For hardcore wine geeks, there is probably no region in the world that delivers as much pleasure but also as much frustration as the Northern Rhone valley of France. This hilly, picturesque area, which runs along both sides of the Rhone River beginning south of the city of Lyon, is where syrah is king – and the only red wine grape permitted in these parts. The major appellations here – Hermitage, Cornas, Cote-Rotie – are among the most venerated names in all of wine, but the traditional style of winemaking that brought the region fame is getting very hard to find in the Northern Rhone. Dense, oaky, ultra-modern wines have become the norm, to the chagrin of oenophiles who cherished those earthy, leathery old-school syrahs.
All is not entirely lost. There are still a few producers turning out such wines, among them the brothers Jean and Pierre Gonon of Domaine Pierre Gonon. The winery is named for their father and is located in the village of Mauves, in the Saint-Joseph appellation. The brothers took charge in 1989, and produce some of the earthiest, most seductive syrahs you will ever encounter. The keys to their success: steep, granite-rich vineyards, wbich they farm organically, and a hands-off approach in the cellar (natural fermentations, no new oak) that permits the great terroir to shine through. The 2010 Pierre Gonon Saint-Joseph ($43) has a classic mix of dark fruit, black olives, and violets, along with a strong mineral note and brisk, palate-cleansing acidity. It is a red that will instantly make you understand why so many grape nuts are smitten with classic Northern Rhone syrahs, and so frustrated by what has become of the Northern Rhone. (Note: Gonon also makes a terrific white St. Joseph, which is a blend of Marsanne and Roussanne.)
There's not a lot of Gonon around and it has attracted a cult-like following; while this is a tasting note for the 2010 vintage, look for any bottle you can find.