Saint-Joseph is the second largest appellation in the Northern Rhône with 1,321 hectares under vine stretched along a 48 kilometre band on the west bank of the river between Chavanay and Guilherand. Many Rhône enthusiasts aver that it is also the most variable so buying with care and caution is advised. Red wine accounts for 88% of production and is made almost exclusively from Syrah although a small proportion of white grapes can theoretically be added. Marsanne and Roussanne are the permitted grapes for making white wine and they are traditionally blended together. The best wines can be excellent, and great value, so it is worth persevering here.
The doyen of Hermitage, Jean-Louis Chave, is a dogged champion of Saint-Joseph with extensive vine holdings in the appellation. He also produces some excellent négociant wines under his 'J-L Chave Sélection' label. One such is his white 'Circa' that is made from a blend of 80% Marsanne and 20% Roussanne. It has subtle almond and acacia scents and a smoothly-textured stone fruit palate. A more prolific red sibling called 'Offerus' is a fine introduction to the Chave oeuvre with a violet and raspberry bouquet and poised red fruit palate with a fresh acidity and supple tannins.
The Chave family's 'Domaine' bottling of Saint-Joseph, from their own vines in the historical heartlands around Mauves and Tournon, does not have the complexity or longevity of their Hermitage but represents good value for a first rate Northern Rhône Syrah. It is steeped in ripe red and black fruit flavours underscored by cooling granitic notes and licks of black pepper. It is best enjoyed on its youthful fruit or with (at least) 5 years bottle age.
The acclaimed 'Domaine Georges Vernay' in Condrieu is another excellent source of top Saint-Joseph. Their 'Terre d'Encre' bottling from the north of the appellation at Chavanay has a deep garnet robe, alluring cassis and Morello cherry scents and a sleek dark fruit palate supported by fondant tannins.
Completing our roll call of renowned wine makers is Alain Graillot who, with assistance of sons Maxime and Antoine, makes a fine, forward-drinking red 'Saint Jo-', from two parcels of vines at Saint Désirat and Saint Jean de Muzols. With a core of ripe hedgerow fruit, a fresh acidity and fine-grained tannins it is very reasonably priced and bien typique.