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Mon, Dec 29, 2003

Côtes du Rhône Villages
Part 3: Cairanne & Rasteau

PART 1: THE BACKGROUND
PART 2: THE VILLAGES

Left: the hillside topography of Cairanne, typical of a Côtes du Rhône Village, as shown on the Inter-Rhone Web Site.

We've saved the best until last. Just up the road from Sablet and Séguret lie the towns of CAIRANNE (15) and RASTEAU (16), uniformly recognized as the best of the 16 Côtes du Rhône Villages – and yet remarkably different in style. I tend to associate each village's wines with the town's name – so while Cairanne's wines are generally civilized, soft and well-rounded, while Rasteau's are rural, tannic and rustic. Generalizations, certainly, but useful ones to remember depending on your drinking desires.

CAIRANNE, one of the original four Côtes du Rhône Villages, has a tradition of winemaking dating back beyond the Middle Ages. As experienced from visiting the town, where several wine stores proudly promote the village wines, there seems to be little direct competition between the producers, more so a collective belief that raising the reputation en masse makes for a stronger chance of Cairanne being granted its own AOC.

Two examples of Cairanne's easy-going affordability: a supple 1996 from Domaine Catherine Le Goeuil, and a full-on 1999 from Domaine L'Ameillaud. Each was available in NYC in 2001 for under $10.

Cairanne's reputation and extensive plantings (the joint largest of the 16 Villages) means that its wines are relatively easy to find outside of France. They tend to have some attractive spiciness and solid depth but are well-rounded and generally approachable young, while also ageing well for anywhere from three to eight years. And many of them remain well priced. A subtle and supple, beautifully-labeled 1996 Cuvée des Terres Hauts from Domaine Catherine Le Goeuil kept showing up at Union Square Wines for a mere $9; a 1997 Cuvee Temptation from the local Co-Op showed up in Brooklyn around 2002 for just a couple of dollars more; it too was drinking beautifully. The perennial bargain in Cairanne is Domaine de l'Ameillaud, which has only recently gone above $10; it includes some Mourvèdre and Carignan from 40-year old vines, is full of dark fruit flavors, some meat and leather flavors, can reach 14% in alcohol, and consistently shows potential to improve for several years. Domaine Brusset, best known for its high-end Gigondas, fashions a basic Cairanne Coteaux des Travers bottling which can taste surprisingly basic, while the wines from Domaine Rabasse-Chavarin are textbook examples of Cairanne wine at a sensible ($15) price, offering a few year's drinking window for a wine with no hard edges.

Neither of these two aforementioned producers should be mistaken for Robert Charavin of Domaine des Coteaux des Travers, who produces near identical looking bottles from both Cairanne and Rasteau, each for around $15 each. I have the 2000s resting next to each other, waiting the occasion to open and compare: be sure that I'll post notes once I do. There are surprisingly few local estates making wines from each of these neighboring villages - interestingly, Rabasse-Charavin is about the only other one I'm aware of - and so the Coteaux des Travers may provide the most striking example yet of their difference in terroir.

Making wine in France is generally a family business. Usually the son takes over the parents' operation. Occasionally, an offspring marries into another winery or sets up their own business. That may help explain why Cairanne has not just a pair of Charavins, but also two notable producers called Alary. Domaine Alary produces a perfectly pleasurable, basic (for the village's high standards) bottle, and three individual cuvees, of which the Reserve des Vignerons 1998 was noticeable for being oaky, earthy, rich, and somewhat tannic – offering years of improvement. Alary's La Jean De Verde, 100% Grenache from ancient vines, will set you back at least $25 – twice as expensive as his everyday Cairanne, but surely worth it in comparison to, for example, a Long Island Merlot at the same price.

Right: L'Oratoire St.-Martin, arguably the best of the many excellent Cairanne wine producers.

Probably the mostly highly esteemed producer in Cairanne is Domaine de L'Oratoire St.-Martin, another family of Alarys. At one tasting we held, their Cuvée Prestige from 1997 - not considered a great vintage - won several people over with an intriguingly perfumed nose that mixed the luscious fruits of Burgundian Pinot Noir with just a touch of the southern Rhone barnyard flavors, and showed a judicious use of oak. The Haut Coustias has more Syrah in the blend, while the Reserve des Seigneurs tends to be more forward. All three of these wines from the 2001 Vintage could be found at Astor Wines in New York City as of December 2003, the Reserve for well under $20, the other two cuvees for a little over $20. (Astor is a great source for Côtes du Rhône-Villages; it also stocks Domaine Rabasse-Chavarin, several Texier wines and almost the entire Pélaquié range.)

And so on to RASTEAU. Everything I've tasted from Rasteau has been marvelously heady, with a strong garrigues aroma, a full and luscious mouth feel, the big spicy kick on the back palate that I adore, frequently impressive acidity and puckering tannins. The alcohol content is usually high too - and yet the prices remain almost absurdly low. In the 1998 vintage, I picked up stellar examples from Domaine du Trapadis, Château Trignon and Domaine St.-Gayan all for a mere $12 or so, at a time when Châteauneuf du Pape started going through the roof. (Since then, prices across the southern Rhone have risen, an increase compounded by the dollar's weakness against the Euro.)

