From €10.90, £18.90, 24.90 Swiss francs, $36.52, HK$211.50.
Rarely have I laughed as much at a tasting as I did last week with Jacques Grange and Claire Darnaud-McKerrow of Delas, in the northern Rhône. It was the final appointment of a breakneck three-day tour of the region, which is perhaps enough to induce hysteria in anyone – but this was not the desperate laughter of exhaustion, nor was it the pie-eyed snorting of inebriation. Well perhaps just a little, by the end of dinner.
Between them, Jacques and Claire are responsible for the viticulture and vinification of the northern Rhône portfolio of Delas (under the same ownership as the champagne house Deutz). Tasting with them was very far removed from the solemnity and ritual that so often bogs down fine wine. Rather, it was joyous and light-hearted – surely, wine's true purpose. They set about their work with an enthusiasm, ease and good humour that was immediately apparent, and while it may be a step too far to fancy these characteristics are somehow manifested in the wine, there's no doubt that wines reflect their makers' dispositions.
Thus I found the Delas wines to be delightful company. They are extrovert but not tiresome, accessible but not simple, and above all very easy to like. The whole range was impressive, but I chose the St-Josephs in particular because this appellation strikes me as one which overdelivers on value, and can capture the essence of Northern Rhône Syrah as faithfully as any of its loftier cousins.
St-Joseph is a long, thin strip of vineyards abutting the left side of the Rhône river, seemingly unconstrained by terroir in the way that the other northern Rhône appellations are. It overlaps with Condrieu in the north, and continues all the way south, past Hermitage on the opposite bank, to Cornas – as illustrated by the pale green shading on the map below, taken from the seventh edition of the World Atlas of Wine.
It isn't a mongrel of an appellation, though. In fact, the topography looks very similar to the region's most prestigious crus: steep, stony vineyards that follow the contours of the river, while the soil is the same famed granite that forms the hill of Hermitage. The picture below shows a typical vineyard, opposite the town of Tain, with terraces of individually staked vines.
We tasted three cuvées from the 2012 vintage: Les Challeys, François de Tournon and Sainte-Épine. I scored them 17, 17+ and 17.5 respectively. They all share a wonderfully faithful expression of Syrah: a vivid purple colour, fragrant pepper spice, savoury black fruit and refreshing acidity, with the Sainte-Épine also benefiting from a well-integrated dollop of new-oak maturation.
They also have a comparative lightness of body when tasted against Hermitage or Cornas, for instance, which I find characteristic of the St-Joseph appellation. The tannic structure increases across the three wines, but always has that fine, digestible quality that characterises sensitive and thoughtful winemaking. Indeed, this is displayed across their whole range. As a result, this trio of wines are entirely drinkable now – although Les Challeys is more obviously crafted for immediate drinking, while for the other two, cellaring of up to ten years will doubtless reveal greater nuance and complexity.
Being 2012s, many of these wines are being sold in bond, but wine-searcher reveals stockists in more than 12 countries selling bottles via normal retail, with Les Challeys starting at €11 in France, and going up to €53 for the Sainte-Épine in Germany.