Guide to wines of Rhone, France

December 31, 2010

About Wines from Rhone
Best wine supplier in Philippines discusses wine related topics

Rhône Wine Guide
I’ve always viewed the Rhône as consisting of two fairly distinct viticultural regions. To the north Syrah is the dominant grape, whereas to the south it frequently plays second fiddle to other varieties, such as Grenache or Mourvèdre. Separating north from south is a large expanse of land, where vineyards are few and far between.
Northern Rhône
The relatively small appellations of the north produce less wine than those of the south, but they are equally famous if not more so. The most northerly is Côte Rôtie (the “roasted slope”), which produces fine wine from the Syrah grape, sometimes with a small percentage of Viognier blended in to add an extra dimension to the wine. The slopes on which the grapes for these wines are grown are precipitous, vertigo-inducing affairs, but the wines are so fine that the vignerons will always persist here despite the difficult conditions. This pleases me immensely – I think Côte Rôtie can be the finest wine of the Rhône Valley. They are certainly wines for the long haul – from a good vintage many will be at their best when fifteen or twenty years old.
My top wines: Many would say Guigal’s single vineyard cuvées, La Landonne, La Mouline and La Turque, but these are prohibitively expensive. Good value can be found with Ogier, Burgaud, Barge and Jasmin. Négociant efforts from Guigal and Delas can also give pleasure.
Just south of Côte Rôtie we find Condrieu, and here the colour changes from red to white. This is a wine made solely from the Viognier grape, a lovely variety, which is also used to add interest to Côte Rôtie. This, in my opinion, is the Rhône’s finest white wine. At its best it is heady and intense, but it maintains balance, with fresh acidity and sensible alcohol – this latter characteristic being the point on which all New World Viognier wines disappoint me – they can be intense, but generally have excessive, mouth-searing alcohol. Unlike many wines of the Rhône, Condrieu is best enjoyed young – within a few years of bottling.
My top wines: Les Chaillets from Cuilleron and Coteau du Chéry from Perret are the best wines. Guigal’s oaked La Doriane isn’t cheap but their négociant bottling is good and widely available.
Château Grillet is the next appellation, one of the smallest (but not the smallest) appellations in France. This is a single domaine with its own appellation, and the wine produced is essentially Condrieu (100% Viognier), but of a lesser quality and a higher price tag. I stick with Condrieu.
St-Joseph is one of the less significant appellations of the Northern Rhône, but there are some excellent wines produced here, and they can be good value. This appellation produces red (Syrah) and white (Marsanne and Rousanne) wines. The reds are the more interesting.
My top wines: Jaboulet Le Grand Pompée.
Like St-Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage produces wine for relatively early consumption, perhaps within a decade of the vintage, although some can certainly last much longer than this. It is another source of value wines.
My top wines: My two favourites are Graillot La Guiraude and Jaboulet Domaine de Thalabert. The Louis Belle cuvée from Albert Belle is also very good. The Les Grisières cuvée from Andre Perret provides excellent value for money.
After Côte Rôtie, Hermitage is the other truly great red wine of the Northern Rhône. Amazingly, there was a time when red Hermitage was frequently used to bolster thinner wines from Bordeaux or Burgundy, a practice that nowadays is wholely illegal. Hermitage now has a fine reputation of its own, and accordingly it commands a price similar to many of the wines which it was once used to doctor. Unlike Côte Rôtie, Hermitage may also be white, and unlike Condrieu, white Hermitage is made from Marsanne and Rousanne, and may age well for years. Red Hermitage is generally 100% Syrah, although appellation laws do in fact allow for the blending in of some white grapes.
My top wines: JL Chave, Jaboulet La Chapelle (off-form in recent vintages, admittedly), Marc Sorrel’s Le Gréal cuvée as well as his regular bottling, Faurie’s Le Méal cuvée and regular bottling, Chapoutier make a number of excellent red and white cuvées, also Albert Belle. All command a considerable price, particularly the special cuvées. There are many other producers worth trying. Delas Marquis de Tourette can be excellent, whilst the Les Bessards cuvee is closer to outstanding.
Cornas is another favourite appellation of mine, not least because some great Rhône wines can be had at some very fair prices. They are red wines made from 100% Syrah, and they can be impenetrably dark and intensely, richly flavoured.
My top wines: Undoubtedly the wines of Noel Verset and Thierry Allemand, but also Alain Voge and Augustus Clape. Those of Jean Luc Colombo are also excellent, although in a different style.
