Exploring Rhone Wines

We attended a two-parter Rhone tasting class with Bill recently, where we explored, in two sessions, Southern and Northern Rhone wines. We’ve had plenty of wines from Rhone before, but these were the most in-depth sessions yet, and we walked away with a much deeper appreciation of the differences between the two regions.

Southern Rhone Favorites
Cotes du Rhone and CDR Villages
2011 Tardieu-Laurent Cotes du Rhone Guy Louis
(60 Grenache, 35 Syrah, 5 Mourvedre)
All rounded wine. Gorgeous nose, mouth feel, just lovely all around

2011 Domaine Les Aphillanthes Rasteau 1921 $30
(90 Grenache, 7 Mourvedre, 3 Carignan)
Second favorite of the evening. Took me a while to get the nose, but what a beautiful mouth feel. Spiced wood, sweetish finish

2011 Domaine Santa Duc Gigondas Prestige des Hautes Garrigues $79
(75 Grenache, 20 Mourvedre, 5 Syrah)
OMG. Favorite of the evening, hands down. Awesome mouth feel, luscious, smooth, rounded.

Chateauneuf du Pape
2011 Perrin & Fils Chateauneuf du Pape Les Sinards $45
(70 Grenache, 15 Syrah, 15 Mourvedre)
What a nose! Strawberry, spice, seductive perfume!. Coconut oil??? Some strawberries. Silky.

Northern Rhone Favorites
Ack, my bad. I was down with a cold that evening, and may not have been fully aware of my faculties. As a result, I misplaced my notes, so will have to rely on Jeff’s. Happily, we have similar tastes.

2012 E. Guigal Condrieu $65
(100 Viognier)
I’m super partial to viognier. Who doesn’t love that beautiful bouquet of stone fruits – peaches, apricot, marmalade? Some granite in the nose. Nice acidity

2010 E. Guigal Cote Rotie Brune et Blonde de Guigal $80
(96 Syrah, 4 Viognier)
Delicious – of dark fruits, chocolate, and leather

2010 Domaine Colombier Hermitage $80
(100 Syrah, like most red Northern Rhone wines)
Of dark fruits, granite, smoke

2010 Paul Jaboulet Aine Hermitage La Chapelle $275-$325
Minty, with tannins. It’s lovely to drink, but at that price, we’d rather pick up a few more bottles of the Guigal or the Colombier!

Bill followed up the two classes with two articles in the Chicago Tribune:

Southern Rhone: A look at the best wine regions
Bill St John, October 29 2014
A two-part look at the Rhone Valley: This week, the south.

Rhone wines, 80 percent of which are red, have long been known for their strength and color. Their dramatic power is little equaled in French red wine.

Winemakers and vineyards have been in the Rhone Valley, from the town of Vienne 125 miles straight south to Avignon, for more than 2,000 years. Some believe that the ancient Romans denuded the river’s banks of forest, planting vineyards there, to remove hiding places for marauders along Rome’s key north-south Gallic artery.

At least 23 wine grape varieties now grow along the river’s banks, although you need note only six. For white wines, they are viognier, marsanne and roussanne; for reds, syrah, mourvedre and grenache.

One of the crowning achievements in French wine is the system of appellation d’origine controlee (AOC), which governs grape growing and wine production for the country. In the 1930s, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, one of the Rhone’s best-known appellations, gave rise to that system by being the first appellation in France to set up its own production rules.

The valley of the Rhone is of two parts: the north, small and celebrated, and the south, large and familiar. In this column, a look at the south; next week, a nod to the north.

The northern and southern Rhone have little in common except for the river that names them. Climate, aspect, soils, major grape varieties and market all differ. The south also produces rose and sweet wines, neither seen from the north in any significant quantity.

And, of the two areas, the south is the workhorse. Ninety percent of Rhone wines come from the southern districts of the Rhone Valley.

