While Côtes du Rhône is the largest and best-known appellation in France’s vast Rhône Valley, producing and shipping container loads of reliable and relatively affordable red, white, and rosé wines, it’s worth getting to know some of the region’s smaller appellations, especially those in the north.
One of them is Saint-Joseph, which, like other villages in the northern Rhône, produces distinctive red wines made from Syrah, the main variety in this part of the Rhône, in contrast to the Grenache-based wines of the region’s south.
While Saint-Joseph, with its mainly granite soils, is a little larger than its more famous neighbors like tiny Côte Rôtie, Condrieu, Cornas, and Hermitage, its vineyards still cover under five square miles, or less than a quarter of the size of Manhattan. Napa, by contrast, has about 70 square miles of vineyards.
All of which is to say that Saint-Joseph provides something of a middle ground — wines of character with small production, but enough output to offer at least some availability, and prices that are somewhat lower than wines from the most storied appellations.
I was reminded of Saint-Joseph and its place in the Rhône hierarchy the other day as I tasted a sample bottle of E. Guigal’s Saint-Joseph 2015. Guigal, of course, is a Rhône Valley mega-producer; its inexpensive Côtes du Rhônes are everywhere and are almost synonymous with that appellation.
The $35 Saint-Joseph, on the other hand, represents a different level of Guigal wines. Its individuality shows the moment you breathe it in, with a peppery note that accents the dark-berry fruit and herbal aromas. Tastes suggest tart blackberry, cassis, and fig, along with graphite, smoke, and black licorice on the long finish. Restrained oak and ample acidity complete a picture of lean elegance.
Saint-Joseph can be drunk a bit younger than some of its northern Rhône counterparts, and while the 2015 Guigal was impressive now, it will evolve for several years. I wouldn’t hesitate to buy earlier vintages, which I noticed are still offered in some stores.
As for food pairings, this one has grilled steak written all over it, which is exactly what I enjoyed it with the other night (along with the first sweet local corn of the season). Delicious simple food and memorable, terroir-driven wines like this one — the combination doesn’t get much better.