Winter is the season when most folks start craving Syrah—its dark, gamey, savory profile is the perfect match for things like braises and rack of lamb. Although great examples exist in the U.S., Australia and South Africa, nowhere does the grape achieve those savory qualities more than in its original home base: France’s northern Rhône Valley.
There, Syrah is almost single-handedly responsible for all of the red wine produced. Think appellations like Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, Côte-Rôtie, Cornas and Saint-Joseph. Those wines aren’t about jamminess. Fruit is an important part of the equation, but it plays a supporting role to things like smoky minerality, brisk acidity and flavors that run the gamut from olive to black pepper to tobacco. Just over a generation ago, northern Rhône reds were considered rustic and austere to many palates; yet others appreciated them for their levity and charm. Then, a so-called wave of "modern" wines entered the scene, giving the region what it needed to captivate an international audience: more weight, sleek black fruit, a touch of new oak. Both styles have their champions.
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The biggest names in classic and modern Syrah—Graillot, Jamet, Chave, Clape, Allemand, Guigal—will definitely run up an impressive tab. They also need years of bottle age for their tannins to melt away and their real appeal to show through. The good news is that we’re in the midst of another revolution, and the current wave of producers (I like to think of them as postmodern) has authored a range of styles that share a family resemblance with the classic wines in a retro sort of way: organically farmed grapes, eschewing new oak, stem inclusion, even foot-stomping in some instances. But they also share the same spirit of gulpability loved by those who drink Cru Beaujolais in the spring and fall.
Here, six bottles that will only get better with age but are so delicious now it’s hard to keep from pulling the corks today:
2013 Domaine Guillaume Gilles ‘Les Peyrouses’ Côtes-du-Rhône ($30)
Think of this wine from Robert Michel protégé Guillaume Gilles as a baby Cornas: more complex than its Côtes-du-Rhône classification might suggest—and more open than young Cornas usually taste when first poured. It has the concentration that you’d expect from its more-than-centenarian vines and the spicy, brambly character of whole-cluster Syrah.
2014 Domaine Vincent Paris ‘Les Côtes’ Saint-Joseph ($28)
From young-ish vines on granitic soil in Saint-Joseph, this cuvée from young-ish winemaker Vincent Paris is refreshingly lifted. All smoky-meaty and white peppery at first whiff, it opens up to a fruit purity that steers more red—think raspberries—than black.
2013 Dard & Ribo Crozes-Hermitage ($46)
There is so much immediate pleasure in every bottle from René-Jean Dard and François Ribo, which is what the duo set out to accomplish when they set up their additives-free winery in 1984 (pre-dating most of the "natural wines" we think of nowadays). Their red Crozes is as addictive as thick-cut bacon—and tastes a little like it too.
2014 Hervé Souhaut Ardèche Syrah ($35)
Souhaut worked under Dard & Ribo before setting out on his own, and his wines show a similar interplay between raciness and roundness to those of his mentors (and a similar low-intervention philosophy). This Syrah is as juicy as it is fragrant, so don’t get put off by the funny black cork.
2013 Franck Balthazar ‘Cuvée Casimir’ Cornas ($48)
The nephew of Rhône legend Noël Verset, Balthazar gave up a career in engineering in 2002 to take to the vine. He’s now churning out haunting, soulful wines like this one, which pairs the bright violet scent of young Syrah with the ruddy grip of old-school Cornas.
2013 Pierre Gonon Saint-Joseph ($52)
Perhaps the most refined of the bunch, this Syrah from the heart of the Saint-Joseph appellation is built for aging, but a hearty decant now will help its core of wild and floral-tinged fruit shine through. It’s layered, complex and ready for anything from duck to venison.