Syrah is one of the greatest grapes in the world when grown in the right places. The Northern Rhone has always been its spiritual home, but few drinkers taste the likes of Cote-Rotie, Cornas or Hermitage due to both rarity and expense. This is a great opportunity for St. Joseph.
The Time for St. Joseph
Often ignored but increasingly one of the most exciting regions in France, St. Joseph has just started to come into its own. In the past, St. Joseph’s reputation was mainly for quaffable, light Syrah best served as a simple table wine, but not worthy of serious consideration. One of the problems is the sheer scope of St. Joseph compared to the other AOCs of the Northern Rhone. It spans from just south of Cote-Rotie in the north down to Valence in the south – that is, approximately 65 kilometres. The decision to include so much was made in 1969 when the authorities expanded St. Joseph from 6 villages spanning 10km to 25 villages across 65km, which coincided with a rise from 100 to 1,000 hectares of vineyards. This expanse unfortunately waters down the meaning of St. Joseph and fails to provide a useful guide for the consumer.
St. Joseph is generally good quality, but only a few key sites and producers push it to the next level – the point at which it can start to dream of competing with its three big brothers Cote-Rotie, Cornas and Hermitage.
The granitic soils of many St. Joseph vineyards are well suited to Syrah, but the best sites are planted on hillsides rather than the plains or plateaus and have old vines. While granite is the key connection between most St. Joseph vineyards, the key differentiation lies between the northern and southern halves of the AOC.
North v. South: Of Differentiation in St. Joseph
St. Joseph’s best wines may for simplicity be divided into two general categories. First, there is the southern sector, near Tain l’Hermitage, across the river from the famous granite hills of Hermitage itself. These soils are older and thus more decomposed. This produces powerful, near hedonistic Syrah that most people do not associate with St. Joseph. Ripe berries, tar, smoke, with tannic backbone and variable acid.
The Domaines des Miquettes St. Joseph Coteaux 2010 offers a stunning example of this style, with fruit density you almost never find out of Cornas or Hermitage. While the winery is located in Cheminas (near Tain l’Hermitage), its St. Joseph vineyards are in Secheras, which is about 5km north, and sit at 350m above sea level. Miquettes was founded only in 2003 by a couple who were previously farmers and grape growers (the husband working at the Tain cooperative) but who did not make their own wine. The vinification is whole bunch, 50% carbonic (though I did not even notice this), and fermentation with natural yeasts in oak demi-muids. This biodynamic estate exports only 15 cases to North America of this rare ‘green label’ St. Joseph, their top wine. Masculine, powerful fruit such as plum skins and a rich ripe mid-palate with a complete mouthfeel. Other flavours include stones, olives, and a bucketful of black pepper. This is not at all lean, but rather potent and the tannin structure is powerful while also being supple. Amazingly, all this concentration and structure can be had at only around 13% ABV. While not yet at the apex of the Northern Rhone, this wine nevertheless competes with some producers’ Cornas and Hermitage wines. It’s mighty impressive. Excellent and Highly Recommended Value. $40 at Garagiste.
In contrast to the southern St. Josephs are the northern vines, planted in younger granite soils that lead to more angular wines. In contrast to the power and dark fruit of the south, northern St. Josephs are the Beaujolais cru of Syrah, with lighter body, plenty of black pepper, leaner tannins and a drier texture. The Vincent Paris St. Joseph “Les Cotes” 2011 is an archetypical example of this style. Vincent Paris’ St. Joseph vineyard was planted in 1997 in a granite valley west of Sarras, the border between north and south. At halfway to the northernmost outposts of St. Joseph, the 300m elevation pushes it completely into the camp of northern style. Destalked, fermented over 2-3 weeks and raised in vat and cask 50/50. There is no fining or filtration. The wine is fresh, cheerful and purely fruited with definite animal character, blackberry and red fruits (vs. the plums and figs of the south). While not meant for long aging or built with a huge structure, this wine is the perfect example of Syrah’s lighter side, and exemplifies the diversity of St. Joseph. 12.5% ABV. Very Good+. $40 at Marquis
St. Joseph is on the cusp of real greatness. Producers like the two reviewed here, Gonon, Coursodon, Courbis and, lately, the estate St. Joseph wines of JL Chave, prove that St. Joseph can make truly noble wine. The problem of St. Joseph remains that there is little understanding of its various terroirs and its top vineyards, even amongst collectors and geeks. There can be weeks between harvests in the vineyards of the south vs. the north and this climatic and site difference has a profound effect on the wine. Yet, consumers have no way of knowing this without extensive personal research. This could be solved by greater differentiation within St. Joseph itself or at least an attempt at village and vineyard labelling (rather than straight up St. Joseph or some proprietary name). Producers should at least put the information on their back labels.
As it stands, St. Joseph is like Burgundy insofar that producer is a far better indication of quality than place. That said, it is near impossible for consumers to know what style they are buying without research or experimentation. The rewards are great, the value one of the best in France, and I hope more in the industry continue to push these wines, and their distinctions, to willing customers.