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Geoff Kelly Wine Reviews
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Independent reviews of some local and imported wines available in New Zealand, including earlier vintages.

2003 SYRAHS FROM THE NORTHERN RHONE VALLEY,  OTHER SOUTHERN FRANCE,  NEW ZEALAND & SPAIN


With syrah emerging as one of the most exciting red grapes in the Hawkes Bay district of New Zealand,  there is keen interest in correlating its performance in New Zealand’s climate with the range of summer seasons in France.  This interest is particularly acute for some sections of the New Zealand wine community,  who see the floral,  aromatic,  more complex and less alcoholic syrah styles of France as being the more appropriate model for New Zealand syrah,  in our temperate-climate viticulture.  These people argue that there is no point in us seeking to emulate the over-ripe boysenberry-styled alcoholic monster shirazes of Australia,  which that country with its hotter climate and abundance of old-vine syrah can do so much better than us.

Accordingly,  it is immediately relevant to us to see if the heat-wave summer of 2003 in Europe would produce syrah wines moving towards the weighty Australian style.  This would serve to legitimise the emphasis on sur-maturité which some of our growers are pursuing,  mistakenly in my view.  It is therefore immensely pleasing to find that from the so-far limited range available to us in New Zealand,  the best 2003 syrahs from the northern Rhone Valley are still floral and complex wines,  redolent of the charms of syrah the temperate-climate grape (in contrast to the wine styles associated with the synonym shiraz,  as made in warmer regions).  Thus,  even in a hot year in France,  these Rhone syrahs continue to reflect the fact that Hermitage is closer to Burgundy than to Chateauneuf du Pape,  and the wines show that,  sharing some of the floral,  aromatic and spicy magic of great pinot noir.

The reviews below include the background notes available to tasters,  to broaden the appraisal of the wines.  Where comments from mostly UK merchants are quoted,  to supplement Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate,  their interest in selling the wine should be factored in.  But their appraisal of the apparent wine style in 2003 is relevant to the debate above,  for they have been selling Rhone syrah for so much longer than we have been growing it.  

SYRAH

2003  J & V Alquier Faugeres La Maison Jaune Reserve
2003  Bodegas Castano Syrah
2003  Yann Chave Crozes-Hermitage Tete de Cuvee
2003  Yann Chave Hermitage
2003  Domaine du Colombier Crozes-Hermitage Cuvée Gaby
2003  Domaine du Colombier Crozes-Hermitage
2003  Domaine du Colombier Hermitage
  2003  Craggy Range Syrah Block 14
2003  Chateau Mourgues du Gres Terre d’Argence
2003  Chateau de la Negly la Falaise
2003  Domaine Gilles Robin Crozes-Hermitage Cuvée Alberic Bouvet
2003  Ch. La Roque Cupa Numismae Non-Filtre
2003  Saint Cosme Saint-Joseph
2003  Unison Syrah


2003  Yann Chave Hermitage   18 ½ +  ()
Northern Rhone Valley,  France:  14%;  $95   [ cork;  Maison Vauron;  Sy 100%;  14% of alcohol is historically very high for Hermitage.  Gauntley's of Nottingham is a UK  firm specialising in Rhone wines.  "Yann doesn't possess the 'power-houses' of Hermitage Hill – Bessards,  l'Hermite and Meal, but small holdings on the lighter-soiled vineyards of Diognieres and Beaumes. Whilst neither wine can ever achieve the immense power of, say, Sorrel's Greal or Jaboulet's La Chapelle (of old), their wines possess a poise, balance and an overwhelming purity in the top years.  Yann also tends to use more wood than Colombier, which makes for a lovely distinction between their wines.  His Hermitage is simply fantastic and is acknowledged by everyone except the journalists ... great success in 2003,  although there is very little to go around.  2003 Hermitage  £24.92:  Immense. Inky black in colour with a bouquet of wild herbs, spices, coffee and super-concentrated cassis. Explosive fruit on the palate, beautiful concentration of spices and blackcurrant fruits. Very ripe tannins, exotic and rich with tremendous length. Superb."  K&L Wine Merchants,  San Francisco,  consider that at $60US:  "This wine is truly black in color, with a nose of garrigue, spices and black currant liqueur. Make that black currant liqueur that's been condensed into the thickest, most concentrated creme de cassis you could imagine. Tannins are present, but due to the extreme heat of the vintage, they are ripe. And richness? You don't know richness until you've tasted this. Naturally, the wine needs time. But it will repay your patience." ]
Classical  ruby,  carmine and velvet of a big rich wine,  one of the deepest,  beautiful.  Bouquet is youthful and tight, initially,  not flaunting its charms.  With air it expands to benchmark syrah ripened to the point of perfection:  huge cassis,  carnations and violets florals dominate,  and other dark red berries and black peppercorn add complexity.   Likewise,  the palate initially seems a little austere,  but it opens to classical black berryrich fruit,  with all the aromatics and florals hinted at on bouquet playing out beautifully on the palate,  which is exquisitely oaked.  The New Zealand syrahs look very over-oaked and clumsy alongside this wine:  one would love all New Zealand's syrah producers to buy a case of this.  Cellar 10 – 25 years,  as definitive syrah.  GK 10/05

