On the Trail

Syrah's Return to Dominance

David Driscoll
K&L buyers Alex Pross and Trey Beffa get a tour of the landscape

K&L buyers Alex Pross and Trey Beffa get a tour of the landscape

I remember a period of Parker-pointed dominance for the rich and ample-fruited wines of Southern France; right around the time I started working at K&L back in 2007. Our customers couldn't get enough of those mouth-filling Syrah and Grenache blends and we were wheeling out cases of Côtes du Rhône faster than we could restock them. Selling a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape was like shooting fish in a barrel! Then something happened to slow that trajectory. Maybe it was market saturation, or maybe it was the short-lived rise of a foodie culture that poo-pooed the richness of the riper Rhône style, but for about five years there was a bit of a lull and customers began inquiring about lighter, lower alcohol alternatives. Lately, however, I've noticed the pendulum starting to swing back the other way. While I'm always ready to put a great bottle of Bordeaux and Burgundy into the hands of anyone who asks (and sometimes even those who don't), there's no denying the fact that the top names from St. Julien or Morey St. Denis don't specialize in pop-and-pour wines. France's top Cabernets and Pinot Noirs often need time to soften in the cellar, sometimes more than a decade of slumber before they begin to show their true merit. I've said it before and I'll say it again: it only takes a few bad experiences with a tart and tangy bottle from a cooler vintage to ruin someone from the potential joys of fine Burgundy appreciation. To many, wine enjoyment shouldn't be difficult. If you pay $50 or more for a single bottle, then the wine inside that vestibule should taste both delicious and expensive. The modern American drinker doesn't have a wine cellar, or even a collection for that matter, so the idea of waiting years to enjoy a bottle can be a setback rather than a sign of quality. We're moving more and into a culture of on-the-go and for the winemakers in the Rhône and Languedoc-Roussillon, this shift in priorities plays right into their strengths. Whereas a $100+ bottle of 2014 Vosne Romanée might come across as tannic or tight if opened today, any bottle of 2014 St. Joseph in comparison will throw out silky, supple, and soft-fruited textures, even in its youth. 

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The first sign that the Rhône renaissance was back in full swing was the virtual explosion that detonated in our sales queue earlier this summer when we released the 2015 Château de l'Ou "Secret de Schistes," a thirty dollar Syrah from the Côtes Catalanes that ignited a firestorm of sales with its blistering 96 point review from the Wine Advocate's Jeb Dunnuck. I hadn't seen customers flock to a Southern French wine like that in almost a decade (and we sold every last bottle we could get our hands on), but again this week I watched a similar phenomenon occur with the release of Château de l'Ou's twenty dollar Syrah bargain: the 2015 "Infiniment."  Made from 100% Syrah and brimming with full-bodied fruit, a ripe and textural mouthfeel, and an immediately approachable charm, I've been watching the orders pile up in the sales queue all morning as I prepared to type up this post. Luckily for us, Château de l'Ou is one of our direct imports here at K&L, a wine we found after a referral from another producer we've worked with for years (Antech from Limoux). Run by Séverinne and Philippe Bourrier, the organically farmed estate consists of three different terroirs, from which the Bourriers are able to coax a number of different expressions of flavor. I'd check out Jeb Dunnuck's first hand report here for a deeper look into the production, while also reading our buyer Keith Mabry's note in the Infiniment product page linked above. While most of us who have tasted the Infiniment think it has the power to last at least a decade in the cellar, it's important to note that the wine tastes pretty fabulous right now. In the new era of fast internet, same-day delivery, and instant gratification across the board, the wines of Southern France are primed for another big run in the sun, and Syrah—always considered one of the classic red varietals—may be getting a second look from a growing customer base that values both quality and early accessibility.

-David Driscoll