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Lise Ciolino
January 15, 2014 | Blending, Rhône wines, Syrafina, Syrah, Viognier | Lise Ciolino

In Vino Veritas: Syrafina gives a nod to Côte Rôtie

On a visit to France's northern Rhône region at the age of 16, I fell in love with red wine in general and Hermitage syrah in specific. In fact, Hermitage provided the inspiration for Montemaggiore's flagship wine, Paolo's Vineyard Syrah. A more recent fascination of both me and Vincent is Côte Rôtie, Hermitage's neighbor 25 miles upstream. In this appellation, winemakers add a small amount of viognier to syrah, resulting in wines that are highly aromatic and nuanced (contrasting with Hermitage's intense and richer flavor profile). The latest addition to Montemaggiore's portfolio, Syrafina, was inspired by Côte Rôtie—thus we thought you'd enjoy a closer look.

Location of Rhone Valley in FranceSouth of the food mecca of Lyon where the Rhône makes a sharp turn to the southwest, lies the "roasted slope" of Côte Rôtie. The vineyards face directly south and southwest, angled to maximize the ripening effect of the sun. Being the most northerly of all Rhône appellations, only this optimal exposure enables syrah to ripen. Ancient Romans were probably the first to cultivate grapevines in this region, and it boasts some of the world's steepest vineyards. The best are inclined up to 60°, crisscrossed with ancient granite walls to form terraces for erosion control. Côte Rôtie is a small area with a very special terroir, containing around 60 vineyards planted on 500 acres (by contrast, Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma County has 9,000 acres planted).

The vineyards of Côte Rôtie radiate from the town of Ampuis, where a stream separates two distinct geological areas (and soil types). To the northeast, Côte Brune has soils of schist, clay, and iron—producing more full-bodied wines meant to age longer. To the southwest, the Côte Blonde has more granite, sand and limestone—producing elegant wines meant to be consumed earlier. About 5 percent of Côte Rôtie is planted with the white Viognier grape, concentrated in the Côte Blonde whose soils are similar to those in the great Viognier appellations of Condrieu and Chateau Grillet, the next winegrowing regions to the south.

Only red wines of syrah are bottled in Côte Rôtie, although most include 1-5% of the white viognier grape (the legal limit being 20%). The concept of adding white grapes to red seems unusual and counter-intuitive—and begs the question as to how this came about and why it works. Explanations include:

  • Wine has been made this way in Côte Rôtie for centuries, presumably experimentation led to hedonistic success: a little white made a tastier red. 
  • Viognier mitigates risk during cooler years when syrah grown this far north might not have enough sugar to reach minimum alcohol levels. 
  • Scientists believe this particular white grape helps extract otherwise nearly insoluble flavor and color compounds from this particular red grape when fermented together. 
  • Recent DNA testing by José Vouillamoz reveals that Viognier and Syrah are actually related (as grandparent-grandchild, or half-brother/sister), and many great wine blends involve related grapes (e.g., Cabernet Franc and its progenies Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in Bordeaux, Sangiovese and its father Ciliegiolo in Chianti, Nebbiolo and its progeny Nebbiolo Rosé in Barolo).

Thus from both a hedonistic and scientific perspective, we know that co-fermenting these two varietals can result in a superior red wine that has additional flavors and deeper color. Only two other classic wine regions in the world do the same: in the Rioja region of Spain, the red grenache has historically been fermented with the white palomino; and in the Chianti region of Italy, the red sangiovese can be fermented with the whites trebbiano and malvasia.

Terraced Vineyard in Cote RotieOver the past decade at Montemaggiore, we've tasted many delicious Côte Rôties at our dinner table. I have been enthralled and intrigued by their beguiling aromas, while Vincent wondered if the syrah-viognier concept would translate to our mountainside in Sonoma County. Thus in 2009, we planted a quarter acre of viognier, while simultaneously "stealing" some viognier intended for our white 3Divas blend, whose grapes we purchase. For the first three years, we harvested and vinified the viognier separately and blended it with syrah just before bottling. In recent vintages, our newly-planted estate viognier crop has borne fruit thus we have been able to co-ferment the viognier with the syrah.

With Montemaggiore's Syrafina, I find that viognier adds a high-toned floral aromatic layer while softening the tannins of the syrah—which means Syrafina can be appreciated a little bit younger than the Paolo's Vineyard Syrah. On its own, viognier has intoxicating tropical fruit and orange blossom aromas, along with notes of honeysuckle, apricot, and peach. When it mingles with syrah, however, this aromatic layer is simplified a bit into broad yet effusive floral notes. On the palate, the small amount of viognier significantly smoothes out the tannins, producing a nice round mouthfeel. We hope you'll get a chance to try Syrafina and Paolo's Vineyard Syrah side-by-side and let us know what you think.

If you'd like to know more about Côte Rôtie, you must taste the wines. Although they're not too difficult to find, they can be very pricey. The most prolific winemaker in the appellation is Marcel Guigal, whose famous bottlings are the "La-La"s: La Mouline (11 percent Viognier, from Côte Blonde), La Landonne (100 percent Syrah, from Côte Brune) and La Turque (7 percent Viognier, Côte Brune). Luckily he has some more reasonably priced wines. Other excellent winemakers include Jasmin, Yves Cuilleron, Clusel-Roch, Rene Rostaing and Ogier. Of course, the best way to enjoy these wines is to visit the Rhône personally, perhaps attending the annual Ampuis Wine Market in January, a grand affair of local wine and gastronomy. For the armchair traveler, you may enjoy reading John Livingston-Learmonths's seminal tome, The Wines of the Northern Rhône.


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