Category Archives: Rhone wines

Côtes du Rhône Unravelled

Standard

cotes-du-rhoneCôtes du Rhône: surely one of the most recognisable and popular wines on our shelves.  But how many who casually pick up a bottle in their local supermarket realise how much more there is to Côtes du Rhône than its usual reputation as just an easy drinking, good value, medium bodied red?

It’s one of the largest – and most diverse – Appellations in France with an annual output of over 250 million bottles.  The area stretches for more than 70 miles from just south of Valence to beyond Avignon, encompassing a vast range of microclimates and soils.  And, although most producers will use a Grenache dominated blend of grapes for their wine, there is almost infinite leeway to create their own favoured style as almost 20 different varieties are permitted for use in Côtes du Rhône blends.  So, finding a producer whose style you like is important.

There’s a quality hierarchy, too: at the entry level are attractive, fruity wines simply labelled ‘Côtes du Rhône’.  A step up in quality, complexity and, usually, price is ‘Côtes du Rhône-Villages’ which comes from some of the more favoured sites within the area.  Within this category, certain villages have been promoted and can either append their names to the Côtes du Rhône-Villages designation or have their name stand alone on the label.  Among the best of these are Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Rasteau and Cairanne.  All produce wines from the same range of grapes as basic Côtes du Rhône but, again, there is considerable variety from place to place and even within individual villages.  Prices of these are a little higher still.

Then there’s the most famous individual Rhône village of all: Châteauneuf-du-Pape.  Their best wines are undoubtedly excellent but they come at prices that reflect both their own quality and the popularity of the village as a whole.  And, away from these, some can be a little disappointing.  So, for me, for value and interesting drinking, I mainly look to the lesser-known villages mentioned above.

And, finally, to complete the message of diversity (or, perhaps, confusion), you might have noticed from the picture that not all Côtes du Rhône is red – there’s some white and rosé, too!

 

The Place for Syrah

Standard

Millions of holidaymakers will speed south through France on the Autoroute du Soleil this summer heading for the Mediterranean resorts and beyond.  Few, I suspect, will realise (or even care) just how close they are passing to some of the world’s most famous vineyards.  Those of Burgundy are generally just out of sight from the road but, if you stop a little later in the journey, things are very different.  From several of the picnic sites on the stretch between Vienne and Valence, the spectacularly steep and rocky vineyards of the northern Rhône can be seen clearly on the far bank of the river.

Your first thought might be to question why anyone would choose to plant vines in such difficult terrain.  The answer: to give the grapes the best chance of ripening.  The majority of the vines here will be Syrah (although the grape name will rarely appear on the label) – a variety that thrives on plenty of heat and sunshine.  It’s the same variety that, under its alternative name of Shiraz, does particularly well in Australia’s warmest areas.  In fact, it’s that country’s most widely planted variety, accounting for around 30% of the annual harvest.

But the northern Rhône is nowhere near as warm or sunny as the Barossa so, here, the Syrah vines need everything to be in their favour to ripen well: the steep, south-east facing vineyards get the most sunshine and are sheltered from cold northerly winds; the rocky soil is well drained and the rocks play their part by reflecting more heat onto the vines.

Even so, bottles from these vineyards are often a world away in style from an Aussie Shiraz.

Saint JosephThe one I opened recently was only 12.5% alcohol.  Cave Saint Desirat’s Saint Joseph (Waitrose, £13.99) is delightfully elegant with lovely raspberry and blackberry fruit and a hint of pepperiness – ideal with a steak or, perhaps better, pan fried venison.  A lovely wine – and one that is only possible by growers battling the daunting slopes you’ll see if you pause on your route through France.

The wrong grapes on the wrong soil?

Standard

Saint-Péray may not be one of the more familiar Appellations of France but, as regular Bristol Wine Blog readers will know, I’m always keen to seek out wines from these less well-known areas.  Sometimes, they are better value than their more fashionable neighbours; at other times they just make good and interesting drinking, perhaps with some unusual and different flavours.  The Saint-Péray we enjoyed recently (£14.99 from Waitrose) probably fits more into the second category, although, for the quality, it is by no means expensive.

Saint Peray

Saint-Péray is on the west bank of the River Rhône, near the town of Valence and used to produce mainly sparkling wines described by Tom Stevenson (in a 20 year old Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia that I’ve kept for no logical reason) as ‘overrated, having a coarse mousse and made from the wrong grapes grown on the wrong soil’!  Well, the same grapes, Marsanne and Roussane, are still being grown in the same soil; the key things that have changed are that, today, more of the wines are made still rather than sparkling and a number of top producers have moved in and transformed the quality of the grapes in the vineyard and the standards of winemaking.

And it was the name of three of these producers, working together, on the label that attracted me to this wine: Pierre Gaillard, Yves Cuilleron and François Villard all make their own wines (Cuilleron’s Condrieu is stunningly good) but also collaborate under the banner ‘Les Vins de Vienne’.  I wasn’t disappointed; this is a full bodied, flavoursome, dry, rich white that has spent 9 months ageing, partly in barrel.  The oak is quite noticeable, as is the alcohol (13.5%) but neither dominates the spicy palate (cinnamon and ginger came to mind) with its attractive sourness – the kind you get from baked apples.  And it might be even better after a couple more years in bottle or, if you can’t wait, decanting.

If this is the wrong grape in the wrong soil, then give me more!

 

 

Sotanum – a Roman wine reborn

Standard

Look at most maps of France’s vineyards and they will show a vine-free area between the southernmost tip of Beaujolais and the first of the Northern Rhône Appellations, the Côte Rôtie. Part of that gap is taken up by the town (and gastronomic paradise) of Lyon, but, still, the complete absence of vines is difficult to explain.

It wasn’t always like that. Indeed, in Roman times, contemporary writings note that the vineyards of this area, on the hills overlooking the small town of Vienne, were highly regarded. Black grapes, known as Vitis allobrogica (the ancestor of Syrah, or Pinot Noir, perhaps?) were grown here and 3 wines, Sotanum, Taburnum and Heluicum were made, each from particular vineyards.

And, although these names died out, vines continued to grow here and wine was made from them until the middle of the 19th century when disaster, in the form of a tiny vine-root eating aphid, phylloxera, wiped out these and many other vineyards across Europe and beyond.

Many vineyards were replanted in the early part of the 20th century, but these weren’t and remained abandoned and ignored – until 1996, when a group of 3 growers from a few miles further south, got together to revive winemaking in this area. About 25 acres of Syrah vines were planted. Les Vins de Vienne were born. And, to celebrate the revival, one of the ancient names, Sotanum, was used for the modern wine.

I recently had the opportunity to taste a bottle from the year 2000. This was only the second vintage made after the replanting and the vines were still very young – only 4 years old. Often vines won’t produce their best fruit until they’ve been established for 10 – 15 years, at least. But, in this case, the vines had produced a wine that was delicious and full of flavour. It had matured magnificently in the 11 years since harvest – smooth and rich, but not heavy and a perfect accompaniment to some pan-fried venison steaks.

A lovely wine and a piece of history. I look forward to tasting a more recent vintage which should show even more complexity as the vines establish themselves. Now, all we need is for the wine maps to be corrected.