Serine: The Pre-War Syrah

By Josh Raynolds

The cutting edge of winemaking around the world increasingly means the unlearning of modern, industrial, post World War II-era farming, where quantity almost invariably trumped quality, not to mention tradition. In France's northern Rhône Valley the current buzz centers on sérine, the local vine that gave its DNA for the modern-day clones of syrah.

Grape-growers have two options when it comes to planting vines: They can go to the government-controlled nursery and buy approved, usually disease-resistant and highly productive clones. Or they can take cuttings from their own or a colleague's vines and replant them, a method known as massal selection, which has the added benefit of sustaining vine diversity.

Today, no "syrah" cuttings are more prized by aficionados of the variety than sérine, which has proven to be a cross of two old French grapes, the red dureza of the Ardèche and mondeuse blanc, from Savoie. One whiff of a sérine-based wine explains the allure: It's like syrah, cubed. More pepper, more spice, more floral character and greater mineral expression. The modern clones on which most of the world's syrah producers rely, which bear romantic names like 99, 100 and 747, were created beginning in the 1970s with higher yields and disease resistance in mind; wine quality was an afterthought. Sérine fell out of favor, to the point that it was nearing extinction less than a generation ago. It has a tendency to low yields, and its tight clusters make it susceptible to oidium, mildew and rot, all factors that conspired to seal its fate among expedient growers who sought larger crop levels with the new clones. But there were a few holdouts, notably Marius Gentaz, at Côte Rôtie, Raymond Trollat in St-Joseph and Noël Verset, in Cornas. By the mid-1990s they were among the few producers still making wines that long-time Rhône lovers craved, which drew the attention of the next generation, many of whom have taken their wines as models for their own.

Southern Rhône-based négociant Tardieu-Laurent produces wines from each of the major northern Rhône appellations and sérine is the dominant or exclusive variety for all of the red wines.

Lionel Faury (right)uses cuttings from his 1937 sérine vines in St-Joseph for the replanting of all his red grape vineyards. Below, sérine grapes.

"It's simple," Michel Tardieu says, "sérine is the grape of the region and if you want to see the true expression of Côte-Rôtie or Cornas, for example, experiencing it through a clone won't happen." The big difference between a clone-derived wine and one made from sérine is perfume, he thinks. "Put them side by side and it's like they're from two different grapes—which they are, of course—with the clone version more fruity, more straightforward and simple while the sérine is more exotic, more floral, more expressive. There's really no comparison."

Tardieu's sentiment is shared by Agnes Levet, of Famille Levet in Côte-Rôtie. Levet might be forgiven for her wariness of clones simply for the fact that her family has never worked with them, ever. The Levet vineyards are planted entirely to their own cuttings, whose roots, literally and figuratively, lie in the original plantings of Levet's grandfather, Marius Chambeyron, from the early 1940s.

Those pre-clone plantings have been propagated across all of the family's sites now, but for a real lesson in sérine one really needs to check out their Chavaroche bottling, which comes from the original vineyard planted by Grandpa Chambeyron. It's not a wine for everyone, in the way that dry-aged steak and affinée cheeses are often an acquired taste, but for many it's a Technicolor rendition of Côte-Rôtie, with intense, smoke- and mineral-accented dark fruit and floral character as well as suggestions of cured meat, olive and exotic Indian spices. It also ages beautifully, as recent bottles of 1983, 1985, 1988 and 1989 have proven. Even examples from weak vintages like 1986 and 1987 are still delightful, which is thanks to sérine's natural acidity and tannins, says Levet.

Head down the river to Chavanay for a visit with the 30s-ish Lionel Faury, who has been in charge of his family's winery since 2006. His St-Joseph Vieilles Vignes, from sérine vines planted as far back as 1937, is a master class in the grape, with heady, smoke-tinged violet and cassis aromas, potent spiciness and vibrant mineral character. Faury uses cuttings from this old-vine site for the replanting of all his syrah vineyards now and it shows: Even his basic Collines Rhodanienes Syrah, from vines planted outside the St-Joseph boundary, shows the influence of sérine vividly.

The list of producers whose wines lean heavily or exclusively on sérine reads like an All-Star lineup from the northern Rhône, including the Gonon brothers (who tend Trollat's old vines), Jean-Louis Chave, Olivier Clape, Franck Balthazar (who, along with Clape, now owns Verset's vines), and Thierry Allemand. Louis Barruol, one of the southern Rhône's best winemakers, buys only sérine-derived northern Rhône wines for his Saint-Cosme négociant project and, like Tardieu, can become quite animated on the subject. "As grenache is the soul of Gigondas and Châteauneuf, sérine is the soul of the north. Luckily this is now recognized and we're seeing more great wines as a result."

This article first appeared in Wine & Spirits, February 2014.