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Imagine driving up a narrow, winding round, your car struggling to go forward, not backwards, up what was surely a path not fit for man nor beast. You park, open the door, step out, and then, as if you are suddenly in a place where the laws of gravity have been enhanced to the ninth degree, every part of your body feels as if it is being sucked downwards. You reach out to grab onto anything in site–the car, your companion–that will anchor you to the ground. Finally, you give up, squat down on all fours, lean back, close your eyes, and take a deep breath. As you regain your senses, you realize that you are squatting in the middle of one of the most sought after vineyards in the world.

Côte-Rôtie (literally: roasted slope) lies at the extreme northerly point of the Rhône Valley wine region. The sunlight-grabbing, well drained slopes run for five miles alongside the Rhône river and allow Syrah to ripen in surprisingly cool conditions.

The otherwise dreary little town of Ampuis, on which the appellation is centered, is dominated by such steep terraced slopes that they look as if they are going to slide into the main road. To a large extent one producer, Guigal, transformed the fortunes of Côte-Rôtie with the introduction of single vineyard crus of Côte-Rôtie three decades ago.

There are actually two Côtes in this appellation. Côte Brune, in the northern sector has ferrous, heavier soil and produces stronger more tannic wines while the Côte Blonde in the southern sector has a lighter, granite soil and yields lighter, more elegant wines. However, these two zones are generally not designated on labels though they do explain the name of Guigal’s most inexpensive label, Côte Brune et Blonde.

In successful vintages, Côte-Rôtie produces Syrah wines in their most aromatic and intensely flavorful form. Producers widely use a dose (3-10 percent) of the white variety Viognier to enhance the perfume of Côte-Rôtie. At its best, Côte-Rôtie is the most stunningly aromatic wine of the Northern Rhône. It can be long-lived but if the tannins permit it, I often prefer to drink it young before it loses its inimitable fragrance and youthful character. (Wine/Appellations)