2003  Yann Chave Crozes-Hermitage Tete de Cuvee   18 ½  ()
Northern Rhone Valley,  France:  14%;  $38   [ cork;  Maison Vauron;  Sy 100%;   14%  of alcohol is extraordinary ripeness for Crozes.  Yann is the son of Bernard Chave,  and has taken over the winery totally as from 2002 vintage,  bringing a new and more modern approach to vineyard and winery practice – e.g. de-stemming.  They are based in Crozes-Hermitage.  Yann is nephew / cousin to father and son Gerard & Jean-Louis Chave,  who make arguably the definitive wine of Hermitage.  For Rhone wines,  Gauntley’s of Nottingham are one of the leading UK wine merchants.  Their comment on this wine is: “2003 Crozes Hermitage Tete de Cuvee £10.75:   Yann  has made an outstanding Crozes Hermitage. It possesses more elegance than the du Colombier, but is no less concentrated and deep … impenetrable colour and overwhelming bouquet of crushed fruits and spice with a touch of oak.  Absolutely delicious,  a real star.  Drink from 2006-12.  This top selection of Crozes could possibly be the finest in the appellation and recognition is long overdue.” ]
Ruby,  carmine and velvet,  nearly as deep as the Hermitage.  I think this is the best Crozes-Hermitage I have ever tasted,  almost indistinguishable on bouquet and flavour from the Hermitage proper.  The main difference is the bouquet is more open and forthcoming in its florals,  cassis and dark plum,  and the palate is a little softer.  Initially,  it seemed the better wine,  but with air the Hermitage inched ahead slightly on its aromatic depths,  and firmer acid balance,  all more cellarworthy.  This is a rich,  soft,  beautifully balanced syrah,  which will cellar 5 – 15 years.  GK 10/05

2003  Chateau Mourgues du Gres Terre d’Argence   18 ½  ()
Costieres de Nimes,  Languedoc,  France:  14.5%;  $26   [ cork;  Maison Vauron;  Sy dominant & Gr;  Costieres de Nimes is easternmost Languedoc,  and often bundled along with the ‘good address’ of the Rhone Valley (being just west of the river).  Gauntley’s report the winery is so well regarded,  the wines are allocated (which dispels some notions about the appellation !),  and report on this wine:  “£6.33  80% Syrah the rest Grenache. 10% of the 2003 was aged in barrique. Very intense, cherry/cassis, hint of toasty oak on nose. Gorgeous concentration, silky ripe tannins, black in colour with great depth of fruit flavours. Serious wine, lovely. 2007-2010.”   Parker 156:  “The opaque dark purple-tinged 2003 Costieres de Nimes Terre d’Argence reveals its Syrah component in both the aromatics and flavors. Opulent, rich,  full-bodied, moderately tannic, and impeccably well-balanced, it coats the palate.  2006 – 12   91”.;  www.mourguesdugres.com ]
Ruby,  carmine and velvet,  marginally the deepest of 14 wines.  This is another wine which initially opened,  is withdrawn and huddled up.  Nothing to object to,  but just a powerful wine needing air.  Decanted,  there is a big bouquet of cassis,  black pepper and other spices,  and a clear cedar component reminiscent of Grand-Puy-Lacoste at times.  Palate is rich and fine-grained but very firm and tannic,  the latter exacerbated by high alcohol.  The whole style of the wine is like a Chateauneuf-du-Pape with syrah dominant,  but the spice of grenache is undeniable.  This is exciting wine,  which as it stands,  grows on you.  It will well reward cellaring, 10 – 25 years.  GK 10/05

