In the face of astronomic price hikes in Bordeaux over the past few years, and with prices also rising in Burgundy, smart consumers seeking French wine should be looking to the Rhône region. Like Bordeaux it makes a small amount of great white wine, but very much concentrates on reds.
How does one get to get to grips with the Rhône? It is broken into two distinct sub-regions, the Northern and Southern. Each has its own identity. The north, with its mild summers and harsh winters, starts with the sharp inclines of the Cote Rotie where only syrah and a little viognier are grown.
It is not all that far from Burgundy. Top wines from the northern tip of the Rhone reflect the elegance of Burgundy.
The larger Southern Rhône is a wide valley that straddles the river. It has a more Mediterranean climate. Following the river, we move south to a village called Chateauneuf-du-Pape on a hill high above the city of Avignon and its famous bridge. At this point we’re very much in southern France and on the border of Provence – a region perhaps best known as a holiday destination but also a prolific wine producer.
Can the Rhône really be classified as a single entity? Certainly some of the big, long-standing family names such as Chapoutier, Giugal, Perrin and Delas now own vineyards in both “sides”. And it is striking that across the whole Rhône there is a continued commitment to terroir and tradition. A “family spirit” prevails in the sense that no one hears much of consultants being hired to work here, and most properties remain, if not family owned, at least independent.
The two sides are in fact joined by the generic regional appellation of Cotes du Rhône, which in general features the less ambitious wines of both north and south. But the wines can still be very attractive, even if of “drink now” status. Domaine de Grands Cotes du Rhône Villages Devers 2011 is a perfumed wine with juicy red berries and perfectly balanced tannins. Such a wine could be served slightly chilled with barbecued meats.
The most illustrious Rhône names have generally been from the north. Cote-Rotie and Hermitage for dark, long-lived syrah and, for white wine, Condrieu, made with viognier. Some of the labels from these tiny regions (of which Chateau Grillet, a monopole, is the smallest) can attract the investment dollar. The remarkable trio of LaLaLa wines from Guigal particularly come to mind here.
The better value can be found in the northern regions of Crozes-Hermitage, Saint Joseph and Cornas. A breed of young wine makers here are retracing tradition, emphasising terroir over, say, the super-extraction which had become rather popular. There’s always someone new to follow, and some recently released classy wines to try.
Rising star Yves Cuilleron, best known for his wonderful work with viognier, has even been part of an initiative to re-instate a long-forgotten and abandoned vineyard – Sessuel. Producers such as Chapoutier have followed him in buying vineyards there.
One name has historically stood out in the south: Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Producers such as Beaucastel, Clos des Papes, Rayes and Vieux Telegraphe trip off the tongue. Famously, these high alcohol and fruity red wines are a blend of 13 grapes including a number of white varieties, though few producers bother with that amount of work any more, tending instead to concentrate on GSM – the grenache-syrah-mourvedre blend which is increasingly finding success in Australia.
Indeed, one of the Perrin family memorably commented on how the fruity and high alcohol wines of New World producers like Australia had helped to bring Chateauneuf-du-Pape back into fashion. And now those same producers are copying this Old World wine! La Fogotiere 2010 is a lovely example of how wonderfully textured this wine can be – soft and silky but still showing potent tannins. Sour plum and mixed berry fruit flavours are followed by a lovely spiciness. Chateauneuf-du-Pape produces premium product, but is remarkably approachable as well, and offers quite good value for money at the high-end.
Some of the best value reds in the more southern parts of the region are from the “cru” villages like Gigondas and Vacqueyras, of which Gigondas is probably the best known and most established. Vacqueyras was only upgraded to AOC status in 1990, and is still off many people’s radars. While it produces wines with a slightly more rustic character than Gigondas, they can still age for up to a decade. Montirius Vacqueyras 2011 is in the style typical of this region: rich with earthy and herby notes, and a breadth of fruit quite unlike that of Bordeaux.
Disclosure: Wines reviewed in this column came from 3D Wines Experience in Lincolnshire.
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