Syrah From France's Rhone Valley 

One from the north and two from the south

France's Rhone Valley is home to some of the world's finest syrah--especially in the north, where that grape rules. So I was disappointed a few weeks back when no one submitted a French wine for our syrah tasting. This time around, I put in a request for northern Rhones, but it turns out that most local distributors don't carry them because they tend to be rather expensive. With this tasting, we expanded the parameters a bit and the winning lineup includes one from the north and two from the south.

2009 Olivier Dumaine Crozes-Hermitage la Croix du Verre, $29

This syrah is from one of the most affordable regions of the northern Rhone. While dark berry fruit dominates the nose, it's backed by characteristic nuances of game, earth, tobacco and leather. It is a well-balanced wine with smooth, ripe berry flavors that play against crisp, food-friendly acidity. Ripe supple tannins come through on the wine's long finish.

2011 Chateau de Saint Cosme Cotes du Rhone, $14.99

This wine comes from one of the top producers in the region—Saint Cosme's 2010 gigondas ranked No. 2 in the current Wine Spectator Top 100. Southern Rhones like this are typically grenache-dominant blends, but this one is 100 percent syrah. The aromas are a heady mix of crushed blueberries, fresh ground espresso, green tea, smoke and mint. With time in the glass, this wine opens up to reveal bright red fruit flavors with touches of licorice, mocha and leather that linger nicely.

2009 Tardieu-Laurent Cotes du Rhone Villages, Les Becs Fins, $22

As the other entry from the southern Rhone, this wine is a blend that's 60 percent syrah with the remainder grenache. Not surprisingly, that percentage of grenache helps make this the most fruit-forward and user-friendly of the trio. Cherry and raspberry jam on the nose segue into ripe cherry and berry on the palate. This is a delicious choice for current consumption.

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