The Rhone Valley in southern France is the second largest region of production after Bordeaux and makes some spectacular wines. The 2011 vintage was especially good.
Exports have soared in recent years, with a 9.3 per cent rise in volume last year globally. About three in 10 bottles made are exported.
The export growth in the Asian region was extra strong, with a 40 per cent surge last year. The Rhone exports to 145 countries around the world.
Red wine is the main product, with 86 per cent of the total, plus another 9 per cent for rose.
Mild temperatures in September prior to harvest meant the 2011 vintage was exceptional. Emilie Desmeure-Mandon of Domaine des Remizieres said that year’s wines have good maturity and perfect balance with “great finesse”.
Nicolas Constantin, wine maker for Inter Rhone and author of Cotes du Rhone Meridionales, said the finesse of the tannins in 2011 were displayed via the remarkable character of the syrah (the main grape of the region). “The 2011 vintage already offers beautiful quality with freshness and excellent acidity.”
And Philippe Guigal, winemaker for Maison Guigal, said the vintage was marked by “beautiful balance” and excellent fruit flavours and dense colours for the reds.
Wine-making started in the valley of the Rhone river about 2,000 years ago and was further developed during the Roman occupation of France.
In 1737 the king of France ordered that the base of barrels of wine from the Cotes du Rhone had to be branded with the letters “CDR”, along with the vintage and the place of harvest. That tradition continues.
The Rhone can roughly be divided into the north and the south. The north has granite soils and features iconic names like Cotes Rotie (literally the “roasted slopes” because of the high heat in the area), Crozes-Hermitage and Hermitage.
Syrah is the main red grape. Marsanne, roussanne and viognier are the principal white grapes. Incidentally, hermitage was another name for syrah in Australia for many year.
The grape’s name allegedly comes from a knight who became a hermit after his return from the Crusades in 1225. Legend says he planted grapes on the hill that became known as the town of Hermitage.
The south has mostly chalky soils and grows grenache, mouvedre and cinsault as well as syrah. Iconic names there include Gigondas and Chateauneuf-du-Pape. The latter, whose name echoes the Papal connection in the region, can contain up to 13 grape varieties and produces extraordinary wines.
The two cases of 1998 Chateau de Beaucastel I purchased last year, while still young, are drinking superbly. It is like smelling and tasting ripe plums laced with liquorice and herbs like rosemary and lavender. One can almost taste the sunshine that kisses the grapes as they ripen.
Many Cotes du Rhone reds from the AOC denomination are a blend of the main red grapes. A typical Rhone-style red in Australia or the United States will be called a GSM, short for the blend of grenache-syrah-mouvedre. AOC is from the French system of classifying wines, and AOC are at the higher end in terms of quality.
Ironically, the lesser quality or Villages wines must follow stricter rules of production. Whereas an AOC wine can have a wide variety of combinations of grapes (provided they are all Rhone varieties), a Villages wine must be made from 97 per cent syrah with a touch of grenache, mouvedre and cinsault.
The noted American wine critic Robert Parker has described Villages CDR as “straightforward but generous and pleasant”.
Of the 2011 wines I tasted I was taken by the La Regence by Marlene and Nicolas Chevalier, an AOC from Crozes-Hermitage. It is 100 per cent syrah that smells of ripe blackberries and violets, and tastes of spices like nutmeg. It is a bit like having a liquid breakfast of toast and coffee.
Some Rhone wines can be cellared for half a century. Older Rhones make ideal drinking over Chinese New Year.
* Published on February 7. Find a link here.