The Unfamiliar Familiar: A Northern Rhone Dinner

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There comes a point in life where we start setting patterns. There comes another point at which we start to notice these patterns. True perspective begins when we understand that buried within the prosaic lies the seeds of its transcendence.

It is only after some experience that it becomes important to return; there comes a point where returns gain the power to dissolve the ego. Perspective is gained by the ability to revisit. Whether through memory or habit, the idea of coming back to something is one of life’s essential sources of grounding.

My hobby horse is the Northern Rhone. I deplore the pomp of Bordeaux, deflate at the site of inflation (whether vinous or monetary). I drink Italian wine with my dinner. I pursue Burgundy out of intellectual stimulation. The Loire, Germany, Austria – all provide delight with the seasons. But then there is the thin parcel of steep vineyard plots quietly sitting, nearly ignored, between Lyon and Valance.

Why do some moments attach, while others remain fleeting sensations? How is it that some memories can anchor themselves deep within our psyches and others become mere context? For me, the Northern Rhone has piled deep into my subconscious and occupied a place of deep comfort and affinity with my soul.

I recently co-hosted a dinner with friends (and wine geeks) focused entirely on the Northern Rhone. Dinners like this are special. They are a place to congregate and share. To pass on and receive new knowledge, debate, gain perspective and cohabit pleasure. When focused on a set of experiences settled deep within my being, it is also an opportunity to return.

Why No Love?

There was no debate at the table as to the profundity and world-class quality of the wines poured. Rather, the debate focused on why these wines are so ignored by wine lovers? Is it because their nuance is lost on most consumers? Is it the deep animalism of some examples? Is it simply price?

I refuse to believe it is the expense. Many spend far greater sums on California Cabernet and Bordeaux. These are not just prestige seekers, either. Many are those who genuinely become entranced with the greatest expressions of Cabernet and Merlot in the world.

It can’t be esoterism. Burgundy is complex and obscure but there are countless collectors seeking out these wines. Perhaps it is the raw pleasure of Pinot Noir that draws versus the rougher, less polished exterior of Northern Rhone Syrah? But it can’t be for lack of prettiness. Many of these wines are floral and as aromatically pretty and explosive as great Burgundy. The best are deeply mineral and of the most ancient flavours available.

Unanswered Questions

I don’t feel obliged to answer these questions. Nor am I particularly bothered by them. For me the Northern Rhone offers an opportunity to return. In many ways this is a return to self, looking deeply into something that connects with my soul. In another way, the greatest pleasure offered me by the Northern Rhone is familiarity. I am not talking about assembly line familiarity. Rather, what I speak of is the moments, sensations, aromas, sounds, and images that unleash themselves on us immediately and profoundly when we encounter them again. A ray of sun cast at a particular angle, reflected off a tree in a particular way, brings you back viscerally to a past sensation. This is not melancholy or nostalgia. It is connection. It is a piercing through of the illusions before us. Time and space; deadlines and offices; routes home. These familiarities, while granting comfort, are linear. I seek the lateral.

Northern Rhone wines, particularly the reds, are perhaps the most lateral wines in the world. They don’t come at you straight on. They are almost uninterested in your existence. At one moment they are youthful dark fruit; at another they are ancient, sinewed chunks of mineral and stone. Floral and feral, dark and pretty, expansive and precise.

They seem uninterested in food, though are well suited for much of it. These are intellectual, thoughtful wines. That is, until you get to know them. And then their nuance comes out in full force. Subtle, charming, and sometimes reticent. When you catch them on a good day, when they feel open, they will change your life with a single sentence – a sentence you will never forget.

A Grand Procession

We faced a stalwart lineup. Most of these producers are marquee. The best wines were those with some age. My personal favourites were the wines made traditionally that skirted the perfect line between intellectual esoterism and open expression of fruit.

The most incredible wine of the night, and the one which showed the fullest potential of the Northern Rhone, was the 2001 Marc Sorrel Le Greal Hermitage I brought back from my trip to the Rhone a year ago. This was deeply mineral driven wine but its fruit core was pure, deep and long. Not to mention the wine was perfectly clean, a fact I could not say was true for the 2001 Chapoutier Hermitage, which was all stink animal and, in my mind, carried far too much brett.

The other particularly intriguing wines for my palate were the 1995 Joel Champet Cote Rotie “La Vialliere” – a pretty and lithe Syrah from a small producer previously unknown to me. It was drinking at its peak. The 2006 Eric Texier Cote Rotie was also fantastic. While we would have thought it was going to be somewhat of a brett monster, this wine was in fact entirely clean and actually quite ripe and modern. It achieved this, however, with balance and restraint and I think it will be a wonderful wine in a few years. The 2007 August Clape Cornas was a fantastic wine (also clean and modern rather than barny), but an absolute baby at this point. Do not drink this for a decade. But when you do, it was clear to us all that it will be profound.

We opened with a very good 2009 La Doriane Condrieu from Guigal. It was a very good Condrieu, with solid minerality, but it didn’t quite match previous examples I’ve had from Cuilleron, Gangloff or Vernay.

Final Thoughts, Again

It is one of the great pleasures of wine when we find a region or producer that digs deep into our soul and doesn’t let go. In my world, that is the Northern Rhone. I urge you to spend a little more time with these wines if you haven’t already. They are some of the greatest and most profound in the world. Do not use new world Syrah/Shiraz as a benchmark. The Syrah from the Northern Rhone tastes like nothing else in the world and is far more restrained, intellectual and savory. These are not bombastic jars of berry jam. They resonate with me because their subtlety is matched only by their rawness. They are exposed. Each time I drink a wine from the Northern Rhone, it puts me in touch with my own contradictions: perhaps the most important reminder of all. And that is why I return, again and again.

Posted in: Features, Tastings


  1. Frank
    July 23, 2012

    Great post again. Shea, your thoughts on wine are always both intellectual and romantic. I’ve rarely met anyone that can articulate wines like you can. Unfortunately, I think that’s probably the main reason why Hermitage has always been flying under the radar.

    The problem is, without the aid of rich Chateaus or big business marketing, Hermitage had to win over fans by what’s in the bottle alone. But because it is a wine that lies between raw power and fineness. To the “classic/elegant” wine drinkers, when compared to a Burgundy, Hermitage is brute force that’s untamed . On the other hand, to the “big fruit” drinkers, Hermitage brings less immediate gratification than a Australian Shiraz but at a much higher price tag.

    To me, Hermitage is a beautiful wine. Its beauty is raw and its elegance is untaught. It is like a beautiful woman that’s never been to the cities and doesn’t know anything about cosmetics. Yet, there’s a unbelievable natural beauty beneath the otherwise rough appearance.


  2. Shea
    July 23, 2012

    Thanks for the comment Frank, I appreciate it.

    You raise an interesting point re: elegance and power. I think that is accurate for many of the wines. They seem to sit somewhere in a place that makes followers of both the Burgundy and Extract schools uncomfortable.

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