FREE MAP - Wine Regions of the Rhône Valley
This article appearded in the April/May 2007 edition of Connections Magazine (Ireland)
Of the three great classic wine regions of France – Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Rhône – the Rhône has never quite achieved the status or astronomical prices of Bordeaux and Burgundy. Perhaps it's a lack of focus, or appearance thereof. Burgundy masquerades as the stoic ideal of simplicity using just Chardonnay for whites and Pinot Noir for reds when the reality is a byzantine puzzle of complexity bettered only by the Germans. Bordeaux has its Merlot dominated right bank and Cabernet Sauvignon dominated left bank rivalry to yell over its underlining intricacies.
The Rhône doesn't have such an easy marketing story. It's really two very different regions that share a river and a name. The Rhône river actually continues north-east to Lake Geneva and cuts through the Savoie, an obscure French wine region known mainly by locals, hardcore wine geeks and skiers, and is as different to the Northern and Southern Rhône as they are to each other.
So river alone doesn't make a wine region but here helps illustrate differences. The Mosel-like steep hillside vineyards that rise up from the river in the Northern Rhône gives way to the Southern Rhône where the river is almost irrelevant. There the vineyards and sub-regions radiate amoeba-like in all directions from the main classic sub-region, Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The powerful and hard-nosed Syrah dominates the north, while the south's big grape is Grenache, soft and full bodied. The hard thin north and the big soft south metaphor is reinforced in the way that the north produces merely 5% of the Rhône's wines, with the south making the rest. Much of the Southern Rhône is technically in Provence, perhaps a bit too casual and fun place for serious wine and serious prices. Which means for one of the world's great wine regions, there are bargains to be found.
Wine has been made in the Rhône Valley since the 1st century AD, but it wasn't until the 14th century when the pope was relocated to Avignon, in the southern part of the region that it really gained in stature. In 1309 Pope Clement V arrived and his court soon discovered the local wine. Although they were fans of Burgundy, 75% of all their wine came from the Rhône. Clement's successor, John XXII planted the first papal vineyard at Châteauneuf-du-Pape (trans: “the Pope's new castle” -- its ruin still stands above the town) christening the area with a special authority, something that few modern marketing departments can accomplish.
Much of the region began a slow fade after John's successor, Gregory XI returned to Rome in 1377, even though the papal court continued to drink Rhône wines in the Vatican. By the 18th century, the wines of Hermitage in the north commanded higher prices than the finest Bordeaux while the rest of the Rhône wines were simply known as vin d'Avignon. In the 19th century, Hermitage held on to its status as the most famous and expensive wine in France while Châteauneuf-du-Pape grew in reputation until the arrival of the phylloxera louse that devastated the vineyards, a little earlier here than for the rest of France, in the 1870s.
The difficult period of replanting that followed phylloxera was rife with fraud in the Rhône as well as the rest of France and helped lead to the creation of the appellation system in France. In 1923, Baron Le Roy of Château Fortia drew up the appellation rules for Châteauneuf-du-Pape that have become the model for the appellation controlee system in France. The regulations helped to counter fraud and maintain a basic level of quality, but not surprisingly didn't do much to inspire passion in the region. It wasn't until the late 1970's that the Rhône again drew widespread interest, most importantly from the king of wine market-makers, Robert Parker Jr. While most of the English wine trade was still focused on Burgundy and Bordeaux, Parker began to seriously rate the great wines of the Rhône, with some of the wines receiving his highest marks, especially Guigal's top Côte Rôties.
The region as a whole has been on a qualitative uprise ever since. Prices have also risen but not on the scale of Bordeaux garagistes or California Cult cabernets. The frustration of the region's top producers with relatively low prices on the world market may have led to the controversial creation of super cuvées, limited and very expensive bottlings of a winemaker's very best juice (see sidebar). Some believe that skimming the best off into a separate wine diminishes the quality of the standard cuvée and would never be considered by great Bordeaux houses such as Haut Brion or Château Margaux. Gerard Chave of the legendary Hermitage producer Jean Louis Chave defends this practice by only releasing the ultra expensive Cuvée Cathalin in exceptional years where the regular wine's quality is not lowered. The Perrin brothers of Château Beacastel take a completely different approach: their super cuvée, Hommage à Jacques Perrin is actually a much different wine than their regular bottling. It contains an unusually high amount (70%) of Morvedre, a very full-bodied and meaty grape variety favoured by them.
If you're looking for value, the diminishing returns of the super cuvées probably aren't for you. And given the relatively small quantities produced in the north, bargains are few and far between. Instead, we'll go straight to the soft belly of the Grenache-based south. Here we have a few things helping to keep prices down: huge overall production, a general image of casualness and a very confusing appellation system. The bulk of the wines are basic red Cotes du Rhône, with Cotes du Rhône Villages a step up in quality and made in one of the 95 designated villages. Eighteen of these villages – Cairanne, Chusclan, Laudun, Massif d'Uchaux, St-Pantaléon-les-Vignes, Plan de Dieu, Puyméras, Rasteau, Roaix, Rochegude, Rousset-les-Vignes, Sablet, St-Gervais, St-Maurice-sur-Eygues, Séguret, Signargues, Valréas, and Visan – can append their name to the bottle and are considered another step up the quality scale. At the top are the crus: Beaumes de Venise, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, Lirac, Taval, Vacqueras and Vinsobres. Beaumes de Venise and Vinsobres were elevated to cru status in 2005. Is that clear?
