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The Northern Rhone: Birthplace of Syrah

There is something about this area that is almost supernatural and the hill of Hermitage was a bit of a wine pilgrimage for me. The first time I was in Tain l’Hermitage. I was alone and spent my days walking these roasted slopes, marveling at these nearly vertical vineyards trying to understand what makes these hills so special for Syrah. Looking down over the Rhone River from The Chapel of Saint Christopher you see the best vineyard sites of Hermitage. From this vantage it was almost impossible not to feel the weight of history and see the ghosts of Roman Galleons plying the soft current. This little hermit house was built by the knight Henri Gaspard de Sterimberg, who upon returning home injured from the Albigensian crusades in the beginning of the 13th century, decided to live as a hermit on the hill. According to legend, upon recovery he replanted the Syrah grape on these hillside vineyards and this hill became known as Hermitage and is the spiritual home of this sensational grape. This is not the Shiraz of Australia, in fact wines from this region are unlike Syrah produced anywhere else. These vineyards are like a fairy tale with slopes so steep that all harvesting must be done manually. Some vineyards are so steep that pulleys and gondolas are used to move the grapes and one slip could be fatal. These are some of the most profound vineyards in the world.

Vines in the Northern Rhone live in a perfect climate on the banks of the Rhone River, warmed by the Mediterranean and sheltered from the harsh northerly winds. This is a very small area and in general is exclusively planted in Syrah, with small amounts of Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne planted that is blended to make white wine that stupefies the senses. If we look at the total production of the Rhone Valley as a whole, then the Northern Rhone produces 5% and the Southern Rhone produces 95%. If we look at fine wine production, then the Northern Rhone produces 95% of the fine wine and the Southern Rhone 5%. In fact, the entire wine production of the Northern Rhone is less than the single appellation of Chateau-Neuf-du-Pape in the south. The vines here are the some of the oldest in all of France.

Tonight, we begin with a Coindreau, the largest white wine appellation in the Northern Rhone. Here, Viognier grapes ripen on steep terraces overlooking the Rhone River. The end result is a viscous, almost oily wine with hints of tropical fruit, tangerine and subtle acid. We are pairing this with our homemade Quenelle Lyonnaise and the classic Sauce Natua of pureed crayfish. Next, we move onto a Crozes-Hermitage, from Olivier Dumaine called “La Croix de Verre” a 100% Syrah produced from 70 year old vines. This family owned estate is in the original AOC created in 1937 and has been family operated since 1650. The grapes are grown on death defying terraced hillsides, underlying the old saying that “Syrah likes a view”. Be prepared for perfumed raspberries, deep dark fruit and stiff tannins that should fall into attention with our homemade Cervelas de Lyon sausage with sage infused white beans. This is a wonderfully technical, lightly cured sausage of pork, truffles and pistachios. We dive into our course of Crazy Woman Farm Lamb T-Bones paired with a 2011 Cornas “Terre Burlee” (literally, the burnt earth) by Domaine Lionnet. This vineyard has been operated by the Lionnet family since 1575; that’s over 500 years! These are all old vine Syrah grapes, averaging 60-100 years old and the wine is definitely made in the old style. Harvest is done manually, and grapes are fermented whole with the stems attached, as these tannins are part of the classic wine. All fermentation is carried out in cement vats by natural, indigenous yeasts, with no fining with albumin or enzymes at all. The final wine is racked into large oak barrels (tonneaux and demi-muids) with no new oak used. We have brought in the 2011 vintage of this wine to help showcase how the tannins soften as these wines begin to age. Once again thank you all so very much for your amazing support.

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