Finally, St Péray, a small appellation producing some unexciting still white wines, but also some quite reasonable sparkling wines, both made from Marsanne and Rousanne. I have fond memories of chilling a bottle of Chaboud St-Péray in a tributary of the Rhône, when exploring the Valley in 1997.
My top wines: Chaboud.
Southern Rhône
In the south Syrah makes way for a more varied selection of grape varieties, with Grenache leading the pack. There are some more famous names here, particularly Châteauneuf du Pape, although I’m glad to say only a few top wines command the prices that we see in the north.
Undoubtedly the lead appellation of the Southern Rhône, Châteauneuf du Pape is named for the papal palace that was once situated in the centre of the town. This was essentially a summer home for the Pope, who in the 14th century was based in nearby Avignon. The palace survived until the 1940’s, when it was destroyed in the Second World War. The imposing ruins exist to this day, standing tall over the rest of the town. Châteauneuf du Pape is also famous for being the home of Baron Le Roy, owner of Château Fortia, and founder of the appellation contrôlée system which defines much of the vineyard areas in France. The red wine itself may be a blend of up to thirteen different grape varieties, although in practice many of the top wines use only three or four. Most Châteauneuf du Pape is red, but a small percentage is white, although this is of less interest. The red can be a fine and yet often very affordable wine.
My top wines: There are a large number of good producers here, but my favourites include Beaucastel, Vieux Télégraphe, Pégau, Font de Michelle, Clos des Papes, de la Nerthe, Roger Sabon, Fortia and Bosquet des Papes among others.
Gigondas is probably the next most well known appellation of the south. Grenache dominates here. The best wines are full bodied, rich and laden with sweet fruit.
My top wines: Les Hauts de Montmirail from Brusset, Domaine de Cayron and Domaine Santa Duc. Domaine les Pallières and Saint Cosme are also excellent.
Vacqueyras is a lesser appellation, legally defined in 1990. It produces mainly red wines, with a small amount of white and rosé. The reds are dominated by Grenache. There are no stunning producers here, but it can be a source of affordable wines.
My top wines: Clos des Cazaux, Jaboulet.
On the west bank of the Rhône is Lirac which, like Vacqueyras, produces red, white and rosé. Again, this is a sources of value rather than fine wines.
My top wines: Domaine de la Mordorée.
Nearby is Tavel, an unusual appellation in that it is the only one in France to permit only rosé wines – any red or white wine produced here cannot legally be labelled as Tavel. Tavel does not have a great following, but as rosé wines go these are pretty good. They are produced from a number of different varieties, but again Grenache dominates. As with all rosés, the wines are best drunk young, within a few years of bottling.
My top wines: There are no great wines here, but I have found those from Château de Trinquevedel and Domain de la Forcadière to be good.
Finally, the village of Beaumes-de-Venise has become renowned for a sweet wine, Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise. This is an inexpensive and sometimes good value dessert wine. Red or white wines produced under this appellation are sold as Côtes du Rhône Villages.
My top wines: Jaboulet.
Other Rhône Wines
Other than St-Péray, there is one other sparkling wine produced in the Rhône Valley that is worth mentioning, this being from the appellation of Clairette de Die. The vineyards are sited somewhat east of the central part of the valley, and are quite isolated from any other of the Rhône vineyards. The wine is made from Clairette, sometimes with the addition of Muscat.
My top wines: It’s a long time since I’ve tasted any, but the the Clairette de Die Tradition from the local co-operative was always good value.
Large swathes of vineyards in the Southern Rhône produce wine which can be sold under the appellations of Coteaux du Tricastin and Côtes du Ventoux. They may be red, white or rosé.
My top wines: No great wines here, but from the former Domaine de Grangeneuve is good, and from the latter La Vieille Ferme, which is produced by the Perrin brothers of Château de Beaucastel, is also good.
Lastly throughout the Rhône Valley wines are produced that may be sold as Côtes du Rhône and Côtes du Rhône Villages. Again, these may be red, white or rosé.
My top wines: Coudoulet de Beaucastel, from the Perrin brothers again, Domaine Ste Anne and Domaine Les Aphillanthes are very good.
The Rhône Valley has been fortunate with a recent run of good vintages in 2000, 1999 (north better), and 1998. 2001 was excellent in the south, whereas floods ruined the 2002 vintage.
Other good vintages include, for the north, 1995, 1994, 1991 (Côte Rôtie and Cornas only), 1990, 1989, 1988, 1987, 1986, 1985, 1983, 1982, 1980 and 1978.
For the south, 1995, 1994, 1990, 1989, 1988, 1985 and 1978.


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