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Vail Daily Wines: ‘Roasted slope’ excels in Syrah

Sean Razee
Masterful wine picks
Vail, CO Colorado

VAIL, Colorado –South of Lyon, France, the Rhone River merges with the Saone River and channels its way south through deep corridors cut into France’s Massif Central, an elevated region of mountains and plateaus.

Just south of Vienne – in what the French call the septentrionale, or northern Rhone Valley – vineyards are perched on the steep, east-facing slopes of Cote Rotie on the Rhone’s right bank. Here, on the sunbathed – and aptly named – “roasted slope,” you will find some of the world’s greatest expressions of Syrah, which must be hand-harvested due to the steep terrain.

At the southern end of the valley lie the exposed granite slopes of Cornas, where a handful of producers are making amazing wines from the same Syrah. Between these two pockets of vineyards exists the area designated as St.-Joseph.

In Cote Rotie and Cornas, Syrah can be just as dark, dense and tannic as Cabernet Sauvignon and will also show nuances of smoke, earth and charcuterie. In the broader and less-favorably exposed vineyards of St.-Joseph, Syrah takes on a greater red-fruit, perfumed character more fitting for early-drinking. However, the St.-Joseph variation is still capable of producing outstanding wines for cellaring when the grapes are restrained to minimal yields and produced on favored sites.

Although the recent “discovery” of powerful Syrah from Cote Rotie has overshadowed some of their former distinction, the reds of Hermitage are still quintessential Syrah for many wine lovers. On the east side of the river, the mostly granite slops of Hermitage are composed of about 300 acres of vines with excellent southern exposure. The vineyards are reputed to be some of the oldest in France and are often terraced to provide excellent drainage and ensure complete ripening of the grapes.

At the base of the rather imposing hill of Hermitage lies the town, Tain-Hermitage. To the north, east and south are the vineyards of Crozes-Hermitage. The soils in the north, like those of Hermitage, are mostly granite-based.

On the plain to the east and south, however, clay soil begins to take precedence. As might be expected, the granite soils produce more structured wines, while the clay soils produce softer, fruity wines. And just as in the broad region of St.-Joseph, wine selection from this region needs to more discerning but can be highly rewarding for bargain hunters.

Sean Razee is the beverage director and sommelier for Spago at The Ritz-Carlton, Bachelor Gulch on Beaver Creek Mountain. He currently holds the Master Sommelier diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers. Razee is one of 96 Master Sommeliers in the United States and the only person in the Vail Valley that holds the distinguished certification.


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