Rhone Valley winemakers elevate syrah, or shiraz, to elegant heights
Syrah turns into something quite extraordinary in the northern Rhone Valley. The powerful black pepper spice of syrah (or shiraz, as it is more usually known in Australia or South Africa) in warmer regions mutates into a floral white pepper elegance wrapped up in silky tannins. It's the alchemy of soil, altitude and microclimate. Basically, the syrah doesn't get hot enough, or relaxed enough, to bring out its wild side, but there are a few places in the world that can manage this trick.
Put an obsessive love for this particular style of syrah together with the allure of rediscovering an oubli d'histoire (relic of history) and you can see what drove Pierre Gaillard, Francois Villard and Yves Cuilleron to cross over the Rhone River 20 years ago to the steeply sloped, heavily wooded and pretty much unknown slopes of Seyssuel.
These three winemakers are long-established names, famous for their luscious Côte Rotie wines, but that didn't stop plenty of their friends and colleagues suggesting none too politely that they were crazy.
Cuilleron is telling me this with contentment on his face as we head to lunch in a spot overlooking the Rhone River. We are on the right bank, the Côte Rotie side, with a view back over the left bank, Seyssuel side, where I have spent the morning clambering across slopes before heading to a winery for a tasting of the 13 producers who are now happily discovering what syrah and viognier can do on this once-forgotten site.
"We found Roman texts from Pliny the Elder that referred to these ancient vineyards, and 19th century postcards in Lyon showing slopes just to the south of the city covered in vines," Cuilleron says. "Every time we drove past Seyssuel on our way back from Lyon, we kept wondering if it would be possible to replant them. In 1995 we persuaded local farmers to either sell or lease land to us (mostly forest or scrubland that we then had to clear). It was only when we began clearing the slopes that we knew we were right to take the risk. We found the same schist soils as Côte Rotie, with the same southern exposure, and slopes that reached about 30 per cent gradient, similar to Côte Blonde. In 1996 the first vines were planted. For the first six years, we were totally on our own. But the wines eventually convinced others to follow."
I'm not surprised. It soon becomes clear on tasting the result - the Gaillard-Villard-Cuilleron wines are bottled under the name Vins de Vienne - exactly why their winemaking colleagues started to realise that they had found a "mini Côte Rotie", where the soil and the aptitude for syrah are nearly the same, but the land values are maybe 60 per cent cheaper. For now, the wines are bottled as IGP Collines Rhodaniennes, but an application to create an AOC has been made.
Seyssuel is located at the narrowest section of the Rhone Valley (700 metres wide) and is also its most northerly point. This translates to high temperatures and regular wind that protects the grapes from rot or mildew. It is also at a hook in the river that means even though it is theoretically opposite Côte Rotie, it is more accurate to say it is behind it, facing the same way, its face to Côte Rotie's back.
This neatly explains why, of the 13 producers in Seyssuel today, 12 are from Côte Rotie. Many point out their own more famous appellation had nearly disappeared until replantings in the 1960s and '70s. The loss of vines in Seyssuel was simply more complete. There had been 1,000 hectares of Seyssuel at the end of the 19th century, until phylloxera and the first world war took their toll. Now, nearly 20 years after the arrival of Vins de Vienne, the 13 producers are working 30 hectares, with the potential for more.
The limited production means these are not the easiest wines to get hold of, but they richly reward the hunt. Expect sweet floral edging, white pepper, fine tannins, savoury fruits, fresh alcohol levels (about 12 to 13 per cent) and beautiful persistence that suggest that as the vines age more fully across the area, we'll find bottles that really get better with cellaring.