2003  Saint Cosme Saint-Joseph   18  ()
Northern Rhone Valley,  France:  13%;  $40   [ cork;  Wine Importer;  Sy 100%;  Parker 156:  … “wild aromatics … funky spices (pepper, allspice, and a hint of hash) jump from the glass of this dense ruby/purple-colored St.-Joseph. With airing, notes of licorice and sweet black currants … full-bodied, powerful, impressive red … 90–92” ]
Ruby,  carmine and velvet,  middling in weight.  Like nearly all Saint Cosme wines,  this is immediately floral and fragrant on bouquet,  but with an intriguing hint of spearmint amidst the herbes de Provence and carnations.  Behind the florals are crisp cassis berries,  and light new oak.  Palate is aromatic cassis,  not as rich as the Yann Chave pair,  but similarly illustrating the aromatic beauty of the syrah grape when not over-ripened.  No worries about 2003 being Australian-hot in the northern Rhone,  on this evidence.  Cellar 5 – 15 years.  GK 10/05

2003  Domaine Gilles Robin Crozes-Hermitage Cuvée Alberic Bouvet   18  ()
Northern Rhone Valley,  France:  13.5%;  $38   [ cork;  Maison Vauron;  Sy 100%;  Domaine Robin is sited well up the terraces,  close to the Hermitage hill,  on stony soils which are highly regarded within the Crozes appellation.  UK wine merchants Vinatis say:  “What a fine and elegant wine !  2003 is fascinating … this vintage is without doubt his best achievement.  Fine wood, ripe fruits, full-bodied, with aromas of leather, cinnamon and licorice, on a well-balanced and harmonious palate. Production is limited to 20 000 bottles, with organic growing and manual harvesting.  This is the best Crozes Hermitage 2003 we've ever tasted.” ]
Good ruby,  carmine and velvet,  in the middle for depth of colour.  This is a complex wine,  with a fragrant hint of farmyard / fresh rabbit guts (+ve,  just the fleeting concept) and an academic trace of brett adding interest to pure cassis,  dark plum,  black peppercorn and new leather.  There have been Gary Farr shirazes like this.  Palate is firmer and ‘drier’ than the Yann Chave Crozes- Hermitage,  with just a hint of stalks firming the cassisy berry.  Oak is restrained,  and older.  This is good Crozes,  which will cellar 10 – 20 years.  GK 10/05

2003  Domaine du Colombier Crozes-Hermitage Cuvée Gaby   17 ½ +  ()
Northern Rhone Valley,  France:  14%;  $43   [ cork;  Sy 100%;  Maison Vauron;  this wine is 100% oak-raised,  but only a small percentage new.  Gauntley’s again:  “Cuvee Gaby, £10.75   … an exquisite Crozes this year, it is almost too much of a good thing. Absolutely opaque, with an extraordinarily intense bouquet of cassis and leather. Super-concentrated with multi-layers of fruit. Lots of tannins but they are ripe and well rounded. Very rich indeed, almost Hermitage, with an amazing length.  Superb.” ]
Ruby,  carmine and velvet,  one of the deepest.  Initially opened,  bouquet is youthful and uncoordinated,  with very rich plummy fruit which is slightly porty,  and the oak aggressive.  Decanted and breathed,  opens out to a big cassisy and black peppercorn wine similar in weight to the Yann Chave Crozes-Hermitage,  but all are little more rustic,  with light brett.  Palate is rich,  dry and flavoursome,  like an older-style Cornas.  This will cellar well, and be great with food.  GK 10/05

2003  Chateau de la Negly la Falaise   17 ½  ()
La Clape,  western Languedoc,  France:  14.5%;  $34   [ cork;  Maison Vauron; limestone-rich soils;  according to the Oxford Wine Co (UK),  this is: “Soft, deep, spicy and complex wine. 50% Syrah, 40% Grenache and 10% Mourvedre, classic top-class Languedoc showing excellent complexity and rich fruit”. ]
Good ruby.  Any fears these Rhone 2003s would be hot and Australian in style are again dispelled by this very different wine in the set,  which clearly is a Chateauneuf-du-Pape blend.  There is a tremendous floral component suggesting carnations and Cote Rotie,  yet also a cinnamon fragrance as in fine grenache,  and a beautiful beeswax aroma,  making the whole bouquet wonderful.  Palate is not as impressive as the bouquet,  berry a little hard,  stalky,  spirity and short.  Fair to say,  not everybody liked this wine as much as I did.  It will soften out in cellar,  and become more interesting over 5 – 12 years.  GK 10/05

