John Hawkesby

John Hawkesby is a wine writer for Canvas Magazine.

A tale of two vineyards

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Terraces of vineyards in the French wine region of Cote Rotie in the northern Rhone Valley. Photo / Wikimedia Commons image posted by user Karen
Terraces of vineyards in the French wine region of Cote Rotie in the northern Rhone Valley. Photo / Wikimedia Commons image posted by user Karen

Syrah is the current darling of the New Zealand wine industry, with Hawkes Bay and Waiheke Island leading the charge. So it's fascinating to check out some of France's very best to see whether there are any similarities or surprises.

Two of France's top producers are Chave and Jamet, from the northern Rhone. The former is from the appellation known as Hermitage, the latter Cote Rotie (literally translated "the roasted hillside") where grapes grow on some of Europe's most precarious steep slopes - up to a 55-degree gradient in some spots. Viticulture goes back more then 2000 years here, yet by the late 1950s there were only 48ha planted. However, the world's growing interest in wine has seen a resurgence of plantings and today there are around 202ha, producing more than 80,000 cases of wine.

It's here that Jean-Paul and Jean-Luc Jamet have vines divided up into 26 different parcels, from which they produce wines that are opulent, rich, concentrated and powerful. It's a no-compromise approach to production, very low yields in the vineyard and traditional handling in the cellar.

The wines of Cote Rotie are regarded as more feminine than those of Hermitage.

At Hermitage the wines are often among the most majestically proportioned reds made anywhere in France. Huge and full-on, it is syrah on steroids, with tannins and extract to spare and requiring the best part of a decade to relax and begin to unwind. These are wines that can be cellared for years and you will be suitably rewarded for such patience.

The Chave family are regarded as the masters of Hermitage and deliver complex but well-balanced wines. They are based in a small village not far from Cornas, on the right bank of the Rhone. The heart of the operation, however, is across the river on the hill of Hermitage. Here Chave owns vines in nine of the 18 vineyards that cover the hill. Jean-Louis Chave, who is gradually taking over from his father, believes that the rich variety of terroirs to be found on the hill are vital in blending a wine which has all the features they're looking for - finesse, structure and complexity. Those plots that don't meet their high standards simply aren't used. This pursuit of excellence has paid off, with Chave wines being among the most revered in France and worldwide.

They're not cheap however, but it's an interesting exercise to compare Hawkes Bay with Hermitage.

Recommended

2008 Jamie Cote Rotie $110
A lovely balanced wine that is smooth, tending light and mellow with herby white pepper nuances underpinned by a ribbon of dark berry and liquorice flavours.

2010 Villa Maria Reserve Syrah $60
From Hawkes Bay's Gimblett Gravels, this is a multi-award winner. It's big and bold with upfront flavours of liquorice, pepper, graphite and wafting aromas of violets and cocoa. It is funky and flash but with lots of finesse.

- NZ Herald

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