Though Cotes du Rhone is by far the most popular wine made in the southern Rhone, the undisputed king is Chateauneuf-du-Pape, a red wine made by blending from more than a dozen grape varieties (with grenache, mourvedre and syrah being the three used most often). The name dates from the 14th century, when Pope Clement V quit Rome and set up residence in his native France, at Avignon.

More wine comes from Chateauneuf’s 8,000 acres alone than the entire northern Rhone can produce. Three factors make it delicious: a basis of grenache, heady, in your face and juicy; some of the lowest grape yields in the French AOC system (one-half that of Bordeaux, for example); and the fact that winemakers forgo the wholesale use of new oak. What you get with Chateauneuf-du-Pape is fruit that mediates its soil and terroir.

The two appellations of Cotes du Rhone and Cotes du Rhone Villages are mammoth in both size and output, labeling bottles of a full 75 percent of all wines made in the entire valley.

Eighteen of the dozens of wine towns in the district are allowed to append their name to the Villages designation, as in Cotes du Rhone Villages Rasteau (which, along with Cairanne, Sablet, Seguret and Beaumes de Venise, make up the tastiest top five).

The two villages of Gigondas and Vacqueyras produce such outstanding examples of red wine that they shed the “Villages” designation in 1971 and 1990 respectively and are now labeled under their single names. Gigondas is weighted with grenache and Vacqueyras with syrah. They are the sturdiest, most robust examples of red wines from these grape varieties in the southern Rhone.

The appellation of Tavel means “rose wine” for most Americans, especially those who have vacationed in the south of France. By and large made of grenache, it is as dry as a lick on a stone, with intense berry flavors. It is, hands down, one of the better wines to wash down most Provencal cooking.

And while people hold the sturdy reds of Beaumes de Venise in high regard, they remember the village for its very aromatic, medium-sweet, fortified wines made from the muscat grape. In the town center, they sip it as an aperitif, not for dessert.

Recommended

Here are some recommended wines from the southern Rhone, with short notes.

2013 Chateau de Trinquevedel Tavel Cuvee Traditionelle Rose: Gorgeous copper-pink, heady with red fruits; spicy finish; $20

2013 Chateau Mont-Redon Chateauneuf-du-Pape Blanc: A rare white, aromatic of nasturtium; $43

2011 Tardieu-Laurent Cotes du Rhone Guy Louis: One-third syrah, which makes for deep, brooding color and character; $32

2010 Montirius Vacqueyras Le Clos: Round and robust but also very fresh and lively; note of licorice; $27

2011 Domaine Les Aphillanthes Rasteau 1921: Extremely ripe fruit, almost compote-like; hint of vanilla; warming; $30

2011 Domaine Catherine Le Goeuil, Cotes du Rhone Villages, Cairanne: Frais de bois-like fruit character; unctuous texture with leather note to finish; $23

2011 Domaine Santa Duc Gigondas Prestige des Hautes Garrigues: Fantastic grenache with 20 percent mourvedre for forthright aroma of dark cherry and earth; $79

2011 Perrin & Fils Chateauneuf-du-Pape Les Sinards: From younger vines; supple, soft, very perfumed; $45

2011 Tardieu-Laurent Chateauneuf-du-Pape Cuvee Speciale: All-grenache; an enormous wine — brawny and meaty — that carries its power gracefully; big but vivacious; $80

The Prestige of Northern Rhone
Bill St John, November 4 2014
A two-part look at the Rhone Valley: Part two, the north.

The Rhone is the second largest wine-producing region of France (after the Languedoc, its neighbor to the west). Eighty percent of its wine is red; 14 percent, pink; and 6, white.

The southern Rhone makes nine-tenths of all Rhone wine, the red rivers of especially the Cotes du Rhone and Chateauneuf-du-Pape appellations flowing from it into distant lands.

But it is the northern Rhone that is held in greater esteem, for from it come some of the more heralded — and rarer — wines on the planet, reds such as Hermitage and Cote Rotie and whites such as Condrieu and Hermitage again.

