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Southern Rhône Round-Up


A SOUTHERN RHÔNE ROUND-UP
BY VINTAGE AND VILLAGE, A JOURNEY THROUGH A STEADILY DEPLETING CELLAR


DOMAINE DE LA MAVETTE GIGONDAS 1995, DOMAINE LES GOUBERTS GIGONDAS 1997

Though it’s a popular term among wine critics, it wouldn’t be right to say that a Gigondas is like a baby Châteauneuf du Pape; the wines from this southern Rhône village that leads into the dramatic Dentelles mountains are better described as among the most rustic and wild in all of France. But they’re certainly more affordable than those of their celebrated neighbor and they tend to mature a little faster; they’re among my favorite accompaniments in the world for a cold winter night by a warm log fire.
The Domaine de la Mavette dates from a particularly hot Rhône vintage, one in which the Châteauneuf du Pape are still slowly ageing; at the time the Mavette received rfeviews wondering whether its powerful tannins would ever find balance with the fruit. I’d like to believe they did. The nose was potent, full of vibrant mineral flavors, while on the palate the body still felt remarkably full, with plenty of the leathery, gingery, spicy aspects aspects that mark an aged Grenache-dominated blend. The fiinish was long if a little lean but the balance was just fine – a good example of a Gigondas growing old gracefully.
The 1997 Domaine Les Gouberts, on the other hand, was an untamed Gigondas, and all the better for it. Les Gouberts is known for its uncompromising, traditional style, such that the original (and favorable) Wine Spectator review for this difficult 1997 vintage noted that it was “Tough and tannic, with a minerally, ironlike, drying finish… Just the stuff for wild boar steak or pheasant shot on your plantation.” (That, by the way, was intended as a compliment.) Upon uncorking on Christmas Eve, my wife took one sniff and said, “Hmmm, bloody.” It’s that type of wine. For my part, I noticed a slight brick around the edges of this deep ruby wine and a nose that immediately came alive with gingerbread, leather, mulled spices, game saddle and earth – a cornucopia of rusticity. The wine hit the palate with the dryness that is a signature (and occasional problem) of the Gouberts label, but it was big and hearty in all the right places and the evident mineral element soon became the wine’s biggest strength – it was like working one’s way through a medal table. Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsault and a little Clairette all melded together for a soupy celebration that heralded the start of our Christmas season with vigor, vitality and just a hint of vinuous violence.

The Southern Rhône . The 16 distinct Côtes du Rhône Villages are marked in yellow. (Read an indepth report about them here.) Those marked in red are individual appellations, of which Châteauneuf du Pape is by far the most renowned. Gigondas and Vacqueryas were each promoted out of Côtes du Rhône Villages status in the late 20th Century. Tavel is the only appellation in France to make nothing but rosé wine, while Lirac is an anomaly – a lone red, white and rosé appellation on the west bank of the Rhône that offers some of the best value in the wine world.


DOMAINE DE COUROULU VACQUERYAS 1998

Vacqueryas was promoted out of Cotes du Rhône Villages status in 1990, two decades after Gigondas, but has yet to threaten its neighbor for superior quality or increased price; as such, its wines can be among the best value in the Rhône, much more forward and inviting than a Gigondas but with far more depth than a simple Côtes du Rhône. This Domaine de Couroulu from the age-worthy 1998 vintage is a good case in point; picked up for $10 in a Catskill store but a year ago, it offered a warm, nutty, earthy aroma with just a hint of raspberries – all the recognizable attributes of aged Grenache. Ripe and vibrant, it was smooth on the palate though the tannins were still puckering away, and the finish had that lip-smacking peppery note so prevalent in the Rhône. Though a little steely and heavy with the minerals, it offered good length and great value, and confirmed that the ‘98 Chateauneufs, sleeping away in stoarge, are happily biding their time.

DOMAINE MONTIRIUS GIGONDAS 1999
I’d been saving this high-grade Gigondas for the elusive special occasion; one day in mid-December, I just decided, “Goddamn it, this bottle has been sitting here too long” and opened it up. I felt like Christmas had come early. Still very dark, the nose initially gave off spicy raisins but gradually opened up into your typically broad-shouldered Gigondas. Dusty tannins gave way to a chewy mouth full of dark fruit (I couldn’t help thinking of a plum pie), all leading to a cockle-warming, seriously heartening, lengthy lengthy finish. 1999 is considered a forward vintage but this Gigondas still had years to go. And while these hefty, rustic, chewy, soupy wines are notably not to everyone’s taste, this was my idea of heaven. Frustratingly, I went to the city the next day for a couple of days and my wife forgot all about the wine; it brought the two glasses I’d had that Tuesday night up to restaurant price. But it was worth it for the reminder of how damn good a wine can taste after a few years left to evolve. Montirius is all organic and goes into great detail about the wine’s precise make-up on its back label. You can just remember it by the name.

