Some Thoughts on Rhone Wines

Some Thoughts on Rhone Wines

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This column was inspired by a request for information on Rhone wines during one of our monthly Bonjour Paris wine chats. I turned to an expert, my friend and colleague Alan J. Payne, who served as British Consul General at Lyon during my stay in Bordeaux. We also wanted to know what rich Rhone wines might pair well with boeuf bourguinon and venison.

What follows are Alan’s own thoughts, which I find valuable not only for the wine lore and personal appreciation of the region, but also for the tour of the area that his insights provide. I have added in parenthesis to his comments the prices of some of the wines that he mentions, which are now available in Washington area retail wine stores. His comments follow. What follows is, of course, an intensely personal response to the marvelous wines of this region. But is there any other way to approach a subject where personal taste counts for so much?

I define the region as beginning in the North at Condrieu and Vienne, where the Rhone is approaching its narrowest and the hills of the Vercors to the East and Viverais foothills of the Massif to the West press the river valley into a steep defile. The vineyards of the Cote Rotie and Condrieu are brutally abrupt, difficult to work, and of no great extent. Chateau Grillet, supposedly the finest of the Condrieu white Viognier wines is produced from only two and a half hectares of vineyard. It has the reputation of being one of the most expensive wines in all France! I doubt if it has any real claim to being the best.

The Condrieu white wines are of sufficient quality to make the expense of Grillet quite unnecessary, as Condrieu wines are very affordable. Fresh and crisp, the best of them has a bouquet of perfumed flowers and should be drunk within three years. Aromatic and with a taste of peaches, Condrieu is a marvelous accompaniment to seafood and is our favorite choice for lobster. We prefer to buy from Georges Vernay at Condrieu itself, who has had a huge influence in the development of the international market for wines of the Cote. Now succeeded by his son-in-law, Vernay will surely retain an active interest in the business. (Condrieu, “Chailles” Vernay 1998, $34.99; note for comparison Jaffurs 1999 at $17.99, a well regarded California Viognier varietal).

Alongside the Viognier vines grow the Syrah, which is used to make the Cote Rotie reds, with an admixture of up to 20% of the Viognier white fruit, which helps to give the wine its subtle character. There are only 100 hectares of vines, which endure the frosts of winter and 90 degree sun in summer. The vineyards are the steepest on the Rhone and the soil is stony and hard to work. But the wine is splendid and lacks altogether the rougher quality of the sun-drenched wines of the lower Rhone Valley. Georges Vernay at Condrieu sells an excellent example. We regard this wine as the perfect companion for almost any steak dish, though we would probably not choose it for a fully flavored boeuf bourguinon. (Cote Rotie “Maison Rouge” Georges Vernay 1997, $26.99).

Further South lie the steep hillsides above Tain l’Hemitage, where grow the Syrah wines used to produce the Hermitage, Crozes Hermitage and at the southernmost point of this part of the Rhone Valley, St. Joseph wines. This is a noble mini region, with a prodigious and well deserved reputation for reds that will keep and repay the investment of the connoisseur. The high tannin content of these wines makes them rather harsh on the palate until they are at least five years old. The best of the Hermitage wines will fulfill their potential only after twenty years of maturing and they can be astonishing, capable of comparison with the very best of Burgundies. Gerard Jaboulet and Max Chapoutier are in my view the best of the local producers. Both houses also produce excellent St. Joseph red wine, which the locals allege is less forceful than Hermitage. But that is no reason to consider St. Joseph second class – it can have all of the subtlety and complexity of its better known brothers and is a delightful accompaniment to any red meat other than game. (Saint Joseph Chapoutier 1997, $17.99; Crozes Hermitage “Meysonniers” Chapoutier 1997, $16.99; Hermitage Domaine Colombier 1998, $39.99).

Continuing to the South, on the right bank of the Rhone, lie the Cornas vineyards – not nearly as well known as they deserve to be. These wines, from a tiny acreage of 67 hectares, are from the Syrah stock and have real body. They are full of sunshine and are robust wines, perfect for outdoor summer drinking. They will also keep and develop strongly the blackberry flavor of so many of the Rhone reds. We used to get wine from Jean Shave of the village of Mauves but he has long since handed production over to his son, and I have not yet tried the wines which the younger Shave (also Jean) is producing. (Cornas Chapoutier 1997, $26.99; Cornas 1998 Domaine du Tunnel, $26.99).

Where the Rhone Valley widens out below Bollene the plain to the East is home to what I think are the best of the produces of the typical Cotes du Rhone and Cotes du Rhone Villages, again Syrah varieties. We used to call this area the golden triangle – there are so many very good producers at the 17 villages that have the right to the appellation. Our favorites were Tulette, Cairanne, Ste Cecile des Vignes, St Maurice sur Eygues, Vinsobres, St Panthaleon and Suze la Rousse, where the University of Wine now has its campus. These wines remain a marvelous value for the money, full, fruity and generous, and reasonably priced. I would recommend the 1998 and 1999 vintages, especially from the cooperative producers of St Maurice, and the Cave de Rasteau, Les Payrieres. We also last autumn discovered Jean Luis Bouchard and his brother, who have just taken over the Grand Devers Domaine near Valreas. They are already producing a very good example of the Cotes du Rhone Villages, which can only get even better. (Cotes du Rhone “Belleruche” Chapoutier 1998, $7.99; Cotes du Rhone “Valreas” Domaine Deydiere 1999, $10.69).

These days, there are more and more areas of special note within this region, each producing excellent appellation wines. The Gigondas is perhaps the best known, for its rustic but great hearted reds which go so well with barbecued spare ribs! Others are wines of the Ventoux from Syrah wines grown on the lower slopes of the highest mountain in the region. the so called Geant de Provence and the Vacqueyras, from the northern part of the plain of the Cotes du Rhone. (Gigondas Domaine Raspail-Ay 1998, $17.99).

The white wines of the region are to my mind disappointing, having nothing of the class of the Montrachets and Macon wines to the North of Lyon. Nor do they compare with the whites of the Rhone Valley at Tain and certainly not at Condrieu. But the rose wine of Tavel is becoming ever better known. The trouble is that, like its rose cousin from the Coteaux de Pierrevert further East, it does not age well. I have always enjoyed these wines best when drunk young, on a warm sunny day in the region itself.

What would I chose to accompany a boeuf bourguinon? I think it would have to be a bottle of the Grand Reserve wine from St Maurice, produced by the local cooperative – a magisterial Cotes du Rhone Villages, preferably of the 1998 vintage. It has just the right pedigree for the dish; an honest fruitiness, weight and appeal (some of these wines can reach 14.5% alcohol content!). For the venison, I would go for a Hermitage red of at least ten years maturity, and hope that the bottle was a good one. (I had a 1988 Echezaux from the DRC with venison last Christmas. A Burgundy, not a Rhone, and it was very satisfying. Thank heavens the restaurant let me bring it in, and only charged a modest corkage fee!)

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