How can Hermitage be both a white wine and a red? Because there, as well as in many other appellations of the north, white grapes grow alongside red and are made into separate wines. In many cases, small amounts of white grapes are actually fermented with red, in a process of co-fermentation that makes for a more complex and color-steady red than would otherwise be the case using red grapes alone.

Syrah is the great red grape of the north; its color, aroma, fine tannin and ability to develop seductive, heady nuance with age make it one of the globe’s great grapes, too.

Syrah thrives on the vertiginously steep hillsides of the northern Rhone because there it can capture both the daytime’s sunbath, as well as the nighttime’s cool and exposure, two essential elements for both ripe fruit and a keen edge of acidity.

The major white grapes of the north are the low acid but powerfully scented marsanne; the high acid, elegant and fine roussanne; and the floral, strapping viognier.

Condrieu

Made entirely of viognier, the wee output of Condrieu (it covers only 500 acres) combines tastes of honey, ripe peaches or apricots, a scent of iris perhaps, and minerals. For all its weight, it finishes fresh with acidity.

2012 E. Guigal Condrieu: Quintessential Condrieu, notably pear-like; different fermentation methods increase complexity; enjoy with fish or foie gras. $65

Cote Rotie

The red wine made next to Condrieu, upriver a bit, Cote Rotie means “roasted hillside” for the way the intense sun beats on its 60-degree incline. The overall weather, however, is continental cool. This small appellation (also just 500 acres) makes reds only. Syrah rules here. Good Cote Rotie is ferociously delicious, marked with scents of white pepper, and ripe with earthy, fruit compote flavors.

2011 Maison Nicolas Perrin Cote Rotie: From the southern section of Cote Rotie called the Cote Blonde, hence emphasizing syrah’s finesse over its power; beautifully scented with minerals and dry earth and hints of cocoa and leather. $78

Hermitage

Perhaps the most famed red of the northern Rhone is Hermitage, named after . . . well, no one truly knows. An ancient hermit, perhaps, or a medieval crusader who built a chapel there still seen today.

Like Cote Rotie, it is nearly all syrah, from grapes grown on terraced, granite-rich soils sloping high over the Rhone River below. However, it is gamier than Cote Rotie, more leathery, even earthier.

Unlike Cote Rotie, Hermitage makes white wine, too, from marsanne and roussanne grapes. Like the red, it is full throttle and multilayered in flavor. Often tasting more like resin than fruit, it can be an acquired taste; but once acquired, unopposable.

2012 M. Chapoutier Hermitage Blanc Chante-Alouette: All marsanne and full of the aromas and flavors of ginger and almonds; delicious with mushrooms or even blue cheese. $100

2010 Domaine Du Colombier Hermitage: Solid but lively, with a mix of red and black aromas and tastes of cherry, tapenade, smoke, leather and bacon; amazing complexity to its finish and afterglow. $80

Crozes-Hermitage and St.-Joseph

The region of Crozes-Hermitage makes red and white wines in the same fashion as Hermitage. Likewise do the vineyards of St.-Joseph spread out across the river from Hermitage.

Though these two are less prestigious than Hermitage, they represent altogether excellent value in northern Rhone reds, increasingly so, as more and more producers adopt vineyard and winemaking practices that concentrate flavor.

2011 Paul Jaboulet Aine Domaine Mule Blanche Crozes Hermitage Blanc: A 50/50 blend of roussanne and marsanne, off old vines, makes for a white heady with perfumes of orange peel, honey and roast almond. $42

St.-Peray and Cornas

The districts of St. Peray and Cornas end the northern Rhone at its southern tip. All-Syrah, the best Cornas comes from (again) perilously steep hillside vineyards that sit full-face to the sun.

The wine can be intensely blackstrap and leathery, just this side of opaque, with the telltale aroma and taste that marks many a syrah-based northern Rhone: that of white pepper.

Cornas almost always benefits from aging (7-10 years).

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