In August 1999, we visited the southern Rhone – and stopped in at Domaine L’Oratoire St.-Martin in Cairanne. That’s a 4-year old Campbell at my side.

DOMAINE L’ORATOIRE ST.-MARTIN CÔTES DU RHÔNE VILLAGES CAIRANNE 1999
Take a recent quality southern Rhône vintage that’s optimum for current drinking (1999), choose a wine from arguably the greatest producer (L’Oratoire St.-Martin) of likely the finest Côtes du Rhône Village (Cairanne) – one that typically peaks around five to seven years after bottling (as in, now) – and you’d have to have drawn a seriously short straw to taste anything other than nectar. This blend of 60% Grenache and 40% Mourvedre was our reward for a hard day’s skiing and my wife’s olive-cauliflower pasta and, oh man was it a treat. Dark and brooding on the surface, it was fantastically delicate on the interior, with commensurate olives, spice, soft tannins, a big body, and a fruity leathery finish. ‘Very ripe,’ I wrote, ‘very rich, very noble.’ The solid layer of tannins left behind served reminder as to how the bottle had softened over the years. As with the Gigondas up above, it doesn’t get much better than this.


CHÂTEAU SEGRIES CUVEE RESERVE/DOMAINE LAFOND ROC EPINE LIRAC 1999

Lirac is a stand-alone village on the west side of the Rhône that offers, probably, the very best value in the region. Cheaper not just than Vacqueryas and Gigondas, but also than most Côtes du Rhône Village wines, Liracs tend to be the most silky and agreeably fruity exponents of that multi-hued southern Rhône blend. At least in the case of the Roc Epine, that was true; opened back in the summer of 2004, it was “wine of the night” at a table graced by bottles many times its $14 price tag. It had a dusty quality on the nose, was almost Bordeaux-like in its gentle floral textures and blackberry flavors and, though intensely dry, its tannins had softened and it remained juicy and firm with a long, luxuriant finish.” A couple of months later and it was time for Lirac’s entry-level benchmark: the ludicrously inexpensive Grenache-Syrah blend from Château Segries. This one offered up dried raisins and black olives and suggested that it had only just been opened in time – but again, my guest was blown away and felt like he’d been introduced to the greatest wine in the world. Almost a year later, I opened up the last of the Segries ’99 and struggled to finish it – the fruit had all but gone and there were no secondary flavors, only a dry wine with relatively high alcohol. There are some Liracs that stand the test of time, so they say – but based on these notes, I’d set that time at a limit of five years. (And, because they’re so good, drink every one of them I could see that falls within the frame.)

Drink them young, and Liracs offer some of the best value in the wine world.

ERIC TEXIER CÔTES DU RHÔNE BRÉZÈME 2000
100% Syrah from an obscure village hidden between northern and southern Rhône – and judging by this rapidly unfolding disaster, one best served remaining obscure. (Read more about Brézème here.) Considering that 2000 is meant to be a long-lasting vintage, there’s no reason why this initially over-acidic and surprisingly oaky Syrah – offering just some of the burnt bacon flavors that are meant to be an attraction of the northern Rhône – should have collapsed of old age by a second night. Texier, a nuclear physicist turned negociant, took the Rhône by storm a few years ago, bottling wines from every village he could find on the map; though many of them garnered favorable reviews, this one suggests that he over-extended.

DOMAINE DES COTEAUX DES TRAVERS CÔTES DU RHÔNE VILLAGES CAIRANNE 2000/ DOMAINE DES COTEAUX DES TRAVERS CÔTES DU RHÔNE VILLAGES RASTEAU 2000
I’d been hoarding these almost identical bottles – same producer and same vintage from neighboring villages – in the hope of tasting and comparing alongside each other, eager to see if the observations I made about Cairanne and Rasteau when first launching this site still held true. They did: served at a wine-enthused friend’s house for dinner in the Catskills, we recognized the quality in both wines, but the Cairanne seemed to be “giving” a little more, being soft up front, offering some cherry in among its deep raisined flavors, and maintaining good balance. The Rasteau had a more potent nose, and I may have preferred it for its wild tendencies; my friend found it “less colorful.” At the other end of the table, the drinkers merely noted that both wines were damned excellent and helped us finish them off in no time. I was nonetheless left wondering about this 2000 vintage, which seems to be one of great power that has yet, based on other tastings, to give up its secrets. Would another five years have revealed greater subtleties in these wines? As they are my only bottles, I shall never know.