2003  Domaine du Colombier Hermitage   17 +  ()
Northern Rhone Valley,  France:  14.5%;  $115   [ cork;  Sy 100%;  Maison Vauron;  again,  these un-precedented alcohols,  for Hermitage.  4 acres of 60-year vines in the les Beaumes vineyard on Hermitage hill.  16 – 18 months in oak,  a small percentage new.  Gauntley’s:  £24.92   “Opaque in colour with amazing concentration, depth of fruit and balance.  Mind-bogglingly complex with hints of oak, spice, tar, cassis and liquorice.  Very ripe indeed but with sufficient structure and harmony.  This is serious great wine and will evolve over decades.” ]
Ruby,  carmine and velvet,  in the middle for colour.  A reluctant wine at first,  but decanting gradually reveals syrah in the slightly off-centre style some of the Chilean Montes syrahs have shown:  a crushed chrysanthemum character in darkly plummy berry.  The wine gradually opens up,  with some cassis,  and mainly older oak,  purer than the Gaby but not as interesting or rich.  Aftertaste is a little stalky and short.  Not the substance hoped for in a reputable Hermitage – the benefits of blind tasting !  Cellar 5 – 12 years.  GK 10/05

2003  Ch. La Roque Cupa Numismae Non-Filtre   17  ()
Languedoc,  France:  13.5%;  $36   [ cork;  Maison Vauron;  Sy 65%,  Mv 35;  16 months new oak.  Pic Saint Loup is in the Hérault department of the Languedoc,  north of Montpellier and west of Costieres de Nimes.  The 2000 vintage of this wine was rated 93,  the top Languedoc,  by Wine Spectator.  And 15th in their Top 100 wines of 2003.   No info on this latest vintage. ]
Ruby,  a pinot colour,  the lightest in this batch.  Right from the start this wine has a sweet and fragrant bouquet,  a little like some Australian and Hawkes Bay pinot noirs,  with a hint of strawberry / raspberry.  It develops in glass into a more Chateauneuf-du-Pape-styled wine than a northern Rhone,  and it is hard to see the dominance of syrah,  or the darker cassisy qualities of the grape.  So in a way,  this wine is quite Australian,  but unusually fragrant.  The late palate has attractive beeswax and cinnamon character,  as if there were grenache,  in quite lean but satisfying fruit.  An interesting winestyle,  which several tasters rated very highly.  Cellar 5 – 15 years.  GK 10/05

2003  Craggy Range Syrah Block 14   16 ½ +  ()
Gimblett Gravels,  Hawkes Bay,  New Zealand:  13.8%;  $30   [ cork;  Sy 100%;  this wine is rare – there being no 2003 le Sol,  it is Craggy’s top syrah statement for the year.  Very little was released onto the NZ market,  and it is long gone.  Fruit is hand-picked,  then sorting table,  de-stemmed,  then undergoes 8 – 10 days cold soak.  Winemaking includes wild yeast,  cool fermentation, and careful plunging of the skins to avoid excessive extraction.  Extended macerations are carried on for as long as possible,  resulting in a 20 to 30 day cuvaison.  Elevage in French oak,  35% new.  MLF in barrel.  Bottled unfined and unfiltered;  www.craggyrange.com ]
Ruby and velvet,  not as bright as the Unison.  VA on this wine is higher than the Unison,   again with aggressive oak,  so the two New Zealand wines look clumsy amongst the floral and fragrant sophisticated French ones.  2003 was seen as a cooler and more difficult year in Hawkes Bay (after the stunning 2002 vintage),  but neither of the New Zealand wines shows any lack of varietal ripeness.  Rather,  these wines reflect the worrying preoccupation of so many New Zealand winemakers to push the fruit beyond any reasonable,  complex,  or sophisticated temperate-climate ripeness level,  and instead to compete with Australian winestyles.  For reds,  this is total folly.  In New Zealand we have the subtlety of climate to compete with France in our red wines,  and for syrah to capture the precise floral varietal beauty and spicy complexity which characterises the best wines of the northern Rhone.  But exactly as with pinot noir,  this beauty is lost with over-ripening.  