Domaine Bressy-Masson has a basic Rasteau for $13-$15, and a Cuvée Paul-Emile for just a couple of bucks more. The '99 Cuvee offers immediate heady pleasures comparable to many wines at twice the price, while the 1998, as would be expected of such a classic vintage, opened up step by step over three days of exposure to oxygen, gradually shedding its tannic nature and turning into a rich, full, intensely flavored wine. It's a cellar candidate worthy of plenty French/California wines three times its price.

While I've yet to try their Cairanne, I did get to the Domaine des Coteaux de Travers 1998 Rasteau, and it too proved extremely impressive - rich, heady, luxuriant, tannic and, at 14% alcohol, not for the faint of heart.

The most renowned producer in Rasteau is Andre Romero at Domaine de la Soumade. His Côtes du Rhône-Villages line-up typically consists of a Cuvée Normale, a Cuvée Prestige and a Cuvée Confiance, the latter made from near 100 year old vines! We visited his refreshingly unpretentious estate on our travels in the summer of 99; Andre's wife readily poured out free tastings of their internationally revered wines as her friends came in to pick up their weekly supplies and her husband and son hauled barrels in and out of the cellar. Unlike many of the rural French winemakers who eschew city life, Andre and his son are mad football fans; flags of allegiance to Marseille are all over the hangar-like shed that doubles as a storage and reception area. We came away with a bottle of their Prestige for the equivalent of £3; only two weeks later I saw it in a London restaurant at £22! (The 2000 Prestige can be found in Brooklyn for under $20 and in Beverley, Yorks, for £12. You can store it for a decade or more. If you can't wait, be sure to decant.) Soumade's wines rise in austerity with price: the Cuvee Confiance can taste like a port for its sweetness and high alcohol. It's unlikely that Romero expects you to drink it immediately.

Left: The view from Domaine de la Soumade's front door, across the vineyards to the Dentelles de Montmirail, where the most intense Gigondas grapes are grown.

Soumade's status at the top of the Rasteau hierarchy has been challenged these last few years by the most controversial of all Côtes du Rhône Villages wines, the Gourt De Martens by Jerome Bressy. As with the Chaume-Arnaud family in Vinsobres and the Virets of St-Maurice, Jerome's father formerly sold to the local co-op, but the son decided to bottle direct and in this case, aim straight for the top. Predominantly Grenache, the Gourt de Martens, in its third, 1998, vintage, produced something of a firestorm among Rhône wine buffs. Some comments posted to the WLDG include: "I think it needs 5-7 years but it could be more". . . "Full-blown. . . Very much a CdP look-alike and a very good one at that". . . "Made very much in an international/Calif style at the expense of most of the Rhone character; a triumph of winemaking over terrior". . ."Helen Turley [Californian producer of enormously powerful Zinfandels] meets the Rhône". . ."earthy, honest, and balanced" . . ."Complex and spicy". . ."Profound concentration and density. Almost too much fun to taste". . . "A tannic monster than may never come around" "Outstanding quality, albeit not so pleasurable to drink right now."

So what do I think of it? I bought two bottles of the '98, but I've heard too many reports that, like many of the vintage's Châteauneuf du Papes, it's currently 'closed' and so I'm saving them a few years at least. A good reason for my patience is price: at $29, this was the most expensive Rasteau on the market. I find it fascinating that after Bressy's Gourt de Martens hit the stores – and, it should be noted, gained rave reviews from Robert Parker, who's rarely found a high-alcohol, heavily oaked wine he dislikes – André Romero at Domaine de la Soumade decided to outdo him. There's now a Soumade Rasteau Fleur de Confiance which not only tips the alcohol scales at 15.5%, but has set a new price record of $50. It seems silly, a case of one-upmanship over who can make the biggest, most expensive wine for the American market. (Daniel Brusset has also gotten into the act with a limited Cairanne Cuvée at a similarly ludicrous price.) Yet the fact that the Côtes du Rhône Villages wine market tops out where high-end Californian Zinfandels or Cabernet Sauvignons just start kicking in brings me back to the bottom-line truth: the Côtes du Rhône Villages continue to provide some of the greatest bargains in the wine world – and some of the greatest drinking pleasure too.

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iJamming! Site Copyright Tony Fletcher 2000-2003.

NON-VILLAGE CÔTES DU RHÔNE-VILLAGES ?

85% of Côtes du Rhône Villages wine comes with the name of a Village appended to it. The remaining 15% does not.

These wines hail from all over the southern Rhône Valley - The Gard, The Drôme, Vaucluse and also Ardeche - and while many are produced from vineyards just outside a specific Village, others (like those from the Ardeche) have less notable terroir. So while the wines should be better than generic Côtes du Rhône, it isn't always so.

On the positive side, however, it's difficult for the wine-makers to charge much more than for their basic Côtes du Rhône, as only the most astute Rhône fans appreciate the difference. (And most of them, like me, will be looking out for specific Villages.)

And a handful of producers have established their reputation over the years for producing high-quality, unspecified Côtes du Rhône Villages wines at sensible prices: they include Domaine La Remejeanne, Domaine de la Renjarde, Domaine de la Genestas, the négoçiant Louis Bernard and especially, Domaine de La Janasse from Châteauneuf du Pape and Domaine St. Anne from St. Gervais. In years like 1998 through 2001, these wines provided some of the best bargains in the Rhône.

Domaine Sainte-Anne: Côtes du Rhône Villages wine that doesn't take an individual Village