JEAN-PAUL BOISSON CHÂTEAUNEUF DU PAPE 2001 VIELLES VIENNES ELISABETH
CHAMBELLAN
It’s known as one of the more approachable Châteauneuf du Papes and, according to at least one insider, is given the carbonic maceration treatment normally reserved for fruity Beaujolais. But Robert Parker routinely enthuses about it and assures a decade’s longevity. Liar: this wine had already entered a secondary fermentation. In other words, it had gotten all fizzy on me. Undrinkable – and sadly a waste of good cellar space.

ANDRE BRUNEL CÔTES DU RHÔNE VILLAGES CUVEE SABRINE 2001
Andre Brunel, of Châteauneuf du Pape’s distinguished Les Cailloux, also makes very good Cotes du Rhônes, and this one proved no exception, emitting a leathery lavendar nose and a full, almost aggressive attack full of dark berries and thyme. No baby wine, but a full-blown example of the southern Rhône blend at its most potent, and a benchmark for that oft-elusive quality-price-ratio.

Two very different 2001s. The Châteauneuf du Pape had gone fizzy on me already; the Côtes du Rhône Villages wine, at half the price, was a delight.

DOMAINE D’ANDEZON CÔTES DU RHÔNE 2001
Pure Syrah from a co-op down in the southern village of Esterzauges, the Domaine d’Andezon is known as a keeper, but the 2001 seemed a little tired when I brought it to a party over Christmas. The nose offered up olives and some of the meaty tendencies of a pure Syrah (for which this Côtes du Rhône is almost unique; the vast majority are dominated by Grenache), it was chewy and there were some berries showing on the palate, but it was drying out and drying out fast. Based on this trio of wines, I conclude that 2001 is a forward vintage that demands some pretty fast drinking.


DOMAINE MONPERTUIS CÔTES DU RHÔNE 2003

On to the heatwave vintage and one of which many a respected Rhône friend has opted to avoid. The proprieter up at Hudson Wine Merchants insisted that this wine nonetheless kept the heat in check and he was right: the “garrigue” aromas that conjure up the Provencal sunshine were all present, as were “spicy tangy brambly peppery Rhône” flavors.” At least that’s what I wrote at the time, and obviously I was happy with it. A solid recommendation for anyone seeking a reliable Côtes du Rhône from an unreliable year.

Winter Warmers: The 1999 Domaine Montirius Gigondas was among the finest wines I tasted in 1999; the 2003 Domaine Monpertuis Côtes du Rhône was a reliable wine from an awkward year.

DOMAINE D’ANDEZON CÔTES DU RHÔNE 2004
Same wine as the ’01 but with a snazzy new label, picked up at The Wine Steward in the aptly-named Catskills village of Olive, this one received all kinds of accolades at a – you guessed it – party over Christmas in our new neighborhood. (You might read this and wonder whether our new community is nothing but one party after another, and I might well be tempted to reply that yes, it is.) The 14% alcohol jumped out of the bottle like it wanted to mug me, but the iron glove contained something of velvet fist: there were dark blackberries and licorice flavors lurking around the rich ripe body. If lacking in subtlety, it was certainly not lacking in flavor – the type of wine non wine-lovers love to drink.

LES GRAND VIGNES DU ROY CÔTES DU RHÔNE BLANC 2004, GUIGAL CÔTES DU RHÔNE BLANC 2004
Yes, they do make white wines in the Rhône (read a special section about them here) and while we wait for the red ‘04s to make their way to the shelves, we may as well start with the blancs. The organic blend from Gilles Ferrand was my kind of mix – 40% each Marsanne and Roussanne, the rest rounded out with Clairette and Grenache Blanc – though the 14% alcohol content suggested that 2004, which many have tried to insist is “back to normal” after the 2003 heat wave, is in fact a painfully hot year by any standards except its immediate predecessor. In this bottle, I found the body good, the finish long, rich and powerful, but the flavors a little light and the acidity almost non-existent. I was more impressed with negociant Guigal’s blend, which always includes a hefty percentage of Viognier among what’s otherwise a similar blend. This one had poise, power and precision, and passed the party-goer’s test. Sneaked in the back door at a, um, friend’s birthday party in the Catskills, it was finished within about 10 minutes while the magnum of Pinot Grigio went begging.

That’s the taste test at its most evident – and it’s one of the reasons I love the Rhône. Because for all that I take the occasional hit on a wine out of storage, the entry level offers some of the most reliable and respectable – not to mentioned delectable – wines in the world.

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