Until recently the red wines of Saint-Joseph, in France’s northern Rhône Valley, have been an insider’s secret, as it is mostly experienced enophiles who realize that they offer much of the character of the region’s most esteemed wines (Hermitage, Côte-Rôtie and Cornas) at relatively moderate prices. In fact, most of the top producers in those fancy appellations also own vineyards in Saint-Joseph, and in great vintages like 2009 and 2010 these wines can come tantalizingly close in quality to their more ritzy siblings.
The expression of syrah in the northern Rhône is considered by most cosmopolitan wine lovers to be the benchmark for the variety. The wines display vivid black and blue fruit, floral and spice character and a bright minerally quality that’s rarely produced by syrah elsewhere. As with all wine regions there’s no single style of Saint-Joseph, with some richer and more tannic than others and others leaner and tighter, but, generally speaking, the wines offer spicy, mineral-laced cherry and cassis qualities and notes of violet, cracked pepper and olive—in other words, textbook Old World syrah.
And the overall winemaking standard is almost universally high, unlike with Saint-Joseph’s cross-Rhône neighbor Crozes-Hermitage, where quality is maddeningly uneven. In fact, it has become pretty hard to find a truly bad Saint-Joseph, which greatly increases the consumer’s odds at the wine shop. While most Saint-Josephs are enjoyable soon after release, in serious vintages the best wines deserve at least three to five years of bottle age and can easily reward a decade or more of patience, assuming you have a consistently cool cellar.
Among the standout Saint-Josephs I tried for this year’s International Wine Cellar coverage of the Rhone Valley was the 2010 Domaine Faury Saint-Joseph Vieilles Vignes ($36, Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant), a Côte-Rôtie doppelganger that offers intense dark fruit, mineral and Asian spice aromas and flavors, with remarkable clarity and finishing power. One could easily spend two or even three times more for a lesser example of syrah. Also look for Faury’s 2010 Saint-Joseph ($30), a more plush and open-knit wine, but one with excellent depth of boysenberry and cherry flavors and supple, harmonious tannins.
I was impressed by the 2010s made by Cornas-based Domaine Courbis (importers include V.O.S. Selections and Adventures in Wine), which has emerged as one of the region’s top sources of fruit-driven wines that drink well on the young side. Their 2010 Saint-Joseph ($30) is a smoky, spicy wine that shows fresh black and blue fruit qualities, with a silky, elegant texture that makes it delicious now. While the old vines, single-vineyard 2010 Saint-Joseph Les Royes ($45) costs more, it’s still an excellent value compared to the Courbis family’s outstanding wines from Cornas, which can run to over $100 a bottle. It displays the power and dark fruit intensity of a Cornas, but has an almost shockingly supple character that allows it to be enjoyed long before those wines from Cornas should be broached.
One of France’s most renowned producers, Domaine J. L. Chave makes what is widely considered to be the best wine in the entire Rhône Valley, their highly allocated and extremely expensive Hermitage. A decade ago current winemaker Jean-Louis Chave embarked on a négociant program called Jean-Louis Chave Sélection (Willette Wines), which offers wines made from fruit and wine sourced from Chave’s neighbors as well as from the domain’s own vineyards. The 2010 Saint-Joseph Offerus ($35) displays the elegance and complexity for which Chave is known, with impressive depth of flavor as well as energy. At a price that’s almost 90% lower than the estate Hermitage, it’s one of the Rhône’s great values, and it’s also very consistent in quality across vintages.
E. Guigal (Vintus Wines) needs no introduction to Rhône wine lovers; in fact, a huge proportion of American wine freaks got their start with this region with a glass of a Guigal wine, such is their market reach. This is still a family-owned operation and current steward Philippe Guigal has made it a personal mission to increase the profile of Saint-Joseph, with excellent results. His 2009 Saint-Joseph ($30) shows the opulence and extroverted dark berry quality of the vintage but doesn’t come off as outsized or heavy. On the contrary, it shows an almost delicate quality thanks to bright minerality and a floral element. You can drink it now or stash it away for at least another decade with confidence.