It may be natural that here in the land where the modern appellation system was founded, winemakers still believe that concentrating on such bureaucratic machinations such as elevating Vinsobres into its own distinct sub-region will somehow cement their reputation. The sentiment is right – that there are many excellent vineyard locations in the region – but the highly competitive world of wine keeps turning. California giant Gallo recently swooped in to make a deal with the Rhône based Taillan (Taillan not Taliban) Group for 6 million bottles yearly of generic Cotes du Rhône. Dubbed Pont d'Avignon, it retails for nearly twice the price of the reliable, often good and perhaps similar Jaboulet Parallele 45. It's doubtful that Vinsobres could reap such a gain from their new found status – a sad vignette of the ruthless contemporary wine business. On the bright side, this confusion can lead to some real bargains for consumers.
While Chateaneuf-du-Pape offers some of the best value in the fine wine world, good vineyards and even better values surround it in the rest of the region. The key to getting a good deal is pretty much the same anywhere: buy the good producers' wines in decent vintages, which is of course easier said than done. How to do it? The easiest way is to take the recommendations of your trusted wine shop or arm yourself with a good guide. The Wines of France, The Essential Guide for Savvy Shoppers by Jacqueline Friedrich is probably the best practical guide now available for the Rhône and the rest of France. I highly recommend it and refer to it often. Happy bargain hunting!
Bordeaux-Burgundy-Rhône top prices
Notice how the super cuvées help the top Rhône producers get big league prices. Also notice how the regular cuvées are some of the greatest bargains in the fine wine world.
from the 2000 vintage:
Right Bank: Petrus, Pommerol €3,700
Left Bank: Haut Brion, Pauliac €580
Red: Domaine de la Romanee Conti Romanee-Conti €4,500
White: Leflaive Montrachet €2,100
Jean Louis Chave Cuvée Cathelin Hermitage = €720
Jean Louis Chave Hermitage = €120
Château Beaucastel Hommage à Jacques Perrin, Châteauneuf-du-Pape €340
Château Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape = €60
Million Dollar Rhône Questions:
Q: What are the 13 grape varieties permitted in Châteauneuf-du-Pape?
A: Red grapes: Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Counoise, Muscardin, Vaccarèse, Terret Noir White grapes: Picpoul, Clairette, Bourboulenc, Roussanne, Picardan
Q: Who is the only producer to still use all 13 grape varieties in their Châteauneuf-du-Pape?
A: Château Beaucastel
Recent Rhône Vintages
1999 An excellent, classic vintage
2000 Very good but mostly short lived. Except for the finest wines, drink up.
2001 Another very good, solid vintage.
2002 Disaster in the south with floods and rain damage while a fair vintage in the north.
2003 High temperatures brings ripe fruit and lowish acidity. Best in the north. southern wines can be jammy.
2004 A return to a more classic vintage after the rains of '02 and the heat of '03.
2005 An excellent vintage. The ripeness of 2003 with good acid levels as well. Could be the best vintage since the great 1990.
6 Good Values from the Southern Rhône:
2005 M. Chapoutier Belleruche Côtes-du-Rhône
The 2005 Cotes du Rhônes are just beginning to appear on shelves and make an excellent case for just how good this vintage can be. M. Chapoutier is a famous Hermitage producer who here acts as a négociant, producing wines from grapes grown by others. The Belleruche is made from 80% Grenache and 20% grown in Sablet and Seguret. It has great concentrations of spicy fruit, with just enough acidity to give it excellent structure. While the Belleruche is usually good, the 2005 is excellent.
2004 Domaine de la Mordorée La Dame Rousee Lirac
Domaine de la Mordorée is Lirac's best producer and one of the finest in the Rhône. Lirac is a fairly ordinary appellation just across the river from Châteauneuf-du-Pape but lacks its cachet and ability to charge higher prices making Mordorée a very good value. With a classic nose of blackberry, strawberry, garrique, tobacco and spice coupled with great finesse and balance. Better than your average Châteauneuf-du-Pape as well as biodynamic. – Excellent
2001 Coudoulet de Beaucastel Côtes du Rhône
Condoulet is a continuation of the great Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape vineyards but falls outside the appellation's boundary so can only be labeled a Côtes du Rhône. It's not made exactly the same way as Beaucastel but shares some of its characteristics. With more Mourvèdre than most Côtes du Rhône, it has a recognizable meatiness amid soft spicy fruit and a classic supple texture. - Excellent
1999 Château de Saint Cosme Gigondas
Saint Cosme is another well known name in the Rhône, often as a négociant but this one is from their home vineyards in Gigondas. It seems a little aged for a 1999, with raisins, leather, strawberry jam and cigar box flavours. Good but drink up!
2003 Le Pigeoulet des Brunier Vin de Pays de Vaucluse
A basic wine from the makers of the iconic Vieux Télégraphe Châteauneuf-du-Pape, it's oddly light in colour and low in extraction for a 2003. It's a simple fresh basic wine, more fruity and light than the others with sour cherry and floral notes. It's OK but literally pales in this group.
2004 Domaine Viret Renaissance St. Maurice Côtes-du-Rhône Villages
Viret goes one step beyond biodynamics with Cosmoculture, a hybrid of ancient cultures, natural farming and giant crystals. It may sound a little much but the wines speak for themselves. The Renaissance is a good introduction to Viret with intense flavours of strawberry, plum, spice and perfume. The alcohol is high at 15% but is very well balanced considering everything else is at a high level as well. Excellent and unusual.
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