Friday, October 10, 2008

North and South of Lyon

From the political perspective, the wines of both Beaujolais and the Northern Rhône come from the same zone: the Rhône Department. Viticulturally, they’re all but connected by the Coteaux du Lyonnais. Yet they’re universally considered as separate, distinct entities – Beaujolais inextricably attached to Burgundy to its north and the Northern Rhône all too often considered in the same context if not the same breath as the much larger span of the Southern Rhône. And the wines, at least at first approach, seem worlds apart.

To the casual observer, Beaujolais is a wine of immediate charm. To the blind taster, its trademark aromas make it one of the easiest wines to pick out of an unknown line-up. That said, the best wines of Beaujolais offer much more than apparent at first taste.

While the wines of the Northern Rhône, based the on dark fruited vine Syrah, also have their signature traits, the wines tend to be far less approachable. Whether because of the high prices associated with the exalted wines of Côte Rôtie and Hermitage or due to the tannic structure and animal aromas of wines from Saint-Joseph and Cornas, Northern Rhône reds take a little more work to build a fundamental understanding.

The wines from both zones are very much worth the effort. And every once in a while, you’ll stumble upon a pair with enough in common that they seem to bridge the geographical gap between their respective points of growth.

Côte de Brouilly, Château Thivin (Claude Geoffray) 2005
$18. 12.5% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Kermit Lynch, Berkeley, CA.
One whiff and there’s no mistaking it. This isn’t just Gamay, it’s Gamay Beaujolais. The dark strawberry fruit with a lashing of chalkiness are unmistakable. But here’s an example of Beaujolais where there’s much more than simple fruit lurking beneath the wine’s frontal charms. As it spends time in the glass, aromas of blackberries, white pepper and red licorice emerge and revolve. While a quick judge might write it off as light and simple, there’s actually substantial tensile strength to this Côte de Brouilly, thanks to both snappy acidity and firm tannic grip. When first uncorked on day two, it seemed immediately darker and more lush yet simpler than on day one, with scents of brandied cherries followed by a shorter, less nuanced touch on the palate. There was more to come, though, as with further exposure to air all of the nuances of the previous day returned along with spicy/earthy scents of cinnamon and licorice root mulch. This is drinking really nicely now and should continue to develop for another five to ten years.

Côtes du Rhône “Brézème,” Eric Texier 2005
$22. 12.5% alcohol. Composite cork. Importer: Louis/Dressner, New York, NY.
Even though Brézème is situated at the southern extreme of the Northern Rhône, Eric Texier’s 2005, which is varietal Syrah, blurs the stylistic boundaries between its zone and greater Burgundy. If I’d tasted blind, I think I’d have been more inclined, at least on day one, to pick this as red Burgundy from the Hautes Côtes de Nuits. It’s an elegant, bright and leaner than typical example of Rhône Syrah, very pretty on the nose, surprisingly delicate on the palate. In this vintage at least, it’s less obvious in its sense of specific place than is Thivin’s Beaujolais but it’s just as interesting, even if a little less rewarding, to explore. High-toned cherry and plum fruit strikes first, along with some of the same spice notes. On day two, a suggestion of olives comes forth from the background, pinning this wine more obviously as Rhône Syrah but without the burliness of wines from Cornas, just to the north of Brézème. Its tannins, in fact, are surprisingly soft. Though its charms are less obvious, I think the wine is likely to develop along a trajectory similar to the Côte de Brouilly. I’d love to revisit them both five years down the road.

Beaujolais map courtesy of The Wine Doctor.
Northern Rhône map courtesy of Eric Texier.


Debra Morgan said...

This is a new idea to me--comparing these two regions--exciting, too,as I count the crus in Beaujolais among my favorite wines for their lovely, easy-drinking fruit and minerality tempered with just enough complexity for a simple girl to intellectualize without tiring herself.
Thanks for the post

Michael D. said...

Dude, I freakin' adore the salty, deep wines from Thivin. And that damn label..... So old school and undeniably french!!! Love the write up. Certainly very thought provoking.

David McDuff said...

Thanks to both of you for the kind words. The comparison is not something I'd been stewing up for a long time, G. It just kind of came to me as I was thinking about the two wines (not long after enjoying them). You're right, Mike. Thivin's label pretty much epitomizes old school design. I'm bummed that my photo doesn't quite do it justice.

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