The French like to say of Crozes-Hermitage "La Syrah est ici chez elle". Roughly translated, it means that the syrah grape is sitting pretty in its natural habitat on left bank of the Rhône river. Here the sprawling appellation of Crozes-Hermitage spreads out behind the Valrhona chocolate town of Tain, surrounding the commanding hill of Hermitage from which these grand and potent wines take their name.
The syrah grape is indeed king here, or rather, queen, since, unusually, its gender is feminine. The temperate climate of the 45th parallel provides the perfect conditions for the wines. Nine out of 10 bottles are red, always pure syrah. If that suggests uniformity, the opposite is the case. Crozes-Hermitage's two main zones are made up of a mosaic of stony, clay terraces in the south, with granite in the fresher north, and every vigneron approaches the style differently.
The best-known names of the 100-odd estates and merchants are Chapoutier, Jaboulet and the dependable giant co-operative the Cave de Tain, which supplies almost all UK supermarkets with benchmark Crozes such as the spicy and juicy 2014 Crozes Hermitage, £10, down from £14, Marks & Spencer.
Nearly a third is exported and we in the UK are easily the most appreciative of the floral, spice-and-pepper notes of syrah and the savouriness that goes so well with food but perhaps appeals less to palates seduced by the more obvious richness of Australian shiraz (same grape).
The best Crozes I tasted while there recently came from Domaine du Colombier whose perfumed and intensely dark-fruited 2013 Crozes-Hermitage, Gaby, £17.16 – 20.20, Lay & Wheeler, Tanners, is a marvel of spicy character. There was Gilles Robin's smoky paprika-spicy, blackberryish 2014 Crozes-Hermitage, Papillon, £17.95, and the richer, intense Albéric Bouvet, £17.95, both Lea & Sandeman; plus the fragrant, peppery 2013 David Reynaud, Beaumont, £16.33 – £18.50, Eclectic Tastes, Exel, winetrust100.co.uk. Going back in time, Jaboulet Aîné's 2010 Crozes Hermitage, Thalabert, £26, Berry Bros & Rudd, is maturing beautifully, with peppery fragrance and sweet dark fruit tempered by savoury acidity.
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