Lasting Friendships And
Northern Rhône Syrah
I started my wine retail career with little knowledge but with great enthusiasm. I had a passable grasp of California wines thanks to open-minded parents who allowed small tastes at dinner and to summers spent in Sonoma County where I witnessed the changing agricultural landscape; from apple and prune orchards to vineyards. At the store where I worked, one of my colleagues, near in age to me, was well on his way to absorbing all things related to French wines. He enrolled in as many wine courses as he could afford at UC Berkeley Extension. It was a course on the Rhône Valley that sparked the most infectious passion in him. After each class, he’d go over with me what he learned and what was tasted. He even began bringing extra hand-outs for me to take home and read, henceforth began my discovery of Rhône wines.
If it’s red and from Southern Rhône, the wine can be a blend. But, if it’s red and from Northern Rhône, then the wine must be Syrah. This was my first lesson learned. When I came to work for TWH, the selection of Rhône wines was much larger and more comprehensive than at my previous employment. It was time to dive in further. Domaine Belle, which then was known as Domaine Albert Belle, represented value and quality for Northern Rhône Syrah, though it was at that time still a young enterprise. In 1990 after breaking away from the Tain growers’ cooperative, Albert and Philippe Belle, father and son, began domaine-bottling their wine. In a book titled Rhone Renaissance published in 1995, author Remington Norman wrote that Belle was “a domaine to watch”. Nearly three decades later, with Albert retired, Philippe is running the domaine and his son Guillaume is being groomed to join the family business. Over the years, the domaine has expanded its vineyard holdings and upgraded their winery facility. All this was accomplished by hard work and consistently making excellent wine. Robert Parker recently wrote that Belle “has long been one of my favorite estates since I first tasted their wines”. I too have a soft-spot for this domaine, especially the Crozes-Hermitage Les Pierrelles.
Les Pierrelles is often introduced as their “entry-level” wine, but that is a bit misleading. Les Pierrelles uses grapes grown on small, rounded galets (stones) on top of red clay soils. These vineyards are located in the communes of Pont d’Isère and Mercurol. The grapes are de-stemmed, fermented with indigenous yeast and then aged in barrel for 14 months in older barrels of 2-5 years of age. Typically it is juicy, has nice tannin integration and fragrant aromatics.
The 2013 Les Pierrelles is really terrific. Pouring it into a glass unleashes aromas of boysenberries, black currant and tangy pomegranate. The first sips are swathed in fruit. Then with aeration, the white pepper and meaty notes emerge. Despite the succulent, sweet flavor of the fruit, the wine lies fresh and lively on the palate. It is a harmonious and pleasurable wine.
There was a lot of discussion as to whether this wine is more feminine or big-scaled. The 2013 Les Pierrelles delivers on big flavors, and yet it finishes elegant and gentle on the palate, so it’s both really. As I savored and evaluated what was in my glass (which I mistakenly, but conveniently had over-poured into, and of course Pete took notice of – thanks!?!) I pondered over who might enjoy a wine like this and instantly my old friend who taught me so much about Rhône wines (see above) popped into my head – Mike A. Some of you probably remember him too, as he also worked at TWH when it was located on Bryant Street. I shared my observation with David. Wine is a curious thing as it can conjure up so many feelings and memories and good friends. -Anya Balistreri