On the Northern Rhône scale of small to big, Saint-Joseph is big. Over 40 years ago, the appellation stretched like a rubber band, expanding from six towns to more than 20, covering some 40 miles along the left bank of the Rhône river.
For red wine production, it is second only to the bread basket of Crozes-Hermitage, and its size and variability has caused it to be ranked below more rarefied terroirs such as Côte-Rôtie and Hermitage. But as Northern Rhône lovers know, gross generalizations are dangerous: Saint-Joseph is capable of transcendent greatness (see: Raymond Trollat; Jean Gonon). As John Livingston-Learnmonth explains in his quintessential book, “The Wines of the Northern Rhône,” the best nuggets of Saint-Joseph are those with decomposed granite soils staked with old vines. These precious parcels tend to be toward the southern end of the appellation, surrounding the original towns of Mauves, Tournon, and Saint-Jean-de-Muzols. Nicolas Badel, meanwhile, found his pocket of granite in Limony, in Saint-Joseph’s most northerly reaches. Today’s 2014, from an old-vine parcel called “Les Mourrays,” has much more in common with great Côte-Rôtie—whose anchor town, Ampuis, is just 20 kilometers up the road—than it does with most Saint-Joseph. It is truly transcendent, especially in a well-balanced, “classic” vintage like 2014, when the hallmarks of Northern Rhône Syrah—pretty florals, wild-berry fruit, cured meat and delicate spice—shone through with perfect transparency. At the same time, this wine’s profound depth and savor hints a bit at its big-boy neighbors to the south (Cornas & Hermitage) as well. Transcendent, and affordable to boot—truly the best Saint-Joseph has to offer!
Part newcomer, part old soul, Badel comes from a family of farmers in the Northern Rhône. With a background in engineering, he realized that his destiny was not in a big city or in a laboratory with computers. He returned to school to study viticulture and worked in other people’s vineyards, before acquiring his own vines in Saint-Joseph and Condrieu in 1999. The best winemakers are ones of patience, a simple yet excruciating virtue that puts quality, over trendy popularity, into the bottle. Working organically since the beginning, Nicolas continued to sell his fruit to local cooperatives, until the time was right to confidently write his name on a bottle of wine. That time and vintage was 2010, a sort-of new beginning rooted in a decade of grit and anticipation. It took Badel even longer to separate out his two single vineyards, “Montrond” and “Les Mourrays.” Previously blended together, Badel admired the stylistic gap of the fresh and fruity Syrah made from the younger vines of Montrond versus the relentless and complex Syrah made from the older vines of Les Mourrays (he began bottling these sites separately in 2014). Les Mourrays is a certified organic vineyard, distinguished by its 50-year-old vines and its pebbly granitic soils overlooking the town of Limony. Badel has begun integrating biodynamic practices, a fitting progression from organics, uncovering the bare beauty of his Syrah, the no-filter glow of its berry fruits and warm, peppery earth tones.
Badel’s sustainable practices in the vineyard continue into the cellar, where he uses mostly neutral vessels, natural yeasts, and bare-bones sulfur. In 2014, he destemmed the Syrah and encouraged a longer fermentation, about 30 days, in cement, followed by 10 months of aging in three to five-year old Burgundy barrels. In a softer vintage like 2014, I’d choose a Burgundy glass and let all the bits and pieces of Syrah unfurl after a rough decant and a good 30 minutes of air. The wine is in a zone of purity right now, and 5-7 more years of bottle age will only improve an already impressive glass of wine. A purple-plum core shines into ruby on the rim. It has a natural radiance in the glass, hinting at the sheer gusto, the joie de vivre of Syrah, exuberant with cassis, deep red cherries, and inky plums. The profound earth component then kicks in and fills the glass with black olive, dusty violet, cured meat, rosy peppercorn, and black licorice. A simultaneous catch-and-throw of sweet earth and succulent fruits adhere to leathery tannins, which lock this wine into a pleasing, leisurely finish. It’s hard not to imagine puffs of smoke and grilled meat when tasting Syrah, and yes, this nearly full-bodied expression has the guts to stand up to just about anything you throw at it. Pick something with lots of aromatic herbs to complement the cacophony of scents jumping from the glass. This really is northern Rhône Syrah at its best. Enjoy!