Sweet wines from the Rhône

This week we continue our discussion of some of the 17 “crus” or elite regions in the beautiful Rhône Valley. For publication in the week starting 6 May 2019.

The Rhône River has served as a link between northern Europe and the Mediterranean Ocean for centuries. Roman soldiers sailed up the river from the Mediterranean in the fourth century before the birth of Jesus Christ.

This means the vineyards of the Rhône Valley are some of the oldest in the world. The wine hierarchy consists of 17 “crus” to signify the best sites and wines, such as Chateauneuf-du-Pape AOC or Lirac AOC, discussed last week.

Just below them are the 21 Côtes-du-Rhône Villages — areas with a distinct geographical name such as Chusculan or Laudun (the latter will be discussed in a later column).

All these Villages are in the Southern Rhône. They make red, white and rosé, though the bulk (96 per cent) are red. The quality is superior to generic Côtes-du-Rhône wines but said to be below the “cru”. Thus you have a pecking order, with various areas seeking to be classified into a better category. Laudun, for example, has applied to be a “cru”. About half of the 17 “crus” are in the Northern Rhône.

Pont d'Avignon.jpg

The famous Pont d’Avignon, noted in song. Floods washed part of the bridge away 300 years ago

Rasteau is a “cru” that makes sweet and dry wines. The sweet fortified wines are known as “vin doux naturel” or naturally sweet wines, and they are one of the few sweet wines in the valley.

They can be red, rosé or white, though not many of the last are made. Vines are believed to have been planted in Rasteau since 30 BC. The Rasteau AOC has been in place since 1944. Unfortified dry red wines were given AOC status effective from the 2009 vintage.

Grenache tends to be the main grape, in its black, grey and white versions, because it builds sugar content quickly. This grape gives wines aroma, structure and a generous “roundness” in the mouth.

Sweet wines used to represent a much larger proportion but are probably only about 2 per cent of the current total in Rasteau. As of the 2016 vintage, only 22 hectares were devoted to fortifieds, but they produced unique wines.

Fortified wines must reach at least 252 grams of sugar per litre in the must, which means close to 15 per cent of potential alcohol. In other words, the grapes need to be picked ripe. The wine is fortified by the addition of neutral alcohol, a process known as “mutage” (as in stopping fermentation to make the wines “mute”).

Sweet wines labelled “Hors d’âge” must be stored for five years before being sold. Wines marked “Rancio” must have been subjected to the oxidative treatment of that wine style. This is achieved by only filling the barrel half full so the wine reacts with oxygen.

A lovely example of the oxidative style is the 2017 Domaine des Coteaux des Travers “Labartalas”. This bio-dynamic estate ages Grenache Gris for 30 months in half-filled barrels. The wine has aromas of pears and pairs marvellously with local cheeses.

Domaine La Luminaille makes a delightful sweet 2017 Grenat from vines that are at least 90 years old. The “grenat” relates to the garnet colour of the wine. Both wines sell for the ridiculously low price of about 6.50 Euro, plus taxes. It is another bio-dynamic estate.

Another highlight was a 2004 Domaine Grand Nicolet Tuile. The “tuile” refers to a roof tile and indicates the colour of the wine. It tastes like a medium sherry but with profound length and flavours of dates and figs, and shows how well these wines age.

The village of Cairanne in the Southern Rhône was promoted to “cru” status as of February 2016. It is noted for its hot weather and fruity wines. Most of the wines are red, with 4 per cent whites. A feature of the region is the amount of underground water, which forces vine roots to burrow deeply to find nourishment.

Two of the most appealing whites were the 2017 Domaine Alary Clairette and the 2017 Domaine de l’Oratoire Saint Martin, a blend of 40 per cent Clairette with the balance Roussanne, Grenache Blanc and Marsanne.

Exciting reds tasted included the 2016 Domaine Les Chemins de Seve – 80 per cent Grenache with the balance Syrah – and the 2016 Domaine Richaud, which was 50 per cent Grenache with the rest Mourvédre, Syrah, Cinsault, Counoise and Carignan. The latter is another bio-dynamic estate that ferments its reds in concrete tanks.

Wines from the Costières de Nîmes AOC south-west of Avignon have been made for more than two millennia, making it one of the oldest vineyard regions in Europe.

Veterans of Julius Caesar’s campaigns in Egypt later settled in the area about 31 BC, which explains why bottles of Costières de Nîmes bear the symbol of the Roman settlement at Nîmes – a crocodile chained to a palm tree. According to a chart in the kitchen of the Palace of the Popes in Avignon, many of the towns were the main suppliers of wine to the Popes during the era known as the Avignon Papacy.

Reds account for about three in five bottles produced. It has one of the highest proportion of organic producers. A third of all exports go to China. It achieved AOC status in 1986 and was renamed Costières de Nîmes in 1989.

Vinsobres.gifVinsobres is the furthest north of the Southern Rhône “crus”. It has been a “cru” since 2006. Decanter writer Matt Walls describes wines from this area as “fresh” which he attributes to a combination of altitude, constant winds, grape varieties used and viticulture practices. Vines are grown at altitudes between 200 and 450 metres.

The Mistral blows from the north during the day and the Pontias blows from the Alps at night, ensuring plenty of breezes to keep vineyards free of insect pests as well as regulating temperatures as grapes ripen. Wines are mostly red, made from Syrah partnered with Grenache and Mourvédre.

“These are the polar opposite of ‘Parkerised’ wines,” Walls said. The term relates to cellaring reds made with ripe grapes in new oak to please the palate of a famous American wine judge, Robert Parker. Interestingly, red wines are allowed to have up to 20 per cent white grapes in the blend.

One of the most delicious reds tasted was the 2015 Chateau Montplasir Hauts Galets, whose vines were planted between 1955 and 1974. These vines were grown at up to 500 metres altitude, and the wine offers vibrant aromas of spicy red fruits.

Another delight was the harmonious 2016 Domaine Chaume-Arnaud red blend, made in concrete tanks. It received no oak and is from another bio-dynamic estate, certified since 2003. Their labels are shown in the photograph above.

Words: 1,081

Disclosure: Organisers of the Discover Rhône festival supplied hotel accommodation for three nights for Stephen Quinn plus two fine dinners. Quinn paid his own travel.

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