These big over-ripe wine styles might win approval in the supermarket,  but they will not win us plaudits from discriminating sectors of the European world wine market,  to whom we wish to export.  So for me,  2003 Block 14 after a year in bottle is disappointing,  and my enthusiastic scoring for the newly-bottled wine (12/04) seems a little generous now.  But the wine could well just be in an awkward phase.  On the good side,  it is ripe and rich,  and like the 2003 Unison,  the fruit itself was good.  It may in some ways have been more aromatic and hence more complex than the bigger 2002 wine – i.e. better able to match France,  had it been made more conservatively.  As it stands,  it is soft,  full and flavoursome, and will be popular.  It is much softer than the Unison,  but like it,  if this bottle is representative,  it is less than could have been achieved in the vintage.  I look forward to checking another bottle in a couple of years.  Cellar 5 – 10 years.  GK 10/05

7/12/05:  Following advice from the winery as to unwarranted assumptions in my original text,  and given the flexibility electronic media offer for revision in the interests of accuracy,  the above review has been corrected in detail,  but not in its general thrust.  Some of these wines will be reported on again,  with heightened interest,  in years to come.  One goal of this website is to encourage the cellaring of wine,  to provide for exactly such future treats.  GK 10/05

2003  Unison Syrah   16 ½ +  ()
Gimblett Gravels,  Hawkes Bay,  New Zealand:  13.5%;  $39   [ cork;  Sy 100%;  the 2002 of this wine was excellent. ]
Ruby,  carmine and velvet,  one of the deeper.  Bouquet is aggressive on VA and oak,  below which is dark raisiny berry ripened beyond cassis to blackberry.  The raisiny component is odd,  and with the VA fume,  gives the newly-opened wine some of the characters of an old Lustau sherry.  Palate is more cassisy,  but the berry,  oak and alcohol are quite unknit and raw.  Total weight on palate is good,  and this wine will (I think) look a lot better when married-up at five years or so.  But the wine falls into a similar trap to that discussed for the Craggy Range one,   and has thus achieved so much less than the fruit presumably promised.  Cellar 5 – 15 years.  GK 10/05

2003  J & V Alquier Faugeres La Maison Jaune Reserve   16 ½  ()
Languedoc,  France:  14%;  $35   [ cork;  Syrah dominant with Mv and Gr;  Maison Vauron;  Faugeres is more in the eastern part of Languedoc,  and Domaine Alquier is perhaps the best-known vineyard in the appellation.  4000 cases from 11 ha indicates old vines,  low yields. ]
Ruby.  Initially opened,  this wine is tending reductive and modest.  Given splashy decanting,  attractive syrah florals of the carnations style appear,  but with a grassy edge,  so one also thinks of jonquils – less attractive.  Palate is cassisy,  leafy and slightly rustic,  pleasing berry but only medium weight.  One could easily confuse this wine with everyday Crozes-Hermitage,  for the blending varieties are near-invisible.  Cellar 5 – 8 years.  GK 10/05

2003  Bodegas Castano Syrah   16 +  ()
Yecla DdO,  Spain:  14%;  $18   [ cork;  Argosy Wines;  Sy 100%;  3 months in barrel ]
Ruby.  This is a fragrant but slightly stalky carnations and floral bouquet,  fresher than the Alquier,  but uncannily similar.  Palate is less plump than that wine,  the fruit cassisy but lean and stalky,  subtly oaked.  It is unequivocally syrah in the under-ripe Crozes-Hermitage style,  or over-cropped New Zealand.  The dividing line between charmingly floral Cote Rotie,  and stalky floral lesser wine,  is distressingly subtle.  This is a character syrah shares with pinot noir,  precisely.  Cellar 5 – 10 years,  to be  fragrant light QDR which will be very pleasant with food.  GK 10/05

2003  Domaine du Colombier Crozes-Hermitage   15  ()
Northern Rhone Valley,  France:  13.5%;  $32   [ cork;  Maison Vauron;  Sy 100%;  about one third of the wine spends some time in older oak;  Gauntley’s:  “His 2003 wines were remarkable. I have already stated that the yields in 2003 were very nearly half those in 2001, which has meant that the top wines in both Crozes-Hermitage and Hermitage are staggeringly concentrated – the du Colombier wines are no exception and confirm the now widely held view that 2003 may well be the finest ever vintage for these appellations.” ]
Ruby.  Initially opened,  this wine is clearly reductive,  and needs a splashy decanting.  It gradually breathes off to a modestly ripe version of syrah,  more red currants than black,  totally belying the alleged heatwave summer.  Palate is better,  simple red berries,  less complexity than the Castano syrah but more flesh,  soft and easy.  Scarcely worth cellaring,  though it will keep 3 – 6 years.  GK 10/05