatile acidity at levels that don’t simply dissipate with a few minutes in the glass. This impression follows through to the palate – for all its full roundness in the mid palate, this is dominated by the impression of a wine falling apart. The potential was there to see, making this so much more disappointing.
E. Guigal Cote Rotie Chateau d’Ampuis 1995. This was the first vintage of Guigal’s mid range Cote Rotie, slotted in between the Brune et Blonde and the three “La la” super cuvees. In keeping with the modern Guigal style, a certain oakiness is still noticeable on the nose and palate, sometimes competing with the more classic Syrah notes of meat & bacon fat. Soft with mid weight palate, it has a lithe quality about it with tannins dissipating. Nice finish. Enjoyable, without being a stand out.
The process of aging of the Cote Rotie wines is particularly interesting. Wines that were quite different when young seeming to converge somewhat with age? The typical pepper characters of their youths have diminished. The most modern in style, the most dense and the wine that once looked to have the power to age well, the Ogier La Belle Helene 1997, was ironically the only wine not to have made the distance. It was also the most expensive at the time of purchase (and cellared in identical conditions to the other wines).
A couple of days later I wanted to test some of my thoughts with a completely contrasting wine – Montes Folly (Apalta Valley, Chile) 2001. This was the second vintage of this single vineyard wine, planted on incredibly steep slopes in this arm of the Colchagua Valley in Chile.
The wine was very dark, much more so than any of the Cote Rotie wines. Quite brooding at first, with dark fruits still very much present, then on opening up it tended to meaty & leather characters, eventually giving way to some very distinctive liquorice flavours on the nose and palate. The palate was still reasonable fresh, very full and round, with a little heat at the back (no surprise at 14.5%) but not offputting; a long finish. A classy wine with every suggestion of plenty of life ahead.
If alcohol levels were a factor among the Cote Roties it is not altogether clear. The range of alcohol levels (per the labels) was from 12.5% to 13%; nothing outrageous or unusual for the region. From our point of view these are alcohol levels quite consistent with what we expect when our Northland syrah is at the point of physiological ripeness. The Chilean syrah was clearly from a riper New World slant on the grape, with the peppery characters in the background that were completely missing from the aged French examples, despite there being only 3-6 years between them.
While I wondered if the process of seeking the extra concentration used in the Ogier Belle Helene had been a factor in raising its susceptibility to VA, there was no hint of this fault in the Montes at all.
Food for thought.