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For lovers of syrah, the Northern Rhone wines are the standard-bearers. Northern Rhone is made up of individual appellations including Côte Rôtie, Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, Cornas, and Saint-Joseph. These wines are famed for their high quality and for the dramatic change in character that takes place from youth to maturity. The conventional wisdom used to be that young Northern Rhone wines were tannic and intensely spicy, with aggressive tar and fresh ground-pepper aromas and flavors. As they aged, the traditional-style wines were said to have developed depth and richness and to have displayed underlying blackberry, currant, and smoke notes. But in recent years, the traditionalists have been overtaken by Northern Rhone producers who embrace a more modern and artesian style of winemaking. Tardieu Laurent and Albert Belle are worth watching when it comes to finding young Rhone wines that are friendly and approachable. The wines described here represent a cross-section of both recent and older vintages that can be found on local wine lists and shops. • 1999 J.M.B. Sorrel Hermitage Le Vignon‚ Vielles Vignes (Lot 1) ($49).A wonderful stewed-berry fruit nose, licorice, and cassis. The chewy, meaty flavors mingle with supple tannins and minerality and result in a pepper finish. Hermitage wines have the potential to age for 30 years, and 1999 was a very favorable vintage. • 1999 Michel Perraud Cornas Sarah ($26).Wines from Cornas have a reputation for being robust, virile, and masculine. Perraud believes in aging his wine in new oak barrels with a more lavish toast on the wood. Traditionalists deride this style of winemaking, claiming that the modern wines do not have a sense of terroir —region-specific characteristics or a “sense of the place.” Others disagree, saying that the terroiris more apparent as the wines age. A smoke bouquet and spicy blackberry and firm tannins evolve into a long peppery finish. • 1997 Albert Belle Hermitage Blanc ($38).White-wine enthusiasts shouldn’t miss an opportunity to try the flavorful white wines from Hermitage. Made from 75 percent Marsanne and 25 percent Roussanne grapes, this wine is elegant and complex with tantalizing aromas of crushed nuts, pear, honeysuckle, rich honey, and minerals. Medium-bodied, it’s richly textured with low acidity. Belle is a small producer who ferments half the wine in old vats and half in new wood and then ages the blend in new oak one year. This style produces a wine that has bright fruit suitably balanced with the wood. Only 200 cases of this wine are made and may be hard to find. (Imported by Robert Kacher Selections and available at Addy Bassin’s MacArthur Beverages.) • 1996 Domaine Albert & Philippe Belle Crozes Hermitage Les Pierrelles ($20).This wine is imported by Robert Kacher Selections, from a very reputable producer. Expect powerful earthy and spicy aromas and portabella mushroom and cassis flavors. While this wine is enjoyable and very drinkable with approachable tannins, generally speaking 1996 was an average vintage. • 1995 Tardieu Laurent Côte Rôtie les Dames Brunes ($50).Wines from winemaker Michel Tardieu benefit from 20- to 60-year-old vines. Black currants on the nose give way to smoke, bacon, and cassis and herbs on the finish. Note that other producers often include a small percentage of Viognier in the blend to add finesse to the bouquet and a velvety texture. Generally speaking, Côte Rôtie is best from five to 30 years after its release. The 1995 vintage ranks behind the 1999, 1998, and 1997 vintages. Dominick Laurent and Michel Tardieu are part of the new vanguard. They formed a partnership in 1994, so this is only their second vintage. They are very small boutique winemakers who buy fruit from the very best growers, and de-stem the grapes before pressing them so they can control the effect of the tannins and produce a lush, opulent wine. • 1991 Domaine de Gachon Pascal Perrier Saint-Joseph ($16).Wines from Saint-Joseph are intended to be consumed soon after their release. This wine was gathering dust on a shelf, but remains drinkable with an earthy nose, soft cassis fruit, and a silky finish. Elisabeth Frater is “Wine Counsel,” a wine law attorney based in Napa, Calif. Wine Counsel can be reached at [email protected].

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